The Myth of the Rational Disconnect: Religion and Science as the Twin Pillars of Truth

Truth shall spring out of the Earth.  —Psalm 85:11

In the Weekend Edition of the Wall Street Journal, Saturday, 11 April 2009, is an article by Peter Manseau entitled “Faith, Proof, and Relics.” I tried to find a link to this article, but apparently it is not available online. Although the article deals mainly with the Shroud of Turin, it is an attempt to explain “the enduring appeal of holy objects.” I believe the primary thrust of this article can best be stated by a quote from the second paragraph:

Believers suspend their rational processes and undertake an act of faith.

With all due respect, Mr Manseau, I beg to disagree. Faith is not the result of a suspension of our rational processes, but the culmination and the embodiment of the full use of those processes. Faith is that human characteristic which enables us to reach a decision, to decide what to believe, based on the evidence we have – evidence which is inevitably and invariably incomplete. Think about the nature of proof. Think about the nature of evidence. Think about the fact that you cannot prove to me even that you exist as anything beyond a figment of my own imagination.

I’m not talking about you, the reader of this blog, here in cyberspace, who may or may not leave a comment here to mark your existence. I’m not talking about the fact that you could very well be a complex program, dwelling in the cloud somewhere, or a particularly bright computer taking its Turing test, or even an elaborate hoax perpetrated by a gaggle of thirteen-year-old boys. I’m saying that if you and I met at the food court for coffee, you couldn’t prove to me that you’re anything more than a player in my own dream.

This is the point at which someone, frequently a drunk someone, stands up and says that he can punch me in the nose, and that will prove he exists. No it won’t. It could simply be proving that I have a vivid imagination. Surely it can’t be disputed that I could dream I had met you, dream you had punched me in the nose (easy target, there), dream I was bleeding. From there, it’s only a small step to the thought that I could be unconscious in a mental-health ward somewhere, weaving complex tapestries of dream and ether, living in my own personal Matrix.

And I yet I believe you exist. Why? Because of faith. I look at the evidence of your existence, and when I get as far as that will take me, then I make a leap of faith. I decide that I believe you exist, or I decide that I do not believe, but in either case, the operative word is believe. We do this a million times a day. Right now, you are being supported by some solid surface somewhere. You are sitting in a chair, lying on the floor, swinging in a hammock in a tropical breeze (ok, sort-of-solid). At the very least, there is ground beneath you. Did it ever even occur to you to question whether that surface would hold you? Probably not. Every time you’ve gone to your computer and sat down in the chair there, it’s held you, or perhaps there were times it did not, but they were easily explained as anomalies, not to be expected again. But until you sat down this time, you had only faith to tell you that this time, it would hold.

Occam’s Razor tells us not to lean too heavily on faith, that the most likely explanation is the one that requires the least presupposition. But we can never avoid faith altogether. To avoid faith is to avoid belief itself.

Mr Manseau goes on to say, still in the second paragraph:

Yet the power of holy relics is that they offer the tantalizing possibility of concrete proof of that belief, setting up a battle between reason and devotion.

Again, I must disagree. There is not, and cannot be, any separation between true religious belief and true scientific effort. There is only one truth. To say that a particular method of seeking that truth cannot succeed is to offer the kind of “You can’t get there from here” argument that leads to so many traveling-salesman jokes. True, there are “religious” beliefs and “scientific” beliefs that do not represent a search for truth, but rather a grasp for power, and those may well be at odds with one another (and with religion and science, for that matter). But to the extent that religious study and scientific study represent a search for truth, they are not at war with each other.

Indeed, it is difficult to see how “concrete proof of . . . belief” could possibly “[set] up a battle between reason and devotion.” It seems to me that such proof would be the delight of both sides. In fact, since the Wall Street Journal identifies Mr Manseau as “the editor of Search: The Magazine of Science, Religion, and Culture,” it seems to me that he would be among the first to express such delight, as further evidenced by his later statement (paragraph twelve):

Belief – any belief, whether in God, the Resurrection, even the Force – requires a partial abandonment of the rational. This does not mean that faith is irrational, only that it involves a recognition that there are some things that can be explained only through acknowledgment that proof is not always the highest good.

