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Faith


This counter-intuitive march through potential friends and foes of clear thinking began with this piece that asked whether there might be a downside to the battle against disinformation. That was followed up by another piece that asked whether emotion and critical thinking must always be in tension.

With those questions as backdrop, I’d like to ask whether faith can ever be anything other than a foe of (or at least a distractor to) reason?


On the surface, faith seems almost diametrically opposed to all of the reasoning skills and processes you’ve been learning about at LogicCheck. Faith, after all, involves finding ways to believe things absent evidence and reasons that justify those beliefs. Could there be anything more distinct from critical thinking that requires beliefs be grounded in those very things?


Because cultural battles between faith and reason tend to boil over when faith-based religion comes into conflict with reason-based science (especially in tendentious areas like evolution, or the existence of God), it often seems like the world is separated into entirely faith-based and reason-based ways of knowing.


The late Stephen Jay Gould, one of many scientists who tried over the years to tamp down conflicts between religion and science, proposed that these two areas of life occupied distinct “non-overlapping magisteria,” each dedicated to answering different sorts of questions. The late Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, summed this up in his book The Great Partnership with one of his usual incisive comments: that “Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.”


As much as I admire Gould, Sacks, and other great thinkers who have tried to reconcile the worlds of faith and reason, it’s worth considering the role faith plays in even the most reason-focused thinking processes.


For example, a concept baked into science is that laws of the universe are universal. For example, if we assume the speed of light is constant everywhere and always, that allows us to determine how far stars are from the earth and from each other. But how do we know whether or not the speed of light is actually constant, rather than varying?


The answer is, we don’t. We know light behaves consistently everywhere we experience it, and so scientists take it as a matter of faith that this consistency continues in parts of the universe we do not have access to.


While specific beliefs regarding the speed of light are underwritten by arguments built on evidence and reasons, it’s a pretty huge claim that all of the physical laws we experience here on earth do not change across a universe we barely understand. Yet, if we abandoned this faith-based belief in nature’s consistency in favor of believing nature to be random (i.e., stuff just happens) the entire scientific enterprise could have never gotten off the ground.


Arguments about the unprovable, such as ones over the existence of God, or whether or not we are all living in the Matrix, also rest on some form of faith-based reasoning. There is no scientific experiment we can run that will prove definitively whether a divine being we cannot hope to understand exists or doesn’t, just as we cannot trust data that might be being fed to our senses by an evil AI to prove that we exist in the world we perceive (since that world might be a lie).


We can make arguments for one side of this debate versus another. For example, scientists and philosophers generally urge that we accept simpler explanations over more complex ones. In the case of the Matrix theory of reality, belief in the Matrix requires us to accept the existence of two universes (the one we think we live in and the one in which robots are feeding our real selves illusions), while rejecting it requires we only accept the existence of one universe, the one we perceive.


Since an explanation that presupposes just one universe is simpler than one that rests on two, rejecting the Matrix theory seems more reasonable than accepting it. But what does the assumption that simplicity is superior to complexity rest on? I would say that it rests on faith that our intuitive preference for simpler answers can be applied universally.


Even math, that most exact of human endeavors, rests on axioms: things we accept as true in order to build proofs that other things are true. So, perhaps the notion of faith versus reason is an incorrect dichotomy. What if, instead, we should really be debating when to accept something as axiomatic?


Are racism and slavery always wrong? If we decide these claims represent true moral facts, they can become axioms for further analysis, as well as rules to guide our lives, even if we cannot prove them the same way we prove the existence of gravity or species evolution.

At the end of an article I quoted from a few posts ago, the writer mocks a statement made by a commission on misinformation that claims it wants to “engage disaffected populations who have lost faith in evidence-based reality,” to which he ironically responds: “faith being a well-known prerequisite for evidence-based reality.”


Such a reaction is understandable if you believe faith and reason to be diametrically opposed. But the superiority of reason over other forms of knowing cannot be proven scientifically, any more than moral claims like the axiomatic evil of slavery can be. Instead, we must invest our faith in reason as the best way to understand the world and form beliefs, even if reason alone cannot prove that assertion.

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