Gary Gutting on Philosophy and Faith
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.