Faith vs. Reason

July 18, 2011
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Like it or not, we are all forced to take most of what we know on faith.
Technically, I know nothing besides what I have experienced in my own life. The only reason I believe that the earth revolves around the sun is because I am taking scientists’ word for it that they know what they are doing. Likewise, I’m no micro-biologist; the doctor tells me that I am sick because a virus is living in my system, so I believe her because the medicine she’s given me in the past has done its job and I therefore assume she understands things I don’t. For all I personally know it’s all been one big lie and society is cleverly pulling the wool over my eyes. I have no evidence of DNA, I can just point to people who claim they do. Most of my knowledge of the world comes to me through other people who I have learned to trust. What I know is that to my eyes the sky is blue, in my experience my family loves me, and to my knowledge the stars move across the heavens exactly when the almanac says they will. So I guess most of what I “know” is based on faith; faith in scientists, faith in doctors, faith in my parents, because as far as I can tell they have yet to lie to me.
A single human being will live to 120 years at the absolute maximum. To learn everything, or even a significant portion, of what there is to know about the world is impossible. We have to start somewhere, founding our basic understanding of the world on the word of those who have gone before or are already here when we arrive. So when it comes down to it, the vast majority of what any one person knows is based on faith of what others have told them. If you were suddenly to appear in the world, senses fully functioning but without a single person to guide you about what is right, what is wrong, which ways are north and south and inform you that actually, all the matter in the universe was once fit into a speck smaller than a pea, you would simply never know. And unless I set out to personally prove that each and every road, mountain or for that matter country in my atlas really do exist, I have to take it on faith that the makers of the atlas have no reason to make things up and I should trust in what they say.
Logically of course, what I learn about the world through other people generally adds up with what I have experienced of the world, which gives me no solid reason to doubt the mechanic when he tells me what is wrong with a car; whatever he did to it last time seemed to fix the problem, so what grounds do I have to doubt him?
Where this obviously gets dangerous is when what is passed on to us through seemingly reliable sources does not make sense, even to our trusting minds. As an April Fool’s Day joke, one news program ran a story on farmer’s dismay that their spaghetti crops were being ruined by the infamous spaghetti weevil; the next day they actually had people phoning in to ask how they could grow their own spaghetti trees. It is rather disturbing to watch how people’s own sense of reason is abandoned when someone who supposedly knows more about the world makes a confident claim, however absurd the claim is. This is the little-recognized danger of the school system. It takes advantage of people’s natural inclination to identify someone (in this case the teacher) as all-knowing, and then let themselves be told what to believe.
So where does this all fit into religion? Well, how different is it to trust a text book vs. trust a Bible? It all depends on where you’ve been taught to place your faith. In our society, it seems that the extent of our individual logic skills is limited to deciding which existing doctrine to blindly follow.
Another problem this leaves is the situation in which what my “faith”, that is, science, tells me not always adding up to my personal experiences; coincidences too paranormal to be coincidences, inklings of the unknowable too ineffaceable to be mere inklings. This leads me to the conclusion that science cannot, in fact, explain everything. I also find myself clinging to this conclusion; the idea of a world in which science could explain everything is tinged with bleakness. Instead of fearing the unknown, I find myself wishing, for imagination’s sake, that there was more of it.
Perhaps, though, even the wish to believe in magic or god harkens back to the anthropological and completely explainable instinct of wanting there to be someone wiser and more powerful looking out for me. The picture of human beings alone in an empty universe, armed only with reason and a few test tubes, scares the living daylights out of me.
Yes, I believe my biology books when they explain natural selection, because to my view of the world, it makes sense. But I have to have faith that there is something else, something greater; if I didn’t, my logic would seem useless and meaningless. The purpose of reason is to help us survive and progress; the purpose of faith is to make us want to.

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