Friday, February 09, 2007

Faith and Reason

I was wondering if anybody could shed light on what I regard as a puzzle. Do those who have faith have to arbitrarily stop reasoning beyond a certain point? In order to interpret what it is one has faith in, reason must be used but that same facility will also tell you that your faith is not based on sound evidence (by definition). So how is that delicate equilibrium maintained? Or is the situation, on closer inspection, no different to how things are for an agnostic like me?Some might want to argue that one needs faith in order to accept Reason without proof and that you can't prove the validity of Reason itself without circularity. However, rejection of Reason is self refuting, so I don't think one needs faith, in the ordinary sense of the word, to accept Reason on a rational basis without proof.
Of course, if your reason leads you to a position which you regard as compatible with your faith position there will be no risk of cognitive dissonance at the interface between faith and reason. But if, as I have, you come to the conclusion that there is no rational basis for belief in any of the religious truth claims, yet you still have faith, how does that work?

33 comments:

ephphatha said...

psiomniac, you said that "faith is not based on sound evidence (by definition)," and I think the reason for the puzzle is that your definition of "faith" is wrong. This article explains what faith really is.

Psiomniac said...

ephphatha,
Thanks for your response, I have read the article and was aware of this meaning of the term 'faith', not least because I had a dialogue with Paul about it a while back on his blog.
I am using 'faith' in the following sense:
"Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence."--from the American Heritage Dictionary. Sorry for any confusion caused. I imagine that you fall into the category of person that I refer to in the last paragraph, in that your reason leads you to a position that is compatible with your beliefs. This would fit with 'faith' as you would use the term. I'm afraid none of this sheds light on the puzzle for me but hey, it's early days.

John Bryden said...

It would appear that a faith that is divorced from reason is not of much use as a guide to living. In fact, such a "faith" seems more like the definition of fantasy, in contrast to real faith. Nevertheless, there is a power in religious faith that reaches beyond reason. (Not contrary to reason, but beyond it.) St. Paul said something like, "faith is the evidence of things unseen". In my understanding, this refers to a power of perception latent in the human soul, which is able to directly apprehend spiritual reality. Our outer eyes (in combination with the brain) are able to directly perceive the world about us, without going through tedious steps of reasoning in order to determine that nature of each object we see. A similar capacity exists at the spiritual level. This capacity is enlarged and developed through love for God and immersion in His Word.

John Bryden said...

correction: "the nature of each object that we see"

Psiomniac said...

John,
Thanks for your interesting input. I suppose the question I would have is, how do you know that you are apprehending something that is real?

John Bryden said...

Psi, one way of looking at it is that having faith in God is akin to falling in love (and staying in love). It is a sublime combination of knowing and feeling. Both heart and mind are both fully engaged in the process; these two faculties each supporting insights provided by the other. I've stated the idea briefly, interested to know whether it "gels" with you. - John

Psiomniac said...

John,
Yes I think that captures the nature of the emotional dimension very well and how it can work alongside reason.
On the other hand if reason leads you to realise that on balance, there is no rational basis for thinking that god exists, yet you still have faith, how does that work?

John Bryden said...

Psi,
If I understand your question correctly, it describes a person whose heart and head are in conflict. The heart wants to believe, but the head has reason not to believe. I think that firm faith would be impossible in such a situation:

"God has endowed man with intelligence and reason whereby he is required to determine the verity of questions and propositions. If religious beliefs and opinions are found contrary to the standards of science, they are mere superstitions and imaginations; for the antithesis of knowledge is ignorance, and the child of ignorance is superstition. Unquestionably there must be agreement between true religion and science. If a question be found contrary to reason, faith and belief in it are impossible, and there is no outcome but wavering and vacillation."
(Abdu'l-Baha)

On the other hand, your phrase, "no rational basis for thinking god exists", could be taken in a less emphatic sense than I have understood it above. This would be along the lines that the person considers there is no rational proof, nor any disproof either, that God exists. Some people are not big on "rational proofs" as the basis of their understanding of the world. Some individuals are more intuitive, for instance. Such a person might have firm faith arising from their intuitive perceptions. But even a highly intuitive person would be unlikely to have firm faith in beliefs that he or she finds actually contrary to reason.

