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C. The Deliverances of Reason

First, what are the deliverances of reason? Here we have to take the term ‘reason’ a bit more narrowly than we did in thinking about Aristotelian rationality. Among the things we know, some are self-evident. It isn’t entirely easy to see what it is for a proposition to be self-evident;127127   See WPF, pp. 108ff. the rough idea, however, is that a proposition is self-evident if it is so utterly obvious that we can’t even understand it without seeing that it is true. Examples would be propositions like 7 + 5 = 12; if all men are mortal and Socrates is a man, then Socrates is mortal; and if Tom is taller than Sam, and Sam is taller than George, then Tom is taller than George. And the idea is that reason, taken in this narrower sense, is the faculty or power whereby we see the truth of self-evident propositions. Of course it is also reason whereby we see that one proposition entails or implies another: if I learn from the bartender that everyone at the party was drunk, and from you that Paul was at the party, I can conclude that Paul was drunk. The deliverances of reason, therefore, will be self-evident propositions, together with propositions that are self-evident consequences of deliverances of reason. (We might put this by saying that self-evidenceis closed under self-evident consequence.) And then we might say that a proposition is rational if it is among the deliverances of reason, and irrational if its denial is among the deliverances of reason. Note that many propositions—for example, the proposition that Caesar crossed the Rubicon—will then be neither rational nor irrational: neither 114they nor their denials are among the deliverances of reason.128128   Alternatively, we might say that a proposition is irrational if its denial is among the deliverances of reason, and rational if it is not irrational: then, of course, every proposition will be either rational or irrational. And again, the connection with Aristotelian rationality is easy to see: reason taken in this narrow sense is one of the faculties the possession of which distinguishes us from other animals, and when it is functioning properly, what it yields are the deliverances of reason.

There is a problem here. The deliverances of reason obviously come in degrees: some seem much more compelling than others, and only some have the overwhelmingly obvious nature of the propositions mentioned above. So, for example, it is obvious, I think, that there aren’t any things that do not exist, although this has been disputed, and although it is not as obvious as the propositions mentioned in the above paragraph. Another example is serious actualism: the proposition that an object has properties only in worlds in which it exists.129129   See “Replies,” in Alvin Plantinga, ed. James Tomberlin and Peter van Inwagen (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1985), pp. 316ff. This proposition has intuitive warrant, intuitive support, and can be deduced from actualism, together with other obvious principles; but it isn’t just self-evident. You can understand it and nevertheless reject it, and indeed some philosophers do exactly that.130130   See John Pollock, “Plantinga on Possible Worlds,” in Alvin Plantinga, pp. 126ff., and also Nathan Salmon, “Nonexistence,” Noûs (September 1998), p. 290. Should we admit these propositions that have at least some intuitive warrant to the august company of deliverances of reason, even if they are not self-evident? Indeed we should; if we do, however, we can no longer say that the deliverances of reason are closed under self-evident entailment. That is because of Russell-like paradoxes. It is a deliverance of reason that there are properties, that there is such a property as self-exemplification, and that every property has a complement, so that there is also such a property as non-self-exemplification. The rest of the sad story is well known.

Is Christian belief rational in this sense? No; the central truths of Christianity are certainly not self-evident, nor, so far as anyone can see, are they such that they can be deduced from what is self-evident. Of course, that is nothing whatever against Christian belief; the same holds for, for example, what we are taught by historians, physicists, and evolutionary biologists. So the de jure question can’t be the question whether Christian belief is rational in this sense. That is because a negative answer to the question is supposed to be a serious criticism of Christian belief; but it is no criticism of Christian belief (or the theory of evolution, or the belief that you live in Cleveland) that it is not a deliverance of reason in this sense.


Well, is Christian belief irrational, in this sense? That is, are the denials of some of the propositions falling within Christian belief either self-evident or deducible from propositions that are self-evident? Could that be the de jure question? If Christian beliefs were irrational in this sense, that would certainly be something against them. Some have certainly argued that characteristic Christian belief is inconsistent. For example, it has often been claimed that the existence of God is incompatible with the existence of evil; Christian doctrine, however, embraces both. I believe it is clear, however, that there is no inconsistency here;131131   See chapter 9 of my The Nature of Necessity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974). in fact those contemporaries who press the problem of evil against Christian or theistic belief no longer make that claim of inconsistency.

Some atheologians have also urged that certain Christian doctrines (e.g., the doctrine of the trinity or the doctrine of the incarnation) are self-contradictory and hence inconsistent with the deliverances of reason. But these claims are at best inconclusive; everything depends on which precise formulation of these doctrines we consider. Some of these formulations may perhaps be inconsistent, although it is very hard to find any formulations of these doctrines that are both clearly inconsistent and also widely accepted. (In particular, the formulations to be found in the great creeds of the Christian church are not clearly inconsistent.) Other formulations clearly are not inconsistent. Further, Christians who come to realize that they have accepted an inconsistent version of one of these doctrines can easily replace that version by one that is not inconsistent. So if this were the de jure question, then even if some formulations of central Christian doctrine are contrary to the deliverances of reason, the unhappy condition of believing such a thing could be easily avoided: just move to a formulation that is not inconsistent. But those who urge the de jure question with respect to Christian belief do not, presumably, mean to claim just that Christian belief is inconsistent: even if it is perfectly consistent, they think, there is still something seriously wrong with it. We can’t mollify them merely by pointing out that there are consistent versions of Christian belief. This, too, it seems, is not the de jure question.

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