What and How We Know or Faith and/or Reason
"Agnosticism and Christianity" in Essays Upon Some Controverted Questions (1892), pp. 350-1, 351-2.
The people who call themselves "Agnostics" have been charged with doing so because they have not the courage to declare themselves "Infidels." It has been insinuated that they have adopted a new name in order to escape the unpleasantness which attaches to their proper denomination. To this wholly erroneous imputation, I have replied by showing that the term "Agnostic" did, as a matter of fact, arise in a manner which negatives it; and my statement has not been, and can not be, refuted. Moreover, speaking for myself, and without impugning the right of any other person to use the term in another sense, I further say that Agnosticism is not properly described as a "negative" creed, nor indeed as a creed of any kind, except in so far as it expresses absolute faith in the validity of a principle, which is as much ethical as intellectual. This principle may be stated in various ways, but they all amount to this: that it is wrong for a man to say that he is certain of the objective truth of any proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty. This is what Agnosticism asserts; and, in my opinion, it is all that is essential to Agnosticism. That which Agnostics deny and repudiate, as immoral, is the contrary doctrine, that there are propositions which men ought to believe, without logically satisfactory evidence; and that reprobation ought to attach to the profession of disbelief in such inadequately supported propositions. The justification of the Agnostic principle lies in the success which follows upon its application, whether in the field of natural, or in that of civil, history; and in the fact that, so far as these topics are concerned, no sane man thinks of denying its validity.
"Letter to Peter Carr", Jefferson's nephew (1787).
Shake off all fears and servile prejudices under which weak minds are severely crouched. Fix Reason firmly in her seat and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason rather than of blindfolded fear. You will naturally examine first, the religion of your own country. Read the Bible then as you would Livy or Tacitus. For example in the Book of Joshua we are told that the sun stood still for several hours. Were we to read that fact in Livy or Tacitus, we should class it with their showers of blood, speaking of statues, beasts, etc. But it is said that the writer of that book was inspired. Examine therefore, candidly, what evidence there is of his having been inspired. The pretension is entitled to your inquiry because millions believe it. On the other hand you are astronomer enough to know how contrary it is to the law of nature. ... Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you will feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure for you. If you find reason to believe there is a God, a consciousness that you are acting under his eye, and that he approves you will be a vast additional incitement: if that Jesus was also a God, you will be comforted by a belief of his aid and love. Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven; and you are answerable, not for the rightness but for the uprightness of the decision.
Parochial Sermons, Vol. One (D. Appleton: 1843), pp. 332-3.
We are in a world of mystery, with one bright Light before us, sufficient for our proceeding forward through all difficulties. Take away this Light, and we are utterly wretched, — we know not where we are, how we are sustained, what will become of us, and all that is dear to us, what we are to believe, and why we are in being. But with it we have all, and abound. Not to mention the duty and wisdom of implicit faith in the love of Him who made and redeemed us, what is nobler, what is more elevating and transporting, than the generosity of heart which risks every thing on God's word, dares the powers of evil to their worst efforts, and repels the illusions of sense and the artifices of reason, by confidence in the truth of Him who has ascended to the right hand of the Majesty on high. What infinite mercy it is in Him, that He allows sinners such as we are, the privilege of acting the part of heroes rather than of penitents! Who are we "that we should be able" and have opportunity "to offer so willingly after this sort?" — "Blessed," surely thrice blessed, "are they who have not seen and yet have believed!" We will not wish for sight; we will enjoy our privilege; we will triumph in the leave given us to go forward, "not knowing whither we go," knowing that "this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith." It is enough that our Redeemer liveth; that He has been on earth and will come again. On Him we venture our all; we can bear thankfully to put ourselves into His hands, our interests present and eternal, and the interests of all we love. Christ has died, " yea, rather is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us. Who shall separate us from His love? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors, through Him that loved us "
"Evidence of a Morally Perfect God" in God is Good, God is Great, William Lane Craig and Chad Meister, eds. (IVP Books: 2009), pp. 49-50.
Many sane, educated and generally trustworthy people claim not only that God exists but also that they have genuine knowledge, including justified true belief, that God exists. Because claims are typically cheap and easy, however, the claim to know that God exists will prompt the following response, usually sooner rather than later: How do they know? ¶ This common four-word question, although irksome at times, is perfectly intelligible and even valuable, as far as it goes. It seeks an explanation of how the belief that God exists exceeds mere belief, or opinion, and achieves the status of genuine knowledge. In particular, this question typically seeks an explanation of how, if at all, the belief that God exists is grounded, justified, reasonable, or evidence-based regarding affirmations of truth. ¶ A plausible goal behind our four-word question is, at least for many inquirers, to acquire truth in a manner that includes an adequate indication of true belief. These truth-seeking inquirers aim not only to avoid false belief and lucky guesswork, but also to minimize the risk of error in their beliefs (at least in a way befitting to the acquisition of truth). We should aim for the same, as people who seek truth but who are faced sometimes with facts and other realities at odds with our opinions. In seeking truth about God's existence, in particular, we thus should seek truth based on evidence for God's reality. Such evidence, if available, would indicate that it is true that God exists, or (in other words) that God is real rather than fictional.
