May 26, 2009

Logic Leads to Faith

In an earlier blog, I reiterated a statement that I’ve made numerous times. In short, I believe that behind each momentous decision we make, we can trace a logical line of justification that eventually leads to a leap of faith. At various times I’ve described that process as a leap into a canyon of uncertainty or wonder. In response, DC said the following:

True, logic—and evidence—take us only so far in knowing and understanding, but “canyons of wonder” can thrive happily in “faithless” uncertainty. Wonder does not lead inevitably to faith…

Let me try to articulate why I think otherwise by first saying that my idea of faith includes any reliance on an unproven premise as a guide to correct behavior. For example, I don’t know for a fact that the phenomenon we call global warming is caused by greenhouse gas emissions, yet there seems to be evidence of a causal link between the two and so I’ve taken steps to reduce my consumption of the earth’s resources. In the final analysis, I believe we all have a responsibility to the earth. To me, that is as much a leap of faith as refraining to murder only because the Bible says it’s a sin.

To further demonstrate what I mean, let’s say three men (Alex, Bob and Corey) at different times come across the same parked car at the side of a road. They notice that the vehicle is unlocked with the key still in the ignition and the identical idea occurs to each of them—I could easily take this car—but, based upon vastly different premises, they resist the temptation. The grounds by which they make their decisions are as follows:
  • Alex thinks he would get caught in the act, the consequence of which would exceed his desire for the car
  • Bob decides to act in accordance with the law, which he believes is the key to social harmony and stability
  • Corey considers the needs of the car owner and reconfirms his commitment to do no harm to others
In terms of the construct I introduced in my very first blog, Alex is following the Law of the Jungle, which encourages him to insure his own survival and seek personal gain to the exclusion of any and all other objectives. Presumably, if he’d thought he could avoid the possible consequences, Alex would have stolen the car. Bob, on the other hand, is following the Mosaic Law, which instructs him to avoid certain acts, including theft. This heuristic set of rules has become his reference guide to life. Finally, Corey is following Christ’s gospel, which encourages him to let love and conscience direct his behavior. The gospel’s requirements are less formalized and often require some amount of improvisation. How do we love our neighbor? There is no gospel equivalent to Leviticus.

In the end, all three men take what is arguably the correct course of action by not stealing the vehicle, but their motivations put them on differing planes. Of the three, who do you consider to be the most trustworthy? As William James was famous for asserting, knowing a person’s “philosophy” is quite possibly the most important thing we can understand about him, since it is the best predictor of how he will act in the future. Now, for purposes of my argument, it’s important to point out that, despite their contrasting motivations, each man could have reached his conclusion by first asking, “Why shouldn’t I steal the car?” and validating the answer by asking, “How do I know my conclusion is correct?”

For inquiring minds, the second question often leads to a string of logical inquiries, until the questioner eventually arrives at one of the canyons of uncertainty of which I spoke. For instance, returning to the example above, Bob, upon seeing the unlocked car, might have processed the following logic in his head.

Question: Why shouldn’t I steal the car?
Answer: Because God commanded me to do otherwise
Question: How do I know that?
Answer: Because the Bible says so and it’s God’s word
Question: How do I know that?
Answer: Because the spirit testifies that it is so
Question: How do I know that?
Answer: Because I’ve felt the spirit
Question: How do I know that?

