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Warranted Christian Belief
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B. Rationality as Proper Function

If we agree that rational creatures do and therefore can accept Christian belief, we might ask whether it is only malfunctioning rational creatures that do so, creatures whose rational faculties are in some way dysfunctional. A person who suffers from pathological confusion, or flight of ideas, or the manic stage of bipolar disorder, or delusions (perhaps thinking the Martians are out to get him) is said to be irrational. Here the problem is dysfunction, malfunction of the rational faculties. The paranoid doesn’t form beliefs in the way a normal, properly functioning human being does; some part of the cognitive apparatus fails to function properly. Pathologically confused people may not know what day it is or where they live. Such dysfunction can be long-term or episodic; if it is the latter, then after the episode is over, we say rationality is restored. This sense of rationality, therefore, has to do with proper function, the absence of dysfunction or pathology: you are rational if not subject to such pathology. Correlatively, irrationality, in this sense, is a matter of malfunction of (some of) the rational faculties, the faculties by virtue of which we are rational animals. So there is an analogical connection between Aristotelian rationality and rationality construed as proper function.

We must distinguish two forms of rationality as proper function. On the one hand, there is what we might call internal rationality. We can initially characterize internal rationality as a matter of proper function of all belief-producing processes ‘downstream from experience’. How can we explain this metaphor? We may begin by noting that experience comes in several varieties. First, there is sensuous imagery, the kind of experience you have most prominently in vision but in hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching as well. To use Roderick Chisholm’s terminology, in this kind of experience one is appeared to in such and such a way. Sensuous imagery plays an enormously significant role in perception; perceptual beliefs are formed in response to sensuous imagery and on the basis of such imagery.

Still, this isn’t the only kind of experience that goes with belief formation. In chapter 3 (p. 106) and in Warrant and Proper Function (188–93, hereafter WPF), I pointed out that the formation of memory beliefs is often unaccompanied by phenomenal experience, or else accompanied only by fragmentary, fleeting, indistinct, hard-to-focus sensuous imagery. You remember that you went to a party in Novosibirsk; there is a bit of imagery, all right, although it is fleeting, partial, indistinct, and such that when you try to focus your attention on it, it disappears. But there is another kind of experience present: the belief that it was Novosibirsk (and not, say, Cleveland) seems right, acceptable, natural; it forces itself upon you; it seems somehow inevitable (the right words are hard to find). The belief feels right, acceptable, and natural; it feels different from what you think is a false belief. The same goes for a priori belief. You believe that no dogs are sets. This belief, too, involves little by way of sensuous imagery. When you consider that proposition, perhaps it is as if you catch a momentary and fleeting glimpse of part of a sentence expressing the proposition, or perhaps a fragmentary glimpse of a dog, or perhaps of a dog enclosed within braces; this imagery seems unimportant, however, more like mere decoration than something on the basis of which the belief in question is formed. And here, too, there is also this other sort of experience: it’s just seeming true and indeed necessarily true that no dogs are sets. Thinking about this proposition feels different from thinking about the proposition that some dogs (your dog Tietje, for example) are sets. Still a third kind of example, also discussed in more detail in WPF (48ff.): the knowledge that it is you (as opposed to someone else) who is now perceiving the page in front of you. This too is not a matter of sensuous imagery: it is not on the basis of sensuous imagery that you believe it is you who are perceiving that page, rather than your cousin in Cleveland. Here too there is that other sort of phenomenal experience, that feeling that the proposition in question is the right one.

Suppose we call this second kind of phenomenal experience doxastic experience because it always goes with the formation of belief.124124   From δοξα, the Greek word for belief. In WPF I called this kind of experience ‘impulsional evidence’. Internal rationality includes, in the first place, forming or holding the appropriate beliefs in response to experience, including both phenomenal imagery and doxastic experience. With respect to the first, I will form beliefs appropriate to the phenomenal imagery I enjoy: for example, when appeared to in the way that goes with seeing a gray elephant, I will not form the belief that I am perceiving an orange flamingo. That sort of response is precluded by internal rationality. But perhaps the second—forming the right beliefs in response to doxastic experience—is more interesting. A pathological skeptic, for example, might have the same sort of doxastic experience as the rest of us, but still be unable to form the appropriate beliefs. I might be appeared to in the way that goes with seeing that Peter is running toward me; out of pathological caution, however, I am unable to believe that he is really running toward me (after all, it could be a cunningly contrived robot, or I could be dreaming, or a brain in a vat, or a victim of some other kind of illusion; and can I be certain that it is really me that he is running toward?). This sort of response is also precluded by internal rationality. By contrast, René Descartes notes that there are people “whose cerebella are so troubled and clouded by the violent vapours of black bile, that they . . . imagine that they have an earthenware head or are nothing but pumpkins or are made of glass.”125125   Meditations, Meditation I. That sort of response is not (necessarily) precluded by internal rationality. Perhaps these madmen are subjected to overwhelming doxastic experience here. Perhaps this proposition—that their heads are made of glass—seems utterly obvious to them, as obvious as that 3 + 1 = 4. Then the problem lies with this seeming, with their having this kind of doxastic experience. Given this doxastic experience, what proper function requires (all else being equal) is forming this belief; and that they do. They display external irrationality, but not internal irrationality.

There is more that internal rationality requires; we can deal with it briefly. A person is internally rational only if her beliefs are coherent, or at any rate are sufficiently coherent to satisfy proper function. If she is internally rational, then if she believes that her head is made of earthenware, she will not also believe that it is made of flesh and blood—or at least won’t believe these both within the confines of the same thought, so to speak. Much more ought to be said about the coherence required by proper function; it will have to await another occasion. Further, an internally rational person will draw the right inferences when the occasion arises: for example, someone who is internally rational but believes that her head is made of earthenware will probably believe that playing football (at any rate without a really good helmet) is very dangerous. Still further, given the beliefs she has, she will make the right decisions with respect to her courses of action—that is, the decisions required by proper function. Given that you do believe you are made of glass, for example, the rational thing to do is to avoid bumps. And finally, if she is internally rational, she will do what proper function requires with respect to such things as preferring to believe what is true, looking for further evidence when that is appropriate, and in general being epistemically responsible.

And now that we have internal rationality in hand, external rationality is easy to explain. It requires, first, proper function with respect to the formation of the sensuous experience on which perceptual belief is based. And it consists second in the formation of the right kind of doxastic experience—that is, the sort of doxastic experience required by proper function.

I suppose it would be widely conceded that Christian belief can be held by people whose rational faculties are not malfunctioning, or at any rate not malfunctioning in a way that involves clinical psychoses.126126   Although Richard Rorty somewhere suggests that in the new liberal society, those who think there is such a thing as the chief end of man will have to be considered insane. See also Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), p. 516, where he suggests that perhaps Baptists should be kept in zoos and preserved as interesting cultural relics, but only if they refrain from telling their children such patent untruths as that “‘man’ is not a product of evolution by natural selection” (519). The fact is many Christian believers are able to hold jobs, some even as academics. (Of course, you may think this latter guarantees little by way of cognitive proper function.) So presumably the de jure question is also not the question whether Christian belief can be held by people whose cognitive or rational faculties are functioning properly, at least in this clinical sense. But this by no means settles the issue; there are subtler forms of cognitive malfunction, and impedance of cognitive proper function. As a matter of fact, the (or a) sensible version of the de jure question does lie in the neighborhood of one of these subtler forms. We’ll return to the notion of proper function in more depth and detail in the next chapter, where we explore the notion of warrant. In the meantime, however, suppose we turn to still another kind of rationality.


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