Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Mind-Body Issues

The discussion that followed my last post raised issues pertaining to the so-called “mind-body problem” that deserve more reflection. Hence, although I am still on vacation, and although I imagined that at best I’d offer “lighter fare” on this blog until my return, I find myself moved to post something relatively short that doesn’t exactly qualify as “light.”

Specifically, I want to share some thoughts on the thorny cluster of mind-body problems, especially insofar as these thoughts help to flesh out points I inadequately gestured towards earlier, and insofar as they address Braun’s claim that a materialist view of consciousness actually does a better job than a dualist one of explaining how mental events such as deciding on the basis of reasons can cause physical changes in the brain.

In that comment, Braun takes it that mental events just are brain events. The argument seems to be this: Since there is no mystery concerning how brain events can cause other brain events—and since “deciding to do X” just is a brain event—it follows that there is no mystery about how “deciding to do X” can trigger neural firings that stimulate the rest of the body to do X. Since this “reductive materialist” view of the mind accounts so readily for mental causation, it actually does a better job of making sense of our experience than do dualistic views which posit two different kinds of substances—minds and bodies—and which then have to confront the difficulty of making sense of how they can causally interact.

This has been one of the standard arguments in favor of reductive materialism for a long time, which is one reason Goetz and Taliaferro spend so much time in their book, Naturalism, taking issue with the claim that causal interaction between non-physical minds and physical bodies poses such a challenge. The most important point they make in their response to this view is that there is a mystery about material causation, and hence about how brain events can cause other brain events—and that the most plausible solution to this mystery works just as well for dualistic mind-body causation. In other words, the latter is no more mysterious than the former.

But it’s not my intent here to repeat G&T’s arguments on this point. The deeper issue, for me, is the philosophical untenability of saying that mental phenomena just are brain phenomena. It is not similarly untenable to claim that mental phenomena are by-products of brain phenomena, or that mental phenomena and brain phenomena are distinct aspects of a more fundamental noumenal reality to which we do not have direct access (or, perhaps better, they are how this reality “looks” from two distinct perspectives—which is closer to my view).

The argument against such reductive materialism can be formulated in several ways. There is a “way it feels” to be the subject of an experience—say, the experience of observing the color red. Philosophers have come to call such things the “qualia” of conscious experiences (“quale” in the singular). Correlated with each quale is some repeatable sequence or pattern of neural firings (what I will call a “brain event”). But here’s the thing: I am immediately acquainted with color “qualia,” such as the subjective experience of red. I am not immediately acquainted with the corresponding brain events. As such, there is something that’s true of color qualia which isn’t true of corresponding brain events. But if something is true of X but not true of Y, then X and Y are not identical. Hence, conscious experiences are not identical with brain events.

The same idea can be arrived at via Frank Jackson’s famous arguments from his essay, “Epiphenomenal Qualia.” Jackson asks us to imagine a brilliant scientist, Mary, who for her entire existence sees nothing but black-and-white, but who knows absolutely everything there is to know scientifically about color and its effects on the human person, including the neurobiological processes correlated with color perception. But she has never seen any colors. Then, one day, she experiences the redness of a red rose for the first time. Jackson asks, has she learned something new about the color red?

Obviously, she has. She’s learned what red looks like. But by hypothesis she already knew everything there is to know about the neurobiology of color perception. And so the subjective experience of redness is not identical with the brain events that science studies.

None of this entails that mental phenomena cannot be construed as by-products or unique properties of brain events, thereby preserving a broadly materialist metaphysics. But it does entail that the simple reductive materialist solution to the problem of mind-body interaction evaporates. On the reductive materialist view, such things as “deciding to do something for a reason” just are brain events—and since (it is contestably assumed) there is no problem with brain events causing other brain events, there is no problem with explaining how deciding to do something for a reason can give rise to neural firings that trigger complex bodily behavior.

But insofar as “deciding to do something for a reason” directly describes a phenomenon of consciousness, and insofar as such a phenomenon is not identical with a brain event, this easy solution to the problem of mind-body interaction is no solution at all. On a materialist metaphysics, what causes the brain events that directly impel bodily activity are nothing more than other brain events. And since the conscious experience of “deciding to do something for a reason” is at best an epiphenomenal by-product or property of these brain events (rather than a brain event in itself), it cannot be what in ordinary human experience we take it to be, namely, the source of our activity. Deciding to do something for a reason is rendered as inefficacious in the world of human behavior as is the greyness of brain matter. Instead of causing our acts, it is just another effect, along with our actions, of brain events unfolding according to physical laws.

