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Bartley on the crisis in Protestant belief and rationality

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This is an introduction to Bill Bartley’s contribution to philosophy, especially in developing some insights that he picked up from Popper on the authoritarian structure of western thought. That structure arises from a prevailing obsession with the JUSTIFICATION of beliefs which is the central theme of the theory of knowledge and especially the RATIONAL justification of beliefs. Incidentally, the meaning of justification in this context is a kind of strong, approaching certain kind of justification, not simply the justification of a tentative preference for a theory (or a house, or a car) in the light of the options available and the evidence in favour of each at the time.

William Warren Bartley III developed these ideas while he was working on his doctorate with Karl Popper at the London School of Economics in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He presented his theory in The Retreat to Commitment (1962) and in a major paper “Rationality versus the theory of rationality” in The Critical Approach to Science and Philosophy. That paper is on line in a slow-loading Word file in this list of papers.

The story began in a somewhat esoteric study of rationality in Protestant theology.

This essay is a study of problems of self-identity and integrity in the Protestant and rationalist traditions. Probably the two most influential spiritual traditions of Western culture, both have helped provide involvement and purposive living in the past: and both offer their services to help overcome present-day alienation. However, these two traditions not only are internally confused but also are breeding confusion and alienation quite out of proportion to the internal confusion of either.

He sketched the evolution of liberal Protestant theology in the 19th and 20th centuries as non-fundamentalist Christians tried to retain both Christianity and rationality in the face of the rising tides of science and secularisation. At the same time, progressive people rejected the morbid and conservative Calvinist ideas of human depravity and predestination. Social reform was a dominant motif, inspired by the example of the historical Jesus.

The twin enemies were Calvinist orthodoxy and social injustice, the weapon to destroy the Calvinist doctrines was research into the historical Jesus, to demonstrate that the true Christian would follow the morality of Jesus to transform one’s own life and to contribute to the ultimate transformation of cultural existence. This approach would mean rejecting the traditional metaphysics and doctrine of the established Church with its authoritarian temper; its compromises with the political and social status quo and it might be compared with Catholic liberation theology.

The Protestant liberals inaugurated the historical criticism of the New Testament and the quest for the historical Jesus in the hope that the Nazarene might rise up as their ally against Calvinists who, they believed, had twisted his spiritual message into the call to obedience before “mystery, miracle and authority”. The early results of this criticism nourished this hope, increased the plausibility of their program and encouraged them to continue.

A spectacular unintended consequence of this research was the destruction of the credibility of the historical Jesus as a paragon of humanitarian virtues and goodwill. Albert Schweitzer and Johannes Weiss were prominent in this work, with Schweitzer’s influential book The Quest of the Historical Jesus first appearing in English in 1910. It seemed that the historical Jesus taught a forbidding, world-denying message, a message of judgment upon the world, not a message of social reform and salvation by earthly good works.

The discovery that the historical Jesus was quite likely both illiberal and irrational posed a major threat for liberal, rational Protestants whose faith had been sustained by the vision of Jesus. Christians had to make a choice between a form of liberal Christianity without assent to the newly revealed non-liberal historical Jesus or a new form of Christianity, however irrational (and non-liberal) this may be.

Karl Barth started the new trend in Protestant theology by following the lead of the brilliant and lonely Dane Soren Kierkegaard, who anticipated the dilemma of liberal Christians. Kierkegaard reacted against the early liberal Protestantism that attempted to marry religion and rationalism, blending the idea of the historical Jesus as a humanitarian social reformer with the rationalist ethics of Kant.

Kierkegaard attacked rational, ethics-centered Christianity with a defence of the “absurd”. His ideal Christian was not the liberal vision of the historical Jesus but Abraham who was prepared to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac at God’s command. To be a man of faith was to obey, blindly uncritically, without reason, absurdly. It is readily apparent that this position was unaffected by the collapse of the liberal version of the historical Jesus and Kierkegaard was revealed as a man long in advance of his time, in fact an existentialist, before the term was even invented.

Barth followed the same path of irrational, even absurd, faith. At first he cited Kierkegaard with approval, though later when Kierkegaard was taken up by the existentialists Barth’s favorable citations ceased. From Barth’s point of view all the arguments in favor of Christian commitment, and against it, are fundamentally irrelevant. There are any number of arguments advanced for Christianity but:

Although they are billed as arguments in support of the Christian position they are not treated as such: when some of these arguments are toppled, the theological edifice they are supposedly buttressing does not even lean.

