Faith, reason, and the meaning of life


John Haldane, who is Professor of Philosophy at the University of St Andrews, argues that the current intellectual orthodoxy that religious faith is irrational is itself ill-founded. Old-style arguments for the existence of God are still viable and attempts to suggest that science eliminates religion are fallacious.

For most of the last two thousand years philosophy and religion have coexisted fairly happily together. Indeed a number of the greatest philosophers in the Western tradition have also been theologically minded. The list includes the following: Augustine, Avicenna, Anselm, Maimonides, Aquinas, Bonaventure, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Kant, Reid, Hegel and Kierkegaard. Yet today only a small minority of leading philosophers believe in God. I shall try to say why that is so and assess whether the current situation indicates that faith is contrary to reason.

Before that, however, I need to say why belief was previously more widespread among philosophers. One might suppose that the answer is a general cultural one. In the past people were more disposed to belief than they are today; philosophers share the general outlook of their times; hence it is to be expected that in more religious times more of them will have been religious. Setting aside the question of whether philosophers do in fact share the beliefs of their cultures and times, the answer given is somewhat regressive. For it invites the further question of why in the past people in general were more disposed to religious belief than is the case today.

The change is due principally, I think, to the impact of natural science and the ways of thinking to which it has given rise. About twenty years after the crucifixion St Paul wrote his Letter to the Romans in which we read the following: What can be known about God is plain to men for God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made (Rom 1:19-20).

Paul is not so much offering a proof here as reminding his readers of something they already accept. However, reasoning to the existence of God based on the wonder of nature was common in antiquity and would have been known to Paul and to educated Roman Jews and converts. For example, in his dialogue On the Nature of the Gods (De natura deorum) composed around 45 BC but set some thirty years earlier, Cicero has the Stoic philosopher Quintus Lucillus Balbus speak as follows:

The point seems scarcely to need affirming. What can be so obvious and clear, as we gaze up at the sky and observe the heavenly bodies, as that there is some divine power of surpassing intelligence by which they are ordered? (The Nature of the Gods, translated by P.G. Walsh (Oxford: Clarendon, 1997) Bk 2, 4.)

In the centuries that followed, Jewish, Christian and Islamic thinkers developed a number of arguments designed to prove the existence of God. The ambition was to start with claims that are evident to any thoughtful person and to show that these entail (in the sense of logically imply) the existence of a creator. The most famous presentation of such arguments is to be found in the first part (Prima pars) of Aquinas' Summa theologiae where St Thomas sets out the five ways (quinque viae). My impression is while many educated people, including philosophy and theology graduates, recognise the phrase 'the five ways' very few have actually read the text. This is probably because it is expected that the proofs are forbiddingly difficult to understand or that they are expressed at great length and in strange language.

In fact the arguments are presented in the course of a couple of pages; and in a translation that glosses technical terms they are not very hard to comprehend. Here, for example, are extracts from Aquinas' first and fifth ways as translated in recent times by Timothy McDermott:

The first and most obvious way is based on change. We see things changing. Now anything changing is being changed by something else... This something else, if itself changing, is being changed by yet another thing; and this last by another. Now we must stop somewhere, otherwise there will be no first cause of the change, and, as a result, no subsequent causes... We arrive then at some first cause of change not itself being changed by anything, and this is what everybody understands by God...

The fifth way is based on the guidedness of nature. Goal-directed behaviour is observed in all bodies obeying natural laws, even when they lack awareness. Their behaviour hardly ever varies and practically always turns out well... but nothing lacking awareness can tend to a goal except through direction by someone with awareness and understanding everything in nature, therefore, is directed to its goal by someone with understanding, and this we call God. (St Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologiae: A Concise Translation, edited by T. McDermott (London: Methuen, 1989, pp.12-14).

