Sunday, December 04, 2011

Faith or Insanity? Choose one, please.

Faith gets me to the top
of Mt. Tai.   
Nothing confuses modern skeptics more than the word "faith."  That Weapon of Mass Distraction Richard Dawkins once "explained" that the word means believing "not only in the absense of evidence, but even in the teeth of the evidence."  Almost every skeptic I have talked to about the matter seems to take some such silly definition for granted. 

In our respective rebuttals, Alister McGrath and I went to some lengths to explain that that is not really what Christians mean by "faith."  Dawkins read McGrath's book, but the evidence McGrath offered seemed to go in one ear and out the other.  He continues to hold, "in the teeth of the evidence," like a rottweiler with her favorite chew toy, to his original misunderstanding of what Christians mean by faith. 

In his book, The New Atheism, astronomer Victor Stenger cited ten passages from my chapter on faith in The Truth Behind the New Atheism, and managed to misread almost everything he quoted.   

Recently another skeptic challenged my on-line article, "Faith and Reason," which shows that great Christian thinkers (Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, Locke, etc) have almost always seen faith as essentially reasonable.  Among other things, he criticized the fact that I cited so many other thinkers, rather than offering my own arguments.  He read this as evidence I can't think for myself, but blindly follow the errors of famous Christians of the past. 

In a follow-up post I plan to delve into some of the errors various skeptics make about faith.  

But first, I'd like to offer a more positive, old explanation of faith, how it relates to reason, that I published long before that article, and several years before the New Atheists blew into town.  These are my "own thoughts" (if that matters) on faith, reason, and the fine art of sanity, from Jesus and the Religions of Man, published in 2000. (23-25.)   

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Four Levels of Faith

One of the most awesome sights I have seen on screen was an IMAX movie simply called Everest.  Avalanches seemed to sweep us from our seats as we watched.  Crevasses opened at our feet.  My four-year old son said, "I'm afraid" and "I want to go home."  But for months afterwards, he lobbied to see the film again.

The movie told the story of the ascent of Mt. Everest in 1996 by Ed Viesturs, two teammates, and their hard-working Sherpa guides, who carried the IMAX camera gear to the summit.  It showed the rigorous, and photogenic, training the team undertook climbing sea stacks and bicycling along the edge of red sandstone cliffs.  It followed the team to base camp, and recorded their tension as they helplessly monitored cell phones when another party was trapped in a storm high on the mountain, and nine climbers, some of them friends, tragically succombed to the elements.  Finally, it showed their awesome ascent of the great mountain, beginning in morning darkness lit by torches.  Even to watch the climbers ascend to the roof of the world one felt something of the "dread, distress and paradox" with which Kierkegaard insisted we must understand faith.

A mountain climb involves a marriage between faith and reason.  Trust is a serious thing on a mountain, not lightly given.  On rock faces, or glacial icefalls, each step must be tested and planned in advance.  Yet without trust, in one's eyes, muscles, partners, equipment, the pilot of the craft that ferries you to the base camp, and the people who have been there and made the maps, no one could approach the roof of the world on foot.  In religion, as in mountain climbing, faith is the most necessary and the most foolish thing.  When divorced from the rules of logic and evidence that rule all other fields of human endevour, we have seen, in the camps of Stalin, Pol Pott, and Jim Jones, that nothing is more dangerous.  Every step is a step of faith, but every step of blind faith may be the last.  When a leap is required, the ground that it will cover should be tested with every faculty at our disposal, with utter concentration and will to know what is there.

"I think, therefore I am," wrote the philosopher Descartes.  Nothing can be thought until the validity of thought in general is taken on faith.  By "taken on faith," I do not mean, "taken without reason," but "taken with reason, and with something else."  Any argument in favor of arguments begins with that which is its goal.  You cannot build the second story of a house until the first floor is framed.  Faith (not blind faith) is always the lower floor on which reasoning must rest.

Most of us would feel insulted if asked to prove the trustworthiness of our minds.  But it was precisely this problem that drove the philosopher David Hume and, later, the logical positivists, to a radical skepticism that in effect closed the door on intellectual endevour.  Hume argued that nothing could be proven from experience -- the fact that A followed B yesterday does not prove that it will again today.  In this regard western existentialists came close to reinventing radical Zen skepticism.  It was out of fear of the implied threat Hume's theories posed to science that Kant wrote a book whose title says it all: Critique of Pure Reason.  Mind by itself is deadly to mind.  As Chesterton poined out, not only is it possible to reason oneself into the asylum, those already there are often, on their own terms, persuasive reasoners.  "There is a thought that stops thought.  That is the only thought that ought to be stopped . . . Descartes said, 'I think, therefore I am.'  The philosophical evolutionist reverses and negates the epigram.  He says, 'I am not, therefore I cannot think.'" The first step of faith is to close our minds to the possibility that our minds are wholly delusional. 

The second step of faith is trust in our senses.  I hear the computer hum as I write.  I see snow blowing in from the hills to the north of campus, which, unfortunately, is not sticking.  The small of my back faintly reminds me that my posture is bad, and I had better change positions.  The linings in my nose, the hairs on the back of my hands, relate data to my brain: I had better open the window before the heater comes on and change the air. 