People using these arguments clearly do not depend on them for their belief, which stands independent of arguments, though debate may be employed to convert people, to irritate rationalists or to still doubts. In Bartley’s words “…such arguments are the neon lights, not the foundations, of the theological edifice”.

Following the directions charted by Kirkegaard and Bath the new theologians accept that the Christian faith is based on an irrational commitment but they are secure in the knowledge that their critics, whether humanists or Marxists or Hindus cannot demonstrate a fully-justified rational basis for their criticism. They can always respond with the “boomerang” argument, the tu tuque “You too!” rejoinder. “Maybe I cannot justify my position, but you cannot justify yours either”. This has been a great stand-by for people wishing to evade fundamental issues and of course it is based on the assumption of justificationism, which traditionally provides the invisible framework of debate. So the answer is to widen the scope of the argument to encompass the traditional framework, and to criticise the assumption of justificationism itself.

In the original version of this piece, the critique of justificationism was up front, however for this occasion I wanted to hold back the heavy philosophical stuff and get the history in pace to add to the picture painted by Peter Berger.

Bartley’s Critique of Justificationism

Bartley has provided philosophical air support for the footsoldiers of rationality. He offers a solution to the basic logical problem of rationality, namely how can we justify the basic premise of rationality, that is, the principle of rationality itself, the principle that we should seek for rationally justified beliefs?

Critics have demonstrated that there is no way to justify positively  (certainly) the basic premise. Any attempt to provide a reason to support the principle of rationality simply begs the question to provide a justification for the supporting statement, and so on, ad infinitum. This has been a continual source of irritation to rationalists whenever an opponent bothers to make an issue out of it. For Bertrand Russell, one of the greatest rationalists of all time, frustration alternated with deep despair of reason.

It must he admitted that he has not produced the kind of solution that is usually demanded. He concedes that the critics of rationalism are correct in pointing out the logical flaw in the premises of those theories which demand that only rationally justified beliefs should be accepted. His solution may he regarded as defeatist or totally sceptical, on a par with the person who claims that the “rightness” of arguments is entirely a matter of custom or perhaps political expediency. However, these objections cannot be sustained because  Bartley’s theory is based on the discovery and criticism of a previously      undetected assumption, undetected because it is shared by rationalists and irrationalists alike; being shared it is part of the invisible framework of debate.     

Inspired by Popper’s non-authoritarian theory of knowledge Bartley located the unstated and uncriticised theory of justificationism which is common to both rationalism and irrationalism in their traditional forms. “Justificationism” Is the theory that we should attempt to justify positively our beliefs (beyond doubt); it is summed up in the formula:         

Beliefs must be justified by an appeal to an authority of some kind (generally the source of the belief in question) and this makes the belief either rational, or if not rational, at least valid for the person who holds it.

Among the contenders are “hard facts”, “the light of reason”, the informed heart, logic, intuition, sacred traditions and innumerable religious authorities. In the Anglo-Saxon tradition of Empiricism the authority of sense experience was adopted. Seeing is believing and science provides the epitome of rational knowledge. In the Continental Rationalist tradition following Descartes the locus of authority resides with the intellectual intuition.

On Popper’s account, both Empiricism and Rationalism evolved in conflict with ancient intellectual and religious authorities and were recruited in the cause of individualism and emancipation by the Post-Reformation political movements seeking liberty, equality and fraternity. But despite their recruitment to the cause of liberation and the revolt against traditional authorities they did not challenge the deepseated theory of justificationism which remained in place as a  common framework of thought in which all the rival schools waged their battles for intellectual, moral and political authority. By the same token, science inherited the same framework of thought and so the Western tradition has not only ‘true belief’ religions and ideologies but ‘true belief’ science as well.

Having discovered the hidden premise of justificationism, Popper and Bartly proceeded to criticise it, showing that we can dispense with the aim of positive justification without giving up anything that really matters, that is to say, without giving up respect for facts, for arguments, for the systematic use of reason to weigh and test the validity of beliefs and assumptions. This new theory of rationality is not a theory of justified belief, it is a theory of critical preference between options. We can form a preference for one option rather than another (whether for a car, a scientific theory or a political allegiance) in the light of evidence and arguments produced to that time. This preference may (or may not) he revised in the light of new evidence and arguments. It may be protested that this is not a great novelty, it is just commonsense. But historically, commonsense has proved no match for learned justificationist arguments.     