Very broadly speaking, arguments from the world to God come in two forms. First, those which reason from the existence of something that might not have been to the existence of something that is necessary - these are grouped under the heading cosmological arguments. Second, those which reason from the orderly character of things to the existence of a designer - these are classified as teleological arguments. In crude forms, arguments of both sorts can be found in antiquity and they became popular in the Middle Ages when they were also carefully refined. They continued to be favoured by philosophers through until the eighteenth century. Thereafter, however, they came to be questioned and today they are highly contested.

There are several reasons for this decline in standing but I shall mention only two. The first is that in the medieval and early modern periods they were very ambitiously presented as deductive demonstrations. That is to say it was held that their premises were entirely evident and hence beyond doubt, and that the inference from these to the conclusion that God exists was unquestionable. The general effect of scepticism developed in modern philosophy and largely maintained ever since has been to cause philosophers and others to dispute whether any statement is beyond doubt or contention. Also, it has come to be held that there could be other explanations of the phenomena cited (whether we know what these explanations might be is another matter) and hence the very most that could be said is that these phenomena are more likely to have been produced by God than to have arisen naturally.

Consider, for example standard forms of (A) cosmological and (B) teleological arguments:

1.Some things change.
2.If any things change then there must be an uncaused cause of change.
3.Therefore there is an uncaused cause of change.


1.Some things exhibit regularity.
2.If any things exhibit regularity then there must be an uncreated designer.
3.Therefore there is an uncreated designer.

It might be thought that the first premise in each argument is indeed beyond dispute, but that fails to take account of the ingenuity of scepticism and other philosophical querying of the apparently evident. More significantly the second premise in each case is nowadays quite widely challenged. This is due, I suggest, to the influence of scientific thought.

To begin with the second argument, whereas it was once thought to be the case that the regularity of the tides, seasons, planetary motions, and so on, and the existence and operation of organs that benefit the animals that possess them, could only be explained by reference to an extra-natural source of order, these assumptions are now taken to be disproved by theoretical physics and Darwinian evolutionary theory. This is not the occasion to pursue these matters in detail but let me offer a couple of comments in defence of the theological proofs (I explore these issues at much greater length in my half of J.J.C. Smart and J.J. Haldane, Atheism and Theism 'Great Debates in Philosophy' (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997)).

The regularity evident in the universe from the macroscopic to the microscopic levels is well attested. Even quantum phenomena exhibit significant statistical patterns. Although it may not be determinate when a microphysical particle will be emitted, the fact is that this remains within a range of probability that renders the effects systematic. So, whether we are dealing with determinate or probabilistic propensities we still find nature to be orderly and this is not self-explanatory. It may be said that were it not orderly there would have been a cosmic collapse and certainly we would not have existed to raise our questions. If this is so it hardly eliminates the wonder. Our existence allows the fact of natural order to be observed but had we not existed that order would remain. The issue of the origin of order is a real one. Either we look for an explanation or we say in advance that there is none to be found. Adopting the first option it is hard to see what the conclusion could be save that order results from the activity of a creator. Adopting the second involves a markedly unscientific assumption. It ill suits the scientifically minded, therefore, to say that belief in a creator is incompatible with the scientific outlook.

The Darwinian challenge to natural theology is more limited in scope, but it has been much more extensive in effect. Unlike the previous notion it does not (at least in Darwin's own version) challenge the claim that there is regularity, but only questions the suggestion that the utility of organic features calls for a divine explanation. Instead, it postulates random mutation among species groups, plus natural selection in virtue of the adaptive utility of mutant features given current environments. Thus, if some populations sprout hair and this offers protection against heat or cold then, ceteris paribus, these animals are more likely to survive and breed, and this or related features among their descendent groups will again be selected. On it goes and by stages emerge highly adapted animals such as ourselves. Wonderful to contemplate and not difficult to explain.

