Believing by Faith: An Essay in the Epistemology and Ethics of Religious Belief

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Volume Chris Tollefsen. Oxford Academic. Google Scholar. Cite Citation. Permissions Icon Permissions. Issue Section:. You do not currently have access to this article. Download all figures. Sign in. You could not be signed in. Sign In Forgot password? Don't have an account? Sign in via your Institution Sign in. Purchase Subscription prices and ordering Short-term Access To purchase short term access, please sign in to your Oxford Academic account above. This article is also available for rental through DeepDyve. View Metrics. Email alerts New issue alert. In the first place, as Pascal sees it, it is reasonable to acknowledge limits to reason.

Thus, Pascal invokes reason to justify what might otherwise appear to be its antithesis. He adds that the illusion against which his pseudonymous writings are directed is an illusion about what Christianity requires, and that these writings, though employing philosophical tools, thus subserve a religious intent. Hegel is frequently—if not always entirely fairly—parodied in this connection. In so doing, it imports into religion modes of inquiry that distort the essential nature of faith. It is perhaps tempting to imagine that the relation between evidence and belief is purely epistemological, a question of justification.

There are different kinds of beliefs, logically speaking, and different ways in which entitlement to such beliefs is vindicated. The basic error to which philosophical systematizers are prone, he argues, is assuming that the criteria for evaluating a belief in one context are equally appropriate in other contexts. His claim is not simply that having evidence is unnecessary in this context, but that it would, so to speak, destroy the whole endeavor, since it would alter the meaning of the beliefs in question and the spirit in which they could be believed.

For a contemporary defense of this point, see Strandberg , especially Chapters 1 and 4. Was Kierkegaard a fideist? Critics have argued that in recoiling from natural theology, Kierkegaard transformed belief into a matter of will and emotion, and that a decision as monumental as a leap of faith—made seemingly arbitrarily, in the absence of any rational assurance—might just as easily have disastrous results.

So far, it might be argued, Kierkegaard has done little to show that a leap in the direction of Christianity is a better bet than any of its alternatives, and that a wiser tack—as Hume counseled in connection with alleged miracles—would be to proportion belief and passion to the available evidence. For Kierkegaard, faith is incomprehensible , in the sense that it demands a willingness to venture beyond the purview of philosophical reason, but it is not unreasonable or irrational.

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By discriminating between those cases in which it is competent to judge and those in which it is not, philosophy thus plays a self-critical role: mindful of its own limits, it allows religion to be itself. In the paper, James delineates a set of conditions under which, he argues, it can be reasonable to believe in the absence of proof. By contrast, an option is forced rather than avoidable just in case the candidate hypotheses are both mutually exclusive and exhaustive of the possibilities.

Finally, an option is momentous as opposed to trivial just in case the opportunity is unique, the stakes are significant, or the decision is irreversible. James points out that as people who hold beliefs, we generally have two goals: to avoid error, and to believe the truth. Though related, these aims are in fact distinct: one can, for example, avoid error by suspending belief. James argues that the scientific method is oriented around the goal of avoiding error, but that in other aspects of life, the avoidance of error is inadequate.

According to James, something similar is true in the case of religion. In cases like this, James contends, it is not enough simply to avoid error; we also have to seek truth.


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As in the social example, the religious hypothesis must, as it were, be met half-way. James acknowledges that choosing under such circumstances entails risk—one might, after all, be wrong—but he denies that one can avoid or reduce this risk by refusing to choose. But, James contends, there is no rational basis for preferring fear over hope. Like Pascal, James insists that when it comes to religion, we cannot avoid taking sides and incurring risks.

James also agrees with Pascal that faith can be rational in the absence of epistemic justification—at least in certain circumstances. But depending on how this latter notion is understood, certain worries may here arise. Of course, believing is subject to indirect voluntary control. Can we, by any effort of our will, or by any strength of wish that it were true, believe ourselves well and about when we are roaring with rheumatism in bed, or feel certain that the sum of the two one-dollar bills in our pocket must be a hundred dollars?

If believing admits of degrees, then choices of the kind James describes seem less stark. Some critics have worried that the argument leads down a slippery slope to irrationalism. However, this seems unfair. It is important to appreciate that James is not claiming that it is morally permissible to believe something to which one is not epistemically entitled. Rather, he is claiming that there are beliefs to which one can be epistemically entitled even in the absence of definitive evidence—that, pace Clifford, entitlement is not always a function of evidential support.

Rather, he is comparing the relative merits of rival epistemic strategies oriented respectively toward the goals of avoiding error and believing truth. It can thus be argued that James is not disparaging reason in favor of faith, but attempting rather to carve out a sphere for faith within what is rationally respectable. Widely regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century, Ludwig Wittgenstein — was also one of the most controversial and difficult.

