“We begin from faith, not reason. ‘Credo ut intelligam.’ But how does one argue faith?”
A friend recently asked me this question on a Facebook thread. The thread was about the degenerating relationship between the sexes, though the problem is clearly a more general one. That problem is one inherent in human nature and one that the institution of culture address: how do we resolve disagreements? I suspect that most of us, without reflecting on the problem, assume that we reason toward agreement. This would be terrific were it so; but this requires that we share premises and that we are skilled at drawing logical inferences from premises and applying them to particular cases. In other words, it requires that we be virtuous, using charity with our fellows and cultivating prudence.
What do we do in our current cultural situation where we can’t be assured that we share premises, nor that we or our interlocutors are striving for the virtues of charity and prudence?
Just before this particular Facebook exchange, I found myself in a related on-line debate regarding the culpability of the Covington Catholic high school kids. What initially bothered me about this story was that it got traction at all. I realize that we have a non-stop news cycle to fill, but, like the Jussie Smollett case that drew attention away from real victims of crime, I felt that the Covington/Nathan Philips story was distracting us from real issues. In the course of the discussion, I realized that I’d have to agree to disagree with the two old college friends who were insisting that the kids had done something wrong (presumably by wearing MAGA hats and protesting abortion). This wasn’t entirely surprising, but it was slightly disappointing to realize that persons I’ve known for thirty years were ready to assume that I was naively (or perhaps even knowingly) covering up for white male supremacy, etc, etc.
So with the stage set, let’s see if there’s some other way we can approach this.
Note that there are two different words that seem to relate to the foundations of our arguments: faith and premises. We seem to argue from first premises when we try to persuade others (and, sometimes, hopefully, we do just that). But what if our first premises are ones held by faith? Doesn’t this imply that they are not reasonable premises? Aren’t faith and reason opposed, at least at some level?
I would answer that all first premises are acts of faith and reason. We begin by faith, but we hope to mature toward being able to reason about our fundamental beliefs.
One incontrovertible fact about human existence is that we come to our opinions by first accepting them from others. This is because we enter the world as speechless infants and for most of our childhood, we lack the reasoning power to challenge, with any rigor, the worldview into which our families and culture immerse us. This worldview contains premises that are largely unspoken. In some cases, they are explicitly stated, but the interpretation of them is not fully agreed-upon. So the idea that all men are created equal come easily to Americans, and I think that most of us grow up believing that. But we don’t agree with what it means, in part because we don’t agree on what kind of Creator created us (if any!). That is to say that we hold some other unexamined premises that may or may not be in common with other Americans.
But again, this is all just to say that our premises, at least in childhood, are clearly held on faith. We don’t start questioning these premises in any strong way until adolescence. When we do, I’m afraid that our educational system’s failures become manifest. I say this for two reasons, and in neither of these am I taking aim at teachers (my mother was one!) the great majority of whom do excellent work under less-than-favorable circumstances. I will need to check in with my history teacher friends especially to get their take on what follows.
First of all, simply challenging one’s own premises is a fruitless exercise, like cutting the branch on which you’re sitting, unless one is equipped with the knowledge to understand historically how those premises came to hold the position they have in one’s culture (in other words, one must reason about them). Perhaps the greatest mistake of the Enlightenment is the assumption that “reason” is ahistorical and can be best exercised apart from cultural contingencies. How many of us have the historical resources to understand the thought processes of the Founding Fathers who held that a Creator created all men equal?
[Excursulus [=mini-excursus] for those learned in Marxism: I recognize that Marxism will, in fact, reason historically that the Founding Fathers were conditioned by their place in the evolution of Western thought, and that we have evolved to know better now that the idea of a Creator can be dropped without losing the idea of equality and natural rights. Historically, we’ve moved on, so the reasoning goes–to an ahistorical Truth. I think they’re terribly wrong on this point, but I will have to leave that to the side, which is unfortunate because so many of us think, unreflectively, with Marxist premises. Obviously that will have to be dealt with.]
