Nathaniel Branden’s Case against Theism Examined:
Various Meanings of “Faith”
by James Kiefer
Unpublished dot-matrix printout dated June 28, 1980 *
[Editor’s notes are in blue. Readers who prefer to ignore the links in the text, which go to the bottom of the page, and follow the notes on a separate page, may open a separate page with the references here.]

I promised at the beginning of this paper [“Objectivism and Theism”] that, after presenting the positive case for theism on Objectivist grounds, I would examine Dr. [Nathaniel] Branden’s arguments and state where, in my judgement, he goes astray. To this task I now turn.

Various Meanings of “Faith”

Dr. Branden begins by contrasting Faith with Reason, and complaining because Theists rely on Faith, whereas Objectivists regard Reason as the sole basis of belief.

His complaint seems to be that people ask him to believe in God, and when he asks, “Why should I? On what grounds?” they answer, “Don’t argue about it. Don’t ask questions. Don’t think. Just believe.”

If it is a lack of argument that he is complaining about, then I have done my best to remedy the deficiency, and I am scarcely the first person to have done so. The fact that the average theist cannot argue the point very well does not prove that theism is irrational. The average college student cannot give cogent arguments for supposing that the earth moves, but Dr. Branden would not call post-Ptolemaic astronomy irrational. Nor would he say that a man who cannot defend a belief articulately and nevertheless refuses to surrender it is necessarily an enemy of rationality. [01]

Nevertheless, it must be granted that theists, most notably Christians, do talk about the important of Faith. Are they urging the importance of Unreason?

The word “Faith ” is used in several senses, and in replying to Dr. Branden’s charge it is necessary to sort some of them out. [02]

(1) First, “Faith” is sometimes used to mean the faculty by which we grasp fundamental postulates or premises of Reason, such as that A is A. Dr. Branden denounces as subversive of all rationality the doctrine that believing the postulates is an act of faith. [03] But I believe that the problem is sometimes one of terminology. The problem is that the word “Reason” is being used in two senses, rather as “New York” may mean either the country, the city, or the state. “Ratio,” or “Reason” is used by Thomas Aquinas to refer either to the Rational Soul, or to all the activities proper to the Rational Soul, or to that particular activity which we may call deduction. In the following passage he uses “Ratio” in the narrow sense, and distinguishes it from “Intellectus,” or intellect:

Intellect is the simple (i.e. indivisible, uncompounded) grasp of an intellectual truth, whereas reasoning is the progression toward an intelligible truth by going from one understood point to another. The difference between them is thus like the difference between rest and motion or between possession and acquisition. [04]

Samuel Johnson similarly defines “Reason” in the narrower sense, calling it

The power by which man deduces one proposition from another, or proceeds from premises to consequences. [05]

In most philosophic usage today, the word “Reason” is restricted to its narrower sense, to mean logical deduction of conclusions from premises. Now when it is so restricted, it is clear that we need another word to describe the process by which we come to accept the premises, or, if we cannot remember a time when we did not hold the premises, our grounds for confidence in them when challenged. To say that, although we arrive at theorems in geometry by reasoning, we do not accept the postulates on the basis of reason is simply to say that the postulates are not theorems, that premises are not conclusions, that the earliest statements in a proof are not preceded by still earlier statements. Aquinas would have expressed this by saying that we know the Theorem of Pythagoras by Reason, but grasp by Intellect the truth that things equal to the same thing are equal to each other. Modern writers do not use the word “Intellect” here, unless they are avowed disciples of Aquinas. They will say “intuition,” or “instinct,” or “faith.” Now sometimes they do mean that accepting the postulates is not an intellectual matter at all. But quite often they mean simply that the postulates are not arrived at by reason in the narrow sense, to include what Aquinas called “Intellect.” [06] The result is that Miss Rand seems to be believing on the basis of reason what others believe on the basis of intuition, or instinct, or faith. But before concluding that the difference between Miss Rand and her opponent on this point is substantive rather than terminological, we must find out, if we can, what her opponent means by “intuition,” or whatever term he uses.

