Hobbes and Anscombe on Believing God

Submitted by Jonathan on Sat, 03/25/2017 - 03:28

As I've been reflecting on Elizabeth Anscombe's work on trust and testimony, I remembered some passages from Thomas Hobbes on similar themes, and I'd like to bring them into dialog with each other. In an earlier post I discussed Anscombe's distinction between believing a person and believing that what a person says is true, as well as her distinction between original and derivative epistemic authority. Hobbes has something to say about this as well. Consider this passage from Leviathan (in all its archaic spelling glory):

Leviathan title page


When a mans Discourse beginneth not at Definitions, it beginneth either at some other contemplation of his own, and then it is still called Opinion; Or it beginneth at some saying of another, of whose ability to know the truth, and of whose honesty in not deceiving, he doubteth not; and then the Discourse is not so much concerning the Thing, as the Person; and the Resolution is Beleefe, and Faith: Faith, in the man; Beleefe, both of the man, and of the truth of what he sayes. So that in Beleefe are two opinions; one of the saying of the man; the other of vertue. To have faith in, or trust to, or beleeve a man, signifie the same thing; namely, an opinion of the veracity of the man: But to beleeve what is said, signifieth onely an opinion of the truth of the saying. But wee are to observe that this Phrase, I beleeve in; as also the Latine, Credo in; and the Greek [pisteuo eis] are never used but in the writings of Divines. In stead of them, in other writings are put, I beleeve him; I trust him; I have faith in him; I rely on him: and in Latin, Credo illi; fido illi: and in Greek, [pisteuo auto]: and that this singularity of the Ecclesiastique use of the word hath raised many disputes about the right object of the Christian Faith. But by Beleeving in, as it is in the Creed, is meant, not trust in the Person; but Confession and acknowledgement of the Doctrine. 

Allow me to interpret this. Hobbes begins by saying that, if we do not start any discourse (or line of thought, say) from stipulative definitions (as geometers did, when, for example, they begin a geometric proof by defining terms like "point," "line," etc.), then we're starting from something else we already believe, or from something we've been told by someone else. In this latter case, our thought on the subject is a matter of "faith" and "belief": faith in the person who told us (that is, as trustworthy in the matter), and two-fold belief: first, belief "of" the person, and second, belief that what the person said is true. Hobbes points out, just an Anscombe would later in her essay "What Is It to Believe Someone?", that to trust or believe a person is different from simply believing that what the person says is true, and it seems to me that the first aspect of the two-fold belief Hobbes describes maps on to Anscombe's notion of believing a person, i.e., trusting the person for the truth.

However, the use to which Hobbes puts the distinction is to point out that believing, trusting, or having faith in a person is different from believing, trusting, or having faith in a (doctrinal) proposition. In fact, he says that it is only theologians ("divines") who use the phrase "believe in" of doctrines rather than of persons. 

It seems like Hobbes and Anscombe are in accord so far. Anscombe would agree that believing in a creed, in the sense of believing that it is true, is quite different from believing a person. But then Hobbes goes on to say that from this we may infer that when we believe any saying to be true from “arguments taken” from the authority, and our good opinion of the one that says it, then it is that one who is the object of our faith, and it is that one alone whom we believe, even if that one speaks (or claims to speak) for another. He concludes:

And consequently, when wee Believe that the Scriptures are the word of God, having no immediate revelation from God himselfe, our Beleefe, Faith, and Trust are in the Church; whose word we take, and acquiesce therein.... So that it is evident, that whatsoever we believe, upon no other reason, then what is drawn from authority of men onely, and their writings; whether they be sent from God or not, is Faith in men onely.

Here, I think, there is a contrast to be drawn between Hobbes and Anscombe. Hobbes argues that when someone believes what that person reads in the Bible, or in a creed, that person's resulting belief (or faith, or trust) is not really in God, but is in the messenger (whether that messenger is a prophet who has written a revelation the person is reading, or "the Church" who is telling the person in the pew that "this is the Word of God"). He is not just saying that the person is placing faith in the messenger, but that, in such cases, the person is placing faith in the messenger alone.

I think that Anscombe would disagree with this conclusion. In my earlier post, I described her contention that, when one receives a message through an interpreter, one does not believe (trust) the interpreter, but rather believes (trusts) the one for whom the interpreter is interpreting. She contrasted the case of an interpreter with the case of a teacher: pupils (typically, when all is going well) believe their teachers, because teachers are authorities on those subjects they teach. They are not "original authorities", to be sure, but they are authorities nonetheless. 

Now here's a question: when one receives a message from a prophet or "the Church" (Hobbes mentions both cases), is it more like the interpreter case or the teacher case? Suppose that it's like the interpreter case. Then, according to Anscombe, when one believes the message, one isn't believing the prophet or the church at all, but is believing God. Suppose that it is more like the teacher case. Then, we have further questions we need to ask. Since teachers are not original authorities, they are relying on others for the claims that they are making. If any of those claims are messages directed to the students (e.g., by being directed to a general audience, "whoever has to ears to hear"), and if the students are also taught from whom that message is coming--that is, who it is who is the "original authority" in the particular case--then, by Anscombe's lights (because the forgoing conditions are among the conditions she identifies as required for believing a person), the students should be able to also believe (trust for the truth) the original authority. So for Hobbes, it seems that we can only believe the immediate speaker; but for Anscombe, we can believe the original authority as well as the immediate speaker (as in the teacher case), or we can even believe the original authority instead of the speaker (as in the interpreter case). 

I think that Anscombe is right about this, though (as I mentioned in the post on Anscombe on believing teachers) I think that even in the interpreter case there are two distinct but simultaneous instances of trust--we trust interpreters as well as their principals, but not for the same proposition. So I think that the interpreter case is closer to the teacher case than Anscombe seems to allow, and so one would still be trusting the prophet or the Church when one believes the message. Nevertheless, I think that I agree with Anscombe, and disagree with Hobbes, in holding that, even though we do trust (have faith in) the messengers, we nevertheless also trust (have faith in) the one who originated the message, i.e., the original authority.  

Now here is an important caveat: perhaps we are sometimes wrong in our belief about the identity, or even existence of the original authority behind some message. In such a case, we may think that we are trusting the original authority, but we are not, in fact, doing so. But this in no way implies that in the "good case," when we are right about who the original authority is, and what the message is, we can't trust the original authority even when the message was delivered to us via intermediaries--pace Hobbes.

It is worth mentioning, however, that I think that Hobbes is right about at least some cases of disbelief, when someone doubts a message not because of distrust of the putative original authority, but because because of doubts about the trustworthiness of the messenger. Hobbes says that to believe or trust someone is to honor that person, and to disbelieve or distrust someone is to dishonor that person, and that seems right. If I disbelieve a messenger, I dishonor that messenger (as least in that person's role as a messenger), but I have not thereby automatically disbelieved and hence dishonored the original authority who authorized the message. So if a prophet (or "the Church") comes to me and says, "Thus says the Lord..." and I believe the message, then, if the Lord really did issue that message, I have believed the Lord as well as the prophet, and honor both. But if I disbelieve the prophet and the message by believing that the prophet is untrustworthy, I disbelieve and dishonor the prophet, but I do not necessarily disbelieve and dishonor the Lord, even if the Lord really did issue that message. Whether or not I dishonor the Lord depends on whether or not I ought to have disbelieved the prophet.