Friday, November 21, 2008

Called to do the irrational

Lately I've been thinking about the story of Abraham and Isaac. For those who are unfamiliar, or need a refresher, here's the story in the first part of Genesis 22 (emphasis mine):

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!"
"Here I am," he replied.

Then God said, "Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about."

Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, "Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you."

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, "Father?"
"Yes, my son?" Abraham replied.
"The fire and wood are here," Isaac said, "but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?"

Abraham answered, "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." And the two of them went on together.

When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, "Abraham! Abraham!"
"Here I am," he replied.

"Do not lay a hand on the boy," he said. "Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son."

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, "On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided."

The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, "I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me."

The reason I bring this story up is because I want to highlight an important contrast, one I've been struggling with. Faith and reason do not seem to belong together. In fact, I don't think they can speak to each other at all. You can't honestly ground religious faith in rationality (including philosophical theology), nor can rationality exclude it. Something is amiss about comparing them. A blind person would not call a song yellow, nor would a deaf person say a painting is out of tune. The inapplicability of the one to the other does not mean that either is deficient in any meaningful sense. We don't say sight is deficient for not being able to hear a melody. Rather, we don't think hearing applies at all to our sense of sight. I think something like this may be going on with faith and reason, though saying this does give me pause.

Kill Isaac. Sacrifice him. This is what God commanded Abraham to do. Under no circumstance, short of some absurd utilitarian justification, could this ever be the morally right thing to do. God commanded Abraham to sin, but sinning is disobeying God. Nothing about that makes sense. No rationalization makes it okay for Abraham to kill Isaac, nor does it seem right for God to ask him to. Yet, strangely, I still believe that Abraham did as he should, even if what he should have done was not right. This is where I'm struggling. If God says φ, you φ. If φ is morally wrong, what does that make God? I realize that theologians have been thinking about this story for centuries, and yes, I plan on revisiting my favorite Christian existentialist soon, but I do think there's something to be said about puzzling this out on a personal level.

Part of my struggle has to do with, in general, squaring up my faith with stuff I encounter in philosophy. Philosophers worship reason, in a way. I hesitate. Reason is fantastic, but it can't be enough. You can't be complete if that is all you have. We've been talking about reasons for action in class quite a bit, and it worried me that people may not have a reason (independent of themselves) to do the morally right thing. What is that about? But on the other hand, something is missing from morality if it really boils down to what is rational for a person to do. And then there's this other dimension where both reason and morality are subordinate to faith, something totally unjustifiable yet simultaneously authoritative. You believe in what you do not see, and you act accordingly. What can that mean? Reason can't speak to this, for or against. It's a whole new dimension.

I like being reminded of Abraham and Isaac whenever I start rationalizing God. God says do this because ... x, y and z. God would only have commanded this for x reason, etc. Something is wrong about that. If God is anything like who we think he is, then he's way above whatever we could possibly comprehend. He says φ, I φ. There's something liberating about that, but scary at the same time. There's a deep level of trust there. That's what Abraham had, trust. Abraham didn't ask God how his sacrificing Isaac would bring the greatest aggregate utility to society, nor could Abraham will that every father sacrifice his son. Abraham trusted, and then what happened? God provided. There is something really cool about that, something I can't understand.

God didn't make Abraham kill Isaac. But God sacrficed his son. For us, for a bunch of selfish slackers. That is irrational. That is grace. Grace surpasses the right. Grace surpasses reason.

(excuse the ramblings today. mulling this all over is difficult. since it had been so long, I figured I'd take a few minutes to type out the thoughts, just so I don't completely fall out of habit --and this forces me to think more about it. some political philosophy soon!)


Wilson said...

One problem with your analogy is that the senses of hearing and seeing are (1) each reasonably authoritative for the vast majority of us and (2) generally consistent with each other. You seem to suggest, using this analogy, that faith can be authoritative independent of reason, just as sight can be authoritative independent of hearing.

But on the second point, you say that your analogy doesn't work at all. Faith can require what is contrary to reason. (If my sight and hearing were similarly in conflict, I would be very worried indeed.) Why then should I think that your analogy works on the first point? Why, that is, should I accept the notion that faith and reason can guide me as two independent authorities?

Lindsey said...

