Thoughts on Faith and Reason

I find myself being confronted repeatedly lately with the distinction between what we can prove (science) and what we just believe for no reason at all (religion). It seems there is a popular notion that we can either choose to look for a proof of a given belief, or just believe it. Reasonable people will presumably do the former; stupid or religious people (the suggestion is that there’s no a difference there) will do the latter.

I don’t think there’s much to be said for this picture – in fact, I think some very basic philosophy is enough to refute it. In this post I want to try to make this explicit, setting out some of what I think are the basics on faith and reason. My immediate motivation is the unconsidered nonsense I keep seeing on this subject from the militant atheist crowd, but I’m also trying to get my own thinking here clear. My basic claim is this: faith is everywhere, always. Everyone operates on the basis of things nobody can prove, and this is true all the time. Accordingly, the question is not whether we’re going to “just believe” or whether we’re going to develop a view of the world by demanding a reason for every claim. Rather, faith is built into every rational account of the world, and the question is how we’re going to decide where exactly to put our faith.

Perhaps I should say a word about myself. I’m not religious, and never have been; I had an utterly secular upbringing. But I’m also not anti-religious: I’ve never been atheist, but rather agnostic, and I’m ever less inclined to regard militant atheism as a reasonable position, for reasons that should become clear below.

I’m going to focus on two problems for knowledge: doubts about the existence of an ordered physical world, and doubts about the utility of reason. After that, I’m going to describe how I think we get past these two problems. The punchline is that it seems to me that the sort of faith we need to get going with science proceeds in the very same way as the foundation of religion.

Also, my aim here is not precision, but rather to give a general view; and if the topics I touch on here are vast, with ample room for additional considerations, still my basic point here seems to me difficult to dislodge (and please do let me know if you think you can do that).

(1) Doubting an Ordered Physical World

Back at the dawn of the scientific revolution, there was a fellow named Descartes, and he had some doubts that seemed to undermine the claim of science to knowledge. As modern science grew into an ever more impressive artifice, philosophers became ever more concerned by their inability to respond to the problem. Descartes’ doubts, of course, pointed to our difficultly in knowing that an objective physical world exists at all. This can be quickly explained as follows: you’re probably reading this piece on some computing device, say, a laptop. How do you know your laptop is actually there? You can see it, you can feel it, maybe you can even hear it – but how do you know your senses aren’t deceiving you? How do you know that your laptop isn’t an illusion? For that matter, how do you know that everything you see, hear and feel is not just an illusion? How you know that anything physical exists, even your own body?

Philosophers, then, became rather worried about this problem because it seemed to undermine any claim science has to produce knowledge. After all, the whole of empirical science rests on the assumption that there actually is a physical world, but if we can’t know that there actually is anything physical, then it might seem that science can’t really know anything. (Descartes’ answer to this problem involved God, so it’s not palatable to a lot of people today.)

Descartes, of course, pushed his doubts farther than this, going as far as to question his own existence. After all, how do you even know that you exist? At this point it seems to be possible to start giving answers: do you doubt that you exist? If so, then you’re thinking, and you can’t think if you don’t exist: “I think therefore I am.” Many have taken this to be the one certain starting point for further inquiry – we each know of our own existence – but in fact there are problems even here…

(2) Doubts about Reason

Antiquity had deeper sceptics than Descartes, sceptics who denied that you could affirm anything at all (many today call themselves ‘sceptics’ simply because they deny the existence of God, but real scepticism goes much farther than that). One way to this denial is to note that Descartes’ answer to his doubts about his own existence rely on reason. To him, this does not seem to have been a great problem, but it is possible to doubt whether we should accept reason – and if we don’t accept it, we might as well say, “I think, therefore I don’t exist.” In fact, the question of how we can come to accept reason is a difficult one: can we give a reason to accept reason? Surely if we do, we’re already assuming what we need to prove – and yet if we refuse to provide any kind of proof of reason, we seem to be behaving irrationally. These theoretical difficulties find an empirical counterpart in evolution: we’re evolved to survive, not to perceive or think about the world as accurately as possible. It could be that reason, as we have evolved to grasp it, doesn’t really tell us anything about reality.

