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Thinking About Dexter

If you had the skill, opportunity, and will to kill murderers that the police were unable to catch, would you? Before answering too quickly, suppose one of the murderers you were stalking killed one of your children, or a spouse, or a parent. Suppose the police, after investigating the murder for months, closed the case as unsolved. Suppose further you had excellent information that led you to be very confident that you knew the identity of the murderer but the information you possess would never stand up in court. Does this make a difference in how you would act? Should it?

The Table Talk series examines philosophical ideas that are discussed in everyday settings whether it is at the dinner table, the water cooler, the kid’s soccer game, or on your pillow. Table Talk has covered topics such as common sense, the importance of religion, personal privacy, and the existence of God. Thankfully, the topics seem endless.

I became aware of an interesting conversation recently that focused on whether it is appropriate to watch the highly acclaimed TV series Dexter. There were many mixed feelings among the interlocutors involved. For those who are not familiar with the show, it is about a young man named Dexter Morgan who is a blood spatter analyst for the Miami Police Department. Dexter moonlights as a serial killer who is governed by a code created by his adoptive father, Harry, who was a Miami cop himself before he passed away. The code is called the “code of Harry.” Harry recognized that Dexter, at an early age, had a propensity to kill and Harry trained him to kill other murderers who were never caught. This code was implemented to help Dexter not get caught and to help Dexter live a somewhat normal life.

This hugely popular show is suspenseful and intriguing and produces a number of questions. For some, it even poses a moral dilemma: is it ethical for someone to watch and enjoy a show that portrays a serial killer in a somewhat friendly moral light? Is Dexter truly carrying out justice? Isn’t Dexter saving other innocent lives by taking known murderers off the street? Does this justify his lifestyle? These questions raise a variety of philosophical issues.

At the heart of the matter lie two significant issues. First, films and TV shows have an enormous ability to shape culture thus serving as an important medium for the transmission of ideas into society. Second, the entertainment produced by Dexter is “entertainment by way of mass murder” as coined by Mark Vernon of The School of Life in London, UK. The former has implications for the importance of examining philosophical ideas propagated by films and TV shows. The latter proclaims that Dexter is truly meant for entertaining a TV audience although this form of entertainment is not accepted by all. These two ideas serve as the launching pad for the variety of philosophical issues brought about by this hugely popular TV series.

Arguably, one of the most fascinating and appealing elements of the show must be the sense of justice (if it truly is justice) that is felt by audiences as they watch Dexter eliminate murderers who have never been caught or who were acquitted. Dexter seems to “fill in the cracks” left by our legal system. Not only is this highly entertaining to some but, more importantly, it may be morally satisfactory. Let’s not kid ourselves, although Dexter believes that he is balancing the scales of justice, his greater concern is satisfying his lust for murder. However, fans of the show will be moved by his elimination of murderers who they feel should not be running around the streets scot-free. Although they intend it as entertainment, the creators and writers of Dexter depend on an important philosophical assumption in order to make this TV series popular: the notion that criminal injustices occur in American society and the fact that there probably is a resultant disillusionment by the populace towards the American legal system. This concept carries the appeal of the show to its fans. This philosophical underpinning is necessary for the popularity of this TV series.

Whether the creators and writers of the series use this intentionally is another issue altogether, but they do utilize the notion (not a universal notion) that the legal system has its shortcomings and disappoints some. This is why some fans can watch and tolerate the vigilantism displayed on the show. Moreover, Dexter does not employ a blatant “slasher” motif. It does not have the feel or visual dynamics of a typical gore or slasher film like Halloween or Friday the 13th. The actual time devoted to the acts of homicide is very small; much more time is spent on the existential issues such as relationships and personal choices and the resultant ethical implications. These elements along with Dexter’s plot to remain undercover are another fascinating aspect of the TV series.

Philosophically speaking, there still remains questions to be answered such as the morality of watching Dexter and the notion of justice promoted by the character of Dexter Morgan. Ethically, some question whether they should view—and by implication—support such programming. This is an ethical concern because they feel that, by watching the TV series, they may be condoning the behavior of Dexter Morgan, the serial killer. It at least sounds legitimate. On one hand, Dexter can contain humorous moments which tend to lighten the otherwise weighty subject matter. On the other hand, the calculated and uncaring Dexter Morgan murders people. It is easy to see why this can pose a moral dilemma for some people-entertainment on one hand but murderous actions on the other. Providing a fool-proof response to this is not easy.

Cultural relativists may argue that if it is not harmful to the individual then it is okay to watch. Virtue ethicists may argue that watching a homicidal vigilante will not cultivate the proper virtues in life. Kantians may argue that you can only watch Dexter if the moral principle you employ that enables you to watch it can be considered a universal law. Despite all this, what about schadenfreude, German for delight felt at the failings and sufferings of others? Certainly not all fans of Dexter succumb to schadenfreude when they watch Dexter but for those who watch to simply revel at the sight of others suffering, certainly seems to present a problematic moral situation.

