Is faith a problem in the Christian system? Is faith the weak link? Can faith stand up to science and reason?
In today’s GodStuff podcast, Bill dives into the topic of how we know stuff. He makes the case the faith is part of every system, including science, math, logic, and rationalism.
This episode of God Stuff is based on a chapter in Bill’s first apologetics book, Four Letter Words, Conversations on Faith’s Beauty and Logic. You can find that chapter below :
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HOW DO YOU KNOW?
For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 1 Corinthians 1:22-24
At the height of my personal conflict with evolution, I had a pretty deep cafeteria discussion with Peanuts, a childhood friend. He got his nickname from a comic strip. We had attended elementary school together and were high school locker partners for four years. Peanuts’ rendition ofFür Elise inspired me into three whole years of piano lessons. He was one of my smartest friends—now a Ph.D. professor at a major American university. He was also one of my most non-religious friends. He wasn’t anti- religious; he treated my faith and me with respect. He just didn’t care much about Jesus and the Bible.
He didn’t even argue when I asked him to remove the bag of marijuana from our locker.
Our most memorable lunch debate revolved around evolution. I ate standard public-school cafeteria fare: leathery hamburger, no cheese, extra ketchup, and fries. Plus cole-slaw I was forced to take but refused to eat. Peanuts ate a cheeseburger.
He nailed me with the argument that he had science on his side, but I only had faith. I was stumped. Faith vs. Science seemed like an unfair fight, with Faith as the 98- pound weakling. Peanuts struck all the standard evolutionary blows: the fossil record, natural selection, the geological record, there’s no way Noah’s flood could have
happened, the scientific consensus. What made our debate extra-painful was that he was so nice about it. I was doomed. Until I asked the Question. It turned the struggle in my favor.
The Question redefined our whole conversation. I kept asking it over and over. I asked the Question so often that, by the end of lunch, Peanuts admitted that my faith in Christ wasn’t such a weak thing after all. What was the Question that stumped him?
“How do you know?”
No matter what he told me about evolution, I just asked him, “How do you know?” Not, how do other people know, or how do scientists know, or how do mathematicians know… but how do you personally know what you know?
I kept asking until he grinned a sly smile and conceded, “Through faith.”
Making Peace With Faith
I’ve made peace with faith. I used to think it was something I had to hide, like a flaw in the system. I believed in a Creator God by faith, but couldn’t prove Him to my friends or myself. So I lived with a brittle confidence, nervous that the sheer weight of logic and science would eventually shatter my sheltered, Christian cubicle.
As the third film in the Indiana Jones franchise races toward its climax, Indy, while searching for the Holy Grail, steps into a gaping chasm toward certain death. He takes this step of faith, against all logic and evidence, only to find his foot planted on an invisible bridge.
In that scene, faith and rationality oppose each other, as if faith goes hand in hand with intellectual suicide.
That was precisely my struggle. I was ready for faith, but couldn’t bring myself to throw my intellect off the bus. I wanted both, but didn’t think I could have both.
Then I discovered there was more faith in the world than dirt, and that everything anybody knew, they came to know at least partly through faith. I’m not calling faith “dirt.” I’m just saying that, just as there’s a whole lot of dirt in the world, there’s a whole lot of faith—more than most of us realize. If you’re going to badmouth faith as a weak link in the Christian chain of knowing, then you have to admit that it’s in every chain—modern, postmodern, scientific, religious, empirical, rational, or mathematical. We’re all passengers on the same ship of faith, so to speak. Before you send me off for therapy, think with me.
The Shape Of The Moon And Other Stuff We’re Sure Of
Consider the shape of the moon. Is it round like a pancake or round like a ball? Obviously like a ball. A sphere.
Here’s where I ask you the Question: How do you know?
You have only three conceivable ways of knowing this little tidbit of information: you might not like the third one, and the first two don’t work the way you’d expect.
The First Way: Empiricism
One conceivable way to discover the shape of the moon would be to fly there and check it out yourself. Astronauts have done that, of course. So we know conclusively from human experience that the moon is a sphere (okay, it’s a little oblong, but work with me).
