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B. The Affirmations of Faith

So far we have been speaking of perception of God, religious affections, and relations between them. Now we turn to a different though related question: how is it, according to Edwards, that we come to believe what he calls the great things of the gospel—trinity, incarnation, atonement, and so on? It is one thing to perceive the glory and beauty of the Lord and something quite different to know that Jesus Christ was, in fact, the divine son of God who took on human flesh, and suffered and died, thereby atoning for human sin. Do we also perceive the latter? No. Edwards doesn’t believe that we perceive the great truths of the gospel; we do not perceive such qualities of the Lord as that he loved us so much that he sent his only begotten son to suffer and die, thus enabling us to have life. A certain sort of perception may be involved in our coming to know these things, but we don’t perceive these things themselves:

A view of this divine glory directly convinces the mind of the divinity of these things, as this glory is in itself a direct, clear and all-conquering evidence of it. . . . He that has his judgment thus directly convinced and assured of the divinity of the things of the gospel, by a clear view of their divine glory, has a reasonable conviction; his belief and assurance is altogether agreeable to reason; because the divine glory and beauty of divine things is in itself, real evidence of their divinity, and the most direct and strong evidence. He that truly sees the divine, transcendent, supreme glory of these things which are divine, does as it were know their divinity intuitively; he not only argues that they are divine, but he sees that they are divine; he sees that in them wherein divinity chiefly consists. (p. 298)

There are two ways of understanding this and similar passages. On the one hand, Edwards might think the believer perceives the divine glory and beauty of the things of the gospel, and then infers from that, in a quick argument, that they are indeed divine, from God, and hence are to be believed. On the other hand, the account could be that the believer sees the loveliness and beauty—divine beauty—of the things of the gospel, and consequently and immediately forms the beliefs that these things are true and that they are from God. The difference would be that, in the first case, there is an inference, perhaps so quick and inexplicit that one scarcely notices it, but an inference nonetheless. Then the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit would 305work as follows: the Holy Spirit enables the believer to see the glory and beauty of the gospel, whereupon she infers that they are in fact divine and hence to be believed. The “real evidence” Edwards mentions would be propositional evidence: it would be such propositions as this (one of the gospel teachings) is glorious and beautiful; and the conclusion would be this teaching is from God (and hence true).

On the second construal, a perception of the glory and beauty of the teaching in question would be an occasion of the formation of the belief that the teaching is indeed from God (and is true), but the transition from the one to the other would not be by way of an inference. The belief in question would be held in the basic way, although occasioned by the perception of something else (the beauty and glory of the teaching in question). This second way would resemble the way in which (as I see it) Calvin thinks the sensus divinitatis operates. It isn’t that upon beholding the glory of the mountains or the majesty of the ocean one infers that there is such a person as God who has created it; rather, the perception of the mountains or ocean (or one’s own sin, or danger, or . . . ) is the occasion of the formation of the belief about God in question. On this construal, the “real evidence” in question wouldn’t be propositional evidence functioning as premise for an inference. It would rather be something else that makes the belief in question evident—that is, something else that plays the appropriate role in the belief’s having warrant for one. It would be like the role played by perception of someone else’s facial expression in coming to the warranted belief that she is angry or depressed or delighted: again, even if I don’t infer the latter from the former, the former is still my evidence for the latter in the sense that the former is (part of) what makes the latter evident (warranted) for me.

Under the second construal, there are again two ways things could go. It could be that perception of the beauty and delightfulness of the great things of the gospel directly and without intermediary occasions the formation of the relevant belief. Then again, it could be that the Holy Spirit enables the believer to perceive that beauty and delightfulness and also enables her to make the right affective response of delight, admiration, and love: and it is that affective response which is the immediate occasion of the belief in question. You see that the great things of the gospel are glorious and beautiful; you find them winsome, delightful, and attractive; so you believe them. If things went this second way, then with respect to the formation of belief in the great things of the gospel, will (affection) would precede intellect.

Which of these is the truth of the matter? What does Edwards think: is there or isn’t there a quick inference involved? It’s not easy to tell, and indeed perhaps he thinks the belief is formed both ways at once: “he not only argues that they are divine, but he sees that they are divine.” I think the second position (according to which perception of the beauty of one of the great things of the gospel is a direct or 306indirect occasion of the formation of the belief that it is indeed true, not a premise of an inference whose conclusion is that belief) is the stronger. That is because the alleged inference in question seems dubious, questionable—just as would be an inference to the proposition that the sun is shining on the oaks from propositions reporting how I am now being appeared to. On the other hand, there need be nothing dubious or questionable about a process in which perception of the beauty and glory of that teaching is an occasion (direct or indirect) for the belief that it is true.

Or is there something dubious here? Would it be somehow irrational to form a belief B as a response just to the perception that B is attractive and beautiful, or to the fact that you delight in the thought that B, that you have a certain affective response to B? Wouldn’t this be like the cases we noted earlier on (above, pp. 149ff.) in which noncognitive or nonintellectual features of a cognitive situation can influence belief formation, thus impeding cognitive proper function? I don’t think so. It needn’t be the case that wherever there is influence of this sort—that is, from nonintellectual factors—what you have is impedance: perhaps the design plan calls for just this sort of belief formation, and perhaps the relevant part of the design plan is successfully aimed at true belief. According to the physicist Steven Weinberg, scientists often accept a view or a theory not (or not only) because there is good evidence for it, but because it is beautiful:

Nevertheless, despite the weakness of the early experimental evidence for general relativity, Einstein’s theory became the standard textbook theory of gravitation in the 1920s and retained that position from then on, even while the various eclipse expeditions of the 1920s and 1930s were reporting at best equivocal evidence for the theory. I remember that, when I learned general relativity in the 1950s, before modern radar and radio astronomy began to give impressive new evidence for the theory, I took it for granted that general relativity was more or less correct. Perhaps all of us were just gullible and lucky, but I do not think that is the real explanation. I believe that the general acceptance of general relativity was due in large part to the attractions of the theory itself—in short, to its beauty.387387   Dream of a Final Theory (New York: Pantheon, 1992), p. 98. See also P. Dirac, The Development of Quantum Theory (New York: Gordon and Breach, 1971), pp. 30–37; speaking of some of De Broglie’s work, he says, “This connection of De Broglie’s was very beautiful mathematically and was in agreement with the theory of relativity. It was very mysterious, but because of its mathematical beauty one felt that there must be some deep connection between the waves and the particles illustrated by this mathematics.”


