Saturday, July 3, 2010

Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book IV, Chapters 18-19

John Locke, 1690
Chapter XVIII: Of Faith and Reason, and their Distinct Provinces
Locke begins by asserting that we need to set down the boundaries between reason and faith, as any number of conflicts have arisen as a result of the confusion between the two. All sects should be glad to use reason whenever possible, as reason is a universal currency. The key passages are
“Reason, therefore, here, as contradistinguished to faith, I take to be the discovery of the certainty or probability of such propositions or truths which the mind arrives at by deduction made from such ideas, which it has got by the use of its natural faculties; viz. by sensation or reflection.
“Faith, on the other side, is the assent to any proposition, not thus made out by the deductions of reason, but upon the credit of the proposer, as coming from God, in some extraordinary way of communication. This way of discovering truths to men, we call revelation” (XVIII, 2).
Traditional revelation cannot impart any new, simple ideas. By “simple ideas,” Locke means those accessible to the senses. Paul might have had a direct revelation of God, but unless it was of an experience we have had previously, it is impossible to convey it. Therefore, we are dependent on reason for all of our simple ideas. Locke maintains here a distinction between “traditional” and “original” revelation; the first is conveyed by words, the second is a direct, almost mystical experience of God. Anything is possible in the second, but not everything can be conveyed.
Traditional revelation may make us aware of propositions also accessible by reason, but such knowledge will always be less certain than if we had discovered it through reason. Which is to say that God could give us the Pythagorean theorem through revelation, but our knowledge of it would be less certain than if we had discovered it through reasoning. Likewise, traditional revelation may teach us of Noah’s flood, but that knowledge is still less certain than if we had been there to witness it.
Even original revelation cannot override the clear evidence of reason. Faith will never require us to believe anything absurd, such as that a body may be in two places at once. Since God gave us reasoning, it follows that any proposition which totally contradicted reason would either have to be false or it would destroy the better part of God’s workmanship by rendering our mental capacities totally useless and untrustworthy.

Reason is even more significant in the case of traditional revelation. Believing or not believing a proposition passed down through tradition or word of mouth is a matter of whether or not reason assents to it.
“In all things, therefore, where we have clear evidence from our ideas, and those principles of knowledge I have above mentioned, reason is the proper judge; and revelation, though it may, in consenting with it, confirm its dictates, yet cannot in such cases invalidate its decrees: nor can we be obliged, where we have the clear and evident sentience of reason, to quit it for the contrary opinion, under a pretense that it is matter of faith: which can have no authority against the plain and clear dictates of reason.”
Things which are above reason and/or cannot be properly understood are the proper subjects of faith. zB: the resurrection of the body, the rebellion of Lucifer, etc. Reason can’t know such things.

The distinctions get finer here: Locke still maintains that revelation cannot contradict reason, if reason speaks from basic principles and has clear and distinct ideas, or builds on the evidential of senses. However, since God does use revelation, reason must give way to it on occasion if it contradicts the probably conjectures of reason. Basically, revelation settles the question if it’s in doubt.

Whatever God reveals is certain true; however, it is the task of reason, particularly in matters of traditional revelation, is to determine whether or not the revelation is really divine. Here Lock makes some vague noises about how true revelation will be immediately clear as such, without explaining how.

The chapter ends by reiterating the necessity of being clear about the difference between reason and revelation. Without that distinction, there is no way to have intelligent religious conversation, much less solve any problems. This transforms religion from the gift that should distinguish man from beast, into something less rational and lower than any animal.

Chapter XIX: Of Enthusiasm
Anyone who searches for truth must proceed from love of truth. While everyone claims to love truth, very few do. The only proof of properly loving truth is the refusal to grant a proposition any more certainty than it actually possesses. The tendency to infuse proof with more certainty than it possesses out of personal preference is often accompanied by a tyrannical desire to dictate the opinions of others. After all, if one is willing to impose on one’s own reason and do violence to it, it’s natural to do the same to others.

Locke dismisses “enthusiasm” (i.e. being moved by the spirit) as an equally improper ground for assenting to a proposition, because it claims to be revelation unmoored from reason. However, reason and revelation are inseparable. Reason is natural revelation, and divine revelation only enlarges on reason through alternate means, but never contradicts it.

Enthusiasm is a natural outgrowth of human laziness. Strict reasoning is difficult and time consuming. Since revelation is a much easier way to obtain knowledge, men with certain temperaments - often melancholic - tend to imagine themselves in direct communion with God.

7. What is meant by enthusiasm. This I take to be properly enthusiasm, which, though founded neither on reason nor divine revelation, but rising from the conceits of a warmed or overweening brain, works yet, where it once gets footing, more powerfully on the persuasions and actions of men than either of those two, or both together: men being most forwardly obedient to the impulses they receive from themselves; and the whole man is sure to act more vigorously where the whole man is carried by a natural motion. For strong conceit, like a new principle, carries all easily with it, when got above common sense, and freed from all restraint of reason and check of reflection, it is heightened into a divine authority, in concurrence with our own temper and inclination.
Spurred on by laziness, man, once convinced that he feels inspired by God through enthusiasm, typically refuses to verify anything he comes to belief by reason. After all, his knowledge is felt to be so immediate, so secure, that reason pales next to it.

Enthusiasm can be discovered through its groundlessness. In essence, men moved by enthusiasm, “are sure, because they are sure: and their persuasions are right, because they are strong in them” (9).

While it’s impossible to deny that a man has felt something, the question must always be asked whether or not his inclination is actually from God, or if it’s a particular, personal desire. If it’s a proposition that can be justified by reason, there’s no reason to think it’s divine revelation and not the product of reason. If it can’t be justified, then there needs to be some sort of proof that it was inspired by God, and those touched by enthusiasm typically lack any. Even if firmly persuaded of the truth of their action/belief, men can still make mistakes, in the way Paul did when persecuting Christians.

If a belief conforms to reason or attested revelation/Scripture, we can safely take it for true. Even if it turns out that it’s not an immediate revelation of God, we can’t come to harm so long as it stays within the boundaries of reason and previous revelation. If not, however, we must wait for some sort of external sign or miracle to validate it. Hence the significance of miracles.

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