- A Saint for Our TimesNewman on Faith, Fallibility, and Certitude
"How many of you know that you have hands?" I once asked my students. Everyone raised a hand. The clever students raised two. I then repeated the question: "I mean, how many of you really knooowwww that you have hands?" With just the inflection changed, hands dropped one-by-one. I was in shock. Yet I knew what had happened. Students thought of all the logically possible scenarios in which they, despite all appearances, might lack hands. They could be the classic brain in a vat, stuck in the Matrix, or subject to the wiles of Descartes's evil demon.
As class discussion erupted, I vigorously attempted to convince the students that they really do know that they have hands. Their crucial assumption quickly emerged: they held the not unreasonable (yet unexamined) conviction that knowledge requires absolute certitude. Considering the remote yet possible skeptical scenarios, they inferred that their knowledge of their hands was not one hundred percent certain and therefore not knowledge at all.1
This assumption, most philosophers think, is mistaken. That is, most philosophers are "fallibilists."2 They hold that one can know something without one's evidence being absolutely conclusive.3 On [End Page 60] this view, I can know what I ate for breakfast this morning (even though my memory is fallible) and who my biological mother is (even though I've never done any DNA tests and could be, as my sister once tried to convince me, adopted).
Many people instinctively worry that if the things they know are not certain, then this leaves room for skepticism and crippling doubt. So they double-down on certitude. Yet if one examines both classical and contemporary arguments for skepticism, one finds that they typically hold infallibilism—the view that knowledge requires utter certitude or perfect evidence or the ruling out of all alternative possibilities—as a premise.4 That is to say, infallibilism about knowledge not only fails to solve the skeptical problem but, ironically, creates it. As Bernard Lonergan recognized, "To demand the absolute and to be content with absolutely nothing else results in a skepticism."5 If every belief is guilty until proven innocent, it will be impossible to build our knowledge from the foundations up in the way Descartes envisioned. The lesson, according to most epistemologists, is that knowledge does not require certitude.
Why then does the Church repeatedly speak about certitude? Fallibilism sounds reasonable, but it isn't easy to see how it squares with the commitments of Scripture, the councils, and the "Catechism of the Catholic Church." No Catholic thinker in modern times has been more concerned to overthrow the false Enlightenment standards of knowledge, evidence, and rationality than John Henry Newman. He held fast to the historic truths of the faith, yet he was also clearly a fallibilist. At one point he declared, " We are given absolute certainty in nothing."6
Newman was canonized October 13, 2019, and some speculate that he may be declared a doctor of the Church. For this reason, it is worth considering whether this fallibilist runs afoul of the commitments of Catholic tradition vis-à-vis faith and certitude. While much of what Newman says about the fallibility of the human mind and the nature of faith stands in prima facie tension with Catholic teaching, I will argue this tension is only apparent. What emerges, I believe, [End Page 61] is that Newman's understanding of the certitude of faith is not only harmonious with the Catholic tradition but enlightening.
To see this, let me first look at the apparent problem. The Church teaches that faith is certain. The author of the letter to the Hebrews tells us, "Faith is being sure of what we hope for. It is being certain of what we do not see."7 The catechism declares, "Faith is certain. It is more certain than all human knowledge because it is founded on the very word of God who cannot lie."8 And in 1870, the First Vatican Council declared on the certitude of the knowledge of God (and not just faith, which is after all...