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An Epistemological Epiphany

The other day, I woke up and lay in bed reflecting, which is rare for me...normally, I just lie there, doing nothing in particular. But this reflection was particularly interesting...I was thinking about the issues on which I find myself disagreeing with my mentor, Dr. Leithart...issues of ecclesiology, sacramentology, this whole question of holiness, etc. And I realized that, objectively, I believe that, on those issues, it is more likely that he is correct than that I am correct. But I do not therefore cease to disagree and to hold my beliefs.
This was a very striking realization, for it calls into question a fundamental assumption of much epistemology. Richard Swinburne, in particular, in his analysis of Christian belief, argues that to believe in something is to believe that it is more likely to be true than any of the alternatives. If faced with the options of opinion X, and opinion Y, although there may be all kinds of irrational factors influencing my conclusion, I will ultimately judge that, say, opinion Y is more likely to be true than opinion X, and I will thus believe Y. Or, alternatively, I will be unable to judge that either is more likely than the other, and so will withhold belief. For me, at least, this analysis simply doesn't work, and I am highly suspicious that I am not the only one who has encountered such counterexamples.
This suggests that, as I long felt, Kierkegaard is right to insist that faith is a passion, a much more sophisticated bundle of emotion and reason and will than Swinburne's cut-and-dried probability judgments. Way to go Soren!


Hmmm..I'm not so sure that the example with Dr. Leithart is problematic for Swinburne's view, because I think Swinburne would say that, in a sense, you really don't fully believe what you believe.

What I mean is: you acknowledge that Dr. Leithart is probably right, and yet you still hold onto your beliefs. But you're a student: you're supposed to hold onto your beliefs with the understanding that they could--indeed probably might--change later on. It's part of the learning process. If you always just deferred to experts in the beliefs you held, you wouldn't be of any use to anyone, and you wouldn't grow spiritually or intellectually.

But everything changes when there's something definitive at stake--when, to invoke a metaphor, you are running not to exercise your muscles but to win a race. Then you're forced to come down on one side or the other. For example, say God came down from heaven and quizzed you about the nature of holiness, and that your admission to heaven would hinge on the correct answer. Would you tell Him your version or Dr. Leithart's? If you're serious that Leithart is "objectively" correct, I'm guessing you'll give his version--because, as Swinburne would put it, this would most likely be the correct answer to give.

Now, obviously this is a silly hypothetical. But I think this just goes to show how inadequate Swinburne's analysis is for why we believe the things we do in the domain of faith. Unlike in, say, science--where you can get the full benefit of believing its true propositions without the foggiest idea of how they were arrived at--it is not sufficient to simply have faith in the right things. You also have to have walked the path to get there. If you don't walk the path, you end up getting truth without revelation (kind of like that movie Pi--the math equations only confer divine access to those who truly understand them, and not those who simply repeat them blindly like an incantation). Therefore, it seems to me to be harping on the wrong thing to define a faith-based belief as the one that is "most likely to be true". Such an analysis places too much emphasis on where you go and not enough on how you got there, and doesn't seem to acknowledge that you need both of these components in order to have faith-based beliefs in any meaningful way.

June 4, 2009 at 7:25 PM  

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