Saturday, February 13, 2010

Reason vs. Faith

Causes and consequences - social dynamics after Enlightenment

Going back to the topic of reasoning vs faith and the implications of its conflict in politics the following post makes a very valid point summarised with the statement,
"So if faith and reason conflict, one must give way to the other. One must grow at the expense of the other. They are in mortal combat for your soul."
In the conclusion the author, presumably from somewhere in the First World (no name provided), shows a typical present day arrogance with the statment that,
"Hopefully this gives you some insight into why faith is bad, and consequently the advantages of reason."
That's all fine and well mate. There are advantages to reasoning as long as you have the means to find all the answers, which have been defined. However, reasoning does not allow for any exploration of the unknown and it denies the fact that all problems aren't defined yet. I don't think the author has even considered that he is coming across as terribly BORING. And to those of us living in the Third World, it appears as if the people from the First World think they have all the answers before our problems have even been defined.

It's a useful article to publish because it shows the root of the bias that the First World has towards the Third World in their problem solving endeavours.

Sometimes the best way to understand a concept is to contrast it with others. There are some aspects of reason that fit this description. Specifically, it's useful to contrast it with the concept of faith.

Objectivists have a very clear and specific concept of faith. Faith is accepting an idea as true without reason, or against reason. The first half of this is accepting an idea in spite of the fact that there is no justified reason to believe it. Obviously someone can try to rationalize anything, so we're not talking about just giving an excuse for a belief. We're talking about actual evidence that leads to that particular belief. Let's take some examples.

A few years ago, the Heaven's Gate cult decided that a group of aliens were hiding behind a comet, coming to free them from the turmoils of life on earth. All they needed to do to hitch a ride was to prove that they were sincere in their belief. Ritual suicide was the method. This is a wonderful example of faith. The first question, when someone suggests that you kill yourself to go to heaven, should be "What evidence do you have for such a theory?". Faith was required. Sure, the leader probably had told them about hearing voices in his head or whatever else, but these aren't really reasons. He couldn't provide any evidence. They only had his word, and that had to be weighed against all kinds of other possible explanations.

And that's the important part. Reason allows us to analyze the data and form the best possible conclusion from it. When someone takes any random piece of data and latches on to it, ignoring everything else, that also counts as faith. They're not forming their conclusions based on the evidence available. They're basing it on what they want to believe.

Obviously religions are a good example of faith, since many actually preach the virtue of faith. If you say you can't understand why God would let innocent people die, or children get abused, or anything else, they say you're not supposed to understand. You're supposed to just believe. Just take it on faith. Believe without reason, without evidence, and without understanding.

The other half of faith is believing in something despite contrary evidence for it. One old common belief was that central planning was an effective method of producing wealth. As the evidence piled up against it, people continued to believe. They want to believe, and they just refused to acknowledge the evidence. Country after country collapsed into famine and horrible poverty, and the belief went on. The Soviet Union had to collapse before people started having doubts, and there are plenty of hard-core believers still around. This is faith.

Contrast this with reason. Reason requires evidence to form a conclusion. It doesn't ignore or evade known facts. It is a process by which you try to formulate a conclusion based on all of the facts. It absolutely never accepts anything without reason for it.

Now this understanding of reason and faith are polar opposites. How about a middle ground between the two? What if you have some supporting evidence for a theory, but there are enough unknowns to make you seriously doubt if the conclusion is correct? The first point to make here is that this is acknowledging that you don't have enough evidence is a product of reason. Forming conclusions is not just weighing the known factors. We all learn in life that you can also evaluate the quality of the information, and how complete it is. In other words, there are reasons to not believe the evidence, and those reasons are based on your understanding of how thorough the information needs to be.

Let's take an example. You find out a woman was murdered in New York City last night. You find out someone you've never liked was also in NYC last night. Conclusion: he killed her! Well, you probably don't believe that's enough information to make that judgment. The first reason is that millions of other people could fit that description, so the evidence is equally supportive of concluding someone else did it. You'd also have no evidence of motive, which would explain why the murder happened. You may need better information on whether the person had the opportunity as well.

