Faith and Reason

Faith and reason.  Both are ways that people evaluate and understand the world around them, though for a long time we have tended to view them as profoundly different and even antithetical approaches.  Some people reject faith entirely and rely purely on reason.  Some people reject reason and rely purely on faith.  I think most people, however, compartmentalize their lives, relying on reason for certain aspects and faith for others.  For these people, faith tends to govern the realm of the spiritual, the personal, the subjective, and the unprovable, while reason governs the world of the physical, the public, the objective, and the provable. In this sense, then, the experiences of life are interpreted and understood in profoundly different ways based on which realm they occupy.  For example, when we look at the question of the cure for cancer, reason governs our approach.  Because of this, we assume the solution to be physical and for the good of the public as a whole.  Furthermore, we treat proposed cures objectively, and accept or reject them based on how they stand up to ongoing scrutiny.  When we look at religion, however, faith tends to govern our approach.  We assume that religion concerns the spiritual/emotional world (and usually not the physical world).  We see religious belief not as something for the public as a whole but rather for individuals, based on their personal thoughts and needs.  Furthermore, we view religion as subjective and generally see little value in scrutinizing it.

In the end, then, there is a sense that reason concerns the concrete and the real, while religion concerns the subjective and the hazy.  Reason, therefore, tends to be viewed in the general public as the more necessary of the two approaches – and the more reliable.  In fact, when a society leaves behind its faith-based roots and starts to become more reason-driven, this is usually seen as sign of progress.

This is a very understandable view of things, but it has a fundamental flaw.  The flaw is that reason is actually just another form of faith.  Reason does not reflect a different approach to understanding the world around us – rather, it represents trust in a different authority.  Whereas “faith” as we generally use the word refers to trust in things like religious texts, the testimony of others, or personal experience, “reason” refers to an ultimate trust in the logic of the human mind.  Reason and faith are both faith-based approaches to understanding life.

And both are unprovable.  People tend to see reason as the more reliable approach because it can be proven, whereas faith cannot.  But in actuality, reason cannot be proven either.  The only way to prove reason/logic is to use logic, which is itself the thing you are trying to prove.  If we were able to prove the trustworthiness of human logic, we would have to use some higher authority for evaluating it – but then what could prove the trustworthiness of that authority?

What we are getting at here is a fundamental characteristic of ultimate authority.  If it is ultimate, it can never be proven, but must always be trusted – on faith.  Reason, then, is not a proven approach to interpreting the world, but an assumed one.  The assumption is that human logic is ultimately cohesive, objective, and essentially unflawed.  While individuals may twist or misuse the logic of the human brain, in principle reason cannot fail.  This is a religious belief, and as far as the physical, political, tangible, on-the-ground problems of the world are concerned, most of the American public puts its hope in it.

Take, for example, how this faith interacts with human testimony to the supernatural.  If someone claims to have witnessed something supernatural in the tangible world which does not fit within the framework of human logic – such as a man coming back from the dead, the reasonable mind must dismiss it as impossible and come up with another explanation.  In fact, it cannot even consider the testimony.  If the soundness of human logic is the ultimate authority for the tangible world, and all scientific study negates the possibility of resurrection, then the supernatural cannot be accepted – because it is already excluded.

The reasonable mind will say that resurrection must be rejected because it is illogical.  But because reason is faith in human logic as the ultimate authority, “illogical” simply means that a certain phenomenon doesn’t bow to the authority of the human mind.  But this doesn’t mean it isn’t true.  It only means it isn’t true if you believe that logic is the ultimate authority.  To say something isn’t true because it isn’t logical is actually a religious statement – it’s a faith in the human mind over all other authorities.  But there are other authorities that people trust in.

My point, then, is that all people are people of faith.  Every decision anyone makes is based, ultimately, on faith in unprovable authorities.  Reason-driven decisions are just as faith-based as are religious ones.  This isn’t a problem – it’s just the way things are.

The ensuing question, then, is why do we trust what we trust?  If I assume human reason holds authority over a given religious text which makes claims contradictory to reason, why have I chosen to put my faith in one authority over the other?  That, in my opinion, is the most interesting question – and one that I think usually has little to do with reason.