Faith and Reason: Knowledge and Dogma and Truth

Article excerpt

POPE JOHN PAUL II's extraordinary publishing success with Crossing the Threshold of Hope draws attention to a huge philosophical divide between Catholics and Anglicans.

In all the fuss about women priests, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the profoundly important differences between the churches are about authority. The problem is not that they come to different conclusions, but that they reach these differing conclusions by different and largely incompatible routes.

"I think, therefore I am" seems to the Pope to be a disastrous philosophical mistake. "Descartes . . . turns his back on metaphysics and concentrates on the philosophy of knowledge," the Pope writes, and he means this as a condemnation.

Crammed into a nutshell, the difference is this: the Pope, and traditionalist forces generally, believe you can have reliable dogma without knowledge, and the rest of the Christian world believes you can have reliable knowledge without dogma.

Perhaps the clearest expression of the anti-papal view was that of the philosopher Karl Popper, who died last month. He had a huge influence on British theologians, though he did not write much on religion directly. But one of his central themes is also central to any philosophy of religion. He is always asking "What should we believe? Why? and on what authority?"

Much of his influence on theologians came from his destructive work on some of the theories which had competed with Christianity as general explanations for the human predicament, such as Marxism and Freudianism. These had derived their authority less from experience than from the prestige of science, since both claimed to be scientific accounts of the world and of ourselves. Popper gave very good reasons for supposing that such theories were not, and could not be, scientific. They were merely dogmas disguised as knowledge.

Popper believed that objective truth existed and that it could be approached by human reason. But he saw this process as one in which truth was, so to say, the passive partner; whereas, to the Pope, truth reaches out towards humanity.

Scientific enquiry was for him the most clearly defined and self- conscious approach to truth, but it differed only in degree from all other productive exercises of reason. All purposeful behaviour could be understood as implying theories or hypotheses about the outside world. A cat miaows outside the refrigerator, and this action implies in turn a whole set of propositions about tins of cat food, refrigerators, human beings, and ways to bring all these factors into conjunction for the advantage of the cat.

This is an endlessly fascinating and fruitful way to look at the world. …