Regarding the notion of justice on the show, there are numerous ethical theories that can be applied here such as Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative or John Stuart Mill’s greatest happiness principle. But the one ethical theory, specifically a theory of justice, that stands out in the life of Dexter Morgan is retributivism. According to Thom Brooks, Reader in Legal and Political Philosophy at University of Newcastle (UK), retributivism “holds that criminals should be punished to a degree equal to what they deserve.” This certainly sounds like the “code of Harry” and retributivism is something that many people would agree with because, at face value, it seems to be a system where criminals get what they deserve. What better way than for the punishment of the murderers to be equal to their crime? Dexter is simply giving those murderers what they deserve. Is this justice? Well, for one thing, it is not that simple to assess the values of crimes and punishment. But murder seems simple enough, right? You kill someone then the punishment deserved is to be killed yourself. No, it is not that simple. Thom Brooks brings up an interesting objection in his essay for the book, Metallica and Philosophy:

“If murder is the worst crime and the death is the worst punishment, then the punishment fits the crime. But, then again, maybe the worst punishment is being tortured, hung, drawn, and quartered, before being bled to death in front of an angry mob. Why not set this worst punishment “equal” to murder? There is a simple answer: most people find this kind of thing barbaric and evil…We do not impose the worst punishment imaginable on the worst crimes imaginable because we do not want to treat people-even murderers-in that way. It has nothing to do with making a punishment “equal” to the crime. It is instead about fit: a punishment should fit our intuitive sense of what is legitimate and justified for a crime.”

This is an eye-opening argument from Brooks.  This argument can easily be applied to the show. Despite this, there is probably a diversity of views regarding the notion of justice on Dexter. No matter which side you fall on, it is important that we think about Dexter. While all crimes are horrific in their own way, murder has a permanence about it that sets it apart from everything else humans do to one another. Dexter plays on that sense of permanence and draws us into the philosophical question: how ought we to live.

Is Faith Practical?

“Knowledge about life is one thing; effective occupation of a place in life, with its dynamic currents passing through your being, is another.” – William James

Napoleon Bonaparte is said to have remarked, “Nothing is more difficult, and therefore more precious, than to be able to decide.” Making a decision is difficult for many of us because most of the time we need to do so without having all the information necessary to make a choice that anticipates all outcomes and addresses all possible questions. I was reminded of this recently while giving my daughter a driving lesson. About to pull onto a busy road, she asked me whether it was safe to go. I evaluated the environment and, while a few vehicles were approaching some distance away in the right-hand lane, I anticipated that she had enough time to pull out safely and told her to go ahead. As she began to pull forward, I saw a altlarge pickup speeding past the other cars in the left-hand lane rapidly approach our entry point. But it was too late--she was committed. She cut off the driver in the truck and after I uttered a choice word or two, she scolded me for my obviously faulty advice. After we both calmed down, I explained to her that driving often involves making split-second decisions and often having to adjust to a rapidly-changing situation. I later realized that the near accident was my fault, not because I misjudged the situation, but because I attempted to make the judgment at all. As the driver, the decision should have been hers and she should have gone when she judged it was safe.

In his fine book, The Metaphysical Club , Louis Menand describes William James (d. 1910) as a man who viewed the ability to make decisions in the teeth of risk and uncertainty as a mark of true character. James came to realize very early in life that for many of the choices we face, we lack conclusive reasons (and don’t have prospects for gathering them) and that to be human is to take risks about the things we believe. But James himself found it difficult to live with his own philosophy. Earning an M.D. from Harvard, James (whose his sister referred to as a “blob of mercury”) changed disciplines not once but three times moving from medicine, to psychology, to philosophy. It is no wonder then that his Gifford Lectures, The Varieties of Religious Experience, is a project in which he attempts to develop a philosophy, Pragmatism, that attempts to find equal epistemic standing to both science and religion. Why settle for one when you can have both? By briefly examining Pragmatism, we can get a better handle on some of the essential concepts that drives existentialist thought and look at how that thought informs our understanding of religious belief.1

I claimed in previous essays that in many communities (confining my analysis to fairly traditional communities in the West) religious belief is grounded by way of an existential leap of faith. Fundamental to this move is the idea that a rationalist approach to belief—deciding to believe in God based on whether one determines there is enough evidence to do so—is itself a leap of faith but of the entirely wrong kind. Religious commitment is just that: a decision to commit oneself wholly to a person experientially not adhering to an idea intellectually. But what does one do with the apparent evidence that would seem to conflict with such a commitment?  Hasn’t science provided us with models of biological development and cosmology that undermine any rational belief in a divine being?  Hasn’t it demonstrated that miracles can’t occur, that belief in divine activity a delusion, that religious commitment is sociologically dangerous? Hasn’t science removed any explanatory role religion might play in a reasonable person’s worldview? If so, then the person that wishes to be rational (or at least believe that the scientific method is truth conducive) and still maintain religious beliefs is a bifurcated individual that lives in a world where reality has to live alongside fantasy.

James attempted to show that this decidedly is not the case. At the root of his argument was a rejection of the idea that the scope of the explanatory power of science and reason should take pride of place in our epistemology. In fact, James says, when it comes to understanding what it means to be human (or to use language I introduced in an earlier essay: to understand existence rather than essence), science is rather weak. He writes,

Nevertheless, if we look on man's whole mental life as it exists, on the life of men that lies in them apart from their learning and science, and that they inwardly and privately follow, we have to confess that the part of it of which rationalism can give an account is relatively superficial. It is the part that has the prestige undoubtedly, for it has the loquacity, it can challenge you for proofs, and chop logic, and put you down with words. But it will fail to convince or convert you all the same, if your dumb intuitions are opposed to its conclusions. If you have intuitions at all, they come from a deeper level of your nature than the loquacious level which rationalism inhabits. Your whole subconscious life, your impulses, your faiths, your needs, your divinations, have prepared the premises, of which your consciousness now feels the weight of the result; and something in you absolutely knows that that result must be truer than any logic-chopping rationalistic talk, however clever, that may contradict it.2

