My Method of Reasoning in Defending my Creed
"If we take in our hand any volume [of non-fiction] let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning ...? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion."
David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748)
Hume's approach is called the Verification Principle. It is very popular in the Anglosphere, and underlies the thinking of many who have never heard of it. But it misunderstands the role of evidence. There are at least two problems with it.
(1) The verification principle is mistaken about how our understanding of the world is acquired in everyday matters. As Karl Popper has shown, "the facts of experience" do not suggest any generalisations. All generalisations, both our practical know-how and our theoretical know-what, arise from elsewhere. There is no such thing as "just observing"; if you seek to understand, you must be looking for something, or for some kind of thing. So it is never "believe it or not", it is always "believe this or believe that". You always bring your prior expectations to the table, and this is not a fault, it is a necessary feature of human experience.
On questions that do not affect me, I can remain a "don't know". But on questions that do affect me this option is not available. I must choose. I shall choose, whether I like it or not. Even choosing to do nothing is a choice (not that anyone makes it, unless maybe on hunger strike). And my choice expresses an assumption about how things stand. Clearly I should choose the assumption that best fits my experience; practical expertise and scientific method agree there. But that judgment of "best fit" is affected by preconceptions.
(2) The verification principle cannot apply to the most fundamental beliefs, for there is no evidence for it, which thus contradicts itself and so must be false. We can only use evidence to help us assess beliefs if we already have basic beliefs which tell us, among other things, how to assess the evidence. Evidence cannot lead us to those basic beliefs, for that would be circular.
"Any argument for all valid arguments being deductive or inductive must be deductive or inductive. Clearly there is no such argument."
John Lucas, The Freedom of the Will, Chapter 11.
"The whole point of seeing through things is to see things through them. To see through everything is to see nothing."
C S Lewis, The Abolition of Man.
There is no neutral starting point. Each of us starts from a particular point and proceeds from there, and there is never any "evidence" in favour of any such starting point as against another. We cannot, even "for the sake of argument", put aside our own starting points and come together on some neutral ground where we would "look at the facts", for there is no such ground and there are no such facts. When we adandon one starting point in favour of another, we are led, not by the understanding, but by the will.
None of this implies that our starting point need be random. I do not think it is. I think the truth is clear enough.
What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
Paul of Tarsus, Romans 1:19-20.
All laud we would render, O help us to see
'Tis only the splendour of light hideth thee.
Walter Chalmers Smith (1824-1908), Immortal, invisible
I think that folk shirk the truth, not because it is doubtful, but because it is unpalatable. The problem is not in the understanding, but in the will.
"The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt."
The Book of Jeremiah 17:9
How can [God] meet us face to face till we have faces?
C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces 2:4 (1956)
Reason does play a part in assessing basic beliefs, but a subordinate one. There are many traps into which reason can fall that may hinder you, either from getting to the point where you properly understand a set of beliefs, or from adequately expressing your response. For instance, in this site, when I present my own beliefs, I point out as many of those traps as I can.
There is no neutral starting point, but there is plenty of room for a modest scepticism, even on basics. All human words are imperfect and fallible, including those in which I express my basic beliefs. This does not imply that God is unreliable, only that my understanding of him is. In the process I systematically reexaminine my basic beliefs. I constantly do this, for such self-criticism is inherent in those beliefs.
(I am not here elevating self-criticism above my beliefs. Self-criticism cannot be a starting point, for the reasons already given. In itself it leads nowhere. Only as one element of a worldview has it any value.)
No two cycles of such self-criticism are identical, and details of my beliefs constantly evolve, but the basic ones that constitute my creed have proved stable.
At each step I ask myself not "What is the evidence for this?" (an empty question, as explained above) but (1) "Is there any incoherence (i.e. intrinsic impossibility) in this?" and (2) "Is there any viable alternative to this?"
(1) Whenever I have found incoherence I have changed my belief, but at present I am aware of none so I feel entitled to offer my creed for you to consider and, I hope, to adopt.
(2) The question of viable alternatives is less simple. There is always the option of a more stubborn scepticism, that believes nothing and seems determined to stay that way. "After all", I may say to myself, "perhaps there is a viable alternative that has not occurred to me yet. Perhaps if I keep an open mind a little longer ...." Such scepticism is akin to despair, and there is no reason to reject despair. There is no reason to hope for anything, to believe anything, to love anything. And the perverse desire for a reason, for something that I can possess, something within my comprehension such that I can feel that I have decided this or that, is strong, in me as in the modern Global Western culture that surrounds me. I think I know why that is, and will explain in the proper place, but here it is only necessary to mention that at this level there is no reason to insist on reasons.
There are in a sense endless possible alternatives to my beliefs, but my thoughts are limited and I can only explore so far. On each cycle of self-criticism I go a little further, but broader limits are still limits. Our circumstances affect us. When I meet someone who suggests a particular line of thought, it feeds into my repertoire of alternatives, my "universe of discourse". Hence the alternatives I consider are generally those familiar to modern Western man, though I try to cast my net more widely than that. In this site I try to anticipate as many alternatives as possible, including some I have myself long ago discarded as unworthy of more than a passing glance but which some readers may consider plausible.
Nothing is demonstrably true, and in that sense there is nothing to hold on to, but I have long found that I am held. My only basis for supposing that this will continue is those very beliefs that I am questioning, but I consider that basis to be sound. Yes this is circular, but then, so is life.
If you study my creed I think you will find that it rings true. You will then decide whether to act accordingly.
If the first few items of my Creed do not impress you, I hope you will read on, because the force is cumulative. The order is logical not biographical. You are unlikely to adopt this creed's items in logical order, but I see no way to represent in words the inner process by which a self comes to see that real Christianity makes sense.
Replies to Objections
(Ontological Relativism) There are no absolute truths. Truth is relative. What is true in one case, for one self in one place at one time, may be false in another case. So there is no point trying to foist your beliefs on me. They may be true for you, but each of us has to come to our own truth in our own way.
Truth is always relative? Without exception? In that case, "there are no absolute truths" is an absolute truth. So even if we start from the assumption that there are no absolute truths we cannot escape the conclusion that there is at least one absolute truth. So there are absolute truths, that are true even if everyone thinks them false, and vice-versa. So we can drop the "absolute" and just call them truths. And the sum total of truths we can conveniently call simply the truth.
What it means to say that a statement is true can be illustrated by an example. To say that "The cat is black" is true, is just another way to say that the cat is black. A more verbose way when used directly like that, but it helps us express other things more succinctly. For instance, instead of saying "He says that the cat is black and so on, and the cat is black and so on" (where "and so on" can be a lengthy statement) we can say "He says that the cat is black and so on, and his statement is true" without needing to repeat the "and so on" part.
(Defiant Scepticism) I do not believe the evidence of my senses. I see no evidence that the world is real, or that you are real, or even that I am real.
In fact you are already assuming that we are both real, otherwise you would not be talking to me like this. So that is one assumption we share, and we can proceed on that assumption.