Faith and certitude


The pope recently initiated a year of faith for all Catholics, and he is well aware that in today’s society faith has a reputation as being unreliable and geared toward individuals who are uneducated. Faith is often contrasted with reason, more specifically science, which is held to be the most certain of all knowledge. In a short blog, it is impossible to offer a complete review of the complex relationship between faith and reason, but I want to advance a few examples of knowledge based on faith and science in order to question the notion that the former is less certain than latter.

The modern rupture of faith and reason is based on a misunderstanding of the origins of knowledge, which undervalues the value of faith in many different areas of knowledge. Most of our daily interactions, for instance, are based on faith, not empirical knowledge. If I plan to meet a friend at noon for coffee, I do not check every fifteen minutes at Starbucks to see if the individual has arrived. Contrarily, I go at noon based on my faith that the other person will be true to their word. Life would be chaotic, almost unlivable, if our interactions were based on empirical data over faith in other people.

In addition to personal interactions, most of our factual knowledge is based on faith. I know Great Britain is an island, but I have never personally experienced any scientific evidence to prove it. I have not sailed around Great Britain, nor have I seen it from space. Rather, I accept the island nature of Britain based on the faith that I have in other people who have firsthand knowledge of Britain. Most knowledge from Wikipedia to teachers to news reporters is based on faith. People accept facts related to them, rarely verifying them directly.

Surprisingly, even certain areas of science question the extent of experience-based knowledge. A principle of quantum mechanics holds that there is a limit to what can be known through observation. Dare I say scientists have to rely on faith to fill in the gap?

Moreover, from a historical perspective science is exceedingly unreliable and unstable. A quick review of the history of physics highlights the constant need for revision from Aristotle to Newton to Einstein to string theory. Each previous way of thinking was wrong or needed to be updated. Why would I base my life solely on science, a system that needs endless revision and correction?

This relates the problem of inductive reasoning, building general conclusions from specific examples. Observations are notoriously inaccurate. One classic example is that ten reports of the same car accident will all radically differ due to their perspective. Another famous illustration from the game of pool dictates that even if a cue ball, when colliding with another other ball, makes it move a thousand times, the fact that it will happen again is only probable, not certain. In short, a hundred percent certainty is impossible from empirical evidence.

Religious beliefs are equivalent to deductive reasoning, deriving specific examples from known universals. This way of thinking is also the basis of mathematics and logic. If you have true premises and take logical steps, your conclusions are absolutely guaranteed to be true. For instance, if A = B and B = C, then A = C. This syllogism is true now and always will be true.

To summarize, science-based conclusions are used less frequently than faith-based conclusions in our interactions with people and acquisition of knowledge, and furthermore, they are historically and epistemologically less reliable than faith in some cases.

As a quick aside, science deals only with the physical world as perceivable by our senses, and thus, it does not examine, due to its methodology, what is beyond the physical world. Yet, scientists incessantly embarrass themselves by making metaphysical statements, claiming that science can prove God away. How can physical observations disprove something that is not physical? In many ways, it is like a blind musician using musical theory to critique a painting.

A great union of faith and reason exists in the Catholic tradition. Catholics are not hostile to science or reason, but seek its proper place. This article is a reaction to the overemphasis of science as the ultimate and only form of knowledge. Some scientists in their quest to uproot faith have used science in a non-scientific, irrational manner. For instance, in explaining the moment before the big bang, theorists claim something was created from nothing. This assertion contradicts everything in science and logic. In essence, they throw out science in order to diminish faith, but ironically make science irrational and dogmatic, everything which they oppose. Not surprisingly, believers are left to restore science to its proper and dignified position.

Up to this point, I have been reviewing faith as a form of knowing and not a theological virtue. The virtue of faith rests on the foundation of trust in God. To explain this element of trust, let us return to some the previous examples used above. When you meet someone for coffee, you arrive at noon based on how much you trust that individual. Unreliable friends are prone to cancel, and true friends will be there no matter the circumstances. You clearly have more faith in the latter. Similarly, whether a child or professor tells you a fact, you are going to have different levels of trust and therefore, varying degrees of faith, in those facts. Faith is thus based on trust.

How reliable is God? How much can we trust in God? In a word, completely! God will not lie to us. God will not mislead us. He is more faithful than the most loyal friend. He is more knowledgeable than the wisest person. Our faith in God, therefore, should be greater than our faith in any person. It should be without doubt or reservation.

In this year of faith, what should we do? Catholics are good at doing things, with our historic emphasis on works. Perhaps, we should focus less on doing things and more on why we do them. Make fewer plans. Be less concerned about your troubles. The emphasis of faith is to place your life in God’s hand. Let him make the plans. Let him take control of your concerns. When we discern God’s will, we must follow it wholly. That is the leap of faith, but as seen above, it is not a blind leap. It is a leap that we can take with certainty and confidence.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.