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Gary Gutting on Philosophy and Faith

August 2, 2010

I recently stumbled upon The Stone, a New York Times forum for contemporary philosophers “on issues both timely and timeless.” In the latest post, Gary Gutting describes his experience leading classroom discussions about religion at Notre Dame, where he is a professor of philosophy.

Gutting says that he is unsympathetic toward the “it’s just faith” response undergrads sometimes give him in response to probing philosophical questions about God’s existence. At the same time, he acknowledges the inability of philosophy to settle the matter one way or the other:

In these popular debates about God’s existence, the winners are neither theists nor atheists, but agnostics — the neglected step-children of religious controversy, who rightly point out that neither side in the debate has made its case. This is the position supported by the consensus of expert philosophical opinion.

Gutting the philosopher wishes to escape from non-arbitrary belief, and appears to do so by siding with agnosticism — of God’s existence, reason is mute.

This is, however, a position that a religious believer such as myself might endorse. If, in other words, agnostics win the debate between theists and atheists, it is not at all clear that agnosticism wins the debate — for there may be non-rational grounds for belief. Gutting seems, at first, to understand this:

An answer [to the question as to what sort of support faith can give to religious belief] may lie in work by philosophers as different as David Hume, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Alvin Plantinga. In various ways, they have shown that everyday life is based on “basic” beliefs for which we have no good arguments. There are, for example, no more basic truths from which we can prove that the past is often a good guide to the future, that our memories are reliable, or that other people have a conscious inner life. Such beliefs simply — and quite properly — arise from our experience in the world . . . There is still room for philosophical disputes about this line of thought, but it remains the most plausible starting point of a philosophical case for religious belief.

Despite his concession here that some truths can be discovered and known only through “our experience in the world,” Gutting lapses into rationalism in the following paragraph:

But this defense of faith faces a steep hurdle. Although it may support generic religious claims about a good and powerful being who cares for us, it is very hard to see it sustaining the specific and robust claims of Judaism, Christianity and Islam about how God is concretely and continually involved in our existence. God is said to be not just good and powerful but morally perfect and omnipotent, a sure ultimate safeguard against any evil that might threaten us. He not only cares about us but has set up precise moral norms and liturgical practices that we must follow to ensure our eternal salvation. Without such specificity, religion lacks the exhilarating and terrifying possibilities that have made it such a powerful force in human history.

Typically, specific — and not generic — beliefs arise out of experience: the belief that I am in love; or that service at the Hard Times café is poor on Wednesdays; or that I will enjoy reading Sherman Alexie’s War Dances. Thus, not only are the “specific and robust” claims of the world’s major monotheistic religions not a “steep hurdle” for the line of reasoning Gutting attributes to Hume, Wittgenstein, and Plantinga, such beliefs are precisely what it would tend to support. Gutting has done nothing to refute the proposition that some beliefs properly arise from “our experience in the world”; he has simply dismissed it in favor of a view that would treat history, culture, and tradition as arbitrary and therefore inadequate grounds for belief.

Gutting may have “reasons” for making this leap. Within the post, however, it is a leap of faith, not logic.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. wellwateredgarden permalink
    August 2, 2010 5:56 pm

    Hi, Innocent Smith …

    Philosophy is a wonderful concept for those who like to question but never really need answers.

    Unless God ‘calls’ a person to respond to and deal with Him, the whole concept of God is not understood. For reasons God only knows people have their ‘eyes’ and ‘ears’ stopped until He is ready to open and unstop them, in His time.

    We tend to think that this life is the main event … it probably isn’t. There are other events that God will involve people in in His time and not sooner.

    The way I see it, anyways …

  2. August 3, 2010 2:24 pm

    Reread your post this time to ensure that I didn’t actually agree with you like last time. 🙂

    I think that it might be useful to differentiate between strong and weak agnostics in this discussion. I would suggest that weak agnostics don’t “claim to win”, but simply reserve their own right to be unconvinced. “I don’t know the answer, but you may.” versus “I don’t know the answer, and neither do you!”

    As to the weight of “accumulated wisdom”, i.e. history, culture, etc., it is indeed difficult to suggest that is it without value. I certainly would make no such claim. However, I would also maintain that that “accumulated wisdom” is not above reproach or challenge.

    Finally, as to specfic experiences, e.g. Hard Times service, those experiences are not neccesarily relevant beyond the person that experienced them. Just because the Archangel Gabriel came to you at night and told you that you should believe X,Y, and Z doesn’t mean that I, without that experience, should believe X,Y,and Z.