One response to this sort of problem is to say we don’t believe in reason, rather we use reason (e.g., as Steven Pinker or Jerry Coyne have said). I want to say a word about this because I have come across it repeatedly recently. The idea is that reason seems to work, it seems to deliver results, and so we keep using it: our use of reason has a basis in a kind of ongoing experiment. We remain open to the possibility that reason might fail at some point, and the moment we discover that irrationality, or something quite different, offers better results than reason, we’ll start making use of that other approach.

I think this is an obfuscation rather than an answer to the problem. I don’t think the distinction between ‘use’ and ‘believe’ gets us anywhere. I use a spoon rather than a knife to eat soup because I believe a spoon is more useful for this than a knife – it seems to me that we believe in everything we use. Moreover, the sort of experimental approach implied by this ‘use-not-believe’ approach implies a faith that the world has a certain order and stability, so that things that have happened in the past can be a guide to what will happen in the future. In an utterly irrational world, everything would just be luck, so there would be no point in experimenting to see what works.

Perhaps the easiest way to get to the problem here is to consider the following scenario. Imagine I have one dollar, and I go into a casino and bet that dollar on red 23 on one of those roulette machine-things. Say I win, and now I have $100. I bet that on red 23 and win again. Now I have $10,000. I bet that on red 23 and win again. Now I have $1,000,000. Just as I’m getting ready to bet that on red 23, and friend suggests it’s not that wise to believe I’ll always win with red 23. To this I respond, “I don’t believe in red 23, I’m using red 23.”

Now how could you prove to me that reason, or anything else in the whole of experimental science, doesn’t stand on the same footing? How do we know that the whole of science isn’t just luck? (And before you appeal to statistics here, note that we have to confront the same problem there as well.)

I don’t think any scientist actually uses reason without believing it to be useful, and if we believe reason is useful in understanding the world, we are also committed to certain beliefs about the nature of the world. In particular, we believe that science enables us to make predictions. After all, we’ve got planes in the air, drugs being injected into people’s bodies, and nuclear power plants in operation. If you use reason without believing in it, then you are committed to the view that getting on a plane is no different than betting everything on red 23. I think there is a difference, because I think science tells us something about the world – and I think that because I believe that the world is sufficiently ordered that experimenting on it helps us understand it. The point is that the word ‘believe’ is crucial here: we take the leap of faith that the world is the sort of thing that is amenable to a rational approach, and that experimentation will therefore be an aid to our understanding.

Or here’s another thought: let’s say we have understood the world to a very considerable degree, that it actually is the sort of thing amenable to experiment – but all that is going to change next Tuesday at 3:17 pm, when logic, math, and all the laws of physics are going to go out of force. This might mean we all die (but only might, for reasons that should now be obvious). How do you prove to me that this won’t happen next Tuesday? Absent such a proof, we can only have faith that it won’t be the case.

(I’m no specialist in the epistemology of science, but last time I checked in there, the quest for simple certainty had not yet borne fruit.)

(3) Believe, That You May Understand

So here’s where we are: some faith is necessary to accept reason; on the basis of that faith, we say ‘I think, therefore I am.’ Some further faith is needed to believe that a physical world exists, and we need faith again to believe that world to be the sort of thing amenable to rational investigation, and thus to experiment. Only on the basis of all that faith can we get started with science – and note that these moments of faith are all constantly in operation. It’s not like we come back and prove them later. Every time you fly, you believe it’s not just luck that the plane will stay in the air. Every step you take is taken in the belief that the ground won’t explode like a landmine the moment you step on it; every breath you take is based in the faith you won’t inhale poison gas. Strictly speaking, if you eliminate faith entirely, you don’t know that things will go well in any of those situations.

