Fides et Ratio

In a characteristically pointed essay, Steven Pinker comments on Harvard’s forthcoming Report of the Committee on General Education. While he is generally laudatory, he has “two reservations”: first, about the characterization of the place of science in a general education, and second, about the “Reason and Faith” requirement in the core curriculum.

Pinker writes:

My first reservation pertains to the framing of the “Science and Technology” requirement, which aims too low. … The report introduces scientific knowledge as follows: “Science and technology directly affect our students in many ways, both positive and negative: they have led to life-saving medicines, the internet, more efficient energy storage, and digital entertainment; they also have shepherded nuclear weapons, biological warfare agents, electronic eavesdropping, and damage to the environment.”

Well, yes, and I suppose one could say that architecture has produced both museums and gas chambers, that opera has both uplifted audiences and inspired the Nazis, and so on. It makes it sound as if the choice between science and technology on the one hand, and superstition and ignorance on the other, is a moral toss-up! Of course students should know about both the bad and good effects of technology. But this hardly seems like the best way for a great university to justify the teaching of science. …

My second major reservation concerns the “Reason and Faith” requirement.

First, the word “faith” in this and many other contexts, is a euphemism for “religion.” An egregious example is the current administration’s “faith-based initiatives,” so-named because it is more palatable than “religion-based initiatives.” A university should not try to hide what it is studying in warm-and-fuzzy code words.

Second, the juxtaposition of the two words makes it sound like “faith” and “reason” are parallel and equivalent ways of knowing, and we have to help students navigate between them. But universities are about reason, pure and simple. Faith—believing something without good reasons to do so—has no place in anything but a religious institution, and our society has no shortage of these. Imagine if we had a requirement for “Astronomy and Astrology” or “Psychology and Parapsychology.” It may be true that more people are knowledgeable about astrology than about astronomy, and it may be true that astrology deserves study as a significant historical and sociological phenomenon. But it would be a terrible mistake to juxtapose it with astronomy, if only for the false appearance of symmetry.

Read the essay in its entirety here.

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  1. Addofio says

    “But universities are about reason, pure and simple. Faith—believing something without good reasons to do so”

    The contrast between faith and reason is neither that simple nor that stark, I don’t think.

    We all believe things “without good reason to do so”, if only because it is impossible to reason about every little thing. Further, reason is a process that has to begin somewhere, with premises accepted to be true–taking them on faith, often if not always. Of course, each of us tends to believe that our own belief system is entirely rational and reasonable–if we thought it were unreasonable, presumably we’d change–but I seriously doubt that anyone can lay claim to being entirely and always rational in his/her beliefs (even presuming we could all agree on what would constitute “good reason” for a belief, which we don’t.)

    Further, it is possible to reason within one’s faith. Faith is not always contra-rational, even though it may be a-rational.

    Finally, religion is playing and has played a large role in human society and history, and hence is a perfectly legitimate area of learning for a university. And I would rather have a university juxtaposing faith with reason than simply discussing faith alone. It’s not obvious to me that the juxtaposition does imply “. . .“faith” and “reason” are parallel and equivalent ways of knowing. . .” To me, rather, it seems to imply that faith will be discussed in an inquiry mode, and it seems to me that that would be a good thing–better, in this age of resurgence of fundamentalist faiths within various religions, than to simply ignore faith and religion altogether. Or to consider the juxtaposition in another way, as a matter of (perhaps competing) epistemologies–there are many large, deep, and important questions involved that are distinctly within the purview of a university. some of which are raised in your posting.

    Posted December 2, 2006 at 12:31 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hello Addofio,

    Thanks for visiting, and for your thoughtful comment.

    I quite agree with your argument about the contrast between reason and faith not being as stark as Pinker suggests; in fact I argued a similar point in this post, and this, from a year or so ago.

    I do, however, sympathize with Pinker’s frustration about the euphemizing and mealy-mouthed vagueness with which social institutions tiptoe around religious issues these days, and Pinker is not arguing that religious matters are an unfit area of inquiry for a great university, nor that the process of faith itself, certainly a significant aspect of the human experience, should not come under scrutiny in the process of one’s education. He just wants clarity instead of mush, and given recent efforts by “Intelligent Design advocates – with support at the highest levels of government – to wedge their religious beliefs into the science curriculum, he is rightly wary of inappropriate commingling of the sciences with subjects that properly belong to the humanities.

    Posted December 2, 2006 at 3:26 pm | Permalink
  3. Addofio says

    I followed your links to the earlier discussion, and can’t add much if anything to it. However, I was struck by one point made, I believe, by Dr. Vallicella, that accepting an assertion based on the testimony of a witness is not an act of faith because it has some justification. To me, accepting an assertion based on one’s trust in the testimony of a witness is almost quintessentially an act of faith. Faith justified by much prior experience with the witness, perhaps, but nonetheless an act of faith.

    Which I suppose just means that I’m not using the same definition of “faith”. But then, if faith only means totally unjustified belief–I think it significanlty reduces the number of beliefs that could be said to be a matter of faith. Even belief in God or a god may often have some kind of experiential basis that acts as a justification, at least, as you point out, for the believer if not for anyone else.

    It also raises some interesting questions about the territory between knowledge, if knowledge is taken to, as Dr. Vallicella recently discussed, “involv(e) the absolute impossibility of mistake”, and faith, if faith is taken to be totally unjustified belief. Framed in this way, most of our thoughts and beliefs, it seems to me, would lie somewhere between the extremes of faith and knowledge. If so–what would one call that territory?

    Posted December 2, 2006 at 9:52 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says


    That’s an interesting question, because that territory is where most of us spend most of our lives.

    Simple “belief” might be the best we can do for a name, I suppose, with further complications being that belief in that which is actually true can be considered knowledge (though this is a large topic in philosophy), and belief in that which is unprovable and unfalsifiable must be considered faith. You can find many fascinating discussions of this elusive subject at Dr. Vallicella’s excellent and informative website.

    Your point about justification is well taken; the important point here is that where matters of faith are concerned, there is no public and shared criterion for justification. As I have argued elsewhere in these pages, this “private” aspect of faith is a primary distinction between faith and reason. If we agree on axioms and the rules of logic, my reasoned argument can compel your belief. But nothing I say can compel your faith.

    Posted December 2, 2006 at 11:21 pm | Permalink