The point is that although you may have some weak data to suggest a conclusion, you know that there are a lot more factors that need to be understood before you can really be sure of it. So these reasons against the conclusion are based on your knowledge of what it requires to make a valid conclusion in this context. A more straightforward reason to reject it would be if the guy had an alibi. But there are all kinds of indirect reasons. What if he was known to be a moral person who you trusted? It may not directly contradict the conclusion, but you'd want a stronger case.

Now again, what if the evidence is weak? Well, if the conclusion is the best you can come up with, but still lacks sufficient backing, it would be wrong to accept the conclusion wholeheartedly. In other words, reason would say that you can tentatively accept the conclusion, for lack of a better one, but you should treat this "knowledge" as tentative. If you accept it as strongly as you accept any other piece of knowledge, it would be unjustified.

So even in this case, faith and reason are never combined. If you accept the weak conclusion as if it were absolutely true beyond any doubt, you'd be acting on faith, not reason. Your belief wouldn't be justified by reason. If you accept it tentatively, you're not accepting it on faith, but reason. And only to the extent that reason supports it.

Reason and faith are completely incompatible. Faith is the destroyer of reason. It takes particular ideas and divorces them from reality and from reason. If you accept something on faith, you are essentially saying that you will take it off of the table with regards to reason, and treat it how you feel like treating it. Wherever faith goes, reason is pushed out.

But it's worse than that. If you accept an idea on faith, it can conflict with the ideas you've accepted with reason. To make sense of it all, and to integrate the different ideas, you have to reconcile those beliefs. That means either throwing out the ideas based on faith and sticking to reason, or more likely throwing out reason and sticking with the faith.

Imagine you are analyzing an idea with reason and it conflicts with your faith. If you ignore the contradiction and accept it anyway, you'll be undermining your reasoning process. Reason requires a logical exploration of the data, weeding out any contradictions it finds. If you allow the contradiction anyway, you'll have to suspend your reasoning ability. And that means you'll be accepting the new idea, not on reason as it very well might be justified by, but on faith. Faith grows, and reason gives ground.

If, on the other hand you don't ignore the contradiction, but accept it as valid, you'll use your reasoning method on incorrect facts. Simple case is Creationism. If you accept that the universe was created a few thousand years ago, as the bible says, then you have to start interpreting actual facts in this light. When you see the dinosaur bones, you'll have to imagine that god put them in the earth to trick everyone (he is mysterious, isn't he?).

So if faith and reason conflict, one must give way to the other. One must grow at the expense of the other. They are in mortal combat for your soul.

Now what if they don't exactly conflict? What if you believe random things like the center of Jupiter is made of chocolate pudding? Does that cause reason to retreat? Well, if ever the two came into conflict, they would. It does have two direct side effects.

First, anything taken on faith is treated by your mind as a buffer zone against reason. If you were to analyze it with reason, the ideas would die a quick death. So to maintain them, you have to avoid using reason with them. This creates a sort of minefield in your head, where you have to twist and turn your reasoning skills to avoid all of the sensitive spots. That's doesn't work well in regards to efficiency.

Second, every idea taken on faith cannot be integrated with the rest of your knowledge. To simply maintain all of the random ideas you can fill your head with, you'd have to devote a lot of mental energy. And then you have the problem that those ideas may conflict with one another. The end result is that your mind is cluttered with useless garbage, and you have to compare every new idea with the thousand arbitrary ideas you've accepted on faith.

Hopefully this gives you some insight into why faith is bad, and consequently the advantages of reason.

27 Opinion(s):

VI said...

@FE. Sorry, I am with ExZ on this one.

You stated "..reasoning does not allow for any exploration of the unknown and it denies the fact that all problems aren't defined yet." Not true.

Reasoning is what yields known unknowns. We know the state of our knowledge. We never assume to know everything, and everything is never assumed to be absolute.

