Conscience and Revelation

In light of some recent discussions in the blogosphere on these subjects, I thought I would share my views on them, such as they are.

How do feelings, reason, and conscience relate? 

What determines right and wrong is not simply a feeling. Feelings are reactions to perceptions, real or imagined. They don’t give us new data, they are in fact our reactions to what we perceive. But our perceptions can be mistaken, and so our moral feelings partake of that fallibility. What ultimately determines right and wrong is the objective moral order; our conscience is most basically our awareness of that order. It is, in line with the classical definition of “reason”, the adequation of our mind to the moral aspect of reality. However, like awareness of the material world and other aspects of reality, our perception of the moral aspect of the world can be faulty, our reasoning can go off track, and our feelings react improperly to what we perceive (through force of habit or for some other reason). For this reason we should always remain open to correction by the facts.

Does revelation call us to act against our conscience?

This question can actually be understood two different ways. The first is as many people who pose it understand it: can revelation demand that our will choose a course of action that our reason regards as wrong and our emotions find repulsive, and do so without giving us reason to suppose our prior judgment (the source of our emotional reaction) is mistaken? In this case, the Bible, and representatives of the Christian tradition like Thomas Aquinas (cf. ST II-I.19.5-6), would say “no”. Acts against a mistaken conscience are still sinful, precisely because they are acts against the conscience.

The second way to understand the question is as follows: can revelation provide new information that would demand that our former beliefs about reality be abandoned for new ones? And could there be a situation where we are called to do something we previously found repulsive which revelation now gives us reason to regard as right? To this question the Bible and Christian tradition would answer “yes”. A good example of this in scripture would be Acts 10:9-43. But also, general experience would suggest an analogous truth: even abstracting from questions of revelation, it seems any reasonable ethic will have to acknowledge that the conscience can be mistaken, and should change when presented with new facts. One famous recent example of someone claiming this happened in his own experience would be President Barack Obama’s evolution on same-sex marriage.

Are reason and revelation hierarchically ordered? How do they relate?

This is an old and important question, and even within the Reformed tradition there are very complicated discussions and disagreements about this. However, I would suggest that Richard Hooker’s approach to this question is best. He suggested that we must have reason to believe that scripture is the word of God (Laws, 3.8.13), but that once we do have such reason, the word of God provides the strongest evidence we have, even stronger than evidence we have for truths we directly intuit like the law of non-contradiction, because God’s vision of reality is intrinsically more reliable than our faculties of knowledge (Laws, 2.7.5). As Aquinas similarly says (ST I.1.5), “other sciences derive their certitude from the natural light of human reason, which can err; whereas [sacred doctrine] derives its certitude from the light of divine knowledge, which cannot be misled….”

But this is not revelation “trumping” reason in the sense that it demands we believe something we have no reason to believe. Rather, this scheme is rational all the way down, in that reason provides us with warrant to believe that God is infallible and good, and that God in turn has provided us testimony for certain facts that otherwise we might not believe. Given the nature of God as infinite and infallible, and given our nature as partly ignorant, partly sinfully motivated to deny the truth, it is conceivable that God could reveal something to us we may initially not already find to be true. Nevertheless, if we have an antecedent reason to regard the revelation as truly from God, we have good reason to regard our initial lack of a sense of something’s veracity as mistaken, even if we don’t know how we are mistaken.

It is important to note here that this does not commit us to the position that truth is multiple; the point is not that reality can be self-contradictory, but that our mistaken or limited perception of it might lead us not to see how it is actually consistent, though it is ultimately consistent.

If revelation can “trump reason”, does that unleash anarchy or oppression? 

The question that may arise at this point is one that has been raised at least since the aftermath of the Wars of Religion: if revelation can go beyond reason, won’t this unleash anarchy and every evil conceivable? Couldn’t someone use a claim of revelation to justify anything?

The answer to this is partly “yes”, partly “no”. Firstly, yes, in an obvious sense, nothing can physically stop someone from making such a claim. Secondly, no, it does not mean that anyone else is obligated to accept such a person’s claim. People are obligated to believe what they think all the evidence they know of tells them to believe. And Christians can appeal to evidence for their faith, as they have since the beginning of Christianity.

