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A Commentary on Doubt, Round Two

February 21, 2010

I was going to comment briefly on the very intelligent criticisms made by readers in the “Commentary on Doubt” thread, but my rebuttal has quickly turned into a separate post. So here goes…

Let me begin by making it clear that I do not disagree with Chris and other critics who have observed that nothing in the post “rehabilitates the idea of God.” That was not, in fact, my intent, since I do not believe in God because of arguments (as I stated in the post). The positive case for God — that is, the rationalist’s case — is, in my view, non-existent.

To reiterate, my point was not that theism passes the tests of rationalism; my point was that rationalism does not pass its own tests. As I commented to the reader of a previous post (“Anti-theism and Fundamentalism in Symbiosis”): “It is not possible to measure or weigh the claim that all truths can be measured and weighed. Nor could you or I logically prove the claim that all truths can be logically proven.” I am thus in agreement with Chris that neither “non-arbitrary non-theistic first principles” nor “non-arbitrary theistic principles” can demonstrate the authority of morality.

Deen makes a salient point in suggesting that if “it is enough to note that everyone makes assumptions, and are therefore equally irrational, then you really have collapsed into relativism, despite your hopes.” This may well be true; there’s no use in denying it. However, the case I am trying to make — though I don’t spell it out in the post — is for something approximating the Buddhist notion of interdependence (a.k.a. emptiness), as articulated by the 3rd-century Indian philosopher Nagarjuna. I am not myself a Buddhist — which admittedly complicates things — but it does seem to me that culture, religion, and reason “dependently co-arise”; that is, each is empty of intrinsic reality, but takes shape only in relation to the others (to put it crudely).

Interdependence is, incidentally, why I consider attempts to prove or disprove God’s existence a fool’s errand. Rational dialogue — mutual understanding between one’s own tradition (in my case, Catholicism) and someone else’s tradition (Enlightenment rationalism) — is of course possible: indeed, I think it is precisely what we are doing here! My claim is, however, that the God question does not come down to reason alone, since, in the final analysis, reason has no intrinsic existence apart from culture and religion.

Is this argument relativistic? Perhaps; but I would argue that it is only relativistic from the standpoint of rationalism. In Catholicism, there is the notion of Divine Revelation, which a rationalist might describe as “relativistic” insofar as the doctrine of the Trinity or the Incarnation could not possibly be discovered through impartial investigation. (More likely, the rationalist would simply dismiss those doctrines as ridiculous.) The truths of revelation are, according to Catholicism, established in and through history, and passed down through tradition and the scriptures, which the Church considers authoritative.

In short, from the Church’s perspective and from mine: just because something is discovered historically or through culture does not mean it is true only in a relativistic sense. At the same time, reason complements revelation: hence the Thomistic axiom “grace does not destroy but perfects nature,” and St. Anselm’s notion of “faith seeking understanding.”

(The Church often fails to acknowledge the openness to skepticism and doubt that necessarily accompanies its reliance on scripture and tradition — which are, by definition, inaccessible to outsiders, and taken on faith by insiders. For this reason, the triumphalist “one true Church” rhetoric prevalent among Catholic intellectuals strikes me as fundamentally misguided.)

The other criticism that I find persuasive comes from artificialintel, who describes the post as “somewhat afflicted by equivocation between Enlightenment ideals as cultural tradition (which is contingent) and Enlightenment ideals as discovered truths (which are not).” I realize I am trying to walk a difficult line in claiming that truth and cultural tradition are neither identical nor separate — so it is certainly possible that I have merely equivocated. On the other hand, postmodernism and rationalism seem to me equally reductive: the case for interdependence may be a difficult one; but the case that reason/science is non-contingent (Enlightenment rationalism), and, conversely, the case that culture is non-contingent (postmodernism) are both unacceptable to my mind.

The biggest problem I see with my position is that interdependence finds little to no support within mainstream Catholic theology, and is an analysis that would seem to rule out the notion of God insofar as it would describe God too as empty of intrinsic reality. This I wholeheartedly admit. Suffice it to say: if anyone has useful suggestions, I’m all ears.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 28, 2010 5:15 pm

    I think this deserves a longer treatment, but I just want to note something perhaps orthogonal to previous arguments: if there aren’t solid epistemic grounds for defining divine ontology, then practical grounds might pertain in a William James-type approach: the God hypothesis (if believed fully) provides a large positive utility in an intersubjective analysis. In that holds true, then the null case on rationalist grounds still results in a balance of reasoning favoring faith. Is this an argument one wishes to make? I tend not to agree, but I don’t think it implausible.

  2. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    February 28, 2010 6:01 pm

    Your comment reminds me of a recent blog post by Stanley Fish. If you are interested, you can read his pragmatic take on the relationship between science and religion, “Must There Be a Bottom Line,” at the New York Times website (

    I’m not sold on the argument — though I do admire Fish’s work greatly. Pragmatism, it seems to me, never gets around to defining its central concept, “utility.” Here is the critique I made of Fish in the comments section of his post:

    “What, exactly, does Fish mean by ‘our purposes’; ‘certain problems, goals, and difficulties’; ‘our needs’; or ‘the purposes at hand’? That is the question.

    If by ‘our purposes,’ Fish means expanding New Deal entitlements, he is not a pragmatist, but a liberal. ‘Our needs’ might conceivably refer to the importance of deregulation to economic growth, in which case Fish is a conservative. Perhaps ‘the purposes at hand’ include (for an evangelical Fish) leading others in the Sinner’s prayer. ‘Certain problems’ might refer to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

    An end is not the same thing as a ‘context’ (since there can be competing ends within the same context); nor are the ends of, say, Democrats and Republicans the mere product of self-interest (since ‘self-interest’ is, taken by itself, an empty formulation.)

    Ends cannot be reduced to means. To define one’s ends is to abandon the pragmatist position.”

    In the first “Commentary on Doubt,” I stated my view that “culture, religion and reason are all interdependent” — that is, each concept takes on meaning in relation to the others, but ultimately has no essence. The same would hold true for the concept of utility.

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