I sighed internally. People say they don’t believe everything they hear, but why are they so gullible when they like an idea, and so skeptical when they don’t?

And here it was again; the same old furphy, spoon-fed, swallowed and regurgitated without having been digested. The classic straw man argument of “faith versus reason”.

Recalling other times I’d had this conversation, I wondered where to begin this time. What approach would my questioner find easiest to appreciate? First things first: define your terms.

“What do you mean by ‘faith’?”

“Well, believing something without evidence.”

The standard answer. So do I go with the Blondin story or the penguin/light switch and the chair analogies? I decided on the first.

“Well, that’s confusing two issues. First; faith has two aspects: belief and trust. Belief is like head knowledge; trust is commitment. Second, believing something without evidence is blind faith, but that doesn’t mean it’s unreasonable. You can have faith in something because of facts, without facts, or even despite facts. But look at the belief and trust bit first.

“Ever heard of Max Blondin?”

My questioner thought for a second, then shook his head. ”No.”

“Blondin was a famous tightrope walker in…oh, I can’t recall now, but last century or in the 19th. He once walked over a tightrope over Niagara Falls. There was a whole bunch of people watching. He walked over, then pushed a wheelbarrow over, then pushed the wheelbarrow over again with a load of potatoes in it. He then asked the crowd if they thought he could push the wheelbarrow across if a person was in it. People were going, ‘Yeah, yeah’, so Blondin chose the guy who was shouting the loudest, and said, ‘You get in.’ The guy refused to.

“Point is, he had the first part of faith – the head knowledge – that Blondin could do it: he had the evidence of what he’d just seen so his faith in Blondin wasn’t blind faith. But he didn’t have the other part of faith: he didn’t have the commitment to get in the barrow.”

“I probably wouldn’t have gotten in either. I wouldn’t want to run the risk of something happening just for a show.”

“Yeah. The guy thought the fact he might die was more important than being part of the act; so he had faith in Blondin, but it wasn’t strong enough for him to get in the wheelbarrow.”

“But that’s different. The guy had evidence; but there’s no evidence for god.”

“Wait, wait. We’ll talk about that in a minute but you see the point? You can have faith because of evidence. Faith doesn’t mean belief without evidence.

“And haven’t you ever met people who won’t believe something, even when the facts are staring them in the face? So you can have faith in spite of evidence as well. If you don’t want to believe something, you won’t. You’ll find any reason not to believe, no matter how flimsy that reason is. Like people who believe that life is just chance. There was a book written in…’84 I think; maybe ’86…by three scientists, called The Mystery of Life’s Origin, and they said that if you covered the earth with amino acids to a depth of a metre (that means there would be 10 raised to the 41st amino acids I think) and let them react at the maximum rate for five billion years, the chance – no, the probability – of getting a protein of 101 amino acids was 1 in 10 to the 72nd”. And apparently something becomes statistical impossible when it has less probability of happening than 1 in 10 raised to the 40th. That’s like…you know, one million, one billion, one trillion, one quadrillion – up to…, I think, 15-illion.

“Point is, the probability of a protein or macromolecule, I think they’re called, forming by chance is, if I’m getting the figures and logic right, physically impossible. It’s not logically impossible but it’s still practically impossible. It’s like a baby being born with the strength of Superman. It’s not logically impossible but it isn’t going to happen. Even Richard Dawkins said something like that, I don’t recall exactly; I think he was talking about macromolecules, cells or something, and he said, ‘Chance is not an option and no sane biologist ever said it was.’ Words to that effect. I suppose he believes in biochemical predestination or non-equilibrium forces or clay as the environment or something like that. But then you’ve got the problem of needing complexity for biological information rather than just molecular order, and…um….”

I stopped, having lost the thread of the argument. He reminded me. “Believing something despite it being  improbable.”

“Oh, yeah. Umm…” I tried to think back to the original point I’d been making. “Okay, yes…You can have faith – or not – no matter what the evidence is. You have faith in reason and science, right?”

“Of course.”

“Well, so do I. The scientific method is the best way we have of obtaining objective truth about our world because it uses reason and experience: rationalism and empiricism. Plato and Aristotle. Point is, we have faith in it: we trust that science is the best way to obtain objective knowledge about the physical world.

But what is that faith based on? How can you test that statement – ‘Science is the best way to obtain objective knowledge’ – scientifically? You can’t. We believe it is, because it uses reason and tangible evidence.”

“Yes, but that’s the point of what I said before. You either use reason or you have faith.”

“Yes, but my point was that you can have faith based on evidence. Your reason uses evidence to tell you whether it’s reasonable to have faith in something. The wheelbarrow guy didn’t have enough faith in Blondin even though he had evidence to show that Blondin would probably get him across Niagara.

“Your reason tells you that the scientific method is trustworthy, so you have faith in science. And in reason, because you trust that what it tells you is true. All faith is, is your attitude to something: you trust it, or you don’t. Faith and unbelief.

