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Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Reason and Faith/Belief and Proof


I think it was Voltaire who famously declared that; "Reason exists, therefore God does not." It is a pretty positive statement, and I'm sure many would argue against it on theological grounds. The problem is that there is a clash of reasoning within it as well and there is an even bigger clash between 'science' - defined as absolute reason - and 'philosophy' - defined as "the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality and existence." It is in the very nature of philosophical discussion to apply 'reason' to explore everything about those three areas of our understanding - but not to provide 'proof' of any of it. Science, on the other hand, demands 'proof' of everything before anything is accepted.

Or does it?

This is where things start to blur at the edges and most people's heads start wanting to explode. Sadly, it is also where a lot of people who claim to be atheists for the reason Voltaire gave, find themselves up against a clash of 'reason' when they really start to explore this field.

Atoms are, scientists believe, held together by the interactions of protons, neutrons and electrons. So far so good, but none of these account for the 'mass' of an atom or why it holds together in a particular form. 'Reason' says 'we know, because they do.' (Descarte famously said, 'I think, therefore I am') but what does that 'prove'? A philosopher would actually say, 'I believe this, because, although I cannot see it, something is holding them all together.'

The latest findings of the CERN Large Hadron Collider have provided evidence that the Higgs Boson probably does exist (I note that the scientists involved have been very cautious in their statements on it). Instantly named the "God Particle" in the popular press, quantum scientists have for long looked for it and tried to 'prove' it exists. The Hadron Collider has cost billions of €uros, Dollars or Pounds to create and all it really does is smash atomic particles into even tinier fragments. It hasn't actually 'proved' anything, but it does provide evidence that the particle may exist. It has also shown it can't do so in a stable form for more than a few nanoseconds. As Josephus rather aptly remarked recently, it is "the piece of God which passeth all understanding."

Quantum theorists rely heavily on 'reason' and on mathematics for their 'proofs' and theories, but here we run into more problems when declaring 'absolute' knowledge. Logic alone declares that you cannot have a square root of a negative number. Reason says that there can be no such thing as the Square Root of Minus 1, but there are one heck of a lot of mathematical theories which rely on the 'belief' that there is a square root of -1. So, can it be 'proved?' Can reason 'prove' it exists? I would suggest not, though some will no doubt argue that it must exist because all these mathematical theories won't hold up if it doesn't. That isn't reason at all - that is a step into the realms of 'faith.' 

A recent book written in Australia by the prominent Australian atheist, Alain de Boton, recommends that atheism needs to learn from religion in providing 'food for the inner being' and spaces where tranquility, meditative consideration of things  can happen and stress can be shed. It even suggests that religious 'ritual' may be good for us. I was reminded of this when I read a 'Tweet' which said - 

To those who say only religions know how to invent rituals of community and transcendent joy: #OlympicCeremony  

It struck me immediately that this man has actually failed to grasp the difference between a 'ritual' which is something repeated daily, weekly or monthly - but repeated - and a stage show. He's trying to claim an orange is an apple.

So back to atheism and faith. Faith serves a useful psychological and sociological purpose. It protects us psychologically from what can seem a very cold and uncaring universe. Atheists sneer and say the faithful are weak-minded... from the comfort of their generally very cosseted lives. They have missed the point that we are human beings and need to believe that someone out there cares what happens to us. I dare say most atheists have someone who fulfills that role in their life. 

Rituals are used to focus the attention and the thoughts of those taking part on particular aspects of a church service, or in a Mosque, on the prayers to be said. Stage plays and the Olympic extravaganza are one-off performances to entertain.

Rationalists will argue that religion exists because humans have a deep psychological need to believe in a big mummy or daddy in the sky. They will assert that this need has been with us since the dawn of civilization. So we created deities to believe in and formed organised religion, which to greater or lesser degrees have become woven into the fabric of our societies and informed different cultures' ideas on how we treat one another, other living creatures and the world we live in. Where did the psychological need come from though? Do other animals need to believe in something bigger than themselves? Perhaps they do, we really have no way of knowing, but anyone who has witnessed a mare with a dead foal, a duck whose ducklings have been killed by a pike or a cat with a stillborn kitten will certainly have stopped to ask that question. 

Why have humans evolved to worry about such things? What does the absence of such an impulse bring? What if scientists all declared today that, as 'logic' says there can be no square root of a negative number, none exists and therefore all theories dependent on it are invalid? That would shake the very foundations of al lot of our current understanding of physics to say the very least.

We do have some examples of where a lack of religious philosophy takes us and what it can produce. Another observer commented -

"Those who actively deny that there is any spiritual meaning to life, tend to also deny that other human beings have any redeeming qualities - and by default set everyone else's spiritual or existential value at zero. To hope that there is innate goodness in others is human - to believe that other humans are mere selfish animals is inhuman. To hope that there is a force that binds us all together is human - to deny all hope and actively seek to destroy that comfort for others is inhumane." (I have emphasised the final 'e').

Organised religions are human constructs, and therefore contain all the imperfections humanity is capable of. Their various followers would argue that all are, however flawed, inspired by God and the flaws are human misunderstanding or abuse. To me that is not an argument to throw the baby out with the bathwater, it is a case for seeking greater understanding of what the core values and messages are - just as scientists have done in their pursuit of the unseeable. The purpose of organised religion is to provide a vehicle, and a pathway, to explore an aspect of our humanity science, reason and logic cannot - our inner spiritual selves, the part of us that is made in the image of God. What one might call the 'Higgs Boson' of our humanity.

1 comment:

  1. Well, Didymus is bemused. The monks writing has touched a nerve or perhaps a soul! I had the great pleasure on Sunday last to go to the abbey in Tewkesbury and witness three of my grandchildren become Christians. I really enjoyed the ceremony lead by a woman vicar who was on top of her calling and made it a pleasant and believable service. I have to admit at this point that as an arch traditionalist I do not find the idea let alone the fact of female clergy easy to accept. The last statement is further made nonsense by the fact that I have no faith and consider myself an atheist.
    My personal history is that I was raised as a Roman Catholic – I have no faith but rejoice in the upbringing and firmly believe that it has helped me to survive some very challenging times during my life.
    Anyway when I entered the Abbey there was no bolt of lightning – bonus. There was however the same happy contented feeling of arriving at a good friends house. Many years ago I spent a whole year following Michael Moxon and the church’s celebrations culminating in holy week. I remember doing the vigil on Maundy Thursday 12 – 2am (nobody turned up at 2 so I felt obliged to carry on till relief at 3). What a wonderful experience history creeping out the walls with darkness and tiredness making it all a surreal experience.
    I realise my reply does not add any great intellectual gravitas to the blog but hope it does show that religion and religious ceremonies have still got a place in the lives of us hatch ‘em match ‘em and despatch ‘em churchgoers.

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