Adams and “The Virtue of Faith”
November 28, 2009 — 20:32

Author: Andrew Moon  Category: Christian Theology Concept of God Divine Foreknowledge Divine Providence Free Will Molinism Open Theism Theological Fatalism  Comments: 9

I recently finished Robert Adams’ old article “The Virtue of Faith” (chapter 1 of the book The Virtue of Faith), and I found a really interesting point. Uncertainty and faith are necessary for a certain sort of special good in a relationship. I think it’s worth quoting Adams on this:

Well, suppose we always saw what people were like, and particularly what they would do in any situation in which we might have to do with them. How would we relate to people if we had such knowledge of them? I think we would manipulate them. I do not mean that we would necessarily treat people in a selfish or immoral way, but I think we could not help having an attitude of control toward them. And I think the necessity we would be under, to have such an attitude, would be conceptual and not merely causal. If I pursued my own ends in relation to you, knowing exactly how you would respond to every move, I would be manipulating you as much as I manipulate a typewriter or any other inanimate object. And if at some point I refrained from pursuing my own ends, in order to defer to some desire of yours, I would be manipulating you in the service of your end that I had made my own. By the very nature of the case I could not escape from this manipulative role except insofar as I could forget or ignore what I knew about the responses you would make…
Our actual uncertainty about what other people will do makes it possible to depend on another person in a way that is much more personal. It enables the other person to be more truly other. To the extent that I realize that I do not know how he will respond to my action, I cannot regard him as an extension of my faculty of action, as I regard my typewriter.
Even in the actual world, with all its uncertainties, trust is often manipulative. If I trust the bus driver, it is to take me exactly where I expect her to take me, with no unpleasant surprises en route… In cases like these the trust, and indeed the whole personal relation, is not an end in itself, but a means to the individual ends of the parties involved.
There are other relationships, however, in which we open our lives to be influenced and partly shaped by the other person in ways that we cannot predict very precisely except that we have some confidence that they will be good. And even in that confidence we may be allowing the other person some part in defining our good. Uncertainty allows these relationships to be largely nonmanipulative, and I believe the relationships that seem most intensely personal are of this type. It is not easy to say exactly what is so good about the dependence–usually a mutual but often an unequal dependence–in these relationships. But I am sure that it is logically and not just causally necessary for whatever it is that we value so highly in the best personal relationships. (20-22)

I find these points very insightful and penetrating, although there are a few parts that are harder to follow than others. I’m surprised I’ve never come across this literature (but I am still young!) We can separate two claims from this passage:
1) Uncertainty and faith are necessary for a certain type of good personal relationship
2) Uncertainty and faith are necessary for the best personal relationships.
I find (1) unproblematic, but (2) is problematic. The members of the Trinity, I think, know with perfect certainty what the others members will do, but I think their relationships exemplify the best type of personal relationship. We could keep (2) and reject either the claim that
a) the members of the Trinity know with perfect certainty what the other members will do, or
b) the relationships amongst the members of the Trinity exemplify the best type of relationship.
I’d rather reject (2).
Regarding God’s relationship w/us, God would have perfect certainty of what we would do; hence, I would conclude that our relationship with God does not exemplify the best type of relationship (since the relationship amongst the members of the Trinity does). However, one part of the good-making feature of uncertainty, our uncertainty in and faith in God, can still be exemplified in the God-man relationship. It just wouldn’t go vice versa. God needs no faith in us, nor does lack any certainty about what we will or would do.
On the other hand, I can see a little more clearly what some open theists find dislikable about the other views. If God knows with certainty exactly what we would do in every possible situation, some aspect of a personal relationship (which is enjoyed among humans) seems to get lost in the way Adams describes. I don’t know the open theism literature too well (didn’t Hasker or some other open theist describe the Molinist God as some super-puppet-master or something?), but I’m sure this objection’s been knocked around a bunch already.

  • Ted

    Hey Andrew,
    Interesting stuff! Try replacing ‘uncertainty’ and ‘faith’ in (2) with ‘freedom’ and ‘trust’. Arguably, that gives a more plausible principle to work with for understanding personal relationships among the members of the Trinity. Now we’d need to make some sense for freedom and trust between three omniscient beings. Think about telling a joke. Arguably, the goodness of a joke depends on some epistemic distance: not knowing the punch line, not knowing the way the joke is delivered, etc. Do the members of the Trinity enjoy a good joke? Does the Son come to the Father with the latest side-splitter? If we take our model of omniscience to include complete access to the mental states of all members of the Trinity it’s hard to see how the Son could carry out a good punch line.

    November 29, 2009 — 8:46
  • Mike Almeida

    If I pursued my own ends in relation to you, knowing exactly how you would respond to every move . . .if at some point I refrained from pursuing my own ends, in order to defer to some desire of yours, I would be manipulating you in the service of your end that I had made my own.
    That is interesting, but I guess I don’t see how this amounts to manipulation. Suppose I know you’ll really enjoy it if I give you a Christmas gift and I want you to enjoy it. How does it amount to manipulation if I give you the gift? It amounts to manipulation, it seems, only if your enjoying the gift is merely a means to some other goal I have. But it is not a conceptual truth your enjoying it must be merely a means.

