In the Small-scale Questions thread, @TheDag asked:
[H]ow do you handle the paradox of belief? [...] The 'logical' part of my brain relentlessly attacks what it sees as the foolishness of religion, ritual and sacrament. And yet, when I partake and do my best to take it seriously, I feel healed. [...] How do you make sense of a serious religious practice, while keeping the ability to be seriously rational?
This post is my attempt to answer that question.
My apologies in advance for any first-draft typos or errors.
I am an Orthodox Christian -- a convert to Orthodoxy, but not to Christianity in general. I've been reading material from LessWrong/SSC/ACX for about 10 years now, but never considered myself a Rationalist, in large part because of the movement's basically-axiomatic rejection of anything not comporting with a materialist metaphysics. Nevertheless, I'm a natural skeptic and a mathematician by training, and I think I understand, at a visceral level, what TheDag is talking about.
This post is not intended to be an apologia for Religion, Theism, or Orthodox Christianity in particular. Instead, it is an outline of my way of thinking about Reason and Christianity, and why I think that (some forms of) religion -- yes, serious, supernaturalist, actually-believe-the-creeds Christianity complete with ritual and sacraments (in fact, especially that kind) -- is fully compatible with being rational; at least, as rational as we can reasonably expect to be.
Small disclaimer: I'm going to use Christianity, and (sometimes) Orthodox Christianity in particular, as my source of examples/topic of discussion. I (a) do not guarantee that everything I say will be precisely correct Orthodox doctrine (I'm doing my best but I'm not getting feedback from a committee of bishops and theologians) and (b) don't know how applicable this all is outside of Christianity. (It would be kind of weird if I thought that Christianity and other religions were in exactly the same position, since I think Orthodox Christianity is true and other religions varying degrees of less-than-true.)
2 The Goals of Rationality
Why does anyone care about being rational in the first place? The usual answer, which in my opinion is basically correct, is that there are two reasons:
- Because it helps you to believe true things rather than false things. ("Epistemic Rationality")
- Because it helps you make better choices. ("Instrumental Rationality")
Note that these goals are just that -- goals. There's no law of the universe (at least, there's no non-circular argument) that a particular "Rational" way of thinking will always be the best way to achieve those goals. A particular set of scientific, logical, and probabilistic methods seem to be pretty good, overall, and certainly excel in some domains, but in principal these are secondary to the above goals. Do you want to believe true things and live well, or do you want to Be Rational? Obviously the first, right?
There's another kind of reason to want to be rational. Maybe you have a skeptical temperament, and have an internal demand for a certain sort of rigor. Or maybe you have developed a kind of self-identification as a Rational Person, which has attached itself to a certain set of assumptions and ways of thinking. Or maybe you like to think of yourself as Intelligent and Rational, and there's this bunch of intelligent people you know, and they all say that thinking in a certain way, and believing in a certain set of axioms, is a prerequisite to being Intelligent and Rational, and theism and rituals and faith and religion is just Dumb Stuff for Irrational People and you don't want to be Dumb and Irrational, right?
(It should go without saying that this is a general You, not about TheDag in particular, but here I am saying it anyway.)
The important thing here is that these temperamental, identity-based, and social reasons for wanting to Be Rational are not, themselves, rational or virtuous. If it's the identity or social reasons that have got you, all I can say is that the faster you admit it to yourself and work on getting rid of them, the better.
But perhaps your troubles are in part due to a skeptical temperament, whether natural or trained, or with a difficulty believing that doing and thinking in ways that are not Rational could possibly lead to believing true things or living well.
In that case, the rest of this essay is for you.
Some people are Christians because they trust authority figures who tell them it's true. Others are Christian because they believe they've witnessed an inexplicable miracle. There's nothing wrong with these people; many of them are better people than I am; but they are not me.
I am a Christian because of the Hard Problem of Consciousness.
Okay, maybe that's a bit too glib, so let me expand a bit. There is a fundamental mystery of how consciousness can exist in a purely material universe. I don't mean that it's a mystery how something could exhibit intelligent behavior, or have some sort of internal model of the world that contains itself. I mean that the existence of a first-person perspective, of there being an I that sees from my eyes and thinks my thoughts, of there being a quality to experience -- all things that we take for granted -- seem impossible in a materialist ontology. The usual materialist takes either handwave the problem away, or else (inexplicably to me) bite the bullet and deny the existence of the conscious self at all.
Even so, I exist.
Lest I digress into the apologia which I did not intend to write, let me just make my main point here: the existence of a first-person perspective not only reveals materialism to be a premise rather than a conclusion, it poses a problem for the universal applicability of rationality, because while the first person perspective is a universal and undeniable fact, even the best thinkers cannot seem to articulate what, exactly, it is, or delineate it to the point of being able to reason clearly about it -- which is why we see the problem being dismissed as just muddled thinking by others.
