To make provision for future doubt, is to doubt at present

Just as Cardinal Newman argued that present faith and present doubt are incompatible, it’s equally incompatible with faith to allow for the possibility of future doubt:

It is … perfectly true, that the Church does not allow her children to entertain any doubt of her teaching; and that, first of all, simply for this reason, because they are Catholics only while they have faith, and faith is incompatible with doubt. No one can be a Catholic without a simple faith, that what the Church declares in God’s name, is God’s word, and therefore true. A man must simply believe that the Church is the oracle of God; he must be as certain of her mission, as he is of the mission of the Apostles. Now, would any one ever call him certain that the Apostles came from God, if after professing his certainty, he added, that perhaps he might have reason to doubt one day about their mission? Such an anticipation would be a real, though latent, doubt, betraying that he was not certain of it at present. A person who says, “I believe just at this moment, but perhaps I am excited without knowing it, and I cannot answer for myself, that I shall believe tomorrow,” does not believe now. …

When, then, Protestants quarrel with us for saying that those who join us must give up all ideas of ever doubting the Church in time to come, they do nothing else but quarrel with us for insisting on the necessity of faith in her. Let them speak plainly; our offence is that of demanding faith in the Holy Catholic Church; it is this, and nothing else. I must insist upon this: faith implies a confidence in a man’s mind, that the thing believed is really true; but, if it is once true, it never can be false. If it is true that God became man, what is the meaning of my anticipating a time when perhaps I shall not believe that God became man? this is nothing short of anticipating a time when I shall disbelieve a truth. And if I bargain to be allowed in time to come not to believe, or to doubt, that God became man, I am but asking to be allowed to doubt or disbelieve what I hold to be an eternal truth. I do not see the privilege of such a permission at all, or the meaning of wishing to secure it:—if at present I have no doubt whatever about it, then I am but asking leave to fall into error; if at present I have doubts about it, then I do not believe it at present, that is, I have not faith. But I cannot both really believe it now, and yet look forward to a time when perhaps I shall not believe it; to make provision for future doubt, is to doubt at present. It proves I am not in a fit state to become a Catholic now. I may love by halves, I {217} may obey by halves; I cannot believe by halves: either I have faith, or I have it not.

John Henry Cardinal Newman, essay entitled “Faith and Doubt” from Discourses to Mixed Congregations (emphasis added).

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25 thoughts on “To make provision for future doubt, is to doubt at present

  1. I think there are a couple things to distinguish that are relevant to the excertp from Newman. One is an epistemic mechanism, ‘doubt’, which allows one to revise and improve one’s opinions. The other is a persistent state of ‘doubt’, wherein one begins to believe that something isn’t true.

    It seems to me that opening oneself to doubt about a belief (the former) – if indeed the belief is true – will tend to increase one’s conviction, not decrease it (the latter).

    Therefore, it seems to me that a well-grounded faith (i.e., warranted belief in such-and-such) and doubt are complementary.

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  2. Doubt is a sign of belief, I’d rather folks doubt than be apathetic.

    As a protestant I can say that I think belief in the “Church” as Catholics mean it is about as useful as a Jew’s belief that Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin are infallible. Was he not the “high priest” who was choosen by God Heb 5 and set up to judge for Isreal Zach 3?

    Sure made them a fat load of infallible. Or does being told your the stone and on this slab I’ll build my church…Get behind me SATAN make somebody who comes after Peter somehow immune?

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    • Von:

      I agree that belief in the “Church” as you believe Catholics mean it is useless. But belief in the Church as I mean it as a Catholic is something else.

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      • Enlighten me. Neither of us is a subjectivist so you cannot say “it’s true for me” and “it’s not true for you.” You can correct my understanding of your notion belief in the Roman Church if it is different. We both believe in the catholic church (little C) so we have some common ground, but we do differ towards Rome. Otherwise, it just sounds like you don’t like what I say and reject it for emotional reasons.

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  3. Consider where Newman says:

    “if at present I have doubts about it, then I do not believe it at present, that is, I have not faith.”

    This seems to my ear a strange way to use the phrase “have doubts”. It seems a much more natural usage of that phrase can easily include a belief in something even if one ‘has doubts’ about it.

    Consider feelings of certainty as reflecting a range of epistemic states from a 100% to a 0% subjective assessment of probability. Absolute certainty would then be correlated with 100%, say. If one is at 95%, then one might ‘have doubts’ (in the abstract, vague, future-possibility sense of doubt Newman is talking about) about some proposition. Does it follow that therefore one does not believe it?

