The Flying Spagetti Monster

Guest Post by Dr David Matcham

The Risky Leap of Faith into the Unknown

One of the common arguments wheeled out against religious belief by those of the scientific positivist mould is that religious belief is opposed to scientific evidence, that, indeed, “faith” is an essentially anti-rational adherence to that which is believed in the teeth of evidence to the contrary.  I don’t want to tread old ground here and wade in with my own arguments against this or that, or for this, or for the other.  Rather, what I find interesting here is not the argument but the way in which faith as a way of knowing, as a way of being even, is much misused by its rationalist critics.  That is, obviously if one wants to reduce faith to the simple capacity to cling to certain ideas or propositions in the absence of evidence, or even in the face of contrary evidence, then “faith” so understood is highly questionable.  But is this equivalent to that which is being proposed by those who place life-giving value on the fact of their faith?  Also, is “evidence” the only way, or even the best way through which we can come to know something?

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I want to suggest that, in essence scientific positivists are not opposed so much to the form of faith-based knowing so much as they are opposed to the uncertain nature of what threatens to break through from such an epistemological position: fairies, ghosts, flying spaghetti monsters, etc.  This is hardly an unreasonable position to have; (though I personally have my doubts that superstitious belief isn’t actually “evidence-based” in one form or another).  Likewise, faith-based “knowers” are not opposed to the call for evidence from scientific positivists, it is just that they are conscious that to know something through an essential leap of faith in which neither the form of knowing, nor the object of such knowing is certain is not one which can be upheld if the guarantees of evidence are also sought to bolster one’s knowledge.  That is, to know an object as an object of faith is implicitly not to base such knowledge on that which can be objectively verified.  This does not exclude such objective knowing, it simply is not central to it.

There are two forms of knowledge at work here, and two ways in which knowledge is known by the knower.  The problem is that both are making truth-claims, but truth-claims of radically different orders of knowledge; and this to such an extent that the claims of the other are not recognised as legitimate, because outside of their respective realms they are not legitimate.  So, to know something through a long established peer-review process of evidence gathering and scholarly research is qualitatively different than it is to know something through a leap of faith.  The key difference resides in the extent to which knowledge requires the stamp of evidence as a guarantee, and the degree to which one is personally involved in the given knowledge-based position; the greater the personal involvement/risk in a given knowledge position, the greater the chance will be that such knowledge will not (and cannot) be evidence based: to believe in Atlantis is not the same as to believe in the faithfulness of one’s wife.  The one involves the knower at a great personal distance, whereas the other involves the knower at the most intimate level of his being.  To base one’s knowledge of a wife’s faithfulness on objective grounds is to remove the personal from that which is explicitly personal, rendering such knowledge safe for the knower.  To believe in Atlantis objectively or otherwise is to indulge in essentially safe speculation the truth of which effects the knower not one jot.  On this level to believe in Atlantis or String Theory is equivalent in terms of existential involvement: one is true, the other not, but neither require the knower to place his or her subjectivity on the line because neither make any personal demands on the knower.

destruction-of-atlantisSo, what is happening in this leap of faith, and why is it a valid form of knowledge?  Essentially, the leap of faith is literally a leap into the darkness of not-knowing, in which one does not trust to one’s cognitive capacity or ability to master an object of knowledge.  Indeed, the object of knowledge may not even exist, at least, not in a form recognisable to the potential knower.  The leap of faith is the openness to the possibility that the leap of faith may actually fail or prove otherwise false; as such it is an inherently risky business.  Insofar as faith leads to a form of certainty it is a constitutionally unstable certainty because the knower cannot refer back to any evidence as a form of guarantee.  This does not invalidate the certainty, it merely means that it cannot take the form of a guaranteed certainty, for which one has one’s scholarly, peer-reviewed existential receipt.

Faith, then, is not so much constituted by the content of the knowledge which results from it, but rather by the readiness of the faith-full one to not master in advance that which appears as an object of knowledge – or even the appearance of an object of knowledge at all.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that the relational format of subjective knower over and above the objective known is deconstructed.  In faith one has to risk the possibility that one’s usual stance as a subject opposite an object of knowledge is itself unstable; that one does not so much know as much as one is known.

