He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Monday, January 16, 2017

Fair Questions: What is the relationship between faith and reason?

In my last post on the relationship between faith and evidence, I examined what sorts of standards of evidence we might have and what their implications are.  Because there are today some who put forward the idea that faith and reason are opposed to one another, or that having faith in anything is mutually exclusive with being a reasonable person, this seems to be a timely topic.

I've taken enough philosophy courses to learn that, in practice, faith in unproven propositions that we nonetheless intuitively feel are correct propositions is universal.  I've never dialogued with any religious or irreligious person who didn't have to resort to just asserting something without proof.  Maybe that happened at the level of ontology, or epistemology, or meta-philosophical critique, but it always happened.

These sorts of foundational assumptions can of course be overturned, albeit usually with great difficulty.  I and many other people have overturned our previous foundational assumptions, rebuilding our understanding of the world, hopefully upon a more solid basis.  Or at the very least, we may have arrived at a more internally coherent worldview, reasoning more correctly from our premises to our conclusions.

This seems to be the kind of thing we see in the most sophisticated intellectual debates, such as the one between Bertrand Russell and Fr. Copleston.  They both demonstrate extremely high intellectual acuity and consistency and willing to examine other views honestly.  They simply have two very different ways of understanding the world and what we can conclude about it.

Both are internally coherent and well-reasoned, and both rest on certain claims that cannot be proven.  In this case, they seem to differ at the level of epistemology, providing different rational answers to the question of what we can know and how we can know it.  The value of these sorts of debates isn't to find the right answers to our questions about our world.

It's that we begin to understand in a more precise and accurate way how exactly it is we disagree, and which foundational assumptions are at the root of the disagreement.  These foundational assumptions, or acts of faith, are necessary for any kind of rational dialogue to take place.

Without, for example, the assumption that we can use reason and sensory evidence to arrive at (at least potentially correct or less incorrect) conclusions about our world, there could be no rational debate of any kind.

In the end, reason without faith is impotent, and faith without reason is incoherent.

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