Thursday, February 25, 2010

On Faith and Knowledge

In my last post, I discussed the nature of my skepticism regarding claims of God, miracles and the supernatural. It's a response to the common theist argument that I'm being dogmatic, closed-minded, and that mine is just as much a matter of faith as theirs. Beyond the fact that this tu quoque* is not an argument, it does make me want to talk, again, about the question how do you get your knowledge?

When it comes to truth claims, again, I have two First Principles: first, that a claim should not be accepted until it has been demonstrated. Second, truth should be constant for all observers. We live in a world where journalistic balance requires two talking heads from either side of any issue to go on television and argue with each other for five minutes. We think of understanding of issues involves my version, your version, and the truth somewhere in the middle.

It doesn't always work that way, though, particularly in formal argumentation. In fact, the third of the Logical Absolutes is the Law of the Excluded Middle for statements of truth. For example, the statement "God exists" is either true, or it is false, not both at the same time and not any kind of halfway. One of the two possibilities is necessarily wrong. Theists make the claim that one can obtain knowledge through faith, and I propose that this claim is false.

What is "faith?" The apostle Paul wrote that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. I agree. Paul is saying that to have faith is to act as if your belief is true. He says "assurance," "conviction," regarding things hoped for, and not seen. He instructs us to treat hopes as certain and to use certainty as truth, without confirmation or evidence.

This is a bit of a tonal shift in the bible, and to me it is an indication that the writer of those words lived during a time when paradigms were beginning to change. If Moses ever saw a burning bush, a pillar of fire, or parted a sea, he would be past Paul’s definition – his faith would be the assurance of past experience, the conviction of things seen in broad daylight. In the Old Testament, faith generally meant "loyalty and obedience to God." The faith of Abraham was not in the strength of his belief, but in his willingness to obey God's command to sacrifice his son. This theme is lost when read with the New Testament definition in mind, as most Christians will. (I can’t speak for other religions but I note that “Islam” means “submission” to the will of Allah.)

It’s only in those writings of the first and second century that we get this notion that faith includes, even is defined by, credulity to the uncorroborated. Think about it—the early Christian writings were all both created and promulgated by faith communities organized around a single supposed miracle, that the Son of God died, and then rose again. At the time, few believed, nobody could prove, and--even though accounts of it include mentions of an earthquake, an eclipse, and the walking dead—the subject of whom had quickly vanished without a trace. The nature of this miracle was such that it was not obedience, but belief, that defined one’s faith.

Consider the miracles attributed to Jesus during his lifetime. If they ever happened, then I'd argue that the Disciples did not need purely Pauline faith. And yet, as Jesus is walking on the proverbial water, a patently undeniable display of power, the focus is placed on Peter’s doubt. The story, first written decades after Jesus’ death, says that when he tried to walk on water with Jesus, he started to sink, and Jesus chided him for his lack of faith. Was it not immediately demonstrated that Jesus had the power to keep him above the water? At that point, did Peter not possess both belief and knowledge? I’m sure it’s plausible that Peter had a Luke Skywalker moment to say “I don’t believe it,” with Jesus’ “O ye of little faith” serving as Yoda’s “That is why you fail,” but surely it is easier to accept that which you’ve seen yourself than, as Paul tells us, to believe without ever seeing.

If faith is a valid means to obtain knowledge of the real truth, then we should expect users of faith to reach somewhat similar conclusions about the important questions that go under the heading of “matters of faith.” It nearly goes without saying that this is false. We have over 30,000 different denominations of Protestantism alone, plus Catholics, Orthodox, Islam, Hinduism; the list goes on and on. We cannot even accept this as agreement on the claim "God Exists," because the attributes each faith and even each believer assign to God are mutually contradictory, and thus impossible.

It’s worse than the joke about the doting mother watching the marching band: “Oh, look at my Johnny, he’s the only one in step!” In the case of faith, not only is nobody in step, they’re playing off different sheet music, different meter, different tempo, their instruments are tuned for incompatible scales and their maps of the parade routes are wildly different. While this doesn't prove that all of them are wrong in their beliefs, we do know that if we have 100 marchers then at best 99 of them are wrong, and faith doesn’t tell us which it is, any more than you could judge the correct strain of music from the marching band cacophony.

It necessarily tells us that faith is capable of producing a false conclusion. It tells us that if we go on faith, we have no assurance we aren’t wrong, that somebody or nobody else has the right answer. This shouldn't come as a surprise--after all, we basically are talking about believing in god because you believe in god. If you accept a claim on the basis of accepting of the claim, it's circular, invalid. If you have an unsound syllogism you can "prove" nearly anything. Almost any theistic claim to demonstrate god's existence is going to begin with this presupposition that god exists, asserting that the emotion of certainty is actually real.

And as far as methodological naturalism goes? It generates internally consistent, testable, correctable models of the reality which we experience. It allows consensus to be built. If people disagree over facts, it allows for one person to be proven wrong. It generates new questions. It opens up areas about which we know nothing, giving further opportunities for our knowledge to expand. Whenever unanswered questions have begged the intercession of a higher power, further inquiry has unlocked the puzzles.

I reject the substitution of presupposition for knowledge. I have literally seen it argued that, in a non-theistic universe, trying to demonstrate the "evidence for 'evidence'" leads to infinite regress, whereas theists "know" that evidence exists because God is unchanging and thus the universe he created reflects that consistency. Note that the existence of god is simply asserted.

I'm fully aware of the limits of inductive reasoning, that science may approach truth without ever completely proving it. But on the principles that no claim should be accepted until it is demonstrated, and that truth should be constant for all observers, science does quite well. It has never even hinted at any need for a God hypothesis.

"Even if you can’t imagine the explanation, Sister, remember there are things beyond your knowledge. Even if you feel certainty, it is an emotion, not a fact."

--Father Flynn, from "DOUBT," written by John Patrick Shanley

*tu quoque: from the Latin, loosely translated, "I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I?”

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