Faith and reason: on predication, rationality, and charity
September 21, 2013 2 Comments
Last month, I posted a critique of Dr. Tania Lombrozo’s interlinked think pieces at Boston Review and 13.7. I was gratified but slightly apprehensive when she linked back with a post titled, Science Vs. Religion: A Heated Debate Fueled By Disrespect. To boot, a photo of a South Asian firebreather accompanied the text! Granted, editors sometimes make decisions not always in accord with the writer’s wishes. Still, I wondered, what kind of splash did I make on the inner life of this cognitive scientist? From what Dr. Lombrozo wrote of my critique, I think I acquitted myself well.
Before I comment further on this interaction, I must congratulate Dr. Lombrozo for undertaking a couple of posts on charitable discourse. In her aforementioned post, I got to serve as a counterweight to biologist Jerry Coyne, one of the staunchest defenders of evolution. A comment on his blog accused her of being an “accomodationalist,” a scientific Nevil Chamberlain, an appeaser. Needless to say, her post generated hundreds more heated comments by the clamorous content consumers at 13.7.
But then with her subsequent blog entry, Dr. Lombrozo came back with a real shocker. She shared an academic paper authored by Lara Buchak, a Berkeley philosopher of religion. Buchak asked, “Can it be rational to have faith?” I particularly enjoyed the explication, because Buchak’s theory of decision making is based on a general assumption that human persons are more or less rational. Quite possibly, that could even apply to nomadic Iron Age sheep herders! I can see religious epistemologists–philosophers like Alvin Plantinga, Paul Moser, and Richard Swinburne–having fun engaging with Buchak’s work.
The assumption that humans are innately, even unconsciously and unwittingly, reasonable is a counter-intuitive antidote to the popular belief that today, we’re somehow automatically smarter than our ancestors. It also matches the underlying premises of my college two majors, international relations and economics. If you want to know what a rational actor or a utility-maximizing agent is, crack open the textbooks of those disciplines. As I received them at UC Davis a decade ago, the operative principles of those fields were still firmly rooted in mid- to late Enlightenment thought. No special taint of phenomenologies, Higher Criticisms, or other products of Teutonic intellectual degeneracy.
That being said, my interest in Continental philosophy, the brainchild of Kant, Hegel, Marx, et al. has grown over the years. Perhaps the best place for common, “charitable ground” as Lombrozo tagged it, is to be found there. Recently, I discovered that Dallas Willard, a widely admired evangelical teacher and popular author, cut his philosophical teeth on the work of logician Edmund Husserl. Dr. Willard even drew upon him when contributing to a collection of essays on Derrida! There, he critiqued Derrida’s conception of “Predication as Originary Violence.” Are you totally lost yet?
So what of that tangle between Lombrozo and myself? In “Science Vs. Religion,” she observes that my reading of her piece as “‘a rational argument discounting a certain strain of creationism’ . . . suggests an antecedent assumption of hostility.” I would agree with this! But only in a limited sense. I think “hostility” is best understood as a state of affairs between persons proper. But a close reading of both my critique and her response will show careful wording that produces not interpersonal hostility, but sets up an adversarial contest between ideas. William Lane Craig observed recently at Reasonable Faith (Are Debates too Polarizing?) that in academia, the relationship between two different theses apprehending the same object is inherently “agonistic,” or competitive.
If predication is an assignment or affirmation about an antecedent object–the possible intent behind a person’s words–then it is only the mind of the reader that can predicate hostility. Ugliness is in the eye of the beholder. To practice charity in discussion, then, is to refrain, if possible, from assigning malevolence to the author’s intent.
I suspect that awareness of the nature of intent is something Dr. Willard took away from his reading of the Biblical Jesus. In the gospel of John, again and again Jesus masterfully avoids the snares of his questioners, whether his disciples, the Pharisees, or Pontius Pilate. The question is answered with another question; inquiry is turned back on itself. Is there a more radical skepticism than that? “Who do you say that I am?” On Christianity, the divine nature–perhaps the goodness of freedom of the will–is of such weight that the answer to Jesus’ question is only found in one’s own predication.
And so it might be for us. To avoid violence against the other as she actually is, we judge the merit of the idea, not the motive of the person. Is there any better way to collaborate in reconciling our disparate ideas to objective reality?