Friday, February 29, 2008

Reason VS. Faith: The Ultimate Showdown!

There's a relatively new website called big think that styles itself as a sort of "YouTube for intellectuals." It consists largely of brief videos in which people talk about their views on a wide range of important topics. There are a decent number of entries from some rather prominent politicians, professors, and other public figures. These are supplemented by a multitude of videos featuring obscure writers, chefs, and (seriously) yoga masters.

I was interested to see that there were contributions from a number of familiar (to me, at least) Harvard professors, including Steven Pinker, Daniel Gilbert, Michael Sandel, and Peter Gomes. Now, when it comes to the latter two, I'll listen to pretty much anything they have to say. Sandel teaches one of the most popular courses in the history of Harvard -- Justice -- which I took as a freshman; and Gomes, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, is one of the most strangely captivating speakers I've ever heard. Pinker, an experimental psychologist, is one of the superstars of the Harvard faculty, and has written several bestselling books, including and The Language Instinct and How the Mind Works; and Gilbert, also a professor of psychology, recently wrote a bestseller of his own, Stumbling on Happiness.

So I started watching some of Pinker's and Gilbert's videos, and I found -- somewhat to my dismay, but certainly not to my surprise -- that they were both saying some pretty ridiculous things about the relationship between reason and faith, as so often happens when otherwise intelligent people start talking about the relationship between reason and faith. For example, here are Pinker's opening words from his discussion of the topic:

"I think my own personal philosophy -- one that I think offers a sounder basis for knowledge and wisdom than religion -- is based on reason. Now, as soon as soon as we’re having this conversation, as long as we are trying to persuade one another of why you should do something or should believe something, you are already committed to reason. We're not engaged in a fistfight. We’re not bribing each other to believe something. We’re trying to provide reasons. We’re trying to persuade, to convince. As long as you’re doing that in the first place, you’re not hitting someone with a chair, or putting a gun to their head, or bribing them to believe something, you’ve lost any argument you have against reason. You’ve already signed on to reason whether you like it or not. So the fact that we’re having this conversation shows that we are committed to reason."

I'm not sure to whom, exactly, this valiant defense of reason is addressed. I don't know who these people are that Pinker thinks are trying to put forth "argument[s] . . . against reason." I've never heard anyone disparage, deny, or downplay the importance of reason. And yet Pinker speaks as if all religious people were an angry mob mindlessly chanting "Down with reason! Down with reason!"

Pinker's logic makes sense, however, once he explains his definition of faith:

"I think that the alternative [to reason] that many people appeal to, namely faith, is . . . immediately refutes itself. Faith means believing something with no good reason to do it."

Pinker's thinking is entirely self-consistent. Unfortunately, it's completely divorced from reality. I don't know a single person of faith who would say that there is no good reason for their beliefs. Of course, Pinker might interject with some definition of what constitutes a "good reason," but then he'd be verging on dogmatism, another thing that Pinker is adamantly against. (Of course, Pinker is just like everyone else who speaks out against dogmatism. It's not really dogmas that he hates, just other people's dogmas.)

Gilbert also chimes in with his explanation of what religion is:

"By religion we usually mean deism. We mean belief in something we absolutely can't see for which there's no evidence."

(Let's set aside the fact that, in reality, when we talk about religion these days we generally mean theism, not deism.)

Now, I subscribe to the Catholic Christian faith because I think that there are good reasons to do so. I think there is good reason to believe that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead three days after dying on a cross, thereby giving pretty good evidence that His claims of divinity were true. I can't rationally explain why His tomb was empty, or why His apostles would suddenly be willing to die proclaiming Jesus' Resurrection and divinity, unless Jesus really rose from the dead. So I rationally deduce that Jesus did rise from the dead, and based on that rationally arrived-upon conclusion, I put my faith in Him as the Lord and Savior of the world. If someone claims to be God, and is willing to undergo an incredibly painful and humiliating execution rather than recant that claim, and then rises from the dead to back that claim up, I'm going to take that claim, and that person, pretty seriously. It would be entirely irrational not to.

Faith and reason are not, as Pinker and Gilbert suggest, competing "alternatives." They are, as Pope John Paul II wrote in his encyclical Fides et ratio, "like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth." Without reason, faith would be just groping in the dark, and without faith (say, in the legitimacy of reason), reason itself would never get off the ground.

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