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.”)

Advertisements

A Quick Thought on Faith

The last 4-5 years have seen my views on many things change dramatically. I used to be well to the left on even the Canadian political spectrum, and now I find myself becoming more conservative, to the point that I could even contemplate voting Republican (once they’re done with Trump). This has come about in response both to things I’ve read and to events (more posts to come about that). I’ve found that as my views change, I occasionally find myself struck, when I hear a view I now strongly reject, by the fact that I used to hold it as an obvious truth.

So it was as I heard Jerry Coyne, the author of a popular (and excellent) blog (Why Evolution is True), talk about religion on the Rubin Report. (watch here and here) At one point (I forget where exactly), Coyne suggests that religious faith is problematic beyond the specific content of any particular religious doctrine, because it gets people in the habit of simply believing things without evidence. That is, there is something inherently harmful about the fact of faith in itself: it is a bad intellectual habit. A good intellectual habit, on this view, would seem to be to get as far from faith as you can, basing your views, as much as possible, on evidence.

Wow – I used to believe that, with some vehemence. And wow: I sure don’t believe it any more. Not at all.

I can think of two kinds of faith that we need and use on a constant basis. Without both, our lives would simply not be possible. The first is central to the possibility of a scientific understanding of the world – that is, the sort of understanding that Coyne would hold up as an alternative to religion. The second deals with our relationship with other people; I wonder if this second kind of faith doesn’t lead on to religion.

The first kind of faith is suggested in an article by Theodore Dalrymple, in which he responds – convincingly, I thought – to the “new atheists.” He makes the point succinctly: “if I questioned whether George Washington died in 1799, I could spend a lifetime trying to prove it and find myself still, at the end of my efforts, having to make a leap, or perhaps several leaps, of faith in order to believe the rather banal fact that I had set out to prove.” Of course, the point can be generalised to include the whole of science. I believe global warming is a major problem, but if a well-educated climate science denier were to debate me, I would be reduced to appeals to authority very quickly indeed. The same would happen to almost all scientists aside from the climate specialists (although almost all real scientists would last longer than me in such arguments). The same will be true of any other field of knowledge: specialists might hold their own, but non-specialists must follow the lead of authorities.

Of course, it is probably true for most of what is understood about the world today that if we investigated any particular matter, we could eliminate most of our faith on the matter. However, for all actual people, the reality is that most of what we understand about the world is in fact a matter of faith. Modern science allows us to put our faith in sound authorities, but we do need that authority. The idea of eliminating faith and replacing it with reason is utopian, and like most utopian ideals, when it is forced upon the real world, it becomes a source of harm as well as benefit (in this case, the utopian ideal of eliminating faith obscures from us the reality of what is actually going on, for a start).

There is a second sort of faith, and this one has to do with people: we cannot live without trust. That is, faith in other people is necessary to a genuinely human life. If you couldn’t trust anyone else, you couldn’t even walk down the street – after all, you might get stabbed. More than that, a great deal of what gives depth and meaning to life comes from trusting other people. Imagine if your interactions with other people consisted of the absolute minimum necessary to sustain your life: you would trust other people enough to walk down the street, to work, and to conduct basic economic transactions. Nothing more. No pleasures of conversation, in which you might reveal something of yourself, no substantial or lasting relationships with others. Most people would find life intolerable without substantial (and thus trusting) relationships with other people, and I don’t think it is reasonable to see in such a life the pinnacle of human flourishing. A life worth living requires faith in other people – indeed, it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that life is more worth living to the extent that we can rightly make use of such faith.

Accordingly, as in understanding the world, so too in our dealings with other people: the trick is not to eliminate faith, but rather to learn where it is appropriate and where not. And it is not hard to see how the matter of faith in other people might lead on to religion: our ability to have faith in other people doesn’t merely increase our chances of survival, but makes life far richer, far worthier of living, than it otherwise might be. What if religious faith is like that? What if we who are not religious are in a situation similar to that of people who miss out on so much of what life has to offer because they never trust anyone else, and thus never have any substantial relationships with other people?

I’m not religious, but sometimes I wonder if I should be.

How Not to Criticise Big Ideas

I want to try to get clear about a faulty line of reasoning that I seem to encounter regularly. When people are confronted with an idea that is supposed to explain some large-scale historical or social phenomena, they often seem to think that by giving a single counter-example, they have refuted the idea in question, or at least shown it to be too simple. The thinking behind this is wrong, but before I get into why, let me give a recent example of the sort of thing I’m talking about.

A few days ago I came across this interesting article on how Richard Rorty saw the shape of things to come way back in 1998. Here’re the paragraphs that brought it all home:

“… something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. …

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. … All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.”