William Barrett, who we met in an earlier essay, confirms that Existentialism essentially agrees with James here. Existentialist thought is essentially at odds with any thoroughgoing scientism—the view that the methods of the hard sciences can fully explain our essence as well as tell us what it all means. American philosophy is dominated by analytic philosophy (Barrett says "Logical Positivism" is another term for this) which has at its core science--the defining feature of modern culture. However analytic philosophy then goes on and attempts to establish the unsupportable idea that "science is the ultimate ruler of human life, which it never has been and psychologically never can be. Positivist man is a curious creature who dwells in the tiny island of light composed of what he finds scientifically 'meaningful,' while the whole surrounding area in which ordinary men live from day to day and have their dealings with other men is consigned to the outer darkness of the 'meaninglessness' " 3

In order to understand this idea, we need to grasp a key concept in both Pragmatist and Existentialist thought. That is, that reason is epistemically limited. For James (and otheralt Pragmatists like C.S. Pierce and Blaise Pascal), there are certain beliefs about which reason is unable to help us decide. There are ideas for which, either due to their complexity or nature, reason can play little or no role.  In these cases, we are forced to start with our intuitions and experiences and make judgments solely based on their overall value in holding them or the overall value in the means by which the judgment is made. For example, if a lifelong friend is accused—ostensibly on the basis of solid but inconclusive physical evidence--of a crime, say murder. You know your friend to be gentle, kindhearted, a lover of humanity, and not prone to rash action, you may choose to believe in his innocence even if the authorities claim they have strong but inconclusive evidence of his guilt. You maintain your friend’s innocence because of the experiences you’ve had and because you deem it more valuable to be loyal than to make a judgment when you are unable to draw a conclusion based on the evidence.

The key here is that adjudicating between the guilt or innocence of your friend is impossible solely based on the evidence. This is not a trivial point which we’ll return to momentarily. In this case, you draw a conclusion (make a decision) on other grounds—practical grounds—that have little to do with where you think the evidence leads. James argues that reason is just as inadequate a guide when it comes to religious matters. So to accept the pragmatist position, one first has to believe two key propositions. First, that adjudicating between the truth claims of religion and the truth claims of atheism is not possible. Second, that given the truth of the first proposition, believing religious truth claims is still valuable.

The first proposition is essential to understanding the Pragmatist solution and without fully embracing it, Pragmatism appears to be grossly ad hoc. The Pragmatist does not need to deny the value of reason entirely. However for certain questions, reason is limited if not altogether irrelevant. Religion should be accepted because of it’s overall practical usefulness (consider Pascal’s famous “wager” argument). “If we pass from disbeliefs to positive beliefs, it seems to me that there is not even a formal inconsistency to be laid against our method.” says James. “The gods we stand by are the gods we need and can use, the gods whose demands on us are reinforcements of our demands on ourselves and on one another….Religions have approved themselves; they have ministered to sundry vital needs which they found reigning. When they violated other needs too strongly, or when other faiths came which served the same needs better, the first religions were supplanted.”4 In one step James not only provides a ground for religious belief but also for adjudicating between religious truth claims. If you want to decide which religion to believe in, you must first decide which beliefs are pragmatically live options for you.

Notice here that James isn’t considering the truth of the belief because such consideration is not possible. That is, we not only cannot determine the truth value of the claim “God exists” but we have no prospects for determining its truth. I don’t think James’ position is that knowing that God exists (or does not exist) is logically impossible. Only that given our current epistemic situation, it’s practically not viable. Philosopher Peter van Inwagen explores this possibility at the end of his excellent Metaphysics. He suggests that certain questions in metaphysics and theology may be beyond the intellectual capacity of humans. “If we cannot know why there is anything at all, or why there should be rational beings, or how thought and feeling are possible, or how our conviction that we have free will could possibly be true, why should that astonish us? What reason have we, what reason could we possibly have, for thinking that our intellectual abilities are equal to the task of answering these questions?”5 Perhaps questions about specific religious beliefs fall into this category and if so, religious belief, if it is to be held at all, won’t be grounded on reason.

When faced with the option of believing in religious truth claims, then, you have to decide what you will do with them. If your experience leads you to believe in a higher power or an ethical system that only makes sense on religion, then turning to reason to help you decide may be a fool’s errand. But decision-making in the Jamesian model appear to be intensely personal. And this leads to a consequence I’ve been flirting with in this series and one we’ll have to examine more closely later: if deciding to believe is a personal matter and not publicly falsifiable, either the believer should refrain from making public claims about the implication of those beliefs or the beliefs themselves have no public relevance.

A driver who chooses to believe that her vehicle may be able to fly (who can know, really?) either should leave the car in the garage or drive as if it can’t.

Copyright © 2010 Philosophy News Service

1. Purists will undoubtedly (and rightly) object to placing pragmatism under the broad rubric of existentialism. I will attempt to call out the distinctions in these views both in this essay and in future essays. I’m categorizing pragmatism as a form of existentialism—at least when it comes to religion--mainly because I think their similarities far outweigh their differences and for ease of exposition.

2. James, W. (1997). The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Touchstone. (74)

3. Barrett, W. (1963). Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy. Garden City, New York: Anchor Books. (21)

4. James, 1997. (264-265)

5. Inwagen, P. v. (1993). Metaphysics. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press. (201)

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Study Breaks: In the mind or the body?

Stanford researchers find that the “need” for study breaks has less to do with our biology and more to do with our beliefs. "If you think of willpower as something that's biologically limited, you're more likely to be tired when you perform a difficult task," said Veronika Job, the paper's lead author. "But if you think of willpower as something that is not easily depleted, you can go on and on." Of course if the mind just is the brain, then the distinction between biologically needing a break and believing that you need one becomes a false distinction. Isn't it?