Here we have the same three possibilities: (a) Weinberg argued to the truth of general relativity, employing as a premise the proposition that the theory is beautiful (more exactly, displays a certain hard-to-specify kind of beauty or aesthetic appeal), or (b) Weinberg’s perception of the beauty of the theory was the direct occasion of his belief that it is true, or (c) Weinberg’s perception of the beauty was the direct occasion of an affective response of admiration, attraction, and delight, that affective response then occasioning belief.388388   Ironically enough, Weinberg also argues (more exactly, asserts) that religious beliefs arrived at by way of experience are really formed by wishful thinking, completely failing to note the parallel with his idea that scientific beliefs are sometimes accepted because of their beauty. There need be nothing irrational here, and won’t be, if in fact this sort of belief formation is in accord with a part of our cognitive design plan, which is successfully aimed at the formation of true belief. Similarly with the great things of the gospel.

We can also compare the second Edwardsian construal with Augustine’s famous dictum: “Our hearts are restless till they rest in you, O Lord.”389389   Confessions. See here George Herbert’s poem “The Pulley” in The Poetical Works of George Herbert, with life, critical dissertation, and explanatory notes by the Rev. George Gilfillan (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1853), p. 167. Perhaps this restlessness without God leads to belief in God; and perhaps God has designed us in this way to impel us to try to get in touch with him. If either Edwards or Augustine is right, the process by which belief (in God, or in the great things of the gospel) arises in us would be a little like the way in which Freud thinks theistic belief arises. According to Freud (see above, chapter 5), religious belief arises out of wishful thinking: we see that the world is cold, cruel, heedless of us and our needs and desires, hostile, unthinking, and all the rest; we respond by forming a belief in a heavenly father who loves us and is actually in control of the world. The difference would be, of course, that according to Freud this process of belief formation does not have the production of true belief as its purpose, but rather the production of belief with some other property—that of enabling us to cope with the cold, cruel world into which, as our continental cousins say, we have been geworfen. If Augustine or Edwards is right, however, the processes leading to the formation of the beliefs in question are directed to the truth: the relevant module of the design plan has as its purpose the production of true belief, even if it goes by way of perception of beauty or wish-fulfillment.

Indeed, there is a connection between belief and perception of beauty (and similar qualities) that goes much deeper than Weinberg suggests. As Leibniz and many since have noted, there are ordinarily 308many different theories or beliefs compatible with our evidence. If we plot our data on Cartesian coordinates, we will be able to draw as many lines as we please through the points we plot, and we could project any of the appropriately related hypotheses. All emeralds so far examined have been green; if so, however, they have also all been grue, where an emerald is grue if either it is examined before 2050 a.d. (bringing Goodman up to date) and is found to be green, or is not so examined and is blue.390390   See Nelson Goodman, Fact, Fiction and Forecast (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1955; reprint, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973), p. 74 in the 1973 edition; and see the corrected version of the paradox in Problems and Projects (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1972), p. 359. See also Warrant and Proper Function, pp. 128ff. So (instead of projecting that all emeralds are green) we could project that all emeralds are grue, thus concluding that emeralds not observed before 2050 are blue. The sun has come up every morning so far; we form the belief that it comes up every day and will also come up tomorrow. We could have formed quite a different belief, however: where T is today, we could have formed the belief that the sun comes up every day prior to T and never after T. Why do we accept the hypotheses we do; why do we project green rather than grue, and the hypothesis that the sun will continue to come up rather than the one according to which it won’t? Why do we project simple hypotheses rather than complex ones? Not because we have evidence that simpler hypotheses are more likely to be correct than complex ones; for, for any alleged evidence for this conclusion, there will be a more complex inference from the same data for the denial of this conclusion. So why do we do it?

Because we find simple beliefs (whatever precisely simplicity is) more natural and more attractive than complex beliefs. Only a madman would project grue or its partner in crime, bleen.391391   Where, as you expect, x is bleen if either it is examined before 2050 a.d. and is found to be blue, or is not so examined and green. Messy, complex beliefs are ugly, disgusting, weird, repellent: we dislike them and therefore reject them. We may hope that the world is in fact such that simplicity (at least simplicity of a certain sort and in certain areas) is a mark of truth; but we have no hope whatever of establishing that in a way that doesn’t already rely upon simplicity. For suppose we note that in the last one thousand cases the simplest hypothesis has turned out to be true. Where t is the present, say that a belief is ‘simplex’ if it is formed before t and simple, or after t and complex; what we will have observed, so far, is that simplex beliefs tend to be true. But that means that from now on we should go for complex beliefs.

How shall we think of these things in the model? There are the three Edwardsian possibilities: it could be that there is a quick inference from the beauty and glory of the gospel to its truth; it could be 309that such belief is uninferred, but directly consequent, according to the design plan, upon perception of the beauty and glory of the gospel; and it could be that perception of the beauty of the gospel induces admiration and delight, which induces belief. We need not choose among them. There is that affective response, there is the perception of beauty and glory, and there is the belief; it is no part of the model to say which, if any, is prior to which.

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