The comment threads to several recent posts have contained spirited discussions of faith, reason and the relationship between the two. This issue comes up quite often on this blog, so I decided it was time to devote a post to it. Many of the comments assume a dichotomy, namely that materialists operate solely within the sphere of reason, and theists operate solely within the sphere of faith. In this post I will demonstrate that this dichotomy is not only false, but obviously false. I will show that everyone operates in varying degrees in both spheres. I will then show that far from being a bastion of pure reason, materialism actually requires greater faith commitments than theism.
Everyone Has Faith.
Materialists can be insufferably smug when it comes to the faith/reason debate. They claim their knowledge is superior because they refuse to believe anything that cannot be confirmed by evidence. Therefore, the claim goes, their beliefs are more reliable than the beliefs of theists, whom, they say, base their beliefs on “leap in the dark” faith that is not confirmed by the evidence or, even worse flies in the face of the evidence. Just a moment’s thought will show, however, that not only is the materialist’s smug self-satisfaction unwarranted, his claim of epistemological superiority is obviously false. Materialists make leaps of faith just like the rest of us.
Materialist believe that a real world exists outside of themselves and that they have trustworthy perceptions of this real world from their senses. Surprise. Those two beliefs are not based upon any evidence. Materialists hold the beliefs based on pure faith, a frequently unacknowledged faith to be sure, but faith nevertheless. You might say, “That’s crazy talk Barry. Everyone knows the outside world exists and that we can perceive it through our senses.” Do we?
Philosophers have known for hundreds of years that data provided to us by sense impressions cannot be the basis of absolute knowledge. Renee Descartes, for example, famously demonstrated this with his “evil demon” thought experiment. In this experiment Descartes posited an evil demon “as clever and deceitful as he is powerful, who has directed his entire effort to misleading me.” The evil demon is so powerful he is capable of presenting an illusion of the entire world, including Descartes’ sense impressions of his own body, to Descartes’ mind. If such an evil demon actually existed, Descartes’ sense impressions would be misleading him, and the outside world, including Descartes’ own body, would not in fact exist even though Descartes’ sense impressions confirmed unequivocally that they did.
Here’s the fascinating part of the experiment. How do we know the evil demon does not exist? Answer. By definition, the data presented to our minds by our senses cannot demonstrate his non-existence. In fact, we cannot know with absolute certainty he does not exist. We take his non-existence purely as a matter of faith.
Or consider the movie “The Matrix.” Early on in the movie we learn the vast majority of humans live in containers filled with clear viscous goo, and all of their sense impressions of the world are fed directly to their brains by a massively powerful computer program. How do we know we do not actually live in the Matrix? Answer, just as we cannot prove the non-existence of Descartes’ evil demon, we cannot prove we are not in the Matrix.
Then there is the concept of the “Boltzman Brain,” which is a hypothetical brain that randomly forms out of the chaos of the universe with false memories of a life and false impressions of the world. Again, as a matter of pure logic, I cannot prove that I am not at this moment a Boltzman Brain.
All of these concepts are closely related and are perhaps epitomized by Bishop Berkeley’s idealism. Berkeley argued that we cannot really “know” an object outside of our mind, that the only reality we can really experience is our perception of things. Boswell records Dr. Johnson’s response to Berkeley:
After we came out of the church, we stood and spoke some time together of Bishop Berkeley’ sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it – ‘I refute it thus.’
This is is an amusing anecdote. We can imagine Johnson kicking the rock outside the church so hard that he bounced off of it. But consider this. Johnson most certainly did NOT refute Berkeley as a matter of pure logic. Boswell was correct. It is impossible to refute Berkeley’s idealism, just as it is impossible to refute Descartes’ demon, or the existence of the Matrix, or that at this moment I am a Boltzman Brain. The internal logic of these systems is seamless and flawless.
But in another very important sense Johnson did refute Berkeley. He refuted him as a practical matter. The point of Johnson’s exercise is that our senses are all we have. We have nothing else with which to perceive the universe, and, as a practical matter, we must rely on our senses or give up all hope of having any knowledge, even knowledge as basic as whether the large stone in front of me (and the foot I’m kicking it with) exists. We all have faith that the data related to us by our senses corresponds to an outside world that really exists and that can be apprehended by our senses.
