Thursday, 27 June 2013

Factive "Intellectual" Doubt

In this series I’m trying to help Christians understand how doubts about their religious beliefs work. Last time, in introducing the series, I said that there were different kinds of doubt and that it’s very important to discern which kind of doubt it is you might be struggling with. Factive “Intellectual” Doubt and Anxious “Emotional” Doubt are the two kinds of doubt I picked out for attention. In this post I’m going to get under the skin of factive doubt in some detail.

Factive or “intellectual” doubt is, in a sense, the more straight-forward kind of doubt of the two we’re looking at in this series. Its nature is more self-evident to the person experiencing it than anxious doubt. We experience factive doubt when we have a concrete objection, or defeater, or counter-claim, running against something we believe. If you’re experiencing factive doubt you might say something like the following;

(A) “I’m seeing a lot of discrepancies between the different accounts of Jesus’ resurrection in the four gospels. I can’t make sense of that and it’s really undermining my confidence in the Bible.”

(B)“I’m reading some philosophy of religion and there seem to be strong arguments against God’s existence. I can’t find any fault in John Mackie’s attack on the compatibility of God and evil. I think I still believe in God but I know I have some real questions about it now.”

(C) “My pastor today preached on Christian faith and joy. He said that real Christians must be happy. I’ve struggled with depression for a while... I trust my pastor and so I’m seriously doubting whether I’m really a Christian.”

When we have factive doubt, we suspect, somewhat believe, or are pulled in the direction of believing, that something problematic for Christian belief is actually true. We continue to overall believe that God exists, or that the Bible is trustworthy, or that we are saved (our doubt is distinct from flat-out unbelief), but our believing is a lot less straight-forward than it would be without the doubt. And we desire assurance that what we’re doubting over isn’t really a problem at all. We desire to dispel our anomalous doubt and regain an overall, unified conviction among our beliefs that Christianity is true. This desire, as I indicated in my initial summary of factive doubt in the first post, is legitimate and appropriate, or so I shall argue.  

If we’re struggling with factive doubt, it’s possible that some of the advice we’ve received from fellow Christian friends or from the pulpit hasn’t felt entirely on target. In some Christian circles, having factive doubt can be a very lonely experience. We can feel like those around us don’t quite understand what it’s like to be faced with the kind of doubts we’re having. We might be told, in effect, to ignore our doubts. Don’t worry about whether there are contradictions in the gospels, just have faith, someone might say. But what’s happened here is that the person advising us has suggested an approach that’s (roughly) on track for anxious doubt, not factive doubt. Probably, they are personally unfamiliar with much of the latter. But sadly, if our factive doubt is serious, plain dismissal is the worst thing for it.    

Faith in God is something we exercise when we have confidence in God’s existence, character, and plan for us. We would find a person strange or confused if they trusted God but also thought that he was indifferent, cruel, or simply absent. By comparison, it wouldn’t make any sense for me to trust in my car to get me to some destination if I knew it was broken, or very liable to malfunctioning mid-journey, or stolen and thus not available for me. But if, instead, I know my car is in the garage and up to the job, my faith in it is well placed. My knowledge of the car serves as the basis for my faith in it. And likewise, knowing that God exists, is good and cares for me is the knowledge that acts as the basis or foundation for my well-placed faith in Him.[1] 

This is why it’s unhelpful, indeed foolish to claim that in the name of faith we ought to treat factive doubt as unworthy of attention. When we doubt the reliability of the gospels, or the compatibility of God and evil, or the compatibility of depression with salvation, we are experiencing a challenge to the knowledge foundation of faith. These doubts call into question God’s existence, goodness, and plan for us. In the name of faith, then, we would want to support this foundation by addressing the challenge, not ignoring it! And we address the challenge by tackling our questions and looking seriously at the objections we are wrestling with. If you’re struggling with factive doubt, the desire to settle the doubt and enjoy assurance is legitimate.[2]

Factive doubt can actually be an occasion for growth and maturation. As limited, finite creatures, our “knowledge” foundation for our faith will inevitably contain errors and misjudgements of many kinds. Factive doubt can identify aspects of our foundation that we ought, in fact, to replace. The resolution of a challenge to the foundation, then, may preserve a foundation but it need not be entirely identical to the one we started with. Let’s concretise this a bit.

Let’s say you are struggling with doubt over the reliability of the gospels (like in case A above). You don’t know what to make of the appearance of discrepancies in the gospel accounts. You want to trust the Bible but you believe that the Bible is trustworthy only if all the details of its historical narratives can be harmonised with one another. Here’s how a couple faith-preserving outcomes to this dilemma might look.

