The Tension between Faith and Reason

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Faith or Reason

Unless the meaning of a word is limited (defined), that word means nothing.  For example, in a South Park episode, Space Aliens take the boys to their home planet, Marklar.  On Marklar, every person, place, and thing is named Marklar.  At one point, Stan explained to the head Marklarian:  “These Marklars came to Marklar to take your Marklar back to Marklar.”

Inadequate definition makes language gibberish.

If something contradicts itself, it cannot exist.  For example, if I assert the chair you’re sitting on consists of nothing but metal and also assert it consists of nothing but wood, can both statements be true?  One could be true, or neither, but not both.  Does the term “God” contradict itself?  It hinges on the definition.

Words can be defined positively (what something is) and/or negatively (what something is not).

Start with negative definitions.  God is not limited geographically.  He can exist here and in Alpha Centauri simultaneously.  This is useful, because it differentiates “God” from “humans,” who can only exist in one place at one time.  Also, God is not limited temporally.  He can affect events happening now, or in the sixteenth century, unlike humans who cannot change the past.

Negative definitions alone are insufficient; they don’t differentiate the concept “God” from the concept “nonexistence,” since nonexistence also has no geographical or temporal limits.

To create a useful term, “God” must be defined positively, not just negatively.  For Christians, the standard definition of God is is omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence.  Do these characteristics contradict each other?  If they do, God (defined this way) cannot exist.

Reason and faith are mutually exclusive.  An analysis that uses both can be broken down to more basic questions, until reason and faith separate.  As an analogy, consider a black and white television set.  Do you see shades of gray?  Look more closely.  Gray resolves into white dots on a black background.  It’s a matter of perspective.

In everyday life, focusing on dots takes too much time and energy.  We take shortcuts and use faith, because that lets us stop thinking and go on with our lives.

As a practical matter, some problems can only be grasped intuitively, not logically.  The example used in EST (Erhard Seminars Training) was walking.  Does anyone fully understand how to walk?  No one who walks can explain how he does it.  (In the Training, some people covered different parts of the process in impressive detail.  The trainer listened patiently, and then asked “how does that work?”  As this process continued, their explanations became progressively more complex, until they finally reached the limits of their knowledge and had to admit they didn’t know.)

This doesn’t make walking a mystical process.  In principle, it can be understood in detail, but we don’t need to understand how it works to do it.  We stride down the street, cuffing people aside:  “Make way for your betters, peasants!  We don’t explain!  We just walk!”

When reason and faith contradict each other, which do you believe?  Accepting one necessarily rejects the other.  The point of faith is to believe in something regardless of evidence to the contrary.

When reason and faith agree on a particular question, faith is unnecessary.  Reason does the heavy lifting.

What if someone uses reason to reach a conclusion later proved false?  He is free to change his position.

What if, instead, he comes to his conclusion using faith?  He cannot change.  As far as the faithful are concerned, the original position must be correct and there is no possible evidence that could contradict it.  (For example, many believe fossils were planted by God to test their faith rather than being evidence of evolution.)

This lack of flexibility is the weakness of faith.  Every time people who rely on faith make a mistake, they are stuck with it.  People who rely on reason and make a mistake still have a chance to fix it.  (There’s no guarantee of this, however.  Sometimes people become emotionally attached to an idea.  When new evidence contradicts it, they often focus on propping up their old position rather than opening their minds to a new one.  Intelligence does not guarantee clear thinking.  The smarter you are, the better reasons you can think up as to why you’re right.)

As the philosopher, Karl Popper emphasized, only theories open to experimental refutation (that are falsifiable) are worthy of being considered good science.

For example, nanotechnology involves creating molecules to spec, atom by atom.  Scientists and engineers expect this to happen within the next twenty to thirty years.  It will then be possible to create artificial neurons inside the actual neurons in a brain.  These neurons can have the same connections and follow the same rules as their biological counterparts.  They will be able to replace existing neurons and duplicate their functions precisely enough that the rest of the brain will not be able to distinguish between an artificial neuron and the biological one it replaced.  Once all neurons have been replaced, it will be possible to move the mind (the neural pattern) into a computer.