I need a break.

Faith and Reason in Existentialist Thought

"There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart's desire. The other is to get it." – George Bernard Shaw

I sit here at 1am writing this essay. I put in a full day at the office, spend hours commuting to and from work, and then enjoy time with my family over dinner and a movie. I work on my finances, do some minor chores around the house and then retire to my study to read and write. I sip on a glass of wine and settle into a relaxing peace that only comes late at night among my books which force me to reflect on why I forego much-needed rest, rebelling against the requirement my bourgeois lifestyle has placed on me. My immediate, placating rationale for my rebellion is that I love philosophy—which I do. But that’s not it. Ultimately its because I want my life to mean something beyond mere being in the world. I want my life to mean something—however small--to the wider world in order to somehow flaunt the standard-issue fact that I merely spent time on this planet. It’s an ineffable pull to expand beyond myself, if such a thing is possible, and become something more than common. But the yearning is a black hole. The more of my life I throw into it, the more it demands. It’s insatiable and that insatiability is the ultimate human paradox. We are mortal animals with an inevitable expiration date and we have the unenviable capacity to know it.

There are both religious and non-religious interpretations of this struggle.1 But some thinkers have recognized a common thread that cuts along the religious axis. They have seen this paradox as the battle between what we are and what we strive to become. Our rational part demands that we acknowledge our animality and the place such creatures have in the world. Eat well, exercise, don’t be a burden and help where you can, raise the next generation, and when its time to go, leave the place pretty much as you find it and you can ensure a well-attended eulogy. This is what we are, this is our essence and we must deal with it. But to be human is to be dissatisfied with this cold, common evaluation. We are beings in the world who have the ability to make choices that shape what we can become.  We believe our future is not determined and that the inexorable laws of the universe can be heated just enough by our will to allow us to bend them and shape them into what we desire. Ultimately, the universe wins but in our short time here, we strive to become and not merely be. We work towards a kind of transcendence in the constant battle against finitude. This interpretation has broadly been labeled existentialism and the general framework has had strong religions and secular proponents.

Greek philosophy is based on the examination of essence. It attempts to analyze the way things are as the basis for what they can become. Put simply this approach places essence before existence. In terms of the human condition, it sought to first understand our essential properties and from there establish our contingent ones. Existentialism is the philosophy that this approach is, to our detriment, utterly wrong: it is existence that precedes essence. The essence of being human just is to live, to exist, to become. The person that lives solely based on the rude functioning of the animal—the thing that eats, sleeps, has sex, produces waste, and repeats the cycle day after day—isn’t a human. He is little more than an animal. To be human is to transcend the mere functions of the body and mind and to become something more.  But making this move has a frightening consequence. It unleashes humanity into a chaotic world that, as Hobbes observed, is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. To be human, is to fully embrace that reality and acknowledge that each of us is that poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage to, at the end, be heard no more. To live existentially is to face that bracing truth and yet strive to become.

Sola fides quarens intellectum

The major theme of this series is that modern religion is made up of two seemingly incompatible epistemologies and it is the social implications of this amalgam that is driving much of the modern debate over religion. Modern faith is grounded on a commitment to a person and as such is thought to be isolated from any rationalist critique. At the same time, people of faith claim that their beliefs are true and as justified as any axiom in science. Religious belief, I’m claiming, is not formed or grounded in reason but many believers also want to insist that it is certainly not unreasonable. As I’ve stated previously, religious belief is grounded existentially. But what does this mean exactly?

Existentialism, almost by definition, eludes analysis. Using language to describe existentialist thought, even by existentialists themselves, is difficult if not impossible. Existentialism is not a system, does not have creeds or a core set of doctrines, it’s resistant to slogans and labels. It is elusive, changeable, and essentially individualistic. William Barrett, who has attempted to gather the many loose threads of existentialist thought and perhaps done so more successfully than any other writer, describes existentialism not as a typical philosophy or a spectrum of philosophies, but as a philosophy that transcends philosophy. It is the “individual human personality itself struggling for self-realization."2 One does not arrive at existentialism as a conclusion to a set of arguments but lives “existentially.” Existentialism is the state of being in the world and the process of becoming a unified individual.

The individual is the start and end of existentialist thought and is why it serves such an important role in grounding faith. Perhaps existentialism is the only ideology that could fulfill this role. Thorough-going existentialists will insist that every worldview must start and end with the individual and one finds it difficult to argue against this conclusion. Somewhat obviously, each person gets at his or her world through their own perceptions which are colored by their dispositions, environment, and other beliefs. In other words, worldviews are not things that exist apart from the individuals that possess them. And it’s fairly safe to say that no two persons have ever shared or will ever share the same worldview. A key existentialist insight is that no doxastic practice makes sense apart from the individual.

As we’ll see later, Kierkegaard attempted to show (not argue) how such a view not only fits within the Christian worldview but how the Christian worldview doesn’t exist without it. But the focus on the individual sets the stage for the idea that religious belief is grounded inwardly and then expressed not vice versa. The individual chooses to put his or her faith in God, chooses to trust Him, chooses to give her life over to Him. Christianity is defined (if it can be defined) solely in terms of these choices and thus is not a product of some public,  rational, exercise. The true believer is one that lives for, not merely thinks about God. He is the servant and the lover, not the philosopher or the scientist. Many within modern religious circles resonate with these ideas though they are very uncomfortable with the dichotomy. Christianity, for example, allows one to be both a servant and a scholar and there is no need to choose between the two they say. And this is where the contemporary rub comes. 