I think Rorty goes too far with the words “wiped out” – here’s hoping I’m right! – but there’s no doubt the passage is extraordinarily prescient. What struck me about the article, however, was the criticism the author made of Rorty:

Is his analysis a bit oversimple? Yes. Even within universities, there have always been optimistic champions of America, those who ever-passionately believe in the moral arc bending toward justice and work ever-diligently on formulating concrete, actionable policies that would make the country more just.

By focusing only on his own environment, academia, Mr. Rorty’s arguments also seem strangely parochial. During the 1960s, the academic left may have started to turn its back on poverty, but actual politicians on the left were still thinking a great deal about it: Robert F. Kennedy was visiting poor white families in Appalachia; Lyndon B. Johnson was building the Great Society.

Right through the ’90s and into the 2000s, we had left-of-center politicians singing the praises of hope, rather than the hopelessness that Mr. Rorty decries.

I should start with the qualifier that I haven’t read the book in question, so my response to this criticism of Rorty should be taken with a large grain of salt (though knowing what I do of Rorty, I doubt he would have been knocked over by what I’ve just quoted). But defending Rorty is not the real issue here. Rather, we have an example of a specific kind of criticism of explanations that seek to explain large-scale human phenomena.

To say that Rorty’s analysis is “a bit oversimple” is to import a heavily loaded assumption into the conversation about what we should expect from an adequate explanation. Clearly the idea is that a less ‘simple,’ and thus more adequate, explanation would not have failed to account for certain pertinent facts (e.g., optimistic champions of America in universities and beyond). The fact that these things are not covered by Rorty’s analysis is thus considered a failure, so that the demand that lies behind this line of thought must be that a fully adequate analysis would include every single detail you could think up.

A more severe variety of this criticism would replace “a bit oversimple” with ‘wrong.’ Some months ago I was telling some friends about a man I’d read about who, having had two children by a woman, not only decided against marrying her, but also decided against playing any substantial role in the lives of his children beyond financial. This was an expression, I claimed, of the lack of regard for the family and its attendant duties in our time. No!, came the response, and an example was given of parents who dote excessively on their children, the very opposite of what I had been suggesting. The same assumption was at work in this criticism: a single counter-example is sufficient to refute the theory, or at least to show its overly simple nature.

If Rorty or I had been trying to set out a law of math or physics, which must apply to every conceivable case, the counter-example criticism would be justified. There are, however, other ways to think about these things.

The comparison of the body politic to a human body goes back a long way indeed. Plato’s analogy of city and soul is well-known, and many have seen in Thucydides an analogy between the progress of an idea in a city or in Greece to the progress of a disease in a body. So let’s think this analogy through.

Imagine if you’re told you have pancreatic cancer, and that you’ll likely be dead in six months. If I were to respond to this diagnosis by saying that your body has a vast number of entirely healthy cells – the great majority of them, even in the pancreas – that wouldn’t show that the diagnosis is wrong. A cancer diagnosis does not assert that every single cell in the body has cancer – and this is true of pretty much all sickness. What matters is that cancer is present, and that there is a logic inherent in the body that means that we can predict, from something that is present in a tiny fraction of the body’s cells, that the whole body will be dead in a matter of months.

With this in mind, look back at Rorty and the criticism made of him. What if the phenomenon he’s pointing to is like a disease in a body? Just as there are healthy cells in a body that’s fatally ill, so too can there be people in academia and beyond who don’t fit Rorty’s case, but that need not affect his analysis. What’s important is that he has identified something that can determine the future of American politics, just as pancreatic cancer can determine the future of the body it’s found in (and before you go getting too upset about the analogy, remember that many diseases are not fatal).

That this manner of thinking can possess genuine foresight should be clear enough from the fact that Rorty saw something the shape of our current politics back in 1998. Not only that, but the sort of foresight at issue here is, in certain contexts, far superior to anything empirical-scientific. No number crunching, data-driven analysis could possibly have seen what Rorty did, and certainly not so far back.

This is not to say that the analogy of a disease to ideas that are said to be driving society is always appropriate. Many ideas are merely partial, though even here, alternate cases can present complementary phenomena – e.g., I’m inclined to see both economic factors and a backlash against political correctness as important to the presidential election result, but not as conflicting phenomena, but instead like two streams running into a river. (And in the case of the example from my conversation with a friend, I’m inclined to see two sides of the same phenomenon: the breakdown of the conventional idea of the family can find expression both in a lack of regard for children and for an excessively sentimental relation to them.)

There is a potential problem with this disease-analogy, of course: how do you criticise it if counter-examples are not necessarily refutations? I’d be inclined to find the answer by pursuing the disease-analogy further, but I think I’ve written enough for now.