To this line of argument we can add a further argument specific to the distinctive conscious phenomenon that we call deciding something for a reason. Reasons are, by definition, conceptual. They have semantic content. Physical events do not. Hence, brain events do not. As such, to decide to do something for a reason is to act in a certain way because of a proposition with a conceptual content. And a proposition with a conceptual content is not reducible to a brain event. As such, if a brain event is responsible for my activity, then it is not true that I am acting on the basis of a reason. I am, instead, acting on the basis of a prior brain state giving rise to subsequent ones in accord with the physical laws regulating cause and effect. And so, on a reductive materialist metaphysics, there can be no such thing as doing something for a reason or deciding to do something for a reason. There can at best be an epiphenomenal conscious state that looks like acting for a reason. (To whom does it look this way? Well, that leads into other difficulties relating to making sense of the subject of experience given the assumption that the conscious self as we know it is wholly a product of the brain).

The final conclusion we are led to here is that a materialist metaphysics belies our ordinary self-understanding, specifically, our understanding of ourselves as agents who act for reasons. If we accept this metaphysics of reductive materialism, then our immediate conscious experience of ourselves, on this point at least, must be rejected as delusional.

And to reject our self-understanding on this point is nothing like, say, coming to believe that we have a subconscious mind in addition to the conscious one. Agency lies at the heart of just about every single aspect of our lived existence—only agents can be morally responsible for our actions; only agents can pursue creative endeavors or develop arguments or raise objections or think things through or take stands on issues. Deny agency, and these are merely things that happen to us, and my critics’ efforts to convince me to change my mind become nothing of the sort. Try as they might, they can’t try to convince me, because “trying” is conceptually linked to agency, and “convincing” someone is conceptually linked to agent-responsiveness to reasons as opposed just to mechanistic causes and/or quantum indeterminacy.

Put another way, agency is not just some feature of our self concept among others. It touches on every aspect of our self-understanding. Take it away, and one doesn’t just modify that self-understanding. One does away with it altogether. To strip us of agency is to strip us, in an important sense, of what makes us human. It seems to me that, all else being equal, a worldview that preserves our humanity in this sense is preferable to one that makes it out to be a Grand Delusion. The quest for such a worldview, one which also takes seriously everything we have come to know about our world through science, is therefore more than worthwhile.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Out of Town

I am leaving town tomorrow for several weeks, and will not have the opportunity to develop substantive posts during that time. What I may do is offer some "lighter" fare when I have ready access to a computer and a few moments to spend. In any event, do not expect any further posts in my biblical inerrancy series until some time in August.

What is "Feeling"?

In his parting comment, Burk refers to my “retreat to feeling.” By use of the term “retreat,” he connotes that there is something inappropriate in invoking feelings when discussing the legitimacy of religious belief. “Retreat” is a metaphor for avoiding something that one cannot win against. In other words, he sees my attempt to incorporate “feeling” among the pieces of evidence we invoke in deciding what to believe as really just a way of avoiding his challenge to religious belief.

I see it, by contrast, as a way of answering that challenge—by introducing something relevant to the assessment of that challenge. The invocation of feeling will be viewed as a retreat rather than a response when “feeling” is taken to be irrelevant, so that the invocation of feeling amounts to leaving the “legitimate terrain” in which critical discourse concerning religious belief ought to be taking place.

So the question that arises is whether a consideration of “feeling” is relevant for a discussion about the legitimacy of religious belief. To answer this, we need a more precise definition of “feeling.” I suspect that at least some of what is at issue between defenders of religion who take their cue from such figures as Schleiermacher and Hermann Lotze and Rudolph Otto, and contemporary criticis of such religion, may be resolved if we progressive defenders of religion did a better job of explaining what, exactly, we mean by “feeling.”

In its most ordinary contemporary usage, “feeling” encompasses pleasure and pain, and what I might call the non-cognitive components of emotions and desires (for example, with respect to desires there’s what you want and the judgment that it is on some level worth pursuing, but then there’s how it feels to want it, which we might describe as an “intense ache” or an “urgent hunger” or a “mild interest” or some such thing).

“Feeling” as Schleiermacher used that term is a much broader concept. What it references is what is immediately present in consciousness, as opposed to the objects of consciousness (which, for Schleiermacher as for Kant, are constituted from the “manifold” of experience through the conceptualizing and unifying activity of the subject).

But part of what happens when the self constructs objects of consciousness is that certain elements of the experience feel a certain way—specifically, there is something about these elements, immediately given in experience, which inspire us to treat them as if they’re coming to us from outside of consciousness itself. They “feel” like veridical encounters with an external world. As such, feeling plays a crucial role in the construction of empirical experience. Sensory impressions “feel” a certain way, and the way that they feel is instrumental in our treating them as originating in objects beyond consciousness that are impacting our consciousness. Schleiermacher, following Kant, referred to this dimension of consciousness as its “receptivity.” There is, if you will, a feeling of being acted upon or being receptive to the other.