Psiomniac said...

John,
I agree with your analysis here.
I would count those who think that the evidence for or against the existence of god is inconclusive as having a rational position that is compatible with faith.
It gets a bit more complicated when we consider particular notions of god, for example the traditional Christian god. Here there seem to be things that are extremely difficult to reconcile with reason, such as The Problem of Evil or the Triune Godhead. Perhaps subjective rationality accepts its own limitations.

John Bryden said...

Psio,

You have a good point in mentioning that rationality has its limitations. If human reason were a perfect instrument, philosophers (who are the experts on the use of reason), would always agree with one another. To the contrary, besides having many disagreements amongst themselves, philosophers even change their own minds, from time to time, on a given question.

The doctrine of the Trinity seeks to explain the ultimately mysterious question as to how God revealed Himself to humanity through the man Jesus. Obviously questions of this nature are at the outer limits of human understanding. A painting does not understand its painter. The
(human) creature cannot fathom the nature and doings of its Creator. Nevertheless I agree that the concept of the Trinity is often stated in a manner that defies reason. I came across an article on The Meaning of the Holy Trinity written by a priest of the Coptic Orthodox Church that you might find somewhat compatible with reason. I don't know if Protestants or Catholics would find his view acceptable or not. The Baha'i view, which is firmly monotheistic while also accepting the Divinity of Christ as a Manifestation of God, is explained by 'Abdu'l-Baha in a discourse he gave in answer to the question: "What is the meaning of the Trinity, of the Three Persons in One". (It is interesting that the Coptic Church article makes much use of the term "manifestation of God".) 'Abdu'l-Baha's own summation of His discourse is this: " The epitome of the discourse is that the Reality of Christ was a clear mirror, and the Sun of Reality—that is to say, the Essence of Oneness, with its infinite perfections and attributes—became visible in the mirror. The meaning is not that the Sun, which is the Essence of the Divinity, became divided and multiplied—for the Sun is one—but it appeared in the mirror. This is why Christ said, 'The Father is in the Son,' meaning that the Sun is visible and manifest in this mirror." (The whole discourse is only about a page in length.)

Concerning evil, existentially this is a bewildering problem. There is no way that a human being with a normal conscience can encounter terrible suffering and evil without feeling deep distress. However, the presence of evil in the world does not disprove the goodness of God. To fully expound this point would take quite a few words, so I will just quote the following extract from one of 'Abdu'l-Baha's talks on this subject: "Evil is non-existent; it is the absence of good; sickness is the loss of health; poverty the lack of riches. When wealth disappears you are poor; you look within the treasure box but find nothing there. Without knowledge there is ignorance; therefore ignorance is simply the lack of knowledge. Death is the absence of life. Therefore on the one hand we have existence; on the other, nonexistence, negation or absence of existence." In this perspective, evil only exists in the same sense that darkness exists as the absence of light. Where God is not present (figuratively speaking), evil will be found. A further dimension to the question is that material existence is not ultimate reality. The present world, with its pain and suffering, has a purpose in preparing us (training us) for the spiritual world that we will enter upon death.

There! No doubt I’ve opened up a pandora's box of further issues!

Psiomniac said...

John,
Thanks, those expositions on the trinity were interesting.
Also, I agree, the box is open. On the face of it the description of evil as an 'absence of good' seems inadequate.
When we pursue, to their logical conclusions, reasoned arguments involving inconsistencies in these accounts of the trinity or of evil, a theist may resort to saying that these things are beyond our understanding. This will not do though. If god is omnipresent, how can there be an absence of good? What is it in the figurative mode of speech that sorts this out? If god is omnipotent why did he not create us fully equipped for the spiritual realm?

John Bryden said...

Psio,

It’s enjoyable to engage with an incisive thinker such as yourself.

First, concerning “things beyond our understanding”, I think a middle path is best. Over-emphasising the mysterious obliterates the possibility of discussing anything intelligently. But some allowance must be made for the fact of life that many things are unknown to us, or even unknowable.

