Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Archimedes' recent thoughts about The Da Vinci Code and our discussion about Puddleglum got me thinking about faith recently. I have zero intellectual tolerance for the idea that faith (particularly Christian faith) is anything like believing something because despite the fact that you know it isn't true, or despite the fact that you think it's probably untrue, or because you want it to be true. My everyday definition of faith (and my understanding of the Bible's everyday definition) is believing something because you have enough evidence to make the conclusion more likely than anything else, even if you don't have enough evidence to prove it in a strict sense. This is, I suspect, the dominant mode by which people believe things in their everyday lives, and I am ordinarily vaguely annoyed when people talk about religious faith as being somehow a hugely different and alien method of thinking compared to their regular experience.

Nevertheless, I must admit there are times when faith can look kind of weird, and I think I understand a little better now why people have this popular view that faith is believing something simply because you want it to be true. One of the most brilliant insights I ever heard about faith (from Lewis, though I'm sure he didn't think of it first) is that the human mind, once it has accepted a proposition as true, does not automatically go on accepting that proposition as true. You see this all the time in unhealthy relationships (I've done it myself a few times): you accept a certain proposition (e.g., this is a bad relationship to be in, or your significant other values you very much) and then something happens and all of a sudden that proposition is very fuzzy or it flies right out of your head. You see the girl again and all of a sudden the relationship looks very good to be in. Or you have a stressful day and all of a sudden your SO's silence of the last eight hours is filled with dire significance. You see the same thing in roller coasters: I know perfectly well that the odds of me dying on a roller coaster are very slim, but at the top of that horrible drop all I can think is, "We're all going to die." Indeed, virtually the whole point of the roller coaster is that it causes my calm acceptance of its safety to fly right out of my head.

Holding on to the proposition in the face of these circumstantial changes (what Lewis calls "mere moods") is one of the principle aspects of faith. It is recognizing that these circumstantial changes may make me feel differently, but have no bearing on the validity of the sober judgment I made earlier. The fact that the roller coaster is a lot scarier from the top than it is from the line has no bearing on its safety one way or the other, and the question I must ask myself in the midst of my fear is, "Was my earlier assessment well made or not?" If it was (which it presumably was, if I adopted it) then I should proceed to act along those lines even if I don't feel like it right now.

Roller coasters are a trivial example, but the methodology holds true for much more serious questions. But here is what seems interesting to me: let's push this a little farther. Suppose the fear (or whatever mood it is) gets so bad that I can't even remember my earlier argument. All I have is the bare fact that I thought this was a true proposition before, when I considered it in tranquility. I can't remember why, though.

I think this is the situation Puddleglum found himself in, which surprised me. If you recall The Silver Chair you recall that it has a wonderful speech at the end which contains, among other stirring and yet disquieting statements, "I'm on Aslan's side even if there's no Aslan to lead it." Now, at first that looks very much like the popular version of faith: my belief in Aslan is independent of the facts. That would be an easy mistake to make.

But in fact that's not what's going on. Instead Puddleglum has come to a place that all Christians will come to at one point or another: the point where things are so bad, or so tumultuous, that you can't even remember why you believe any more. All you can remember is that you do believe, because at one point you were convinced you did have reasons for believing. At that point - when you can no longer support your belief - you've got to admit that it's possible you're wrong. Well, you've always got to admit that, but you've especially got to admit it now. Maybe there is no Aslan. Maybe we copied lions from cats and cats are not copied from lions. But even if there is no Aslan is not the same thing as even though there is no Aslan.

Now, here is where faith comes in. It is not, as the popular view might suspect, closing your eyes against the doubts you can no longer refute and holding on tightly to your belief. It is looking very closely at the doubts and realizing that these are not real doubts; they are not the sorts of things that should make one reevaluate a soberly adopted position. Instead, they are mere emotions - merely fear, merely infatuation; whatever they might be. And because of that, the reponse of faith is to ignore them in favor of a position that you know was once adopted soberly (even if you can't remember the details at the moment).

Now, that looks like closing your eyes to the truth, but in fact it is nothing of the sort. In fact it is perhaps the great test of a person's faith, when they come to a situation that requires that sort of analysis and they can hang on to enough sanity to analyze instead of react. In the midst of the world crashing down around them to still look at the storm of doubts and see it for what it is. I wonder if this is perhaps how the misconception got started.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

I'm reading Xenophon's Hellenica in my spare time up here, and I'm enjoying it thoroughly whatever its deficiencies as history (I wonder what the modern view on that is - I'm curious as to why this Oxyrhynchus Historian is considered so superior, given that we have only fragments and indirectly reported pieces of his work). Of all the ancients with whom I am more or less familiar, Xenophon is the one I admire most. The introduction to my translation of the Hellenica contains the following statement: "The hand of God is an explanation that dulls the quest for truth, but it is the explanation to which Xenophon, so unlike Thucydides, readily had recourse."

That "the hand of God is an explanation that dulls the quest for truth" is the sort of thing one hears often enough if one has the right sorts of discussions, but it strikes me as an either ignorant or disingenuous statement. There are two ways in which one could mean "the hand of God" as an explanation.

One way (the way I think most people have in mind when they complain about it as an explanation) would be something like this. Somebody asks, "Why do objects fall?" and somebody else answers, "The hand of God." Somebody 2 then says, "No, gravity makes objects fall" and Somebody 1 says, "No, I don't believe in gravity. The hand of God did it."

I have never been to the mysterious hick land where people talk like this (the Duelist doesn't count; when he says stuff like that he says it on scientific rather than religious grounds), and the people who claim to have are generally the sorts of people whom I find to be more or less ignorant about Christianity and how to interact with it, either intellectually or socially. Consequently I am usually wary of such claims.

The other sense in which somebody might mean "the hand of God" is a little more complex, and doesn't seem to me to dull the quest for truth at all. This would go something like this. Somebody 1 asks, "Why do objects fall?" and Somebody 2 answers, "The hand of God." Somebody 1 then says, "Why?" and Somebody 2 says, "Because this is the equation for gravity," and perhaps Somebody 1 pushes that to a discussion of the theory of gravity. But all of that will be begging the question, because what Somebody 1 has really asked is not, "What is the mechanism by which objects fall?" but, "Why is there such a mechanism?"

Now, the hand of God is certainly not the only answer to that question. The other obvious answer is, "There is no reason why the mechanism exists; it simply does." This seems structurally equivalent to the hand of God, though. It's not a scientific verifiable statement, and it poses the same problem of eternal existence. But eventually you get to this point where you've got to pick one or the other, and in that case "the hand of God" doesn't dull the quest for truth at all. It is the very object of your quest (or at least the sort of thing that is the object of your quest) and is no more or less a cop-out than any of your available alternatives.

The thing is, this is the way in which I almost always hear people invoke the hand of God, whether for good or for ill ("the hand of God destroyed New Orleans with hurricane Katrina" would be an example of "for ill"). But I note that it is usually the "for ill" that people are really upset about. For instance, I imagine that most people (myself included) would be offended by the proposition that the hand of God caused the devastation in New Orleans. But why is that? Not because that explanation dulls the quest for the scientific, mechanical explanation. Because at the level of inquiry where it is appropriate to invoke the hand of God, I think it is has been erroneously invoked. I don't know that I've ever seen "the hand of God" dull the quest for truth, but I have seen it be wrong.