And, of course, there are other things that are immediately given to consciousness. When we act, there is the feeling of spontaneity—and this feeling does not merely or even primarily accompany external physical acts (which happen in the empirical world of objects that influence us, and so are intermingled with a feeling of receptivity as we experience our own physical acts as external objects that effect us). This feeling is more pure in relation to wholly internal acts of consciousness: when we imagine something or think through a problem, or decide to perform a physical act.

There is also the unity of consciousness, which suggests a single subject of consciousness, a self that is one thing in some important way. I “feel” like a unified and individual being undergoing a diversity of experiences, rather than just a cluster of sequential experiences.

And when we “toggle” between receptivity and activity, there is a sense of something underlying them both, which is now being receptive, now being active. The subject of experience and the agent of action is, in effect, the same self—a self that underlies both receptivity and activity. But putting things in this way is too conceptually loaded. What is immediately given to us in consciousness is a “feeling” in the sense that Schleiermacher has in mind, and what I offered just above is really an interpretation of that feeling.

Schleiermacher points out that when we dwell in this pivot point between receptivity and activity, when we are quiescent enough to just be that self which acts and receives, without getting caught up in either feeling, then we experience yet another feeling which he calls “the feeling of absolute dependence.” It is like out sensory receptivity—it feels as if I am being affected by something beyond me—but it is different, too.

I’m inclined to describe it in the following way: Consciousness has a subjective “pole” and an objective “pole.” Ordinary sense experience “feels” like it’s coming from the objective pole and impacting the subject. But I am the subject “facing” the objective pole of experience, the feeling of absolute dependence might be described as “coming from behind me.” And unlike the way sensory experience feels—as something outside the self effecting some part of the self in some way—the feeling of absolute dependence is a sense of the total self being effected in a fundamental way. Put in interpretive language, it feels as if I am in contact with the source of my very being, upon which all of my receptivity and activity depends.

What I want to say is this: when we move beyond merely describing the empirical world to offering a worldview, that is, an understanding of the nature of reality itself, we are moving beyond what science can do. To say that the empirical world is all that there is amounts to a worldview that goes beyond merely describing the empirical world. It takes seriously the feeling of veridicality that accompanies sense experience, but it seems to me that it “explains away” much if not most of the rest of the immediate experience of consciousness as delusions produced by the functioning of the physical brain. All my acts are caused by brain processes which can be traced back according to the laws of the empirical world in such a way that there is no genuine spontenaity. The feeling of unity is an effect of the brain’s activity—but the brain itself is a collection of things, perhaps infinitely divisible.

But why should the “contours of consciousness” beyond the empirical ones be so thoroughly dismissed? Are they truly irrelevant in trying to come to grips with the nature of reality, that is, in trying to decide which worldview we should pragmatically adopt in the course of living our lives? Is there, perhaps, a worldview that takes seriously all these feelings, and makes sense of them all—including the ones associated with empirical experience—without explaining them away? Perhaps not, but if there is wouldn’t such a worldview be better, all else being equal?

In any event, we won’t answer these questions if we pre-emptively dismiss “feeling” and regard the efforts to take feeling seriously in philosophical reflection as nothing more than a “retreat.” I suspect that such dismissal, however, may rest on the tendency to understand "feeling" in only a very narrow sense, according to which it is very easy to treat feelings as irrelevant for questions about what is real. My hope here is simply to help clarify the broader sense of feeling that I (and Schleiermacher and others) are invoking in these discussion.

I should add that I haven’t even gotten into the moral and aesthetic dimensions of human experience here, which it seems to me also need to be included in “the pool of things we are trying to make sense of” when our task is to construct a holistic account of reality rather than to merely describe the empirical world encountered in sensory experience. While I think that we can never claim to have knowledge with respect to such holistic worldviews, I think it is pragmatically impossible to avoid adopting some kind of worldview for practical purposes in the course of living our lives. And so we need to make some kind of decision. In so doing, I don't think it is fruitful to pre-emptively dismiss some things that might turn out to be relevant in the course of making such a decision. "Feeling" is one of those things, along with a pragmatic (including moral) assessment of the outcomes of living by one worldview or another.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Authority Without Inerrancy, Part IV: The Argument from Human Hubris

In this next entry in my series on the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, I want to look at the second main objection to the progressive Christian understanding of the Bible, an objection I’m calling the Argument from Human Hubris. In my first post in this series, I summarized the argument in the following way:

…if we accept the progressive view, human beings are free to decide for themselves whether a particular injunction in the Bible is God’s word or just an error on the part of some human author. And if that is the case—if not even the Bible is something in response to which we feel compelled to set our fallible human judgment aside—what follows is that our fallible judgment ends up deferring to nothing. We become the ultimate judge of truth, and there is no longer any meaningful sense in which God’s Word serves for us as an authority to which we must bow.