Concerning the omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence of God, etc., these are attributes traditionally attributed to Him. The subtle meaning of these terms needs to be understood. A modern form of belief in God might not adhere to the traditional understanding in all respects.

Belief in God is (among other things), a concept regarding the way that reality is structured. In reality as we find it, good and evil exist in degrees. A kind and competent doctor, we say is a good person; while a bloodthirsty tyrant we say is "bad" or "wicked". A country that is well governed, which fosters the wellbeing of its citizens, we regard as better than a country where the government is oppressive, or is so weak that anarchic violence breaks out regularly. The “goodness” of the doctor is ascribed to her positive qualities and characteristics, such as knowledge, kindness, professionalism, etc. The goodness in “good governance” is ascribed to the positive competencies of such a government. The evil in a tyrant is ascribed to greed, vaulting ambition, cruelty, etc. These negative qualities break out in a person whose positive, higher qualities have not developed, leaving their animalistic tendencies free reign. Poor governance is a manifestation of a lack of justice, justice being a high level form of order. For instance, democratic institutions have a foundation in justice, in that it is just that people have a say in how they are governed. What I’m driving at in these examples is that goodness exists in the world as we know it, in relative degrees. Where order exists on a higher level, we see a greater degree of goodness. Where there is entropy, disintegration, disorder, we see a lack of goodness, i.e. evil.

Noticing the order in the universe that allows goodness to exist in relative degrees, belief in God arises from the deduction that the source of the relative goodness that we know, must be Absolute Goodness. (This deduction can be spelt out in many steps, but here I only want to state the idea, without going into all the reasoning that holds it together.) In our world everything is relative, conditional, partial, imperfect. But the uncaused Cause of all things must be not relative but absolute; not conditional but unconditioned; not partial but complete; not imperfect but perfect. It is in this sense that God is omnipresent, omnipotent, etc. No spatial limit can be set on the Absolute being, so we say that He is everywhere present (omnipresent). Likewise with omniscience and omnipotence. But these are figurative expressions for a highly abstract concept. The point is that in the scheme of things as so described, all contingent beings are necessarily imperfect. Whatever positive attributes they (we) may possess are reflections of the Divine attributes of God, Who alone possesses them in their fullest degree.

The religious believer sees God’s omnipresence, not literally as if some kind of ethereal fluid pervading space, but reflected in all created things. The believer in God has a huge sense of wonder at the marvels contained in the nature of minerals, plants, animals, and above all, human beings. Also, that at the ultimate level, the universe (as the totality of all things), fully serves the purposes of God, which He alone knows. In this very highly abstract sense, everything works out for the best. We may not be able to perceive in every respect how it works out for the best, just as the child does not understand that a painful jab may save her from suffering an even more painful illness.

One of the Divine purposes that seems to be built into the structure of the universe is provision for human beings to have free will. In this context, human beings have the power to do good or evil, which means essentially to draw closer to God or to recede farther from Him. These human choices matter enormously, because they bear on our relationship with ultimate reality. But when we make the “wrong choice”, it does not vitiate the goodness of God, who in His mercy allows us the possibility of making such choices.

I hope that the above indicates that Theism describes reality as it is, not as we might wish it to be. What I have done here is put in my own words, ideas derived from the Baha’i writings. My personal explanations are of course, feeble by comparison with the sources I've drawn from. The only reason for setting out my thoughts is out of respect for the dialogue process of responding to a blog, and to make a bridge to other much more persuasive sources of ideas.

For further information, see:
Proofs and evidences of the existence of God (A chapter in the book by ‘Abdu’l-Baha, “Some Answered Questions”.)<

'Abdu'l-Baha's Tablet to Dr Forel

(Dr August Forel was a famous Swiss Scientist of the day. See Wikipedia article on Dr Forel. )

A beautifully written philosophical discussion on the existence of God and other related questions, by Canadian Baha’i mathematician William Hatcher, is his monograph,
Minimalism: A Bridge between Classical Philosophy and the Bahá'í Revelation. (Downloadable pdf file.) This is a closely-reasoned book of about 100
pages, so not for the faint-hearted, but well worth the effort of reading.

Psiomniac said...

John,
Thanks for your lucid response, particularly the clarification of omnipresence was helpful.

