What do you know for sure? What do you know with absolute certainty? Do you think it is possible to reasonably believe that something is true without being absolutely certain that it is true? Or are ‘reason’ and ‘belief’ essentially incompatible?
These days, reason and belief are often pitted as enemies. They are presented as profoundly polar opposites. Reason is thought to involve air-tight arguments and certain conclusions. Faith involves silly superstitions and uncertain beliefs. Reason is the solid and sure way for thinking people. Faith, on the other hand, avoids all this far-too-strenuous thinking and offers made-up fantasies to dupe believing people instead. In other words, reason is for the thinkers; faith is for the believers. And characterized like this, they definitely seem to be opposed.
There’s something at the centre of the controversial relationship between reason and faith that doesn’t get much attention: knowledge. To be more specific, what is the nature of the knowledge we accept? What counts as reasonable knowledge? It is (ironically) assumed by many that knowledge which gets the stamp of approval from reason is sure, whereas faith-based knowledge is sloppy superstition. But is this a realistic characterization of the essence of ‘reason’ and the essence of ‘faith?’
Finding absolutely certain knowledge was an obsession for some of the most influential thinkers through history. For instance, Descartes arrived at his famous conclusion, ‘I think; therefore I am,’ in his search for certain knowledge. He came to think that an individual’s self-existence is the most certain truth a person can know. And his axiom kick-started a widespread project of pursuing certain knowledge that attracted many prominent thinkers after him. Since history is on our side, we can see that the inescapable end of such a philosophical project is essentially solipsism. That is to say that there is a chasm between our internal and external worlds that cannot be bridged with certainty. We are each so imprisoned in individual subjectivities that we cannot objectively know anything outside of ourselves. And so, for those who choose to restrict their ‘knowledge’ to what is certain, only one’s self can be known.
Sure, these ideas can be taken to ridiculous extremes. But our philosophical pursuit of certain knowledge has forced us to face the simple fact that a lot of what we accept as knowledge is uncertain. Let’s all be honest: we take a risk whenever we claim to know anything that reaches beyond our own internal worlds. We take a risk because we make a host of uncertain, yet unavoidable assumptions. To get super basic, we usually assume that other people are real and the world around us is not an illusion, for instance. We usually assume that our senses provide us with relatively reliable information about our external surroundings, too. I think it’s very sensible to live according to assumptions like these, rather than, say, assume that other people are figments of my imagination or that the world I inhabit is a virtually simulated reality. Even though most would agree that it is very sensible to accept the former assumptions, they remain assumptions, nonetheless. And these assumptions that I’ve given as examples are just the tip of the iceberg. What might actually surprise some is that if we follow the roots of our various bits of knowledge to their ends, much of our most cherished ideas about life, ethics, beauty, truth, religion, science, and more, rely on tacit assumptions that we accept a-rationally.
So what does this all mean? I think one thing this means is we should each admit the simple truth that we all make assumptions more often and more readily; that assumptions are inescapable. When subjected to rigorous scrutiny, the majority of what we accept as ‘knowledge’ is uncertain and laden with assumptions. We need not consider this a bad thing, but we should be careful enough to at least consider the matter. When placed under consideration, most knowledge is supported by assumptions that we put our faith in. Most knowledge depends on belief and makes us vulnerable if we accept it. Use words other than ‘faith’ or ‘belief’ if you prefer. But if you use different language don’t ignore the basis of your knowledge, because ‘assumptions’ are really no different than ‘faith commitments.’
If we agree that having assumptions—or faith commitments—is inescapable, then the question is not, ‘will I choose to exercise reason or faith?’, because, like it or not, reason and faith are inseparable. It’s only possible for a person to create the appearance that they’re not inextricably joined by ignoring the assumptions that support the knowledge that they’ve embraced, which is carelessly negligent at best and stubbornly delusional at worst. But if we admit that much of our knowledge relies on assumptions, then more realistic questions might be, what set of assumptions about life and reality do I think are most reasonable? What set of assumptions seem to be most coherent and seem to correspond most with my experience and surroundings? And once we’ve begun to ask questions like these, everything can really be boiled down to the question: what will I put my faith in?
What’s most significant is ‘reason’ and ‘faith’ are not irreconcilable enemies. They are not profoundly polar opposites when we understand them within a more realistic and more honest scheme of knowledge. In fact, when we examine the knowledge we accept, we should admit that reason and faith are inextricably joined since much of our knowledge relies on assumptions that we believe in. And if you think you’re beyond belief—well, then you’ve got some more thinking to do.