My other point in bringing this up is as a segue into talking about exactly how deeply the Theist (or at least, Christian) ontology differs from the Materialist one. A lot of people have this unspoken idea that Christian ontology is essentially the same as materialist ontology, except that there is are extra entities which maybe don't follow the laws of physics, and one of them is "omnipotent" (whatever that means, maybe power level = infinity or something), and we call that one "God".
This is not the Christian ontology.
The actual Christian ontology is something more like this: The fundamental nature of reality does not look like atoms and the void, governed by laws of physics. Rather, the fundamental nature of reality is something which is in most respects unimaginable, but in which what we call personhood and will and morality and love and reason are fundamental attributes. This is God -- not another entity like a star or a chair or a cat or a human, only immaterial and superpowered, but rather, the Person at the heart of all reality, in virtue of which everything that exists (including, of course, the entire material universe and all its physical laws), exists.
This is so fundamentally difficult to get one's mind around that people resort to paradoxes to talk about it: We call God "The Existing One", and yet some Christian theologians have said things like "God is not a being" -- not because they think that God is just some idea, but because our notion of "existence" or "being" imports the idea of a separate entity within the universe, and is insufficient to what -- who -- God is. (More on this in the next section.)
This ontology is probably shocking to people whose habitual assumptions are materialist -- which is true of most people, let alone Rationalists. So they round off theistic claims, in their head, to something like "Superpowered Invisible Man". This concept is, from the Christian perspective, nearer to the truth than pure materialism, but -- the skeptics are right on this one -- being materialist-except-for-this-one-superpowered-dude is not very rational.
But within the ontology I've outlined, Christian beliefs about the world make reasonable sense -- I would say they are rational, not in the sense of being obviously inevitable or circumscribed by reason, but in that they don't pose any problem for a rational person who recognizes his limits and is content with partial understanding.
4 Cataphasis and Apophasis
When people talk about paradoxes in Christianity, they generally mean one of four things:
- Doctrines, like the Trinity, which refer to concepts that our minds have a difficult time comprehending, because they are so different from our usual experience and categories.
- Counterintuitive truths, expressed in apparently-contradictory language in order to draw attention.
- Deliberate paradox in the form of Apophatic theology, meant to explode misconceptions about God and emphasize our inability to comprehend His fundamental nature.
- Multiple ways of talking about the same topic that seem to be inconsistent.
Of the second I will have nothing further to say; it is clearly not a problem for rational thinking. Of the first, I want to emphasize that the apparent paradox is due to our inability to understand the concepts involved and nothing more, much like how arithmetic on infinite cardinal numbers is not a "real" paradox just because it doesn't behave like arithmetic on the integers. ("But I understand cardinal arithmetic, down to how it is a consequence of ZFC! If nobody understands the Trinity fully, how could it be reasonable to believe it?" More on that later.)
So let's talk about the third and fourth.
A number of foundational Christian thinkers have divided theology into two parts: Cataphatic, or positive, theology, and Apophatic or negative, theology. Cataphatic theology is what is at play when one says things like "God loves", or "God is merciful", or "God is just"; or that which is expressed in creeds and dogmas. Cataphatic theology is saying the things that we know about God. Apophatic theology is an approach in which, rather than making positive statements about God, we make negative statements about what God is not. (For some easy examples: "God is not material", "God does not have a cause outside Himself".)
Apophasis often takes the form of paradox when juxtaposed with cataphatic statements, because, first, our concepts which are employed in cataphatic statements will smuggle in implications or impressions which are not true, and second, because this paradox emphasizes our inability to comprehend the full truth about God. I mentioned the apophatic "God is not a being" above, for instance, which seems to contradict theism, but actually the point is that our notion of "being" or "existence" is not really applicable to God.
One might think of apophatic theology's relationship to cataphatic theology as trying to help us understand the "map" of cataphatic doctrine as a guide to the "territory" of who God is and how we relate to God, by continually pulling our attention to the fact that the map is not the territory. This isn't irrational paradox at all, but our continual reminder that the person at the center of reality is not something we can really get our minds around, and we're better off not imagining that we can.
(Digression: Apophatic theology is not unique to Christianity; there is something very similar in Neoplatonism as well as, I think, in Taoism ("The Tao which can be spoken is not the true Tao.").)
Finally, the fourth kind of paradox. It is much like the third, except that multiple counterbalancing positive statements are made, each pointing to part of a truth which is too difficult for us to really get our heads around. Now of course it is possible to excuse nonsense as "just different aspects of an incomprehensible truth," but the thing can really happen as well as being faked.
Let's take an example: What's the deal with sin? Why is it bad for me to sin? (other than it being bad for the people I harm)? The following answers are all defensible from both the Bible and Christian Tradition:
- Sin is breaking God's rules. It makes God angry, and He will punish you for it. (BUT: Doesn't the Bible also say that God hates no one and is quick to forgive?)
