Defending Fideism

As far as I can remember, I’ve never done research for a project, only to be surprised at the position I came to hold and defend. That seems to be happening with my thesis. I’ve always been a fan of Kierkegaard, but I am finally getting the chance to dive into some of his work through my research. The more I read his work and the scholarly work addressing Søren Kierkegaard, the more I find that my position on the tension between faith and knowledge, between religious belief and rationality, are very similar to (what we think are) his. The problem is, his view is essentially a version of fideism.

Fideism, as such, is not necessarily a problem. The real problem is the term’s use as a pejorative over the last century and a half or so. It’s often hurled as an epithet towards people who unthinkingly or irrationally accept religious faith despite — or sometimes even because of! — the apparent absurdity of the belief itself.

Kierkegaard, however, in his earlier philosophical work address some of the issues inherent in human conceptions of “knowing” and the different ways in which humans can “know” anything at all. For him, absolute knowledge of something can only happen in the abstract realms of mathematics and logic — e.g., the law of non-contradiction, or mathematical tautologies. Otherwise (especially in the realm of ‘objective’ knowledge about the world), knowledge is always an approximation to reality. We know that sense experience is flawed can often give us contradictory information about how reality “really is”; therefore, we know that we can never hold pure, certain knowledge about reality (or actuality) as it really is. And here, we’re only talking about the phenomenal (natural) realm.

The category of objective knowledge, for Kierkegaard, necessarily excludes the noumenal realm — the sphere of life that includes religious belief, ethics, etc. The limits of our rationality not only includes doubt about how certain we can be about knowledge of the natural world, but it can’t even touch this other realm. Kierkegaard therefore posits that we have a different kind of knowledge about this realm, and it is the inner realm of subjectivity. Further, due to the nature of the realms we’re discussing (religious belief and ethics as primary examples), subjective knowledge, by nature, cannot only include cognitive awareness or affirmation of such norms. True ethical/religious, subjective knowledge requires a confluence of action along with cognitive affirmation.

Basically, for religious “knowledge” to be “true,” you are required to change your actual life accordingly. Actions must line up with beliefs.

The problem here is that many people treat ethical/religious knowledge as if it is essentially the same as the kind of knowledge we can obtain about the natural world. They might function similarly (we gain “approximate” knowledge about the world and call it knowledge, though we may not be purely certain about that knowledge; we also “approximate” ourselves toward ethical/religious truths), but objectivity requires us, in some sense, to abstract ourselves away from the object which we are attempting to “know” about. Subjectivity, on the other hand, by its very nature, does not allow us to abstract ourselves away from the object we are attempting to know. Subjective knowledge means, on some level, a sense of an immediate relation to the object in question.  This further means that we have no way of rationally objectifying religious beliefs to determine their objective truth. Ergo, objective knowledge of religious beliefs is impossible. Further, this requires us to take a “leap of faith” regarding our religious beliefs. Human rationality (especially objectivity) only takes us so far, and the jump to subjective knowledge means that any such move is outside of the realm of rational inquiry or investigation.

Ergo: I’m defending fideism. Rational fideism, but fideism nonetheless.

Bottom-Up or Top-Down Knowledge

(Some thoughts while reading James K.A. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Relativism?)

Modern frameworks regarding knowledge often begin with attempting to drill down to core, fundamental concepts about reality. The thinking goes like this: if humans can prove that there is an objective reality, then individuals can be convinced of that objective reality via logical means. Further, this will produce an objective, universal set of knowledge which is not only logical, but the only appropriate understanding of reality. From this point, it is assumed, humans ought to be able to build a community, a society, a civilization that has shared values — all because of these core, fundamental concepts of reality that are shared across the entire human race.

This is a bottom-up understanding of reality, one which requires that all humans share the same understanding of reality as-it-is in order for a society to logically share and build a fair and just world.

What if knowledge can be thought of in a “know-how,” and not a “know-that” sense? In other words, perhaps, we ought to think of our conception of how knowledge is built upside-down from the modern framework. Language describes our understanding of reality, but language is inherently a social, shifting phenomenon. Therefore our perception of reality itself is inherently social and shifting. This doesn’t mean that reality itself is contingent, simply that our knowledge of reality is contingent upon the communities in which we participate. As long as the language we use to describe reality (and the systems we build upon that language-reality conception) functions, then it is theoretically an appropriate view of reality.

One might argue that there are better and worse conceptions of reality as-it-is, and that’s fair. But the more meaningful work might not be attempting to drill down into the fundamental, core concepts of reality to build a universal understanding of particulars to ensure that everyone believes the same thing about reality as it is. Perhaps the better work is building communities which not only share a vision of the common good, but one that shares a common project among its participants that does not require uniformity in belief about reality. This common participation and vision may in fact end up producing an unexpected unified vision of reality among the participants that a bottom-up framework cannot produce.

