Saturday, May 4, 2013

Calculus's Limit, the Leap of Faith, and Moral Reasoning

One time I was on a plane from Venezuela back to the U.S.  Complaining about school and taking hard subjects like Calculus, I gave the common quip, "I don't see how I'm gonna use it."  A student from the University of Michigan (Alex Sonkin) said, "It doesn't matter.  What matters is that it's a challenge for your mind."

That stuck.

Interesting, because in reading on the relationship between faith and reason, it is the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1885) who wrote about the "approximation process" in coming to beliefs about God.  He says that no matter how much proof we have, there will always be one more book, one more article, one more counter-argument to the argument.  Kierkegaard is critiquing the "internalist" approach to epistemic justification, especially concerning religious belief, and especially concerning Christian belief (also known as "strong rationalism").  Internalism is the view that one's epistemology (theory of knowledge) is constantly subject to argument, counter-argument and so on, ad infinitum.  Soren aint' gonna have none of it.  Hence, as a fideist (faith-ist), Kierkegaard advised that people must take a "leap of faith" which basically is a "commitment" to belief which involves risk, where risk is an essential foundation to having faith.  The Great Dane wants us to remember that we are, after all, human, and a life is wasted every moment it is absent of God.  The approximation process must come to an end some time, yes?  Kierkegaard gives a resounding yes.  What does the approximation process in the epistemic justification of religious belief have to do with Calculus?

You might remember "the limit" in Calculus: there are two points on a linear plane, equidistant from a "zero point" in between them.  As each of the points moves closer to zero by half their current distance, they ever and always move to zero for an infinite number (!) of moves, without actually ever getting to zero.  Kierkegaard says its the same with having faith in God: you can heap up the arguments as high as the tower of Siloam, but the earth will still look flat to you even from up in high.  At some point, you have to take the risk and trust in the Lord.  After all, you don't--and can't--know everything.  What would that make you?

But which Lord should you take the leap of faith to believe in?  Krishna?  Jesus?  Allah?  Yahweh? That's the problem with fideism.  Fideists eschew rational inquiry and evaluation of their beliefs, but the problem is that such evaluation is unavoidable.  This is because even a fideist will evaluate others' belief systems in order to cast doubt upon them and show why those beliefs are suspect or worse--even false.  Still Kierkegaard has a point, doesn't he?  Isn't it true that at some point, at some point, we have to hold to our beliefs about God, Christ and the world--no matter if those beliefs are Christian, Hindu, Judaic, Islamic or atheistic--and hold to them even though the arguments in favor of our beliefs are not "fool proof"?  There is no "silver bullet" as John Frame says, that will convince everyone of Christian belief (I write as a Christian).

We are reminded of epistemologist Linda Zagzebski, who has done much work in "virtue epistemology," which tells us of our motives in forming belief-structures.  Many times, we are morally motivated to believe or not belief certain things, especially when it comes to theism.  Usually, it is the case that theists are emotionally motivated (this is especially true in Charismatic Christianity), while atheists are morally motivated.  Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote in 1997 in a now beyond familiar moment of brutal honesty:
I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”(”The Last Word” by Thomas Nagel, Oxford University Press: 1997)”
Perfect.  Would that more atheists were so honest!  Jesus, of course, concurs when he says in John 3, "And this is the verdict, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.  For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deed should be exposed," (vv.19-20).

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