If we were strictly rational creatures, in the sense of believing in nothing we can’t prove, we wouldn’t believe in a physical world, or that science tells us anything at all about that world. In light of this reality, consider the words of Steven Pinker (Enlightenment Now, p. 30): “to take something on faith means to believe it without good reason, so by definition a faith in the existence of supernatural entities clashes with reason.” By this standard, the whole of modern science clashes with reason, for we’ve seen that science requires that we take a good deal on faith. So I don’t think the view he takes of faith and reason does a good job of explaining what’s going on.

Of course, I do believe in reason, in a physical world, and in the value of experimenting on that world. But what do we do about the fact that we apparently need blind faith to accept all this? How can that be reconciled to our desire to think as rigorously as possible about everything?

Here I think a change from a strictly logical to an existential register is helpful. What do I mean by that? Well, in point of actual fact, we don’t decide at birth to believe in an ordered physical world. Nobody imagines doubting the existence of that world until he’s lived in it for years: our belief in it is utterly arbitrary from the point of view of logic, from the point of view of what we can prove, but not from the point of view of the lives we have already lived. And by the time we get around to doubting the physical world, we have also found that we can trust it to an extraordinary degree: water always feels wet; when I drop a ball it falls; when I lick a metal pole in winter, my tongue gets stuck on it (actually, I don’t think many people do that more than once). We learn to take this world to be a radically ordered place: by interacting with it, we seem to be able to come to understand it better.

So we have what might be called a soft reason for believing in an ordered physical world. We can’t prove it exists – we have to believe in it – but we’ve already experienced that we seem to be able to interact with it in meaningful and consistent ways. Logically, we have no reason to believe; from the point of view of the lives we are already living, we do have a reason (i.e., with this particular faith, we can start to understand our lives). We believe, that we may understand.

I think the notion of trust is helpful here. As we go through life, we get to know many people, and discover that there are people we can trust, and people we can’t. In no case do we attain certain knowledge on this point, for that is the nature of trust: it always involves a certain amount of faith. I think it makes sense to think about the physical world in the same way. We don’t know it’s an ordered, objectively present thing, but we have a relationship of trust with it, in which our faith in it is constantly confirmed, and modern science deepens this trust immensely. If we refused to enter in to this relationship of trust, we would never get anywhere.

Now here’s what this is all building up to: the basis I’ve set out here for a scientific worldview could apply just as easily to religion. In fact, the phrase “believe, that you may understand” (crede, ut intellegas) comes from Saint Augustine, and he meant by it something along the lines of what I’ve just set out. He was focused on ancient scepticism, which, as I explained above, was rather more sceptical than Descartes, refusing as it did to affirm anything. Of course, scepticism stands at the doorway to philosophy: if you want to understand anything at all, you simply cannot get away from faith.

By this point, I hope it is clear that the terms ‘faith’ and ‘reason’ have come to point to something rather different from what people commonly suppose them to mean. Not all faith is entirely blind, nor is reason ever entirely separable from faith. It seems to me that those who claim to have left faith behind for reason are displaying either their ignorance or their dishonesty.

The question, then, is not whether we’re going to believe anything without proof, but what we’re going to believe without proof, and why. The answers to these questions are going to involve the sort of ‘soft’ reasoning I set out above, in which we try to make retroactive sense of the lives we’re already living. Here it seems to me there might be a good deal of room for religion to get going on exactly the same basis as science does. One might take the world to be so fundamentally ordered that God is necessary to explain it. Alternately, if we assume for the sake of argument that there is no proof of the existence of God in the empirical world, still it might be the case that religion is necessary to make full sense of normative life, that is, the ethical life that can sustain both an individual and a community. These are matters on which I remain agnostic (I need to do rather more work on them), but as I have begun to look at the state of the Western world in light of the second, normative, concern, I find myself wondering more and more if religion might be necessary after all.

That, however, is a large matter, for another time.

(And if anyone wants to say that science doesn’t assume the existence of the physical world, but just tells us how things would stand if there were such a world – well, the religious could take the same approach: “just in case God & the afterlife are a thing, we’re going to church.”)

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