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on faith and the problem of what came before [Nov. 29th, 2007|08:24 am]

Then saith He to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing. And Thomas answered and said unto him, My LORD and my God. Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed. And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book: But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through His name.
-- John 20: 27-31

Paul Davies, in a recent NY Times OpEd, states that because science cannot prove why the "laws of nature" are so, it therefore relies on faith, and cannot claim to be free of faith. That this has raised objections from the Godless Atheist Defenders Of Logic is not suprising. It is troubling to me that Davies makes what is in essence a wager which can never be lost, mostly on the grounds that Godel has paved. What suprises me is that it has not met with greater opposition from the religious. Then, this might also be a case of the adage "...my brother and me against my cousin,..." perhaps.

Davies, as a nominal Deist, is no friend of religion. His God is an ever diminishing presence whose rule extends to everything which has not yet been explained. His God is the watchmaker, the difference between order and chaos, who is omnipotent to make the clock but omniscient enough not to tinker with it once wound. His God is Good because everything that is Good is Orderly. Davis, in his Enlightenment faith, has reduced the idea of faith to that of submission to gullibility, that it is what you have to accept as true without proof.

Science, we are told, proceeds on the basis that nothing happens without cause, and that what is true happens because the universe is consistent. Science proceeds, we are told, because when we perform a test, the result is the same from one moment to the next, and not subject to caprice. This "assumption", though, is not accepted as true without proof- it is accepted as true because it is constantly proven, is obvious without further proof. Even more, if it is a foundational assumption of science, it is even more foundational to religion: what point would there be to having faith if God decided that at random you should be sent to Hell, while others should be sent to Heaven? To stumble randomly is a strategy but is rarely a successful one: we have no reason to assume caprice because we know action can have durable effect. Furthermore, science is well capable of assuming caprice, by calling it entropy, or probability, and does not fear it as an evil but likewise as an engine of means and effect.

We are continually confounded by the problem of what came before. Each day, we observe the sun rise in the east, and set in the west, and so it is right to say that the sun revolves around the earth. We don't feel the motion of the earth. This is what comes before: Science cannot suddenly say "No: the earth revolves around the sun..." without addressing the problem of the observed motion of the sun: "...it also rotates".

To a child, incapable of demonstrating otherwise, it may seem that the reliance on the teacher's word that "the solar system is heliocentric" is a matter of faith at first, and of science later, because at first they cannot prove that it is true. Most people, perhaps, never step beyond this stage. But, to assume that this is the definition of faith is to do disservice to religion: it is to say, in effect, that doubt has no role in the service of religion, and faith is what only innocents, children, have.

My view of religion is very different. In the quoted passage, Thomas is no different from the eleven others: those eleven are not faithful because they believe, but because they were there. Why, then, are those who have faith in the disciples' word blessed? It is not because they are gullible and accept the word of the eleven, but because all twelve make a team worth believing. Before, the team had a problem: they had Jesus, but they didn't have each other. Afterward, they won't have Jesus, but they have each other. That, for me, is the meaning of faith: it transforms identity. It gives meaning.

Where science differs from faith, is that faith *should* crumble if any pillar on which it is based is found to be faulty. Science never crumbles because the facts do not rest on the theories, but the theories rest on the facts. Science cares nothing for the theories, and what came before is never a problem for science. Before Galileo, the sun didn't move around the earth- the facts of science were always the facts. After Galileo, the sun didn't cease to be seen rising in the east and setting in the west- the facts of science were always the facts. Science concerns itself only with what is observable fact.

Where faith differs from science is that faith cares nothing for observable facts: if a man is good, it doesn't matter what he did yesterday and can be forgiven what he does tomorrow. If a man is evil, it doesn't matter what apparent good he does because that wont last. Science, on the other hand, is utterly incapable of assessing the good or evil of a man: or, in deciding whether or not we want to be friendly or obtuse with such a man. It requires no bravery to "believe" in science: only a coward trusts only what is right in front of them.

Truth must rest on facts, though. Too often, people of religion have abused gnostic heresy to dupe people into being believers. We *would* be blessed indeed, if we didn't have to doubt people, if we could rely on them not to abuse that faith. Jesus' message of hope is that the future world will be that way, and we can all be like children: believing without doubt. (I'm no Christian, but then, I don't care for such a future.) Jesus's challenge is not to Thomas but to all disciples: they have to warrant Thomas' faith, because they have seen, and like the eleven and despite Thomas' friendly disposition to them, still are not believed.

More to the point: if Davies' critique of science and faith means anything at all, it's that we scientists, too, having seen a wondrous truth, are still not believed, either. But: we're not trying to save lives or shepherd the Earth. That's Humanism, and that's the enlightenment religion, distinct from Deism, of which Davies should be speaking.