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  4. ajb:

    I’m not sure “belief” and “faith” are precisely the same. Belief implies assent, whereas faith implies not only assent but also trust. In the context of the Christian faith, faith implies trust in God through Christ. If you trust Christ 95% but doubt him 5%, what does that imply?

    Other people can be trusted though not entirely. I trust my mom, but I also know she’s fallible and a sinner, so I can’t be 100% certain she will never let me down. But can I say the same about Christ? Is Christ only 95% reliable and not 100%?

    So I think Newman is saying that genuine Christian faith requires 100% certainty of Christ’s reliability, and through him the reliability of the Christian faith as passed on by the Church. Reserving 5% doubt is the same as believing that Christ is only 95% reliable, which is not genuine faith.

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  5. The 95% mentioned above is not saying ‘Christ is reliable 95% of the time, 5% not’. It’s saying the subjective probability of some proposition being true (say, ‘Christ is always trustworthy’) is 95%. In terms of action, it could easily be thought that this would lead an organism to act 100% of the time on the belief that Christ is trustworthy. For example, if it’s not a stochastic algorithm that generates results based on a 95% chance of some outcome, but rather an algorithm like “Is belief A most likely? Then act according to A.”

    On reflection, the latter seems much closer to what probably occurs in terms of decision making and action. If I believe something X with 60% certainty, it doesn’t mean that I think 40% of the time that X doesn’t occur.

    So, in developing a model of how this works, perhaps we could say there is:

    – an internal probabilistic model, assigning a value from, say, 0 – 100%
    – a feeling which reflects changes in that state and reflects the state itself (feelings of ‘doubt’, in two senses of the term, or ‘confidence’)
    – actions based on the feelings (or in some other way based on the internal probabilistic model)

    On reflection, my guess is that there are probably multiple levels of inspection and integration of data related to the internal model. So, we might get a ‘feeling of doubt’ where the brain has detected some data that seems to suggest we have a belief wrong, but where it isn’t accurate to say we have actually integrated that data and modified the probability. It’s more like an ‘Alert: data arrived which could use some conscious deliberation in order to integrate into existing beliefs.’

    On the other hand, when reflecting on the probabilities, we get a ‘certainty-uncertainty’ feeling, where anything less than 100% is probably correlated with what could be called ‘doubt’ of some kind (so, in the case Newman is talking about, where someone believes something with, say, 99.999% certainty, it probably doesn’t even show up as a feeling of doubt, but a general, abstract notion that this belief may at some point in the future benefit from revising, or something like that).

    So, one can have a probabilistic assessment < 100%, and still 100% of the time have the belief that it's true (and so act 100% of the time on the belief that it's true).

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  6. I believe you’re making a distinction between the objective fact of Christ’s reliability, and your subjective level of certainty of that fact.

    So you’re saying, I believe Christ is and always will be 100% reliable. However I’m not sure that I will always believe he is 100% reliable. In other words, I have doubt whether I will always trust Christ. In other words, I have doubt whether this is a permanent trust.

    But if I believe Christ is trustworthy, then I should believe I will always believe he is trustworthy. In other words, I should believe that it’s a permanent belief. This is because I should believe that nothing exists which can ever shake this belief.

    To believe that it can be shaken some day, is to believe that something exists which can shake it. To believe that nothing exists which can shake it, is to believe that it will never be shaken.

    You might say that the thing you’re making allowance for, is not something objectively existing which can shake it, but for the fact that something within myself might change, causing loss of trust. But that misses the point. When people make allowance for future doubt, they don’t mean that they might change their minds for no reason. What they mean is that they might learn new information which causes them to change their minds.

    But if you have faith in Christ right now, that implies a belief that no such objective information exists now or ever could exist (or if it does exist, that it’s false). In which case, there is no point in making provision for the possibility of one day discovering such information. Whereas if you do make such a provision in the present, then you presently LACK the belief that no such information exists. How could something that doesn’t exist be discovered at any time in the future?

    Therefore, genuine faith requires the belief that your faith is permanent, and does not make provision for the discovery of information which could undermine it, since faith implies the belief that no such information exists or ever could exist. Faith also implies the present belief that if any information ever did cause you to lose your faith, then you would be in error or suffering delusion.

