Everyone has a voice, and a choice to use it well, use it poorly, or not to use it at all.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Nature of Faith

Life is an act of faith. Every belief you hold in your mind requires faith, whether you realize it or not.

"Well", you say, "some things are just true. Two plus two is always four." If you said this you would be in good (or at least plentiful) company. Many, many people trust mathematics, and to a lesser degree science, absolutely.

Consider an excerpt from James Burke's book, The Day the Universe Changed:

""[Science] is objective, making use of methods of investigation and proof that are impartial and exacting. Theories are constructed and then tested by experiment. If the results are repeatable and cannot be falsified in any way, they survive. If not, they are discarded. The rules are rigidly applied. The standards by which science judges its work are universal. There can be no special pleading in the search for the truth: the aim is simply to discover how nature works and to use that information to enhance our intellectual and physical lives. The logic that directs the search is rational and ineluctable at all times and in all circumstances. This quality of science transcends the differences which in other fields of endeavour make one period incommensurate with another, or one cultural expression untranslatable in another context. Science knows no contextual limitations. It merely seeks the truth."

In an online discussion on a philosophy forum, someone used this quote to summarize his view of science. His story was that he had rejected religion because he thought it required too much faith. He believed that the safest way is to live without faith, believing only what is proven scientifically.

I want to address three problems with this belief here, because I have met and spoke with a lot of people who hold it.  First, if you limit your beliefs to only that which requires no faith, you will not be able to believe in anything.  Second, I will address the very common and misplaced absolute faith in science.

I assert that every belief you hold requires faith. I first had this idea when I was about thirteen, and was questioning my belief in God for the first time. The idea had occurred to me that all of my perceptions and experiences - the whole of my mental, physical, and spiritual experience - could be nothing more than the results of the manipulation of my mind. It occurred to me that the agent of this manipulation could be a more powerful being, God himself, or almost anything else. I certainly didn't want to believe this, and so I began searching for proof that this was not the case, or that something else was true. However, I could not totally trust any of the facts and ideas and philosophies that I came across - the nagging thought kept recurring that perhaps this, too, was only some hallucination produced by the Manipulator of my mind.

Of course there is no proof that a manipulator exists. There is not even much support for it, and you may think it is silly that I had such an idea at one time. Chances are, you don't believe in a Manipulator. Here is the thing: you are taking that the Manipulator does not exist on faith. Because of that, you are choosing to trust your perceptions, trust in the ability of your senses to communicate reality to your mind. You have faith in your own mind, even though there is the possibility that it is doesn't tell the truth.  Your mind is inextricably involved in every belief you hold. Every belief you hold requires faith.

Of course, you've been having faith in your mind for so long that it no longer takes any effort, and no longer seems like faith. That doesn't change the fact that it is faith - belief in something which is not absolutely certain.

 Re-read that quote from the book above. The author clearly has absolute faith in science (though he probably wouldn't call it faith).  Is that faith based on fact? Lets examine his claims:

"[Science] is objective, making use of methods of investigation and proof that are impartial."
His first mistake is to isolate "science" from scientists. Science is not a god, not a force apart from humanity, it is nothing more than humans attempting to discover the causes of the physical world in a specific way. These humans, while highly educated, are still 1) inevitably trapped in their own minds 2) fallible human beings, capable of believing that which is not actually true 3) sinful human beings, capable of willfully twisting the facts to suit their own agenda.

Belief in science is really faith in human beings. There is no guarantee that scientists will be impartial or objective.

"The logic that directs the search is rational and ineluctable at all times and in all circumstances."
 Again, the author removes the human element. Which logic is he referring to? From my experience, human logic is seldom totally rational or ineluctable (which means "not to be changed or avoided"), certainly not at all times and in all circumstances. I think we have all heard of  cases in which scientists violate these descriptions.

I want to address a related argument that I hear a lot. "I don't believe in God because there is absolutely no scientific proof that he exists."  First, again, proof does not exist in this world. Whether or not science supports the existence of God is a different matter. The real point however, is that not believing in God because science does not prove his existence is faulty logic. It would be like not believing a poem is a good poem because mathematics cannot prove it to be such, or disbelieving in pie because your ears cannot hear it. Ears are not equipped or designed to sense pie, mathematics is not equipped or designed to determine the quality of a poem, and science is not equipped or designed to determine the existence of God. Science is the search for physical causes. While God has physical consequences, He is not physical.