In short, we are all rock kickers. Every materialist believes that when he kicks a large rock he has an actual foot with which he is kicking an actual rock. But as we have seen, the materialist must accept this conclusion as a matter of faith, not as a matter of pure reason based upon evidence.
Materialists’ faith commitments do not stop there. Consider the following statement: “The universe is subject to rationale inquiry.” This statement is a “rock kicking” statement. All scientific inquiry is based on the assumption that it is true. Nevertheless, the truth of the statement cannot be established to a logical certainty or confirmed absolutely by examination of physical evidence.
Finally, consider the very definitional presupposition of materialism, which can be reduced to the following statement: “The universe consists of space, matter and energy and nothing else.” Has this assertion been proven true? Not only has it not been proven to be true; it is incapable of such proof. The statement is what Karl Popper called a “universal statement,” of which he wrote in The Logic of Scientific Inquiry:
This is the reason why strictly existential statements are not falsifiable. We cannot search the whole world in order to establish that something does not exist [in our case, a non-material phenomenon], has never existed, and will never exist. It is for precisely the same reason that strictly universal statements are not verifiable. Again, we cannot search the whole world in order to make sure that nothing exists which the law forbids.
Do you mean to tell me that materialism is not in fact physical but metaphysical at its very foundation, and that the entire materialist enterprise rests on a faith commitment? Yes, that’s exactly what I mean to tell you, and we thus conclude that the materialist conceit that all of materialist knowledge is confirmed by evidence is not only false, but obviously false.
Reason has a limit, and at the end of reason are first principles, and first principles must be accepted on faith; they cannot be demonstrated. This is what C.S. Lewis meant when he wrote in The Abolition of Man:
But you cannot go on ‘explaining away’ for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on seeing through things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.
Authentic Faith, For Both the Theist and the Materialist, is Consistent With Reason
Not only is the first materialist conceit – that they are immune to faith commitments –false, but their second conceit – that theists are immune to reason – is also false. Usually when a materialist argues against the epistemic status of faith, he does not argue against faith as most theists understand it and practice it. Instead, he erects the straw man of “fideism” and knocks it over, all the while pretending to have knocked over the real thing. “Fideism” is the blind leap in the dark even in the face of all of the evidence type of faith that the materialist so rightly deplores. But fideism is not the type of faith practiced by most theists. It is certainly not the faith of historic Christianity.
Authentic Christian faith is in fact faith; it is belief in something that cannot be proven absolutely by evidence. But it is not blind-leap-in-the-dark-in-the-face-of-the evidence fideism. Far from being a blind leap, authentic Christian faith is a reasoned faith. It does not fly in the face of the evidence; rather it goes one step further than the evidence. For example, Christians, by definition, believe in the existence of God. Is this belief a blind “the moon is made of green cheese” leap? Certainly not, because, in a manner of speaking, God’s existence has been proved.
Before I go on let me say a brief word about what it means to “prove” something. People mean many things when they use that word. There are many different “standards of proof.” One standard of proof is an “apodictic proof.” A is greater than B and B is greater than C. Therefore, A is greater than C. This conclusion is necessarily true as a matter of logical certainty. But there are other standards of proof, and unusually when we talk about something having been proved we mean some lesser standard than apodictic.
I am a lawyer, and when I take a case to trial my job is to “prove” my case to the jury. At the end of the evidence the judge will instruct the jury concerning the applicable burden of proof. In a civil case he will usually say I must have proved my case “by a preponderance of the evidence.” He will then tell the jury that to prove something by a preponderance of the evidence means to “prove that it is more probably true than not.” If it is a criminal case the judge will tell the jury the prosecution must have proved its case “beyond a reasonable doubt.” He will then explain that “reasonable doubt means a doubt based upon reason and common sense which arises from a fair and rational consideration of all of the evidence, or the lack of evidence, in the case. It is a doubt which is not a vague, speculative or imaginary doubt, but such a doubt as would cause reasonable people to hesitate to act in matters of importance to themselves.”