Your overall position seems to be one in which you accept the teleological and cosmological arguments for the existence of god as reasonable and any apparent anomalies, such as those in the free will theodicy, as being symptoms of our limited understanding.
One of the interesting things for me is how this contrasts with my own position when I reflect on the fact that we cannot both be right and we are both finite flawed beings. I wonder why I find the cosmological and teleological arguments to be obviously flawed, the free will idea totally unconvincing and the 'it will work out for the best even though we don't understand it' move to lack explanatory power and yet you take such a different view.

John Bryden said...

Psio,

Your most recent comments suggested a wide range of thoughts I could offer in response, but the most simple and direct answer I can give for my contrasting view is, in a word, "Baha'u'llah". It is through study of the life and teachings of Baha'u'llah that I have been able to develop a firm faith in God. Through the Baha'i teachings I found so many questions answered and so many difficulties resolved, that confidence in the mercies of God seemed to arise for me, naturally and unforced. This is the common experience of a great many people I know, who have travelled the same road. I recommend dispassionate investigation of the Baha'i teachings to anyone with a keen desire to understand the meaning and purpose of life. This is the plainest answer I can give to the puzzle you mentioned.

Fun With Formal Ideas said...

Oh, go one then.


Reason is the slave of the passions. The end of reason is not to reason but to satisfy. Once a person is satisfied then they need reason only so far as to maintain that satisfaction.


Best regards,


Recondite Revenant.

Psiomniac said...

Welcome Recondite Revenant.

That is the puzzling thing for me. If your slave delivers answers that are unwelcome you can have them killed and just get another. You can't do that with Reason.

Fun With Formal Ideas said...

Thank you for the welcome.


Why on Earth should I kill a slave for fulfilling the tasks I assign them?


(Now, that's the picture and the house name sorted out. Where shall I put the Aspidistra?)

Fun With Formal Ideas. said...

There's a thought; are you receiving answers which you do not like?

Psiomniac said...

That's it exactly. Reason is slave to the passions but, being Reason it must follow the principles of logic and robust procedures to assess evidence. So I send Reason off to faithfully return with the answer I want, namely that eternal bliss awaits. But Reason cannot deliver.

Fun With Formal Ideas. said...

So you are looking for a backdoor to belief?

Psiomniac said...

It isn't that I want to believe, RR, via the front back or side door. It is that I want it to be true. And if it were, you would have to admit that there was more to it than a function of language.
As far as I can tell, I have no access to whether it is true other than by assessing the limited evidence available. my honest assessment is that the likelihood of the existence of god is in inverse proportion to how detailed the specification for the god in question is.

Fun With Formal Ideas. said...

"It isn't that I want to believe, RR, via the front back or side door. It is that I want it to be true."


If you want it to be true then let it be so. Truth is a function of language. Is anything in nature true? I do not think so. We may map our signs over the world but the world is not how we represent it. This sounds almost trite, I know, but I don't think it ever does any good to forget it. I shall be very trite and say that the landscape is not the light which falls upon it. We can walk through a landscape but not through a reflection of that landscape.


When you refer to "eternal bliss", what is it that you mean? Do you refer to a particular belief, set of beliefs or the emotions which may result from the act of believing?


"my honest assessment is that the likelihood of the existence of god is in inverse proportion to how detailed the specification for the god in question is."


If you cannot bring yourself to believe in God then put the idea to one side. There are plenty of other good religious ideas which might bring you happiness. Of course, you may be mistaken about the direction of your ratio. You may as easily apply it to scientific accounts of any number of physical forces and effects as you apply it to God.


You have studied religious apologetics? If so, do they make you nervous?

Psiomniac said...

Truth is a function of language.
Is this statement true?

I know the map is not the territory, but I don't buy the theory that whether a statement is true or false can be determined by language alone. Unless you want to say that the phenomenal world is primarily linguistic. That might be an interesting assertion. I accept that the competing theories of truth, correspondence, coherence and deflationary theories have had eloquent advocates. I accept that you could be eloquent in advocating yours so perhaps you will persuade me.
In any case, supposing truth is purely and nothing other than a property of language. It does not follow that I can make anything I like true.

