"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

I Believe, help my unbelief!

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One of my co-workers gave me a copy of a comment on a review that was published in the Times Literary Supplement on August 5, 2011. The reviewer comments on three recent books on atheism, theism and agnosticism (roughly, belief in no god; a God; some form of god). He comments that the reviewer (Anthony Kenny) points out that one of Aristotle’s errors was that of not treating intellectual virtues, such as faith, “…as having satisfactory midway positions akin to moral virtues. Just as generosity might be the desirable midpoint between profligacy and meanness, so faith, Kenny suggested, would be the midpoint between skepticism and credulity.”

Reasonable faith, approached in this way, as opposed to knowledge or certainty, would seem to fit the long-standing criterion of Christian orthodoxy. The Nicene creed hinges on a series of propositions about beliefs, not about knowledge. There is not a single sentence in the creed that requires any claim to knowledge or certainty. Might not the beliefs of many agnostics entitle at least some of them to be Christians malgre eux. (malgre eux = in spite of themselves)

There is some good truth in that analysis, and I might add that there are some Christians who might be agnostics malgre eux (and even some Christians who might be atheists malgre eux). I also have no problem seeing faith on a continuum, and I’m not sure how faith, like any other virtue, could not be considered to have a midpoint and extremes. That is an apparent truth even within communities of faith.

The creed hinging on statements of beliefs and not about knowledge is a bit trickier, as this involves a question of epistemology. That is, what do you consider to be “knowledge”? I suspect the writer (who I believe was a clergyperson with an advanced degree in ethics or poly sci) is using a scientific or naturalist perspective on knowledge: knowledge is that which can be demonstrated objectively from the natural creation. By that definition, I would have no problem agreeing, as there is no element of the creed which could be demonstrated empirically. It causes me a bit of trouble as there are sources of knowledge beyond the empirical, both within and without from the field of the hard sciences.

A simple example: prove to me empirically that the sun will rise tomorrow morning. Based on the repeatability of the natural world, science accepts such things as knowledge, without any real empirical ability to prove a given event will occur again. Science is full of such assumptions about the world. Here’s a second: All science is based on observation of phenomena, so demonstrate your ability to observe what you are watching (prove you can actually measure what you believe you are measuring). Science is also based on the fundamental assumption that we can observe and make empirical observations about the natural world. That too is an un-provable assumption that rests at the foundation of science. Without belabouring the point, there is knowledge present within the hard sciences which cannot be empirically demonstrated, which has no basis in repeatable observation. I would suggest it is that type of knowledge which is represented in the creed, admittedly alongside statements which are based primarily in belief.

I don’t want to proceed on an in-depth analysis of the creed, but a quick glimpse is possible. Large portions of the creed are based on evidence from the Scriptural record. If you discount that record merely because it is a book about God, there probably isn’t much more to talk about. The Bible (along with the Hebrew Tanach) are highly historically attested documents. We have no problem accepting other writings which have much less support (early works of philosophy and fiction). So to describe the life of Christ as ending in crucifixion under Pontius Pilate, has both a historic and spiritual implication. One could ‘know’ this as an event from the past, just as one could ‘know’ about Marie Curie’s discovery of Radium. It is a bit of a stretch to assert there is not a single sentence in the creed that requires any claim of knowledge.

Likewise, I would take some exception to the clause that immediately follows, that there is no statement that requires a claim to certainty. I think Rev Strain is falling into a similar trap here, in assigning to the word ‘certainty’ an purely empirical meaning. Does belief preclude certainty? In a post-modern sense, or in a scientific sense it probably does (unless you’re talking about global warming when there are far too many scientists who believe). I think that belief, that is, presumptions which are supported by no more than faith, can have equal certainty in the mind of the holder to an empirical assertion of a certain expectation from science. I can say this with a straight face because, as I’ve already noted, there are wide swaths of science which are based on nothing more than an assumption. The only places in recent history this seems to be untrue is biology and climate science (biology because some assert with a straight face that Darwinism describes everything including social evolution…which, if you want to discuss faith and belief is an assertion far closer to a Catholic dogma than a science). Climate science because I have grown weary listening to all the climate scientists tell me that “the science is decided”.

The problem with that last comment (and the biologist’s rigid dogma on Darwin) is that science is never decided. Science awakes each new morning (after that assumption the sun will rise is again demonstrated to be correct) with the expectation that what was believed before may be proven wrong. We have a word for science that does not awake that way each morning: religion (or to be specific, scientism). Science does not present the world with absolute truths. Rather, science presents the world with the results of repeated observation and multiple recursions of theory and hypothesis. The act of science is one of watching, formulating rules to explain what you’ve seen, and then watching to see if your rule is confirmed. If it is, then you see if the rule can predict, if it can’t, you go back to the drawing board.

Scientism is, in reality, a counter-rational movement that seeks to remove from science it’s heart – the ability to be proven wrong.

My epiphany on the limits of science came during graduate studies in microwave engineering. I was working out the equations to describe the distribution of electrical and magnetic fields inside a metal waveguide (a rectangular box-shaped pipe in use since WW II and very good at guiding electrical energy to and from an antenna). The only way the math works out nicely is when you can assume that the metal walls of the waveguide are perfect electrical and magnetic conductors (a state which does not exist in reality…maybe near absolute zero, but almost a practical impossibility). If you don’t make that assumption, even with a fleet of supercomputers, the best you can come up with is an approximation.

Now, if my science is unable to exactly depict what is happening inside a waveguide, an old technology (relatively speaking), how on earth could I believe that science serves to provide me with absolute truth? It doesn’t have that ability. It has the ability to send space probes to Mars (that usually make it), to build long bridges that (usually) don’t fall down, and to make sure the elevator in my building gets me safely to my office.

I’m a bit far afield from the starting point, so it is probably time to stop. I must admit that my own life is very much operated under the Rev Strain’s concept of “reasonable faith” in the sense that even those things I claim as knowledge are never cause to critique those who have belief, or even those who disbelieve. In many ways the cry of the man to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief” is a rally cry for my own faith.

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Written by sameo416

March 11, 2012 at 3:41 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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