So kids like me go off to college and have super-intelligent professors challenge their premises on everything. And, in many cases, one set of premises taken on authority are
replaced by another set of premises, also taken on authority. Just that the authority has gone from one’s family and subcultural milieu to the authority of the academy, which is putatively more rational. This is heady, and it’s easy to fall for it (I was tempted). But again, I doubt that most eighteen-year-olds, or even twenty-five-year-olds in our world have the real capacity to enter fully into debate about premises. So our educational system fails us by assuming the premises of John Keating. At least the screenwriter for Dead Poets Society had the wherewithal to make his story deeply tragic.
Our educational system fails us in a second, related way. This whole, ingrained notion that we should challenge premises means that we lack the confidence to learn, robustly, sympathetically, even proudly, why our own premises have held up so well (this is true in any culture that’s lasted more than a few generations). This involves, again, knowing hard facts about our own Western history, its shaping institutions, and so on. Consider this sobering quote from Patrick Deneen at Notre Dame:
But ask [my undergraduate students] some basic questions about the civilization they will be inheriting, and be prepared for averted eyes and somewhat panicked looks. Who fought in the Peloponnesian war? What was at stake at the Battle of Salamis? Who taught Plato, and whom did Plato teach? How did Socrates die? Raise your hand if you have read both the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Canterbury Tales? Paradise Lost? The Inferno?
Who was Saul of Tarsus? What were the 95 theses, who wrote them, and what was their effect? Why does the Magna Carta matter? How and where did Thomas Becket die? What happened to Charles I? Who was Guy Fawkes, and why is there a day named after him? What happened at Yorktown in 1781? What did Lincoln say in his Second Inaugural? His first Inaugural? How about his third Inaugural? Who can tell me one or two of the arguments that are made in Federalist 10? Who has read Federalist 10? What are the Federalist Papers?
He’s saying this about the best educated and best prepared students in America, students who qualified to get into Princeton, Georgetown, and Notre Dame. I suspect that our squeemishness about our own cultural inheritance, a squeemishness that derives from the whole idea that we should (unquestioningly) question our premises, even when we’re not ready to, has contributed to the lack of preparation that university students have for the project of actually challenging premises. This leads, not to any substantive enlightenment or greater rationality, but to weaker and more defensive minds overall whose premises become ever more idiosyncratic as a result of the corrosive effects of reason divorced from its home in historical narrative.
So let me recap what I’ve said so far. Premises are initially held on faith, faith in the trustworthiness of my parents, my extended family and local culture, the Church, etc. This doesn’t mean that can’t be challenged and shouldn’t be. But there’s a risk that such challenges will be juvenile rebellion and little more (Voltaire’s rhetorircal gifts mask this aspect of his thought, in my opinion) if those making them do not understand how the premises came to have the place they have in the culture. In other words, we have to know how to tell the story of Western civilization if we wish to issue a substantive challenge to that culture about its premises. Enlightenment rationality, which cuts the connection between reason and history, is not up to the task, and has had the baneful result that our best educated often can’t tell just the story they need to tell, the one they’re actually critiquing (ask any medievalist).
So it is that feminists who attempt to portray Western civilization as unremittingly sexist and patriarchal can’t really explain how it is that President Trump could (improbably) celebrate the number of elected congresswomen attending the State of the Union address.* If Western civilization didn’t include the notion that all men are created equal, how have we made progress in moving women into positions of political power? If white men had such a stranglehold on power, what persuaded them to allow women’s suffrage, the Civil Rights Act, etc? Why do appeals to white guilt land at all?
I must end by pointing out that I’ve suggested that premises can be argued, but I haven’t explained how that is. This also suggests that faith can be argued, rationally. Saint Peter wanted us to be able to give reasons for the hope that we hold. What are such reasons but a way of exercising rationality in service of faith? How did the evangelists convert the early (middle, and late) Christians if not by giving reasons why the Faith is true?
More to come.
* Again, the Marxists do have an alternate historical explanation, and I intend to examine it at some point; but I don’t think it’s rational precisely because it posits as one of its premises that false consciousness has rendered irrational all previous attempts at rationality. This also suggests that some form of Marxism is the most powerful opponent to the Aristotelian/Thomist rationality that I’m going to champion.