In the present post, I want to respond to this argument by showing that a doctrine of inerrancy does not avoid the problem that is attributed here to the progressive Christian view of the Bible. On the contrary, the problem can only be mitigated, and the progressive Christian view of the Bible does a better job of mitigating this problem than does a doctrine of inerrancy.
The Impossibility of Avoiding Human Judgment
In briefest terms, my response to the Argument from Human Hubris runs as follows: It is simply not possible to avoid fallible human judgment. Biblical inerrantists, after all, have made a judgment—a fallible human one. They have been presented with the question of what kind of text the Bible is, and how that text is related to the self-disclosure of God. And they have made a judgment with respect to that question—a judgment to the effect that the Doctrine of Plenary Verbal inspiration is true and, by implication, that the alternative views are false (including the progressive Christian view, spelled out in the last post of this series, as well as the atheistic view which treats the entire Bible as a human creation of very limited value, composed at a time when people were steeped in false superstitions).

What distinguishes the inerrantist’s view of the Bible from others is that, once inerrantists have made a judgment to the effect that their view is true, that judgment justifies setting all further human judgments aside in favor of deference to what the Bible says. As a matter of fact, I think that such deference is in principle impossible to carry out, because the nature of the text itself doesn’t lend itself to an inerrantist reading. As such, I believe that the inerrantist is forced into what is really just a pretense of deference.

This pretense masks a pattern of ongoing human judgments about the meaning of the Bible, a pattern whose aim is to wrestle the text (often through selective blindness or creative interpretation) into conformity with the prior human judgment that the text is inerrant (a judgment which entails that the text must, for example, be consistent even when it appears as if a later biblical writer is actually criticizing an earlier one). What this pretense does is hide, at every step, the fact that human judgment is going on. Since this human judgment is hidden, it becomes easier for inerrantists to deny that their beliefs are fallible. The result is a level of confidence in their beliefs that no products of merely human judgment deserve. Such false confidence is, of course, a kind of hubris.

While this is my picture of what is going on with inerrantism, I want to suppose for the sake of argument that inerrantists really can defer consistently to “what the Bible teaches” without smuggling in fallible human judgments left and right. Even if this is so (which I doubt), it will still be the case that inerrantists have made an initial human judgment about the Bible. They have judged the Bible to be the inerrant word of God, and this judgment is itself a fallible human one.

Inerrantists could try to avoid this conclusion by claiming that their belief in biblical inerrancy is really just the outcome of giving themselves over to the urgings of the Holy Spirit, and hence is not the result of a human judgment at all. But this doesn’t free inerrantists from the domain of human judgment. It only moves the judgment up one level. On what basis do they come to believe that their beliefs about the Bible arise from the Holy Spirit rather than from their own heads? Isn’t this a human judgment?

Suppose they possess an inner sense—an immediate feeling—of the Bible’s inerrancy. Isn’t the act of attributing this feeling to the work of the Holy Spirit (rather than, say, treating it as a byproduct of brainwashing at the hands of one’s religious community) a human judgment about its meaning? A fallible one? Perhaps, however, the inerrantist will say that what is immediately experienced, with the vividness of sense perception, is not the inerrancy of the Bible as such. What is immediately experienced in this way is something like the following: “The Holy Spirit is at work within me urging belief in inerrancy.” But either way—whether one has an immediate sense of the Bible’s inerrancy or an immediate sense of the Holy Spirit urging one to believe in the Bible’s inerrancy—there is a human judgment at work.

Here, we need to distinguish between immediate judgments—judgments we make just because they feel right—and mediated judgments that we reach on the basis of other judgments. Even if the judgment is an immediate one, it is still a human judgment. We trust sense perception in an immediate way—in the language I introduced in my second post of this series, our sensory beliefs are “basic.” But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a human judgment at work when I open the fridge and form the belief, on the basis of sense data, that there is only one beer left. What it means is that this is an immediate judgment.

