Friday, December 04, 2009

The essence of belief

Over the past several days I have been having a series of very rewarding conversations with an atheist friend on mine on Facebook. The discussions have not been combative or really aggressive, just plain conversations. He responds to my comments respectfully, asks good questions and is actually quite delightful to have a friendly debate with. We obviously seriously disagree on some things, and recently we had a little discussion over the nature of religious belief, or faith.

I had referenced him to my article on "Catholic Men of Science", which is linked up on this blog on the sidebar in the "Our Writings" section. In that article, I made the following assertion:

There is no real opposition between religion and science, because there is no opposition between faith and reason. Catholic theology from Augustine and Thomas onward has always acknowledged that true scientific knowledge can never contradict revelation because both revelation and the laws of science come from the same God, who is Truth and cannot contradict Himself. Any apparent contradictions come from either a misunderstanding of what revelation is teaches or (more often than not) a defect in the conclusions drawn by science; this is especially true in the areas where the boundaries of science must be defined by a system of rightly formed ethics. In the end, there are no true contradictions because God, the source of all knowledge, is True and no untruth can be found in Him.

My atheist companion disagreed with this statement and said that faith is indeed opposed to reason, because reason/science concerns itself with what is demonstrable and faith means believing something with no (or insufficient) evidence. This means that faith is unreasonable, and thus there is a true contradiction.

I responded that he seemed to be using a definition of faith different than what Catholics mean by 'faith'; according to him, Faith means believing something there is no evidence for. This is not the way Catholics understand Faith. He responded (just this morning):

I don't understand about there being another definition of faith, or a Catholic one. Nothing supernatural has ever been proven, so faith is still believing in something with insufficient or no evidence no matter how you cut it.
So, what is faith? What does it mean to believe? I decided to do a bit of reflection and give an thorough answer on this blog rather than try to bang something out in a Facebook combox. I have disagreed with my friend's definition of faith as "believing in something with insufficient or no evidence." Therefore, what is a more accurate understanding of faith?

Given that this is a dialogue with an atheist, I have chosen to pursue a more philosophical line of inquiry rather than a theological or biblical one, and therefore will be following basically the outline of Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper in his book Faith, Hope, Love (Ignatius, 1992). Were I pursuing a theological line of reasoning, I would have undoubtedly started with John Paul II's Fides et Ratio, but because we are talking about what we can infer without appealing to Scripture or revelation, I have opted for Pieper's philosophical approach. I like Josef Pieper's reasoning in this subject (and most others) because, like the great philosophers of old, he begins by looking at what men mean when they use the words "belief" or "faith"; not necessarily religious belief, but belief in general - what do we mean when we say we "believe" something?

Let's look first at some popular notions of belief - for some, belief is an emotional conviction (according to David Hume) or a practical certainty about matters that cannot be justified theoretically. Some say belief is the subjectively adequate but objectively inadequate acceptance of something as true. Immanuel Kant said belief is "the acceptance of something as true on objectively insufficient grounds." These definitions, though they may be common usages of the word, are actually improper - not improper because theology deems them so, but even improper linguistically, as I will demonstrate.

A first, preliminary (but not exhaustive) definition would be that belief is to take a position on the truth of a statement - it means we think a statement true. Both the atheist and the Catholic can agree that to believe means to assert that something is true; it is the considering of something as objectively existent.

But we certainly can't stop there, for there is another point regarding our relation to what we believe in. Do we believe in things we know? It seems that when we use the word "believe" we are referring to something unfamiliar to us, or something that we do not have conclusive, experiential knowledge about. St. Thomas says, "Belief cannot refer to something that one sees...; and what can be proved likewise does not pertain to belief" (STh III, 7, 4). So there is an unfamiliarity - I do not "believe" that I am wearing a red sweater right not because I can clearly see that this is so - I know I am wearing a red sweater. I can only said to believe in something that I do not see, like saying, "I believe what my grandpa told me about his experiences in World War II."