Copyright © 2010 Philosophy News Service

1. Religious interpretations from Christianity to Buddhism (if the latter should rightly be called a religion) have provided a transcendental framework in which to understand this transcendental striving. Many theistic religions, for example, describe it as the soul’s latent desire to be one with its creator. It’s a “divine thirst” that can only be fully satiated when the soul leaves the body and is unified with God but can partially be slaked in this life by living for God (see 2 Corinthians 5: 6-9 in the Christian Bible for example).

2. (Barrett, W. (1963). Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy. Garden City, New York: Anchor Books., p. 13)

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Bookshelf: Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World

Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion
Will Transform Your Life and Our World

Dowd's conclusions (insofar as they're decipherable) seem consistent with a desire to retain the engine of religion--what could broadly be called the existential urge--without having to invoke the God of traditional theisms as the object of religious sentiment. Dowd's god however is a personification of the universe as a whole and he views the universe as a living organism that is made conscious through the large mammalian brains of homo sapiens (as far as we can tell).

Unfortunately, Dowd does both religion and science a disservice. Religion without God is unintelligible and science characterized by excessive sentimentality is diluted. Dowd's narrative ends up being far too thick on sentiment and much too thin on substance. Dowd doesn’t argue for his positions, he preaches them. As with any sermon, one either chooses to accept it or reject it. Anyone looking for a religious version of Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth should look elsewhere (The classic The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James is a good alternate).

For those who have ears to hear, Dowd’s narrative is also quite condescending to positions he finds anachronistic and outdated. His message to the modernist laggards is clear: get up to speed or you will be culpable for the world’s problems. Dowd casts himself as a visionary who peers in the not-so-distant future and has a sort of friendly contempt for those who remain stuck on a pre-enlightened worldview (in both science and religion). Dowd attempts a rich stew made up of equal parts religion and science but ends up creating a thin, bland, lukewarm swill garnished with rose petals.

How Do Faith and Reason Relate?

Many years ago while working at a small bookstore in Portland Oregon, I was thumbing through a trade journal that was lying around the stock room and I came across an interview with Billy Graham. The interview was fairly standard fare as those things go except for the answer to one question which, I recall, struck me when I read it and still strikes me 15 years later. The journal asked Graham how he developed his core Christian beliefs. His answer was both simple and, in many ways, brutally honest. He replied,

In the moonlight, I went into the woods. I opened the Bible and laid it on a tree stump. Then I knelt down and said, ‘Oh, God, I don’t understand all that is in this book. Many things seem to be contradictory. I cannot intellectually accept it, but I am going to accept it by faith as your Word, your inspired, divine Word.’ And I did accept it by faith, and I never had a doubt since then.

While this quote probably does not accurately reflect many important nuances of how Billy Graham came to faith, it does, I think, embody the caricatured tension that exists between Faithfaith and reason. More importantly, it resonates with many religious people and perhaps accurately describes how they came to have faith in God. In these short sentences, Graham describes a kind of faith that has real epistemological power and provides a window into the existential grounding on which many religious people establish or sustain religious belief—a subject I introduced in the previous post in this series. In future essays, I briefly will explore existentialist philosophy with the goal of better understanding the nature of this grounding and to further unlock the apparent tension that exists in modern discussions of faith and science.

Before exploring existentialism, I find it necessary first to attempt to define what is meant by the term “faith” and how it relates definitionally to reason or rationality. As we’ll see in the discussion on existentialism, faith as a practical idea is present in all worldviews and it would be incorrect to describe it merely as a religious concept. It does, however, take on special meaning in a religious context and religious people tend to be much more open to the role and importance it plays in their worldview.  

What is faith?

Faith is not a purely epistemic concept. When trying to define faith solely within the bounds of epistemology, the definition either ends up being inadequate or else it misses its target altogether. While some attempt a purely epistemic description, typically faith involves an affective or aspirational element. Richard Swinburne makes this point when he writes, “Some . . . writers . . . use ‘faith’ interchangeably with ‘belief’ . . . Christian faith is used to mean a belief that certain central Christian doctrines are true. For others, Christian faith is the belief that these doctrines are true accompanied by some affective component (such as a love of God or hatred of one’s sins).” 1 Many view religious faith as belief along with trusting the object of belief (God) and on this point, religious faith may differ from what we might call faith in general. Philosopher Paul Helm describes faith this way. Essentially, a person exercises faith by having a trust relationship with a person. But, says Helm, faith also involves a modicum of understanding (where understanding is a form of propositional knowledge) about the person who is trusted. After all, one has to know something about the person in whom she is trusting. A common theme in Augustine and Aquinas is the idea that faith is epistemically prior (insofar as belief in God is concerned) and understanding is a secondary, though important, augment to that faith. Faith is the means by which one exercises trust in the object of the understanding.2

Philosophical theologian and erstwhile president of the College of New Jersey (the school we now know as Princeton University) Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) in his famous discourse on the religious affections treats faith similarly. The affections, he says, are one of the two main functions of the soul. The other is reason. The affections of the soul are its inclination toward an object. In fact, the affections are, in one sense, not to be distinguished from the will. They drive a person toward an object of delight. It is in this capacity that the characteristic evidence of true faith lays. He finds a place for evidence in his development of the ground of belief in the truth of the gospel. He argues that testimony cannot replace evidence when it comes to truth. He is quick to point out however that reasons and arguments alone are sufficient. In order to explain this, Edwards develops a concept of the spiritual sense. Reasons and arguments are useful only when the Spirit has worked to illuminate the understanding so the individual has eyes to see and ears to hear. He says the Spirit “unveils” the mind so it can grasp the truth. Also, he has a role for direct apprehension and intuition when it comes to religious belief. However this apprehension is not apart from any and all argument or deduction just long chains of arguments. In fact he says the deductive chain is one link long: by way of the divine glory does the mind ascend to the truth of God. Thus faith, for Edwards, is a combination of a spiritual awakening that allows one to understand the rational grounds for the truth of the gospel.3

