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Faith and Logic

October 19th, 2008 by Matt

Recently, Patrick left the following comment in response Madeleine’s post on the Role of the State.

“[L]ogic and reason are secular, even humanistic processes. Faith is neither of
those. Logic and faith can be in conflict, I think. From a humanist viewpoint
there is nothing particularly logical about believing in an invisible God.”

Apologies to Patrick for whom I have great respect for and whom I have known for years but his statements are sufficiently common amongst evangelicals that they warrant some treatment.

Essentially Patrick makes three claims:

1) Logic and reason are secular, humanistic processes.
2) Faith can be in conflict with logic.
3) There is nothing logical about belief in an invisible God if you are a humanist.

Starting with 3). Even if it is true that from a humanist view point there is nothing logical about believing in an invisible God it does not follow that in fact there is nothing logical about believing in an invisible God. This latter claim follows only if a humanist perspective is true.

Now Patrick, I know, does not believe the humanist perspective is correct and neither do I so it is hard to see what the relevance of this is supposed to be. The fact that a perspective he and I think is mistaken has a particular view does not provide either of us for a reason for affirming the view.

Further, the claim that it is “illogical” to believe in an “invisible” God is simply false. Patrick here seems to be speaking of the confusion that some Humanists espouse between the question of whether something is logical with whether something is visible. These are quite different matters. Affirming the existence of something is logical if the proposition is logically possible; that is, it does not entail a contradiction.

However, there are many things that although logically possible, are not visible. In fact, there are many things that though logically possible are in fact false. Possibility after all is not actuality. A couple of examples may help illustrate this point. The claim that there exists promiscuous virgins, or married bachelors is illogical. This is because a person is promiscuous only if he or she has sex and a person is a virgin if they have not had sex. Similarly, a person is a bachelor if they are unmarried and can only be married if they are not unmarried. Hence, the claim that promiscuous virgins or married bachelors exist entails that a person both is and is not married and has and has not had sex. This is a contradiction and so violates a fundamental rule of logic.

The claim that there is a field of red grass in my back yard on the other hand is false yet not illogical. There is nothing illogical about the concept of a red field of grass in my back yard; if I painted the grass in my yard this possibility would be actual, however, as a matter of fact the grass in my yard is green, but that is not because of any impossibility of it occurring.

So the fact that God is invisible does not mean it is illogical. If one accepts that the only source of basic knowledge about the world is our five senses, one could argue that belief in an invisible God is unwarranted but this is different from saying it is illogical. I don’t think that the five senses are our only source of basic knowledge about the world (in fact I am inclined to think it is an incoherent claim, after all the claim “the only source of basic knowledge is our five senses” is itself something one can’t prove by hearing, touching, tasting or smelling and hence if this claim were true one could not be warranted in believing it).

Turning now to 1); that logic is a secular or humanistic process. This is mistaken. Logic is simply a set of rules, most of which are intuitively obvious to properly functioning cognisers, by which one can infer conclusions from premises. Note this last point, logic simply gets one proposition, the conclusion, from other propositions, the premises.

It in and of itself tells us nothing about what those premises are except that they cannot be premises from which one can infer a contradiction. The premises could be drawn from information gleaned from the five senses, or they could be drawn from revelation, or from memory or some other basic source of information. Nothing about logic rules out having premises that a person believes on the basis of faith. If faith is a basic source of information about God and the world then one can, and should, use logic to draw conclusions from premises obtained via this source.

Perhaps Patrick things that logic is an unreliable method of inferring conclusions from premises. Christianity is true (and Patrick holds this) yet he thinks that logic and the Christian faith conflict. That seems to suggest that logic cannot be reliable.

I think this position is problematic; for starters Patrick’s post was, after all, a reply to Madeleine’s. Madeleine had affirmed something and he was attempting to defend the negation of this affirmation. But if logic is unreliable this whole process makes no sense. Negation and affirmation assume the law of non-contradiction, a fundamental rule of logic. In fact without logic human language and discourse would break down and be impossible. Words can have meaning because they refer to something and not to something else and they do so consistently. If a term can mean one thing one day and the opposite the next with no basis or predictability one would never understand anything.

Patrick also suggests that reason and logic are secular. In one sense he is correct; the word secular comes from the latin word which means temporal or of this world and it is true that logic is a process utilised in this world and for purposes in this world. This is not limited to reason and logic, in this sense of use theology is also secular at least when it is telling us about things of this world and how to live in this world.

However, I don’t think that Patrick intends this, he is using secular in the modern sense of the word where it means, godless or “practical atheism,” a view which either affirms the non-existence of God or acts for practical purposes as if God does not exist. In this sense, I think Patrick is clearly mistaken; as I noted above, logic simply gets one from a premise to a conclusion there is nothing in logic that entails an assumption that God does not exist. To claim that logic and reason are secular is like claiming that eyesight is secular or that memory is secular as these like and logic and reason are simply methods that human beings naturally use to gain information and understanding about reality. I think that God is part of reality. Just as we use our eyes to read scripture or we use our ears to hear a sermon and we use our memory to recall these things we can use logic and reason to infer conclusions from them.

The medievals called this process faith seeking understanding. One starts with what one knows by faith and reasons from it to gain a comprehensive, coherent and accurate understanding of reality and answers to the fundamental and philosophical existential questions that we face. It is this project that the evangelical church needs to reclaim.

If someone says that some aspect of Christianity is illogical they have merely stated it. To prove that it is illogical then they would need to provide us with a proposition or propositions that:

a) are essential to Christianity;
b) can be demonstrated to entail a logical contradiction by a valid argument form; and,
c) utilise premises that Christians are rationally required to accept.

In the literature some people claim to have done this but such claims are highly controversial and I have yet to come across one that has not been refuted. In light of this, it frustrates me many in the Church uncritically accept this claim and retreat without a single fight and then hide in a false, anti-intellectual pietism.

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3 responses so far ↓

  • This is just another post that illustrates why I love this blog so much. I haven’t posted here before, but I just wanted to let you know I love your blog. Oh, I’m also a friend of Glenn, and I’m the “Warner Robins, GA” in your live traffic feed.

    Keep up the awesome work!

  • To claim that logic and reason are secular is like claiming that eyesight is secular or that memory is secular as these like and logic and reason are simply methods that human beings naturally use to gain information and understanding about reality.

    It's worse than that; to say that logic is secular is to contradict John 1:1—"in the beginning was the logos“. The term logos is not limited to logic, but it certainly encompasses it.

  • Logic and reason are intrinsic to our nature as you have pointed out. The problem with the secular claim is that if we remove a creator from the equation, there is no reason to think that logic should be reliable. With a creator we have a least a theoretical reason to trust our reasoning processes; sans creator why believe the random events of our random minds?

    The whole faith thing is difficult because of the various definitions of faith. I think it best to consider the synonyms trust and trustworthiness.

    We believe most of what we do based on our trust in something/ someone else.

    1. Ask someone who won the game, we believe their answer as we have no reason not to.

    2. Ask a contentious question we must be more careful who we listen to.

    3. Our fundamental beliefs are based on faith that our reason works, that the law of non-contradiction reflects reality (which empirically it seems to).

    Faith/ trust in religious matters relate to who is teaching us. We believe God because of his faithfulness in times past. What he has said is reliable, so we have faith in him when he tells us things that we cannot (yet) know.

    We don’t have faith despite the facts, we have faith because of the facts.