Liang Kai: "In the
chopping of wood,
and the carrying of
water, there lies the
wonderful Dao."
"How do you know this is not all an illusion?" Ask mystics, the world's most determined logicians.  "Can you prove that which you see, hear, smell, touch and taste exists outside your own mind?"  India has developed lifestyles that cultivate detachment from the material.  By lying on beds of nails or sitting in one spot for years without speaking, the sadhu shows he is drawing close to a world of which the senses know nothing.  In East Asia, on the other hand, Zen used the same logic to come to an opposite conclusion: "In the chopping of wood, there lies the wonderful Tao."  If the world is an illusion, why not simply live a normal life, work at a productive job, and play along?  Just remember, it is all a game.

On a practical level, most people who have not studied Zen koans or the Bhagavad Gita may see the debate as a quaint eccentricity of Eastern mystics and Western philosophers with too much time on their hands.  "No, I can't prove the reality of the world around me," they might admit.  "Maybe I am stuck, like Arnold Schwartzeneggar, in a 'Total Recall' universe that some corporation has implanted in my brain, or like Jim Carey, in a scripted TV series overseen by some god-like producer.  But why do I even think such lunacy?  I have work to do!"  With virtual reality and designer heavens beckoning like a cloud on the technological horizon, and scientists like Richard Dawkins arguing that thought itself is no more than a mechanical byproduct of evolution, however, this question of what we know and how we know it has gained new urgency.  I have on occasion found myself toying with the thought, "How do I know that I am really here?"  And then common sense, perhaps inspired by the voice of Descartes reaching across the centuries, provides half an answer, "Well, I think I am."  Laughing at solipsism, we choose to live by faith in this second sense, and in doing so, touch the world of phenomenal reality.

The third level of faith is confidence in other people. 

It has been suggested that the landing on the moon was staged in a Hollywood studio.  How can we know otherwise, except by faith? 

Faith in our teachers is increasingly open to verification as we grow older.  As a child, I relied on "what people say" for almost every fact I called my own, from where I was born to who my parents were, the existence of leptons (not to say Leprachauns), Labrador, and my own liver.  In high school biology I dissected a turtle and found a purplish object that resembled diagrams of the liver.  After graduation, I flew to Europe over a land of twisted bedrock and hidden lakes that lay where Lapland appeared on my map. I saw the world (a small part of it) for myself, and thus confirmed, and sometimes refuted, what my teachers had told me. 

For a mountain climber, the question of whether faith in other people is reasonable, is far from academic.  Were densely concentrated contour lines that suggested a cliff drawn in the right place?  Did the Nepali colonel who piloted the big Russian helicopter over glaciers and serrated peaks check the mechanics of the craft that morning with adequate care, or had he been drinking the night before? 

Is riding a bus, like,
 totally insane?
Only madmen live without faith, but only fools live by blind faith, faith that cares nothing for external verification.  We cross-examine witnesses, sip before we swallow, cut cards and check phone bills.  Yet even by taking a bus, we entrust our lives to armies of strangers: engineers, factory workers, the driver, the drivers of oncoming vehicles.  As Chesterton said of natural law, we don't count on the mental stability of our neighbors, we bet on it.  The bet doesn't always pay off: ten minutes after I crossed a bridge in North Seattle on a bus, a passenger shot to death the driver of a bus coming the other way, plummetting the bus forty feet to the ground from the same bridge.  I continue to get on buses and cross bridges, not because I have a death wish, nor because I have scientifically proven that my fellow passengers are trustworthy, but because I am sane enough to take a reasonable chance.  (A sanity based, in my case, on an ultimate trust in God.)  Anyone determined to believe only what he had seen for himself would walk to work, walk up the stairs (carefully checking for loose joists), and look for tacts on his seat as he sat down -- or stay home all day and worry about burglars.  Such a complete reliance on reason and the lower levels of faith is the mark not of a scientific genius, but of a mental breakdown.

As Chesterton put it, we say the insane have "lost their minds," but in reality, it is not reason they have lost.  They often have excellent reasons for mistrusting people, often as a result of a stormy childhood.  It is faith they have misplaced. 

Together these three levels of faith constitute the foundations of life: faith in our reason, trust in our senses, and confidence in other people.  They are the grounds on which we stand, the light by which we see the world, and the legs which allow us to walk down the street and live our lives in a dangerous world.

The fourth level of faith, religious faith, is not then a separate form of consciousness or an eccentricity of peculiar people.  Nor should it involve suspension of critical thinking.  It is part of a natural human continuum which we accept every day.  And, like lower forms of faith, religious faith can and must be tested by reason.


Dr H said...

"Alister McGrath and I went to some lengths to explain that that is not really what Christians mean by "faith." "

Why would Christians mean something different by the word "faith" than pretty much everyone else in the world?

And what word do Christians use for "belief without evidence," which is what pretty much everybody else seems to mean by "faith"?

Do we really need a separate, parallel English vocabulary to successfully converse with Christians?

David B Marshall said...

Dr. H: As I show, we've been using the word this way for 2000 years. If some moderns want to use it for some other purpose, it's up to them to justify their linguistic eccentricity.

Meanwhile, we have terms like "gullibility," "naivite," and, yes, "blind faith" to use in those other contexts.