Faith and Reason 2

Faith & Reason, Part II:

Continuing with this interesting article, we find another set of arguments. He began by explaining that he believes monotheism is a reaction to Greek philosophy, especially to the idea of Thales that there are natural laws that can reliably explain things. This created a borderland between the natural and the supernatural that had never been there before:

This extraordinarily powerful idea was, in fact, entirely unprecedented. For thousands of years before Thales, humanity encountered only one undifferentiated world, a world still inhabited today by some, it is true, though their numbers are dwindling. They’re the ones not included in us. In this holistic world, matter and spirit are the same: people, places, objects, and events merge and mingle with the gods, goddesses, spirits, and demons who animate them. We saw a vivid example of this outlook during the solar eclipse over Asia in July 2009, when some local authorities closed schools and urged pregnant women to stay indoors to avoid ill effects as the evil spirit swallowed the Sun god.

The epic poems of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, reflect the oral traditions of this sort of world. These poems established the classical Greek religious pantheon, in which the gods gleam brightly in the sunlight and the sea, rumble through the land as earthquakes, and darken the sky with clouds or eclipses. When Odysseus incurs the enmity of Poseidon, the sea god rouses himself in a terrible storm and wrecks Odysseus’ ship. Odysseus spies land, but Poseidon’s waves cast him violently up against the sharp rocks before hurling him back out to sea. With the help of his ally Athena, goddess of wisdom, Odysseus gathers his wits enough to swim along the shore, desperately looking for a place to land. Exhausted, at last he comes to “the mouth of a sweet-running river” that offers shelter from the rocks and wind. Odysseus prays directly to the river: “Hear me, Lord, whoever you are,” he addresses the river, asking it—or rather asking him—to grant Odysseus sanctuary from Poseidon, the sea. And the river “stayed his current, stopped the waves breaking, and made all quiet in front of him.”
This new idea, Thales' idea, creates the border that separates the seen from the unseen. Before the unseen and the seen were assumed to be in the same space, but now we know there are some natural laws that are at work in the world, and they produce reliable results. Reason lets us understand these laws.

The problem, the author asserts -- I hope that our friend Joe is about to read this part of the article, which I believe he will love -- is that this reliability on the part of natural law destabilizes the powerful in society. They react by throwing up a religious structure that does something new: it doesn't merely beseech, but requires declarations of faith. By "faith," he means here 'fidelity to the conceptual structure of the religion.'

He suggests that this was an important psychological hedge to the certainty that reason offered. We needed faith to assure us that we didn't understand.
[T]he key concept in faith seems to be the assurance that nature’s regularity is illusory—precisely how being less important than the assurance itself. That’s the opposite of the case with explanation, which is, of course, all about “precisely how.” From this perspective, the phrase “secular explanation” begins to seem suspiciously redundant. Explanation and secularism may actually take in the same territory.

Where reason finds regularity in nature, faith extols miracles that overturn that regularity. In place of skepticism, faith exalts credulity.
This seems to me to be precisely wrong. We can see why by looking again at Avicenna, whose account of emanation offers a very clear and rational explanation for the structure of the universe. Avicenna doesn't ask us to believe that we can't understand how the universe works: he wants us to believe that we understand exactly how it works, even where we can't see it.

Avicenna turns not to faith but to reason to assert that we can't predict things accurately -- and not because of a psychological need, but because of actual observations. If the world was ordered in imitation of a perfectly rational Necessary Existent, why would there be evil? There shouldn't be, right? Insofar as our reason leads us to natural, logical laws that order the universe, why would there be irrationality, wickedness, or chaos?

Avicenna's explanation of this is perfectly rational, and falls back on the chaotic nature of matter. As we get farther down the chain of emanations, the lesser ordering intelligences are less capable of bringing chaotic matter into accord with the divine principle. Thus, he can explain the irrationality he observes in the world -- but not by reference to faith. The world is irrational just where it begins to depart from God.

Aquinas has the same problem, but follows Augustine in simply declaring that there is no evil. In this, though, they are both doing exactly what the author says they shouldn't be doing. They aren't using faith to assert that the world is irrational. They're using faith to assert that it is even more rational than we understand it to be. Both of the saints assert that there are reasons for bad things and apparently irrational things: we just haven't learned what they are yet.

Now, that isn't to say that the author is entirely baseless in his assertion. The Jewish philosopher Maimonides does make a run at assertions of the type the author suggests. He does so for something like the reasons that the author suggests, too: he attacks Avicenna's astronomy-based metaphysics using appeals to ignorance, for the purpose of preserving divine providence and prophecy. (Having done so, however, he asserts that this providence follows according to normal and natural forces that are obeying the normal and natural laws -- the parting of the Red Sea by just the right alignment of natural forces to create the right combination of wind and tide, for example.) Dad29 points to the Islamic school of thought that does so as well, going all the way to the pole that the author suggests. In the 19th century, Kierkegaard also goes this route.

Still, I don't think it's correct to say that this is what "faith" is for (or "belief" -- he seems to muddle his terms a bit). Faith can be used that way, but it can also be used the other way. It can be used by those hoping for an exception to natural law, but it can be, and has very often been, used to exalt reason and natural law.

In the final post in this series, I will examine how I think faith and reason are related. I think it may be right to say that reason is prior to faith; but we will save that for the next post.

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