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Religion and Public ReasonsCollected Essays Volume V$

John Finnis

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780199580095

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199580095.001.0001

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The Significance of Questioning

The Significance of Questioning

(p.129) 7 The Significance of Questioning
Religion and Public Reasons

John Finnis

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter presents an unpublished university sermon which challenges Hume's account of intelligence, A. J. Ayer's account of explanation and other forms of sceptical dogmatism, and attends to the role of questions in science. Questioning and scientific inquiry is then considered as an action, to which ethical demands apply so as to exclude obscurantism, over-confidence. As in Chapters 2 and 6 in Volume IV of this text, this is linked with friendship. An explanation is offered of Plato's ‘God is the measure’.

Keywords:   Hume, Ayer, Plato, explanation, ethics of inquiry, friendship, God is the measure


Lawyers, as you know, have a notion of reasonable doubt. Correspondingly, they have a notion of unreasonable doubt. And since the pair of notions is a part of common sense, jurymen who are not lawyers can be asked to determine guilt ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.

It would, of course, be most unwise to rely unquestioningly on common sense in dealing with all the problems that confront one. For one of the problems that confront us is, is it not, that common sense is not innocent either of unreasonable dogmatism or of unreasonable doubt, not to mention common-nonsense. And it would, I can tell you, be even more unwise to rely unquestioningly on the notions which lawyers offer you authoritatively.

Still, it seems that the notion of unreasonable doubt is going to play a part in the working of any critical intelligence. For if one has doubts about what in certain circumstances is alleged or supposed to be the case, still one can always add to those doubts one further doubt, namely, ‘Is it sensible, is it warranted, to entertain these particular doubts of mine in these particular circumstances?’ And often enough that question has a clearly appropriate answer: ‘No; those doubts are not sensible, not warranted’—and thus, with that question answered, that doubt resolved, the other doubts are dissipated, and reasonably so.

Since the sixteenth century, when Sextus Empiricus's compendium of the sceptical arguments of classical antiquity was reintroduced into our culture, the term ‘sceptic’, like the term ‘doubt’, has carried the suggestion that faith, religious belief, and theology stand to reason, criticism, and science as complacency stands to intellectual concern, as naïve common sense stands to critical intelligence, as illusions and wishful projections (p.130) stand to reality clearly seen and coolly accepted. Nevertheless, it was sensible then and it is possible now to raise some questions about these suggested equations, analogies, and contrasts. It is possible, for example, to inquire whether Hume's account of understanding and its objects takes any account of sheer intelligence, which goes beyond a comparison and association of impressions and images, and which by the act of understanding adds to the data of experience the intelligible content of those rational judgments through which we come to know what is the case. For such sheer intelligence Hume himself displayed in no small measure, notwithstanding his rather obvious oversight of that very fact itself. Or again, it is possible to inquire whether there is any reason to accept the explanation of explanation offered in the most recent Gifford Lecture, on ‘The Claims of Theology’: namely, that any explanation must yield a hypothesis ‘which we can successfully project’, a ‘pattern in the course of events’, ‘one actual pattern in contrast to others which are logically possible’.1 For indeed it is not in the least obvious that explanation by way of successful prediction is even a relevant form of explanation when the question is: What are the fundamental conditions on which we can affirm, rationally and critically, that there really is a course of events, any course of events, a pattern, any pattern, an actuality, any actuality, available to be contrasted either with mere logical possibility or with illusory appearances? When people begin to appreciate the need for an explanation of the very possibility of explanations, and will not be put off by a restrictive explanation that suits restricted ranges of questions, and demand an answer that fits their own actual and critical question, and when they insist on this question because without it one cannot give any account, that is both coherent and full, of what it is in any case to be factual, empirical, actual, or real—such people are not to be accused of complacency or uncritical common sense, or of legalistic kowtowing to the speech-habits of the tribe if at the end of the day they appropriate such terms as ‘God’ or ‘creation’ to signify that which they judge must be actual if anything at all is to be actual.