The Will to Believe

Although Wittgenstein was not by conventional standards religious , his philosophical remarks and journal entries reveal what might be described as a religious sensibility and are informed by a definite sympathy toward at least certain features of religion. For Wittgenstein, as for Kierkegaard, whom he admired, religion was less a matter of theory than of practice. They have to change your life. Or the direction of your life. It is highly doubtful, however, whether Wittgenstein would have endorsed any of these claims, let alone all four of them.

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Their attribution to Wittgenstein seems in fact to depend on a narrowly selective reading of what he actually said. As Richard Bell has pointed out,.

Reformed Epistemology | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

It is true that Wittgenstein cautioned against the tendency to assume a unity of logical form behind the diversity of actual usage. However, it is by no means clear that he intended to advance any equally a priori thesis about the discontinuity and incommensurability of our discursive practices.

Remarks such as these seem to militate against the balkanized view of language implied by Wittgensteinian Fideism. Accordingly, Nielsen directed the brunt of his critique not against Wittgenstein himself, but against Wittgensteinians like Norman Malcolm and Peter Winch. More recently, the charge of Wittgensteinian Fideism has become associated especially with the work of the philosopher of religion D.

In defending himself and other Wittgensteinian philosophers of religion against the charge of fideism, Phillips writes:. In the last decade of his life, Phillips in fact devoted considerable attention to what, following his teacher Rush Rhees, he called the unity —i. He argued that religious beliefs depend for their sense and importance on non-religious features of human existence, but that the relation between the former and the latter is not generally the relation between conclusions and their justification. This is no doubt largely because it has come to function primarily as a term of abuse as opposed to a genuinely descriptive term.

The sarcasm here is hard to miss. In an Age of Reason, faith-ism is inevitably going to sound irrational. However, the conception of reason which the putative fideist is accused of transgressing is almost invariably one the latter would reject as insufficiently robust. Thus, the opposition to reason said to characterize fideism is perhaps better conceived as a rejection of a particular account of reason—one the so-called fideist regards as overly narrow and restrictive—or of the applicability to religion of a particular way of reasoning.

Whereas some putative fideists—like Pascal—argue that religious beliefs can be given non-evidential support, others can be interpreted as suggesting that such beliefs are themselves properly basic, or as Plantinga has argued more recently that no criterion of proper basicality that would exclude religious beliefs can itself be shown to be justified. Their contention in either case is that the believer can be rationally justified—or at least cannot be shown to be behaving irrationally —in holding certain beliefs, even if these beliefs themselves are not supported by evidence.

In recent years, a small number of philosophers of religion has embraced the term fideism and sought to reclaim its non-pejorative use. These thinkers are rare among philosophers in their willingness to take up a gauntlet that is usually refused—even by those with views in many respects similar to their own.

One of the most carefully argued contemporary defenses of fideism is C. Whereas the latter pit faith directly against reason, the former contend that faith can appropriately take over where reason leaves matters of ultimate concern unresolved. Like the Protestant Reformers, Evans suggests that the customary exercise of human reason is limited not merely by finitude but also by pride and self-centeredness.

Reformed Epistemology

For this reason, faith and reason can find themselves in tension. Moreover, Evans insists that the defects in reason—though substantial—are nevertheless not such as to render us completely oblivious to them. Thus, he does not reject reason altogether. In his preferred terminology, faith is not so much against as beyond reason, since it is ultimately compatible, in his view, with a duly self-critical intellect. Like Evans, and in keeping with James and Pascal, however, Bishop is careful to distinguish supra-evidential fideism from counter-evidential fideism: unlike the latter, the former, he argues, cannot be shown to violate any epistemic obligations.

Unlike holding beliefs to be true, taking them to be true in practical reasoning, Bishop argues, is subject to direct voluntary control and an appropriate subject for moral evaluation. Yet, insofar as such faith-ventures are not counter-evidential, he argues, they carry epistemic entitlement too. However, Bishop contends that insofar as questions may still arise for the reflective believer about the justifiability of commitment to the framework principles of the theistic doxastic practice, isolationism cannot avoid the need for doxastic ventures that outrun the available evidence.

Some version of fideism thus seems unavoidable for the reflective believer. But granting, for the sake of the argument, that Bishop is right about the options available to the contemporary reflective believer, it might nevertheless be argued that a very different situation obtained prior to the development of rational empiricist evidential practice and perhaps continues to obtain where that practice has not taken root. If this is right, it provides additional support for the claim that it is anachronistic to describe someone like Tertullian as a fideist. Put differently, starting from the thesis of evidential ambiguity allows for the historicizing of fideism, in a way that encourages us to view the possibility to which the descriptive use of the term refers as contingent on particular historical developments, rather than as perennially available—i.

Their quarrel is thus not with reason tout court , but with certain philosophical assumptions about belief entitlement. As we saw above, Evans and Bishop seek to rehabilitate fideism by identifying spaces inaccessible to some form of reason: faith is warrantable where reason reaches its limit.