Right, so your comment reminds me of something I meant to say in the early paragraph. I was going to mention how sight and hearing often work together, giving a more complete picture of what's going on. The story isn't as full without both, etc. You see the orchestra, but you don't really get what it is until you hear it. I was toying with the possibility that faith and reason could work similarly. But you're right in the reason I said that that analogy gave me pause, which is the conflict of the two. In a conflict, which one do you go with? If God is God, should there be a conflict (this question puzzles me the most)? What role does reason play for him? All that jazz.

My inclination is that it works something like this. We have different faculties, each specific to a certain domain. Trying to use one for the other doesn't work, but using both can give a fuller picture. However, if both are God-given (which obviously is a big assumption), then God can stipulate which one to follow in the case of conflict. Or maybe, the conflict only arises when God is actively intervening and making the conflict so, in which case, he still gets to say what gets trumped. This raises tons of questions about the nature of God, his design and plans, his relationship to both morality and reason, etc. It's the tension here that puzzles me.

Note: it's often the case that our senses, if used independant of each oether, would lead us to very different conclusions. I may see the well dress orchestra and conclude that they must play very well. Hearing them may very well prove that wrong. I smell french cheese and conclude that it's both inedible and possibly poisonous (haha), yet it tastes fairly good and won't harm me at all. So in these cases, the conclusions I would have come to using each faculty on its own were very different, but when they are used together they alter the picture entirely. The question is: which sense do you trust and when? For the cheese, taste is the most authoritative. For the orchestra, hearing is the most reliable, etc. Which leads me to the next question: which realms do faith and reason get to reign over? Under which is each the authority? Maybe reason is better when I'm working out math problems.

But my worry is: why would anyone go against reason/morality in the Abraham case? I use reason/morality together to indicate the preference philosophers have for trying to collapse the two into each other (which I don't even think you can do, but w/e). I read it and don't know whether he should be praised for trusting God or reviled for almost killing his son. Thinking of it in the abstraction makes it easy to forget what's going on. It's tough.

Wilson said...

My inclination is that it works something like this. We have different faculties, each specific to a certain domain. Trying to use one for the other doesn't work, but using both can give a fuller picture.

This seems unlikely to me. Is there any aspect of life which is recognizably the exclusive domain of reason or faith?

Suppose my neighbor's faith leads him to burn Quakers to death. Should I not resort to reason to dissuade him? Or suppose my neighbor's reason leads her to conclude that morality lacks an objective basis. Is it improper for me to appeal to some sort of intuition of the transcendent? I'm not sure that we can even make a distinction between jurisdictions in these two cases. I can reason either from religious principles or to religious principles as the case requires.

I read it and don't know whether he should be praised for trusting God or reviled for almost killing his son.

If reason does not apply, then one need not make a distinction between admiration and reviling, I think. But that would obviously seem threatening to anyone trying to take a moral position on this issue or any other.

I think it's the faith/reason dichotomy that doesn't work. Religion often requires critical thinking as much as anything else does; it just begins from a particular set or kind of premises. Sure, "reason" encourages us to question premises of all kinds; but when I try hard enough, I can question any premise, including those underpinning a rationalist's mindset.

Lindsey said...

Hey Wilson,
Sorry, I've been meaning to reply to your 2nd comment for about a week. I haven't much to say, except that your example illustrates the point I was trying to make. What do you say to the person burning Quakers at the stake if the person truly thinks he/she is acting on faith and not on reason? I'm not sure. I really don't think reason would work there. That's my point, sort of.

Not saying that's a good thing. Or always a bad thing. I think it just may be how it is sometimes. Remember, the person need not deny that what she is doing is immoral or irrational, she may acknowledge that and do it anyways. I don't think Abraham thought that killing his son was a good thing; I think he just thought it was his duty.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wilson said...

But this is my problem with the whole faith/reason distinction: the person killing the Quaker may not be behaving irrationally. Given (once) widely accepted premises -- e.g., heresy results in eternal damnation, Quakers spread heresy, and eternal damnation must be avoided at all costs -- killing Quakers would be the reasonable course to take. And each of those premises in turn can be defended by rational argument.

In any case, the person doing the killing is unlikely to tell you that she is acting on faith-not-reason. That distinction is a recent one, and alien to the sort of people who used to be inclined to kill Quakers. They would have been quite willing to reason through their position with you.