And although sense perception is an inescapable authority in my life, it is fallible. There might, after all, be a second beer hiding behind the ketchup…or someone might have slipped me some hallucinogen shortly before I opened the fridge. This possibility of error doesn’t imply that I shouldn’t put any trust in my senses, and hence fall into radical skepticism. Nor does it imply that, in order to avoid radical skepticism, I should just pretend that my senses are infallible. What it implies, instead, is that while I should trust my senses simply because they feel as if they connect me with a reality beyond myself, I shouldn’t trust them without question. I should be conscious of the fallibility of my senses, and so be conscious of potential “defeaters” for my immediate sensory judgments (where a “defeater” is a good reason to doubt their veridicality).

Given the fallibility of human judgment, the path out of radical skepticism is to trust our immediate judgments just in case, after appropriate investigation, we encounter no defeaters for them (what constitutes “appropriate investigation” depends on context, an issue I touch on briefly in the next section).

It is not appropriate, given the fallibility of human judgment, to fend off skepticism by pretending that no human judgment is being made. While not all biblical inerrantists engage in that sort of pretense, many seem to. But when they do, it is a serious mistake.

In short, the inerrantist cannot escape human judgment any more than the progressive Christian can escape it. Every time the inerrantist defers to the teachings in the Bible (or, as I believe, pretends to defer), a human judgment underlies the act—namely, the judgment that the Bible is inerrant in every part.

I’ve already expressed my own cynical picture of what happens when the inerrantist does this—striving hard to make the text conform to their prior judgment of inerrancy, even if that means doing violence to the real meaning of the text. But rather than focus on defending this negative view of the inerrantist approach to the Bible, I want to explore more fully the significance of the fact that we cannot escape human judgment. More specifically, I want to explore what authentic humility requires of us in the face of this fact.

Religious Fanaticism

In an epistemological universe in which human judgment is impossible to escape, it becomes crucial to consider how best to make those judgments. For the sake of this post, I will take it that one of the criteria that should guide us is humility. Expressed in terms of a negation, we should avoid hubris. What I want to do is consider some examples of undue hubris at work in our judgments, since this may help us get closer to an understanding of what we need to do to avoid such hubris.

We express hubris in at least two ways: we express it when we have more confidence in our own judgments than we should, and we express it when we fail to appreciate that there may be truths that transcend the limits of our faculties which others may be better equipped to ascertain than us.
In my critical engagement with the new atheists and their allies, my focus has been on the latter. I have argued that there is good reason to suppose that there is more to reality than we can discern through the use of our senses and our reason, that there may be dimensions of reality that transcend the reach of even an idealized science. In Kant’s language, our cognitive faculties only give us access to phenomena—things as they appear to is. Nounema—things as they are in themselves—transcend the limits of our cognitive reach. And thus reality in its most fundamental sense defies our cognitive reach.

All of this entails a number of things. First, it means that when it comes to fundamental reality—things as they are in themselves rather than as they impress themselves upon us in ordinary experience—we cannot pretend that human reason and evidence are up to the task of giving us knowledge. What religious traditions have historically claimed is that while we cannot understand or perceive this fundamental reality, we can still encounter it in a “mystical” way. The divine can accomplish what we cannot: while we cannot by our active efforts grasp anything about the infinite, the infinite can reach down to us in ways that bring at least some level of insight. This insight would not come to us through the ordinary cognitive faculties through which we actively investigate our world, but rather through some different kind of consciousness in which we play a more passive role.

According to some (specifically Schleiermacher), this divine self-disclosure is actually a constant feature of our experience--but it is found at the subjective pole of consciousness rather than the objective one: when we become aware of being a unified subject of consciousness, we can sense the ground or root of that subjective existence in an immediate feeling of absolute dependence. The “whence” of this feeling is nothing other than the fundamental reality that lies behind all of experience, and when we immerse ourselves in this feeling we are immediately connected to the source of all being.

I don’t want to argue for the truth of this picture here. What I do want to say is that humility requires us to be open to such possibilities: to the possibility of being connected to and transformed by something greater than ourselves, a truth that defies the limits of our understanding. And if this possibility is real, and there are people who really have been transformed by a vivid consciousness of "the Absolute" or the divine, we should expect their capacity to understand the ordinary field of experience—not so much on the level of its empirical contents but in terms of “what it all means”—to be heightened. In short, we should be open to the possibility of divine revelation inspiring wisdom that exceeds what our ordinary cognitive faculties can tease out of the empirical world—wisdom that is especially salient with respect to how we should live and what we should value.

When I find fault with naturalists, it is with their tendency towards hubris on precisely this point. They are simply not open to the possibility that somewhere within the mess that we call religion, there is this core experience of the transcendent that can be a source of wisdom unattainable through empirical means. The demand for humility on this point is really a species of a broader requirement of humility—namely, that we affirm the possibility of wisdom that exceeds our own and to which we should defer.

