William James* thought so. And Walter Kaufmann said we heretics can have faith too. Turns out his faith was a lot like mine, and like that of many in my profession: a pluralistic faith in the value of variety, of many voices, of collaboratve learning:
I do not believe in any afterlife any more than the prophets did, but I don’t mind living in a world in which people have different beliefs. Diversity helps to prevent stagnation and smugness; and a teacher should acquaint his students with diversity and prize careful criticism far above agreement. His noblest duty is to lead others to think for themselves. -“Faith of a Heretic” (see also WK’s lectures on existentialism)
But not all faiths are equally meritorious. A rigid, intransigent, unfalsifiable faith too easily becomes a misanthropic dogma. A tentative, grasping, spectatorial faith may be mere wishful sentiment. But faith that motivates works, faith in the future or faith in one’s own abilities or in the capacity for goodness of people who’ve let you down in the past, can be self-actualizing and self-fulfilling if we’re prepared to act on it ourselves and apply what we learn from the consequences. That, anyway, is the faith of a pragmatist, and not just the abstract academic variety of pragmatist but (some of us abstract academics might argue) of pragmatic agents of social change like MLK. Are you skeptical? Good, you should be.
(I love that phrase “chock-full,” it was Jackie Robinson‘s coffee and thus has acquired for me the connotation of fortifying, emboldening plenitude.)
Today in CoPhi we continue our first pass through the Hellenistic Age of ancient Greece, with the Cynics, Epicureans, Stoics, and Skeptics. They didn’t speak much of faith, but they had a salutary form of it: faith in reality, and faith in the ultimate beneficence of acknowledging it. Their philosophically “dominant mood” was
a clear-eyed resignation to chaos and uncertainty, and a conviction that reality, even painful reality, is preferable to living under false ideas.
Where so many philosophers in the western tradition have recoiled from uncertainty, they found “emancipation” in the embrace of chaotic reality and the repudiation of “ridiculous, infantilizing misconception.” They were among the first genuine cosmopolitans, and in JMH’s agreeable metaphor they decided to stop trying so hard to escape the forest of natural existence.
Hang a sign that says HOME on a tree and you’re done; just try to have a good time. Thus the cosmopolitan doubter looks back on earlier generations with bemused sympathy—they were mistaken—and looks upon believing contemporaries with real pity, as creatures scurrying through the forest, idiotically searching for a way out of the human condition.
Cynic means dog. “Cynics wanted to live virtuously and calmly, the way the animals do.” Reminds me of my favorite lines from Whitman.
I think I could turn and live with animals, they’re so placid and self contain’d, I stand and look at them long and long.They do not sweat and whine about their condition, They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins, They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God, Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things, Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago, Not one is respectable or unhappy over the earth.
Stoics said “we are here, this is our situation, there is no hidden other situation.” Deal with it.
Epicureans said Take heart! The gods are distracted and uninterested, and anyway they did not make the world, “if they had, it would not be so full of suffering.” And, “we are going to die, but so what? When it is over, it will be over.” And, “the soul is a corporeal thing.” And, “accepting the finality of death makes it possible to enjoy the pleasures of the garden” and to stop yearning for another one to come. “Difficult truth is better than wonderful falsehood.” Sorry, Willy James.
In A&P we’ll look again today at any of Goldstein’s God arguments anyone cares to discuss. I’m especially interested in the Argument from Pragmatism (#32), which is probably at best an argument for the right to believe (and not for the existence of God). In fact, most of the arguments are best construed in that vein. The largest question we can ask about them in the aggregate, then, is the old Clifford question from Will to Believe: is it ever right, anywhere, any time, to believe anything on insufficient evidence? By what right? (SEP)
D has challenging thoughts* on all this, and awaits my reply. I do too. Never know just what I think about WJ’s WtB, at a given moment, ’til I see what I say that day. I’m pretty sure it’s a crummy argument for God’s existence, but am still unresolved as to its ultimate merits in defending personal belief in things unseen. It’s a big, open universe, maybe there’s room in it for variety here too.
*”Appeals to authority are bad, recognition of authorities’ insight, when evident, is good. Is there a reliable criterion of evidence we can all invoke?”
If by ‘reliable’ you mean steadfast expectations based on past experiences, then empirical science has been proven to be the most reliable criterion for event prediction. I don’t think this has to exclude other means of discovery, but we all rely on empirical science every day whether we like it or not. One would be hard pressed to find a theist willing to be blindfolded and rely on divine guidance to traverse a busy intersection… If we both accept [the foregoing statement about ‘authority’] as true and by ‘authorities’ insight’ you mean insight based on scientific theories that are repeatable, falsifiable and backed up empirical data, then, in light of verifiable evidence, ‘authority,’ in this sense, is simply the genesis or author of the theory, which has no bearing on the veracity of the facts…
Sounds right enough. My problem (might it be my salvation?) is that this still sounds right to me too:
I have long defended to my own students the lawfulness of voluntarily adopted faith; but as soon as they have got well imbued with the logical spirit, they have as a rule refused to admit my contention to be lawful philosophically, even though in point of fact they were personally all the time *chock-full of some faith or other themselves.
Faith in the probity of scientific inquiry, for instance, is a faith I happen to share. I am prepared, even, to cross the street on its authority. Seems pretty reliable so far. But it’s not really “faith” in the same sense, is it?
Is there a reconciliation in the offing, between the Jamesian pluralists (am I the only one?) and the hard-core take-no-prisoners atheists? Or at least a spirited and friendly conversation?
Or should we just call the whole thing off, on the authority of whoever left the apocalyptic flyer in my car door last night?
“Jesus Christ is Coming to Take Over! – Your invitation to the take over and escaping death begins by saying yes to Jesus Christ… [Visit our prophecy site on the coming of WW3, the east and west coast tsunamis and mega quake, backed by miracles, signs and wonders at qwakeup.org”]
Kinda makes a mockery of my high-blown defense of Jamesian pluralism, doesn’t it? I think I could turn and live with animals…