So belief is an assent to something that we do not know experientially. Yet here is our next element of belief: what we believe in, we believe in an unqualified manner and without reservation. Some might object to this, for as I pointed out in the beginning, people often improperly use "belief" to mean they do have a reservation, like if someone says, "I believe it to be so," meaning "I'm not sure, but I think so." For some, "believe" is equivalent to "pretend" (i.e., to "make believe").

A word is said to be used in its fullest context when no other word can replace it. So, if I say "I believe it is so" I could just as easily say "I think it is so" or "That's my opinion." We can easily substitute "make believe" for pretend, or "I believe in UFO's" for "I am convinced there are UFO's." In these sentences, "believe" can be replaced with other words, indicating that they are improper, or incomplete, uses of the word "believe." Josef Pieper presents the following story to demonstrate the unqualified nature of belief and the use of the word in its fullest sense:

Suppose you have a brother who went missing in a war and has long been assumed dead. Then suppose you run into a stranger who has just returned from many years of being a prisoner of war and claims that he your brother alive in a prison camp. Let's say his story matches up with what you know of your brother and there is an internal consistency to his story. However, in this case there is no way to factually check up on his story and especially upon the decisive factor - whether or not your brother is still alive. You are thus confronted with a decision: am I to believe or not believe the man's story? Am I to believe him or not? Here there is no word that is better used than "believe."

Two things: first, one who believes deals not only with a given matter or proposition for belief, but with a given person. When we say we believe things, we really mean we believe what someone has told us about these things, since (as we have said above), believe concerns itself with things we have no experiential knowledge of.

Secondly, and going back to our earlier train of thought, belief in the proper sense requires unqualified assent and unconditional acceptance of the truth of something. Suppose in the story above, you were to tell the stranger that his story intrigues you, but that since you don't have any means of checking the facts you can't be sure; you ought to be prepared for him to break in and say, "In other words, you don't believe me?" You might say, "Oh yes, I have full confidence in you, but of course I cannot be completely certain," the stranger might insist that you do not really believe him, and he would be right. To say "I believe you but I'm not quite certain" is nonsense. I either believe my grandpa's account of World War II or I disbelieve it. If I say, "Perhaps he is partially accurate, but I think he just as well could be inventing stories," then I am not demonstrating belief. I may be forming an opinion, making a guess, or an informed judgment, but it is not the same thing as belief. You either assent to the story about your brother or you don't, and reserving assent to the stranger's story is equivalent to saying you don't believe him.

Therefore, true belief requires unconditional assent. As Bl. John Henry Newman said, "A person who says 'I believe just at this moment but I cannot answer for myself that I shall believe tomorrow,' does not believe." But this brings us to a seeming paradox in belief: how can this unconditional assent be justified when the believer admittedly does not know the subject to which he thus assents?

Well so far our working definition of belief (just belief in general, not religious belief or "faith") is to believe someone and to believe something. The believer accepts something as real and true on the testimony of someone else.

We should begin to see then that the decisive factor in belief is who it is whose statement is assented to; by comparison, the subject matter is somewhat secondary. I may believe things for a variety of reasons: suppose while driving home I see a big accident on I-96. When I get home, my wife says she also was out driving and saw the big accident. Now, I may believe what she says, but this is not true and "pure" belief because I also have some first-hand knowledge of the matter - I saw the accident myself. Belief itself is not purely achieved until someone accepts as truth the statement of one whom he trusts for the simple reason that the trusted person states it. If my wife tells me, "A traveling salesman came to the door while you were out," on what basis do I believe her? Because I have done a forensic examination of the porch and concluded that yes, in fact, a salesman has been here? No; my belief is based solely on the fact that my wife said it was so and I have trust in her. What she told me is somewhat secondary; the basis for the belief is in that she said it, not what she said.