Faith causes you to not explore, to accept the status quo, to not question.

The article was very good, I thought.

Exzanian said...

Just a small edit to my comment:
FE, I only skimmed through this piece, but I am aware of the fundamentals of reasoning, and the conclusions. Reason is better (by far) and I would welcome you to the counsel of Reason. I suspect that many have a reticence to embrace Reason because of a need for absolutes. Faith provides absolute answers, Reason does not.
You said "reasoning does not allow for any exploration of the unknown "
It is only through exploration of the unknown that Galileo opposed the faith of the Catholic establishment, who wished to foist a received wisdom of a geocentric universe on the mind of mankind, and Galileo revealed the truth that the system was solar centric...Just one example. But perhaps you meant exploration of the "unknowable?" :)
In which case, Faith will have all the answers for you, ready, on tap, and probably from some HOLY book or a priest. Absolute concrete answers that do not provide any space to be challenged or updated. This is contrary to the scientific method which has been chipping away at the "unknown" for a long time now, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, Bohr, et al...and we are arriving at far more startling conclusions than Faith could ever have hoped to reveal to us. I know you will probably try incorporate faith,
(disguised as spirituality) into science (or vice versa) but they are truly non overlapping Majesteria. You cannot have them together. The Universe is an amazing mystery; science has it's own wonderful Spirituality, Awe and Wonder. We are peeling away the onion skin layers and I for one, am really excited about the revelations that Reason and Rationality have provided.

FishEagle said...

Exzanian, you must have heard the expression, "the more I learn the more questions I have." Faith certainly does provide absolute answers, until such time that we gain a better understanding, through reasoning. The Catholic establishment's reasoning was flawed regarding the centre of the universe. Galileo opposed the Catholic establishment's reasoning, not their faith. And I'm sure he needed a hell of a lot of faith to do it too!

Faith will probably find the answers for you from some holy book or priest but I don't agree that they can't be challenged or updated though. You have even provided me with the examples yourself of Galileo, Newton, Einstein, Bohr, et al. that have chipped away at the answers.

I'm not sure what you meant with "I know you will probably try incorporate spirituality into science."

FishEagle said...

VI said, "Reasoning is what yields known unknowns." True. But it's only the unknowns to the problems that we've defined that reasoning may be able to resolve. We simply don't know where all the gaps are in our knowledge base.

Your comment, "Faith causes you to not explore.."

Explorers like Columbus had no knowledge of some of their destinations before they discovered the world. They relied on a balance of faith and reasoning to go into the unknown. My point is that you need both.

Exzanian said...

Galileo was a loyal Catholic!
He spotted something that went contrary to the dogma of the Church, but his Reasoning power could not ignore it, his Reason forced him to publish his work and he later recanted under the threat of torture. So much for Faith!

A Quote by Carl Sagan explains it eloquently:

In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time someting like that happened in politics or religion.

VI said...

@FE. Well faith can't help with the unknown unknowns, because we don't know that we don't know.

Catch my drift?

I don't want to minimise your thesis but faith and reason cannot be embraced equally. At some stage you will be challenged to make a choice.

Exzanian said...

I think FE means the "Unknowable" can be "Known" through Faith?

VI said...

@ExZ. Okay, so assuming the Almighty decided to share with me how worm holes work, not that he would because he has never answered any of my earlier requests. Would I even know what the hell he was talking about?

FishEagle said...

Exzanian, I don't think you are dumb enought to equate the church and God as one and the same thing so please could you explain to me how we are in disagreement regarding your last comment because I don't see it.

VI, faith MUST help with the unknown unknowns, because we must BELIEVE what we don't know.

VI said...

@FE. Are you being serious? You can't believe in what we don't know, because we don't know that it exists.

FishEagle said...

Exzanian, the "unknowable" can be believed through faith.

FishEagle said...

VI, of course you sometimes have to believe in something. Tough shit if it doesn't exist. As long as you don't know that it doesn't exist.