Philosophers call this experiential kind of knowing empiricism. It’s also called the “empirical method” and the “scientific method.” Empiricism boils down to your five senses. What you see, hear, touch, taste, and feel is what you know. You might not be interested in knowing that philosophers like John Locke argued that our minds were blank slates—he said it in Latin, tabula rasa, think “erased markerboards”—until we built truth upon truth through our senses.
In fact, sixteenth century Scottish philosopher, David Hume, taught that all knowledge enters our mind through the gate of our senses. And Nietzsche declared, “All credibility, all good conscience, all evidence of truth come only from the senses.”
This is why science is built on the senses: observation, experimentation, and replication. Until science has directly observed a phenomenon—say the evolution of one species into another—its conclusions remain tentative and are called theories, not facts.
The empirical method lifted society out of the dark ages. Every vaccine you’ve received is based on observation, experimentation, and replication. The electricity that lights up your computer screen is a product of science. So are safe drinking water and air conditioning. Thank God for the empirical method.
So, when we ask how we know that the moon is round like a ball, the answer is simple. We know it empirically. The astronauts who went there told us so.
You might argue, “Hey, I like the empirical method. You said it wouldn’t work the way I’d expect.” I know, I know. Give me a few more paragraphs till I devastate you, okay? I’ll be gentle.
A voice from the past, maybe Ptolemy or Eratosthenes, might shout forward through the corridors of time, “Attention twenty-first century people: we figured out that the moon was a sphere long before spaceships went there.” How did they do it?
Simple. They did the math.
The Second Way: Rationalism
So now you’re on my side, thinking, “You’re right. I don’t like how this option works; I hate math.” See? Soon you’ll be sprinting in my direction.
Mathematics is the tip of a gigantic iceberg of knowledge called rationalism. We can also call it logic, reason, or deductive reasoning. Rationalism suggests that we acquire knowledge by combining one truth with another truth and coming up with new truths. Major premise plus minor premise equals new conclusion. That new conclusion can then serve as a new premise in an endless quest for new conclusions.
Almost 200 years ago, Georg Hegel threw a major pie in what has become philosophy’s longest-running food fight when he declared, “What is rational is actual and what is actual is rational. On this conviction the plain man, like the philosopher, takes his stand, and from it, philosophy starts in its study of the universe of mind as well as the universe of nature.”
Empiricists squared off against rationalists. They asked where rationalists got their very first truth—the mother of all truths—if not from their five senses, which would make them empiricists. Rationalists shot back that there are certain self-evident truths that get the ball rolling. Like the law of identity which says that a = a. It’s a good starting point, so let’s just assume it’s true, and keep moving.
Rationalists like Socrates, Plato, and Descartes believed that we know what we know because we deduced it logically from self-evident starting points.
As a natural-born geek, I have a hard time curbing my enthusiasm for rationalism. I love the vast, interior world of the mind. The idea of endlessly combining truths to form new ones feels like fun. Sorry, I can’t help it.
Rationalism gave us math, which gave us engineers, which gave us football stadiums, which gave us many exciting hours of cheering for our favorite teams.
It also saved a lot of time. If rationalism and mathematics can show that the earth is pretty much a sphere, and that the sun is pretty much a sphere, you can safely infer that most round-looking celestial objects are spheres instead of pancakes, including the moon. It’s efficient that way.
Without using these terms, my friend, Peanuts, pointed the big guns of empiricism and rationalism against my pea- shooter-sized faith. What neither of us realized was that God majors in using pea-sized projectiles to topple giants.
The Third Way: Faith
When I was a little boy, maybe six or seven, I asked my older cousin Linda why we had day and night. She held a bright red tomato next to a nearby table lamp. She dug her fingernail into the tomato to dent the skin. Then she said that the lamp was like the sun, the tomato was like the earth, and we lived by the dent. She spun the tomato around and explained that the earth spins around. When our side of earth faced the sun, it was day. When it faced away from the sun, it was night.
I was skeptical. I pointed out that it was still light on the backside of the tomato and asked how come we don’t fall off the fingernail dent. It took some doing, but she convinced me. She seemed to know what she was talking about.
Odds are strong that the way you learned that the moon is spherical is the same way that I learned about day and night: somebody else told you and you believed.
