Sunday, November 13, 2022

Blaise Pascal’s argument for truth from faith

 By Mathew Goldstein

Vance Morgan is the author of “Freelance Christianity” on the Progressive Christianity channel of Patheos.  Patheos describes itself as “… the premier online destination to engage in the global dialogue about religion and spirituality, and to explore and experience the world's beliefs.” His most recent post is “The Heart Has Its Reasons . . .: My Evidence Against Atheism”.  He defends Christianity as a “ first principle”, quoting Blaise Pascal.

“We know the truth, not only through reason, but also through the heart. It is through the latter that we know first principles, and reason, which has no part in it, tries in vain to challenge them. Reason must use this knowledge from the heart and instinct, and base all its arguments on it.”

He says “the problem is the atheist’s refusal to accept that there are more kinds of evidence than rational and more sources of belief than reason.”, again quoting Blaise Pascal.

“Principles are felt, propositions are proved; all with certainty, though in different ways. And it is as useless and absurd for reason to demand from the heart proofs of its first principles before accepting them, as it would be for the heart to demand from reason an intuition of all demonstrated propositions before receiving them.”

Of course, we disagree. My take is that Blaise Pascal was mistaken. This is not all that surprising given that Pascal was writing in the 17th century. In the 17th century it was arguably easier to be both a top tier intellectual and be a theist, and maybe even be a self-described Christian, without obvious self-contradictions. This is because our knowledge of how the universe works has advanced since the 17th century, and what we have learned over the last three centuries favors ontological naturalism.

Mr. Pascal decided that salvation was by grace, not by human merit, and he defended overcoming uncertainty by relying on faith. Yet there is no testable evidence favoring any theological concept of salvation. So there are no reliable grounds, none!, for concluding in favor of the theological concept of grace as a path to salvation, all the more so given that grace also lacks supporting testable evidence. Once we go fishing for conclusions about how the universe works without anchoring our boat in testable evidence, the remaining constraints on which conclusions we reach are far too arbitrary and feeble to give us even a reasonable chance of landing on non-fiction. Insofar as atheists recognize this, and theists do not, it is the theists who are mistaken, not the atheists.

Mr. Vance claims that Christianity “provides the best cognitive framework for understanding myself and the world around me than I have ever encountered”. No religion comes close to qualifying as a good framework for understanding the world, let alone the ‘best framework’. This is why scientists are not hired based on their religious credentials, beliefs, or practices. They are hired based on their secular (non-religious) academic training and track record of productive output. The Bible in particular offers a mistaken, pre-scientific, perspective reflecting the ignorance of the people who wrote it. In Genesis we learn why people die (retaliation for Eve and Adam eating an apple, a.k.a. original sin), why there are rainbows (rainbows are a sign of God’s covenant), where rain comes from (the springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens), why snakes slither on the ground (retaliation for a serpent persuading Eve and Adam to eat an apple), why there is pain during childbirth (retaliation for Eve eating an apple), why there are thorns (retaliation for Adam eating an apple), why there are thousands of different languages (retaliation for people disobeying God). We also learn that stars are hung in the firmament above the mountains. 

Mr. Vance ends his defense of Christian theism thusly:  “Most importantly, the best evidence in support of faith (or whatever you choose to call it) is a changed life. That’s my own story.” There are many factors that go into “a changed life”. When people who were theists become atheists they sometimes say the conversion changed their life for the better. Is whether or not our life changed a valid measure, let alone “the best” measure”, of the accuracy of our ontological beliefs? Throughout history there are examples of many happy people being wrong, people who arguably could have been happy without being mistaken. It needs to be said that being mistaken, even when well-intentioned, is a potential source of misdirected, and harmful, behavior. 

Principles and ethics are applied to the factual context. Thusly “the heart”, in the sense of principles and ethics, remains intact and an active participant within a facts chronologically first approach. The sequence is first, determine the relevant facts to the best of our abilities, second, apply ethical concerns to our decisions to the best of our abilities. They are not incompatible with each other. On the contrary, we need the facts to get our ethics right, which is why getting the facts right places first chronologically. This linkage with facts is always needed for everything that needs a non-fictional basis.

This does not mean there are no conflicts or complications. Ethical considerations range from clear cut and easy to ambiguous and difficult. There can be uncertainties about the facts, uncertainties about the past, present, and future, uncertainties about the ethics, multiple competing considerations that favor different conclusions, time constraints along with a slew of other constraints, etc. My guess is that there are almost enough non-fictional books documenting human weaknesses and flaws to fill a library. Add the fictional literature and the typical library will probably be short of shelf space. 

Furthermore, facts regarding how the universe works are not in and of themselves ethical. They are two different to categories. There can be a need to actively intervene to pushback against the negative implications of the facts when it is feasible to do so to realize better outcomes. For example, global warming, malaria, plastic pollution, carcinogens, poverty, crime, etcetera are examples of facts we should be pushing back against. Blaise Pascal’s argument relies on a category error and special pleading. He is selectively transferring particular fact category claims over to ethical category claims to exempt those particular fact claims from scrutiny. When we start with a commitment to believing that an all knowing and all good god created the universe we have set the stage for conflating factual claims with ethical claims.

Any ideology, most definitely including secular ideologies, that disregard, that override, that contradict, that denigrate, the best fit with the available evidence conclusions are potential additional sources of misdirected behaviors. Selectively overlooking, or denigrating, both the available evidence and competent epistemology more generally, are distinguishing traits of ideology. Religion has no monopoly on ideology, secular ideologies are equally remiss and culpable. The difference is that all religions are ideologies. Secular humanists should not be exempting secular ideologies from critical scrutiny. Ideologies tend to do more harm than good.


Don Wharton said...

Excellent post. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

You might make the reference to Hume and the is/ought (fact/ethical) category distinction explicit.