So it is assumed. In fact, however, evolutionary explanations are far from compelling. First there are features whose adaptive utility is difficult to demonstrate - such as consciousness, an aptitude for philosophy, theology and other abstract thought; and second and more theoretically problematic is the fact that the very process of evolution seems to require non-evolved features, principally the power of reproduction. No one supposes that one species evolves from another by a single step. Rather the idea is that there is 'cumulative selection': progressive sifting and sorting as the product of one phase of selection is subjected to another environmental test. This supposes that there is already in place some form of reproduction possessed by the original and successor generations. Yet it is an adaptive feature to be explained by selection no less than others. But how can it be? Selection operates over generations and successive generations only come into being through the replicative powers of their ancestors. These powers cannot themselves be the product of cumulative selection and so their existence remains to be explained. Contemporary science offers no explanation; but theism can and does in terms of God bestowing reproductive powers on parts of his creation.

Nothing said above is hostile to science. The point is only that while science is good at giving explanations of events and circumstances within nature it is not equipped to explain the preconditions of the possibility of there being a natural order or of its containing reproductive organisms. The implication is not that science should be rejected but that the attempt to reject rational faith on the basis of purported 'scientific world' view is bogus. I am claiming therefore that there is life in the old arguments for the existence of God and that believers should equip themselves to defend their faith on the basis of reasoning that has the power to elicit respect from the genuinely scientifically minded.

What then, and finally, of faith itself? There is a style of argument much favoured in the last century and in the first half of this, that seeks to explain belief away by showing - or claiming to show - that it is the effect of certain natural causes. Examples of this tendency are theories in sociology that religion exists to serve certain social functions, in psychology that belief is the effect of infantile formation and a means of psychological defence against the fact of death, and in economics that it is one of the tools by which a privileged minority keeps in check an exploited majority. Such diagnoses are open to two objections. First, there is the question of their plausibility as explanations. When one looks hard at the facts of religious belief and practice it is hard to credit them. Those who believe in God often give reasons that have weight quite independently of the believers' social, psychological and economic circumstances. There is not even any interesting correlation between faith and believers' social, psychological and economic situation.

Second, even if there were statistically significant patterns these would not show that faith is unwarranted. To suppose otherwise is to commit one or other (or both) of a pair of errors in reasoning: the genetic and the effective fallacies. The former errs by supposing that because a belief has a cause it cannot also be true; the second by assuming that any claim to truth is undermined by the belief having certain beneficial effects. If asked why I believe that the cube root of 27 is 3 or that the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides, my honest answer is that these are things I was taught. Does the fact that this may be true, or that it might be the case that incidental benefits accrue from such commitments, detract from the justifiability of my beliefs? Clearly not: it is one question why someone believes that p, it is another whether p is true or defensible.

I am a professional philosopher who believes in the existence of the God of the Christian creed. My beliefs are the product of a certain upbringing: a devout and charitable mother raised in the warmth of Catholicism; a devoted and serious father raised in the piety of Presbyterianism and subsequently a convert to Rome; nine years of Jesuit education, followed by twelve years of higher education in art school and university. Is my faith reasonable? Obviously I think it to be so but many if not most of my colleagues would deny this. Why is that? Clearly it is not a matter of intelligence. A religious believer is not, as such, any more or any less intellectually competent than an atheist or an agnostic. I suppose I would say that my colleagues have not enjoyed the benefits of membership of a faith community and they would say that I have suffered the indoctrinating effects of one.

Against backgrounds of this and related sorts is there any way to make progress? What it is reasonable to believe at the most general level is what, all things in one's experience and extended knowledge considered, best makes sense. The older I become, the more I experience, the more I learn, the more I see religion as providing not the content but the context of life. Here is one point at which the secular atheist is at a disadvantage. Those of faith have available to them an account of what things in their particularity and in their generality mean, and they can find both immediate and ultimate point in doing what they can where they can. I am not at all sure that when push comes to shove the same can be said of the non-believer. So I end where, proverbially, philosophy begins - with the question of the meaning of life, and with the suggestion that only the believer can show that this question is an appropriate one and that it has an answer. That being, in the words of the Catechism, to know, to love and to serve God.

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