I would argue that this is because there is never any proof, only enough evidence to allow faith to act in good conscience, or not to act at all.

There is only one truth. Do we have it? No. I don’t think we can lay claim to the tiniest drop of the knowledge that is available, out there, somewhere. “The truth is out there,” they say. And they’re right.

But it’s going to require faith.


6 responses to “The Myth of the Rational Disconnect: Religion and Science as the Twin Pillars of Truth

  1. The best summation of this argument is where you say: “there is never any proof, only enough evidence to allow faith to act in good conscience.”

    I believe that the offense taken by many scientists against faith is symptomatic of a broader battle going on between scientists regarding the fundamental nature of the scientific endeavor and the nature of TRUTH. Does the scientific endeavor take one ever closer to ultimate TRUTH? Or are the products of science really more modest and all of our interpretations of scientific data just an exercise of faith? Those people of Christian faith that have understanding of the scientific endeavor fall quite solidly in the latter camp and those scientists who believe that science is leading them towards TRUTH will always view them as either heretics from the true faith of scientism (if they respect their scientific credentials) or as the modern equivalent of ignorant superstitious savages.


  2. levimontgomery

    I remember seeing a photograph once of people crossing a mountain pass somewhere. I no longer recall where it may have been. The path these people were on was built over many years and by many people through the slow accretion of stones, sticks, logs, etc. It more closely resembled a wall clinging to the stony face of a very steep mountain than any kind of a path or road.

    Question: When a villager carried a rock out to the end of the trail, was that an endeavor which would take the trail ever closer to the ultimate goal?

    I have no doubt there were villagers who died long before their endeavors reached that goal, and it is undeniable that each rock or log was only a tiny step on the route, and yet, eventually, the road did reach the goal.

    I am somewhat chagrined, Chuck, that after thirty years, I’ve never made my view clear to you: there is only one truth. There is one truth which encompasses all that religion truly attempts to teach us, and all that science truly attempts to teach us. Each answer gained in either arena is a step toward that goal, and it will ultimately be reached, regardless of the path chosen.

    Science is simply the slow accretion of answers. Ask a question, propose a hypothesis, devise an experiment to test that hypothesis, record the result. Repeat. You are on your way toward truth.

    We must always be ready, though, to abandon anything and everything we thought we knew, when we are proven wrong. If an atheist scientist approaches truth from one side, and a scientist who believes in God approaches from another side, and that pastor who told me so many years ago that “Science is man’s attempt to prove there is no God” approaches from yet another, they will all get to the top of the mountain of truth eventually, assuming only that they are willing to accept, and to build on, whatever answers they find, whether they like them or not.

    There is only one truth.


  3. Levi: You need not be chargrined about failing to make clear your position that there is only one TRUTH that both scientists and Christians endeavor to understand as that has been very clear. What I am questioning is the philosphical nature of what I call scientism. I do not claim a deep knowledge of the philosphy of science but what I was attempting to point out was that scientists most opposed to faith do not recognize their own leap of faith from what legimate science can provide evidence for and where they often end up. This, I think is quite in accord with your reasoning here. Perhaps what disconcerted you was that my choice of words made it unclear how scientists can make any movement at all from the data that science provides towards TRUTH within the confines of the scientific endeavor. Indeed any thing that is true must contribute something towards the TRUTH but I am afraid that with my limitations that I cannot take this argument any farther forward at this time.



    Thanks for your posting. I disagree with you about the thrust of the article, which can found a few paragraph’s later:

    “This does not mean that faith is irrational, only that it involves a recognition that there are some things that can be explained only through acknowledgment that proof is not always the highest good.”

    Which is to say, I agree with much of what you write. Proof isn’t really how we live.

  5. levimontgomery

    Mr Manseau, first let me say I am honored to have you visit my humble blog. I would offer coffee, but, uh . . . yeah.

    I did include the later quote, as well as point out that you probably would welcome “concrete proof of . . . belief”. I wholeheartedly agree that proof is not how we normally live.

    And thank you for the link, for those wishing to read the article, which I strongly recommend.