Of course scientists are not always wrong. Lots of times they are right. It is those who place absolute trust in them who are mistaken.


  1. You are absolutely right that everyone lives by faith in a sense. No one completely analyzes every decision they make and question everything, they just go about taking full advantage of God's providence over every detail of their life and then say that all can be explained in their naturalistic world view. The problem with knowledge is that no one can no everything absolutely, so the non-christian cannot say that they know something to be absolutely true or false, this would require being omniscient, having an infinite knowledge of everything. Christians can know something to be truth because we can trust our God who has an infinite knowledge. This is why the Christian world view is logical.

    The bible also teaches how the unbeliever will act, they say they only believe things that have been scientifically proven and thus need scientific proof of God's existence. The bible says that even if Jesus were to raise a body from the dead right in front of us we would not believe Him that he is the Savior, the Son of God, if we don't believe all that is written about Him by Moses and the Prophets. The Christians faith in God is one that is by grace.

    Romans 1:18-22 makes it clear that unbelievers suppress the truth, God is evident in nature and so they are without excuse, but God in his grace has given us his word which when preached saves men and takes the veil from their eyes allowing them to see God. The Christians world view allows us to make sense of the non-believers denial of God and their foolishness and allows us to see the natural world for how great it is in many scientific studies yet we don't stop there we see how great it is and give praise to the one who is greater the one who created it and see that nature in all its glory is like a mirror reflecting God's glory.

    I do believe it is crucial also to make a distinction that when the word faith is used in the bible it is not being used in the typical sense that we use it today. When we think of faith we often think of just having faith without an objective standard, more or less just trusting our gut feeling having faith it will all work out, this is not biblical faith. Biblical faith is only as good as what you place your faith in, namely Christ, his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Our faith is in that Christ has risen from the dead and conquered sin for us and taken on the punishment that was due it on our behalf. If Christ has not risen from the dead, then we of all people are to be pitied, our religion stands or falls on the historical resurrection of Christ. 1 Cor. 15

  2. Kenneth,

    Thank you for your thoughts. I especially appreciate your statement "faith is only as good as what you place your faith in" - that is absolutely correct. I believe that is what Christ spoke to when he told of faith the size of a mustard seed - it is not the "quantity" of faith that matters, but what it is based upon.

    The distinction you pointed out is very important indeed, and one that many fail to see. Many people, when they hear the word "faith", assume that whatever follows is totally divorced from reality. The faith we have is not divorced from reality, it is based upon reality - not the reality only of what we can see and experience, but also of the unseen truths God has put in our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit. "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."


  3. There are levels of "faith". The faith required to accept verifiable, repeatable, falsifiable observations (science) and the faith required to accept an assertion because "you can't prove it isn't true" or "I just know it in my heart" are on entirely different levels.

    "Belief in science is really faith in human beings. There is no guarantee that scientists will be impartial or objective".

    Nothing could be further from the truth. You behave as if the findings of science are nothing more than an opinion of one person, an opinion that depends on trusting the person making the assertion. Findings must be verified and verified again, often by people who are hostile to the point. Science progresses by force. An idea is not accepted until the weight of the evidence makes it unavoidable. Even then the conclusion is provisional; it must continue to stand against challenges. Science is adversarial. Scientists agree with one another only when they must. To prove your colleague wrong is to show yourself as being right and being the one with the answer is what it’s all about. No finding, no assertion, rests on its laurels. All is challenged and each challenge must be met and surmounted.

  4. I agree that there are different levels of faith, depending on the object of the faith, and the holder of faith. It requires more faith to believe in unicorns than in horses. It requires more faith for a blind man to believe in colors that for a man with sight to do so. I did not write about reasons to believe in God in this post, but I assure you "you can't prove its true" is not one of them. Neither is "I just know it in my heart" - though a powerful spiritual conviction is not to be scoffed at.

    Clearly, we disagree on the reliability of science. In a (nearly) perfect world, scientists would behave as you have described. I'm sure even in this present world, it does work that way fairly often. However, pick any topic of interest to scientists and you can find that good, solid, intelligent men have used the scientific method to come up with totally different conclusions.

    Thanks for sharing your ideas!


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