Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Faith and "logic"

As always, ask and ye shall receive. A friend from college asks:

My question is, where does your "logic" leave off and religion begin? Are they the same thing for you, or do you believe your faith is seperate from your logic? Is there a point where you say to yourself, "this is where my faith picks up, and my logic just doesn't matter"? I've never understood how somebody could have "faith" because one of my beliefs is that faith is something anybody can have about anything, and so faith in one thing is equal to faith in another thing. Anything that isn't based in logic or fact has equal weight to any other thing that is not based in logic or fact. So then I think, well, what use is faith then if I can have faith in anything? I think the hard part would be having faith in the first place and having the faith embedded in you enough (I'm not nessisarily talking about it being pounded into you by your parents/etc though often times I think that's the case) that it's just there and always will be. If that makes sense.

This is an all too common mistake. I tried to get at this with my column on the importance of science and religion, but looking back, it was a scattered effort, and probably less beneficial than I would have hoped. Hopefully revisiting the issue will help.

What my friend calls logic, comes from the Greek logos. Students of Scripture know that this is precisely the Word St. John uses to start his Gospel: "In the beginning was the Word (logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."

It's usually a terrible idea to bring the Bible into a conversation with someone who views the Bible, at best as a farrago of some good poetry and fairly wise sayings, and at worst as a collection of rubbish. But it's instructive here because from the earliest days of Christianity--John wrote his Gospel towards the end of the first century AD--John is making it perfectly clear that the Good News is not irrational. This does not mean it's not fantastic, absurd, or implausible; but it is clear that logic cannot be contradicted by the Word Himself.

Many people mistakenly assume that religion is illogical or irrational because its claims cannot be proven. This misconception is usually coupled with another: that science proves things all the time, many incompatible with religion; and that rational men must thus believe, not in religion, but in science. We'll handle these one at a time.

First, the claims of religion, like the claims of science, are falsifiable. Finding the body Jesus Christ would disprove the Resurrection, and hence, all of Christianity. Discovering skeletons that are hundreds of thousands of years old, disproves a literal account of the first chapter of Genesis. On the other hand, some of the prophesies of the Bible are also falsifiable, at least theoretically. The emperor Julian, the apostate, famously tried to rebuild the temple after its destruction, foretold by Christ, attempting to nullify Christianity in the process. A pagan historian wrote that the workers were scorched by flames in the attempt, causing Julian to give up the effort. I could go into other fulfilled prophesies, but I see little reason to belabor the point. Religion is falsifiable, whereas parts of its truths can be confirmed.

The same holds for science. Science doesn't so much prove things as it disproves their contrary. In this way, we can use logic to come to scientific law. This is useful, but it has much less to do with religion than might be supposed. The best example of a conflict between the two involves the very silly Young Earth Creationists and the rest of us who doubt a literal account of the (first) creation story of Genesis. I've always thought that the fact that there were two creation stories should give one pause to take one or the other literally. In any event, it would be absurd to let a few wayward fundamentalist serve as one's guide to religion.

People also point out that evolution in general is not compatible with Christianity. Within certain boundaries, this is a false perception. Moreover, it overstates the extent to which evolution must be accepted by the logical or rational man. Certain facets of evolution have been demonstrated; but macroevolution is still only a theory, a possible explanation of the given facts, or at least our limited understanding of them. On the subject of consciousness, science can help us little, Julian Jaynes's quixotic attempt notwithstanding. More importantly, evolutionists will never be able to explain where matter came from, or why it exists at all.

Which brings me to the most important point regarding faith: human existence requires it. I did not say man must believe in God, but he must believe in something. The first thing a student of philosophy learns is that we can know very little. We exist; cogito ergo sum. After that... it's a matter of choosing among very plausible, but ultimately unprovable, assertions. I can't even prove that my friend exists. This could all be one tremendous mind game. Absurd? Undoubtedly. But not necessarily any less logical than its alternative.

If I had to succinctly explain why I have faith, I would say because it is necessary. If I had to explain why I believe in the creed professed by the Catholic Church, I would say that it makes as much logical sense as the fact that my friend exists. I'm not attempting to be trite. A number of things point to both conclusions. I can't prove either, but I can offer a summary in defense of both.