But how is our assent to these old terms to be made not merely a notional assent, but real-to-us? There is a dogmatism of the sceptic which parallels and responds to the dogmatism of believers who speak and even philosophize about God, creation, causality, and omnipotence before they have really opened their minds to the questionable character of what is taken complacently to be ‘the world’ and our ‘knowledge’ of it. As far as it goes, the response of scepticism to that dogmatic mode of unquestioning belief is quite fitting; the only fitting response to scepticism is to push (p.131) on with questions where the sceptic arbitrarily calls a halt. The reward for so pressing the question is the intelligible intimation of what St Paul, with full cognizance of the paradox, calls God's ‘invisible nature clearly perceived in the things that have been made’ (Romans 1: 20).

Very different from one another are the methods and very different the achievements of the many disciplines and sciences, ancient and modern. Still, you find in fact a language that is common to all of them. For you find that all of them express the judgments which they finally pass on hypotheses, in terms of what is plausible, what is elegant, what is fruitful, what is warranted, and so on. Someone who noticed this common language might suppose that, common to all the disciplines and sciences, there is some one test or criterion of sound or true judgment. But no. To know what is elegant or plausible within a discipline, so that one could use the terms ‘elegant’ and ‘plausible’ intelligently and critically within that discipline, there is absolutely no alternative but to submit oneself to the discipline of attending to the data of that discipline, of appreciating the questions raised with that discipline, of entertaining its hypotheses, of reflecting on its criteria. So, similarly, it is not possible to understand the terms in which theology and faith speak of God—or even the term ‘God’ itself—unless one first submits oneself to the questions which the assertions of theology and faith offer to answer. It is not enough that one understands how to use terms like ‘cause’, or ‘power’, or ‘good’, for other purposes, in response to other questions. For just as the meaning of ‘plausible’, ‘elegant’, ‘fruitful’, and ‘warranted’ shifts systematically from discipline to discipline, from set of questions to set of questions, so does the meaning of ‘cause’, ‘power’, and ‘good’. We can know what is being said of God only to the extent that we understand what is being found to be questionable, insufficient, contingent, unexplained about the world as we know it in our experience and in all the other disciplines and sciences.

The reason why the shift of meaning of terms like ‘plausible’, ‘elegant’, and so on is a systematic shift of meaning and not a mere equivocation or accident of our language is this: that there is something, more than mere words, which is common to all disciplines and sciences—namely, the dynamic structure of the consciousness of scholars and scientists and indeed of all human beings ‘in possession of their faculties’ (as the saying goes). When St Paul spoke of ‘clearly perceiving’ the maker in the made, he was rather simplifying matters, in his strenuous way. Is truth indeed to be found by just opening one's eyes and looking? What one sees when one opens one's eyes and looks is not, of course, to be written off as mere appearance to be contrasted with reality. But is it not, for all that, a mere starting point for intelligence? If one is alert, questions arise. Why do (p.132) things look like this? Suppositions and hypotheses are to be generated. Further questions compel revisions. And the judgment that such-and-such is indeed the case (the judgment which the original question was obscurely but recognizably heading for), the judgment in and through which one at last knows, is a judgment made, if made responsibly, only when one judges also that there are sufficient evidences or reasons to warrant that judgment and to render further doubt unreasonable.


Questions, then, introduce us to a labour, a work, a project to be carried on in time. As with our other works and projects, there is an end in sight (which we label truth or knowledge or whatever): and there is a choice between strategies and between means, between shortcuts and what my son calls longcuts, between the safe method and the untested hunch, and so on, and so on: you are very familiar with the problems. And they are the problems of a practice.

And so there comes into view an ethics of questioning and of scholarship and science—not for a moment as a deduction from or ‘application of’ some other, received or general ethics or morality (what could be more obscure in our age than the notion that there is a general ethics or morality?)—no! What I mean is: anyone who experiences, in himself or vicariously, the sheer thrust of curiosity, of questions, of the pure disinterested desire and intention to know, can grasp in that experience the good, the value, of truth and of knowing it, and of clearheadedness—as goods or values that are indeed universals, in the sense that they not only can be realized by getting a satisfactory answer to any particular question that happens to be engaging one, just now, but also can be realized in the attainment of answers, of knowledge of what is the case, by oneself or anyone and everyone at any time or place. Equally one can grasp the evil of wilful suppression of questions, of the temptation to obscurantism, of the temptation to affirm to oneself as well as to others the false, the half-true, what one would like to be the case rather than what critical questions and reflections would reveal is in truth the case. I could go on, but it is obvious how this complex of desire, grasp of universal forms of good, and temptation to (and aversion from) the wilful or careless falling away from those goods, all requires for its expression a use of the term ‘ought’ which goes beyond that merely instrumental use in which we say that ‘if you want to be a good chemist you ought to learn some mathematics’. But how is our assent to these old terms ‘ought’, ‘ethics’, ‘morality’, to be made not merely a notional assent but real-to-us? (p.133)