  3. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    August 3, 2010 11:21 pm

    I’m still not sure we disagree. I will admit, however, that I’m not seeing the relevance of your distinction between strong and weak agnosticism. The agnostics who Gutting says “rightly point out that neither side in the debate has made its case” are, according to your definition, strong agnostics — that is, they profess to know that neither atheists or theists “know the answer.” Weak agnostics, on the other hand, don’t really enter into the debate at all, since they don’t profess any knowledge whatsoever.

    Suppose I were to say, “I don’t know much about astrophysics, but you may.” What, exactly, would my comment contribute to an MIT discussion panel on black holes? By contrast, the assertion that existing theories on black holes are demonstrably false — even if better theories do not yet exist — would contribute to the discussion in a meaningful way.

    As for your contention that accumulated wisdom is “not above reproach or challenge,” I agree entirely, and have made the same point repeatedly on this blog. The only caveat I would add is that such “reproach or challenge” never amounts to a purely objective analysis, but is in fact shaped in profound ways by the very tradition it calls into question (or by some other tradition). Reason and tradition are, in this sense, interdependent.

    A quick comment on specific experiences: what I meant to do in the post was draw a parallel between the knowledge obtained through individual experience and the sort of “precise moral norms and liturgical practices” that Gutting attributes to monotheistic religion. But your point still stands. The knowledge obtained in and through a given religious or cultural tradition is “not necessarily relevant” beyond that tradition (though it might be). This is also a point I have made on this blog (see, for example, “It Is Well For Us To Be Here”).

    If you keep reading my posts, I’m sure we’ll eventually find something to seriously disagree about!

  4. August 4, 2010 7:29 pm

    I don’t understand why you are suggesting that weak agnosticism has no interest nor understanding of the reality of god(s), i.e. like the hypothetical lay person at the hypothetical MIT conference. To make an assertion that “the evidence is not enough to convince me, but perhaps it is you” seems fundamentally like a considered and informed opinion to me.

    As to the relevance of this distinction? In this post you seem to be calling the defensibility of agnosticism into question. I would suggest that strong agnosticism is “vulnerable” to the same kinds of criticisms that can be leveled against theists and atheists, because by suggesting “… you don’t know!” it is discounting the experiences of that individual.

    Conversely, weak agnosticism does not make any such assertions and remains fundamentally the most defensible and reasoned position.

    You write that you do not think the “accumulated wisdom” is above reproach, but you critique Gutting for simply doing exactly that, criticizing the “accumulated wisdom”. He isn’t asserting that “all believers are idiots”. He is asserting that only experience that is shared across traditions, cultures, etc are the ones that should be given weight, and that the particulars of any one tradition are suspect.

    The ethic of reciprocity is shared across many faiths, and many people see the wisdom in this. Faith in Christ is unique to one set of faiths, subsequently far more open to critique.

  5. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    August 5, 2010 6:09 pm

    It seems to me that our disagreement is largely over semantics — which can perhaps be remedied.

    I actually agree with you that individual experience is sufficient grounds for both agnosticism and religious belief — provided, of course, that it does not in some obvious way contradict logic or evidence. (I would also add that individual experience is itself an empty category apart from the cultural tradition through which it is necessarily mediated). Insofar as I agree with you about individual experience, I suppose it is fair to say that I am a “weak” agnostic — though perhaps it would be more accurate to describe myself as a “weak” believer.

    On the other hand, there is, in my view, nothing “weak” about the position that reason alone is not a wholly adequate means of establishing belief or non-belief. I would tend, rather, to characterize that position as a “strong” opposition to Enlightenment rationalism (to the view that reason should be the sole arbiter of belief in such matters). Rationalism is, in my view, itself a “faith” and a product of tradition, even as its proponents — in this case, Gutting — systematically reject such sources as arbitrary and irrational.

    Gutting is indeed asserting that “only experience that is shared across traditions, cultures, etc are the ones that should be given weight, and that the particulars of any one tradition are suspect.” This is not, however, merely a critique of accumulated wisdom; it is itself a succinct statement of the accumulated wisdom of the Enlightenment, as is your distinction between the ethic of reciprocity and Faith in Christ. I would, in other words, argue that rationalism does not avoid the “particulars of any one tradition,” but instead seeks to dress up its own idiosyncracies in the cloak of universalism.

    So do we still disagree? I’m not sure.

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