With faith in general, the object takes on a variety of different forms. One of the leading philosophers of the 20th century, Roderick Chisholm, while being the embodiment of the analytic philosopher, still understood that even those committed to a largely rationalist approach to knowledge start with a leap of faith. Chisholm observes that certain things are presupposed when philosophers attempt to answer questions about what we are justified in believing and what were are justified in presupposing when we attempt to answer that question.  “Certain things are presupposed by the fact that one is able to ask the questions.” Be assuming that the enterprise of epistemology is possible—an assumption without which knowledge gathering could not proceed according to Chisholm—”epistemologists presuppose that they can succeed.” This means that epistemologists “have a kind of faith in themselves.” I think Chisholm’s point is that these assumptions and presuppositions must be made but they themselves cannot be proven by some prior or more basic method. It is faith that one is rational and that the rational method can get one at truth. 4 We’ll examine the other extreme when we survey existentialism. Existentialist thought puts a much greater emphasis on the faith component and minimizes (and in some cases eliminates) any role for reason in knowledge gathering.

A middle way

Between these extremes, some are attempting to find a rapprochement—a middle way. F. Leron Shults, while writing in a religious context, defines faith more broadly as “trust in the fecundity of a web of beliefs, which itself has been mediated by our experience.” This definition could apply to faith in general or religious faith in particular though the object of trust for Shults appears to remain this-worldly. He rejects the strong dichotomy between faith and reason so present in the modern discussion and argues that the scientific rejection of the “fiduciary” component of knowledge is just as misguided as the rejection of strict rationalism by religionists. Postmodern (what Shults calls “late modern”) thought provides the framework for an inter-disciplinary conversation while allowing each position to retain a kind of particularity. His model suggests that each of us can only start from our particular viewpoint which we, perhaps by necessity, must take to be objectively true. However we have learned that we must also hold that viewpoint with the knowledge that we are “socially located.” By that he means that we must recognize that not everyone holds that view and this forces us to engage in dialogue based on the “embodied desire” to learn about views that differ from our own.

Starting with Kant (who, in my opinion, is the father of postmodernism), the notion of relation became a more fundamental category than substance and accident. From Kant we get Hegel then the existentialists and the pragmatists. All these thinkers emphasized relation (Hegel with his “synthesis,” Kierkegaard with his “relation of itself to itself” and Pierce with his three classes of relations) over opposites. Shults’s point is that neither side is primary but the the product of the two together is: the relation they create when they stand in juxtaposition. The same is true of faith and reason. Shults writes, “Instead of asking whether we should begin with rational proofs and ‘add’ faith when we hit a mystery, or whether we should begin with our fideistic commitments and then ‘add’ reasonable arguments only when pressed, we might begin with the relationality within which ‘faith’ and ‘reason’ are mutually constituted….Rationality involves committing oneself to a belief, and faith involves making judgments about what is trustworthy” 5 

Each of these definitions has its merits and they generally fall along similar lines. For present purposes, I think the following definition will suffice: faith is belief which has the following two properties: (1) the justification which accrues to the propositional content of the object faith necessarily will be insufficient such that it cannot be known to be true and (2) the doxastic attitude of the one having faith includes an affective component usually involving trust in the object of faith. It’s not necessary up front to specify the justificatory strength for items of faith nor is it important to specify any particular basing relations between the object of faith and other beliefs. While important, these items should surface in a broader analysis of particular faith commitments—something I’ll attempt to do in future posts.

When Billy Graham, by faith, accepted the Bible as God’s inspired, divine word, he apparently came to believe that the Bible is inspired by trusting God as the author. He, in short, made a leap of faith.

Copyright © 2010 Philosophy News Service


1. Swinburne, R. (2009). Authority of Scripture, Tradition, and the Church. In T. P. Flint, & M. C. Rea (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology. Oxford: Oxford University Press., pp. 25, 26. Swinburne makes the rather striking acknowledgment that “the Christian tradition has had no clear view of the nature of faith.” He also notes that Christian faith could also include the idea of “acting on the assumption that (or trusting that) Christian doctrines are true, and perhaps also believing that they are true or perhaps without that belief.” Needless to say that defining faith could either involve an epistemic component or not. If the definition of faith is unclear among theologians and philosophers, it gets even murkier outside of academic circles.

2. Helm, P. (1997). Faith and Understanding. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

3. Edwards, J. (1997). The Religious Affections. Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust.

4. Chisholm, R. M. (1989). Theory of Knowledge (3 ed.). Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

5. Shults, F. L. (2006). Trinitarian Faith Seeking Tranformative Understanding. In P. Clayton, & Z. Simpson (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press., p. 493

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The Ground of Faith

In a previous post, I reflected on some recent interactions I’ve had over an apparent conflict that exists between a rational analysis of religious belief and the nature of that belief from the perspective of some inside the religious community. I've since recognized that the reactions I experienced were frustrations based on an ostensive recognition that at some level giving a voice to the atheist criticism is giving credence to a position that misses the entire point. Presenting atheism as a rational attack on a faith that is essentially not rationally grounded is creating a false juxtaposition and presenting it as a fair or valid one. I've come to believe the reactions I experienced were not reactions against atheists per se but a reaction against atheism-that-rationally-criticizes-religion-as-if-religious-faith-were-rationally-grounded. It is a frustration with the method of public debate not with the difference of opinion itself (though there certainly is a fundamental ideological disagreement).