How do we know this hasn’t already happened?  Are we living in cyberspace?  We can’t trust memories, because they could have been planted.  We can’t trust our senses, because every sensation could be spoon-fed to us.  We can’t even trust logic.  After a chain of reasoning, the computer could change our conclusion, convincing us we had proved the exact opposite of what we actually proved.

Is the idea that we’ve been uploaded into a computer without our knowledge useful?  Can we use this to advantage?  The reason we cannot is that this idea is not falsifiable, even in theory.  It’s not possible to devise an experiment that could provide any evidence.  If we assume we’re living in virtual reality, do we act differently?  If we can’t determine rules, we can’t follow them.  We have no idea how to act.  Anything we do (or fail to do) could make our situation worse.

In Greek (which is the root of much of our language), when the letter “a” is attached to a word as its first letter, that new word is a negation of the original.  For example, “moral” behavior follows a code of conduct, whereas “amoral” behavior follows no code.  (This is different from “immoral” behavior, where a person understands that code, gives it consideration and then deliberately violates it.)

A theist asserts God exists.  An atheist does not assert God exists.

Agnosticism is not a middle ground between theism and atheism.  It refers to knowledge – a completely different subject.  On a particular question, for example, whether or not God exists, an agnostic does not claim knowledge.

Belief in God No belief in God
Claims knowledge Gnostic Theist Gnostic Atheist
No claim of knowledge Agnostic Theist Agnostic Atheist

If the term “God” contradicts itself, I am a gnostic atheist (I know there is no God).  If that term is not self-contradicting, I am an agnostic atheist; I have no opinion.

George Hamilton Smith, author of Atheism:  The Case Against God, takes the position that if a person makes an assertion he must provide evidence for it.  If he fails to do so, he should not be considered a serious thinker; he’s just flapping his gums.

On the other hand, if he makes no assertion, he need provide no evidence.  “I don’t know,” is a legitimate position.  “I don’t see how it’s possible for anyone to ever know,” is also a legitimate position.  (If someone doesn’t qualify it and says:  It’s definitely not possible for anyone to ever know, now he’s made an assertion and we await his reasons.)

Does an omniscient being have power to change events?  Any change would make things different from the way He knows they are.  (Not the way they are now, but the way they will be after final adjustments.)  Having total knowledge means zero power to change; omniscience and omnipotence contradict each other.

Many theists assert God gives us free will.  If God knows everything, he necessarily knows every choice we will ever make.  It is, by definition, impossible to make different choices.  In what sense is this free will?

(A Jehovah’s Witness once told me God did know everything, but since He chooses to hide this knowledge from Himself, we do have free will, after all.  This redefines God as a being without total knowledge, which is not mainstream Christian thinking.  For that matter, it may not be Jehovah’s Witness thinking.  I think the question caught him by surprise and that was the best he could come up with under pressure.)

Does it make sense for God to hold people accountable for their sins?  Since God knows everything, He necessarily knows exactly how a person will behave from conception to death.  At what point did responsibility for thoughts and actions shift from Creator to creation?

The only religion I know of that addresses this contradiction is Calvinism.  They believe God determines before conception whether someone is destined for Heaven or Hell and one’s actions in life cannot change this destination.  It has the virtue of being internally consistent, though a bit rough on the damned.

A person could take the position that he has an experience, which, for lack of a better term, he calls “God.”  He may acknowledge that if he tries to define “God,” he’ll contradict himself and appear foolish.  He believes his experience is valid, but he can’t explain it in terms you understand.

He may well be right, but whatever insight he has is trapped inside his head, unavailable to the rest of us.

Does it make sense to pray?  Since God knows everything, he knows what you’re going to ask before you ask it.  Most theists assert God’s plan is too complex to be understood by mortal minds.  When someone has cancer and prays not to die, he’s praying to the being that gave him the tumor in the first place.  It may be God’s plan for him to die.  (For that matter, the plan might involve prolonged agony.)  If the supplicant asks for something already in the plan, prayer is unnecessary.  If he asks for something contradicting the plan, why expect his prayer to be answered?