    Yes, it’s true that we ourselves are unreliable and liable to change our minds about things for no reason or for fallacious reasons. But the question whether to make provision for future doubt deals not with our own flakiness, but with belief in the existence or nonexistence of information that is objectively capable of causing us to doubt. If we believe in its nonexistence, then there is no point in making provision for its eventual discovery. Making such provision is acting against our belief in its nonexistence. In which case, you are not acting in accord with your 95% certainty “100% of the time”. In fact, you are acting against your 95% certainty 100% of the time in which you are making provision for future doubt.

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  7. A few things:

    “To believe that it can be shaken some day, is to believe that something exists which can shake it.”

    In a sense, this is true. To be more clear, though, it is to believe that there might exist something which can shake it. This seems to be a crucial distinction for Newman’s logic. One is not affirming there does exist this thing, but that, as far as one knows, it may exist. Only perfect knowledge would rule out the possibility completely. Humans, obviously, do not have perfect knowledge, and it would be hubris to act so.

    “if you have faith in Christ right now, that implies a belief that no such objective information exists now or ever could exist”

    No, it does not imply that. If by faith we mean a trusting relationship with Christ, then why would that imply a belief that no such information might exist? It simply means that we have a relationship, which is developing, in which one puts trust in Christ.

    “genuine faith requires the belief that your faith is permanent”

    Again, no. Rather, genuine faith is a genuine relationship of trust with someone. It doesn’t entail that one’s relationship will never change, or that one believes one’s relationship will never change.

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  8. ajb:

    You write, “In a sense, this is true. To be more clear, though, it is to believe that there might exist something which can shake it.”

    I disgree. If you believe Christ is 100% trustworthy, then you must believe that nothing exists which is objectively capable of shaking your trust in him. Because if something does exist which is objectively capable of shaking your trust in him, then he is not 100% trustworthy. Do you follow this? If not, then please tell me specifically where I’m going wrong.

    Remember, you are the one who argued that even if you’re only 95% certain, you will still act in accord with your 95% certainty 100% of the time. Therefore perfect knowledge isn’t necessary to my argument, only the premise that people will think and act in accord with their own certainty. Thinking and acting in accord with your 95% certainty that Christ is 100% trustworthy, requires believing that nothing exists which can shake your trust in him. If you don’t believe that, then instead of acting in accord with your 95% certainty, you are actually acting in accord with your 5% uncertainty.

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  9. Von:

    You write, “You can correct my understanding of your notion belief in the Roman Church if it is different. … Otherwise, it just sounds like you don’t like what I say and reject it for emotional reasons.”

    Or maybe you reject what I’m saying for emotional reasons. After all, you haven’t proven your position either, you’ve only asserted it as I have. Why is the burden on me to prove my position or else concede that I’m acting only on emotion?

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  10. “If you believe Christ is 100% trustworthy, then you must believe that nothing exists which is objectively capable of shaking your trust in him. Because if something does exist which is objectively capable of shaking your trust in him, then he is not 100% trustworthy.”

    If one believes Christ is trustworthy, then presumably one also believes that there exists nothing which would demonstrate that to be false. This is different from closing oneself off from any future evidence.

    I think the problem arises from how the word ‘capable’ is being used in your quote.

    Consider: Belief A: There are no penguins on the iceberg. Belief B: I can’t possibly be misled about there being no penguins on the iceberg.

    The difference is, in the first, a claim about a state of affairs in the world, and in the second, a claim about one’s epistemic situation.

    Yes, of course different certainty levels will probably lead to different actions related to a belief at some level. The point, for the purposes of a response to Newman, is that one can investigate whether X is true while simultaneously believing that X is true.

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  11. Let me try another tack. Again there are two issues:

    A. Whether I can know with absolute certainty that Christ is God and therefore 100% trustworthy.

    B. Whether I will make the decision to place my faith in Christ based on whatever level of certainty I have.

    Regarding A, the answer is no: I can’t know with absolute certainty that Christ is God, because I’m not omniscient. Nevertheless, as you admit, my answer to B can still be yes.

    Newman’s argument concerns B: He doesn’t claim that we have perfect knowledge as to A, only that certain things are compatible with saying yes to B, and certain things are incompatible.

    For example, you can’t say yes to B and yet not believe everything Christ taught. If you reserve judgment as to certain things that he taught, then you’re not in a state of faith — in reality you are relying on your own judgment rather than faith in Christ, since you are using your own judgment to weigh and decide which of Christ’s teachings you will accept and which you will not accept. Are you with me so far?

    The same applies when you reserve the right to change your mind about Christ’s teachings in the future: To do so means that, starting now and continuing into the future, you will use your own judgment in deciding whether or not to believe Christ’s teachings, or change your mind and stop believing them. You can’t do this while simultaneously claiming to have placed your faith in Christ.

