Everyone lives by faith

August 2, 2010

In the philosophy section of today’s New York Times, Notre Dame philosophy professor Gary Gutting nicely clears a path for belief in God by telling us, first, that all rigorous philosophical “proofs” for God’s existence (or non-existence) fail. (That doesn’t sound very encouraging, does it?) This is, by the way, precisely where my introductory philosophy class at Georgia Tech stopped: We can’t prove that God exists in a way that would satisfy philosophers or scientists; it’s all a matter of faith; so let’s just leave that discussion to a church, synagogue, temple, or mosque of your choice.

Or—as my philosophy class tacitly endorsed—sit on the sidelines as an agnostic. As Gutting rightly acknowledges, the field of contemporary philosophy often seems to vindicate agnosticism.

But not so fast. Whether we explicitly acknowledge the role of faith in our lives, all of us—theists, agnostics, and atheists—live by it every day. Contemporary philosophy teaches us this truth as well.

In various ways, [philosophers] have shown that everyday life is based on “basic” beliefs for which we have no good arguments. There are, for example, no more basic truths from which we can prove that the past is often a good guide to the future, that our memories are reliable, or that other people have a conscious inner life.  Such beliefs simply — and quite properly — arise from our experience in the world. Plantinga in particular has argued that core religious beliefs can have a status similar to these basic but unproven beliefs. His argument has clear plausibility for some sorts of religious beliefs. Through experiences of, for example, natural beauty, moral obligation, or loving and being loved, we may develop an abiding sense of the reality of an extraordinarily good and powerful being who cares about us.  Who is to say that such experiences do not give reason for belief in God as much as parallel (though different) experiences give reason for belief in reliable knowledge of the past and future and of other human minds?  There is still room for philosophical disputes about this line of thought, but it remains the most plausible starting point of a philosophical case for religious belief.

As Gutting writes, this unprovable-but-still-compelling reason for belief in God doesn’t get us to specific religious beliefs. But in my experience of talking to non-theists, overcoming the agnostic impulse is the biggest hurdle.

Of course, some of you may reasonably object: “It doesn’t matter. The vast majority of people in the world, even in our culture, don’t take college philosophy courses, so this is all academic, ivory-tower stuff.”

I strongly disagree. Whether we take philosophy classes or not, the agnostic impulse is in our culture’s bloodstream. For example, don’t we overwhelmingly buy into the scientific method as an unquestionably good thing—even if we hate science classes? It has, after all, led to worldly “progress”—another often unquestioned good.

One of the premises of the scientific method is that divine or transcendent explanations, outside of the realm of time and space—even if they should exist—are ruled out at the start. Science therefore cannot rule on God’s existence; it has nothing to say on the subject. It is constrained to see only natural causes, never mind that natural explanations can’t rule out other, deeper explanations.

There’s nothing wrong with the scientific method as far as it goes. That this method “works” only means that God has given us a predictable universe governed by principles that we can comprehend to some extent (although our knowledge is constantly being revised in light of new information).

But we can’t and don’t let this method govern choices we make in our lives. (We all live by faith, remember?) Based on its own methodology, modern science cannot and will not sufficiently explain reality. But if, as a culture, we believe that it can—if only we had better instrumentation and more knowledge, which some day we will—then we theists are defensively waiting for the other shoe to drop; we believe in a “god of the gaps” who can explain reality as long as science hasn’t already figured it out.

This god-of-the-gaps isn’t the God of Christianity or the Bible, of course. But there are plenty of Christians—including our Intelligent Design and creationist brothers and sisters—who argue from that premise.

Not me. I’ll stick with faith. It’s much more reasonable.

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