Odds are also strong that, most of what you know, you came to know the same way. An older cousin or a teacher or a parent or a pastor spoke with authority and you believed. Faith is not simply an anti-intellectual step into nothingness, it is first and foremost confidence in an authority.
Even for scientific stuff. That’s why I kept asking Peanuts the Question.
Peanuts said, “There’s a fossil record, and it shows how life became more complex over time.
I said, “How do you know?”
He said, “Well scientists have dug this stuff up and they’ve described it.”
I said, ‘How do you know?”
He said, “Well I read about it.”
I said, “Well, I read about a Creator God.”
Neither Peanuts nor I had direct experience of cosmic origins. We both accepted the testimony of an authority. Our parents and teachers or authors or preachers told us stuff, and we believed them.
We have a word for this.
We both had faith; we just confided it in different authorities.
I know a great many things by faith. I know that the moon is a sphere; that New Zealand is an island in the south-west Pacific; that peanuts grow underground; that coffee beans grow on trees instead of accrete on cave walls as crystals; that a long time ago a volcano wiped out Pompeii; and that the Baltimore Orioles play in Camden Yards.
Others can make those first hand claims. I can’t. Other people have an empirical and/or rational basis for knowing that stuff. I don’t. I take their word for it. I know all of that and so much more by faith.
You might be silently shouting—“Hey smart guy, we have pictures and eyewitness testimony and evidence that the moon’s a sphere. It’s not just faith!” Nice try. Haven’t you heard of Photoshop or of forgeries? You still have to take a leap of faith to believe the truthfulness of that kind of evidence. Faith is confidence in someone else’s testimony.
Most of what we know, we know by faith, and if you’re going to condemn Christians for basing their system on faith, shouldn’t you be fair and hold yourselves to the same standard—thus condemning a whole lot of what you know and how you came to know it? Perhaps including evolution, or the denial of miracles, or the Big Bang?
That’s how I made peace with faith. Partly. It gets deeper.
You might argue, “You’re right in that I don’t like the third way (faith), though I grudgingly agree that a lot of what’s in my head got there by faith. But I’m perfectly fine with the first two. In fact, I’d say there’s more empiricismthan dirt, not faith. And there’s more rationalism than faith. And even if I don’t know stuff directly, there’s still more empirical data and rational calculation to support my worldview instead of yours. After all, if I really wanted to prove that the moon’s a sphere, I could fly up there and take a look—but how are you going to prove that Jesus is God? I still have science and logic on my side—you’re stuck with measly faith.”
Okay. Let’s chip away at that confidence right now.
The Mother of all Knowledge
I don’t want to give the impression that empiricism, rationalism, and faith are mutually exclusive categories, like aliens from three different planets who can’t communicate with each other. No. The three are much more like relatives at a coffee shop, interacting, sharing biscotti, and laughing at each other’s jokes.
Nor am I saying that Christianity sacrifices logic or science. Not at all. It embraces both. Rightly respected, faith, reason, and experience get along famously.
But, when you picture these relatives at the table, you should picture two children and a mom. They’re not equals.
There’s More Faith Than Dirt
I would like to make the case the Faith is the mother of the other two.
During the middle of my seven-year college program, I thought a lot about what I believed. I began to suspect that an argument based on faith was the weakest argument of all. Sometimes a part of me still thinks that way.
So I wrote another life changing term paper. This one was on Epistemology, which is the philosophical inquiry into how we know stuff, which is exactly what we’ve been talking about since the beginning of this chapter. The class was called Introduction to Philosophy. My state university scheduled us at 8:00 a.m., a bad time for philosophy by anyone’s standard. I slept through a few of the class sessions (and don’t get smart and say it shows), but that’s okay because the class held about 200 students in a giant lecture hall, dozens also comfortably dozing, so I went unnoticed.
Till I wrote an epistemological term paper the teacher’s aide really liked. All I did was suggest that rationalism and empiricism both begin with a leap of faith. Think of the hackles that would raise! Hardcore scientists, brilliant logicians, dedicated atheists, convinced evolutionists, and my friend, Peanuts, having to admit their chains of knowledge dangle from a link of faith. Hah!
Here’s how someone might make that case.
