The Ethics of Belief (Review)

Wolterstorff, Nicholas.  John Locke and the Ethics of Belief.  Cambridge.

Locke’s goal is simple: to offer a rational, objective, public account of reason that will heal the warring factions of society.  His method, at least in the broad strokes, is fairly straightforward: believe in accordance with the evidence the things of “maximal concernment.”  In other words, not only should you believe things on the basis of evidence, the strength in which you believe something should be proportional to the evidence.

It is to Nicholas Wolterstorff’s credit that he shows us a different picture of Locke:  sure, the empiricist is in the background, but Locke’s account of knowledge in Book IV of his Essay is far more nuanced than a mere empiricism.  And so we begin:

For Locke Knowledge is perception (Book IV).  What does it mean to see/become aware that a proposition is true? The classic answer:  One is aware that one and another proposition are true and that certain relationships that follow are true.

Whenever we say we “just know” something to be true, we usually attach to it the ocular metaphor that we “see” it to be true. Thus, for Locke, we perceive facts. Perception for Locke is immediate awareness (Wolterstorff 43).  That which comes short of certainty is not knowledge (Letter to Stillingfleet, Works III: 145). Does this mean we can’t know anything, given such limited criteria?  Not necessarily, for perception and certainty comes in degrees.  

Knowledge = act or state of mind (45).  It is not the same as belief. For Locke believing is a mental state; assenting is a mental act.  Problem: We all believe things that aren’t present to the mind.

Knowledge = not only awareness of some fact, but the relationship between facts (59)

Will Locke’s proposal work?  No.  It could not survive the hammer blows of Hume (or Reid).  Let’s take the claim that “Reason should be our guide.”  Locke’s view of empiricism and “the association of ideas” demands induction, and as Hume pointed out, that demands a formal fallacy.

But that’s not the biggest problem with Locke.  The problem is quite simple:  How are we to tell when the evidence is satisfactory (167)?  Not all evidence is simply a collection of apples and oranges on the ground and we count which side has the most.  Here is a sample of Locke’s argument (pp. 169ff):

P1: I note a correlation between a certain noise and a car going by
P2: The noise I am presently hearing is of that sort
C:  Hence it is highly probably a car is going by.

The main problem is that the correlations aren’t necessarily representative of reality.  We need another premise:

P1*. I note a correlation between a certain noise and a car going by
P2*. My sample of the correlation of events was and is representative of all tokens of that sort.

P3*. The noise I am presently hearing is of that sort.

But as Hume points out, P2* is not a necessary truth.  It is not intuitive.  Indeed, Hume doubts any real connections between past and present.

But Locke is still important.  His form of classical foundationalism remained more or less in play until the late 20th century.  Indeed, one can tease out connections between Locke’s epistemology and his ethics.  Further, one wonders about such ethics, the Anglo tradition in philosophy, and the current (if waning) dominance of neo-liberalism in politics.

The book is a hard read.  Locke isn’t necessarily an easy read and Wolterstorff’s analyses are very technical.  One other point:  Both Locke and Wolterstorff draw attention to the correct insight that knowledge has ethical dimensions.

Calming down on Neo-Calvinism, to all

The evangelical/Calvinist resurgence in American life is properly termed “New Calvinism.”  The Dutch intellectual tradition from 1880 to sort of today is Neo-Calvinism.  Admittedly, new and “neo” are the same thing, but they are applied differently at different times in history.

So, some in the Reformed world are saying that Dutch Neo-Calvinism (or any of its American variants) is the bad kind and Westerminster Calvinism is the good kind. There is a WTJ article floating around somewhere to the same effect.

I think that’s a bit simplistic.  So here are some pros and cons to Dutch Neo-Calvinism.  I include the following in the survey:  Bavinck, Kuyper, Vollenhoven, Dooyeweerd, Stoker, Knudsen, sort of Van Til, and the legacy of Calvin College.

Plantinga and Wolterstorff are wild cards.

The Good

These guys are strong on creation.  Bavinck is simply sublime, Van Til more forcefully so.  Al Wolters’ little monograph begs to be reread.  Jamie Smith noted that God creates in “plurals.”  This is about as close and forceful a break with the Platonic ontology as one can get.  When you read the Prophets on New Creation and eschatology, you can hear a Dutch accent in the background.

The Bad

As is probably typical of Dutch American existence, these guys can get insular and clannish.  Orthodoxy isn’t the only church with a claim on phyletism (whatever that is).  But maybe Scottish Americans like myself are also clannish.  I’m not aware that I am, but it is possible.