Maybe some day I'll explain why I believe, but I'm afraid it would be a rambling and largely incoherent collection of seemingly unconnected things. For now, I will add only this. Insofar as I am logical, it is because of the Church, and because of God's grace, which gave me the Faith to believe. Chesterton once described the Church as a map, with all of the bad roads of human thought clearly marked. In this way, the Catholic can avoid the heresies of the past, which are, not thoughts which the Church doesn't like, but thoughts which are not in accord with the Truth, at least not completely. Insofar as I've been able to avoid--Chesterton again--"the degrading slavery of being a child of [my] age", it is because, not in spite of, the Church.

I hope that helps. I wish my friend all the best of luck in his search for Truth. Seek, and ye shall find.


hoosiertoo said...

Someone else read Jaynes? I guess I didn't do all the good drugs after all.

For a real howler look up a book called "American Genesis." It's far more entertaining than the Out of Africa scenario.

A Wiser Man Than I said...

A good friend recommended it to me, and I'm bad at turning down challenges. I can't say I was impressed, but I give him props for at least addressing an important issue. Man, that was a bizarre book.

troutsky said...

John offered an opinion, not a proof. Logic is an equation."It is, therefore it should be" does not cut it.

A Wiser Man Than I said...

John offered an opinion, not a proof.

I didn't use the word proof in this post. Opinion is the wrong word, too. As an eyewitness testimony to the Crucifixion, John cannot be dismissed lightly. Moreover, the uniqueness of his Gospel, as compared with the synoptics, is the result of the careful lifetime reflection of a mystic.

Logic is an equation."It is, therefore it should be" does not cut it.

Fine. But we accept such "logic" in all other areas of life. Your statement is a good summary of belief in evolution. It's also the best you could say of Marx, though I would argue that the truth which is two thousand years old deserves especial consideration.

Lichanos said...

Well, I had the a similar reaction about Jaynes..."Somebody else read him?" I even met him. He was a lovely, engaging man, and a brilliant kook. Personally, I think the first two chapters of his book, where he discusses the nature of consciousness, are brilliant. After that...fantasy.

You made an odd claim, that the assertions of religion are falsifiable. You gave a valid example, i.e., finding the remains of Jesus would disprove the resurrection. Your treatment of this idea is flawed, however.

First of all, the fact that we have not found the remains of Jesus does not mean that the New Testament is true. We might find them tomorrow, eh? Second, it's not a good example, becuase you and I both know that any claim that the remains of Jesus had been found would be dubious at best, probably a fraud, and impossible to verify conclusively. Jesus never gave any one a cheek swab for DNA testing.

So, we are left with the fact that while some claims of any religion are, in principle, falsifiable, even if in fact they will not and cannot be put to the test, many claims, including the most fundamental, are NOT falsifiable. For example, Muslims claim that the Koran is the written record of divine communications with Mohammed. (I think this is true of Islam, but it hardly matters for my argument.) How on earth can this be tested? Thomas Paine made the same argument in The Age of Reason when he pointed out that revealed religion is revealed to one person only, and that experience is private and unverifiable.

I respect the point of view of believers that they can have their faith and science too by avoiding "silly" literalist fantasies - and I'm not going to go into a discussion of the nature of faith here - but you have a mistaken concept of what science is and how it works.

Finally, you say that you have faith because you "must". Human existence "requires" it. Of course, I'll point out that I have none, and yet I exist! And you will, no doubt, resort to the old saw that I have "faith in something." Maybe science? Maybe that the sun will rise tomorrow? But then I will try and remind you that if I call that faith, I would be using the word to mean something very different than what you mean. will either think about it, or you will start all over again telling me that I am, in the end, a religious person...even though I totally reject any notion of God.

A Wiser Man Than I said...


"Brilliant kook" sounds about right for Jaynes. I'm humored that so many of us have read such a bizarre book.

I should have said that certain religious claims are theoretically falsifiable. It's extremely unlikely that anyone could find Christ's body today, even if it is lying in a tomb somewhere.