Eventually, a truly honest Bob will admit that he doesn’t know if he has felt God’s spirit testify of the Bible’s truthfulness. He may have been moved by the Bible’s words, but that isn’t evidence of a Godly communion. People of other faiths, after all, seem similarly motivated by texts they deem sacred and are willing to die as proof of their confidence. So the way we’re sometimes touched by Biblical teachings could be an emotional response (though admittedly a powerful, life-changing and often good response) rather than a spiritual communion, whatever that entails.
Yet, even if we were in contact with God’s spirit, how can we know we've interpreted it correctly? As I’ve said before, if God is as great as we believe, His thoughts must be beyond human understanding. (Think of Einstein squared, or cubed). Is it possible, for example, that the nightmare of the inquisition was God’s will? Or could it have been a terrible misinterpretation of God’s intent. What I’m trying to say is that at some point in the process of logically defining who and what we are, we must admit that we’re making value judgments that we cannot know as fact.
Furthermore, one need not be a Christian to go through the same exercise. Let's say Bob is a scientist, who has no religious bias, whatsoever. Perhaps his thinking would follow more along these lines:
Question: Why shouldn't I steal the car?
Answer: Because that would be wrong
Question: How do I know that?
Answer: Because society has decided, through long experience, that stealing leads to chaos, which would be intolerable for everyone
Question: How do I know that?
Answer: Because I can imagine the consequences of a world in which all people steal, but I guess that is a supposition on my part and I really don't know that for a fact
That doesn’t mean, however, that we live life in a corner, shaking from the possibility—no, the certainty—that we will occasionally be wrong. On the contrary, once we know where we stand, we act with assurance that we’ve done our best to define the lines that make us who we are. However, we are equally willing to redefine those lines, when contrary evidence demands it, and we respect the actions of others to define themselves, as long as such actions do no harm.


Anonymous said...

Alvin Plantinga has argued that the faculties on which are judgments are built (sense data, rational thought) cannot be known to be reliable indicators of truth unless we assume the existence of God. He believed that if we accepted a non-theistic evolutionary view of the development of these faculties, we can conclude only that our senses and thought processes lead us to do things that keep us alive. We cannot conclude that they allow us to apprehend reality or grasp truth.

In other words, he says that the assumption that these faculties are reliable is just that, an assumption. The existence of a good God who gave us accurate/reliable faculties is necessary to justify our belief in their reliability.

For may part, I don't see why the assumption that God gave us accurate faculties is preferable to the assumption that our faculties are accurate/reliable. The later is simpler, and both involve an assumption. So . . .

(Note, it has been a long time since I read Plantinga/taught philosophy, so my apologies if I misstated his argument).


Alan Bahr said...


I wish I'd had a chance to sit in one of your classes. I'm sure it would have been a great ride.

I agree with you that it seems easier to assume that our faculties are reliable than to assume God gave us reliable faculties. But as you said, both in the end, require we make assumptions and that, to me--correctly or otherwise--is a leap of faith.

Thanks for your interesting commentary.


Matt's brain said...

I may be misreading the argument, but I don't see why our evolutionary view can't explain the development of these faculties.

After all, the development of social communities was essential to human survival. The facilities that we use to learn truth is probably the same as those that we developed in order to keep our communities in sustainable order.

I'm not an expert, but this makes sense to me.

Alan Bahr said...

I don't disagree with you, but living in communities is another act of faith. In order to do so, one has to believe people will behave in accordance to acceptable standards.

Anonymous said...

I think you're being vague with regard to what you mean by "faith" and "act of faith," Alan. It's not clear to me that living in community requires an act of faith. Not at all.


Alan Bahr said...

Fair point.

Like I said in my remarks, I take a more inclusive view on the nature of faith. To me, its any unproven, or unprovable, premise upon which we base our decisions. For example, someone very dear to me believes people are basically untrustworthy and will nearly always take advantage of others if they can get away with it. That's an important aspect of his faith.

When I say this viewpoint is part of his faith, it really doesn't matter whether I'm speaking in spiritual or secular terms, since the subject of the nature of man is the purview of both religion and social science. Now, I may be wrong here, but it seems to me that this is true of all core beliefs that guide our lives--for example, just to name a few: life's purpose (if there is any), the calculus to determine ethical behavior (if there is any), the process for self-actualization (if there is any). All of these topics are of great interest to students of both religious and secular studies.

So back to my friend. This aspect of his faith--the belief that people are essentially evil--has caused him to take extraordinary measures to live apart from communities that might otherwise embrace and support him. He lives apart in a both a physical and social sense.

In this way, my view of faith--the set of unproven assumptions we make that form our core beliefs--affect our choices. If, for example, we didn't believe the sun would ever rise again, wouldn't we live the next few hours far differently than otherwise? These beliefs--rightly or wrongly--are what I call faith, because a healthy person will formulate them whether religious or not.

There's probably a better way to make the point, but I like the chance to articulate the argument.

By the way, DC, did you go to Brown?