VI said...

@FE. I think you are confused. God is a known unknown, not an unknown unknown.

FishEagle said...

VI, to give you a simple example. I have faith that we will resolve the global warming crisis. The problem has not been thoroughly defined yet but I have to believe that the human race will persist beyond this crisis.

FishEagle said...

VI, I disagree. God is not a problem.

Exzanian said...

VI - wormholes DO actually exist, albeit for the briefest moment in space-time - But how do I know that? I'm just a layman, I have no knowledge of the esoteric mathematics involved in quantum physics, so in a sense, I must depend on the say-so of the modern "priest", the scientist. But I suspect that is not the issue here......

Exzanian said...

FE said: Exzanian, I don't think you are dumb enough to equate the church and God as one and the same thing...
Where did I equate that?

Exzanian said...

14 February 2010 8:35 AM FE said - VI, I disagree. God is not a problem.

VI never said that god is a problem

FishEagle said...

Exzanian, you responded to my comment that, "Galileo opposed the Catholic establishment's reasoning, not their faith" with your comment, "Galileo was a loyal Catholic!"

You've implied that Galileo was faced with the dilema of either opposing the Catholic establishment's reasoning AND faith when he could have just been opposing their reasoning.

FishEagle said...

Exzanian, VI implied that God was a problem that required reasoning when he said, "God is a known unknown, not an unknown unknown," given the context of his argument. So I'm saying He's not a reasoning problem. He is a spiritual problem.

Exzanian said...

I've got a headache now, so I'll sign off....

VI said...

@ExZ. You are right, that wasn't the issue. Worm holes were a bad example, but I meant if God shared the answer to an unknown unknown, it would sound like tongues to me; Gobbledygook and therefore noise.

Many of Da Vinci's ideas would have been white noise, given that the "solutions" he was exploring, like the helicopter, was for problems that nobody even knew existed.

But through reasoning we eventually closed the gap, and today we celebrate Da Vinci for the obvious genius that he was.

FishEagle said...

VI, your comment "but I meant if God shared the answer to an unknown unknown, it would sound like tongues to me; Gobbledygook and therefore noise.."

You don't know that and it's completely irrelevent.

Anonymous said...

Black anonymous

I am not religious, but rather agnostic, leaning towards atheism. I must confess, deep in my heart, i still do believe there is some higher force/power out there (probably a remnant of my christian past). However, I have not been convinced by any of the monotheistic religions that claim knowledge of God. Apart of me seeks this force/origin/knowledge in my own way through being open-minded and learning as much as I can from natural, metaphysical and spiritual phenomena.

I still maintain that Reason and faith are humanity's way of trying to explain what they cannot understand. The only differences are the following.
1). REASON - says "I dont know" to a phenomena that cannot be explained by available evidence or logic, and seeks those answers.
2). FAITH - Calls it GOD, or gives it some other ephemeral meaning and compels followers to believe it or face eternal punishment. In this people stop seeking as an answer has already been ready-made for them.

Personally I live by a very simple philosophy that seems to be working for me, "THE 1% RULE."

"Universal knowledge is so vast such that no matter how much knowledge we accumulate, in whatever millions or billions of years of time, that knowledge will never be more than 1% of whats still out there"

This , i have found to have enriched me in the last 6yrs have left religion, compared to the last 24 in religion.

FishEagle said...

@Black anon, your description of faith is a description of everything that's wrong with organized religion today. I don't subscribe to such a form of faith.

FishEagle said...

@Black anon, your description of faith is a description of everything that's wrong with organized religion today. I don't subscribe to such a form of faith.

Anonymous said...


Exactly my point. I absolutely agree with you. Thats the reason I left organized religion. It was too narrow and too limiting (One of their best ways of keeping people in their fold). The comparison btwn Reason and faith was to highlight the limiting aspect of Faith.

As i said, in the past 6yrs I have gained far more knowledge and enrichment compared to the past 24 when I was a bible thumper.