You Gotta Have Faith

Original Post (with many many comments)
In response to yesterday’s post, Freedomslave came back with an interesting comment, and I think it warrants a post of its own.

Now I hate bible thumpers as much as the next guy, and I don’t go to church (except on Christmas). But the one thing I know for sure is that you have to have faith. Your faith might be that when a species hits a point in its evolution that the DNA mutates and evolves into a higher form of life. Just like the bible thumper you need a certain amount of faith to believe that, epically with all the inconclusive DNA evidence that now exists and the lack of fossil evidence to verify it.

You have to have faith. With this, I wholeheartedly agree. This wasn’t always the case. I used to believe that faith is a crutch, kind of a get out of jail free card for when reality doesn’t go your way. In a lot of ways, I still believe this. I don’t subscribe to the notion that just because many big questions are still unanswered we have to use faith to believe in something. It’s like we’re saying we can’t get by without embracing some worldview, and our only options are all debatable as to their merit. This is simply false. We can do very well in life without buying into big-picture concepts that don’t add up logically. But it requires us to put aside our inherent need to explain our surroundings.

I’ve talked before about the evolution of hope and despair. The gist of the concept is that our minds have a built-in ability to assess our environment in terms of whether or not it bodes well for our plans, which in caveman days were simple – survive long enough to reproduce. Situations that bode well generate hope, which keeps us clocked in and active. Situations that look bad generate despair, which prompts us to explore our options and do something different. But before hope and despair can do their jobs, our minds have to make that assessment. Thinking about the hostile environment of ancient times, it’s clear that decisions had to be made – if you stood too long weighing every little option, bad things could (and often did) happen. Statistically speaking, then as now, it is almost always better to do something than nothing when your life is on the line. Thus emerges our need to explain our world.

But our modern world, as this blog routinely espouses, is nothing like that of our cave-dwelling ancestors. Indecision isn’t the perilous circumstance it once was. We have the benefit of nearly assured safety, and we have easy access to food and shelter. Nevertheless, the genes that make our minds are still cranking out models that insist upon satisfied curiosity. This, I am convinced, is why people buy into all manner of odd ideas. Anything to feel certain. And the concept of faith has been so sancitified that it offers the perfect excuse to settle on whatever floats your boat. I would argue, however, that faith isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, at least not most of the time.

For the most part, faith is exactly as I have always seen it – an excuse to believe whatever makes you feel best. In that case, it’s a fast path to intellectual laziness. If something requires faith to believe in it, isn’t it worth asking why having faith suddenly makes it believable? What’s the old Churchill saying: “If you say a dog’s tail is a leg, how many legs does he have? Most people answer five, but it’s four. Just saying a tail is a leg doesn’t make it so.” Or something like that. Anyhow, reality is what it is. In my book, there’s never anything to be gained by denying it. But…but…but.

As I said, I am actually now on board with the whole faith thing. I have been for two or three years now, but the only thing I have faith in is reason. As it happens, there’s really no other way. You see, reason will only get you so far. You can be the master of all masters at logical deduction and still reason will fail you. It will fail you when you get to the land of quarks and leptons. At the subatomic level, there’s no way to really measure what’s going on, and this makes all the difference when you’re trying to use reason to prove the world is as we think it is.

Think about how many physics equations use time as a variable. But what is time? Or, better yet, what is a second? We just assume that our standard units of measurement make sense, but do they? By definition, a second is the time needed for a cesium-133 atom to perform 9,192,631,770 complete oscillations. Fair enough. But how can we tell a cesium-133 atom from a cesium-132 atom? We certainly can’t pick the former out of a subatomic lineup. We use statistics and probabilities to tell them apart. Aye, there’s the rub. We’re guessing. Our guesses are good, mind you, but we’re guessing nonetheless. So here we are faithless, relying upon reason to guide us in our estimation of everything, and we can’t even get the most basic things right. This is where faith earns its stripes.

If I must have faith, and it appears that I must, it has to be solely in the notion that reason will not fail me, in the notion that even though logic holds up under the most dire of circumstances, I can’t expect too much of it. In the end, it was Karl Popper who helped me with this (me and David Hume, although Hume was long dead when Popper came along.)

David Hume worried so much about his problem of induction that he ended up rejecting rationalism altogether. His hang-up was founded in the idea that even though something (like the sun rising) has happened for 1000 days, it is illogical to suppose that it will happen on the 1001st. Since we’re only privy to part of truth of this world, we could have been wrong lo those 1000 days. Tomorrow, things could change, so it doesn’t make sense to make predictions. Ergo, rationalism doesn’t work. (Given Hume’s popularity in the old days, it’s no surprise that there was a decidedly anti-rational movement that succeeded his death and the Enlightenment. I believe they call it Romanticism. Yes, critics, the French Revolution might have also had something to do with it.) Popper, however, having seen the mental cancer that was irrationalism, took a different approach.

Popper conceded from the outset that making predictions based upon some supposed certainty that was obtained by way of reason was illogical. He acknowledged that certainty, in itself, is unattainable, but he also acknowledged that we have to do something in life. So we use reason to evaluate our alternatives and we choose the best one. In that way, we don’t ask too much of it, and we keep ourselves as tuned into reality as possible. The only thing required is a healthy faith in reason. That’s where I am these days.

I rejoice in the mystery of our world. I’m thrilled to know that there will always be things to be curious about. I’m thrilled to know that there’s always a chance that something big and heretofore established will come crumbling down in the face of new evidence. I also watch car chases – maybe it’s me. In any case, my explanation for this world is simple – it’s all explainable (not explained, but explainable). It’s up to us to chip away at it so that we can keep handing what we learn down through the generations. I really don’t need anything more than that, and I firmly believe that most people, if they’d take a deep breath and give it a try, wouldn’t either.


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