By Paul DeHart, August 5, 2010 in Pedagogy and Teaching, What is Education?
When it comes to philosophy (from metaphysics to what we should make of Plato), religion and theology, or even history, for that matter, I don’t care much for Thomas Jefferson. Don’t get me wrong. I’m rather a fan of some things in which he had a hand—The Declaration of Independence, for instance. I willingly give my firm approbation to some of the political ideas he sought to affirm. And I have a T-shirt I picked up at Monticello with his phrase, “I cannot live without books,” printed on it. That seems to have been something of a credo by which he ordered his life. Despite the violence the turn of phrase does to any serious metaphysic of necessity and contingency, I like it nevertheless. Moreover, I like James Madison a great deal. And I think it must say something about Jefferson’s character that he and Madison were such good friends even if other of his actions speak less of it. Nevertheless, I don’t much care for him—or, at least, for his philosophy. More to the point, I think Jefferson completely wrongheaded when it came to the philosophical foundation upon which he would have rested his political ideas. Jefferson seems to me inept in metaphysics and dangerously careless in epistemology.
Take for instance Jefferson’s letter to his nephew, Peter Carr, dated August 10, 1787. In that letter, Jefferson tells Carr that he should “Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion.” And fixing reason firmly in her seat requires, according to Jefferson, following a particular program:
“Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear. You will naturally examine first the religion of your own country. Read the bible then, as you would read Livy or Tacitus. The facts which are within the ordinary course of nature you will believe on the authority of the writer, as you do those of the same kind in Livy & Tacitus. The testimony of the writer weighs in their favor in one scale, and their not being against the laws of nature does not weigh against them. But those facts in the bible which contradict the laws of nature, must be examined with more care, and under a variety of faces. Here you must recur to the pretensions of the writer to inspiration from god. Examine upon what evidence his pretensions are founded, and whether than evidence is so strong as that its falsehood would be more improbable than a change in the laws of nature in the case he relates. For example in the book of Joshua we are told the sun stood still several hours. Were we to read that fact in Livy or Tacitus we should class it with their showers of blood, speaking of statues, beasts, &c. But it is said that the writer of that book was inspired. Examine therefore candidly what evidence there is of his having been inspired. The pretension is entitled to your inquiry, because millions believe it. On the other hand you are astronomer enough to know how contrary it is to the law of nature that a body revolving on its axis as the earth does, should have stopped, should not by that sudden stoppage have prostrated animals, trees, buildings, and should after a certain time have resumed its revolution, & that with out a second of general prostration. Is this arrest of the earth’s motion, or the evidence which affirms it, most within the law of probabilities?”
Jefferson goes on to commend this program for analyzing the New Testament accounts of the life of Jesus—warning against two, quite opposite pretensions:
“Keep in your eye the opposite pretensions 1. Of those who say he was begotten by god, born of a virgin, suspended & reversed the laws of nature at will, & ascended bodily into heaven: and 2. Of those who say he was a man of illegitimate birth, of a benevolent heart, enthusiastic in mind, who set out without pretensions to divinity, ended up believing them, & was punished capitally by the Roman law which punished the first commission of that offense by whipping, & the second by exile or death in furca.”
He then tells Carr that these questions are examined in books whose titles occur under the heading of “religion” on a list he has enclosed. Included therein are works by Hume and Voltaire.
Though his words connote otherwise, Jefferson, in this letter, has not given to Carr or subsequently to us a sober and unbiased account of rationality per se. Rather, he has given us a particular account of rationality—an account endemic of Enlightenment thinking (though not an account subscribed to by all philosophers of the time). That is, Jefferson has taken an account of rationality on offer in his particular time and place for the account of rationality. Without denying that there is a best account of rationality or that some accounts are better than others, I think the fact that Jefferson’s account of rationality (especially as pertains to matters religious) is but an account is worthy of note. For instance, Jefferson’s account of rationality is not one that would have been shared by Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, or Thomas Reid. He seems not to have noticed or not to have cared about this—which makes him either careless or close-minded in his thinking. Either way, it says something about his character, I think.