Working Thesis

The thesis that I’ll be working on in the spring, I hope, will consider and argue for a singular idea (and this may not be its final form, but this is what I keep kicking around in my head):

When humans evaluate empirical data and rational arguments to make a religious commitment, they are only capable of doing so from a foundation of pre-formed desire (for what they believe is “good” or “true”), which is in turn shaped by experience and habit.

In other words, we are incapable of evaluating reason or evidence objectively, especially as it relates to reason or evidence about religious claims. The evaluation of such information is determined by what we believe is good or beautiful or true about the world. Theologically, I think this might mean that, in order for us to make a decision to become a Christian, something internal must be changed before we are capable of evaluating any information presented about Christian claims and affirm those claims on the basis of the arguments with which we are presented.

That internal change that is required to evaluate the information and make that faith decision is formed by a complex web of factors, including social and political contexts, individual experience, and the habits (or cultural/religious liturgies) in which we participate.

I’m going to attempt to prove this idea with a range of philosophical/theological ideas, and I’m hoping to also discuss the implications of the idea as well (i.e., How do we deal with this? How do our current cultural habits and practices [materialism, constant political news consumption, the ubiquity of porn, etc.] shape our lived reality?)

This idea is really intriguing to me. I had already been thinking about it internally for a while, when I was discussing with a friend of mine what my thesis would be about. Initially, I thought I would be doing working on the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, but I couldn’t nail down exactly what I wanted to write about. During the conversation, we began talking about life and why Kierkegaard is interesting to me, and he suggested that, instead of doing some extended survey on Kierkegaard’s work, I should use the thesis to attempt to prove an idea, specifically this idea.

When I returned to faith, I found that it was not solely arguments for the rationality of faith, nor could any amount of evidence have purely convinced me that Christianity was true. For me, I needed an internal shift, a new way of seeing the world. I was convinced by authors that wrote about the crucifixion as the true standard of beauty in the world, and the notion that there is an underlying goodness at the heart of reality. Those things are not provable, but when I began to internalize those ideas, making a new religious commitment to Christianity again seemed not only plausible, but right.

Other Minds and Generous Commentary

I’m sure there are a lot of reasons I’m starting blogging again. One particular reason I can point back to is this post by Alan Jacobs, whose blog I follow semi-regularly. I think all the time about Twitter and attention and how the internet and social media have affected our lives. Re: all of this, Jacobs writes:

If you’re trying to address complex issues on Twitter, you are serving as your own Handicapper General. Please stop. Get a blog. You’re damaging your brain and the quality of public discourse. We all deserve better.

Anyway, that was actually an aside to my point here. My real point is the following. I was perusing Jacobs’s blog this morning, just because I like the simplicity of his site and way in which he seems to be apathetic to how others may think of him. He allows no comments, for example, and the whole site seems to be geared more toward his keeping track of his own thought life. I’d like to do the same. Sorry – that was another rabbit trail.

I came across another blog of his, called Text Patterns through his normal blog, and one of his more recent posts about Ephraim Radner’s A Time to Keep. Two things struck me:

  1. The comment section in this post was incredibly charitable. Radner himself jumped into the comments and he and Jacobs had a back and forth about Jacobs’s inability to understand some of Radner’s writing. Not something you see often. I have generally trained myself not to read comments because they either do not add to the discourse or cause me to lose my faith in humanity. This was a delight to see.
  2. Within the comment section, Jacobs wrote the following in a reply to Radner:

It is also possible, and I have been thinking about this a good deal lately, that the ways some minds work are simply incompatible with the ways that other minds work, such that genuine mutual understanding is just not achievable — at least in this vale of tears. That is a sobering thought for me, given that I have devoted my career to the interpretation of texts and to the charitable reading of them. But it may be the conclusion that I am forced to here.

This touches a bit on something I’m planning to write about in the very near future: essentially that we are (at least sometimes) incapable of “genuine mutual understanding” between minds. My work is leading me to the realm of knowledge and faith and how those two things interact with one another. My suspicion is that our desires and emotions and cultural/social contexts form a complex web that we can neither see nor transcend. Further, it is this foundation of desire/emotion/social context that forms our (pre-reflexive) response to propositional claims to truth. In other words, we are incapable of evaluating fact claims – empirical or purely rational –  via objective reason. Our responses to and evaluations of those things are always pre-formed by a more foundational part of our being – desire/emotion/social context. Perhaps it is the same when we try to gain “genuine mutual understanding,” in Jacobs’s words, between two minds.