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Faith In Reasoning

Guest Column Travis Poole

In the August 23 edition of The Tech, Matt Craighead’s article “The Basis of Knowledge” presented a common but overly idealistic view of scientific knowledge. Statements such as, “Man is capable of knowledge but only through reason, never faith or feeling,” and, “either faith is an accurate guide to reality, or it is not. Science and religion are incompatible at their core,” are evidence of Craighead’s view that any belief based upon faith is invalid, and that only ideas based completely on rational deduction constitute knowledge.

The problem with such a view is that ALL knowledge, at some level, is based upon faith. One can trace everything that one “knows” back to some assumption that cannot be proven. Craighead gives us an example of such an assumption in his own article. In his explanation of knowledge he states, “we must start before anything else with the recognition that ‘there is something that I am aware of.’ That is, something exists (existence) and you are aware of it (consciousness). It’s a something, not a nothing or an anything; so it has a specific nature, or identity,” (emphasis mine). This statement is an assumption. It cannot be proven because, as Craighead points out, it is the first axiom. It comes “before anything else,” and thus, there is nothing from which its truth can be derived. To take this statement as true is completely an act of faith. This is not to say that it is a poor or false assumption, but rather that its truth or falsehood cannot be shown deductively.

This will be true of any metaphysical model. The axioms upon which the model is based cannot be proven. Because all other knowledge must be derived from the axioms, they must be assumed to be true without proof. Craighead dismisses materialists and idealists by simply saying, “[they] are wrong.” He offers no proof of this, because he cannot prove it. As long as their assumptions are self-consistent, their models are every bit as valid as Craighead’s. Choosing between these models is an act of faith, not one of deductive logic.

It is attractive to think that one can live logically, making decisions based upon reason alone. As scientists we like to imagine ourselves as purely rational creatures, with no need to ever call upon such an ugly concept as faith. Unfortunately, it is not so simple. As Hume realized in the 18th century, everything we think and do is based upon the assumption that the future will be like the past, and ALL beliefs in “matters of fact” are non-rational. We must assume (without the possibility of proof) many things before we can “know” anything at all.

The very idea that nature functions by rules that we are able to understand is, in fact, an assumption. All of science rests upon this concept, and yet we have no hope of proving it! All the evidence we have makes it seem as though it is a good assumption, but we will never prove it deductively. Thus, we take it as true in an act of faith. Furthermore, essentially every scientific finding is based upon inductive, rather than deductive, arguments. We like to believe that when we conduct our tests, we can successfully isolate a variable, and deductively determine the truth value of a hypothesis. This is, however, impossible. The outcome of any experiment has an infinite number of possible explanations. We use Ockham’s Razor to eliminate all but a very few of the possibilities, but Ockham’s Razor is itself an assumption about nature. The results this assumption give us appear to be good, so we have confidence that our assumption is correct. However, confidence is not certainty. We cannot escape the fact that by invoking Ockham’s Razor we are making an assumption, and thus acting on faith.

It is impossible to live by reason alone, so faith cannot be eliminated from thinking. Sometimes this will lead us astray, but that is unavoidable. Pretending faith has no place in our thinking does not prevent us from making false assumptions. It can, however, fill us with unrealistic confidence in our beliefs and it lead one to the view that all assumptions are equal. This author would not put the assumptions required to do science on the same level as the assumptions required by most religions. Craighead, however, does just this when he states that, “either faith is an accurate guide to reality, or it is not.”

We cannot escape the fact that our knowledge is inductive, and fundamentally dependent upon assumptions. The way to deal with this is to make only those assumptions that seem most likely to be true, and, most importantly, keep in mind at all times that our knowledge is based upon assumptions which may very well be false.

Craighead’s message of using reason instead of emotions or faith is not a bad one. The less assumptions one makes, the less chance there is of being wrong. However, we must not fool ourselves into thinking faith can be avoided totally. We must not think that science does not rely on assumptions. We must not forget that, as much as we might like otherwise, the basis of knowledge is faith!

Travis Poole is a graduate student in the Department of Ocean Engineering.