On the simpler end, you might, through a closer reader of the gospels, end up concluding that the appearance of discrepancy is just that: appearance. Through proper attention to the full context of each problem passage, you think, you can harmonise the different narratives and see that every detail of one narrative perfectly accords with the details in the others. Your foundation remains intact exactly as it was.

But things might go differently while no less positively. Perhaps your suspicion that there are discrepancies in the Bible actually strengthens but through further study you conclude that, in fact, the gospel authors were not in the business of tying down exact details. Their accounts, you now think, are intended to get across the core of the historical events while also serving other stylistic and theological ends. Things like precise chronological accuracy were not always on the authors’ minds. To judge them on standards of precision that they didn’t intend to meet seems unfair so you judge that the gospels are basically reliable. Here you still end up with a foundation worthy of faith – you still trust the Bible – but the exact structure of that foundation looks a little different. You’ve swapped a belief in the importance of accordance on detail to a belief that such accordance is not critical. You’ve swapped one brick in the foundation for another. In this way, factive doubt can help modify and refine our beliefs.

You should, then, be encouraged to explore what answers to your doubts might be available. Talk to knowledgeable friends or read books on the issues you’re dealing with. However you do it, the solution to factive doubt is to face it, trusting God, even in a paltry and provisory way, that there are answers to be found. And if you don’t have a clue where to turn, please drop me an email through the form at the very bottom of the page. I’d love to help, or just lend you a sympathetic ear. As warned before, the nature of this series is to analyse doubt as a first step toward change rather than to take someone through the whole process but I welcome a more thorough discussion of doubt through personal correspondence.[3] 

We shouldn’t gloss over the distress that doubt can cause. Indeed, the distress is a reason in favour of dropping the intellectual/emotional divide in describing doubt-kinds. Truth is, you can have a whole variety of emotions attending your factive doubt. Anger, confusion, emptiness. Your very identity may be shaken. Doubt that is “intellectual” implies a cool, disengaged process but that’s not how most Christians experience these sorts of doubt.

“Intellectual” also implies doubt with highly academic or philosophical content but that need not be the case. Take our example (C) of factive doubt. The person is voicing a concern that concretely targets the knowledge foundation of their faith – whether they are properly Christian – but it’s a doubt that would come under the remit of “pastoral care” rather than “apologetics.” The “facts” targeted in factive doubt can just as easily be facts about our emotional states as they can be facts of history or theology. Factive doubt, I’m sure, is not a perfect label but it does seem to me slightly improved.

Next time we’ll turn to the doubt-kind that’s typically lumbered with the “emotional” label we’re shedding.


[1] Things have been simplified here. In some cases, it is the act of placing trust in God and then experiencing his subsequent faithfulness that increases confidence in God. There is something holistic and cyclical here. But still, even in a richer holistic account, factive doubt upsets a part of that holistic pattern and undermines its overall coherence. 

[2] I realise, of course, that what I’m suggesting here is counter to the sensibilities of many an atheist/skeptic and indeed perhaps some Christians too. That is, I’m suggesting here that it’s okay to have a “vested interest” in the outcome of an enquiry. I’m suggesting that it is okay to desire to discover that the Christian gospel is true as one embarks on a quest for knowledge. But it is typically thought that this desire is rationally inappropriate, that it “biases” the enquiry in a host of ways (it motivates the enquirer to, say, only read books from the side he is sympathetic too). I understand the force this sensibility carries though I find myself nowadays distanced from it. Here is a quick sketch of an alternative take on things. Desire for a outcome to an enquiry to preserve a particular belief P is typically the result of desiring to preserve the beneficial effects of holding P. To hold P, however, is in some sense to judge P a trust-worthy account of how things are. But to engage in poor practise during enquiry is to implicitly believe that P cannot bear the weight of enquiry – that P cannot be trusted after all to give an account of how things are. Too much poor practise would undermine the idea that you trust P. The occasional slip-up of practise in this respect may not undermine your overall trust in P but too much poor practise creates in you such a pattern of distrust in P that it may become the case that, in fact, you have overall ceased to trust P and so ceased to believe P. But this was exactly the outcome you wanted to avoid. So continual poor practise more or less guarantees the loss of belief in P, whereas proper practise and enquiry may in fact strengthen P. Proper commitment to P, then, ought to motivate proper enquiry. Poor practise may be tempting but it is the opposite of what commitment to P rationally demands. Contra the skeptic’s sensibility, then, poor practise is not what ought to follow from a “vested interest” in P but is in fact the opposite of what ought to follow. These reflections inspired by Helm, B. W. (2001). Emotional reason: Deliberation, motivation, and the nature of value. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

[3] Trust in God that there are answers, as opposed to witholding judgment on whether satisfying answers exist, is appropriate because I'm assuming the Christian still overall believes and trusts in God. And it makes sense to follow what is appropriate to your overall perspective.  

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