    No one’s saying it’s impossible to lose faith. Of course it is. That’s in the Bible. What Newman argues (or at least what I take to be implied in his argument) is that faith is incompatible with doubt; so that as long as faith lasts there is no need or desire to reserve the right to doubt, now or in the future; therefore the existence of such a desire indicates the absence of genuine faith.

    (Remember that Newman’s argument assumes the context of someone deciding to become Catholic but reserving the right to doubt the Church’s teachings at some future time. If you believe that the Church teaches in Christ’s name and by his authority, then you have no more need to doubt its teachings, now or in the future, than you would doubt Christ himself. Whereas doubting its teachings (or reserving the right to doubt in the future) indicates that you don’t truly believe the Church teaches in Christ’s name and by his authority, and therefore have no business becoming Catholic.)

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  12. “The same applies when you reserve the right to change your mind about Christ’s teachings in the future: To do so means that, starting now and continuing into the future, you will use your own judgment in deciding whether or not to believe Christ’s teachings, or change your mind and stop believing them. You can’t do this while simultaneously claiming to have placed your faith in Christ.”

    It seems an odd position to think that one can use one’s own judgment to decide Christ is trustworthy, but then for some reason to think that therefore one shouldn’t use one’s judgment in the future (to continuing arriving at that position, or to change that position).

    It seems (obvious) to me that one can be open to further data (in the general, abstract, future sense Newman is talking about), while still trusting in something-someone in the concrete, actionable now.

    Again, faith is a relationship of trust, not an ‘I will never consider any contrary data that comes along in the future’ sort of epistemic stance. The former is (hopefully) warranted, the latter is not and cannot be (because, again, we are not omniscient).

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  13. Again there are two different things:

    1. The question whether Christ is trustworthy, or in other words, worthy of faith.

    2. The things one believes based on faith in Christ once one has decided that Christ is trustworthy.

    The first one you decide for yourself based on the evidence presented to you (and also you believe, if you’re a Christian, that it’s based on God’s grace and inspiration). The second you believe based on the fact that Christ has taught them, *after* you have answered “yes” to the first question. Do we agree on that much?

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  14. Pingback: To make provision for future doubt, is to doubt at present – Part 2 | Agellius's Blog

  15. What Christ teaches probably impinges upon whether one thinks Christ is trustworthy, so it’s not as simple as saying 1. then 2. That is, the evidence for 1. might be contained in 2.

    Similarly, one might think “The Catholic Church teaches all these things that seem useful, good, or true. Maybe there’s something to this idea that they’re guided by the Holy Spirit in certain proclamations. Yes, I think this is true.” but then change one’s opinion on this if the Catholic Church starts making really bad proclamations in the future.

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  16. I understand that the evidence for 1. might be contained in 2. But my question was whether you agree that *after* we have placed our faith in him, we believe what he teaches based on our faith in him.

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  17. Once one has established warranted trust in someone, one is justified in giving them the ‘benefit of the doubt’ if something comes up that seems to suggest they aren’t (as) trustworthy. This is justified relative to the strength of the data (and so on) which establishes the warranted trust to begin with.

    If I trust A, but then A keeps making outrageous claims, I will have reason to revisit my trust in them. Similarly, if I trust A, but then find out from B, C, D, and so on, that they don’t think A is trustworthy, then I have reason to revisit my trust in them. And so on.

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  18. You’re not quite answering my question. You have changed it into a generic question of how one should go about evaluating the trustworthiness of various sources of information. My question had to do with faith in Christ specifically.

    Do you, or do you not agree that after you have placed your faith in Christ, from that point forward you believe what he teaches based on your faith that he is God and can neither deceive nor be deceived?

    Or do you treat him like any human source of information, i.e. continuously monitoring him for signs of untrustworthiness?

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  19. “Or do you treat him like any human source of information, i.e. continuously monitoring him for signs of untrustworthiness?”

    No, I don’t think one would ‘continuously monitor’ someone one has a trusting relationship with for signs of untrustworthiness in an active sense (human or divine). In an epistemic sense, the whole point of faith is that one can take a short-cut in evaluating some information or actions or what have you, and *not* be continuously monitoring for deception or what have you. One can give the ‘benefit of the doubt’ in various situations, and so on.

    Presumably, in this context, we’re talking about significant events or series of events which might occur in the future, and could potentially ‘shake one’s faith’. At that point, you have to figure out how to interpret the new evidence. These can be personal events or intellectual events. I.e., we’re talking about being sensate to some degree to new evidence.

