14 Sep 2008

Faith and Reason

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In a previous post, I asserted (with little proof) that, “Faith in Climate Models Is Non-Falsifiable.” One of the two frequent thorns in my side, Tokyo Tom, made it clear that he has read better blog posts in his day. In particular, Tom didn’t like my attribution of “faith” to “very very smart” scientists.

What’s ironic is that the jab I intended with my post title wasn’t the “faith” part, but rather the “non-falsifiable” part. (Tom forgot that for me, faith isn’t a dirty word.) Contrary to popular agnostic belief–which is unfortunately verified by some anti-intellectual Christians–faith does not imply “belief in the absence of reason,” or a fortiori “belief in opposition to reason.” So I wasn’t criticizing climate scientists for having “faith” in their models; rather, I was criticizing the apparent fact that no matter what happens, faith in the modeling enterprise itself could never be shaken. Even if the current batch of models yield predictions that turn out to be wildly wrong, even in the wrong direction, there are plenty of IPCC supporters right now who would not come close to admitting, “Huh! Looks like those skeptics had a point.”

Not at all! No matter what, I suspect the people running RealClimate would always fall back and say, “What do you expect? This is how science progresses. Newtonian mechanics made faulty predictions about Mercury’s orbit; does that mean Christian zealots should have banned the Principia from classrooms? And just because Michael Crichton appears to have been right, we shouldn’t give him credit. He still clearly didn’t know what the hell he was talking about–just look at how he fumbled forcings versus feedback effects in this op ed!! Anyway, now that we are much more confident in our models, the government should set taxes in the following manner…”

Now back to faith and reason. When I say I have faith in Jesus, this is neither irrational nor arational. I can give “logical” and “scientific” arguments for why I believe the gospel accounts. No doubt an atheist would laugh hysterically at my arguments, but my point is, I would make arguments: I wouldn’t just say, “My gut tells me so,” or, “You just have to believe, man, and accept that it doesn’t make sense.”

At the same time, there really is a leap involved, and that comes in when you trust or have faith that God is benevolent. I think reason alone can establish that there is a conscious being who designed the universe we observe. But if you accept the existence of free will, then Hume’s problem of induction shows that reason alone could never establish that God intends to help you in the future. For all we know, everything in the Bible is true…and it’s all a big scam. I.e. it is possible that a man called Jesus really did walk on water, tell his apostles to love each other, heal the sick, etc., and the whole time he was laughing to himself because he knew these gullible clowns would start a religion based on this stuff.

There is no way you can use pure reason to rule that out. Now don’t get confused, atheist readers: You will probably be tempted to say, “Why are you including the walking on water? Occam’s Razor says there was a guy named Jesus who obeyed the laws of physics, and then his feats got magnified over time. He still could have fooled everyone, without invoking miracles.”

That’s fine, but my point here is, even if we had a video crew go back in time and show us exactly what happened, Christians are still taking a leap of faith no matter what. Even if our time-traveling crew goes back and sees that Mel Gibson was spot-on in what transpired, that alone wouldn’t prove that you ought to give your life to Christ. Again, this is because he could still be a con man. At best, viewing the tape (and using your reason) you could make a Caplan-esque statement such as, “After viewing this man Jesus’ actions, I have updated my priors and now assign a 99.997% probability to the existence of heaven.” Sorry, but if that’s how you’re viewing it, then you’re not trusting Jesus, and you don’t get the secret decoder ring promised in the gospels.

So for me, I know that my reason alone could never definitively rule out the possibility that Jesus is a con man. But I don’t think He is. I have faith that someone who acted and spoke like He did, wasn’t a liar. I can’t use reason to prove that, even though I believe the position is eminently reasonable.

Finally, note the role of free will. A god can always choose to surprise you in the future, rendering your faith in him/her/it inaccurate, because s/he/it has free will. In general, free will puts a chain link fence around the knowledge that reason alone can give us.

Hence, when God designed the universe, His decision to include free will made faith both possible and advantageous. Possible, because without free will, we can’t choose whether to believe something or not; it makes no sense to ask if a rock has faith in the law of gravity. Advantageous, because (assuming my worldview is correct) those who have faith in God are availing themselves of a tremendous wealth of wisdom of people, and knowledge of how the universe really operates. In contrast, faith-less agnostics who insist on using only reason are akin to scientists who only consult the work of English speakers.

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