The strength of the justificationist tradition is revealed by the tendency for commonsense rationalists to turn into justificationists in the heat of debate. A mere “critical preference” seems to be rather weak and unconvincing in contrast with strength and unwavering resolution of people who are utterly convinced about their beliefs. So under pressure from irrationalists or true believers we too often try to meet their demand for justification (and fall to do so). Something about the context of debate seems to generate dogmatism and entrenchment, as in parliamentary debate. This arises in part from the pervasive tendency to be moralistic about being right and winning arguments.    

What are the roots of justificationism? Perhaps there is some biological basis, or it may arise from the fact that we all grow up surrounded by larger people who know more than we do and constantly remind us of this. It may arise from the nature of conventional education, which promotes dogmatic modes of thought. But in addition to all these factors there is the tradition of justificationism itself, which states that we should strive to obtain justified beliefs, a theory endorsed by almost all-Western philosophers from Plato

The Ecology of Rationality

Bartley has elaborated some of his early insights in a recent series of articles, including a contribution to the Israeli journal Philosophia (1982). He talks about “the ecology of rationality” which means looking at the context of arguments to see how dialogues may be polluted by justificationism and various of its consequences. In talking about the ecology of arguments he makes a distinction between positions, contexts and metacontexts.

A position indicates a theory or belief about something; for example “I like cheese”. Positions are adopted or postulated in contexts i.e. the context of lunchtime. Different positions are possible in any context and this raises the question of the attitude that we adopt to handle a dispute over positions, how we go about choosing and revising our positions. These attitudes are what Bartley calls metacontexts and he has focused on three of them:
•  The Western tradition of justificationism.
•  The eastern tradition of non-attachment.
•  A tradition of non-dogmatic critical preference, which he calls comprehensive critical rationalism” or pancritical rationalism”.

Starting with the first of the three, Bartley argues that the justificationist tradition (or metacontext) sponsors attachment, entrenchment, and the rigid adherence to positions. This is exemplified by the toddler who insists “I hate cheese” without ever having tasted it, and while resolutely refusing to do so. In the Western tradition there is also a quest for progress and the growth of knowledge which is interesting because the two things are incompatible; entrenchment is not consistent with the desire for growth. This means that the Western tradition of epistemology is in a sense schizophrenic.

The Eastern way of non-attachment, in contrast to the first way, sponsors a lack of commitment and entrenchment. This tradition pays no particular attention to science or the growth of knowledge and is liable to promote apathy and indifference about life and the affairs of the world.

The third metacontext sponsors the growth of knowledge (of a tentative kind) aided an abetted by relentless creative and imaginative criticism. This metacontext promotes a healthy environment for the generation of new ideas and the elimination of error. In this metacontext there is appreciation for the unfettered play of imagination at the stage of thinking laterally about a problem (as in Feyerabend’s dictum “anything goes”). Then at the stage of critical appraisal and error elimination there are no holds barred in friendly but careful scrutiny of the various solutions that are generated in response to the problem.
In the light of these ideas we can discern a number of possible attitudes towards positions, notably those espoused by relativists (usually dogmatists of various kinds), fideists (dogmatists of the “here I stand!” kind) and pancritical rationalists (regular guys!).

Relativists tend to be disappointed justificationists who realise that positive, justification cannot be achieved. They conclude that all positions are pretty much the same and none can really claim to be better than any other is. They claim that there is no such thing as the truth and no such thing as getting nearer to the truth. Hence they consider that there is no such thing as a rational position.

Fideists, better called true believers, embrace justificationism. They assert that some positions are better than others, though they may also accept that there is no way to rationally justify their choice. They believe that ultimately we make our choice regardless of reason: “Here I stand!” Most forms of rationalism up to date have, at rock bottom, shared this attitude with the Irrationalists in the same way that they share the basic assumption of justificationism.