The same cannot be said about the time period around which the Resurrection allegedly occurred. It would have been fairly easy for the Pharisees to disprove the Resurrection; they simply needed to produce Jesus' body.

This doesn't mean the Resurrection has been proved true; absence of proof not being proof of absence and all that. But it's still theoretically falsifiable.

It would please me if you can go into my "mistaken concept of what science is and how it works".

I take faith to mean a belief in that which cannot be proved. Aside from one's own existence, there is little we can believe without faith. This doesn't mean you're religious, or that since you believe--quite reasonably--that your senses are valid, and that other people exist, etc. you may as well believe in God. That would be a very silly "proof".

My point was only to explain the insufficiency of "logic". We have to take certain first principles on faith before we can logically deduce anything.

Lichanos said...

I'm humored that so many of us have read such a bizarre book.
Maybe we should be scared that we all read it...are we all nuts?

Regarding resurrection and falsifiability, yes, in principle it was, but for the reasons I gave, it's a problematic example. Your remarks seem on point to me. I wonder if some religious killgjoy did stroll over to Calvary to see the body of the "saviour" and have a derisive chuckle over it, could we ever know about it? To such sceptics of the time, the followers of Jesus were just another bunch of nuts not worth bothering much about.

Regarding your question about science:

Yes, we have to go outside of logic to "faith." We can't prove that the sun will rise tomorrow...except by waiting. We can't prove that the Law of the Conservation of Energy will always hold true...except by testing it constantly and waiting for the refutation that never comes. It always is confirmed, as is Darwin's theory. So, yes, science is a mix of deduction - what most people think of as logic, i.e., reasoning from first principles - and induction, which establishes those first principles by experience.

Hume brilliantly showed the problems with induction, i.e., that it is NOT the proof that some thought. The modern take on this, e.g. Karl Popper, is that yes, we can't prove these first principles, or even the second or third principles - there might always be a miracle or supernatural event that would void them utterly - but we develop a body of theory and practice based on what we observe, and what we reason from it, and we move forward. As long as we are not contradicted, we are on firm ground. We the contradiction appears, back to the drawing board.

Scientific knowledge is ALWAYS tentative (I have posted on this point at my blog: see "One for Our Side!") but when a theory has been confirmed over and over and over again, we accept it as fact...always with the condition that we are ready to abandon it should new evidence arise. This is QUITE different from religious faith, no? Not at all the same thing.

To belittle scientific ideas as "just a theory" is to misunderstand the nature of the scientific method. Science does not seek certainty, or Ultiimate Truth. It seeks truth as defined by the best technique we have for figuring out how the universe works. (What it means is something else again.) Those things which cannot be treated with the scientific method cannot yield SCIENTIFIC knowledge. Of course, it's not the only sort of knowledge...but if you are trying to figure out how the universe came about, it's the only kind that's relevant.

Finally, science does not try to explain everything. That fact that there are things that cannot be known (now, or perhaps ever) is not a problem. Science only seems MORE knowledge, not ALL knowledge.

So, faith of the type that you describe, is totally unnecessary for science. And for life, mine atleast.

A Wiser Man Than I said...

Maybe we should be scared that we all read it...are we all nuts?

It's quite likely.

To such sceptics of the time, the followers of Jesus were just another bunch of nuts not worth bothering much about.

We have the account of the Roman centurion, a skeptic as it were, claiming that "Truly this was the Son of God." Theoretically spurious, if so, it demonstrated a great deal of foresight.

It always is confirmed, as is Darwin's theory.

I don't want to get into the evolution debate, which rather bores me to be honest, but surely Darwinism isn't "scientific" in the sense that it was developed based on the scientific method. It is, I will grant, a possible explanation for what may have occurred. Nothing more.

Scientific knowledge is ALWAYS tentative

The fact that you realize this makes you far more reasonable than most of the science fetishists running around, insisting we must believe in their latest pet theory.

This is QUITE different from religious faith, no? Not at all the same thing.

