Monday, November 7, 2011

From the Archives: Some Reflections on Kierkegaard

Having missed my classes last week due to my father's passing, I'm a bit behind--especially in my philosophy religion class, since we could find a substitute for only one of the days I was out of town. Since one of the topics that was slated for discussion last week was Kierkegaard's fideism, I can make up at least some of the lost class time by directing my students to this blog post from the archives--an explication and reflection on Kierkegaard's fideism. And so I reproduce it here.

Fideism is generally defined as the thesis that it is sometimes appropriate (especially in relation to ultimate matters pertaining to the fundamental nature of reality and the meaning of our lives) to believe something on faith rather than based on reason and evidence, perhaps even in the teeth of reason and evidence.

What this means depends on what we take believing something “on faith” to mean. In practice if not in theory, believing something “on faith” often ends up meaning essentially the same as believing it “just because” (where there is absolutely nothing after the “because”), and doing so with complete certainty that one is right (again, with no foundation at all). Typically, the believer then adds that this conviction is due to God implanting it, even though one has no reason to think that God implanted it.

Understood in this sense, if I happen to believe that the entire population of African elephants is right at this moment flying around inside my refrigerator, then so long as I have no reason and evidence for believing this but remain firm in my belief, and so long as I insist that I believe it because God implanted the belief in me (even though I have no reason at all for thinking that this is true), then I am believing it on faith. Seen in this light, it becomes a challenge to justify the worth that is so often attached to believing something on faith.

But this isn’t Kierkegaard’s fideism. In fact, if fideism is defined in terms of believing things without evidence, I think one misses Kierkegaard’s point altogether. Because for Kierkegaard, faith isn’t really about what you believe at all. In fact, so long as what you care the most about is the content of your belief, faith in Kierkegaard’s sense has eluded you.

Consider an analogy. Suppose you meet someone for whom you feel an immediate attraction. You go on a few dates. You start to fall in love. In fact, you feel yourself falling hard. But then you pause and ask yourself, “Who is this person, really? Does she deserve my love? Is she the kind of person with whom I can sustain a long-term relationship?” Suppose you take these questions seriously and so back off from your burgeoning feelings so as to get an appropriately objective perspective. You investigate her history, interview her friends and her boss at work, all the while not letting your feelings for her color what you hear, since you want to get a wholly objective picture. Finally, through this process, you come to know more facts about her than virtually any other person alive.

But, of course, at this point the rhythm of love has been shattered. You have no romantic feelings for her anymore because you’ve stifled them in favor of a wholly objective consideration of what is true and false about her. Likewise, in the process of doing this, she’s sensed your withdrawal and moved on emotionally. Even should you decide from what you learn that a love relationship with her might be a good idea “on paper,” the very process of pursuing such an investigation has killed any chance of having such a love relationship in fact. Furthermore, the things you learn through such an objective investigation are the wrong things in any event. What really matters for whether a love relationship is possible depends on what you learn through relating to her as a lover.

When it comes to the ultimate nature of reality, Kierkegaard thinks something along the same lines is the case. Kierkegaard tells us that “the highest truth is that the knower is an existing subject,” by which he means that the most important thing for me to know is that I am a subject of experiences with a life to live and relationships to form. One of those relationships is with reality—with the world around me as it truly is. But if I investigate the world objectively and dispassionately, in order to collect all the right facts about it, I become like the deluded fool who squashes any chance at actually being in love with a real person because he is too focused on collecting all those facts that can only be collected by setting passionate interest aside.

The real truth about me is that I am a creature who cares passionately, and to be true to myself, I must live passionately in relation to the world. If I squash that passion in favor of objectivity, I stifle the truth about me and so fail to live the truth—all for the sake of collecting propositions that are more likely to be objectively factual. I end up living a life that is utterly false to what it means to be the kind of being I am—and my consolation is a collection of facts.

