Monday, March 23, 2009

The Inadequacy of Religious Reasons

I have been making a claim for some time informally, and wanted to spell it out more clearly. My claim concerns what reasons an agent may count as metaphysically adequate for acting. Put more eloquently, false ontologies cannot ground reasons for acting. I call this principle, the principle of metaphysical adequacy:

POMA: An agent with reason R cannot be justified in doing A as long as R is derived in principle from a false ontology.

Add a few premises and you get something like:

(1) POMA
(2) Religious literal interpretations or sources of revelation are derived from false ontologies
(3) Therefore, no agent with a religious reason can be justified in doing A, or ~A.

When one tries to capture the nature of practical reasoning, the positive thesis about what constitute the range of practical reasoning provide us with a way of thinking about what is both rational and irrational. In this case, (2) advances a wide claim, a net intended to ensnare the rationality of religious considerations. Literal interpretations and divine revelation provide no reasonable evidential weight for deliberation, and count as irrational. In the age where one could hardly deny the authority of science and its advancements, thinking that reasons are generated by interpretation and revelation take on board too much metaphysical baggage.

I feel (2) is a stronger and more robust way of advancing the claim that we can only act on true reasons. The problem with putting the epistemic constraint on reasons is that the epistemic constraint is always very general, and the problem is construed in terms of motivation for acting moral reasons. The problem of acting on true reasons isn't held in the same regard post B. William's Internal and External Reasons. In extremely simple cases, it is easy to see its relevance. Bernard Williams uses the example of a glass of petrol when someone thinks it is a glass of gin and tonic. Clearly, if this person acts on his belief, then the mere fact the glass is petrol nullifies this person's reason R for doing A. That person can be said to be no longer justified.

In stronger cases, the epistemic constraint requires a commitment to what is metaphysically adequate. Imagine Suzie is a fundamentalist Mormon. Her faith and community do not endorse R, where R might be “Abortion is morally permissible.” In fact, following her faith, she is dedicated to ~R. However, according to (1) and (2), ~R cannot be true. The Mormon faith isn't a good view of the universe and what it proposes about the nature of abortion is false. As such, if we want to ground considerations against abortion, they cannot be religiously-based. I imagine it is still feasible to entertain metaphysically adequate considerations against abortion just as much as it's opposite.

Now, the problem of religion becomes clear. There is no principled way to discriminate against what other religions claim and what others do. Is the Bible more reliable than the Lotus Sutra? Buddhism and Christianity are far apart on many issues, and to think that there is a way to discriminate within religion itself is foolhardy. Religions ascribe to particular beliefs about the authority of some reasons over others. These views are extreme enough to warrant consideration that they could ever fulfill any metaphysically adequate criterion. This problem comes in view when we see extreme cases where the diachronic elements of our history stand unconnected to ancient Biblical times. In Leviticus, I am to stone any child I would have in the future for talking back to me. Yet, I can't think that has any potential to ground moral reason I am to act on.

To summarize, I haven't claimed any positive proposal as to what is metaphysically adequate, that is a true ontology. However, I think we can take some clues from a more dedicated openness to learn just what our reasoning is psychologically, and perhaps, those sciences having contributed so much to human understanding might offer glimpses into the nature of practical reasoning. Until then, I am skeptical and continually remain so that religions satisfy any threshold of certainty beyond themselves to justify a moral reason. Moreover, if a non-naturalism is to succeed in grounding reasons, then those reasons cannot (at least) derive from religion. Whatever the source of normativity, that is the source of our reasons for acting must demonstrate an adequate story as to where those reasons originate and how they function for moral deliberation.


J.L. Hinman said...

I hear you on this split thing. I have the same problem. I had no formal training in analytical except into courses, but I've taken a lot classes in Continental and did doctoral work in history of ideas and studied the Phenomenological crowd.

great blog. I'm linking to it.

Jeff Carter said...

I don't think it's a problem for me any more. You might want to check out the "Limits of Reason" series on my website.

Reasoning that there is a God and knowing God are two different things. Knowledge comes only through an inward encounter. This is, in fact, the salvation experience. I think phenomenologist Michel Henry did some great work on this, showing that the inner life is the true life and in fact, the only life we know.

Vancouver Philosopher said...


I don't want to speak past each other. Nothing philosophically fruitful happens that way.

Are you disregarding the nature of the post? The post is about practical reasoning, not metaphysical or speculative reasoning.