On Facebook (where you can also be my friend if you’d like), Adam replies to the latest installment of the “Disambiguating Faith” series with this question:
Hate to be corny, but in an episode of House M.D., every rational road runs out and a case is seemingly unsolvable. Finally, by eliminating a symptom (which is basically forbidden in medical practice) Dr. House explains the disease and saves the atheist priest. When asked what the hallucination of Jesus was, House says “not a symptom”. House says the fact that he was wrong doesn’t prove the existence of God, but is it rational to at times cease rationality? If it is rational to rule out the rational at times, can a religious person argue that one can acheive truth only with faith?
I don’t understand the example from House. I don’t know what “eliminating a symptom” means exactly. Is it that he decides not to treat a hallucination of Jesus as a symptom and then diagnoses the problem by only looking at the remaining symptoms? In that case, what is irrational about that? What is “faith-based” in that? That’s just figuring out that one problem (the cause of the hallucinations) is distinct from another problem (whatever is causing the rest of the symptoms). That’s quite rational: you are (a) figuring out that not all symptoms are caused by the same maladies, (b) isolating which ones are properly associated together and which ones are not, and then (c) rationally treating the properly discerned source of the one constellation of maladies that does not involve the hallucinations. How is that a justification for believing things without reasons?
And no, it’s not ever rational to “cease rationality,” that’s simply incoherent. There are times in which we might rationally act in ways that are contrary to our beliefs about what is most likely true. For example, if there is only a 1% chance that a bomb is in the building we should believe that there is not a bomb and yet act as though there was and evacuate the building. The reasons for behaving thus are themselves rational, even though they conflict with what we believe most likely to be the case. If they were not rational reasons they would not be good reasons and if there are not good reasons an action it is not a rational one.
Finally, is it possible for there to be truths that can only be assented to by faith? Yes. But there cannot be truths justifiably assented to by faith. What I mean is that there might be true things that one can hold as beliefs only if one guesses. I may only believe that there are exactly 7 dimes in the President’s dresser drawer right now if I make a wild guess. Without any means of inspecting the drawer or getting the President to tell me about this, I cannot form a rational, justified belief that there are exactly 7 dimes in the drawer. It may be true there are exactly 7 dimes in the drawer and it may be true that the only way I can say this true thing is if I just assert it on faith. But it is also true that it is wildly improbable that my guess is correct. And it would be irrational and unjustified for me to base any decisions on my belief in the exact 7 dimes in the President’s dresser drawer. And it would be even worse if I decided as a matter of faith I must believe in the exact 7 dimes in the President’s drawer even against contrary evidence and even if it comes to light, say, that Presidents are forbidden by law to keep any of their money in cash. In those cases, the belief is not only unjustified and unlikely but downright counter-rational.
So, any given faith-based belief may be subject to rational corroboration. If it gets rational corroboration it ceases to be a faith-based belief and simply becomes a reason-based one. If it does not get rational corroboration, then it should not be believed with any more certainty than evidence allows. If there is only a .001% chance, say, that the President has exactly 7 dimes in his drawer (assuming we could even determine such a probability somehow) then it is simply unjustified to hold the belief that he has the exact 7 dimes and irrational to hold the belief with any feeling of sureness.
Might he turn out, improbably, to have the exact 7 dimes in his drawer? Yes, but you still wouldn’t be justified in believing so until you had actual reasons to know that and you would be irrational to assert such an unjustified belief confidently. You would be exercising your will to assent to a proposition’s truth illicitly liberally.
To catch up with any previous installments of this “Disambiguating Faith” series which you may have missed, follow the links listed below. Each post can be understood without reference to the others, even though many develop interrelated theses.