Appealing to Faith in a Search for Truth, Playing Tennis Without a Net

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by Neil Godfrey

Before you appeal to faith when reason has backed you into a corner, think about whether you really want to abandon reason when reason is on your side.

(This quote and the following post are largely taken from page 154 of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Dennett.)

Many believers in God claim that their faith is something beyond reason and cannot validly be tested by the standards of science and rational thought. This is fine on a personal comfort level, but many believers also insist that it must apply just as meaningfully when they bring their faith into arguments about evolution, origins of life and the universe, and other pursuits for truth.

Philosopher Daniel C. Dennett has a beautiful response to this faith claim. He begins by referring to philosopher Ronald de Sousa who described philosophical theology as “intellectual tennis without a net“, with the net being a metaphor for rational judgment.

Let the believer who insists that the rigour of scientific method or rational argument not be allowed to touch his faith have the first serve, Dennett begins. Whatever the believer serves, suppose the nonbeliever replies:

What you say implies that God is a ham sandwich wrapped in tinfoil. That’s not much of a God to worship!

The believer volleys back demanding to know how the nonbeliever can logically make such a claim that his (the believer’s) opening serve has such a preposterous implication. So the nonbeliever replies:

Oh, do you want the net up for my returns, but not for your serves? Either the net stays up, or it stays down. If the net is down, there are no rules and anybody can say anything, a mug’s game if there ever was one. I have been giving you the benefit of the assumption that you would not waste your time or mine by playing with the net down.

Not that Dennett is opposed to faith per se. What he wants to see “is a reasoned ground for taking faith seriously as a way of getting to the truth . . .”

Before you appeal to faith when reason has backed you into a corner, think about whether you really want to abandon reason when reason is on your side.

Dennett assists the reader in answering this question with a few thought experiments:

1. You and your loved one are touring a foreign land when your loved one is brutally murdered before you eyes. Now in this land the legal system allows friends of the accused to testify their faith in his innocence. The judge listens to friend after friend tearfully, sincerely, movingly testify to their complete faith in the accused’s innocence, and by the end of the hearing this judge is far more swayed by their faith claims than the evidence of the prosecution. Would you be willing to live in such a place?

2. You are about to be operated on by a surgeon who tells you that whenever he hears a little voice telling him to disregard his medical training and do something different, he listens to and follows that still small voice. . . . .

Dennett concludes:

I know it passes in polite company to let people have it both ways, and under most circumstances I wholeheartedly cooperate with this benign arrangement. But we’re seriously trying to get at the truth here, and if you think that this common but unspoken understanding about faith is anything better than socially useful obfuscation to avoid mutual embarrassment and loss of face, you have either seen much more deeply into this issue than any philosopher ever has (for none has ever come up with a good defense of this) or you are kidding yourself. (The ball is now in your court.)

From http://gssq.blogspot.com/2008_02_01_archive.html

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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “Appealing to Faith in a Search for Truth, Playing Tennis Without a Net”

  1. I think I could do no better, in response to this, than to refer you to a post I wrote on this topic: http://nolongerbechildren.wordpress.com/2010/12/05/the-honest-skeptic-on-faith/

    This word “faith” is problematic because it is too vague. Let’s instead use the word “presupposition.” As a naturalist/atheist, you have certain presuppositions which form your worldview. As a Christian/theist, I too have presuppositions. Now, it is simply not true that I am being “irrational” by operating within my worldview, even if it may seem irrational from your point of view. We need to have the empathy and grace to understand and appreciate anothers’ point of view, even if we do not agree with it.

    By the same token, it’s not as though “anything goes” within a theistic worldview. Although some people do wild and crazy things based on some “inner leading,” most Christians (and the Bible itself) would warn against this. Of course, it is NOT true that Christians say, “well, I just believe, therefore I don’t need to study.” (If you recall, it was primarily Christians/deists who built the foundation for modern science and Western society.)

    But again, it’s all about “playing by the rules appropriate to your own worldview.” Perhaps rather than the analogy of a missing net, we should speak of the impossibility of playing tennis on two adjascent courts, with a fence in the middle.

    1. If you want to play tennis with presuppositions about gods and things, then as you advise, it is best you play on your tennis court. My presuppositions are based on what I understand are the physical realities of the natural world, so I have no interest in playing tennis on your court.

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