    November 29, 2009 — 9:14
  • “Arguably, the goodness of a joke depends on some epistemic distance: not knowing the punch line, not knowing the way the joke is delivered, etc.”
    It’s plausible, but I am not sure I buy that. Think of the way some people (e.g., sometimes I) find it difficult to tell a joke because they cannot contain their laughter long enough to get to the punch line. Such an inept teller is not at epistemic distance–but finds the joke very funny, indeed often funnier than the audience will find it.
    In general, I agree with Aquinas that faith should not be taken to entail uncertainty.
    Consider my trust that friends whom I visit for dinner won’t deliberately poison me. That is a genuine trust. I put my life in their hands. But there is no real uncertainty, either. Even though free will may make them possible, deliberate poisonings of friends at dinner are extremely rare outside of detective fiction–as rare as events that we normally take to be simply epistemically impossible. Would my relationship of trust be in any way better if I assigned a higher epistemic probability to my friends poisoning me?
    Consider also the locus of uncertainty in the case of a relationship with God. Assuming God is defined as the theistic tradition defines him, the main uncertainty that some believers are thought to have is not be about whether what God promises will come true or whether what he says is so, but the main uncertainty is whether he in fact says it. But this is disanalogous to the allegedly valuable uncertainty in human trust relationships.

    November 30, 2009 — 9:40
  • Andrew Moon

    I think the specific value of certain jokes Ted is talking about requires an element of surprise. It seems that God can’t have that with us or other members of the Trinity.
    I thought that maybe we can get some mileage by appealing to nonoccurrent beliefs. God’s knowing all truths doesn’t mean that all his knowledge is occurrent. I’m not sure whether this will get that.
    So although God may laugh, it will never be at a punchline that takes him by surprise…

    December 1, 2009 — 2:29
  • Ted Poston

    Nice point, Alex! It still seems to me, though, that there’s something to the idea that some sort of epistemic distance is required for the best kind of personal relationships–minimally a lack of de se knowledge of the other. Some instances of humor seem to illustrate the need for some sort of epistemic distance.

    December 1, 2009 — 8:17
  • Ted:
    But perhaps only initially? For, the best kinds of personal relationships seek to bridge the epistemic distance as far as is reasonably possible, and it would be odd if they became lower in value the more they succeeded.

    December 1, 2009 — 8:22
  • Andrew Moon

    It may be more “manipulation” in the sense in which I manipulate a typewriter, as he says, which might not be literal manipulation (in the sense in which we can manipulate people).
    Adams might be able to make his main point without appealing to manipulation. It could be just put, “Uncertainty is necessary for a certain sort of dependence on another person, and this dependence is necessary for a certain sort of valuable relationship.”
    It may just be that God the Son never laughs at God the Father’s jokes (in that they will never have a punchline that God is surprised by). But in your last comment, you said that this is necessary for the best personal relationships? Why not (as I distinguished between (1) and (2)) just go with the weaker claim that it’s necessary for a certain sort of good relationship?

    December 1, 2009 — 16:49
  • Ted Poston

    I think the weaker claim is fine especially for the purposes of responding to the hiddenness data. I’m struck, though, by the necessity of some epistemic distance for the best kind of personal relationships and how this could be true of the relationship between members of the Trinity. Alex is certainly right that we shouldn’t understand that epistemic distance in terms of uncertainty or ‘distance’ in the normal sense, e.g., “we’re distant from each other”. Certainly the best kind of relationships seek to bridge those gaps. Nevertheless, because a personal relationship with one’s self isn’t the best, it seems that there needs to be some epistemic separation for the best personal relationships. Think about the dynamics of personal relationship. It’s hard to model those dynamics given radical omniscience. Radical omniscience covers not only propositional knowledge but know-how, de re knowledge, de se knowledge, phenomenal knowledge, etc. Anyway, that’s the sense to which I can make sure of Adam’s last remark: “But I am sure that it is **logically** and not just causally **necessary** for whatever it is that we value so highly in the best personal relationships.”

    December 2, 2009 — 9:07
  • jesse

    I’m inclined to think that the issue of the best personal relationship is analogous to God’s morally perfect nature.
    Lots of theists who endorse libertarian freedom think that the best way in which humans can have a morally perfect character is by attempting to freely display one’s commitment to the good. Hence, although humans could have simply been born without any natural bad inclinations (which would have to entail that we live in a very different world), it is better that we show God that we truly want to be morally perfect in virtue of the good actions we display. So, the final stage for those who pursue the good is a state where humans are perfected, morally. But since God is necessarily good, it is incoherent to suppose that God must also display his commitment to the good in order to get to this final stage of being morally perfect (because he’s already essentially good!)
    Likewise, perhaps as finite creatures the best way for humans to develop a relationship with God is by *at first* being placed in an epistemic gap from God (and there are good reasons for this, specifically relating to perfecting one’s moral character). But, presumably, in the afterlife, theists hold that there will be a much more direct perception of God. But, since God is a maximally great being, there is no need for a prior process of the trinity being placed in an epistemic gap from one another. For, the trinity is already essentially in the best kind of relationship possible. There is no process of perfection that is needed for a maximally great being.

    December 7, 2009 — 1:23