An illuminating instance of misunderstanding on this point is to be found in Pascal. He writes,

The heart has its reasons of which the reason knows nothing, [07]
and the quotation has been cited ever since as an exaltation of gush over thought. In fact, Pascal makes it clear that he means by “heart” what Aquinas means by “intellect.” He goes on to say:

We recognize truth not only with the reason but also with the heart; it is in the latter way that we come to know first principles; ... The heart perceives that there are three dimensions of space and that numbers are infinite; and reason then proves that there are no square numbers of which one is the double of the other. [08]

Sometimes a writer will boldly declare that he accepts certain postulates, not because he has any rational grounds for doing so, but because he chooses to do so, by the mere arbitrary act of will. Even here, we must take care lest we misunderstand him. In mathematics, for example, we are almost always concerned with deducing conclusions from arbitrarily adopted premises. We say, “Let G be a finite abelian group subject to the restriction that ... ” and go on from there. On a more elementary level, your second-grade teacher used to say to you things like, “Farmer Brown had twenty-three chickens and eight of them died. How many were left alive?” If you had asked her, “Where did you get that story about Farmer Brown and how do you know that it is true?” her response would have been that she was making an arbitrary assumption and asking you to consider its consequences. If you had denounced the making of arbitrary assumptions as anti-rational, the atmosphere might have waxed unpleasant. Often, of course, the mathematician will be working from premises that he thinks true. But even when he cares whether Farmer Brown’s chickens are really dead, he will not call looking at them a logical or mathematical activity.

Even when someone says, “My belief that A is A is an act of the will, an arbitrary choice on my part,” he may mean, “I choose to think, to be rational, to be sane, although the option of lunacy is open to me, and to every other being of volitional consciousness.“ So much for faith in the first sense.

(2) “Faith” is sometimes used to mean the adherence to reason as against feeling.

Let me give an example. I know of a certain physics teacher who once began a lecture by writing on the board in foot-high letters the words, Faith in Physics! The students had been studying elementary mechanics, and all knew that a pendulum bob released from rest at a given height will not swing to a greater height, and could explain why this is so in terms of potential and kinetic energy, and so forth. Now he asked one student to explain this principle to the class, and the student did. Then the professor asked him, “Do you believe all that stuff you just spouted about the pendulum? Are you sure it’s true?” The student answered, “Yes, of course!” The professor then unveiled the apparatus for the day, a large pendulum hanging from the ceiling with an axe-head at the bottom. He stood the student up at one side of the room, pulled the axe up so that the blade just touched his chin, and released it. The blade swung across to the other side of the room, and back again, just barely caressing the student’s chin. “There, now,” chuckled the professor. “That’s one physics lesson you won’t forget in a hurry!”

You will perhaps agree that it would not have been surprising if the student had been a bit nervous, or even panicked and dodged as he saw the blade coming toward him. In such a situation, it is very easy to lose faith in physics. But it would not have been reason that took away his faith. The battle is between reason and faith on one side and emotion and imagination on the other.

Now if a man has come to believe in God, there will almost certainly be times when he is in a disbelieving mood. He may be feeling depressed or frustrated, and the world seems so squalid and meaningless that the arguments for belief in God seem abstract and irrelevant. Or he may feel a strong urge to do something that his religious code forbids, or otherwise find that it would be very convenient if his religious beliefs were not true, and so may be disposed to regard them as false, or more probably, to avoid thinking about them.

In this and similar contexts, Christians are accustomed to call the practice of being guided by intellect rather than emotion the virtue of Faith.

(3) “Faith” is sometimes used to mean gambling on a proposition. For most things, the evidence available to us is less than conclusive. Suppose you are ill and the doctor recommends an operation, but says, “I cannot guarantee that it will improve your condition. It may even worsen it.”

In this context, you cannot know with certainty or anything approaching it whether you will be better off with the surgery or without it. But once you and the doctor have chosen a course of action, you must act as firmly and decisively as if you were absolutely sure that the choice was the correct one. And so with a good many ventures. You undertake the venture with less than certainty that it is sound, but having undertaken it, proceed as if you knew it to be sound, since anything short of that will certainly be pointless.

(4) “Faith” may be used to mean trust in a person, trust going, in a sense, beyond the evidence. Let us consider the situation of a young man who is heir to a vast fortune. He meets a number of young women, and finds them very attractive and agreeable. But he is not sure whether they like him, or only want to get their hands on his money. He dislikes the idea of losing half his wealth after a six-month marriage, and dislikes even more the idea of being had for a chump. No matter how affectionate and sincere a woman may seem, he can never be sure that she is not thinking in terms of alimony and a community property settlement. So he may resolve never to fall in love. On the other hand, he may say, “I know that I am taking a risk. To love is to be vulnerable. I cannot fall in love without the chance of being very badly hurt. But I am willing to take that chance. I prefer it to the alternative of a loveless existence.”

