Rich Sam Asks the Big Question of Faith

This series of blogs has been spurred by the apparent conflict between scientific styles of reasoning and faith. But we have had to do a lot of “throat-clearing,” defining terms and clarifying ideas. In this post, I’ll allow Rich Sam to offer what I think is perhaps the most important criticism of what I’ve been saying about faith. In turn, in the next blog, we will start to really look at what faith is and how it applies to apologetics. That is, we’re almost to the goal of this series.

The time it is taking to put this all into a series of blogs is a testament to the depth and richness of faith. If anything, it is not an act of wishful thinking, nor simply a “belief without evidence.” I think most believers recognize this, but have difficulty explaining or defending faith itself. Indeed, usually when we say that we’re defending (the) faith, we mean doctrines that we hold, not the means by which we came to the conclusion that they were true. Rare is the person who comes to believe by virtue of scientific-style proofs and logical argumentation. In fact, that is arguably impossible, since faith cannot be acquired by human power alone. My goal here is not to convince anyone to have faith. It is merely an attempt to distill the thoughts of the intellectual giants who have made defenses of faith,[1] and thus show that faith should by no means be derided as irrational or delusory. It may, in fact, be essential to rationality. Of course, in turn, I’d like us to be clear enough about faith so that we can see the boundaries of faith—that believing whatever you want, and that there are epistemological (and morally) unsound means of coming to beliefs that we have labelled “faith,” but is emphatically not faith. It’s just bad thinking.

So, this is the goal of these blogs. Faith, as we’ll see, walks a fine line between the extremes of the delusion of relativism (and the related sloppy/lazy-thinking that we often erroneously label “faith”) and the delusion of scientism.[2] We’ve seen already a bit of how faith is different than scientific-style thinking. Let’s see if it falls into relativism.

Review: Rich Sam, C.S. Lewis, and a Banana

A quick review: The goal of what I’ve been writing about in these last few blogs is to work out the relationship between faith and scientific reasoning. I have argued that faith is a way of seeing that is influenced by values, but so is science. In fact, all perception requires some filtering and organization of inputs, and this organization and filtering can only be values—wants, needs, concerns, fears, loves, etc.

This already suggests that the criticism that those with faith “see what they want to see” is not so terrible a criticism. But that criticism also applies to science.

Indeed, as was suggested in the previous blog about bananas, it may be that science—or, rather, scientism—is in fact encouraging us to become truncated thinkers, with emaciated chests, and the incapacity to see what is truly there: Value (beyond control).

And that there is in fact value in the world is what sets a boundary on the beliefs that one can develop from faith. Faith does not drive us to fanciful beliefs about whatever is that we wish were true. That’s delusion. Faith is valued-perception, to be sure, but it is perception formed by valuing what is in fact there.

A Paradox?

Now, an astute reader may notice a problem here. And, in fact, even if you’d not consider yourself terribly astute, my guess is that you have this nagging sense that I am leading you down the road into that great (and silly) error of our time: The rejection of objective truth.

Let’s allow Rich Sam to make this criticism of relativism against me:

“You have said that perception can only happen when values have filtered and organized whatever inputs we are getting from the world. This seems a problem already! If all perception must be formed by values, then we have no access to how the world really is. And people with different values will see the world differently, and we cannot make any kind of judgment about anybody’s beliefs because we have no access to pure fact! That’s relativism and it brings epistemology and ethics crashing down into nihilism!

“But not only that, you have said, strangely, that faith involves perception that is formed by values that truly exist in the world. But how in the world could you possibly know this? You cannot perceive any value in the world without your perception having been formed by values that you already held. And so your view is colored and may be causing you to see something that isn’t really there—how could you even know?

“It is like someone saying that the proper way of seeing is to put on yellow sunglasses. Those around her then say, ‘But why yellow sunglasses?’ And she replies, ‘Because, in reality, the sky is green. And I can see that it is through yellow sunglasses.’ To which they reply, ‘But it only looks green because of your yellow sunglasses.’ And she, shaking with the zeal of the faithful declares, ‘But it is a fact that the sky is green. I see it. And you would too if you cared about the truth enough to put on yellow sunglasses!’

“We would rightfully consider such a person silly and confused. And that seems to be the conclusion of this long bit of nonsense trying to say that faith is good at all!”

I’m not sure why Rich Sam needs to use so many exclamation points, but even if we remove those, he still has a point. If Rich Sam is right in his criticism of me, then I agree that I must be wrong. So, let me respond with two points.

First, there is at least one place where we all can meet: The world as presented to us by science (and science-like thinking). This is, we might say, a somewhat neutral place where we can discuss and bicker about disagreements. It is not absolutely neutral, but it is close to universally-agreed-upon. And it is in fact objective—not in the sense of being “value-less perception,” but in the sense of a way of perceiving things as objects—things to be controlled/used.

And it is not as if the value of control is distorting our view of things. It is rather that it is a truncated or partial view of what is in fact there. It is like seeing the shadow of something or seeing it in greyscale or in a dimly lit room: You’re not in error about the thing, you simply can’t see the entirety of its color and perhaps even its shape.

Partial views of things do not become distortions until one insists that the partial view is the whole, and that any other aspect must be false.

Let me offer an example (again): A human being, as perceived by science, is ultimately a mere collection of physical causes. These causes are beyond our control or natural ability to see. Humans have no dignity or intrinsic value any more than any other collection of causes has dignity or value.