According to the pancritical rationalists no position can be positively justified but it is quite likely that some will turn out to he better than others in the light of critical discussion and tests. Or at least it is possible to specify what would count as a better idea. This form of rationality holds all its positions and propositions open to criticism and a standard objection to this stance is that it is empty; just holding our positions open to criticism provides no guidance as to what position we should adopt in any particular situation. This criticism misses its mark for two reasons. First, pancritical rationalism is not a position, it is a metacontext and as such it does not aim to have specific content. It is not supposed to solve the kind of problems that are solved by adopting a position on some issue or other, it is concerned with the way that such positions are adopted, criticised, defended and relinquished.

The second reason why the criticism of emptiness misses the mark is that Bartley does provide guidance on adopting positions. We may adopt the position that to this moment has stood up to criticism most effectively. Of course this is no help for the justificationist who seeks stronger reasons for belief, but that is a problem for the justificationist, not for others who are prepared to operate on the basis of critical preferences.

It appears that Bartley has provided a weighty crowbar to apply to the wall of irrationalism. Where best to apply the point of this instrument? One approach is to challenge irrationalists at every opportunity but this may not work due to the capacity of people to ignore rational arguments when it suits them. A complementary approach is to focus on rationalists, with the aim of ensuring that we get rid of their own justificationism. Irrationalism is parasitic on rationalism, which up to date has been carried in the rationalist tradition.

If rationalists cease to sustain the framework of justificationism then irrationalism will have to sustain itself without the unwitting assistance of its enemies. Irrationalism can be regarded as a kind of disease, a form of intellectual AIDS carried by rationalism, waiting only for the right conditions (social or political crises of some kind, or even simply personal stress). Then new forms of irrationalism and superstition come to the surface, much to the surprise and disgust of rationalists. The rationalist tradition has done remarkably well considering the logical problems In Its foundations and one can only be optimistic about its future prospects, as Bartley’s work becomes better known.


Written by Admin

November 18, 2006 at 7:35 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses

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  1. As usual, Rafe, I found this a v nice post. I’d like to try to draw out, in a nutshell, Bartley’s position as I’ve understood your description:

    At foundation I cannot provide an undeniable explanation as to why I prefer rationalism. This is much like the fact that I cannot prove god or magical unicorns do not exist. But what is clear to me is that such an approach is prefered to irrational options for a range of reasons. That is, my position on rationalism is contingent. I do not claim I can demonstrate it is the right way to seek to answer questions, but I have found, on thinking about it, that it is the best of the alternatives known to me. To return to the analogy, this is just as I have long been comfortable with the argument that my position on gods and unicorns is merely my best working hypothesis, rather something I know.

    Does that capture it, at least at a level of reasonable simplicity?


    November 19, 2006 at 1:14 am

  2. Read “rather THAN something I know.”


    November 19, 2006 at 1:29 am

  3. Yes Kodjo, that is about it!

    The question has to be asked, what does Bartley’s exposition add to the ore simple account of critical rationalism that Popper provided in chapter 24 of The Open Society.

    That is essentially the attitude “You may be right and I may be wrong and if we make an effort we might get closer to the truth of the matter”, backed up by arguments in favour of a modest and self-critical form of rationalism, over outright irrationalism and also the kind of dogmatic or “uncritical rationalism” that insists that every single position that we hold (no invisible black cat in the room) should be backed by a battery of cast iron reasons.

    Rafe Champion

    November 19, 2006 at 8:44 am

  4. Cannot directly answer your question as I am no expert in this stuff, but when I read the piece I was immediately reminded of Popper on 2 accounts, & both strongly suggest Popper had views along these lines.

    First, on why social scientists are not silly to use the unequivocally wrong assumption of rationality in their analysis of why humans behave in certain ways: that it simply was the best assumption we had (which thanks to a lot of good experimental and theoretical work is no longer always the case, but was still so for a v long time after Popper made that point). It was & remains a v pragmatic sensible argument.

    Second, at one remove. Your discussion raised the question of how do you respond to someone who says, I have faith in god or magical unicorns. Of course, this was fundamental to Popper’s development of the idea of falsification, since this avoids the positivist’s problem that requires everything be demonstrated. But that in turn relates to the need to justify everything. So one can see Popper’s preference for falsification as a means of avoiding full justification. Rather than get in a tizzy about magical unicorns, one should play with things that will work.


    November 19, 2006 at 11:33 am

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