Not everyone will find that a reasonable choice. There are people whose greatest satisfaction is being able to say, “Nobody ever puts anything over on me. Nobody ever bluffs me out at poker. I call the hand every time. Nobody will ever con me, make me a sucker, induce me into an unmerited trust, play me for a fool.“ Such a man will die a bachelor and friendless. He will probably also have lost quite a bit at poker. But he has what he says he wants.

Incidentally, if somewhere along the line our man — the one who is never conned — has gotten married, he will be a jealous husband. It is a matter of plain experience that, if you start looking for indications that your spouse might be up to something, you will almost certainly find them. And once again, you can choose. When you find a couple of ticket stubs lying around, you can refuse to rest until you know exactly who used them. Your spouse, if reasonable, will probably explain in detail, with corroborative evidence, the first few times something looks fishy, but if your suspiciousness gets out of hand, may very well end up saying: “No, I will not tell you where I went for lunch today. Either we have a relationship of trust, or we don’t. If you trust me, then you don’t need to know. If you don’t, then nothing short of a full-time detective on my trail would satisfy you, and even then you would begin to suspect the detective of taking bribes. We can’t afford a detective, and in any case a marriage preserved on that basis is a marriage destroyed. So make up your mind whether you will trust me without proof, and then we will know where we stand.”

Unfortunately, that is precisely what a guilty spouse, if clever, would say. When you decide to trust someone, you risk betrayal. You can’t have it both ways. A warrior, or a mountaineer, cannot be both very brave and very safe. If you are a Christian, you will be asked to put your trust in God. When, from time to time, it looks as if God is double-crossing you, will be asked to do the equivalent of glancing at a couple of unexplained ticket stubs, tossing them into the waste-paper basket, and forgetting them. Whether you think that reasonable is in a way a matter of values and priorities. Which do you dread more: Finding out that a friend whom you trusted has betrayed you, or finding out that a friend who you thought had betrayed you, and from whom you accordingly parted in anger years ago, and who died asking to see you, was innocent after all? There is a risk either way.

(5) We sometimes speak of taking something on faith, or on authority, when we mean taking someone else’s word for it. If we did not sometimes accept human testimony as evidence, we should have to be content to know almost no history (except what we could infer from our own archeological explorations) and indeed almost nothing in any area. Wholesale rejection of authority is as irrational (and impossible) as wholesale acceptance. We must discriminate. If there is a plausible answer to the question, “How does he know?" and if he has no discernible motive for lying, and if other people who claim to have investigated the matter agree with him, and if the work involved in investigating the matter ourselves is non-negligible, then it seems to me that we are justified in taking their word for it and regarding the question as settled. An example would be our family doctor’s telling us that carrots contain Vitamin A. Another would be the atlas’s telling us that Bismarck is the capital of North Dakota. In neither case do we simply surrender our intellect. The intellectual judgement we make is about the reliability of the doctor or the atlas. Where the conditions for reliability are not fulfilled (as when the doctors disagree about the healthfulness of eating eggs, or the value of large doses of Vitamin C) I suspend judgement until I can learn more, usually by reading the arguments and reports of studies on both sides, not by conducting studies myself.

The same sort of considerations apply when it comes to taking God’s word for something. Suppose someone believes, for example, that the wicked will be punished after death, because God has said so. It is certainly legitimate to demand evidence for the statement that God has said so. But once this point is (rightly or wrongly) granted, the further inference that if God has said so then it is true is unimpeachable. He ought to know.

(6) A sixth use of the word “Faith” is in the phrase, “Justification by Faith,” used by Dr. Martin Luther and others. Here what is meant is (very roughly) recognizing and facing up to the fact that you can never put God in the position of owing you a favor. Any further discussion of the doctrine is likely to get technical, and I hereby beg off.

Theism Not Identical with Christianity

This reminds me of something I should have said much earlier. When I speak of being a theist, I mean accepting the proposition that the Ultimate Designer, as heretofore [in “Objectivism and Theism”] described exists. This leaves the question: “Shall I become (a) a Jew? (b) a Christian? (c) a Moslem? (d) none of the above?” still very much open. And I am not trying to blur the distinction between theism in general and a particular variety thereof.

I have brought up the subject of Christianity because of Dr. Branden’s references to the distressing intellectual habits of theists. This has to be dealt with in terms of examples, and the Christian examples are the ones I know best. In case anyone is curious, I am myself a Christian, an orthodox, tradition-minded, High Church Episcopalian, and capable on occasion of being downright stuffy about it. 

[Editor’s notes are in blue. Readers who prefer to ignore the links in the text and follow the notes on a separate page, may open a separate page with the references here.]

