Do You Have to Choose between Your Brains and Your Beliefs? No, Part Two

Much of the confusion in this discussion surrounds the question of faith. Faith is typically seen as non-rational or even irrational by its opponents, who congratulate themselves on adhering strictly to evidence, inference, and the like. Worse, faith is sometimes championed precisely as absurd or “supra-rational” by some of its defenders. (Um, thanks a lot, guys.)

At least two mistakes about the concept of faith need to be dealt with here. The first is to think that faith is a peculiarly religious word and has nothing to do with everyday life. The second is to presume that faith has no relationship to knowledge, that the two stand as utterly separate categories of assent.

Some of us might think we can do entirely without any sort of faith and conduct our lives strictly according to what we (think we) know. Everyday life, however, constantly presses us beyond what we know (or think we know) and requires us to exercise faith. We frequently find ourselves compelled to trust beyond what we’re sure of, to make commitments that go outside our sense of safety. And yet these moments of trust and commitment—these acts of faith—are intrinsically and importantly related to knowledge.

Faith is what we do when we cantilever our lives out over what we do not and cannot know, while anchoring our lives upon what we think we do know. Faith relies on knowledge even as it moves out from knowledge into the unknown.

Darrell cannot know for certain that this canoe bobbing by the dock will still float once he gets in it, but he cannot be “mostly convinced” and stay with most of his weight committed to the canoe while reserving some of his weight for the dock. To enjoy the canoe, he has to get all the way in. He has to make a commitment. He has to exercise rationally-based faith.

No one, that is, exercises “blind faith” in anything—or anyone. Everyone has a reason to believe what he or she believes—even if someone else thinks it to be an insufficient reason, and even if it turns out in fact to be a poorly grounded belief. That’s why we trust something or someone: because we think we have good reason to do so.

This relationship of knowledge and faith holds in matters large and small, impersonal and personal. And it has immediate and important practical implications.

I would be a fool to refuse to sit in a chair until its adequacy had been conclusively demonstrated. Parents of small children can never have an evening out if they refuse to trust any babysitter. A woman would be a fool to refuse to marry her beloved until the marriage had been somehow guaranteed.

Life for us humans means risk, and the wise person is the one who does not seek certainty, but seeks instead adequate reason to believe the best alternative available. Then he or she ventures forward in faith, trusting something or someone because of what she thinks she knows about that thing or person.

So the question isn’t whether to have faith or not. The question is, In what or whom will I place faith, and on what grounds?

Thus you’d better use your brains when you’re choosing your beliefs–in the sense of deciding what or whom to trust. But you can’t confine yourself only to what your brains tell you: Life demands that we go beyond our comfort zones–even, and especially, our epistemic comfort zones–to risk…

…not stupidly, to be sure, but not in perfect safety, either. Welcome to the real world.

(Some readers might want to pursue the Christian understanding of faith in the article by that name I wrote in the following: Alister McGrath, ed., The Zondervan Handbook to Christian Belief [HarperZondervan, 2006].)

0 Responses to “Do You Have to Choose between Your Brains and Your Beliefs? No, Part Two”

  1. dtatusko

    In the spirit of giving a balanced critique…

    The atheist argument usually follows that I can trust in A because there have been enough externally validated instances in which A has yielded a predictable result. I do not believe it before this measure of predictability has been demonstrated by a disinterested observe, I believe because this predictability has been substantiated already. So why does an atheist not believe in miracles? They are not events that we can adequately reproduce.

    Now to the other side of the argument. The reason why we make such judgments is because we have a sense of belief that is motivated to believe in something this way as something more legitimate. Knowledge that cannot meet the requirements of predictability, testability and control are viewed as less legitimate since it can be purely subjective (the flying spaghetti monster). Yet when I make the argument that I cannot make my deep-seated love and trust I have in my wife any more predictable, repeatable or testable to a disinterested observer and have that love represented in the same way that I sense it as a directive and formative source for my entire lifeworld, the response is either that we are just biologically programmed to love for the success of the species, or that it is “not the same thing”.

    But my love for my wife and the sense that I have that the meeting I had with what I know as the same God who became incarnate in Christ and rose from the dead to over come sin and offer resurrection for me are two sides of the same coin. That is, both represent that intrinsic part of my self that receives the good in the best way. Now can I prove this or make it available under the same scientific strictures as a physicist? No. No. No. Not to see the instrisic qualitative difference is to ignore or lie to one’s own self that love is something that is intrinsically part of us, yet still is somehow outside of our grasp. Does the person who thinks it is just an evolutionary function that also exists in other species approach their sometimes irrational relationship with a beloved thusly? I seriously and reasonably doubt that this is the case. Otherwise Christopher Hitchens would kill off all of those who love him if it was expedient to the maximization of his survival as a female black widow devours her mate.

    This is why I see the argument for faith as a function of irrationality to be a lie conducted in order for an argument to be expedient and nothing more. If he is right, then the love I have for my wife is that which I ought to reject for the experience of my God is of one and the same wellspring that returns to its creator. Christian faith is rooted in the connection one has with a living God, not Harry Potter and that is the stumbling block that the resurrection has rendered unto us.

  2. What He Said « Just Wondering

    […] under the heading ‘Do You Have to Choose Between Your Brains and Your Beliefs?” and his latest discussion of the relationship between faith and knowledge is a more concise summary of what I think I meant […]

  3. Jerry

    These are my favorite parts of your post:

    “And yet these moments of trust and commitment—these acts of faith—are intrinsically and importantly related to knowledge”

    “Faith is what we do when we cantilever our lives out over what we do not and cannot know, while anchoring our lives upon what we think we do know. Faith relies on knowledge even as it moves out from knowledge into the unknown.”

    I agree that everyone uses mutable, tentative faith for the examples you’ve portrayed. It sounds like you could help me understand the act of putting faith in immaterial entities, too. So, my question is: what knowledge do we have of the immaterial world that we can use to make a rationally-based faith commitment on disputed specifics about immaterial entities?

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