proof of gods and goblins

Robert Peter Burns rburns at chaph.usc.edu
Tue Nov 7 22:39:06 MST 1995


I sent the following to jjplant earlier, but thought
it would do no harm if others read it too.  Of course,
I could be wrong about that--PBsj <I've re-edited slightly>
 
 I've never heard of the "proofs of St Jerome".  Could
 you be intending to refer to those of St Thomas Aquinas
 instead <also known as "the Five Ways">?  I think the
 distinction between proofs and reasonable belief can
 be put this way.  It is possible to set out one's reasons
 for believing something in the form of a deductive syllogism,
 such that, GIVEN the premisses, the conclusion must follow
 logically.  But that only proves the conclusion on the
 condition the premisses are true.  To prove the premisses
 you would need new syllogisms with new premisses, which in
 turn would need to be proved, etc.  So in any substantive
 argument it is always possible for each side to provide 
 deductively valid arguments or "proofs" for their opposing
 conclusions.  Hence, which side wins is dependent not on which side
 provides such an argument, but on which side's *unproven* 
 premisses <and there must be some such somewhere down the line> 
 are more *reasonable*.  Judging *this* issue is not a matter of
 deductive proof, but of a more informal type of reasoning--using
 ideas like "inference to the best explanation", etc.--which
 is one reason reasonable people can reasonably differ  This 
 isn't just a feature of philosophy or theology, but applies to proofs 
 within formal systems of logic and mathematics.  At some point
 some proposition<s> must be "taken on faith".  <As a boy, Bertrand
 Russell wouldn't accept at first the axioms of Euclidean geometry
 until he was told that he had to in order to progress in the subject>
 But taking on faith need not be an irrational leap.  It may be 
 reasonable to take certain things on faith.  Indeed, it would
 be insane NOT to do so, when you think about it.
 
 I once asked a fellow Jesuit priest friend of mine when we
 were working in a parish together in North London what, in
 his experience, was the most common stumbling block to people
 having Christian faith.  Instantly he replied, "the Roman Catholic
 Church".  I suppose some socialists have found the same problem
 with people resistant to socialism--they'll point to the USSR etc,
 and say "see, socialism doesn't work", or something like that.  
 It's pretty hard and tiresome trying to point out that that was a
 travesty of socialism <or that caning children for showing
 independence of mind is a travesty of Christianity>.
 
 Peter Burns SJ
 rburns at scf.usc.edu 
 



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