* The title refers to Nathaniel Branden’s lecture “The Concept of God,” from his lecture series “The Basic Principles of Objectivism.” That lecture is fully transcribed in his book The Vision of Ayn Rand, chapter 4. Partial and perhaps complete audios seem to be available throughout the Internet. See also R.A. Childs, “The Epistemological Basis of Anarchism,” Note 19.

[01] A. Rand, “The Psycho-Epistemology of Art,” 4/4/15j [April 1965] [References of this form refer to The Objectivist Newsletter, so that volume 4, number 3 would be March 1965. After volume 4, the name of the publication was The Objectivist. The page numbers for the latter are those of the original format, not those in the bound volume.] and RM 16 [The Romantic Manifesto (paperback edition)].
MMOne of the distinguishing characteristics of a work of art (including literature, i.e., fiction), is that it serves no practical, material end, but is an end in itself; it serves no purpose other than contemplation — and the pleasure of that contemplation is so intense, so deeply personal that a man experiences it as a self-sufficient, self-justifying primary and, often, resists or resents any suggestion to analyze it: the suggestion, to him, has the quality of an attack on his identity, in his deepest, essential self.

A. Rand, “Art and Moral Treason,” 4/3/13h-i [March 1965] and RM 148–49.
MMHis rationality is turned against him by means of a similar dichotomy: reason versus emotion. His Romantic sense of life is only a sense, an incoherent emotion which he can neither communicate nor explain nor defend. It is an intense, yet fragile emotion, painfully vulnerable to any sarcastic allegation, since he is unable to identify its real meaning.
MMIt is easy to convince a child, and particularly an adolescent, that his desire to emulate Buck Rogers is ridiculous: he knows that it isn’t exactly Buck Rogers he has in mind and yet, simultaneously, it is — he feels caught in an inner contradiction — and this confirms his desolately embarrassing feeling that he is being ridiculous.

A. Rand. FNI 58 [For the New Intellectual; James is citing the hardback. The paperback page number is 55.]
MMNor does one need a full system of philosophical epistemology in order to distinguish one’s own considered judgement from one’s feelings, wishes, hopes, or fears.

[02] In the analysis that follows, I am indebted to C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Macmillan Paperback, 1960), pp. 121–34; The World’s Last Night and Other Essays (Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1960), pp. 13–30; and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama (Oxford University Press, 1954), pp. 32–37, 187–91 et passim.

[03] N. Branden, “‘The Stolen Concept,’” 2/1/2j-aa [January 1963].
MMTo declare that that the axioms of logic are “arbitrary” is to ignore the context which gives rise to such a concept as the “arbitrary.” An arbitrary idea is one accepted by chance, caprice, or whim; it stands in contradistinction to an idea accepted for logical reasons, from which it is intended to be distinguished. The existence of such a concept as an “arbitrary” idea is made possible only by the existence of logically necessary ideas: the former is not a primary; it is genetically dependent on the latter. To maintain that logic is “arbitrary” is to divest the concept of meaning.

N. Branden, “‘The Stolen Concept’” 2/1/4h [January 1963].
MMOne of the most grotesque instance of the stolen concept fallacy may be observed in the prevalent claim — made by neo-mystics and old-fashioned mystics alike — that the acceptance of reason rests ultimately on “an act of faith.”
MMReason is the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by the senses. Faith is the acceptance of ideas or allegations without sensory evidence or rational demonstration. “Faith in reason” is a contradiction in terms. “Faith” is a concept that possesses meaning only in contradistinction to reason. The concept “faith” cannot antecede reason, it cannot provide grounds for the acceptance of reason — it is the revolt against reason.

R. [Robert] Efron, “Biology without Consciousness — and Its Consequences” 7/5/13d [May 1968].
MMIndeed, it is the philosopher who is in large part responsible for this smashup in biology. He has consistently advocated the use of invidious epistemological remedies for philosophical and scientific problems....
MMHe has often maintained that all human knowledge starts with an act of faith.

[04] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Part 1, Question 79, Article 8.

[05] Samuel Johnson, Dictionary (London 1755).

[06] AS [Atlas Shrugged] 942uu-vv [hardback] (1016bb-cc [paperback]).
MMReason is the faculty that perceives, identifies, and integrates the material provided by [man’s] senses.

[07] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, Chevalier fragment 477, p. 164, trans. J.M. Cohen (Penguin, 1961).

[08] Ibid., fragment 479, pp. 164–65.

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