Saturday, October 02, 2004

On Belief, Faith, and Reason

Walter Kaufmann on Belief, Faith, and Reason, from his book:
Critique of Religion and Philosophy, Harper & Bros., N.Y., 1958

This book was the most influential source for an attack on the
culture of faith and belief in which I was raised as a child. "When
I was a child, I thought as a child, but..."

From Sect. 22, a poem:


What is truth? Something of which we rarely speak;
something some men seek;
something flouted by those who lie;
something of which Christ said, it is I;
something without which one goes to hell;
something judges expect one to tell;
a word of honor, a word of praise,
but not a very transparent phrase.

Truth does not exist, it is merely discussed,
but truth is whatever we can trust,
whether a man or a piece of gold,
a Titian or something we are told,
a likeness or something we are taught--
and the noun, the truth, is an afterthought.

Selected quotes from Sect. 36:

"Knowledge and belief, like most interesting terms, have many correct uses, and no distinction is likely to do perfect justice to all correct uses"

"Belief has a wider sense in which it includes knowledge and a narrower sense in which it is contrasted with knowledge."

"When I say that I know that a proposition is true, I say that I think that it is true; that in fact it is true; and that there is evidence sufficient to compel the assent of every reasonable person. When I am asked whether I really know, the question does not concern myself alone ( my earnestness or sincerity ) but also the evidence."

"Belief in the narrow sense, in which it is contrasted with knowledge, is distinguished by the lack of evidence sufficient to compel the assent of every reasonable person."

"Faith is belief - usually belief in the narrow sense - that is held intensely, with some emotional involvement; and almost all statements that begin 'I have faith that...' fulfill one further condition: one would be disappointed if one should be wrong"

"...for those engaged in an impartial investigation, a man's faith creates no presumption whatsoever of a higher probability; on the contrary, it is more suspicious than a less emotional belief. It raises the question whether there is considerable, albeit not compelling, evidence, or whether 'faith' is but a noble word for wishful thinking."

Selected quotes from Sect. 37:

"The impression given is sometimes, in contemporary discussions, too, that there is a virtue in believing without evidence as such. But this would open the floodgates to every superstition, prejudice, and madness."

"To be sure, we must constantly act in the absence of complete certainty; we have to make decisions on the basis of partial evidence; and we are bound to make mistakes frequently. Challenged why we decide the way we do, we should cite the evidence we had in mind....There is no need for the faith that we surely must be right. We need believe no more than that, given our present information, this or that appears to be most probable"

"It is a widespread fallacy that the alternative to the firm faith that we possess the truth must be weak indecision. It is quite possible to act with vigor, realizing that one might be wrong; especially, if one is sustained by the assurance that one's decision was conscientiously arrived at and that one is acting with integrity, though not infallibility."

Quoting Santayana: "If the argument is rather that these beliefs, whether true or false, make life better in this world, the thing is simply false. To be boosted by an illusion is not to live better than to live in harmony with the truth; it is not nearly so safe, not nearly so sweet, and not nearly so fruitful. These refusals to part with a decayed illusion are really an infection to the mind. Believe, certainly; we cannot help believing; but believe rationally, holding what seems certain for certain, what seems probable for probable, what seems desirable for desirable, and what seems false for false"

Two quotes from Martin Luther: (Samtliche Schriften; ed. Johann Georg Walch; 24 vols.; printed in Halle, Germany, in the 18th century, and reprinted in St. Louis 1881-1910)

"There is on earth among all dangers no more dangerous thing than a richly endowed and adroit reason, especially if she enters into spiritual matters which concern the soul and God. For it is more possible to teach an ass to read than to blind such a reason and lead it right; for reason must be deluded, blinded, and destroyed." (V, 1312)

"Whoever wants to be a Christian should tear the eyes out of his reason." (V, 425 )

and one from Nietzsche:

"A very popular error: having the courage of one's convictions; rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one's convictions!"

And a reminder of my origins:

last judgement painting
The Last Judgement


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