Consider the following passage from Kierkegaard (in which Kierkegaard is assuming for the sake of argument what he will readily admit is unknowable, namely that the Christian God is the true God—that, in other words, what Christians believe is true):

If one who lives in a Christian culture goes up to God’s house, the house of the true God, with a true conception of God, with knowledge of God and prays—but prays in a false spirit; and one who lives in an idolatrous land prays with the total passion of the infinite, although his eyes rest on the image of an idol; where is there most truth? The one prays in truth to God, although he worships an idol. The other prays in untruth to the true God and therefore really worships an idol.

Kierkegaard frames the question in terms of objectivity and subjectivity—such that believing the correct doctrines is characterized as the objective side of faith, while believing in the right way, with the right kind of passion and love and attention to one’s relationship with the object of devotion, is the subjective side. I think this characterization may actually be misleading, because in reality both of these aspects of faith are subjective. Believing the right doctrines is a subjective achievement. My beliefs are a subjective matter, and hence believing in the truth is one dimension of having the “right” kind of subjective relationship to the truth. The other dimension is having the right kind of passion, the right kind of attitude, towards the object of belief.

The objective reality—such as the truth about God, about whether God exists at all and what He is like—is a different matter than how closely my beliefs correspond with this truth. And it may well be the case (as Kierkegaard seems to think) that it is impossible to ascertain how closely my beliefs about God correspond to reality. But that, of course, is Kierkegaard’s point: If I devote myself to this question, and to the task of bringing my beliefs about ultimately reality into alignment with ultimate reality as it is in itself, I am devoting myself to a task that, when pursued dispassionately, becomes a distraction from living life (which is passionate). And since this question about ultimate reality is unanswerable, a commitment to answering it before I decide what attitude to adopt towards the universe and how to live my life amounts to the decision to refuse to live a human life at all.

Now I think there’s something to all of this—but I want to make several qualifications. First, sometimes an objective study of something can be an expression of one’s passionate devotion. Because I love my wife, I pay attention to little details about how she moves, about the inflections of her voice. I want to hold these things in my heart accurately, and so there are moments when I attend so closely to her that I lose sight of myself for awhile. Likewise, the best scientists are full of wonder at the physical world—and their devotion to describing it accurately is a manifestation of that passion.

Second, our beliefs affect our attitudes and passions (and, of course, our attitudes and passions affect what we believe). We cannot cleanly separate the two. If I come to believe that my wife has cheated on me or that she disdains me, that would affect our relationship. If I come to believe that God is indifferent to human needs and human suffering—even that God is cruel and hateful—these beliefs will almost certainly impact my attitude towards God. It will be hard to sustain a passionate devotion in the light of these beliefs. More to the point, such devotion would be unfitting.

While it is true that a focus on dispassionately collecting facts about a potential romantic partner is inimical to actually having a romantic relationship, it also true that some people are blinded by their passions and so fail to see ugly truths about the object of their devotion—and their love is thereby rendered pathetic or even dangerous.

And when it comes to loving reality as it is in itself, such love is hardly being expressed when one unswervingly clings to certain beliefs about reality and loves them with all the passion of the infinite while ignoring reasons to doubt their veracity. In that case, the object of love has become one’s own picture of reality. One has become an idolater.

So how are we to pursue the balancing act between believing the right things about ourselves, others, and reality, and living the right way in relation to all of these things? I think Kierkegaard may be best understood as a kind of pragmatist—but not Pascal’s kind. Pascal saw faith as a betting game, in which you bet on the side which offers the highest payoff and the lowest risk. But for Kierkegaard, the proper analogy is not that offered by the betting table, in which you calculate which is your safest bet. Rather, it is that little table in the bistro, sitting across from someone you think you might be falling in love with, aware of the risks and costs of giving your heart in error, but prepared, for the sake of living life, to take the leap.

But if that is the right analogy, then what are the implications for how we construe reality at the most fundamental level, for what kind of meaning we attach to our lives, and for our decisions about the kind of life we forge? Surely it's not blind and unwavering dogmatism, but rather a habit of learning from one's leaps.

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