“So it isn’t faith versus reason. Reason is an authority: something that tells us facts. Faith is an attitude; do you trust the authority or not? The issue is, what do you have faith in? Is that object of faith trustworthy or not?”

“Okay, so faith means you trust something. But what if the thing you trust isn’t trustworthy? It might be, but what if it isn’t? That’s what I mean. Faith is irrational.”

“Depends what you mean by ‘irrational’. If you mean ‘anti-rational’ – that is, it goes against reason – then no. I think being anti-rational is, well, stupid. Galileo said, ‘I do not feel obligated to believe that the same God who endowed us with sense, reason and intellect intended for us to forego their use.’

“But If you mean faith is ‘non-rational’; that is, it uses other sources of information apart from reason – that’s neither good nor bad, for instance, feelings aren’t rational, but we often listen to our feelings when we decide about the music we want to listen to; whether it’s something relaxed or upbeat, jazz or classical or ska. Er…where was I?

“Oh yes, if you mean faith is non-rational, then it depends on the person and the circumstance. Faith is your attitude to something; our attitudes are caused by different factors: partly through reason, partly through experience, partly from what others have told us or what we think others believe. Your faith in one thing might be from reason, your faith in another from your gut feelings, your faith in a third thing because that’s what people have told you, and so on.

“For example, if you see a famous person marketing a brand of toothpaste, you might choose to buy that toothpaste the next time you’re at the shops – because you have faith that it’ll do a good job – because you like the actor, or because you’ve used that brand before and found it does work. In the first case, your faith is irrational – you bought it because you like the actor. Whether or not you like them has nothing to do with whether or not the toothpaste is any good. In the second case, your faith is based on your previous experience, which tells you the toothpaste works well. In that case your faith is partly rational and partly non-rational: your reason tells you that you can generally trust your previous experience.

“Or the fact you’re sitting in that chair: you’ve never sat there before, right?”

He shook his head. “No.”

“But you had faith enough that it wouldn’t collapse when you sat on it. You had faith without evidence, but you still sat on it.”

“So? I’ve sat on lots of chairs and they haven’t collapsed. I’ve been here before and sat on chairs and they haven’t collapsed. That’s my evidence.”

“Right: that shows your faith is based on the authority of experience. Sure, your reason tells you that your past experience is enough to go by, but you trusted the chair because experience was your primary authority; for this instance, anyway. Your reason could also tell you that you’ve never sat on this chair, or even if you had, the chair still might collapse, so you should test it first. You know that if you sat on the chair and it collapsed, you might hurt yourself; even damage your spine, say. And the pain wouldn’t be worth those few seconds it would take to test the chair. But you didn’t. So you trusted your past experience, which in this case is almost entirely non-rational, but that doesn’t mean your experience is untrustworthy, or you were being anti-rational by trusting your experience.

“Or what about that song from Notting Hill? ‘You know I love you, I always will/ my mind’s made up by the way that I think’? No: it’s ‘the way that I feel’.” Their faith in their enduring love was based on their feelings. Like I said before, feelings are non-rational, but it doesn’t mean they’re untrustworthy. But when you’re promising to stay with someone forever, feelings aren’t the wisest authority to trust. Feelings change all the time.)” Just like experience.

“So faith can be based on any of several authorities: reason, experience, emotion, or someone else’s say-so. Any or several of these could be the reason you have faith in something, or the reason you don’t believe in something. Faith is the connection; these authorities are the reason.”

“There was a guy who said, ‘If Jesus was proved wrong, I’d rather stay with Jesus than with the truth.’ His faith was based on experience or emotion I guess. In any case, I think that’s a foolish attitude.

“I want the truth (I know, anyone can say that but be fooling themselves); so if atheism is true, I’d be an atheist. If Islam or Baha’iism or Mormonism were true, I’d be a Muslim or a Baha’i or a Mormon. In fact, sometimes I’d prefer atheism to be true. I could do want I wanted: could have sex with who I wanted, keep my money for myself rather than give to charity, not have to be nice to people I don’t like, and I wouldn’t have to worry about life after death.

“On the other hand, I know a guy who’s an atheist but the thought of there being nothing after death terrifies him. He would rather believe God did exist, but he’s still an atheist.”

I was going to start talking about Joseph Thayer, the great Greek scholar, but thought the point was made. I summarised: “The argument is that ‘Did Jesus come back from the dead?’ I have faith in the evidence and in my reason. My attitude is to follow the evidence no matter where it leads. My reason, interpreting the evidence, leads me to the rational conclusion that Jesus physically returned from the dead. So I have faith that Jesus rose from the dead.”

“So what’s the evidence for that, then?”

“That’s for another article.”

“Sorry? What do you mean, ‘the next article?’ “

“Talk to Jostein Gaarder.”

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