- Sin is bad because it's foolish, and tends to lead to bad natural consequences: material, psychological, or social. (BUT: People who do bad things often end up ahead.)
- Sin is like a progressive illness; if you sin, you get sicker, and eventually you'll be miserable (unless you get cured). (BUT: where's the will and personal guilt in all this? And why do I need to consent to being cured?)
- Sin separates you from God, and the absence of God's love ends up in misery. (BUT: How can anyone be separated from God and God's love, if God is everywhere and in everything, and loves everyone?)
- Sin breaks your relationship with God (BUT: a human's relationship with God is only similar by analogy to our relationship with other humans, and how could this be broken, since God doesn't get emotional baggage like humans do?)
- Sinning makes you into the sort of person that finds the presence of God intolerable. (BUT: how does that even work?)
(I probably left some out.) For what it's worth, I -- and many Orthodox theologians -- think the last one is probably closest to the truth, but in some ways it's the least actionable. What we get is all of them: partly because each of them is the right model for some occasions, and we, being unable to really understand the underlying reality, need a multiplicity of models for different circumstances. "All models are wrong, but some are useful," indeed.
5 Those Who Have Not Seen and Yet Have Believed
This section title refers, of course, to Jesus's words to the Apostle Thomas -- after the resurrection, Jesus appears to the Apostles, but for some reason, Thomas isn't with them. The rest tell Thomas, but he -- being a bit of a skeptic -- refuses to believe unless he can verify it for himself (down to unfakeable physical proof). Later, Jesus appears to all of them, offers that proof to Thomas -- and then gives a blessing to "those who have not seen and yet have believed".
There is an epistemic issue -- two, maybe -- that a lot of rational/skeptical people have with Christianity, and it's this. A lot of Christian doctrine contains claims that cannot be verified by anyone alive today (e.g the Crucifixion and Resurrection), or even could not have been directly verified by human observation at all (e.g. the Trinity).
The first is not, in principle, a problem. Everyone believes lots of things they can't verify, even things that nobody can verify now (historical events, e.g.), because they trust in the body of people who did observe those things and those who have passed on the report. They are not wrong to do so! Very little can be empirically verified by an individual. So part of the question, then, is how trustworthy are the people who reported and passed down these events? Since this is not an apologia I won't get into the weeds here (and also I'm not really an expert), so I'll just say that I think a good case can be made that the answer is "Pretty darned trustworthy, all things considered". Still, some of the claims made are pretty wild (cf Resurrection) if you haven't already accepted the overall metaphysics, so skepticism is understandable.
The second is more of a problem. How can anyone, no matter how honest or intelligent, come to know something like the doctrine of the Trinity, which is (a) something that can't be (physically) observed, and (b) admittedly not fully comprehensible by anyone? Christianity, of course, has an answer: it was revealed by God -- through the words of prophets, or Jesus, or by a revelation given to some of the Apostles. That's an explanation, but it has one problem: it does not bridge the epistemic gap for those who don't already broadly accept Christianity.
Here's the thing: this is fine. Nobody should be asked to accept these things just on the say-so of people they aren't sure they can trust. It is not rational to do so, but it's also not necessary. There are good ways to bridge that gap, such that blind belief is not required.
Roughly, it works like this: you get good evidence, of some sort, that at least some of the claims are true. Since all these claims are coming from the same source, they are tied together -- belief in one should increase your estimation that the source is a good one, and thus that the others, which you can't verify, are true as well. Coming to believe in the others to an extent, you see how they fit together (and/or find that believing other claims has good results). At some point a threshold is passed, and you believe not in the truth of this or that statement, but in the whole edifice, even those parts you don't understand (yet), because, as Chesterton put it, you find that Christianity is a truth-telling thing.
Talk to most thoughtful Christians, including many converts, and you'll find that something like this is the process. Maybe they have, like me, some deep philosophical convictions that turn out to be elucidated best by Christian doctrine. Maybe they had an experience that, while maybe not communicable to others, they feel they had no choice but to accept as miraculous, and which pointed them in that direction. Maybe they just found that acting as though the doctrines are true had good results for them that they did not find elsewhere.
As an exercise, I invite you to think about why, from the Orthodox Christian perspective, correct doctrine is so important. It's not because the beliefs, in themselves, are going to save someone ("Even the demons believe -- and tremble!"), nor the converse, that one cannot be saved without specific beliefs (see: the many saints who made errors or lacked knowledge, or the fact that the Church believes that children and idiots can be saved). It's not an arbitrary test, either. Rather, the Church believes that knowing certain truths about God and Humanity's relationship to God helps you, because God is real, and believing true things makes it is easier to be aligned to that reality, which is the real goal.
[ I ran out of characters, so the rest will be in a reply to this post.]