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I. John Locke

Here what we need is another bit of history, some more of that archaeology of which Foucault speaks (although again [see WCD, p. 11] I doubt that we will uncover a hidden political agenda or a subterranean bid for power). This question as to the rational justifiability of Christian belief goes back to the Enlightenment response to the spiritual and intellectual ferment generated (in part) by the Reformation; the characteristically modern response to this ferment can be seen as getting its start in the works of René Descartes and John Locke. Both Descartes and Locke were impressed by the enormous disagreement in religious and philosophical matters; this means, of course, that error pervades our belief in these areas. They were also impressed (along with their successors) with the meager progress made in philosophical matters. Philosophy, said Descartes, “has been cultivated for many centuries by the best minds that have ever lived, and nevertheless no single thing is to be found in it which is not a subject of dispute, and in consequence which is not dubious.”6060   Part I of the Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences, in The Philosophical Works of Descartes, tr. and ed. Elizabeth S. Haldane and G. R. T. Ross (New York: Dover, 1955 [originally published by Cambridge University Press in 1931]), pp. 85–86. Descartes has his remedy (a characteristically modern remedy): start over. Discard anything that isn’t certain, and rebuild your noetic structure on the basis of what is certain. Recall those famous words in the introduction to the Meditations:

It is now some years since I detected how many are the false beliefs that I had from my earliest youth admitted as true, and how doubtful was everything I had since constructed on this basis, and from that time I was convinced that I must once for all seriously undertake to rid myself of all the opinions which I formerly accepted, and commence to build anew from the foundation. . . .6161   The Philosophical Works of Descartes, p. 144.

It is John Locke, however, not Descartes, who is probably most crucial for our understanding of the de jure question and the modern compulsion to ask it.6262   See Nicholas Wolterstorff’s luminous and illuminating essay on Locke in John Locke and the Ethics of Belief (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). In the “Epistle to the Reader” prefacing his long, rambling An Essay concerning Human Understanding, Locke recounts 72a meeting with “five or six friends,” in which they discussed a certain subject that Locke doesn’t there identify:

[They] found themselves quickly at a stand, by the difficulties that rose on every side. After we had awhile puzzled ourselves, without coming any nearer a resolution of those doubts which perplexed us, it came into my thoughts that we took a wrong course; and that before we set ourselves upon inquiries of that nature, it was necessary to examine our own abilities, and see what objects our understandings were, or were not, fitted to deal with. This I proposed to the company, who all readily assented; and thereupon it was agreed that this should be our first inquiry.6363   An Essay concerning Human Understanding, ed. with “Prolegomena” by Alexander Fraser (New York: Dover, 1959 [first published by Oxford University Press in 1894]), vol. 1, p. 9. Subsequent page references to Locke’s essay are to this edition.

That discussion was the genesis of the Essay; it probably took place in the winter of 1670–71,6464   Fraser’s footnote 1, p. 9. and a momentous meeting it was. The book itself wasn’t finished (or at least published) for another eighteen years or so, which accounts in part for its length and rather disorganized, repetitious character.

Locke doesn’t tell us what the topic of discussion was, but James Tyrell, one of the five or six friends at the gathering, noted in the margin of his copy of the Essay (now in the British Museum) that the topic of discussion was “the principles of morality and revealed religion.”6565   Fraser’s “Prolegomena,” p. xvii. And Locke’s Essay has been immensely influential in modern thought on this topic; it is perhaps not too much to say that his seminal work is the single most important source of the way of thinking on these topics that has dominated Western thought for the last three centuries. This book ushers in epistemology in the West. It is not, of course, that previous philosophers had nothing to say about epistemology. After all, Plato’s Theaetetus asks one of the main questions in the theory of knowledge: what is it that must be added to mere true belief to get knowledge? What is that quality or quantity, enough of which makes the difference between true belief and knowledge? Aristotle and Aquinas, furthermore, had much to say about scientia, scientific knowledge, and also much to say about how the process of intellection works, what goes on when someone knows or believes something. Still, the questions Locke asked and the answers he gave have a peculiarly modern ring; we resonate to them, because his way of thinking about them became the modern way of thinking about them; and despite postmodern proclamations of the death or end of 73epistemology, this is still, for the most part, our way of thinking about these matters.