When you refer to "eternal bliss", what is it that you mean?
I don't know. I have a vague notion only but it is not so vague that it is unappealing. It might not mean anything at all. I which case I can still wish it did.

If you cannot bring yourself to believe in God then put the idea to one side.
Most of the time, I do. You do not get a representative sample of course.

Of course, you may be mistaken about the direction of your ratio. You may as easily apply it to scientific accounts of any number of physical forces and effects as you apply it to God.

True. Or maybe I mean I was convinced by the language you used. Oh wait a minute...doh!

You have studied religious apologetics? If so, do they make you nervous?

'Studied' might be overstating it but I have not been made nervous by the apologetics I have encountered so far.

Fun With Formal Ideas. said...

"Is this statement true?"

Oh, yes.


"I don't buy the theory that whether a statement is true or false can be determined by language alone."

How else may a thing be determined except via language?


"Unless you want to say that the phenomenal world is primarily linguistic."

In it's detail, it is. Most phenomena never get past the primary process. When you attend to a thing do you know it in particular or by category, or have you seen anything lately which completely surprised you, which was unrecognisable?


"In any case, supposing truth is purely and nothing other than a property of language. It does not follow that I can make anything I like true."

Why, yes you can. What we know of the world we know through language. If we change language we change the world. It's not impossible; have you read 1984?


"It might not mean anything at all. I which case I can still wish it did."

In that case what would you wish it would mean?


"Most of the time, I do."

Do you find yourself consciously returning to the idea of God, or does the idea simply arise?


"Or maybe I mean I was convinced by the language you used. Oh wait a minute...doh!"

Look into the eyes, look into the eyes. Not around the eyes; but into the eyes. And...

Do you appreciate the naive power of this account? Many people resist it. I cannot recall if I did. It seems comforting now.


"'Studied' might be overstating it but I have not been made nervous by the apologetics I have encountered so far."

The study of a subject is in the enthusiasm and honesty with which it is approached, I feel, rather than in the hours a person squats over it.

Perhaps you should allow yourself further study. It's always gratifying to master a new epistemology for its own sake. That bliss may find you there.

Psiomniac said...

Oh, yes.

Well you would say that wouldn't you?

How else may a thing be determined except via language?

Language is a tool. We can grasp and use hammers. It does not follow that nails do not feature in the process.

In it's detail, it is. Most phenomena never get past the primary process. When you attend to a thing do you know it in particular or by category, or have you seen anything lately which completely surprised you, which was unrecognisable?

I agree with this, even our visual perception is shot through with semantic tags. We carve nature at its joints and discriminate objects and their relation to each other in a way that is inseperable from language. But if you want this to show that narrative has priority over the noumenal than you are begging the question.

Why, yes you can. What we know of the world we know through language. If we change language we change the world. It's not impossible; have you read 1984?

I imagine a kind of marothon man scene where I am the Olivier character advancing on your healthy molars with my drill and you start saying 'pain is pleasure'.

Do you find yourself consciously returning to the idea of God, or does the idea simply arise?

I think it's more of a hobby.

Do you appreciate the naive power of this account? Many people resist it. I cannot recall if I did. It seems comforting now.

Hav you seen Invasion Of The Body Snatchers? Cracking film.

The study of a subject is in the enthusiasm and honesty with which it is approached
well I have an honest lack of desire to study apologetics more intensively that I already do. I hope my bliss has not slipped through my fingers.

Fun With Formal Ideas. said...

"Well you would say that wouldn't you?"

I only speak the truth.


"Language is a tool. We can grasp and use hammers. It does not follow that nails do not feature in the process."

Language is not a discrete tool like a hammer or a saw or a screwdriver. It's pervasive, embedded. It's the skin which feels the hammer rather than the hand which holds it.


"But if you want this to show that narrative has priority over the noumenal than you are begging the question."

Which question?

The World is undifferentiated. It is continuous. The Noumenal is experienced only infrequently as Primary Process. Most of the time we divide the World into facts.


"I imagine a kind of marothon man scene where I am the Olivier character advancing on your healthy molars with my drill and you start saying 'pain is pleasure'."