Of course, the hypothetical evil person claiming revelation could simply claim they have direct revelation from God that is stronger than any evidence Christians might appeal to; the question may then arise, “how do we respond to that in a way that will psychologically compel them to agree with us?” The answer is basically: “we can’t”. As epistemologist Michael Bergmann put it:

How can we say that the religious fanatic, who claims that the difference between her belief and ours is that hers is formed in accord with proper function and ours isn’t, is making a permissible move in a proper philosophical exchange? These questions arise, I believe, out of some important misunderstandings. One misunderstanding is the thought that radical disagreement (about such things as fanatical religious views) can be resolved if we follow the rules for permissible moves in a proper philosophical exchange. This thought is a pipe dream, a philosopher’s false hope. The disagreement between clever religious fanatics and those skeptical of their claims, like the disagreement between High Standard moderate nonexternalists and those skeptical of their claims, can ‘bottom out’ in the sort of exchange we’ve been imagining. The High Standard moderate nonexternalist can insist that genuine direct acquaintance with certain facts is sufficient for justification and that the demon victim with merely apparent direct acquaintance is out of luck justification-wise. The skeptic will find that unsatisfying. But the High Standard moderate nonexternalist won’t be moved by the skeptic’s dissatisfaction. The same sort of thing will happen in the case of religious fanatics: they won’t be moved by the skeptic’s dissatisfaction with their externalist response (nor, of course, will the skeptical be moved by their externalist response). …

I say that we can insist the religious fanatic is hallucinating and that those skeptical of introspection are subject to some sort of blindness. But can’t the religious fanatic just respond by saying that those of us who reject her view are subject to some sort of blindness? And can’t those skeptical of introspection responding by saying that we who rely on it are or might be hallucinating (where it seems to us that our introspective beliefs are genuinely infallible or that they are about facts genuinely before our minds, even though they aren’t)? Yes, the religious fanatic and the skeptic about introspection can respond in those ways. But in response to the religious fanatic, we can say: ‘the difference between our claim that you’re hallucinating and your claim that we’re blind is that our claim satisfies the conditions necessary and sufficient for justification and yours does not’. Likewise, in response to the skeptic about introspection, we can say: ‘the difference between our claim that you’re blind and your claim that we’re hallucinating is that our claim satisfies the conditions necessary and sufficient for justification and yours does not’. It’s true that this is unlikely to satisfy the religious fanatic or the skeptic about introspection and that they will likely have similar things to say about us. But the point here is just this: The fact that those with whom we disagree (e.g. the religious fanatic or the skeptic about introspection) can respond with philosophical moves similar in form to our own might keep us from complaining that they aren’t following the proper rules for philosophical exchange. It may even prevent us from resolving our dispute with the methods of philosophy. However, it doesn’t commit us to thinking that their views are sensible or respectable. [Michael Bergmann, Justification without Awareness: A Defense of Epistemic Externalism, 231-2]

To summarize Bergmann: any philosophical or religious disagreement can come to an impasse when one person claims something is obvious, and another says somebody is hallucinating when they claim something is obvious. But even in such a deadlock, people can be rational in holding their beliefs. For knowledge must be of the truth perceived by properly functioning epistemic faculties, while belief can be in error, and the side in the aforementioned impasse with the truth will have grounds for regarding the other person as mistaken. But it will mean that not every disagreement can be resolved by following common position-neutral philosophical rules.

What this means for the social question, “won’t this result in anarchy?”, is a negative answer. Societies are composed of people with beliefs, and they can respond to a minority of religious fanatics according to the evidence as they see it; even if they cannot persuade the minority with position-neutral philosophical arguments, they can still respond to them with other tactics beyond “the methods of philosophy”. They can make laws according to the truth as they see it. Of course, the majority might also be in error, but it is a mistake to think that a philosophical method will ever make such an error impossible. Tragedy is unfortunately always a possibility in this world.