When a person comes to religion by way of an existentialist leap of faith, they may be confounded by the relational nature of their basis for faith with the rationalist criticism over theHands holding seedling apparent lack of reasons for that faith. For the religious existentialist, belief in God is an act of relational commitment and has little to do with rationally-based truth claims. This is why there tends to be a strong and emotional disconnect between an atheist critique of religion and the religious rejoinder. Religious existentialists respond to these critiques with a frustrated sense that the atheist simply doesn't get it.

Yet Western religious thought is not existentialism writ large. Existentialism is the alcove just before the main, rationalist Grand Hall. It grounds faith on existential individualism but once inside attempts to embrace a fully rationalist epistemology. This is a complicated and not altogether clear epistemology but the attempt to blend these two seemingly disparate positions explains, I think, the modern person of faith. I will need to treat the impact of this rationalist dynamic in later posts. First we need to better understand how existentialism grounds faith and how central this grounding is for understanding modern religious commitment.

To say that religion is grounded on an existentialist commitment is to claim that the basis for religious belief is not a product of an examination of physical or rational evidence for the beliefs that make it up. Certainly the epistemic environment in which faith is seeded and germinated is, in general, a complex one involving years of pedagogical and communal influence that may involve a spiritual “encounter” at some point which firmly establishes the beliefs inculcated through that influence resulting in a deep-seated psychological ownership of those beliefs. From the perspective of the believer, this epistemic environment appears to have provided a foundation in which they later realize “fits” with the way the world actually is. The eventual adulthood commitment to religious ideas is, for them, a willful act of submission to a God they have come to experience personally.  Because religious belief flowers either during a person’s most formative or vulnerable time in life, and this flowering is not done in the soil of reason, the ground or foundation of faith takes on enormous psychological weight even if intellectually it appears to carry very little by way of conscious influence. This is the existential side of the modern religious mind.

When it comes to cultural debates over the rationality of religious belief, the existential grounding protects the individual religionist from any epistemic requirements or duties that might place the individual open to criticism. Since the foundation is not rationally based, any rational criticisms of that faith are viewed as misguided at best and viscous or evil at worst. Atheistic and even doctrinal polemics have no teeth because the polemicist is going after a straw man by attempting to unseat one’s faith using argument or evidence. If one's faith is based on a fully individualized relationship to God, critics who attempt to attack that faith are committing something close to a category fallacy.

The existential grounding also removes significant barriers to entry. Since one does not require mastery (and in most cases even awareness) of any rational grounding for relating to God, becoming a part of the religious community is epistemically resistance-free. On many protestant models, it involves only a decision to believe and commit. With almost no epistemic requirement, any person of any age, intelligence, history, future, or socio-economic status can become a part of the community. The road may turn out to be narrow but the gates that provide entry are wide open.

But a worldview of such psychological magnanimity could not survive in a world where rationalist epistemology is the reigning intellectual paradigm (and it certainly is that). In order to maintain faith, religious shepherds (in both protestant and non-protestant Christianity) have had to adopt the rationalist epistemology in full. This applies to both praxis and ideology. Practically, one would have to look long and hard to find a worldview that is as structured and nomological as modern religion. Strict ethical principles, strong doctrinal allegiance, regular and consistent community participation and committed financial support are all expected by most modern monotheisms in the West and Middle East. And these expectations are based on firm rationally-based principles found in the sacred text which was parsed and interpreted by what appears to be close-to-infallible scholarship. Further, modern religion is replete with apologists--theologians, philosophers, scholars of all stripes that are dedicated to demonstrating the rationality of a particular religious belief. I've interacted with dozens of religious individuals who can rattle off any number of names of scholars who demonstrate the rationality of their religion and who, at the same time, possess almost no ability to articulate even a single argument by those scholars.

The result is an individual who knows very little about the philosophical, historical, scientific, or theological basis for her faith and can both avoid criticism by claiming that her faith is her faith individualized to her relationship with God while and in the same breath claim, on rational grounds, that everyone other religious and non-religious person either has it wrong or is evil (or both). Admittedly this broad-brushed assessment is much too oversimplified for any practical purpose and so a more nuanced evaluation is very much in order. However it does, as a generalization, capture a common profile of religious belief that has at least a popular referent--and one that is not limited to western Protestantism-- and will serve as a jumping off point for the study that makes up the core of this series. In the next few posts, I will explore the essence of religious existentialism and examine how it diametrically opposes the scientism of the modern atheist. We then will look at the religious assimilation of reason and look at what that might mean for the make up of the modern religious mind.

Copyright © 2010 Philosophy News Service

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Unlocking the Tension Between Faith and Reason

Over the past two months the ongoing battle between faith and reason has gotten rather personal for me. The perennial battle between faith and reason has largely become a caricature with the opposing sides largely exaggerated at the “fringes” but dying the death of a thousand qualifications for most people living somewhere in the middle. Or so I thought. In August of this year I taught a class at a local evangelical church titled “The New Atheism” in which I sought to expose my students to some of the main arguments of this growing movement. While many in the class were appreciative of what I was trying to do, the class ended with a woman, Bible held high in the air, publicly excoriating me for bringing the heathen, foolish ideas into her sacred space and accusing me of typifying everything wrong with the church and Christianity today.

altA conversation that started with me explaining these events to a friend (who also claims to be an evangelical Christian) ended with him telling me that I am intellectually dishonest,  downright vicious, and deserved to rot in hell. Recently, I attempted to have what I thought was a civil conversation with a person (who by any reasonable definition could be labeled a Christian fundamentalist) about some ideas related to faith and how best to understand it in a modern scientific world largely dominated—at least in the academy—by Darwinian naturalism. Throughout the conversation, my protagonist-turned-antagonist called me intellectually dishonest, ridiculous, narrow-minded, antagonistic,  and that I exhibited partiality against views not my own. I was also told that I'm being deceived and that I'm detached from reality.