What about morality?  Would people commit terrible crimes if they did not fear eternal damnation?  Some deeply religious people have done impressively evil things.  Consider the Spanish Inquisition, Salem witch trials, and the Crusades.  On the other hand, atheists, such as Mao Tse-Tung and Joseph Stalin, killed tens of millions of people.

Whether someone preys on or cooperates with his fellow men is independent of whether or not he believes God exists.  Who doesn’t know an atheist who’s a good person or a theist who’s evil (or vice versa)?

Billions of years of evolution have shaped human beings to have individual goals and desires.  Contrast our species with ants.  Evolution shaped ants in a radically different way to fill a radically different niche.  An ant’s sole goal is to serve the needs of the anthill.  It makes no more sense to think of an ant as a person than it does to think of one of your body’s cells as a person.

This is not a function of intelligence.  In the outstanding book Starship Troopers, by Robert A. Heinlein (decades later made into a contemptibly clueless movie), humanity’s enemies (the Bugs) were collectivist by nature.  They were technologically advanced, with computers, nuclear weapons, and faster-than-light spaceships, yet in spite of their advanced intelligence, individual Bugs had no personal goals or desires.

The anthill is the person, not the ant, just as the human, not the cell, is the person.

Given that human beings are individuals, by nature, Natural Rights theorists argue that the only social systems that can work smoothly must reflect this reality.  Trying to impose collectivist rights on humans makes no more sense than trying to impose individual rights on ants.

This leads to the idea that relationships between individuals must be reversible to be legitimate.  If it’s acceptable for you to do something to (or require something of) me, than it’s equally acceptable for me to do or require the same of you.

Rights exist only in context.  By definition, a right cannot be taken away, as opposed to a privilege, which can.  (In Starship Trooper, Heinlein asks rhetorically:  “What right to life does a man have who is drowning in the Pacific?”  In that context, he has none.)

Individual rights exist only in a social context.  They are not granted by God or the State.  They are acknowledged by other individuals who see their own interests served by a system respecting those rights.

Theistic religion has been a powerful force throughout history.  Why?  It asks big questions.  Why do we exist?  What is the meaning of life?  What happens when we die?  Inquiring minds want to know.  (Whether or not their answers make sense is a different issue.)

English philosopher and Franciscan monk William of Occam (ca. 1285-1349) popularized a common principle in medieval philosophy now known as Occam’s razor.

“Plurality should not be posited without necessity.”  In other words, every assumption added to a hypothesis makes it less likely to be true.

If Occam’s Razor has no validity, an arbitrarily complex explanation is just as plausible as the simplest one.  For example, to explain a forest fire, we could look for a careless smoker.  Alternatively, perhaps a giant cockroach assembled a robot from parts made by elves.  The elves were drunk and made defective parts.  The robot overheated, causing the fire.  Which explanation seems more likely?

Theists argue that natural laws fail to explain existence.  They assert the universe could not create itself – that cause and effect are only valid back to the first cause (the Big Bang).  Therefore, a supernatural being must have created it.

Cosmologist Stephen Hawking (the wheelchair guy) put it this way:  “When the anomalies of nonexistence are summed up, what remains is existence.”

Occam’s Razor suggests if one accepts the possibility of something causing itself then it is more likely the universe caused itself, rather than God, because this requires fewer assumptions.  (The extra assumption is that God would first need to create Himself and only then create the universe.)

Could God create the universe if He wasn’t more complex than His creation?  Which is more likely to arise from non-existence?  A more complex thing or a less complex thing?

Theists believe God assigns each person a purpose.  Since it’s impossible to know the mind of God, each person must have faith that he knows his own assigned purpose, or must accept someone else (perhaps a priest) as an authority in the matter.  My view is humans, being individuals by nature, should each determine their own purpose.

At the core, everyone wants the same thing from life:  to make a difference.  The trick is to find an appropriate way to do so.

