Monday, June 30, 2008

Faith, Doubt, Truth, and Paradoxes

When the distinction between natural and supernatural breaks down one realizes how great a comfort it had been, how it had eased the intolerable burden of strangeness which this universe imposes on us by dividing it into two halves and by encouraging the mind never to think of both in the same context. What price we may have paid for this comfort, in the way of false security and accepted confusion of thought is another matter
C.S. Lewis

There is a need for any person of faith to insulate that faith from other beliefs that might undermine it. Randall H. Balmer observed: “Religious beliefs don’t readily submit to empirical scrutiny and those who invest themselves solely in the enlightenment enterprise must at some point deal with the maxim ‘those who live by the sword die by the sword’” People who believe that their faith can be justified and even proven by the empirical sciences are bound to fail. Even if one such person were to succeed in justifying their faith with science and history today, tomorrow that science and history will change and their faith will be threatened.
When I was younger I had a bivalent view of truth. Evrything was either true or it was not. There could be no middle ground. I applied this bivalent view to my faith. This is something that, in retrospect, I believe can be very dangerous. The reason this is dangerous is because when you have an either/or view of truth, the moment you find something that you think is true but is on the other side of the bivalent divide from your views your entire belief system becomes susceptible to a collapse.
In order to continue in this bivalent world view I devised a way of dealing with information that could undermine my faith. This method was to separate the secular disciplines, such as history and science from the religious disciplines of faith and revelation and declare that “ne’er the twain shall meet.” Rather the “philosophies,” of men should be kept separate from scripture and the dictates of revealed truth. Philosophies could be interpreted to include not only what we commonly refer to as philosophy (metaphysics, epistemology, and the like), but all empirical disciplines such as the sciences and history (science, after all, was once called natural philosophy). I held the view, which still has some validity, that because science and history are constantly changing and because religion is constantly being revealed, if an apparent discrepancy between the two arises it can be ignored. This is because neither side can be said to have arrived at the “be all end all” truth yet anyway.
I also held and still hold a very positivist view of science a la Karl Popper. One of the consequences of this view is that a scientific theory can never really claim to be “the Truth” but instead can only claim to be an explanation that has not yet been proven false. Also scientific evidence is limited to empirical observation with all its shortcomings. I also took the view that in the realm of religion the only way we gain knowledge is through revelation. Two important features of this revelation are that the revelation we have received may not be fully understood and that there could be new revelation at any time that could clarify, add to, or even change the existing revelation.
To illustrate how this view works let’s apply it to the scriptural account of the creation as it conflicts with the scientific account, especially that of evolution. I originally dismissed this conflict by saying that science will change. As Hugh Nilbey remarked in defense of the Book of Mormon we should not be overly concerned if it is at odds with the science of today because the science of today will probably be at odds with the science of tomorrow. On the other side of the equation we don’t necessarily understand the meaning of the Genesis account which, by the way, could also change at any time with some new revelation.

I took this view to the ultimate extreme by believing that the disciplines of religion and the empirical sciences are logically incompatible. This dichotomy can perhaps best be explained by an analogy to Gilbert Ryle’s conception of the category mistake. A Category mistake according to Ryle is a misascription of properties. An example is Noam Chomsky’s “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” Another classic example of a category mistake is the sentence: “she came in in a sedan chair and a flood of tears.” What makes this sentence silly is the ascription to the concepts of sedan chair and flood of tears the same sense of “coming in.” Though you can “come in” in a sedan chair or you can “come in” in a flood of tears you cannot do both in the same way. The conceptual differences between a sedan chair and a flood of tears, one being an object and the other being a metaphor, require two different senses of the words “came in.” It is therefore nonsense to talk about both of these concepts in the same sense. Likewise it is plausible that the sentence “there are true revealed facts and empirical facts” could also be a category mistake.
It seems improper to use the terms “truth” or “facts” in the same way when referring to religion and empirical inquiry. “Truth” and “facts” in the empirical disciplines refer to explanations that make sense of empirical observations and are useful in making predictions. “Truth” and “facts” in the case of religion and revelation refer to the doctrines that will lead us along the correct path according to the will of God. Thus these words have alternate meanings depending on which context they are used in. It is a mistake to use them in the same context. Therefore when a person from the sciences and a person from religious thought converse with each other by these terms they are only talking past one another. In Kuhn’s terms the two are operating within separate paradigms and therefore no real meaning can be conveyed.

This system, as I devised it, has at its core a sort of detached skepticism. It is very much in the spirit of the ancient philosopher Pyrrho. Pyrrho believed that you could end inner conflict and obtain peace by suspending all belief. ‘You don’t know with certainty anyway so don’t let it bother you.’ This attitude leads to ataraxia or "freedom from worry".
What I had arrived at could be described as a skeptical epistemology but absolutist metaphysics. That is that the truth is absolute but our knowledge of it is always limited whether that knowledge comes through science or religion.