In my more honest moments, I have to acknowledge that the common denominator in all these scenarios is me and I became very interested in the locus of all this vitriol. I’m certainly open to the idea that I, because of some egregious blind spot, have brought this on myself and this is something on which I continue to reflect . However, analytically, I’ve come to realize that there is something deeper going on. Each person in these interactions have little in common beyond their faith yet the anger they exhibited and the  terms they used to display that anger were too similar to chalk up to mere personality conflicts. Faith positions that attempt to conserve what could be viewed as a classical position—that the power of faith comes not from its ability to explain the world but from its ability to transform it—is finding itself drastically removed from—and therefore increasingly in conflict with—a Western culture that is seeking to get by in this world by better understanding how it works.

The explanatory power of religion to address the workings of the physical world that have the greatest existential importance for humans is almost non-existent. In fact many modern religious apologists seem even to be minimizing the work design and cosmological arguments can muster—arguments which once served as defensive infantry, and are now using God to explain one of the last and greatest mysteries: the human mind. Things have gotten so bad, that physicists of  the stature of Steven Hawking are able to come out boldly and claim that the God hypothesis (and philosophy in general for that matter) is no longer needed to unlock the most hardened cosmological puzzles. Physics is more than adequate for the job (see his recent The Grand Design).

This leaves religion very little room to maneuver and when one’s worldview is backed into a corner, responding with anger and vitriol is both very human and very indicative that even people of faith feel the warmth of the lion’s breath on their cheeks. I’ve come to realize, however, that the tension is introduced not from the fact that the sciences have so much explanatory success (which they most certainly have), but from the desire on the part of the religious to remain unreservedly committed to the axioms of a pre-scientific faith but also to somehow adopt that faith to a modern, rationalistic, scientific world. In a very real sense, the weight of scientific discoveries is driving a growing intellectual wedge in the minds of  these believers who are finding it more and more difficult to keep everything unified. This results in anger, frustration, and increasing isolationism (an us-them mentality complete with a superiority complex flavored with moral victimization). Surely such a scenario affects secularists as well but I tend to think that secularists are coming out of this state while religionists are just entering it.

Of course much of this has been predicted by forward thinking people over the last century and in future posts I will explore this idea further looking at some important philosophy that provides us with both the psychological and philosophical basis for a dynamic that is just starting to show its teeth. The next decade will be an enormously complex time for religion as it seeks to find it’s place in a world that increasingly has no idea what to do with it. I will attempt to show that the tension is not due to an essential incompatibility between faith and science but rather due to efforts on the part of religionists who are attempting to shoehorn modern science into traditional models of faith and scientists who want to eradicate religion by reducing everything it stands for to biological function.

Copyright © 2010 Philosophy News Service

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Dowling College Hosting Undergraduate Philosophy Conference

Oakdale, Long Island, New York, April 8th, 2011

In order to increase student awareness of and interest in philosophy, and to encourage contributions to the scholarly community, Dowling College Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies invites students to submit papers relating to any philosophical topic or period. Authors of accepted papers will be given the opportunity to present their work at Dowling College’s first undergraduate philosophy conference.

Deadline for Submissions: January 15th, 2011

Submission Guidelines:

  1. Although papers must relate to a philosophical topic or period, that does not mean that other areas, such as psychology, sociology, neurology, biology, etc., are excluded. As long as the paper engages with its topic in a philosophical manner you are more than welcome to submit the paper. Presenters should plan on having 15 minutes to present their work (approx. 8-10 pages long). Time limits will be strictly enforced.
  2. Attach a copy of your submission in .doc or .docx format to an email, and send it to Adam Kohler at and Christian Perring at Within the email, please include your name, email address, and college/university that you are affiliated with.
  3. Please do not include your name on your paper, so that it may be reviewed “blind” by a committee of conference organizers.
  4. Authors whose papers are accepted will be notified by Feb 15, 2011.
  5. When you submit your paper, please indicate whether you would be interested acting as a discussant for another speaker's paper.

Please remember that you do not have to be a philosophy major to submit a paper! All currently enrolled undergraduates are welcome to submit their work.

The Rudolph Campus of Dowling College is located in Oakdale, NY. This is 50 miles from NYC, and 25 minutes walk from the Oakdale LIRR train station.

For more information contact Adam Kohler at

Creation out of Nothing

This article in The Wall Street Journal is a promotional article summarizing a central argument in Stephen Hawking’s and Leonard Mlodinow new book, The Grand Design . In the article, Hawking and Mlodinow explain that the universe appears to be fine tuned to support life but no Designer is needed to do the fine tuning or the creating. Laws of physics predict universes like ours.

Father Spitzer demurs. In this article, Spitzer explains that Hawking and Mlodinow employ a faulty metaphysic to explain their physics. Spitzer has a new book as well called New New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy.

Thanks to Ben Olsen and Stan Dokupil for the links.

See also:

Hawking declares philosophy dead?

Hawking’s M Theory

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