I say “affirms the possibility of wisdom that exceeds our own” for the following reason: whenever we actually defer to another’s supposed wisdom, there lies behind that deference a fallible human judgment—to wit, that the one to which we defer really is wiser than we are. The irony here is this: the more foolish we are, the more likely we are to be duped into believing that another fool is truly wise. And so we get cases of fools leading fools. And often the fools who lead, while no more wise than the ones who follow, exceed their followers in selfishness and depravity. The fools who follow are thus led to behaviors far more pernicious than any they would have engaged in on their own.

Imagine a foolish follower of, say, Hitler. Let’s call him Friedrich. Friedrich, while foolish about some things, isn’t foolish about everything. For example, he happens to see nothing wrong with Jews and cannot understand the reasoning behind Hitler’s “Final Solution.” But he has foolishly judged Hitler to be wiser than himself, and so he defers to Hitler’s judgment on this matter even though the things he’s called upon to do strike his own conscience as horrific. He swallows back his horror and does as he is told, confident that Hitler knows something that Friedrich just doesn’t understand.

Were Friedrich a bit more humble, he might have questioned his own judgment that Hitler really deserved such unswerving obedience. Were Friedrich a bit less humble, he might have decided, on the basis of the conflict between Hitler’s judgment and Friedrich’s own, that Hitler was wrong. Either way, Friedrich’s wrong-headed allegiance to Hitler might have been avoided.

What Friedrich exemplifies is a dangerous combination of hubris and humility—dangerous because it primes Friedrich to be the tool of an evil such as Hitler and the Nazis. Friedrich exhibits hubris insofar as he doesn’t question his judgment that Hitler is a wise leader worth following. He exhibits humility insofar as he defers to someone he judges to be wiser than himself, trusting that Hitler understands things he doesn’t understand, and thus setting aside his own judgment concerning the wrongness of herding the Jews off to concentration camps.

Because he’s consistently practicing humility by setting aside his own judgments in favor of those coming down from the Nazi authorities, Friedrich may see nothing but the humility, never even noticing the hubris that lies behind it. And when he looks at an old classmate who’s joined the resistance, it may be that all he can see is the pride that this classmate is showing through his willingness to put his judgment above the Fuhrer’s wisdom.

I think something like this is going on in the case of religious fanaticism. At least in one useful sense of the term, religious fanatics are those who combine an unquestioning submission to God’s Word with a refusal to recognize that their beliefs about God’s Word could be wrong. They possess this deadly combination of humility and arrogance that hermetically seals them from all reason and evidence and can lead them to perform the most horrific crimes in the name of God.

Imagine a group of fanatics who believe that God has commanded them to kill all the infants in a nearby village—an act which has every outward appearance of being irrational. If fanatics were less humble, they might challenge God—arguing with Him (as Abraham is reported to have done prior to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah), rejecting His command on the grounds that it makes no sense. If they were less arrogant, they might question themselves—that is, they might doubt their belief that God really commanded such a terrible thing. But they are too humble to do the former and too arrogant to do the latter (an arrogance that goes unnoticed by the fanatic because it is masked behind the more obvious humility). The combination is deadly.

Among the beliefs about God’s Word that could generate this dangerous fantacism is the belief that a particular person or institution…or text…speaks inerrantly for God. If the judgment to this effect is mistaken, but the person isn’t open to the possibility of error, then the person will invest a fallible person or institution or text with the kind of authority that only an omniscient and eternal God could possess.

Hence, with beliefs of this sort, an attitude of presumptive skepticism is justified. Even if these beliefs feel intuitively right to the person who ascribes to them, these sorts of beliefs aren’t “innocent”—the costs of believing them in error are potentially grave.

And when this is so, we cannot legitimately treat such beliefs as “properly basic”—a point that I don’t think Plantinga sufficiently emphasized in developing his “reformed epistemology.” To put it simply, context matters. And sometimes, given the context, an immediately intuited belief—one that “just seems right” in the manner of sense perception—could bring grave harms if believed falsely. When this is so, the burden of proof ramps up. In other words, while I think there is merit to Plantinga’s idea that basic beliefs besides the ones endorsed in classical epistemology have a claim on being “properly basic,” one of the criteria for such proper basicality is what I am calling innocence.

In fact, an earlier version of this post included a lengthy section in which I formally develop my critical revision of Plantinga, under the heading of “Reitan’s Pragmatically Modified Reformed Epistemology”—but while helpful in its own way for fully appreciating my reasoning, it was quite technical and it took the post too far off topic. And so I will develop it more fully as its own post later on (or, perhaps, in the article I’ve been meaning to write on the topic for awhile now).