Locke lived through one of the most turbulent periods of British intellectual and spiritual history; it was, in particular, the religious ferment and diversity, the enormous variety of religious opinion, that caught his attention. Of course he knew that in parts of the world other than Europe there were religions quite different from Christianity, but he was particularly impressed by the diversity of religious opinion in his own country. There was the Catholic-Protestant debate, and within Protestantism there were countless sects, countless disagreements and controversies; it was a time when every man thought what was right in his own eyes. Locke proposes to inquire into

the grounds of those persuasions which are to be found amongst men, so various, different, and wholly contradictory; and yet asserted somewhere or other with such assurance and confidence, that he that shall take a view of the opinions of mankind, observe their opposition, and at the same time consider the fondness and devotion wherewith they are embraced, the resolution and eagerness wherewith they are maintained, may perhaps have reason to suspect, that either there is no such thing as truth at all, or that mankind hath no sufficient means to attain a certain knowledge of it. (Locke’s Introduction to the Essay, para. 2, p. 27)

One problem here, says Locke, is fideism; many oppose faith to reason, declaring both that faith prescribes what reason proscribes, and that it is faith that is to be accepted and followed:

For, to this crying up of faith in opposition [his emphasis] to reason, we may, I think, in good measure ascribe those absurdities that fill almost all the religions which possess and divide mankind. For men having been principled with an opinion, that they must not consult reason in the things of religion, however apparently contradictory to common sense and the very principles of all their knowledge, have let loose their fancies and natural superstition; and have been by them led into so strange opinions, and extravagant practices in religion, that a considerate man cannot but stand amazed at their follies, and judge them so far from being acceptable to the great and wise God, that he cannot avoid thinking them ridiculous and offensive to a sober good man. So that, in effect, religion, which should most distinguish us from beasts, and ought most peculiarly to elevate us, as rational creatures, above brutes, is that wherein men often appear most irrational, and more senseless than beasts themselves (bk. IV, chap. xviii, para. 11, p. 426)

Another source of riotous error and confusion in religion is tradition, believing a proposition just because you have been taught it or because those around you believe it:


The great obstinacy that is to be found in men firmly believing quite contrary opinions, though many times equally absurd, in the various religions of mankind, are as evident a proof as they are an unavoidable consequence of this way of reasoning from received traditional principles. So that men will disbelieve their own eyes, renounce the evidence of their senses, and give their own experience the lie, rather than admit of anything disagreeing with these sacred tenets. (IV, xx, 10, p. 450)

Tradition, he says (in characteristic Enlightenment disparagement),

keeps in ignorance or error more people than all the other [the other sources of error] together . . . I mean the giving up our assent to the common received opinions, either of our friends or party, neighbourhood or country. How many men have no other ground for their tenets, than the supposed honesty, or learning, or number of those of the same profession? (IV, xx, 17, pp. 456–57)

Appeals to tradition to settle disagreement had become ineffective; there were just too many. One had to choose which of these many conflicting traditions to endorse. Locke thought this disorderly pluralism quite scandalous; it was even more scandalous that there seemed no rational way to put an end to the contentious disputes.

The Essay was Locke’s attempt to do what he could to put matters right. Book IV, “Of Knowledge and Probability,” is the end of the book—both in comprising the last three hundred pages or so and in dealing with the question whose resolution is Locke’s goal; and even in book IV he spends another two hundred pages before explicitly addressing it. That main question is: how should we regulate our opinion with respect to belief in general? In particular, how shall we regulate our opinion with respect to religious belief? As A. D. Woozley6666   Introduction to his abridgment of the Essay (New York: NAL Penguin, 1974 [originally published Collins, 1964]), p. 15. The Essay is long and confusing; it was composed over many years and didn’t receive anything like the final editing it needed. As a result, it has been published in abridged editions going all the way back to 1694 (Boston: Printed by Manning and Loring, for J. White, Thomas and Andrews, D. West, E. Larkin, J. West and the proprietor of the Boston bookstore) four years or so after its publication and ten years before Locke’s death. These abridgments sometimes delete some of the passages most important to a proper understanding of the Essay; for example, A. D. Woozley’s omits the absolutely crucial passage quoted on pp. 86–87, below. says, this is the principal topic of the Essay. As he also says, readers often don’t get to it, being a bit disheartened by having to wade through what amounts to a six-hundred-page preface. Still, it is what he says on this head that is most crucial to an understanding of Locke’s enterprise, as well as to our metaquestion.

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