I was hoping for something a little more Kripkensteinian.


"I think it's more of a hobby."

A collection never complete; the perfect hobby.


"Hav you seen Invasion Of The Body Snatchers? Cracking film."

http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/mbreligion/F2213237?thread=3771243&skip=80&show=20#p44457815


"well I have an honest lack of desire to study apologetics more intensively that I already do. I hope my bliss has not slipped through my fingers."

How could we know?

Psiomniac said...

I only speak the truth.

I think you might want to look at your truth function again.

Language is not a discrete tool like a hammer or a saw or a screwdriver. It's pervasive, embedded.
Well, set of tools then.

It's the skin which feels the hammer rather than the hand which holds it.

I think that is stretching the analogy too far.

Which question?

The one about language and meaning. How could we have made language without a reality to refer to? You are in danger of making absolutely everything 'language'. In which case it loses its explanatory force.

The Noumenal is experienced only infrequently as Primary Process.
You my know that, I don't.

I was hoping for something a little more Kripkensteinian.

I toyed with it (as you may have read over in ML) but I opted for something more sort of return-of-the-son-of-the-ghost of Kripkenstein. Besides, you know all the Private Language arguments already.
Please, not the toad!

How could we know?

What is this 'know' of which you speak?

Fun With Formal Ideas. said...

"I think you might want to look at your truth function again."

It's the colour I really like.


"I think that is stretching the analogy too far."

I don't think so, although it would benefit from qualification. We experience the World through our skin, through our gross nervous system. We represent that experience through language.


"The one about language and meaning. How could we have made language without a reality to refer to?"

Language does not refer to reality. Language refers to experience.


"You are in danger of making absolutely everything 'language'. In which case it loses its explanatory force."

I do not think so. I may represent a landscape as a map and that map predicts phenomena but it is still not the landscape. So with language. Language maps experience of the World and predicts phenomena but language never touches the World.


"You my know that, I don't."

What do you know?


"I toyed with it (as you may have read over in ML) but I opted for something more sort of return-of-the-son-of-the-ghost of Kripkenstein. Besides, you know all the Private Language arguments already."

Yet you do not present these in opposition to my account. Have you determined that these are irrelevant to our discussion?


"What is this 'know' of which you speak?"

The same as you referenced in your previous paragraph. Something represented in language.


Where is the truth in all the World that was never told and which cannot be told?




(4th February, 2007.)

Psiomniac said...

It's the colour I really like.

I could tell that this was the salient feature for you.

Language does not refer to reality. Language refers to experience.

And that would be experience of what exactly? Let us assume that we are not going to go down the Bishop Berkley route and that we are dealing with the phenomenal world. Then you are right to correct me there, we are not dealing with reality but with experience. But language and its relation to the phenomenal world is a classic bootstrapping scenario. Even you have conceded that there is a territory to map.

What do you know?

I wish I knew.

Yet you do not present these in opposition to my account. Have you determined that these are irrelevant to our discussion?

I am fond of improvising. I'll save the nuclear option, perhaps we won't need it.

The same as you referenced in your previous paragraph.
Hey, that's cheating!

John Bryden said...

Psio,

You're on a roll with this topic -- 29 comments and still going strong.

I came across this discussion, that you may find relevant:

On speaking truth

Psiomniac said...

Thanks John, it is interesting to see how others discuss these themes.

Fun With Formal Ideas. said...

"And that would be experience of what exactly?"

Nothing of which we have any knowledge.


"Let us assume that we are not going to go down the Bishop Berkley route and that we are dealing with the phenomenal world."

We are certainly dealing with the phenomenal world.


"language and its relation to the phenomenal world is a classic bootstrapping scenario. Even you have conceded that there is a territory to map."

It seems a sensible assumption. I may close my eyes and touch the sea shell on my desk. As the sky darkens the colour of the sea shell changes. I do not see the sea shell but the light it reflects.


"I am fond of improvising. I'll save the nuclear option, perhaps we won't need it."

Ditto. I am no drunk humanist.


"Hey, that's cheating!"

That's language for you.

Psiomniac said...

I think that this notion of truth needs to be addressed in a separate post. I'll brew it for a while.