How Reason Leads to Faith Part II

untitledMy last post examined the difference between “faith” and “reason.” Far from being opposites, as some skeptics contend, I argued that faith is often the rational response to a particular set of facts. I used the example of a spouse whose “faith” in her husband’s fidelity is rationally rooted and not just wishful thinking, because it is based on evidence. 

Another example may assist in clarifying the point. You find yourself on the third floor of a burning building. There is no escape from inside and your only hope is to jump from the window. You step out onto the ledge and look down.  The fire department has deployed a trampoline below your window, and the firefighters are instructing you in what to do. But stepping off that ledge goes against everything you’ve ever thought about heights and falling, and the effects of falling on the fragile human body.  Before this moment, you had zero faith that you could survive such a fall. When you decide to step off, you are placing your trust in the evidence of your senses – someone with the capacity to save you has taken the necessary steps to do so. As your feet leave the ledge, you are acting on “faith.”  The evidence before your eyes seems clear, but you cannot actually pre-test it. You must accept that the fire fighters are real and not fakes; that they know what they are doing; that they have tested their equipment and are confident that it works. As you step off the ledge, your faith in their ability to save you is not an act in opposition to reason; quite the contrary. And if you insisted on remaining where you were until they actually “proved” it would work, you would likely meet a rather unpleasant end.

 “So what?” the skeptic may respond. What difference does it make that faith and reason are not actually, or always, opposites? The difference is that many skeptics today dismiss all things religious as examples of wishful thinking, of crutches for those too weak to face reality, of irrational behavior. There is no God, they contend, because no one has ever “proven it.” Anyone who believes in God, therefore, is doing so contrary to reason, simply because they choose to have “faith.” The minds of these skeptics are closed by the mistaken belief that “reason” and “faith” are opposites – irreconcilable ways of thinking – and they conclude their “analysis” in the very spot they began, rejecting the possibility of God.

Must one “see God” in order to know He there? That seems to be the only type of proof to which the skeptic would be open. Yes, “seeing” would be a direct way to reach such a conclusion, but it is not the only way. You can also know someone is there by deduction or inference.  Footsteps in the sand are pretty powerful indicators that someone was walking there, even if the person has passed from view when you come upon the footprint. Or consider a police officer coming upon the scene of a burglary; he can believe someone is inside if he sees the broken front door lock and hears something moving within.  He may, of course, be wrong; it might be the wind or a dog or cat that made the noise. But he would be acting rationally in concluding that there is someone there.  If a police dog moves to a particular closet in the house, he can be quite sure that someone is behind the door.  You would not accuse him of acting “on faith” but would instead recognize that he is employing reason to form conclusions about things he cannot directly see.

The skeptic will no doubt reject this argument, saying: “Of course we can deduce ‘someone is there’ from circumstantial evidence, but I already know that people exist, so it is no surprise that a particular person might be in the closet.  Now you want me to believe in a God that no one has any direct experience with?”  Yes, in fact, I do, because the type of thinking employed is the same. We know that human beings have intelligence, and the power to make and carry out plans. So, when we see evidence that intelligent, purposeful acts have been committed – eg. the burglar’s broken door lock – we deduce that an intelligent actor is at work. But we have no way of knowing that human beings are the only ones who possess intelligence and power. If we stumble upon a created thing that demonstrates complex order, that functions according to a plan, that is information-rich, the only rational conclusion to draw is that an intelligent source is at work. When the thing under consideration has been built to specifications or plans, is purpose-driven and built for a reason, then we can be certain that an intelligent source has acted. Alphabet cereal scattered on a table may spell out an occasional two letter word, but the message: “Al, you forgot once again to take out the garbage” has to have an intelligent source.  

Reaching the conclusion that an intelligent Creator lies behind the creation of this universe and of human life is an act of reason. We need look no further than the existence of DNA, the four “letter” language that codes billions of lines of instructions to build a complex machine. As more is learned about the incredibly information-rich nature of DNA, as well as the fine tuned nature of the laws that govern the universe and allow for human life to thrive, the only rational response is to recognize the obvious: information of such vast complexity and power, and laws reflecting such exquisite fine-tuning, are not random. They require a source adequate to the product, a source of immense power and intelligence, a law giver.  That source is God.

Now, none of this proves that this God is the one described in the Bible.  I am simply showing that knowledge of the existence of God – that he is there – does not depend on “faith,” but is instead supported by rational conclusions drawn from the available evidence.  Knowledge of the nature of God, by contrast, requires greater reliance on faith.  But the journey to learn about God requires that one first believe he is there.  Some of the attributes of God are discernible through the use of reason. For example, the beauty of creation reflects an artistic quality, and the complexity of creation speaks to unfathomable intelligence. But a personal relationship with Him can only occur through faith. The extent to which the transition from reason to faith is solidly grounded will determine whether I am justified in my beliefs or just engaging in wishful thinking. 

Having a “faith” grounded in Christ is a rational act.  In fact, authentic Christianity demands the use of reason: believers are commanded to love God with all their “minds” to test the evidence and retain only what is good.  Most importantly, we are told that if Jesus did not rise from the dead, our faith is futile and we should abandon it. 

That seems pretty rational to me….

Posted by Al Serrato

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  1. zilch says:

    Al, your basic reasoning here seems to be this: there is order in the Universe, especially in living things. Something must account for that order. But your answer, God, is simply the acceptance of an immensely, probably infinitely greater amount of Order without question. Thus, you have not answered your question of “whence the order we see”, but merely made it bigger and unquestionable.