So what is the account of rationality entailed by Jefferson’s letter to Carr?* Jeffersonian rationality is a species of what epistemologists and analytic philosophers of religion call evidentialism (and evidentialism presupposes what philosophers refer to as epistemic foundationalism—but more on that momentarily). Consider Jefferson’s advice to Carr concerning belief in the existence of God. Carr is to question the existence of God because, if God exists, he must more approve the homage of reason than of fear. So Jefferson presents Carr with unreflective belief, grounded in fear, on the one hand and rational belief arrived at as a conclusion from rational inquiry. Jefferson says, to Carr, “Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven.” It seems quite clear that Jefferson is suggesting something like this proposition: Belief in the existence of God is rational only if such belief is a conclusion arrived at as a result of rational inquiry. This rather presupposes that belief in God is rational only to the degree that it is established by rational argumentation. Locke and Descartes both held to this position. Nicholas Wolterstorff characterizes this position as follows: “It was insisted [by the evidentialist], in the first place, that it would be wrong for a person to accept Christianity, or any other form of theism, unless it was rational for him to do so. And it was insisted, secondly, that it was not rational for a person to do so unless he holds his religious convictions on the basis of other beliefs of his which give those convictions adequate evidential support. No religion is acceptable unless rational, and no religion is rational unless supported by evidence. That is the evidentialist challenge.” That, I submit, is the position of Jefferson. It is possible, of course, to be a theist and an evidentialist at the same time. Locke and Descartes and Leibniz all were. But it is also possible, as W. K. Clifford did, to advance religious skepticism under the garb of evidentialism or strong rationalism.
Of course, evidentialism is rather more like a genus than a species. But all forms of evidentialism presuppose foundationalism. Foundationalism distinguishes, as perhaps we all sometimes do, between two sorts of beliefs (indeed, between two sorts of rational beliefs). On the one hand, there are beliefs that we hold on the basis of other beliefs. These are referred to as derived beliefs. And, on the other hand, there are beliefs that we hold but that are not held on the basis of anything else we believe. These are called basic beliefs. The question for the foundationalist—and so for the evidentialist—is as to what constitutes a properly basic belief. That is, when is it that any given person rightly and/or rationally holds a belief not on the basis of anything else he or she believes? Put another way, when can one be said rationally to hold an underived belief? Foundationalists such as Descartes, Locke, and Clifford—theorists from across a wide spectrum—have a strikingly similar answer to that question. These otherwise very different theorists all subscribe to what has come to be called strong foundationalism. Now, it bears mentioning that strong foundationalism is rather clearly a species of evidentialism. Consequently, all strong foundationalists are evidentialists. It does not follow that all evidentialists must be strong foundationalists. But it is also worthy of note that no one—in particular, no modern theorist (notably, epistemologists such as Descartes and Locke)—seems to have operationalized evidentialism in any way other than strong foundationalism. Put another way, philosophers like Descartes and Locke (and following Locke, Jefferson) simply equate strong foundationalism with evidentialism. But this poses for the early and late modern evidentialist a rather significant problem. For strong foundationalism, as analytical philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff have demonstrated, is hopelessly, logically flawed.
In order to get at the logical incoherence of strong foundatiolism, we must consider the strong foundationalists criteria as to the sorts of belief to which we can attribute proper basicality. According to the strong foundationalist, only those beliefs which are self evident (such as 2 + 2 = 4) or incorrigible (such as I am feeling pain now) are properly basic. Sometimes undeniable propositions, such as the law of non-contradiction, are said to be properly basic as well. This seems to be because undeniable propositions are self-evident. Recall that the evidentialist—which is what the strong foundationalist is—holds that beliefs are only rationally held if they are either properly basic OR if they are derived from beliefs that are properly basic. Consequently, for the strong foundationalist a person is rational in holding some belief x only if x is self-evident or incorrigible OR is deduced from a belief that is either self-evident or incorrigible. But just here the problem emerges. For the requirement that to be rational one must believe only that which is self-evident or incorrigible OR that which is derived from that which is self-evident and incorrigible AND nothing else—that requirement is neither self-evident nor incorrigible nor is it deducible from anything that is. The result is that strong foundationalism self-destructs. For, as one philosophical text puts it (Reason & Religious Belief), if strong foundationalism is true and given that strong foundationalism is neither self-evident nor incorrigible nor deducible from anything that is, then no one is rational in believing strong foundationlism to be true. Philosophers refer to positions that self-destruct in this particular way as self-referentially incoherent. So it is that strong foundationalism, the only way in which modern theorists like Descarte or Locke operationalized evidentialism, is self-referentially incoherent.