For now, I simply want to stress the following: Hubris exists any time you trust one of your judgments more than you should in the given context. I am arguing here that the judgment that the Bible is inerrant is non-innocent. Hence, if you believe it just because it seems right to you, you are trusting your immediate judgment more than you ought to in this case. For inerrantism to be legitimate, inerrantists needs to meet a substantial burden of proof. “It feels right” is insufficient to meet this burden. And unless the burden is met, biblical inerrantism is in danger of becoming religious fanaticism.

The Case of Homosexuality

If anyone doubts that belief in biblical inerrancy is non-innocent, I invite you to view the documentary film, “For the Bible Tells Me So,” as well as other resources that offer a first-person portrait of what it is like to be gay (and, more specifically, how religious condemnations of homosexuality impact the lives of gays and lesbians).
I think the film demonstrates two things very well. First, there are serious hypothetical costs to treating the Bible as inerrant on the matter of homosexuality. Specifically, if the Bible is not correct on this issue, then treating it as if it is can and does do harm to gays and lesbians. Second, the costs are not merely hypothetical. Living as if the doctrine of biblical inerrancy were true has discernible costs, sometimes crushingly tragic ones, for actual human relationships involving gays and lesbians.

These bitter costs speak, I think, against the truth of the doctrine that generates them. But whether or not you agree with me on this point, it is hard to insist upon the non-innocence of biblical inerrancy if one takes a serious and unblinkered look at the pragmatic implications that allegiance to this doctrine has for gays and lesbians (and their loved ones) in the real world.

Whatever good is thought to come from the categorical condemnation of homosexuality is largely theoretical in character. The costs, however, are part of the immediate field of moral experience. That is, the kinds of effects produced by allegiance to this teaching are the sort that our immediate and pervasive moral intuitions would judge to be bad in the absence of any theoretic allegiance that would override our immediate moral experience. The effects I’m talking about are such things as emotional anguish and self-loathing, broken relationships, alienation from communities of origin, and suicidal depression.

Now blame for these effects can, of course, be shifted away from the doctrine of biblical inerrancy and put on the shoulders of gays and lesbians themselves: it is their sinful resistance to submitting themselves to the will of God that is causing all the trouble.

But here’s the problem with that move. As I’ve argued elsewhere, careful attention to the lived experience of our gay and lesbian neighbors teaches that there is a strong anti-evangelical effect to the idea that God categorically condemns homosexuality. It does not bring gays and lesbians closer to God. Rather, the overwhelming majority of gays and lesbians who are religious describe their relationship with God as damaged by the teaching that God condemns their sexuality. And it is typically only after they cast this teaching aside that they finally find themselves able to enter into a positive spiritual relationship with the divine. The kind of religious experience that most Christians would regard as healthy is found, not among gays and lesbians who internalize the categorical condemnation of homosexuality, but among those who set it aside as a false teaching.

Careful study of ex-gay ministries only seems to reinforce this conclusion, at least in my judgment: ex-gays who have left the movement describe their experiences in terms of living under a yoke of self-denial that leads to false consciousness. Such false consciousness effects every aspect of their lives, turning their religious life into a pretense or an artificial mantle of self-righteousness rather than a living, loving relationship with the transcendent. For gays and lesbians, the path to the latter seems to require a kind of self-acceptance that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy precludes.

But biblical inerrantism teaches that gays and lesbians need to suppress their sexuality in order to have a right relationship with God. In short, this doctrine has implications that are directly at odds with the lived spiritual experience of gays and lesbians. Now, it is always possible to ignore or dismiss their experience, to explain it away…but to do so out of deference to biblical authority is to place enormous confidence in one’s own human judgment that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is true--so confident that one’s judgment becomes immune even to the most anguished cries of our gay and lesbian neighbors.

Is such confidence justified, or is it hubris?

On a more basic level, the question is this: how can we show humility in the face of the inevitability of human judgment? This is what I turn to next.

True Humility

True humility involves, as I have argued, being open to the possibility of a transcendent reality touching and transforming us in ways that offer wisdom unattainable through our ordinary cognitive faculties. But any time that we decide that this person or that text contains such transcendent wisdom, or that this personal experience was an encounter with the transcendent, we are making a fallible human judgment. If we make the further judgment that this person or text or experience is inerrant and so worthy of complete deference, we thereby silence our critical faculties in ways that prevent any error in this judgment from being corrected. But since this judgment could be in error, hermetically sealing it from the possibility of subsequent correction is very dangerous—so dangerous, in fact, that I question whether our limited human faculties could ever provide enough evidence to meet the burden of proof that is required.

