Thursday, May 19, 2022

On Howard-Snyder and McKaughan on Faith

 Daniel Howard-Snyder and Daniel J. McKaughan have a forthcoming paper, The Problem of Faith and Reason, in which they try to propose an account of faith. Unfortunately, the argument is a bit of mess, and I think falls very short of establishing what they hope to establish. Because it's a bit of a mess, it's hard to get a single grip on it, so I'll break up my comments into a few basic components.

(1) Before getting to the argument of the paper itself, I want to comment on the interpretation of Aquinas, who is used as a contrast case. There are several serious flaws in the depiction of the Thomistic account by Howard-Snyder and McKaughan, and this causes problems for their overall argument, which is in part an argument that their account of faith is superior to the Thomistic account. They say:

According to Aquinas, the object of faith is God, but since we have no immediate awareness of God, strictly speaking the object of faith is propositions about God, such as the proposition that God exists or the proposition that Jesus is God incarnate. Faith, then, is an act of intellectual assent to propositions about God. (p. 17)

This is not correct. Aquinas is very clear that, strictly speaking, the object of faith is God as first truth. Propositions are not the object of faith. What Aquinas says is that the object of faith is aliquid complexum per modum enuntiabilis. While God is simple in Himself, as an object of the human intellect, He is thought of in a manner appropriate to the human intellect, which naturally knows by composition and division (by judgment). We think even of simple things in complexifying ways. This 'complexification' is by way of enunciables. 'Proposition' is in many cases a perfectly fine translation, but an enunciable is an articulation of a more fundamental act, judgment, using concepts; it is not an abstract object but a possible expression of thought in an actual context. (This fact, incidentally, is one of the things that leads to medieval logic working somewhat differently from modern logic, as, for instance, when medieval logicians insist that enunciations can change truth value over time.) The point is that the object of faith is something complex by way of its intellectual expression in us. Aquinas flat-out denies (ST 2-2.1.1 ad 2) that the object of faith is enunciables, however; enunciables are means the intellect uses to think; they are not (setting aside purely reflexive cases as found in, say, the study of the logic of propositions) the object about which the intellect is thinking.  (We often find similar confusions when people discuss concepts; for Aquinas, concepts are not what we primarily know, they are the means created by the intellect for the purpose of knowing other things.) The 'per modum' is very important. Aquinas does not think that propositions about God are the object of faith; he thinks they are the tools of faith. (And he would point, as he explicitly does, to the Creed, which articulates the object of faith into propositions, not so that we can have faith in propositions, but so that we can by means of them have faith in God.)

The authors go on to note Aquinas contextualizes faith by comparing and contrasting it with other postures of the intellect, as we might call them, to things that are true and false. Like knowledge in the proper sense, faith is certain. However, knowledge is certain on the basis of proof, which excludes the opposite, while faith is not. Faith thus also has features in common with opinion, suspicion and doubt, which do not exclude the opposite. The reason is that, unlike knowledge in the strict sense, the postures of faith, opinion, suspicion, or doubt are all postures the mind takes in deliberating or investigating. I don't blame Howard-Snyder and McKaughan for missing this, because most people miss it, and it's not always particularly relevant to what people are looking at in Aquinas's account, but it is relevant to the argument in this paper. In the course of deliberating or inquiring, you can take different postures to the things that come up in inquiry, and one of these postures is faith, which is to incline firmly to accepting it because it is taken to be good to do so (which Aquinas calls assent). In the case of the faith that we are primarily talking about here (and this is important for the argument in the paper), this involve three kinds of goodness-to-believe, so to speak: God, the object of faith, is good to believe about; divine authority, which is that which makes it possible for us to have faith, is good authority on which to believe; and God, as the end of faith, is good to direct oneself towards. In Aquinas's account of faith, we believe God by means of God's authoritative revelation so that we may be united to God, at the conclusion of our inquiring, which conclusion is the Beatific Vision, in which we will not merely have faith in God but know God. Thus when the authors characterize Aquinas's account of faith as "believing a proposition about God with certainty, on inadequate evidence, by an act of will, due to an attraction to its being true" (p. 18), this is not correct. Aquinas does not hold that the evidence for faith is inadequate, simpliciter; he thinks it is inadequate for knowledge, because faith is a posture taken in the course of ongoing inquiry that has not reached the point of knowledge. It is not 'believing a proposition about God'; it is believing God about God for the sake of God, which we do (again in our course of inquiry) by using propositions as an instrument for believing, not as what we believe.

It's also worth pointing out, as relevant to what the authors will argue, that Aquinas says that faith is consistent with occasional doubt (ST 2-2.4.8 ad 1). This is inevitable, in fact, because, again, Aquinas takes faith to be a posture of inquiring, and in inquiring we haven't yet proven, and in the course of inquiring we will often shift around a bit, without necessarily changing the dominant posture in which we are inquiring. To take a very common experience of philosophers, you can have a stable opinion that something is true (e.g., that there is a world independent of your mind) and in the course of inquiry, a puzzle comes up that throws you into confusion (perhaps you read an apparently excellent skeptical argument against a key element of your opinion), so that you can be in doubt about your opinion without its ceasing to be your opinion (as people have often said, skeptical arguments don't necessarily change your view even if you find them unanswerable). This is one of the things you work out in inquiry, and working it out is one of the ways -- not the only way, by any means, but one of the ways -- that inquiry enriches our minds.

