Faith, Foolishness, and Fanaticism

A false choice: Science and religion are totally different; one is based on facts and the other on beliefs.

Yet no scientific statement can be “proven” if by that one means it can be conclusively shown that it is impossible for X to be wrong. All science can ever do is pile up enough evidence to indicate that it seems extremely unlikely that X is wrong. We might find the proverbial black swan tomorrow. Science is only ever a progress report on the state of our current knowledge.

 

Last week I chided the CBC’s Neil Macdonald for his outburst against people of faith whom he clearly would prefer to keep out of sight in the privacy of their own delusions.

I have been assured that Mr. Macdonald is a seasoned and celebrated journalist. So what would prompt such an intelligent person to say such questionable things?

Perhaps we can clarify the central issues at stake by examining three key terms: faith, foolishness, and fanaticism.

Everyone exercises faith, not just religious believers. Faith is the everyday experience of putting trust in something or someone on the basis of what one thinks one knows about that thing or person.

I plunk my considerable bulk down on this chesterfield in our living room. I do so without a second thought, and certainly didn’t pause to examine it for critical defects.

I am not, however, as stupid as I might appear.

I have entered a familiar room stocked with furniture I have used daily for years.

In such a context—which is to say, knowing what I know—it actually would be irrational for me not to put faith in this chesterfield: “I’m not sitting on that thing until it’s undergone a full structural work-up!”

That’s how faith works. I think I know my motorcycle mechanic well enough to trust him literally with my life as I crank open the throttle.

That’s how science works: I trust my pharmacist and the instruction manual to my new appliance. That’s also how religion works: I trust my pastor and my holy book.

Stop! one might exclaim at this point…especially if one’s name is “Neil Macdonald.” Science and religion are totally different. One is based on facts and the other on beliefs.

But this is a false choice.

Science and religion have the same basic cognitive structure. We acquire what we think are adequate warrants from which we then carefully derive correct outcomes: Grounds (Facts) + Inference = Conclusions (Beliefs).

Thus science equips us for faith: to trust electricity, internal combustion engines, radar, pilots, surgeons, and many other phenomena we don’t fully understand but take for granted as reliable on the basis of what we think we know.

Religion likewise equips us for faith: to trust God, priests, holy books, rituals, and many other phenomena we don’t fully understand but take for granted as reliable on the basis of what we think we know.

But just a second. Science is based on what everyone knows—or at least what everyone could know if everyone underwent the correct training and pursued science in the right spirit.

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