And being willing to do something (a "duty") they actually believed was morally wrong? That's really recent.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Lindsey said...

And each of those premises in turn can be defended by rational argument.

This is where I disagree. Even if those premises had arguments to back them, the arguments employed there would need premises, etc etc. So unless you boil it down to a rational argument for the existence of God, which I don't think was on their minds (and if it was, where's the knock down argument? At best reason can get you defensible agnosticism, hardly a premise that could lead you to burn Quakers for heresy). Faith is faith because it's not up for defense. At some point you make a choice that can't be rationally supported. That's the point. So, if you act on that faith, even if the faith is some basic premise and you have arguments from there, the premises themselves cannot be argued against. If burning the Quakers was the result of a faulty line of reason from those premises, fine, but if the problem lies in the premises themselves, what more can be done? My thought is: nothing. That's the point of faith. At some point, rationality has nothing to say (unless the person values having rationally defensible starting premises, which is itself hard to come by). So even if the person thinks she's behaving rationally, she's not, not really. I mean, with the exception of saying her faith gives her some internal reason, or whatever, but that's a whole different issue.

Lindsey said...

What's weird here is that I feel like I'm picking on religious people, which is odd, given that I am one. But what's really going on, I think, is that I'm picking on apologetics, because I think it devalues faith, the whole point of which is to believe without sight, without having something proved.

Wilson said...

Faith is faith because it's not up for defense. At some point you make a choice that can't be rationally supported.

But this can apply to any moral system. Why should I try to maximize happiness? Why should I live a life of activity or contemplation (or balance)? Why should I respect each person as an equal? Any of these bases for moral judgment have been questioned at some point or another, and the defense is almost always aesthetic or, as you have shown in other conversations, faith-based after all.

So the answer would seem to be that morality and rationality also properly belong to separate domains.

But it really is worse than that. I have a friend who questions the principle of noncontradiction. (Try reasoning your way out of that.) We always have to start somewhere -- to take something as given -- when reasoning.

So it still looks to me as if the line between faith and reason is merely the point at which any given person's imagination and curiosity break down, not some sort of fundamental difference in fields of inquiry.

Lindsey said...

So sometimes I'm careful about separating morality and reason, but other times not as much. In my sense of morality, the premises are faith based. But for others, like Kant, it's based solely on reason (what we can rationally will others to act upon, categorical imperative, whatever). He avoids premises that would require faith. Utilitarians, happiness maximizers (to put it simply), identify happiness because that's something we can know/understand/point to. They have arguments for why it matters, even if those arguments aren't any good (your worry there might be akin to Moore's open question argument: if good is just pleasure, why is it still an open question whether pleasure --itself-- is good?). The problems with separating the two, as you point out, are a big part of why philosophers have tried so hard to equate morality with rationality (sometimes accompanied with a good dose of empiricism, sometimes not), or why they deny morality (as we traditionally understand it) all together.

Yes, I think that often a lot of things will come down to faith. But not all things (unless you're an extreme skeptic). I'm okay with that separation. What's important to remember, in cases where they do come together, is that there are cases where even reason is rooted in faith-based premises, and that ought to change the way think about the conclusion. This isn't directed at you so much as it is directed at philosophers (in general). This is why philosophical arguments try and use widely-acceptable premises. It doesn't mean those premises are right, it just means people won't argue with them.

As for the law of noncontradiction denier, there is something to be said for what Descartes calls self-evident truths. He thought, I think, that God's existence belong in this domain. But anyway, mathematical truths, other abstract principles, belong here. They are not empirical, per se, but are demonstratable, self-evident, etc. The reason I doubt that God's existence, or other faith based beliefs, can fall into this category (or why the two shouldn't be conflated) is precisely because the former can be shown to be true, can be understood just by thinking about the world as it is, etc, and believing in the divine is not like that. Some have argued, historically, that it is, but that's just believing in some divinity, not taking the further step to say its the Judeo-Christian-whatever God. Important note: I think faith based beliefs are not only not demonstrably true, but neither are they demonstratably false. Maybe that was obvious in my earlier comments, but I think it's important to the discussion at hand.

I'm not sure if that added anything worthwhile, but there you go.