Now, I doubt many scientists or lovers of science would make such a claim. But if science is the final arbiter of all truth, then things such as human dignity are mere fantasies stumbled upon by blind chance that happened to make our DNA better at reproducing itself. That anyone matters at all is a useful tool for survival of the species. That is its only meaning and ground.

Of course, many of those who embrace faith may in fact suffer from the same problem of only looking at part of the world and declaring it the whole—something we may have to touch on down the road.

The point is simply that we do have a place that we can meet. But this place where we meet—the domain of science—is not the realm of all facts, while places where we differ are places of mere subjective opinion.[3] There are facts that science cannot see. That all humans have a basic dignity is one of those facts. Scientists see this fact, but science does not. And a true adherent of scientism could not see beyond what science sees.

So much for an initial response. But what we’ve covered does not quite save us from the critique of Rich Sam that, in declaring that all perception is formed by value, we are therefore removed from how things really are. Let me offer a second response that has a few more details.

So, how do we respond to the problem noted in the analogy of the yellow sunglasses that Rich Sam stated? I have said that faith responds to values that are in fact really there—values that science alone cannot see. It’s as if we want the sky to be green, so we grab a pair of yellow sunglasses, and then declare that we are putting on the yellow sunglasses so we can see that the sky is in fact green.

Firstly, the analogy is bad: Unlike with the sky and sunglasses, there is no perception of the world that is not colored in some way by the values we hold. Many contemporary atheists think that faith is like a pair of colored sunglasses, while science is seeing things with clear eyes unaffected by sunglasses. But there is no seeing things without the analogical colored sunglasses. So the analogy does not quite work.

It is not even a matter of sunglasses, but a matter of light. Values are like light,[4] and to claim that you can see without value is like claiming to be able to see without light.

But if I say that the analogy is bad, doesn’t that simply prove Rich Sam’s point? If we have no direct access to the world, un-colored by values, then how can we recognize which values are real and which are not?

It sure seems that I have fallen into some sort of postmodern relativism, in which none of us have access to reality and so all factual claims are merely interpretations!

And this brings us back to a point made earlier that in many ways answers Rich Sam’s criticism, though it may not be clear how: The world contains value. So the claim that one must perceive the world in an “objective” (meaning here “without value”) manner is simply false.

Again, though, Rich Sam could simply say: “But how can you be sure that your values aren’t coloring things? How can you know that the values that you see are in fact there, rather than simply being projections of values that you already hold? Put simply: How can you know that your values are not merely wishful thinking?”

I think this is the crux of the issue. It is here—or upon recognizing the danger of arriving at this point—that most apologists bristle and begin to try to lay out a set of factual claims to prove that God exists, and so on. But I’m going to take a slightly different direction. A far more fascinating and rich direction, I think.

I may be wrong, and welcome your instruction if you would like to dialogue. Responding to this problem will be the topic of the next blog or two…or, you know, however many it takes to get there.

[1] Perhaps the most important defense of the epistemological legitimacy of religious belief is that of Alvin Plantinga, while expositions of faith that I have used and are far better than what I write here can be found in a variety of thinkers. I personally recommend Josef Pieper’s On Faith, as well as Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments and Concluding Unscientific Postscript. And, of course, the podcast “W_ndering Toward Wisdom” I have been doing with Dr. Joel Schwartz which has covered some related topics of how value affects perception, and the formation of theories in science.

[2] Scientism is an ideological term. It refers to that belief, which cannot be determined by science, that science is the final arbiter of all truth. Such a view is obviously self-referentially incoherent, and depends on a view of metaphysics, epistemology, and a philosophical anthropology that goes far beyond the domain of science. Many have held this view as a kind of heuristic principle, useful for gaining new knowledge about the physical universe by avoiding appeals to the transcendent as (easy?) explanations of difficult to understand phenomena. Perhaps simply by habit they’ve come to embrace a useful practice as an all-embracing ideology. Of course, I’m not sure anyone actually embraces this view, except when they’re in an argument about religion.

[3] Curiously, Plato, in his allegory of the cave (Republic,Book VII) seems to imply that the place of meeting would be down in the darkness of the cave, where people saw only shadows of things, rather that in the realm of light and clarity of vision. That is, where we meet the majority of people to dialogue is not the place of full truth, but rather partial truth. This may be the case, in that science is a place of more easily accessible truths about the world—not that science is easy, nor that discoveries have been made that require little intelligence! Rather, the place of shadows is that on which we can more easily agree. And by “easily agree,” I would follow Plato’s lead in the Republic, where he says that moving from the shadows to seeing reality requires that one’s soul be turned toward the Good. That is, one must develop rightly ordered values to see what is in fact there. The stuff in science requires no such turning. So, while it requires vigorous intellect, that is relatively easy compared to turning one’s entire being toward the Good. In fact, in the Republic, those in the cave were chained and only turned toward the Good when compelled essentially by force (of course, to Plato this “force” was philosophy, not physical force or threats).

[4] If you’re familiar with Plato, you’ll perhaps recognize that I’m saying something he said over 2000 years ago, in which he compares the Good with the sun, which makes all things see-able (and knowable). Of course, what I am saying might also make sense of how Jesus refers to himself as truth (and the way and the life) and also as the light of the world. Perhaps Jesus isn’t making a simple metaphor about how he brings hope, but also making an epistemological claim that to know him—more specifically, to love him—makes one capable of truly understanding the world.