(2) The view put forward by Howard-Snyder and McKaughan is that faith is what they call 'resilient reliance':

For you to have faith in someone for something is for you to be disposed to rely on them to come through with respect to it, with resilience in the face of challenges to relying on them, because of your positive stance toward their coming through. (p. 4)

This is frankly a little baffling, and while the authors do provide some clarifications, I think they fall short of what would be required to understand what this is supposed to mean, much less how it differs from any other account of faith. But first, I'd like to note an oddity of the structure here. Faith according to the authors has three variable components: you having faith in someone for something. The 'for something' is peculiar, not because you couldn't have faith in someone for something, but because it's quite clearly not true that all faith in someone is for something. If a husband has faith in his wife, it's not for something, it's just faith in her. Now, in particular situations it might lead to faith in her for something, for instance, that she will be able to handle some particular problem well (can be relied on to come through with respect to the problem, as the authors put it), but this is different from having faith in one's wife. You can have faith in a friend without being disposed to rely on them to come through with respect to something particular, because a lot of our faith in our friends is not about them 'coming through' at all. Now perhaps the 'something' is not intended to imply 'something particular', but if we're allowing something general (e.g., having faith in them for reasonableness), it's unclear what 'relying on them to come through' is supposed to mean. It seems like you're just relying on them, not relying on them 'to come through', whatever that would mean here. Indeed, they seem to think that 'coming through' is an intuitive idea rather than (as it is) a somewhat vague metaphor that applies to very different things but also seems not to apply to a lot of situations. 'Coming through' seems to apply only to doings, not (e.g.) to being, or to being present, or to knowing what one is talking about, all of which are things that come up when people talk about religious faith.

It's also notable that Howard-Snyder and McKaughan think that faith is necessarily connected to challenges. That is, on their account, you can't have faith in someone unless it is in principle possible for it to be difficult to rely on them. Thus we can never determine whether someone actually has faith unless we can determine what kind of challenges would make it difficult for that person to rely on them. This is not, I think, intuitive. People of course commonly take faith in someone at its best to be resilient in the face of challenges that come up, but I don't think people generally take such resilience to be constitutive of faith rather than one effect of it.

Another way to consider the point is this. In my Ethics classes, I used to have students write a short essay on a particular virtue, in which they would have to analyze the virtue. One way to analyze virtues that we discussed was to relate it to a major virtue, and in practice we always looked primarily at moral virtues, because it was an Ethics class. A popular virtue to pick was faith, and one way that some students tried to analyze it was to place it in the fortitude family of virtues. The view given by the authors is the same kind of analysis, although strictly speaking they analyze it as a habitus and not as a virtue; their argument is that faith is related to fortitude, which is preeminently the virtue of resilience in the face of challenge. Now, one problem with this as an analysis of faith is that it means that you can't have faith about things that are easy to believe -- apparently at all -- and that you can never know that anything is faith unless you have established that it really is this fortitude-like virtue, which always will require first finding the difficulty it is resilient against. A further problem with it is that it threatens to split faith into a thousand different things. If you think about things that could lead someone in some way to question whether they should rely on someone, they are legion, and can be very different. Some of them are purely intellectual. Some of them are emotional. Some of them are social. It seems you would have to have different faiths for significantly different kinds of difficulties. Both patience and fortitude involve resilience in the face of difficulties, but particular difficulties, like death in the case of fortitude proper. The resilience that people associate with faith seems to handle pretty much any kind of difficulty, which is a sign that the resilience itself is not a single kind of thing, but very different things that are united by whatever it is that faith is.

(3) The previous point is an issue in the authors' analysis of some of their examples, because they regularly assume that there were challenges even when (as with the Canaanite woman) we don't actually have evidence that it was a challenge for the person's own reliance. Nonetheless, their argument is on much stronger ground when we do have a clear notion of the possible challenges -- as with Abraham or Mother Teresa. What they don't really address, though, is the deliberately paradoxicality of these kinds of cases. When Mother Teresa uses the phrase, "to live by faith and not to believe", she's not trying to characterize a constitutive feature of faith in general; she's using a deliberate paradoxical and unintuitive expression in an effort to capture a particular feature of her own struggle. That is, we again are left with the problem that the authors treat as constitutive what could be interpreted instead as an effect in certain kinds of situations.

It's also worth noting, perhaps, since this issue of faith-without-belief is a central pillar of their account, that in the strict sense Aquinas's account of faith does not rule out the possibility of having faith and not belief, because for Aquinas faith is a disposition and belief is an act. Dispositions do not always issue in acts; they can be impeded, or quiescent, or something similar.

None of this should be taken as suggesting that I disliked the paper; I think it's a nice first sketch of something interesting. It's just that, as I said, I think the argument as it stands is a bit of a mess.