Empiricism and Faith
Empiricism boils down to the five senses. Even as a kid you probably had discussions wondering if what you see and feel is real. How do you know that you’re not just imagining everything? That your whole life isn’t a dream? Or a figment of God’s colorful imagination? Or a scene from
The Matrix? Or a detailed fantasy telepathically inserted into your brain? How do you know that what your senses tell you is an accurate depiction of a universe that really exists outside your brain?
Answer: you don’t know, at least not through evidence. You assume that your five senses work, and then you build your empirical empire upon that assumption. Philosophers call that a assumption a priori knowledge. Physicist and cosmologist Paul Davies—a professor at Arizona State University—calls it faith. In his New York Times article, “Taking Science on Faith”, he wrote:
“Over the years I have often asked my physicist colleagues why the laws of physics are what they are. The answers vary from “that’s not a scientific question” to “nobody knows.” The favorite reply is, “There is no reason they are what they are — they just are.” The idea that the laws exist reasonlessly is deeply anti-rational…. [U]ntil science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.”14
Step one in the vast empire called Empiricism is faith— faith in your observations and in your senses. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not knocking it. I’m pro-faith. I’m just pointing it out.
But if we’re going to knock Christians for taking their leap of faith, isn’t it only fair that we use the same standard to knock scientists and empiricists and Starbucks baristas and students and teachers and politicians and modernists and postmodernists and truck drivers and mechanics and agnostics and ourselves and pretty much everybody for taking the same leap?
What I wrote in my paper was that the whole system of empiricism rests on a foundation of faith; you can’t avoid it. If you consider faith a corrosive element, then look carefully at your own system for rust.
“Nice job!” commented the teacher’s assistant.
Rationalism and Faith
I made the same argument with rationalism, though it was easier. Because rationalists admit a set of unproven presuppositions called Postulates (or Axioms). Not only are they unproven, they are unprovable. Which to me smells a whole lot like faith.
Mr. or Ms. Rationalist, I ask you, How do you know that a = a? Can you prove it? Even a basic algebra book acknowledges that mathematics rests on unprovable assumptions. Here’s how Wikipedia explains it: “In traditional logic, an axiom or postulate is a proposition that is not proved or demonstrated but considered to be either self-evident, or subject to necessary decision. Therefore, its truth is taken for granted, and serves as a starting point for deducing and inferring other (theory dependent) truths.”
Not proven. Taken for granted.
Sounds like faith.
Faith is trust in an authority: for empiricism, the authority is our senses. For rationalism, the authority is our postulates—the logical concepts that get the rational ball rolling. For Christianity, the authority is Jesus and his Word.
In my paper I wrote that not only does the empirical method rest squarely on a foundation of faith, but so does rationalism. The three great systems of thought are like inverted pyramids, resting massive edifices of knowledge on a tiny tip of faith.
Yet, even with all this faith, we still have a sense of certainty and confidence in what we know. We would argue with a flat-moon theorist just as we would argue with a scientist from the past who put the earth at the center of the solar system. We’re confident enough about most stuff to fight for it. Even though it rests on faith.
I’m just saying that faith and confidence go hand in hand; they’re not opposites. That’s why I can be so confident Jesus is my Savior and that I find life’s meaning in him, and not in a cocky way. Why should the fact that my system rests on faith undercut my confidence in Christ? If every system rests on faith, why should I be any less confident in Christ Jesus’ forgiveness and love than a scientist is confident in her evolution or a rationalist in his postulates?
We’re just pinning our faith to different authorities. That’s not to say that Christianity is irrational or non-experiential. For me, it is supremely rational—it makes more sense than any other world-view—even thought I don’t have answers for all my doubts. It’s supremely experiential, too. God seems real to me. Jesus is precious to me. In my life, faith joins hands with reason and experience and walks them across the busy street called life.
People who are skeptical about Christianity aren’t really skeptical about faith; after all, they use faith every moment of every day.
They’re skeptical of our authority: the Bible. Now, that’s a different conversation, isn’t it.
Anyhow, that’s how I made peace with Faith. Yeah… I’m a Christian and my system is built on faith. I admit it.
By the way, Peanuts, my extremely smart friend and a professor of biology, is now also one of the most devoted followers of Jesus I know. Maybe faith isn’t intellectual suicide after all.