Believing without evidence

Many of the apologetic responses to the charge that faith is belief without evidence stress the fact that faith is trust or testimony, both of which easily transition to the idea of faith as a relationship. The response is necessary but others are illuminating. St. Thomas’s answer to the question is at ST II-II q. 2 a. 3.

The first principle in St. Thomas’s response is that whenever a nature A is subordinate to B, then A will both have a motion proper to itself and from B. The ocean, he explains, has one sort of activity considered by itself and another when considered in relation to the moon. This sort of subordination happens all the time in nature:adaptations, for example, (or whatever one wants to call them)  involve things that have functions of their own which are appropriated to different functions, as when we use a cigarette lighter in a car to run a DVD player, when heat-regulating feathers are turned into tools for flight, or when whatever-it-is that a Panda’s thumb was doing gets co-opted to strip leaves from bamboo.

St. Thomas applies this duality of function to the person considered as a reasoning animal. Of itself human reasoning is considers things animals can know, namely, things that are given to sense, and when it gives a systematic account of such things its called “science” or “physics”. Considered in relation to God, however, human reasoning is appropriated to a different function, and thus it acquires a function outside what can be known by science, in the same way that powering a DVD player is outside the function of a cigarette lighter or flying is outside the nature of heat-regulation. Seen from this angle, objecting to the rationality of faith because it cannot be given to properly human abilities is comparable to objecting to the possibility of writing since ink by itself will only spill into chaotic blotches and not into letter-shapes. The faith function of the mind is outside what a human intellect can do by itself, but things in art and nature have all sorts of functions beyond the functions that they can do by themselves.

This account of faith makes it, in St. Thomas’s language, a sort of light beyond the light of reason or the light of sense. To use an example from Christian religion, it is one thing for some animal (human or not) to see the man Jesus, another thing for a philosopher to see God by way of argument, but it is a third thing for a man to see that the man Jesus is God. In this sense, the Liberal tradition in theology is right that religious experience is self-justifying and neither has nor needs a foundation in science or history. Thomists can agree with Bultmann at least this far about the radical and irreducible division between the Christ of history (or, a fortiori, the Christ of metaphysics) and the Christ of faith.

But the division between the light of faith and (properly human) reason cannot be made so sharp as eliminate all dependence of the one on another. The very idea of subordination or adaptation presupposes that the adapted or subordinated nature has at least the logical possibility of being appropriated to the other function, and St. Thomas would add to this demand that the higher function of faith must be a perfection of reasoning. Faith, in other words, has to be more than a mere adaptive use of reason, it has to be a perfection of reason. St. Thomas sees the perfective adaptation of faith as consisting in that it actually delivers an absolute good that can be apprehended by reason, but which it does not have the power to ascend to by its own.

 

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9 Comments

  1. December 14, 2013 at 1:16 pm

    In talking with a lot of atheists online about sexuality, they use the principle of exaptation to try to defend same-sex relations. “Yes, we agree that the sexual organs work between males and females in a particular way, but why can’t their function be used in a different way as well? Your knee can be used to prop up a table, &c.”

    What is the proper response?

    • December 14, 2013 at 4:53 pm

      To be honest, I don’t have one. I’m convinced that the traditional Christian sexual ethic is necessary for happiness, but I only know this now by experience and I don’t have a theoretical structure to explain the experience. I’m pretty confident I can prove that sexual desire is essentially personal – here I think the argument in Scruton’s Sexual Desire is convincing, even if his anthropology is not one that I find coherent.

      The older theoretical structure is now largely unconvincing – to read St. Thomas articulate a semen-based account for the evil of fornication, for example, is not to find him at his most convincing. There seems to be some proof of this in the fact that I’ve never heard a Thomist try to defend or even comment on the argument I linked to. Sexual ethics, it seems to me, is something that needs to be put on a more contemporary personalism.

      Look, I know the traditional argument for sexual ethics leans heavily on the reproductive nature of the act, and while there is something of permanent value here it can only, at best, argue that a majority of persons should be reproductive or that reproduction needs to be a norm of action. I’m not convinced that we can’t find some role for exceptions, if this were all our sexual ethic came to.

      I do think one can prove that sexual pairing should be exclusive and for life from more or less empirical data and the common experience of persons, which would prove that sex should be between spouses. But how do we re-articulate the reproductive angle?