Faith cannot be constituted as a blank cheque to believe anything one likes.  To be sure, faith is always orientated towards the object of faith: it is never blind, but sees its object through eyes of faith.  It is always a faith-in-something.  In its approach to the object faith seeks a form of engagement, of knowing and of being known, that does not demand a receipt in exchange for its trust.  In this it could be severely mistaken; the object of its faith may be non-existent, malignant, or even unknowable.  This cannot be known in advance according to the logic of faith.  Of course, it could be argued that such form of knowing is not worth the risk; except that, if one waits for evidence to give a cast-iron guarantee to your faith then you can be sure that what is known through evidence is not the same as that which can only be known through the open riskiness of faith.  This is because the certain knowing that comes from prior evidence (scientific knowing) is not the same as the knowing that comes from eschewing evidence as a form of guaranteed security.  To know without the possibility of doubt, or failure, or risk is qualitatively different from knowing with the constant possibility of not-knowing or of remaining ignorant.  This is why belief in fairies or sea-monsters is not the same as faith in Christ, because such belief places these spectres of fantasy in the world as (invisible) objects of certain knowledge.  It is as easy to believe in fairies as it is to “believe” in red tea pots, there is no leap of faith required for either, just a more or less sloppy relationship with apparent evidence; thus belief in fairies actually fits in with the form of knowing laid out by scientific positivism.  Belief in fairies does not involve the believer within a form of knowing in which their whole self is put on the line; which means that superstitious beliefs are not the same as the leaps of faith I am describing.

On the contrary, to have in Christ cannot be reduced to the position of believing specific propositions about him as being factually true; believing he rose from the dead is not the same as believing that he had brownish hair and grey eyes.  The former fact makes certain claims on the one who believes it that the latter does not.  To believe that Christ rose from the dead is to give of your self in a way that believing in a certain messianic hair colour does not require.  Whatever evidence (philosophical, archaeological, textual, etc) that may exist for or against the resurrection is not of particular importance to the one who knows through a leap of faith; such evidence more or less places the one who stayed dead or was resurrected within the frame of guaranteed objects of knowledge.  Knowing Christ through quality-assured evidence based forms of knowing is not the same as throwing oneself into the unknown not-knowing of faith-full knowledge.  This is not, again, to say that faith cannot be certain; just that this certainty does not reveal itself as something that requires a guarantee to operate.  The certainty that comes from faith comes through the appearing of that which can only be known through faith.  Of course this may never happen; the faith may prove to be objectless in the sense that Christ is dead, or that God doesn’t exist.  There is the possibility that God does not exist, in which case any imagined certainty of faith would be misplaced; but that is the point of faith: one cannot know in advance what will be encountered, or even if anything at all will be met with.  The absence of certainty is here the opposite of a blank cheque of belief, because the faith-full one is not in a position to dictate what form the object of his faith will take before him; and, of course, no one would place this sort of faith in random fantasies of the imagination.

The main point to be made regarding faith and knowledge is that there are some things that can only be known through a leap of faith.  For example, it can only be known that a supposedly reformed thief will become honest by trusting him.  Based on the evidence alone no sensible man or woman would ever make that leap into the unknown: he might now be honest, he might not, but that is none of the sensible person’s concern, and so remains forever out of reach as a possibility.  In this sense, though, actually trusting a thief has the creative potential to make him honest, might give him the incentive to become honest: faith here is creative in what it knows, or allows to be made known as a possibility.  It is only through faith that faith is justified, not through choices based entirely on evidence.  Without that faith one would never know; with faith a situation is opened up as a possibility that would otherwise (especially if left to the guaranteed certainties of evidence).  Likewise, belief in God based on evidence is inherently unstable, because the evidence is uncertain, and in any case, a God in whom one can be evidentially secure is no different from any other equally “known” object in the universe, be it an apple, a planet, an alien or water-fairies.  Trusting a thief against all odds does not require a leap of faith that the thief actually exists (that is as certain as any other object of knowledge); what is at stake is the possibility that the thief may be able to become honest – at present it requires a leap into the unknown, a risk, an imaginative stance towards a possibility that may prove expensively false to the knower.  Likewise, with God, an uncertain evidential basis requires that the only way to know him is to make a leap into the unknown.  This is the choice.  To not make the leap, to stay on the side of safely weighing up the evidence for or against and remaining undecided is to never know; faith opens the possibility up for the individual that God may exist, and if he does, to be known.  Without faith it is impossible to know, just as without trusting a thief it is impossible to know if he can become honest.  Thus, it can be seen here that evidence can only go so far in terms of the choices we make; some things can only be known through making a leap into the unknown, where the only thing that is certain is uncertainty.  Faith then is stupid, is risky, is as open to failure as it is to success, and cannot be accessed through guarantees; but without it some things will remain forever unknown.  To trust an already trusted honest man with a till of money is not a leap of faith, is not a risk to the person doing the trusting.  Without that gap between the known, the certain, and the unknown, important modes of knowledge remain forever out of reach.

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