Do some Neo_Calvinists denigrate philosophy?  Maybe.   But if you read Plantinga, Wolterstorff, and Bavinck, that’s just not so.  Bavinck’s theological and philosophical reasoning is as astute as any.  See below.

God himself is the principle of existence for theology (principium essendi). Objective revelation of God in Christ is recorded in the Scriptures and this is the external source of knowledge (externum principium cognoscendi). The Holy Spirit is the iternal source of knowledge. This leads Bavinck to a line he repeats throughout the book: there must be a corresponding internal organ to receive the external revelation. This anticipates the later Reformed Epistemology school.

Do some denigrate piety?  Probably, and this seems to be a recurring theme among culture-reclaimers (see modern day Reconstructionism).  But it doesn’t logically hold that because some denigrate piety, Neo-Calvinism as a whole must.  What the pietist Calvinist needs to show is that the Neo-Calvinist’s commitment to Christ’s Lordship in all spheres logically entails skipping my prayers tonight.  I don’t think it can be done.

Rights talk

From Wolterstorff’s Until Justice and Peace Embrace

Initial claim:

(P1) Justice is the enjoyment of one’s rights.

Calvin spoke of a “mutual communication” in society: “each is to contribute what he or she can to the enrichment of the common life” (Wolterstorff 78, quoting Calvin, Comm. Harmony of the Evangelists, 1:103).

Discussion of Rights

  1. Right to protection
  2. Right to freedom
  3. Right to participate in government
  4. Right to sustenance

Classic Liberalism: do your own thing but do not interfere, positively or negatively, with your neighbor.

Sustenance Rights are basic rights–they are necessary for life (82).

Wolterstorff defines “right” as a “morally legitimate claim [to]…the actual enjoyment of a good that is socially guaranteed against ordinary, serious, and remedial threats (82).

  1. A right places an obligation on others, a responsibility–and that is necessary to what it means to be human.
  2. A right is the claim to the actual enjoyment of the good in question.
  3. It is socially guaranteed.
    1. This means that rights always involve social structures.

A nonexistent interview I did a while back

This interview never happened.  It is between me and myself.  On a more serious note, I have noticed that my philosophical readings do not fit into any specific category.  That is good, I suppose, since “joining a school” is not the best start.

Question: You have read Van Til, doesn’t that make you a Van Tillian?

Answer:  Not really.  I don’t find all of his apologetics convincing, but I do appreciate his reading of Greek and medieval theology.  I think he has a lot of promise in that area.  More importantly, Van Til, better than anyone else at his time, showed the importance of God as a Covenantal, Personal God.

Q.  But didn’t you used to promote Thomas Reid’s Scottish philosophy?  All the Van Tillians I know reject it.

A. There are two different “Van Tillian” answers to that question, and his reconstructionist disciples only knew one of them.  In Survey of Christian Epistemology (p. 132-134) he notes that if the Scottish school takes man’s cognitive faculties as a proximate starting point and not an ultimate one, then there is no real problem.  Further, we see Thomas Reid and Alvin Plantinga saying exactly that.   Elsewhere, however, Van Til was not as careful in his reading of Reid, and the reconstructionists read him as condemning Common Sense Realism.

Q.  So, is there a contradiction between the two schools?

A.  If the above distinction is made, I am not convinced there is.

Q. You keep mentioning Alvin Plantinga.  Are you a Reformed Epistemology guy?

A. I’ve read quite a bit of Wolterstorff and Kelly James Clark.  I like what they have to say.  I am not an expert on Plantinga so I have to demur at that point.  I do think there is a dovetailing between Thomas Reid and Plantinga, and if that convergence holds there is an exciting opportunity to unite Reformed guys along different epistemological and even geographical lines.

Q. What do you mean?

A. The guys in Westminster (either school) claim Van Til.  There is a debate on how well they understand him, but that’s beside the point. I think I have demonstrated above that there is no real contradiction between the two at least on the starting point.  This means that guys who hold to some variant of Common Sense epistemology and/or Van Tillian presuppositionalism do not have to be at loggerheads.

Q.  There is still one other Dutch giant you haven’t mentioned.

A.  You mean Herman Dooyeweerd, right?

Q. Correct.

A.  If you trace the development of the Reformed Epistemology school, you can find something like Dooyeweerd at the very beginning.  When Wolterstorff and Plantinga edited Faith and Rationality, they were at that time strongly influenced by Dooyeweerd. I am not saying that’s where they are today.   However, I do believe that Dooyeweerd’s contention that all men have a pre-theoretical “faith commitment” from the heart is in line with what Kelly James Clark and Van Til say about pretended neutrality.