But none of this entails that we cannot believe we have encountered a divine revelation that offers wisdom beyond what our limited faculties can discern. What it does entail is that any such belief must be held to fallibilistically—that is, with an acknowledgment of the fallibility of the human judgment that gave rise to it. Such fallibility is acknowledged only when you adopt a posture such that you are open to being proved wrong. And since a doctrine of inerrancy demands the kind of absolute deference that blocks subsequent correction, ascribing inerrancy to some authority is incompatible with a fallibilist posture.

For practical purposes, when you declare that some book or institution or experience is inerrant, you are insisting that your own judgment to that effect must be inerrant as well. This is hubris.

One way to avoid such hubris is to refuse to even consider the possibility that there may be a transcendent reality that has revealed itself in the world, a revelation that makes possible wisdom than we could not have achieved on our own. But for practical purposes, this amounts to refusing to consider the possibility that there is wisdom greater than our own to which we should defer. This, too, is a kind of hubris (although perhaps a less dangerous kind).

So what is the path of true humility? It should come as a surprise to no one that I think the progressive Christian approach to the Bible, described in my last post, offers one way of steering a course between these species of hubris. This progressive approach does not preclude the view that humanity has encountered revelations that transcend what our faculties could discern on their own. It does not preclude the critical, reflective decision to believe that such revelations have impacted the ideas expressed in a book such as the Bible, if only we can distinguish between the influence of that transcendent reality and the limiting influence of the finite human recipients.

But it does preclude treating the text as inerrant. And it does require that any provisional judgment about transcendent revelation be lived out critically, with an openness to being proved wrong.

Since this has become another long post, I should end here. But I want to offer a more general account of true humility, of which progressive Christianity at its best is but one species. In general terms, the path of true humility calls us to render judgments only provisionally. We must never close off a judgment and say that it is final, that it is beyond all possibility of mistake. That is arrogance. We must be willing to consider objections. We must be so suspicious of our own intellects that we honestly and humbly check and recheck our reasoning for mistakes. When we encounter new insights that haven’t occurred to us before, and that challenge our original judgment, we must be prepared to lay aside all pride-induced attachments to our original view. We must, in short, be philosophers in the grand tradition of Socrates.

Richard Dawkins, of course, would have no objection to this. But there is something more that is called for by the path of humility, something that Dawkins doesn’t do. True humility requires us to admit that reality may transcend the limits of the human intellect and our sensory faculties. And so, real humility requires us to be open to being moved by the transcendent, by what our intellects and our senses cannot discern. Such openness, such quiet waiting for the transcendent to seize us, is another name for prayer.

And humility requires not merely that we be prayerful, but that we take seriously the ideas and insights of others who appear to exhibit such prayerfulness in combination with the humble rigors of a philosopher. In short, true humility calls us to be prayerful philosophers in a community of prayerful philosophers.

Now I happen to be a professional philosopher who prays. But what I am advocating here isn’t that everyone become like me. First of all, the ideal I am envisioning here is one to which I can only aspire. I cannot pretend to be as humble as I think I ought to be in my intellectual struggles, no can I pretend to be as prayerful.

Secondly, there are different ways of embodying philosophical virtues, and what I am advocating here is not just what we find in the profession of philosophy (in which these virtues are inevitably corrupted by the competition and ambition, the turf wars and the jealousies, that tend to characterize the professions). The kind of philosophical thinking I am advocating is something I’ve found embodied in adult church groups whose participants have been plumbers and school teachers and poets and physicians. It has nothing to do with professional training.

Rather, it is about thoughtful conversations with others, in which listening carefully (especially to criticism) is as important as thinking and expressing oneself carefully. And it is about doing so in a spirit of openness to being moved by that which transcends us.

As ever, of course, I could be wrong.


Just completed part IV of my series on biblical inerrancy. As usual, I composed it in Microsoft Word. Then I copied it with the intent to paste it into this blog page--and the program will not let me do it.

I just updated my version of Explorer. Not sure if this is the source of the problem. I tried to do it with Firefox and that didn't work either. There simply will not recognize "paste" as a legitimate option when I am on the blog page.

I do not have time to mess with this much more today, and I ABSOLUTELY do not have time to rewrite the whole thing...and my schedule is filled to the gills between now and when I leave town next week for a three week vacation. So, all I can say is...Aaaaack!

Hopefully you will see this post soon. But if I don't figure out what's wrong before leaving town, you may see nothing for at least a month.

Wish me a happy birthday...