      One reason why the reproductive aspect is essential is because it puts a natural limit on sexual activity between spouses. Contraceptors and Homosexuals have this in common – their sexual activity is of itself infinite which, whatever fantasies we might have to the contrary, ends up in fact only causing sexual frustration and boredom. Sex can only keep its flavor under such conditions if we vary the partner, which ends up being against the first thing we proved.

      This argument isn’t all that convincing, I suppose, but I don’t have a decent theory to explain experience yet, and, other than Scruton, I haven’t found the beginnings of a convincing theory.

      • December 14, 2013 at 5:17 pm

        I will say this though – the basic insight in the Thomistic argument is very solid, if we could only find the right rhetoric for it. We all know where semen belongs, and that there is something ridiculous, unmanly, degrading to women, and undignified in the pornographic actions to the contrary. And by “undignified” I mean not even rising to the dignity of animals.

      • December 14, 2013 at 7:27 pm

        Very much in agreement with all of this. I think most pure natural law arguments on the subject only get one to the conclusion that there’s a presumption against these things when we don’t have excellent reasons to do them.

        I think, too, it’s important to get out of the habit of thinking that there’s any magic bullet argument here: all of these temperance-related issues involve the superposition of a lot of different lines of reasoning, and we only get swiftly-discovered obligations when there’s a clear and obvious justice angle. Contraception is a good example; despite the argument being briefly expressed, Humanae Vitae ends up having to draw on at least six different rather complicated things to build its full case (sacramental theology of marriage, the intersection of a number of principles of natural law pertaining to sex, respect for the integrity of the rational animal, the virtue theory of familial love, appropriateness to the general function of marriage). Aquinas’s arguments weren’t standalone; they worked as small parts within a very large context, and we can no longer afford just to assume the context. Which means that several different lines of argument have to be brought together somehow.

      • Patrick said,

        December 14, 2013 at 10:10 pm

        Alright, I must be an outlier, because I actually find Thomas’ argument convincing in it’s own terms. I think his insistence on the why’s and wherefore’s of semen to be necessary to the matter. What’s wrong with it?

      • Crude said,

        December 17, 2013 at 2:35 pm

        Look, I know the traditional argument for sexual ethics leans heavily on the reproductive nature of the act, and while there is something of permanent value here it can only, at best, argue that a majority of persons should be reproductive or that reproduction needs to be a norm of action. I’m not convinced that we can’t find some role for exceptions, if this were all our sexual ethic came to.

        As I understand them, the natural law arguments on this topic conclude in part what a healthy and properly functioning sexual desire should be broadly, and that this immediately rules out a broad class of sexual desires – pretty much all of the same-sex ones – as disordered. I don’t understand at all how you get to ‘a majority of persons should be reproductive’. As in, what arguments are you relying on here that even conclude ‘a majority of persons should be reproductive / reproduction needs to be a norm of [sexual] action’, as opposed to the ordered/disordered desires and acts?

        As for the semen arguments – are you sure these aren’t used? Because, looking at the link you provided, I’m pretty sure I recognize these arguments from Feser, etc. He just doesn’t zero in on ‘semen’ specifically, but then I don’t think that’s necessary for the argument anyway.

      • Charles said,

        December 18, 2013 at 10:57 pm

        There is the commentary of Sylvester Ferrara, for whatever it’s worth.

  2. thenyssan said,

    December 14, 2013 at 6:57 pm

    Maybe I’ve been grinding out St. Thomas in ST II-II Q151-154 for too long, but I don’t find the basic SCG argument that unconvincing. It gets weaker as it goes on, perhaps, but the basic idea seems sound: fornication turns semen into sweat or urine–an emission with no purpose other than “getting rid of it.” I find our attitudes about lactation to be similarly perverted–the life-giving turned into just another (gross) emission. I don’t know how to say it precisely, but I’d stake anything that those attitudes are directly and necessarily connected.

  3. vetdoctor said,

    December 30, 2013 at 5:12 pm

    . . . . . Seen from this angle, objecting to the rationality of faith because it cannot be given to properly human abilities is comparable to objecting to the possibility of writing since ink by itself will only spill into chaotic blotches and not into letter-shapes. The faith function of the mind is outside what a human intellect can do by itself, but things in art and nature have all sorts of functions beyond the functions that they can do by themselves.. . . .

    This is my memory verse for today 🙂


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