As for what happens after death, I suspect oblivion, but won’t know until getting there (and then only if not oblivious).  Do people believe in an afterlife (or reincarnation) because they want to believe, or because there is evidence?

Nanotechnology will allow people to live an extremely long time and in perfect health, even without moving to cyberspace.  Ultimately, however, we still face inevitable death – even if billions of years hence.

Many fear oblivion.  They find the idea of God and an afterlife comforting.  Should someone believe something because it’s comfortable or because it’s supported by evidence?

Why do people cling so tenaciously to the idea that God exists?  One reason is that since God knows everything, He necessarily knows when someone questions his faith.  There is no space inside a person’s head where he can sort things out privately.  Since God knows every thought, the doubter is on the slippery slope to damnation.  From that perspective, is there any safe course other than to stop questioning and think about something else?

Blaise Pascal was a famous French mathematician, philosopher, and theologian. He argued that reason can’t prove or disprove the existence of God.  Pascal’s wager was if atheists are correct, when we die nothing happens; nothing is lost.  However, if Christians are correct, nonbelievers spend eternity in Hell.  If you bet on Christianity and there is no God, you lose nothing.

George Hamilton Smith makes the point that this approach ignores the issue of intellectual integrity.  If you take one part of life and ignore reason, why stop there?  Why not stroll across a busy highway and rely on faith to keep you safe?

Smith offers a counter-wager, called “Smith’s wager,” with the following premises:

  1. The existence of a god, if we are to believe in it, can only be established through reason.
  2. Applying the canons of correct reasoning to theistic belief, we must reach the conclusion that theism is unfounded and must be rejected by rational people.

What if reason is wrong in this case?  People make mistakes.  What if there is a Christian God and He’s going to punish disbelievers for eternity?  Suppose you’re an atheist.  What are the possibilities?

If you’re right and there is no God, when you die you’ve lost nothing and have lived life with the correct position.

Or suppose God exists, but is not concerned with human affairs, like the God of traditional Deism.  He may have started the universe and then left it to run itself, in which case when you die you’ve lost nothing.

Let’s suppose God exists and is concerned with human affairs, but is a just God.  How could He punish an honest error of belief where there is no moral turpitude or wrongdoing involved?  If God created us and gave us reason as the basic means of understanding our world, would He not take pride in the conscientious and scrupulous use of reason on the part of His creatures, even if they made errors from time to time?  If God is just, we have nothing to fear.  He would not punish an honest error of belief.

Suppose God is unjust and will condemn us to Hell, regardless of whether mistakes were honest or not.  Is any injustice worse than punishing someone for an honest error of belief, when he has tried to the best of his ability to ascertain the truth?  A Christian may think he’s in a better position in case this kind of God exists, but he’s not.  Injustice is unprincipled behavior – behavior that’s not predictable.  If God is unjust and punishes sinners and disbelievers, then why not tell Christians they would be saved, only to punish them anyway?  What worse injustice could there be than that?  If God is willing to punish someone simply for an honest error of belief, why believe He won’t punish you if even if you do believe He exists?  If an unjust God exists, then we live in a nightmarish universe, but are in no worse position than the Christian.  (Think about the implications of the term “God-fearing.”)

Smith asserts one ought to wager on reason – that atheism is correct.  You won’t be able to do anything about an unjust God anyway, even if you accept Christianity.  Smith’s wager implies one should use reason and accept the logical consequence – in this case atheism.  If there’s no God, you’re correct; if there’s an indifferent God, you won’t suffer; if there’s a just God, you have nothing to fear from honest use of reason; and if there’s an unjust God, you have much to fear – but so does the Christian.

Atheism must always be considered within the wider context of respect for reason and truth.  This is the central point Smith hammers home.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and are not not necessarily either shared or endorsed by iPatriot.com.

Mark Pickens

Former U.S. Army Sergeant, serving from 1966 - 1969. Five time Libertarian Party candidate for office. Customer Service Manager for Fr33Minds.com (2010 - 2015).

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