Sort of. I would hope that most religious folks would quit their religion if it were disproved by facts. I certainly hope I would. A religion is no good unless it is true.

The question, then, is whether the leap to first principles is comparable to the leap to belief in God. The chasm between the two seems very small from my vantage point, but I could see how this wouldn't hold true from everyone's point of view. (I'm not trying to be a relativist, merely courteous.)

Finally, science does not try to explain everything.

Agreed. I think faith comes in when one asserts the opposite, falling into the fallacy of scientism, or--please don't hit me--when one asserts that God does not exist. Mere agnosticism, on the other hand, wouldn't require any such faith.

Lichanos said...

The fact that you realize this makes you far more reasonable than most of the science fetishists...
Thanks. Stupidity knows no boundaries. All races, creeds, colors, and ethnicities are free to take part.

...but surely Darwinism isn't "scientific" in the sense that it was developed based on the scientific method...

I haven't the foggiest notion of what you mean here. Darwin was an extremely careful and conscientious scientist, and his work shows tremendous grasp of and attention to detail in evidence, experiment, and argument. Any "leaps of faith" he made were done provisionally, in the hope and belief that they would be confirmed later, as they were. He understood his theory would rise or fall on that basis.

He was one of the greatest scientists, pure and simple, in the history of civilization.

A Wiser Man Than I said...

He was one of the greatest scientists, pure and simple, in the history of civilization.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't Darwinism, at a macro level, no more than a theory that explains how things might have happened? Wouldn't the scientific method require that we evolve animals in the lab to test his theory?

Lichanos said...

Wouldn't the scientific method require that we evolve animals in the lab to test his theory?

This is one possible test, not the only one. Certainly, we would expect to see results consistent with this possibility.

In fact, the experiment has been done many times. In addition, the phenomenon has been observed many times in experiments intended to prove related points. One observable, but non-experimental case of this is the functioning of your body's immune system. Of course, the experiments are done with lower level organisms that go through many generations quickly, but that is not a theoretical problem. Only foolish people expect to look into a monkey cage and see a man evolving!

The best explanation of evolutionary theory for non-scientists that I know is the short book by Ernst Mayr, "What Evolution Is." It even has a nifty FAQ section. He was one of the towering figures in 20th century biology.

A Wiser Man Than I said...

Only foolish people expect to look into a monkey cage and see a man evolving!

Agreed. But over time, say, a couple of decades, we might be able to see speciation in labs, right?

I'm adding the book to the long queue. Evolution isn't one of my interests, so it might take some time to get to it, but it's on there.

Anonymous said...

Hi Eric,

I suspect that I may be too late on this one, but I just found the blog and, as I can never resist a good debate about religion:

You're right that we cannot avoid commitment to a large set of beliefs not subject to logical or abstractly rational proof. Nevertheless, it seems to me that there is a substantive difference between, on the one hand, those beliefs that we are compelled to adopt because they are the necessary preconditions of practical activity or rational discourse, and, on the other, those beliefs that we may endorse, repudiate, or blithely ignore according to our contingent circumstances and inclinations.

That my friend exists is a belief of the first class; that I will, upon my death, find myself somewhere in the Christian afterworld is a belief of the second class. The truth-status of the first class entails nothing about members of the second class, which must in each case be evaluated on their own merits. You recognize this, of course, but I would nevertheless maintain that it is disingenuous of you to conflate my faith in the persistent stability of the ground beneath my feet with your faith in the Resurrection.

As I see it, the issue ought to be framed, not in terms of any putative opposition between logic and faith -- or, for that matter, between science and religion -- but just in terms of *evidence*. People who disbelieve in God do so, not out of reverence for any abstract ideal of logical rigor, but quite simply for lack of credible evidence to the contrary. You agree with me in rejecting some of these abstract oppositions, but you then immediately proceed to invoke them again in order to justify religious faith. Or have I missed a step?

(On a bit of a side-note, I would also be curious to hear you explain what you mean by "logic" and the sense in which your "being logical" depends upon the Church.)

I should add, all disagreements aside, that I've enjoyed browsing the blog, and I look forward to some good discussion.