Certainly the existence of God has not been proven in the apodictic sense of the word, but it has been proven in every fair sense of the word “proven.” Wikipedia has a pretty good summary of the proofs of the existence of God (the cosmological proof, the ontological proof, the teleological proof, the moral proof, etc.) here.
Consider just one of these many proofs, the cosmological proof. We know that every finite thing has a cause. No finite thing can cause itself. The chain of cause and effect cannot be infinitely long. Therefore, an uncaused first cause must exist, and that uncaused first cause is God.
Is the cosmological proof an example of blind leap in the dark faith? Look at each step in the chain of reasoning.
1. Every effect has a cause. Who could argue with that?
2. No effect causes itself. This seems inarguable as a logical matter.
3. The chain of cause and effect is not infinite. This seems consistent with what we know about the universe; big bang theory especially supports this conclusion.
4. Therefore, there must have been an uncaused first cause. The conclusion follows inexorably from perfectly reasonable premises.
Remember, the cosmological proof is only one of many reasonable proofs of the existence of God. I encourage you to examine it and the others in more detail. If you do, I believe you will find that God’s existence has been proved. By this I mean that the existence of God has been proved beyond any “doubt based upon reason and common sense which arises from a fair and rational consideration of all of the evidence,” i.e., beyond a reasonable doubt. Certainly the evidence preponderates toward the existence of God.
This is not to say that there is no room for some doubt. When I go to trial my opponent puts on his evidence to counter mine. Similarly, many people believe that such things as the existence of evil or the suffering of innocents counts as evidence against the existence of God. It is beyond the scope of this post to answer these objections, but they have been answered.
More to the point of this post, the fact that many people believe there is evidence that points away from the existence of God does not undermine my original conclusion. Authentic Christian faith is not a leap in the dark. It is a rational faith based upon a reasoned consideration of the evidence.
Materialists often make the mistake of engaging in what I call “selective evidentialism.” Selective evidentialism is the practice of saying “unless I can touch it, see it, taste it, hear it or smell it, it must be the product of faith (the evidentialism part), but if it suits me I will accept its existence on faith (the selective part). Consider dark matter. The standard cosmological model rests on the assumption that 90% of the matter in the universe is “dark matter.” Yet no scientist has ever directly observed a single iota of the stuff. The existence of dark matter is rather inferred from certain gravitational effects on visible matter.
Isn’t this astounding! Scientists have so much faith (I use that word advisedly) in their observations, calculations and assumptions that they say that, for now at least, the existence of 90% of the matter in the universe must be accepted as a matter of faith based upon inferences. This is a reasoned faith, probably even a reasonable faith, but it is faith nevertheless. Moreover, there are competing explanations for the data that do not require dark matter. If these explanations turn out to be true, dark matter, like the ether of nineteenth century cosmology, will vanish in an instant.
What is so different about the materialist’s faith in the existence of dark matter and the Christian’s faith in the existence of God? Both beliefs are based upon a reasoned analysis of the evidence. Both beliefs are extensions from the known to the unknown. Both may be true or false.
The Materialists’ Faith Commitments Are More of a Leap in the Dark than the Theists’
In one of his debates with William Provine, Phil Johnson said, “I would love to be a Darwinist. I just can’t manage the faith commitments.”
Consider two instances of the materialist faith dilemma. First, how does the materialist answer the question: “Why is there something instead of nothing?” For the theist this is an easy question. God, the uncaused first cause, created all things that exist. But the materialist finds himself between the Scylla of an eternal universe and the Charybdis of a self-created universe. The eternal universe flies in the face of all we now know about the cosmos. There is practically universal agreement among cosmologists that the universe had a beginning. The self-created universe is a logical absurdity.
Secondly, consider biological origins. By definition the materialist must believe that particles of matter, starting as the detritus of the nuclear furnaces at the center of long burned out stars, organized themselves with absolutely no plan or guidance into first elements and then planets and then organic compounds and then into animals and plants and humans and computers and space stations. The phrase “mud to mind” does not even begin to encompass the absurdity of the proposition.
I call materialists’ belief in these two propositions “materialist fideism.” It really is amusing to listen to materialists blast leap-in-the-dark faith, when their faith commitments dwarf those of even the most fundamentalist believer.