Faith and doubt

Faith is very often understood by people as a defeat of intelligence. In other words, faith begins when I can no longer think creatively, when I let go o any attempt at rational understanding, and when I say ‘I believe’ because it is so absurd that it is the only way of facing the problem. … But this is not faith as understood by the great men of all religions, and particularly the Christian faith. Anthony Bloom, God and Man

This misunderstanding is what is usually discussed by secularists who attempt to draw distinctions between “faith” (used disparagingly) and what can be “known” through reason and science. While there are, of course, many people whose faith could fall into this “bad” faith. However, while it may serve the purpose of materialists to categorize all instances of faith as this bad faith, this becomes something of a straw man argument, as it is based on what is called a hasty generalization, a logical fallacy which presumes that certain traits of a small sample are held in common in a larger population.

Anthony Bloom takes a rather interesting approach to the issue of faith, as he was educated in the sciences prior to his becoming a priest, by comparing the skepticism of the scientist to the doubt encountered by Christians. First, however, he explains that faith which is based solely on the trust of what others say is inadequate, and will often be lost to doubt when challenged by life experiences or other contrary information. Faith, to him, must be verified by personal experience; otherwise, it remains something which requires further investigation.

He also discusses the subjective element of knowledge. When we experience something, at that particular moment we cannot be objective about it. Our objectivity, as well as our faith, begins the moment after. We have certainty about what we experienced, but we are no longer experiencing it; that moment has passed. He quotes the definition of faith from Hebrews 11, that faith is the “certainty of things unseen,” saying “We usually lay the stress on ‘things unseen’ and forget the ‘certainty’ about them.

This reminds me of the film Contact, based on the book by Carl Sagan (who, by the way, worked on the screenplay, but died during the movie’s production). The movie makes some very interesting changes from the book, spending more time focusing on the concept of belief. (Warning, plot spoiler ahead!) At the end of the film, Jodi Foster is faced with having this certainty of belief based on her subjective experience, without the benefit of any objective evidence. It would seems that in some respects, especially if you’re a fan of Schroedinger, that there is no such thing as purely objective scientific belief; it is all based on a subjective moment. Science, however, hopes to be able to repeat these subjective moments to create some consistent objective data.

Bloom suggests that Christians should adopt the scientists’ attitude toward doubt: “For the scientist, doubt is a systematic weapon; it is a joy.” Christians, on the other hand, often take a different attitude toward doubt, reacting with anguish. Bloom goes on to explain the scientists’ methods, explaining that if a scientist is merely interested in protecting his reputation, he will defend his model from any criticism. However, a good scientist creates models specifically with the intent of breaking them, so he can create better models:

At the root of the scientist’s activity there is the certainty that what he is doubting is the model he has invented … But what he is also absolutely certain of is that the reality which is beyond his model is in no danger if his model collapses (emphasis mine). The reality is stable, it is there; the model is an inadequate expression of it, but the reality doesn’t alter because the model shakes.

Bloom then suggests that “truth” can be substituted for “model,” suggesting that truth (as we know it):

is something which is an expression of reality, and an expression means two things: first, that the reality which surrounds us in perceived (obviously incompletely; secondly, that it is expressed (also incompletely …).

He compares our understanding of truth to a snapshot, which is a perfect representation of a slice of reality, but which is a false representation of the whole of reality. Our knowledge of truth is, to some extent static whereas reality is dynamic. Our theologies, our philosophies, as with our scientific models, are therefore falsified as we try to represent something beyond the model.

His point, again, is that as Christians, we should embrace doubt – which is not complete loss of belief but rather the recognition that our model may be inadequate – as the scientist doubts, because the scientist “believes in the reality beyond and not in the model he has constructed.”

A couple of comments on Bloom’s thinking: First, he is obviously speaking in very ideal terms about the methods of scientists. As has been discussed about the recent publication on ID by the NAS, as well as with topics like global warming, there seems to be a lot of model protecting going on. I’ve seen this justified and rationalized, but the fact remains that this is model-protecting. Some is based on what is needed to secure and maintain funding, or issues relating to tenure, and so on, but it is naive to think that all science functions as Bloom suggests.

Also, while I agree generally with Bloom’s thoughts about doubt, I think we can question that application of the scientific method as it pertains to issues of theology and philosophy. As will be discussed in connection with my series on Webber’s The Divine Embrace, this way of thinking presumes a Modernist mindset. I think we need to see the scientific method as a tool, and a limited tool at that; I think we err in assuming that science and logic have the last word when it comes to truth or reality.

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One Response to Faith and doubt

  1. Quixote says:

    Bloom’s assertion that “as Christians we should embrace doubt” not as “complete loss of belief but rather the recognition that our model may be inadequate” is really the theist’s own uncertainty principle. It is the robust belief that God is God and we are not. This is healthy if we are willing to accept as authoritative something other than our own experience. If we insist on the exclusive claims of our own experience (scientific method?) we run the risk of losing God entirely, at least losing a God who is God. Forgive me for this self-reference, but awhile back I touched upon your topic in a post of my own.

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