The strong foundationalists account of rationality requires all rational persons to reject that very account. But notice that the works in religion commended by Jefferson to Carr, concerning the nature of God’s existence and the miraculous, works by Locke, Hume, and Voltaire, are all works the basic epistemic procedure of which must be characterized as strong foundationalism. Beyond Jefferson’s insistence that God’s existence be tested before the bar of reason, Jefferson’s recommendation to Carr concerning the rational testing of stories concerning miraculous events is only explicable insofar as we attribute to Jefferson an epistemic ethic of strong foundationalism (Jefferson in essence tells Carr to apply the strong foundationalism that is part and parcel of the texts he commends to Carr). At least when it comes to what we today call the philosophy of religion, Jefferson seems to be a rote disciple of Locke—and Locke’s epistemic ethic is clearly strong foundationalism.
But we have seen that strong foundationalism is self-referentially incoherent. The position’s self-referential incoherency suggests that we ought to reject it. And in that case we must reject the epistemic ethic (that is, the ethic of belief) that Jefferson commends to Carr. Indeed, strong foundationalism’s self-referential incoherence means that we, to be rational, must reject Jefferson’s account of what rationality essentially requires—which entails that we must reject Jefferson’s account of rationality. But if we must reject strong foundationalism on account of its self-destructiveness, then we must either reject evidentialism (as a correct account of human rationality) altogether or we must embrace what might be called weak foundationalism. It seems to be the case that most of us hold some beliefs on the basis of other beliefs that we hold and some beliefs which are underived. That suggests that most of us are foundationalists to some degree. The incoherence of strong foundationalism entails letting go not of the notion of proper basicality but rather of the strong foundationalists criteria for what constitutes properly basic beliefs. That is, if we reject strong foundationalism, then a belief need not be self-evident (or undeniable) or incorrigible in order to be properly basic. In that case, we can rationally hold beliefs that are based on other beliefs we hold, where those prior beliefs (or where the most foundational beliefs we hold in our noetic structure) are neither self-evident nor incorrigible. But given this, it is possible that many beliefs—perhaps most beliefs we hold (and believe we hold consonant with reason)—are properly basic. In particular, it is at least an a priori possibility that belief in other minds or in one’s own existence or in the existence of God are all instances of beliefs that are properly basic. Alvin Plantinga has argued rigorously that if God exists, then belief in his existence is probably properly basic (it bears mention that a belief can both be properly basic and held as such and simultaneously be derived or deduced—that is, we can hold a proposition as properly basic and argue for it at the same time; no logical contradiction is involved).
Let us return to Jefferson. Jefferson’s recommendations to his nephew are based not on rationality per se but on a particular conception of rationality that was endemic to Enlightenment thought and that enjoyed a certain prestige through the first half of the 20th century (this is, of course, belied by Jefferson’s apparent assumption that belief in God simply isn’t properly basic). But that account of rationality has, for very good reason, fallen on fallow soil. Jeffersonian rationality no longer finds itself in a context in which it can be cultivated, much less thrive. Moreover, Jefferson’s refusal to consider alternative accounts of rationality that were indeed available to him (if he had bothered to read carefully St. Thomas, John Calvin, or Thomas Reid—whose work in epistemology was clearly superior to Locke’s) reveals just how much Jefferson was a man of his time. The Enlightenment, in many respects, occluded the riches of the heritage of Western thought. In our day, we must seek to uncover those riches again. And that means, at times, rejecting rather forcefully the philosophical propositions of gentlemen like Jefferson. To be sure, Jefferson’s political thought had its moments. Such a moment is the Declaration of Independence. But what is good in the political ideas to which he subscribed (not all of which are good) is better than the epistemic and ontological foundation upon which he sought to place them. If we are to remain beholden to what is good in his political thought (equality and consent, for instance), we must not remain beholden to his philosophy. We must seek for those political ideas a more secure foundation than Jefferson sought to give them.
*In what follows I will draw heavily upon works by Nicholas Wolterstorff and Alvin Plantinga and also by Reason & Religious Belief, written by Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, and David Basinger and published by Oxford University Press, wherein the arguments of Wolterstorff and Plantinga are summarized, pp. 119-121.