The Literal Meaning of Genesis 1.19.39, trans. John Hammond Taylor, Ancient Christian Writers: The Works of the Fathers in Translation, ed. Johannes Quasten et al., vols. 41-42 (Newman Press: 1982), 41:42-43.
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds as certain from reason and experience. Now it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.
The Niomachean Ethics of Aristotle, trans. Robert William Browne (George Bell and Sons: 1889), pp. 252-4.
Now he that sees, perceives that he sees; and he that hears, that he hears; and he that walks, that he walks; and in every other case, in the same manner, there is some faculty which perceives that we are energizing; so that we perceive that we are perceiving, and understand that we are understanding. But this is the same as saying that we perceive or understand that we exist; for existence was defined to be perceiving, or understanding. Now, to perceive that one is alive, is of the number of those things which are pleasant in themselves: for life is a good by nature: and to perceive the good which is inherent in one's self is pleasant. But life is eligible, and particularly to the good, because existence is to them good and pleasant; for by the consciousness of that which is absolutely a good, they are pleased.
The True Intellectual System of the Universe, Vol II (Gould & Newman, 1838), pp. 554-7.
Christ came not into the world to fill our heads with mere speculations, to kindle a fire of wrangling and contentious dispute amongst us, and to warm our spirits against one another with nothing but angry and peevish debates; whilst in the mean time our hearts remain all ice within towards God, and have not the least spark of true heavenly fire to melt and thaw them. Christ came not to possess our brains only with some cold opinions, that send down nothing but a freezing and benumbing influence upon our hearts. Christ was vitae magister, not scholae: and he is the best Christian, whose heart beats with the purest pulse towards heaven; not he, whose head spinneth out the finest cobwebs. ¶ He that endeavors really to mortify his lusts, and to comply with that truth in his life, which his conscience is convinced of, is nearer a Christian, though he never heard of Christ, than he, that believes all the vulgar articles of the Christian faith, and plainly denieth Christ in his life.
The True Intellectual System of the Universe (Gould & Newman, 1838), pp. 550-1.
Ink and paper can never make us Christians, can never beget a new nature, a living principle in us; can never form Christ, or any true notions of spiritual things, in our hearts. The gospel, that new law, which Christ delivered to the world, it is not merely a dead letter without us, but a quickening spirit within us. Cold theorems and maxims, dry and jejune disputes, lean syllogistical reasonings, could never yet of themselves beget the least glimpse of true heavenly light, the least sap of saving knowledge in any heart. All this is but the groping of the poor dark spirit of man after truth, to find it out with his own endeavors, and feel it with his own cold and benumbed hands. Words and syllables, which are but dead things, cannot possibly convey the living notions of heavenly truths to us. The secret mysteries of a divine life, of a new nature, of Christ formed in our hearts, they cannot be written or spoken, language and expressions cannot reach them; neither can they be ever truly understood, except the soul itself be kindled from within, and awakened into the life of them. A painter that would draw a rose, though he may flourish some likeness of it in figure and colour, yet he can never paint the scent and fragrancy; or if he would draw a flame, he cannot put a constant heat into his colours; he cannot make his pencil drop a sound, as the echo in the epigram mocks at him. All the skill of cunning artisans and mechanicks cannot put a principle of life into a statue of their own making. Neither are we able to enclose in words and letters the life, soul, and essence of any spiritual truths, and, as it were, to incorporate it in them.
Understanding Religious Conviction (University of Notre Dame Press: 1975), p. 118.
There is, however, a form of the fallibility principle which is both significant and acceptable. It holds that even one's most cherished and tenaciously held convictions might be false and are in principle always subject to rejection, reformulation, improvement, or reformation.
Miracles: A Preliminary Study (MacMillan: 1978), pp. 19, 22-3.
Once, then, our thoughts were not rational. That is, all our thoughts once were, as many of our thoughts still are, merely subjective events, not apprehensions of objective truth. Those which had a cause external to ourselves at all were (like our pains) responses to stimuli. Now natural selection could operate only by eliminating responses that were biologically hurtful and multiplying those which tended to survival. But it is not conceivable that any improvement of responses could ever turn them into acts of insight, or even remotely tend to do so. The relation between response and stimulus is utterly different from that between knowledge and the truth known. Our physical vision is a far more useful response to light than that of the cruder organisms which have only a photo-sensitive spot. But neither this improvement nor any possible improvements we can suppose could bring it an inch nearer to being a knowledge of light. It is admittedly something without which we could not have had that knowledge. But the knowledge is achieved by experiments and inferences from them, not by refinement of the response. It is not men with specially good eyes who know about light, but men who have studied the relevant sciences. In the same way our psychological responses to our environment — our curiosities, aversions, delights, expectations — could be indefinitely improved (from the biological point of view) without becoming anything more than responses. Such perfection of the non-rational responses, far from amounting to their conversion into valid inferences, might be conceived as a different method of achieving survival — an alternative to reason. A conditioning which secured that we never felt delight except in the useful nor aversion save from the dangerous, and that the degrees of both were exquisitely proportional to the degree of real utility or danger in the object, might serve us as well as reason or in some circumstances better.