    And as far as the exquisite order of DNA goes- no, we don’t know how DNA evolved. But it’s not a giant leap to imagine it evolved, when we can see the steps that enable it to increase its level of order: duplication of genes, chromosomes, or whole genomes, and subsequent mutation and natural selection, will increase the order of a genome with no magic. Thus, it’s more parsimonious to assume no gods.

    cheers from snowy Vienna, zilch

  2. James says:

    I like this series Al. Many good examples showing how we all have faith to some degree and most of the time that faith is based on evidence we’ve been presented with.

    But a skeptic/atheist would gladly argue for evolution being the reason behind our complex bodies and scientific anomalies and wont accept the possibility of Intelligent Design being the reason. Is there more (or better) evidence to support evolution than Intelligent Design/God, forcing us to have faith when it comes to that arena?

  3. Al says:

    I believe you are making a category error. Created things are composed of interconnected parts that function together for a purpose. The mind, by contrast, operates not on working parts but on ideas or concepts, which can eventually be translated or made into working parts. While the mind does reflect “order,” it is of a different type. By an “ordered” mind, we mean clarity of thought, not the number of parts that fit together. Thus an aircraft carrier and a mind both reflect order, but one is a created physical thing and the other is something quite different. I have no reason to believe that the Creator must have working parts, like his creation does. Your comment implies that all ordered things must be made by things possessing greater order, but this is an assumption on your part that you have not supported. I conclude simply that the Creator must be adequate to the task – i.e. must possess the level of intelligence and power needed to create.
    Your comment about evolution being an adequate explanation for increased levels of complexity begs the question. You state it as if these “steps” just happen, as if they were natural or not in need of explanation. But they are the very things that need to be explained. How does nature manage to increase functionality and information content, when such results are always the product of intelligence? Consider for example a computer program. If the output demonstrated greater complexity than the data which was inputted, we understand that the program was designed to accomplish that result. I see no basis for concluding that nature magically has such properties. In glossing over this, you are doing the very thing you are accusing believers of doing – coming up with “just so” stories to explain what cannot otherwise be explained.
    Thanks for the positive feedback. I think evolution is a critical issue. I don’t disagree that evolution operates; it clearly does on the “micro” level. If it operates on the “macro” level, it does so because it was designed to do so. While not an expert in this field, I have yet to see an explanation offered for how evolution could create ordered life from inanimate things.

  4. zilch says:

    Al- there’s a great deal of evidence that minds are what brains do, and brains are indeed very complex, and must be so to do what they do. To say that God doesn’t need to be complex is an assumption that has no support in the real world: you must appeal to magic. Thus, it’s not an assumption that can be scientifically discussed.

    And the increase of information that can take place in evolution is not question begging: it can be recreated (albeit simplified) on computers. Although awe inspiring and dauntingly complex, there is no theoretical mystery to be explained: if there’s replication with heredity and random changes, and the changes that improve something are saved through natural selection, then information is gained. You might want to look up “evolutionary programming” – nowadays it’s used quite a bit for engineering design, and it can and does come up with ideas (through rounds of mutation and selection) that were most definitely not put in by the human programmer.

    And the distinction between “micro” and “macro” evolution exists only for evolution deniers: there’s no evidence for any barriers- macro is just a lot of micro. There’s no scientific controversy about whether or not evolution occurred: as Dobzhansky said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution”. It’s the greatest story ever told.

    cheers from snowy Vienna, zilch

  5. Al says:

    Lots of creatures have brains, but only humans have minds. And those minds discover ideas, they don’t create them from nothing. Differential equations didn’t pop into existence the moment the first mind recognized them; that first mind recognized a concept that already existed. Your worldview fails to account for the way ideas actually work.
    Your comments on evolution still miss the point. I don’t deny that “evolution” operates and that it can be examined. My point is that it has no mechanism for creating information from nothing, nor more generally creating anything from nothing. It operates on things that are already complex and operating under rules that govern and allow for evolution to occur.

  6. zilch says:

    Al- what do you mean, “only humans have minds”? How can you possibly know this? An orangutan once cleaned my fingernails- did she have no “mind”? Or are you simply defining “mind” as, say, the ability to do something only humans can do- say, differential equations?

    Trouble is, there’s no dividing line between brains that have “minds” by any definition you care to put on them, and brains that don’t have “minds”. Again, it’s a continuum. While putting your definition at, say, differential equations certainly eliminates all non-human animals on this planet, it also eliminates many or most humans.

    You are right: differential equations didn’t “pop into existence” when first thought of by minds: they existed, at least by way of relationships between real-world objects and phenomenon, for as long as our Universe existed and possibly before, if there was a before. Again, they describe part of the order we see in the Universe. But again, your explanation of God having created that order simply begs the question of where He got his, so you are no closer to explaining the existence of order than before: in fact, you’re much further away from explaining it, because you’ve simply posited the existence of far more, perhaps infinitely more, order, in the person of God, who has no explanation.

    Again, you’re right: evolution cannot work if there’s no order in the first place. But the amount of order evolution needs is rather modest: a Universe with such properties that it allows the formation of complex chemicals, and has sources of energy that allow complexity to evolve, powering it uphill against entropy. That’s all: sure, a very specific set of values is needed, which cannot (yet) be explained. But again, God is a whole lot more left unexplained. I’ll go with the simpler explanation.

    I think we’re getting to the point where we’re just going over the same ground over and over. I think I’ll take a break and do some work in the real world. Toodle-oo.

    cheers from thawing Vienna, zilch

  7. Al says:

    Our usual impasse. Thanks for weighing in and I’m working on a response in a new post.
    Don’t work too hard.

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