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Dissecting Faith Through Reason

Guest Column Kris Schnee

In his recent essay Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), Pope John Paul II attempts to settle the long-standing conflict between two rival methods for gaining knowledge the reliance on God to reveal hidden truths and the search for information by observation and deduction. John Paul shows genuine concern for humanity by addressing a problem absolutely central to all social issues, but he does not present a convincing case for the importance of faith in human thought.

The Pope begins with an assumption he is "sure of [the Church's] competence as the bearer of the Revelation of Jesus Christ," and states that "underlying all the Church's thinking is the awareness that she is the bearer of a message which has its origin in God himself."

From the principle that the Church has knowledge of the nature of God and the afterlife, it follows that this knowledge should be considered by everyone alongside the knowledge produced by science. But is this assumption valid? To support this claim, he offers several Bible verses which imply that the Bible is the "Word of God". No other evidence is given.

So the argument begins. How do we know that the Church has special knowledge? Because the Bible says so. How do we know the Bible is correct? Because it says so. And how do we know we can trust that? Because it says so, ad infinitum. This is circular reasoning, and it is a logical flaw. Unfortunately, because the foundation of the entire essay is unsound, everything built on it collapses.

But let's follow the argument further, despite the invalid premise. John Paul states that "at the First Vatican Council, the Fathers had stressed the supernatural character of God's Revelation" and that the Council forcefully argued "there exists a knowledge which is peculiar to faith, surpassing the knowledge proper to human reason, which nevertheless by its nature can discover the Creator." Faith is the way in which humans learn things "which, unless they are divinely revealed, cannot be known," and is not based on "sense perception and experience."

How, except again by circular reasoning, do we know that real knowledge can be gained by faith? As evidence that there exists a kind of learning outside of reason, some cite the "visions" or "revelations" which many people have experienced, in which people believe that they are being contacted by God, saints, or angels, and become convinced there is a God.

These visions persuade the recipients to join a particular religion or bolster their faith in what they already believe. Does the persistence of visions truly indicate that someone is contacting humanity?

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all mutually exclusive religions: if the basic teachings of one are true, then the other two must be wrong. All three seem to claim that God is honest, that he would never deceive anyone. So, for example, if Christianity is the "one true religion," God would not grant visions convincing people to be Jews or Muslims, or he would be tricking them. If Christians are really receiving visions from God confirming their Christian faith, then no one would receive visions confirming their faith in any other religion.

But apparently people experience "revelations" which lead them to follow several different religions. Some people claim to have been inspired by God to become or stay Christians, while others claim to be inspired by God to be Muslims or Jews. They cannot all be right. Therefore, at least some of the "divine" visions which humans experience are actually not messages from God.

Members of each religion who experience revelations obviously feel that the visions are real, that they are not being misinterpreted as divine visitations. If they did not believe the visions real, they would not use the visions as proof of their faith. So, people are not able to tell the difference between "true" and "false" visions. If Jews and Christians alike have revelations, and they cannot both be true, then at least one group must be mistakenly interpreting them as divine in origin.

Visions can probably not be conclusively tested and confirmed; we must rely on the receiver's testimony. If they do not know whether the visions are figments of their imagination, and we have no other evidence, then we have no proof at all that anyone, anywhere, has ever received a message from any sort of God. If there is no other evidence for the claim, then we do not know that there is a kind of knowledge which cannot be attained through reason.

What would be convincing evidence that visions really do come from a source outside people's own minds? If we could follow around a large group of people who claim frequent divine visions, we could ask each person, after each vision, what information they received. If these people consistently gained information that they could not otherwise have possibly known the contents of a sealed box kept out of view, for instance then that would indicate some sort of superhuman insight gained without reason or observation. But some might argue we cannot tell who will have visions when, and visions reveal truths about the afterlife, not this world. The response is that divine visions, then, cannot be proved. They can only be accepted on faith. But people who do accept them should acknowledge that they could be wrong no matter how convincing the visions seem, and that they have no way of knowing it.

Pope John Paul II fails to show that anyone should temper their reason with faith, because he does not show that faith conveys any greater understanding of the truth. The Catholic Church might be completely right people really might be able to hear important messages from God simply by trusting in him to provide that insight but we have no way of knowing whether that is true.

Perhaps the problem with the Pope's argument is that it is based in reason at all. Rather than trying logically to prove what cannot be proven, he might have declared that we need no evidence, that people should have faith, whether or not they have any reason to think it will help them, and adopt a mode of thinking which leaves them never sure whether they are deluding themselves. But such an argument might not have been as convincing as borrowing the trappings of logic to say that logic is not everything.

Kris Schnee is a member of the Class of 2002.