Thoughts on Faith as Our Default Position

Doug McManaman
Copyright © 2013 by Douglas P. McManaman
All Rights Reserved
Reproduced with Permission

When we consider just how much uncertainty, obscurity, and ambiguity characterizes much of what we refer to as "knowledge", it seems to me that faith - natural faith in the sense of trusting what someone tells you because you have evidence that lends credibility to the speaker - is in fact the "default position" of the scientist, let alone everyone else; for there is relatively little certitude and necessity in the entire body of our knowledge; the rest seems to made up of inferences that have settled into beliefs which have hardened over time; the hardening or crystallization of those beliefs lends the appearance of genuine knowledge.

Science is a search for the proper causes of - or reasons for - the things we have made the object of our search. The sciences that take place on the first level of abstraction (biology, chemistry, etc.) progress by means of inferencing to the best explanation; and anyone who has studied inductive logic knows, induction and inference to the best explanation leaves us, at best, conclusions that have high probability. A conclusion that enjoys a relatively high degree of probability, however, can turn out to be false.

Consider, for example, the many different types of cancers there are among a myriad of other diseases, many of which we do not know the cause or cure, despite the relatively tremendous progress we've made in this area - a progress, nonetheless, that has been relatively slow. Matter renders things so much more complex and varied, and our difficulty in coming to fully understand them has everything to do with this complexity and variety; for how many centuries has it taken us to arrive at our current understanding of mental illness, for example? And yet even now much of what a psychiatrist does, he does in relative darkness; ten people with the same mental illness will not necessarily respond in the same way to the same medication, and there are more than ten to choose from. Richard Feynman couldn't be more accurate: "Science is an ever expanding frontier of ignorance."

Consider history; there is so much to know about what is going on in the world this instant. Hundreds of years from now, some will be looking back on this period as the object of their historical investigations. Much of their knowledge will be derived from inferencing on the basis of evidence, but it will begin with a particular interest that will establish a frame of reference in which to make very specific inferences that answer very specific and limited questions. We study history from a particular vantage point: i.e., philosophy, economics, science, or politics, etc. The best historians only know a few thin fibers of the vast fabric of human history. And just how much of that knowledge is really all that certain? How much of their narratives, coherent as they might be, are "knowledge" in the truest sense of that word?

There is an intellectual light in which we live and move, but that intellectual sphere is not as clear as we tend to think; it is thick with clouds, but the light of those certainties that we do enjoy brighten those clouds, lending the false impression that we live and move within a sphere of radiant clarity and luminosity. Moreover, we tend not to be aware of the limits of that intellectual sphere of ours; for outside of that intellectual atmosphere is a vast darkness of space, a vast realm of the unknown. That is why science is indeed an ever expanding frontier of ignorance: the more we discover, the more we come to the realization that we do not know nearly as much as we thought we did. If we were to put this to numbers, we might say that we thought that we knew .8 of all there is to know, but with the discovery of some new law, for example, we now realize that it is .4. Later on, however, we discover that this number is far too generous; we are more in the area of .2, then .1, then a 0.09, then a .04, etc. Finally, we admit that we simply don't know; for there is an ever increasing awareness of an ever shrinking bank of knowledge with every gain, an ever expanding frontier of ignorance.

Much of our day to day "knowledge" is nothing more than high statistical probabilities; for example, I really don't know that this pilot is not going to take the plane into a nose dive into the ocean, or that this doctor has my daughter's best interest at heart and is not a sociopath with a degree in medicine. I don't know what tomorrow will bring; I really don't know that I am not going to end up in the psychiatric ward as a result of a stressor that triggers a psychotic episode or sends me spiralling into a deep clinical depression. I hope that all goes well, but there is so much that is outside of my control. I was reminded of that one cold morning as I proceeded through a green light listening to my favorite music, when suddenly the melody was interrupted by the sound of the loud horn of a dumb truck attempting to stop for the red light; it was sliding very slowly on black ice. Fortunate that I was not as deep in thought as I usually am in the morning, because had I not stopped, I would have been slammed by a massive dump truck that would have sent me to intensive care, if not the morgue.

The past steadily recedes into the cloudy realm of the forgotten. There is so little I remember of my life as a child, as a teenager, and as a young adult. A great deal of important knowledge can be unravelled on the basis of first principles and their implications, but what we deduce, for example, from principles of metaphysics (essence and existence) is so abstract and far removed from my own direct experience that all I have succeeded in doing is demonstrating that I know more about what God is not than I do about what He is, for my knowledge of what He is depends on my knowledge of what He is not. There is a lot of knowing in that unknowing, but more unknowing in that knowing.

Our day to day life is permeated and sustained by natural faith, more than we seem to be aware of. It is our default position. Partial ignorance, uncertainty, probability, a lack of awareness of the degree of these probabilities, etc., are not the exception, but the rule; genuine knowledge that carries the force of necessity is the exception - and there is no denying that we can and do possess genuine knowledge - for at the very least, we know that there is much that we do not know, and that is indeed certain.

If faith is our default position, then humility is the most fitting posture we can take towards this epistemic state of affairs. Philosophy strives to know with certitude what can be known on the basis of first principles (both speculative and practical) which are themselves undeniable and self-evident, because they are first. It takes a great deal of work to achieve a level of certainty with respect to more proximate issues and problems, but as we apply these moral principles, for example, to particular situations, issues become increasingly more complex, requiring many distinctions and qualifications. This does not mean that moral knowledge is not possible; it only means that to achieve it requires a great deal of labour and time, that is, thinking, experience, memory, circumspection, foresight, docility, emotional well-being, caution, etc.

Now, if God is to reveal Himself, the content of that revelation can only be adhered to by faith, because what is divine transcends what is natural. Our natural mode of knowing bears upon material natures, not the divine nature. And so we require a quality that will allow us to assent to the very content of what is revealed - we require this quality because the content of revelation will be disproportionate to our natural mode of knowing. This quality is divine grace. But the very act of faith considered in itself is not disproportionate to our natural mode of knowing; for we live by natural faith - although we fail to fully appreciate the extent to which this is true. And so the scientist who prides himself on being a man of "science", that is, a man of "knowledge", of reason, certitude and proof, etc., as opposed one of faith, simply does not understand the fundamentals of epistemology. He may understand his science, but he does not understand what it means to understand and the method by which we arrive at scientific understanding. To oppose science and faith is to fail to appreciate the scientific method and the ambiguity and uncertainty that permeate it. It is to fail to appreciate the nature of inferencing and the cloud of uncertainty in which it continues to leave us, if not indefinitely, at least for a relatively long period of time. The scientist has no choice but to trust: trust his colleagues, that they have not falsified data, trust his basic assumptions about knowledge upon which science is founded; for no science establishes its own first principles, for whatever a science demonstrates, it does so on the basis of those principles. The scientist for the most part lives suspended in a space of relative uncertainty; for example, the psychiatrist will try this medication and hope, and if it does not do what he intends for it to do, he will prescribe another, all within a cloud of uncertainty but in the light of hope. An oncologist will recommend a treatment, but he has few definitive answers; all he can do is offer the little statistical evidence he has, that this treatment, for example, will increase the chances that this cancer will not return, from .76 to an .84; it may work, it may not, it may turn out to be needless, but we plod forward.