That doesn't mean I take leave of my senses - I believe what my wife says because it is she who has spoken, but that does not mean I accept unconditionally anything she says. Suppose I come home and she tells me that she has been visited by aliens who brought Abe Lincoln and Amelia Earheart into our livingroom and they all had tea together. Though my wife is generaly trustworthy, because she is only a fallible human there is the possibility that she could be deceived about things. The degree to which I believe her words is somewhat correlated to the trustworthiness of her character as I have come to know it (C.S. Lewis also made this argument in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe).

That being said, we can never truly be said to have faith or believe in any human person in an ultimate sense. To ultimately believe in somebody means we don't only believe what they say about a given matter, but have such an opinion of their credibility that we must believe everything else that they say. "Belief of such an extreme sort," as Pieper says, "such as involved in the expression 'believe in someone', can neither be practiced by mature human beings nor asked of them. The immature child believes what his mother says for the sole reason that she says it. But the very fact that the child has no other reason for regarding things as true is, precisely, the measure of his immaturity" (32). I believe what my wife says; I do not believe in her or have faith in her in the strict sense, because she, being human, is not of such credibility that every conceivable thing she could ever say would be immune from error.

Belief cannot be demanded of man, as in totalitarian dictatorships where the dictator demands unconditional assent in all of the methods and programmes of the State in an absolutist sense. This demand of unconditional assent by one man/men to another signifies that something inhuman is taking place. "No mature man is so spiritually inferior or superior to another that the one can serve the other as an absolutely valid authority" (33).

This brings up another element of belief: a free assent of the will must be performed. This cannot be otherwise. Acknowledgement of a plain fact is not free. Truth compels, and if I see that my sweater is red, I am compelled to admit it is so. But with belief (which remember, is referred to something we have not seen), the truth is not what compels us to accept to subject matter. In belief, the will is operative in a special manner - I might believe in something, and I might just as well not believe. It is a matter of the will, not of being convinced by an evident truth. I can will to believe the stranger's story about my brother in the prison camp; I might just as well not believe it, but I cannot will not to believe my sweater is red when it is evidently so.

Now, if will is involved, then we must ask, towards what does the believer direct his will when he believes? If my wife tells me about the salesman coming to the door while I am out, and I believe her words, I am in fact willing the act of belief; to what is my will directed? "Towards the warrantor and witness whom he affirms, loves, "wills" - insofar as he accepts the truthfulness of what that witness says, accepts it on his mere word" (39). My will is directed towards my wife, willing to believe her.

When I believe my wife's words, I in some sense participate in her knowledge of her experience. I was not present in the Po Valley Campaign of World War II, but when I believe and assent to his words, I in some way participate in the knowledge and experiences of my grandfather. I am placed in the condition of seeing something that would never be attainable by my own unaided sight, of seeing with the eyes of my grandfather, who saw directly.

So belief does necessarily imply a relationship - just like you can't have belief if there isn't someone who is the believer, neither can you have it without someone who actually knows. The knowing is actually prior to the belief. "Wherever belief is meaningfully held, there is someone else who supports the believer; and this someone else cannot be a believer" (42). Vision, direct knowledge, is surer than hearing or belief (visio est certior auditu). Then why do we settle for belief, for hearing, when we know that vision or direct knowledge is surer? After all, given a choice between hearing about something and seeing it directly, who would opt for just hearing? Given a choice between belief and knowledge, who would opt for belief?

But suppose our situation is that we can't choose? What do we do if our choice is either no access at all or only partial access, incomplete knowing or complete ignorance? Though knowing is surer than hearing, who would not choose hearing if the alternative was nothing at all? I would like to know what it is like on the moon. But since I shall most likely never be able to go, the best I can get is to hear from someone who has been there about what it is like. This is the closest I can get to experiential knowledge. Do I want to get an incomplete picture from another or go without any picture whatsoever? This is the dilemman any man must confront when deciding between belief and nonbelief.