    Consider: I have total faith in A, which I realize is based upon my current knowledge. That is different from: I have total faith in A, which is based upon my current knowledge and any future knowledge I might get.

    The first is, again, (hopefully) warranted, the second is not and can not be, because we are not omniscient and do not know the future.

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  20. As I read Newman’s definition of “faith”, I think the root of our disagreement becomes clearer: He writes that there are three types of
    propositions: Interrogative, conditional, and categorical. You may ask a question (interrogative); you may draw a conclusion (conditional, since it depends on premisses); or you may make an assertion (categorical).

    He writes further that these types of propositions correspond to three modes of holding propositions in the mind: Doubt (interrogative), inference (conditional), and assent (categorical).

    Applying these three modes to revealed religion, Newman writes that a man is either a skeptic towards religion (questioning, i.e. doubting); a philosopher (inferring, i.e. conditional), having arrived at the conclusion that it is more or less probable based on logical inferences; or a believer (categorically asserting and assenting), having an unhesitating faith in it.

    It seems to me that of those three categories, you fit into the “philosopher” category: Your trust in Christ, as with anyone else, is an inference which you draw based on premises, i.e. data. Note that inference, to Newman, is conditional, which is precisely how you present your trust in Christ: It’s conditioned upon your not finding out at some point that the premisses upon which you base your trust are mistaken.

    In other words, Newman would say that what you describe is not faith but an inference. Whereas when I speak of faith, I’m talking about an all-in, totally committed, absolute assent. An analogy might be my marriage vows to my wife: Before we got married I made sure we agreed that marriage is for life: It’s an absolute promise that divorce is out of the question. I think this has made all the difference in making our marriage a happy one after 20 years, without the slightest insecurity or jealousy on either part.

    Now I could have made a mental reservation at the time we got married, to the effect that based on what I believe now, we will never get divorced, but at a later date I might come to believe that divorce is OK, in which case it will become fair game. But if I had made that mental reservation it would have been a breach of faith toward my wife, since she was committing to me with the understanding that I was all-in, with no chance of a future change of mind toward her. I think this is more or less what Newman means too: that reserving, in the present, the possibility of a future change of mind, is a breach of faith.

    Faith, in other words, is a decision that you make to dive all the way in, holding nothing back. Of course since I’m not omniscient, I can’t be 100% certain that my faith will last my whole life, or that Christ was not a clever trickster, and his body won’t be discovered one day thus disproving the Resurrection. But I’m not going to make any provision for that possibility in the present, because I have made the decision to dive all the way in with my faith, and to put utter and complete trust in Christ, that every word he ever uttered is the absolute truth, and therefore will never be disproven. It’s *possible* that it will be disproven, but I *believe* that it will not, and so think and act accordingly.

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  21. “It’s *possible* that it will be disproven, but I *believe* that it will not, and so think and act accordingly.”

    Yes, one believes it’s *possible*, but believes it *won’t*.

    I think you described what is relevant – the decision to act in such-and-such a way. In some sense, one could say that after a decision has been made (in most any area), one moves beyond any doubts – but this is in the practical, action-oriented now sense. If one reflected a moment, one would see that one could be wrong, and future evidence might modify that. Yet this is what Newman seems to be talking about with ‘making provision for future doubt’.

    Enjoy the weekend Agellius, I hope this conversation has been of some benefit to readers.

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  22. By “future doubt”, I contend that Newman is definitely talking about a change of mind, and not merely a “practical, action-oriented now sense”, which is why I said that I would “think AND act accordingly” (not only act).

    When it comes to conclusions, you can’t help but go where your premisses and the processes of logic take you. But faith is different, in that you have the choice whether to believe/trust or not (thus, again, faith is called an act of the will). Therefore you can decide not only that you believe now, but that you will always believe.

    I think much of our apparent disagreement lies in what precisely is meant by “making provision for future doubt”. What exactly does that consist of? You seem to be taking it to mean “knowing that you could be wrong since you’re not omniscient.” But I think you’re looking at it from the “philosopher” standpoint: Your “faith” is an inference or conclusion and therefore conditional.

    But based on the way Newman defines faith, I’m sure this is not what he means by “making provision for future doubt”. Rather, he means declining to make an act of the will by which one decides not only that he believes now, but that he will always believe. In his view this is an act of partial faith, so to speak, and therefore not genuine faith at all.

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