Thursday, September 29, 2011

Original Sin, Faith, and the Limits of Reason

Philosopher Ed Feser is back defending the Roman Catholic doctrine of original sin.

I prefer to lay out some observations rather than working through Feser's arguments point by point.

Observation 1: A Bit of Slipperiness
Feser's terminology in one particular spot bothers me:
In part I of this series (and in a response to critics of part I) I addressed the question of whether monogenism of the sort entailed by the doctrine of original sin is compatible with modern biology. I have argued that it is.
The slippery word above is "compatible." Modern biology may be compatible with original sin, but original sin is not compatible with modern biology. Original sin is not a concept of any value in modern biology; it isn't at all on the radar of modern biology. So it's not correct to assert compatibility. The better phrase is "not inconsistent," as in original sin is not inconsistent with modern biology. Now, let me be clear in stating that Feser does not try to make compatibility (the concept I've called slippery) the basis for an argument of the truth of the original sin doctrine. He deliberately refrains from doing this, and it is to his credit as a scholar and thinker.

Observation 2: Faith Grounded in Reason
The funniest part for me is Feser's justification of "faith":
Faith in the religious context -- or at least in the Catholic theological context -- is like that. To cite a representative definition, “faith is adhesion of the intellect, under the influence of grace, to a truth revealed by God, not on account of its intrinsic evidence but on account of the authority of Him who has revealed it” (Parente, Piolanti, and Garofalo, Dictionary of Dogmatic Theology, p. 101). That is to say, faith involves believing some proposition we could not have discovered on our own and perhaps cannot even fully understand, but which we know must be true because God, who is omniscient and cannot lie, has revealed it. But this faith is grounded in reason insofar as the claim that the proposition in question has in fact been revealed by God is something that can and should be independently rationally justified. In short, reason tells us that there is a God and that he has revealed such-and-such a truth; faith is then a matter of believing what reason has shown God to have revealed. In that sense faith is not only not at odds with reason but is grounded in reason.
In short, Feser says, he's convinced the Roman Catholic god exists and has said certain things, and he trusts his own convictions.

Faith, in other words, is believing in the things one believes in.

Observation 3: Getting Original Sin Right
After several paragraphs of prefatory material, Feser lays out the key issues involved in the doctrine of original sin:
Properly to understand the doctrine of original sin requires understanding what traditional theology says about what human beings were originally made for, what the offense of our first parents consisted in, what the punishment for that offense was, and the sense in which we have inherited that punishment.
Let me paraphrase the point made here: If you don't agree with traditional Roman Catholic theology's view of what human beings were created for, and so on, then you don't properly understand original sin. Substitute "Roman Catholic" for almost any religious tradition and you get to the same old BS we always get: Religion X is the one true way and everyone else takes a permanent vacation at the lake of fire. Ho-hum.

Here is an excerpt of Feser explaining original sin as understood through Scholastic theology.
[H]uman beings in their natural state have only a limited capacity to realize the ends their nature requires them to pursue in order that they might flourish. They have the raw materials needed for this pursuit, but the finitude of their intellectual, moral, and material endowments entails that there is no guarantee that each and every individual human being will in fact realize the ends in question, or realize them perfectly when they do realize them at all. Nature has granted us what it “owes” us given what we need in order to flourish as the kind of creatures we are, but no more than that. This is the situation Adam, Eve, and their descendants would have been in had God left the human race in its purely natural state.

But according to Christian theology, God offered to our first parents more than what was “owed” to us given our nature. He offered us a supernatural gift. Here it is crucial to understand what “supernatural” means in this context. It has nothing to do with ghosts, goblins, and the like. What is meant is rather that God offered us a good that went above or beyond what our nature required us to have. In particular, he offered Adam and Eve the beatific vision – a direct, “face to face” knowledge of the divine essence which far transcends the very limited knowledge of God we can have through natural reason, and which would entail unsurpassable bliss of a kind we could never attain given our natural powers. He also offered special helps that would deliver us from the limitations of our natures – that would free us from the ignorance and error our intellectual limitations open the door to, the moral errors our weak wills lead us into, the sicknesses and injuries our bodily limitations make possible, and so forth.

By definition, none of this was “owed” to us, precisely because it is supernatural. Hence while God cannot fail to will for us what is good for us given our nature, He would have done us no wrong in refraining from offering these supernatural gifts to us, precisely because they go beyond what our nature requires for our fulfillment. Still, He offered them to us anyway. But this offer was conditional.
I offer the longish except here because Feser does a nice job of stringing his points together. Much of his argument is accumulative so that one cannot just read a point without going back and looking at the other points that make up the foundation.

The obvious question from the bit at the top is why God didn't create humans with greater capacity "to realize the ends their nature requires them to pursue in order that they might flourish." Why would God have made humans unable to flourish without being dependent upon Him?

Now, I have no doubt that Scholastic theology has an answer along the lines of humanity having been made perfectly to balance free will, morality, and all the divine attributes. Whatever the answer may be is not the point. The point is that this answer will be one part of a whole network of faith-based doctrines.

Faith-based doctrines: belief in the things you already believe.

At the end of the day, what we're talking about is post hoc rationalization. It's rationalization of a high order, but at some point we have to ask whether we will rely on the authority of reason alone without any empirical justification.

That's the question, ladies and gentlemen.


  1. Anonymous9:31 AM

    ". It's rationalization of a high order, but at some point we have to ask whether we will rely on the authority of reason alone without any empirical justification."

    and what do you believe?

  2. I think reason is great. I think reasoning is great.

    Yet I also think reasoning is fundamentally interpretive and fundamentally limited.

    That it's interpretive means there can potentially be many valid variations. That it's limited means it's value lies only in reinforcing the confidence of the reasoner about what s/he believes.

  3. Anonymous9:08 AM

    But you think what you already believe!

  4. "But you think what you already believe!"

    You should try to illustrate this.

    Your larger point is ...?


Feel free to comment if you have something substantial and substantiated to say.