If this is our situation (and theologically, I would say it is, since none of us have a direct vision of God), then belief is the most certain form of assent we can give. Therefore, it behooves us, when we believe anybody about anything, to make certain that the one we believe has an authentic knowledge about those things that we believe on faith. Have you ever noticed how no argumentation, no matter how compelling, can ever convince someone else to "believe" you? There is a strong element of credibility - credibility of the witness, the credibility of which makes what he says credible. So we have to be convinced of the credibility of the witness.

But how? This is a problem, because the conviction of the credibility of the witness cannot itself be belief - the credibility of the witness cannot itself be a subject of belief; this is where real kowledge is required. The premises of belief cannot be the object of belief; if everything is said to be belief, then authentic belief is eliminated. As the Scholastics would say, "Cognito fidei praesupponit cognitionem naturalem" - Belief does not presuppose knowledge based upon belief in its turn dependent upon someone else, but rather knowledge out of one's own resources. In Catholicism, we have so-called "motives of credibility," reasons given to give assent to the proposition that God has revealed Himself to mankind. As we are discussing belief in general and not necessarily theological faith, I will pass over these for the time being.

Going back to the certainty of belief: we have stated already that belief, by its nature, must be unqualified and certain. But knowledge, which is superior to belief, is also certain. If knowledge and belief are both certain, is there a difference in the types of certitude? In fact there is, because the certainty of belief is mixed in a curious way with an element of imperfection, or uncertainty. How can this be so, since we have already stated above that belief must be certain in an unqualified sense? Well, the perfection of the certainty inheres in the firmness of the assent, and hence it is true that the assent of belief is unqualified. But insofar as no vision operates, insofar as knowledge is lacking, there is said to be an imperfection in belief. This is the teaching of St. Thomas (De Veritate, 14, 1,5), who said that this causes the believer to at times be troubled by a lingering mental "unrest" (inquietus).

It would be wrong to associate the "disquietude" with doubt, however. What is meant by unrest is a "probing consideration, conferring with oneself before deciding, being on the track of, a mental reaching out for something not yet finally found. These processes, alone or taken together, constitute this "mental unrest." Therefore the believer is characterized by linking the final, unqualified assent with a residual unrest that seeks to further ground his belief.
I must again stress that this "restlessness" is not the same thing as doubt. It is the restlessness Saint Augustine spoke of when he gave us his famous saying, "Our hearts are restless, Lord, until they rest in Thee." Or, in the words of Pieper, "Once I regard the news [that which is believed on faith] as unconditionally true, I am tormented by the need to form a picture of the reality that is both revealed and concealed by the news. And at the same time I know that I shall never succeed in doing that...the believer is bound to be restive in this sense" (53). Or Aquinas, who says, "The cognition of belief does not quiet the craving but rather enkindles it" (CG, 3,40).

To move into the realm of faith, or religious belief: we still have a fundamental definition of belief that is true even in a religious context - to accept something unconditionally and real on the testimony of someone else who understands the matter out of his own knowledge. This is a good, solid definition of faith, and not that far removed from the one given us in Hebrews 11:1: "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." Notice that this faith is substantial and evidential; it is not belief in the face of no evidence, as my atheist friend suggests, but belief on very substantial evidence, the substance of which is grounded in the credibility of the informant, or he in whom the faith is placed.

The difference between everyday belief and religious belief is, of course, that the one we put our belief in, the Someone whose testimony we accept, is God Himself. We believe in God, and as this belief is based on the credibility or the character of the one in whom we believe, we can have total belief in Him because His nature is perfect. Thus God can be the object of a kind of belief that we can never direct towars a human being (as stated above).

There is a huge problem though - how can the believer justify the necessity of believing in God? Or to put it more philosophically, why is man's nature and situation such that he cannot make do with what is naturally accessible to him? Why should we be dependent upon information that we could never find and that, even if found, is not susceptible to rational examination? We are summoned to accept as true a set of facts we cannot examine, referred to a witness who does not meet us directly and demanded a kind of absolute and unconditional assent that we are prepared to give in no other case.