The tension and thrust of questioning breaks up our commonplace conceptions of ends and means, of wants and needs, of ‘ought’ and ‘cans’. The truth which we want may, as we well know in advance, turn out to be what we did not want to know. We cannot be satisfied with a judgment that is merely satisfying, for an unwelcome question insinuates itself and we want to know whether that judgment also is true. I said that in the practice of theory there is an end in sight. But that was the form of words in which we cover our predicament. The end is not in sight; it is luminously attractive; but it is unseen, unknown. So, in his old age, when he had graduated from politics to law, Plato amended his symbol of the life lived in pursuit of truth. No longer do we have the Republic’s symbol of the ascent from the darkness and shadows of the cave to the sunlit world above ground (though even here Plato takes care to offer no description of what is seen, no account of the form or idea of the Good); instead, we have in the Laws the symbol of the golden cord of understanding and judgment, which draws us gently and without force. That it is the golden cord, the lovely and worthwhile among the iron or leaden tugs of the passions below the passion of reason, that is clear. But where it is leading us is not known; it runs out, golden, into darkness. To follow it is the only serious goal we have, says Plato, but it is a goal we pursue as if in play; for, as in a game, we have nothing to say about what lies at its end and therefore we cannot say what point there is in following it.2

Precisely parallel are the paradoxes which the philosophers put their finger on, concerning self-love and friendship. If one loves oneself one wants good things for oneself, and a pre-eminent good for anyone is friendship; so friendship is indispensable for one's own flourishing; but friendship sought for one's own sake, rather than straightforwardly for the sake of one's friend, is not real worthwhile friendship at all. Start at the other end: if you love a friend, you want to secure what is good for him; but among the goods your friend treasures is you; so you must set about securing your own good. And, in either case, friendship can demand that one sacrifice all one's worldly goods for one's friend's sake. So where do one's reasonable interests lie? What is the point of friendship?

Together, then, the quest for truth and the claims of friendship introduce us to the sense of responsibility for our actions and inaction, that sense which we express in the language of duty, the so-called moral ought. Together the quest for truth and the claims of friendship stultify any suggestion that conscience cannot but be the product of parental suggestion, or of the after-image of the father, or of the mores of the tribe or class or cult. (p.134) Both truth and friendship force us to revise the scheme of utility, of practical reasoning from wants to methods, ends to means. We find we have to introduce the category of the worthwhile, which is not a mere means, and yet is not an ordinary want since it is intelligently wanted above all intelligible calculi of interests and satisfactions. Finally, both the quest for truth and the claims of friendship require for their practical carrying-through the adoption of a peculiar third viewpoint. Thus, friendship demands that one adopt a viewpoint not precisely one's own nor precisely one's friend's, but a viewpoint from which to see and hold in tension the interests both of oneself and of one's friend, and from which can be plotted a strategy for realizing both interests in the measure suggested by impartial benevolence. From another direction, but with convergent implications, the pure disinterested thrust of questioning reveals as merely arbitrary (and thus demolishes, for reason) any and every form of self-preference which an impartially benevolent observer of the human scene, seeing all times and all places, all lives, deeds, and consequences, would consider unfair and unwarranted. And so the impartial benevolence of friendship takes its place within a wider perspective; for questions, demanding a reason for self-preference, can locate the circle of family and friends not at or as the horizon of one's practical interests but as one of many overlapping and concentric circles which, for each one of us, expand and recede to the horizon of the human race itself. And so we see why Plato, in his last days, grounded the very possibility of any ethics, politics, justice, or law on the possibility and attractiveness of participating in the divine viewpoint which is more than a mere observer's viewpoint, that divine dealing with human affairs sub specie aeternitatis which he expresses in the tersest formulation of his philosophy: ‘God is the measure.’3


(*) Unpublished: the University Sermon, Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, 28 October 1973.

(1) Ayer, The Central Questions of Philosophy, 216–17, 222.

(2) Laws 644, 803b–804c; [NLNR 407–9].

(3) Laws 716. [And see essay III.3 (1973a) at 75.]