While this division offers a way to be able to study science and history as well as maintain a straightforward orthodox faith without too much cognitive dissonance it has one crucial flaw. It fails to recognize the fact that science and religion can often enhance the study of one another. By holding this view I could never allow for the richness and understating that could come into my beliefs about science, history, and my faith by allowing them to inform each other. This limitation did not bother me at the time because I believed that science and history have nothing to offer religion and visa versa other than the fun that comes from speculation.
I use the word 'limitation' because that is precisely what this distinction is. It can’t possibly be that all religious knowledge can only come through revelation. If this were the case then I would have to abandon much of what I believe about religion by limiting my knowledge only to the things that have been explicitly revealed. Joseph Smith taught: “One of the grand principles of Mormonism is to receive truth let it come from whence it may.” The empirical disciplines may not be perfect, they may not guarantee epistemological certainty, but they are among the most important methods for discovering truth that we have. After revelation they are the only decent way for learning anything.
Slowly my bivalent view of the world began to change. This was less a result of persuasive arguments and more a result of maturity. It was less of an intellectual change and more of a personal one. I came face to face with several paradoxes in my faith. Most of these were variations of a single uber-paradox. Terryl Givens calls it the scandal of the particular. This is a paradox that results from any interaction between the divine and the material. It is perhaps best described by the Savior’s observation that “no man can be a prophet in his own country.” It has various incarnations many of which cause people to leave the church. 'How could Joseph Smith be a prophet when he had such and such a fault? Could there really be physical gold plates? How could current church leaders be divinely inspired when they have flaws like everyone else? Or why does God intervene in some circumstances and not in others?'
Paradoxes are not limited to faith they are all around us. Richard Busman observed: “I think any scheme of life that is not paradoxical cannot do justice to life. Life is paradoxical. And if you think that there’s going to be a simple clear plan that you can impose on the world and that is it you’re doomed to disappointment. Paradoxes are everywhere.” This is what I discovered that contradictions and paradoxes surround me. Rather than reject or even try to resolve them all I could really do was accept and even embrace them.
In an interview with by Ben Huff of Times and Seasons when asked If Mormons should attempt to resolve the paradoxes in our theology Givens replied: “No indeed. I believe Paradox is the sign of a healthy universe, voracious enough to insist on having its cake and eating it too. Paradox is a sign of richness and plenitude. It is Adam and Eve, reaching for both godly aspiration and childlike submission. It is priesthood that is power with no compulsion. It is the weeping God, an infinitely powerful deity who is sovereign of the universe and as vulnerable to pain as the widow with a wayward son. I believe paradox is the inescapable condition of moral agents inhabiting a universe that does not readily yield to our values.” Not only are paradoxes an essential part of human life, they are beneficial. With this acceptance of paradoxes I feel free to tear down the wall between the physical and the spiritual and allow my faith and inquiry enhance one another. Though I still must admit that I do not fully understand either side of the wall, I can grow in my understanding of each by seeing how the sides relate to each other.
These paradoxes represent the edges where reason and knowledge cannot pierce. At these edges knowledge and reason fail and faith must come in. It is here, at these outer limits of our capabilities, that the need for the reassurances of a loving God to sustain us through doubt is absolutely necessary. I find a parallel in the need for a savior. Even though we posses complete free will, we are absolutely dependent on the saving grace of Christ to lift us above our failures. Even though we posses powerful minds and potent intellectual systems with which to exercise them, we require faith to sustain us and to hold us up when we reach the limits of our understanding. We must be saved not only from our sins but from our ignorance as well.

Perhaps the reality that we need God’s assistance is why our understating has limits and why faith is necessary. Givens has pointed out that if we want a god that is involved in our lives then we have no choice but accept paradoxes: “There's no question that the church rises or falls on the veracity of Joseph Smith's story. Now, as a consequence, some people, for example, the Community of Christ, their president made a statement a few years ago in which he said, "History as theology is perilous." You don't want, in other words, to found all of your beliefs and hopes and religious values on a historical account that may prove to be spurious. To which my reply is yes, history as theology is perilous. If it turns out that the whole story of Christ's resurrection is a fabrication, then Christianity collapses. That's the price we pay for believing in a God who intervenes in human history, who has real interactions with real human beings in real space and time. That makes it historical, and that's a reality that we just can't flee away from.”

I believe; help Thou my unbelief.


EBV said...


Thanks, Steve.

How's life?!

SGarff said...

Life’s good. UCLA has been treating me well. April’s been treating me well. Even L.A. has been treating me well (except the traffic, the smog on the other hand is not that bad).