This "nonexaminability" lies in the nature of the message as well as the nature of the recipient. No man can fully examine, evaluate and exhaust the message that God has become man in order to reconcile man to God. The message is too grand and beyond our capacity to fully understand, and we are too finite to fully comprehend such a cosmic truth. Hence we return to mystery - those truths which go beyond our reason but do not contradict it; things which lead us to the threshold of rationality but then take off beyond where our reason can follow.

The skeptic would say that, given such a situation, we should just suffice with what we have according to knowledge, after the proposition, "Where knowledge suffices we have no need of belief." Here is the problem with this statement: By what marks do we recognize where knowledge suffices and where it doesn't? No one can say without also considering what it is to suffice for. Therefore, if anyone asks whether what is known only naturally to man should be sufficient, he must first formulate what he considers meaningful in human life. This is a question that has to do with the metaphyiscal (or non-metaphysical) nature of man, depending on your viewpoint. The skeptic who says natural knowledge alone suffices has already determined that nothing beyond what is natural is important in life, and hence argues from a position he has already adopted de facto. This is no different for the believer - by saying that natural knowledge alone does not suffice, the believer has already come to the conclusion that his own "natural" knowledge is not enough for him. Thus, this question about whether or not science or natural knowledge suffices has to do with our conception of man as a being and of what his true needs are.

But I would say that once we conceive of a God, a God who is a personal being, a Someone rather than a Something, there is no way to rule out revelation. This post is not about proving God's existence but on the meaning of faith - and remember, for one to have belief, to be a believer, there has to be a knower who stands behind the believer. If God has spoken, and we have received the message, there is nothing supernatural about the receptivity per se; it belongs to the human being's natural state of mind to be receptive to the message of others. The difference lies not in the mode of reception but in the origin of the message and the nature of the message - this is why the Word of God, though eternal and perfect, comes to us through human channels like other human speech, written (or spoken) in the words of humans. The soul is by nature capable of receiving supernatural graces - belief in revelation is in a certain sense natural. "Not only can man be expected to believe, but not to believe would be downright contrary to human nature - if God has spoken to man in an audible fashion" (63).

One who conceives of God as Someone capable of speech and man as being receptive to God must necessarily regard revelation as possible, but it does not follow that revelation has actually taken place. How can we discuss the actuality of a divine revelation to someone who, on the basis of his conception of God and man, denies its very possibility? I don't see much ground for dialogue here. For any meaningful debate to occur, there is presupposed a common ground that both sides agree to. For example, Protestants and Catholics both agree that the Bible is the word of God, and so a Cath-Prot debate can legitimately use the Bible as a point of reference. But in a disussion about belief, if one party does not believe in any God and the believer does, what common point of reference can there be? The ground for the believer is in the authority of the One who speaks (God), while for the non-beliver the foolishness of belief is in the very assumption that this God does not exist. Thus I see that the two cannot really have a debate about belief, in the sense that one can convince the other from his own store of proofs; for the Christian at best, there can be a dialogue or explanation of the term "belief" (which I have tried to do here). Hence the saying of Aquinas, "The Christian who wishes to conduct a disputation on his belief should not attempt to prove his belief but to defend it" (Rat. fid., cap. 2.).

One final word - our faith in the Church and the revelation of God should not be considered "blind faith", even though it may be "implicit faith." Implicit faith occurs when someone asks another, "What do you believe about such-and-such?" and the other replies, "I believe what the Church teaches." This is said to be fides implicita. For the modern man, this answer would invoke ridicule, although really there is nothing nonsensical about it. Suppose you are going in for a major heart operation and someone asks you, "How are you going to have the operation performed?" You shrug and say, "I'm going to go with whatever my heart surgeon wants to do." Is there anything naive or simplistic in such an assertion? Remember, the belief is only secondarily about the propositions believed and primarily about the authority/credibility of the one in whom belief is placed. This is the operative prinicple behind the fact that most people willingly assent to everything their doctors propose for the even if they understand very little of the terminology or particulars. There is implicit faith in the doctor, a faith that trusts and assents to what he says because he says it. This faith is not blind - in fact it is well informed, so well informed that we know that it is best for us to stay out of the way and let the doctor do his job.

But when it applies to God, how do we recognize that something that lays claim to divine revelation is really of divine origin? Since belief cannot be its own ground of belief, the believer must be able to answer this question by rational argumentation and a knowledge that is truly his own. The methods and possible means of certainty that exist are so manifold that they could not possibly be exhausted here - some arguments have more weight with some than with others, and there are as many modes of apprehension as there are people on the earth.

Perhaps in the future I will take this argument to the next step - what are these "motives of credibility," these rational, logical facts based in our own knowledge that give rise to the belief that revelation has happened and that it has come down through the Catholic Church? But here I have sought only to explore, philosophically, the nature of belief and I hope this suffices for now. So, to my atheist friend, belief, even in a natural setting, is something much, much different than "believing in something with insufficient or no evidence." Faith is to accept something unconditionally and real on the testimony of someone else who understands the matter out of his own knowledge and really has nothing to do with whether or not there is "evidence", because the ground of faith is not in the evidence but in the word of the knower in whom faith is placed (in our case, God).


Kate said...

I have nothing to add to your arguments, except to say that I believe Newman grappled with this topic masterfully in his "Grammar of Assent", particularly the last third of the book. He start with the question, what do we mean by "Reason", and attacks the rather ridiculous idea that Reason is confined solely to explicit or formal reasoning. He then illustrates how the 'knowing' associated with faith is not unreasonable, but is similar to the way we know many other things that formal reasoning itself depends upon our knowing. His analysis of the 'illative sense' and the human display of reason is profound and thought-provoking.

Peiper is easier reading though. :-D

Andrea said...

Very thorough explanations! God has provided humans with reason in order that they may freely determine what they put their faith in. Faith is definitely in complete agreement with reason. Many evolutionists (many of whom are atheists or at least agnostic) decide to put their faith in the theoretical constructs of man. As Catholics, we willingly put our faith in the words and signs of God, a supernatural being. I definitely prefer trusting an infallible supernatural being as opposed to fallible men!

Ben G said...

Boniface, when you wrote "has already adopted de facto..." did you mean "a priori"?

spraffmeister said...

I know this article was written a while ago but I was wondering about something in the Latin creed and this post came into my head (I read it recently on the UAC website).
We say "Credo in unum in unum Dominum Iesum in Spiritum Sanctum... et unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam". Is there a reason why it is not "Credo IN unam sanctam catholicam...."? Is this because we believe the Church as a person or body whom we consider trustworthy rather than a proposition to be believed? Or am I just making a mountain out of a molehill?

spraffmeister said...

Ah, scrap that last comment - it would probably be in the dative case if it were the transitive form of believe, i.e. "et uni sanctae catholicae et apostolicae Ecclesiae" for "I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church"

Boniface said...

Actually, your former comment was closer to the mark.

The Faith vested "in" the propositions of the Faith that have God as their author is different from the Faith that is put in the Church as the one who proclaims those revelations. In the absolute sense, we can have complete Faith "IN" God only, because cannot lie; we have Faith in the Church in a relative sense because she proclaims God's truth.

The Catechism actually makes this clear:

"Salvation comes from God alone; but because we receive the life of faith through the Church, she is our mother: "We believe the Church as the mother of our new birth, and not in the Church as if she were the author of our salvation." Because she is our mother, she is also our teacher in the faith." (169)

"In the Apostles' Creed we profess "one Holy Church" (Credo . . . Ecclesiam), and not to believe in the Church, so as not to confuse God with his works and to attribute clearly to God's goodness all the gifts he has bestowed on his Church." (CCC 750)

spraffmeister said...

Thanks for this clarification. I vaguely remember reading something about the lack of "in" before "unam sanctam...) in the creed in an article on and I think it said something along those lines too.