Faith and Reason

Faith and reason can be viewed as opposites. Faith is an element of belief, something an individual does not necessarily require a reason for accepting without reason. For example, an individuals reason for believing in God may not seem too rational when they are trying to explain them. They may not even stand up to criticism. On the other hand, reason is constructed as a formula. Faith is basically something we believe in, like something we learn in church. Reason is something we learn in school, such as a math formula.

A long time ago, prior to the scientific revolution, it was considered anti-Semitic that reason supported religion. The Counterbalance Foundation website observes that before this time, science that contradicted religion was wrong. When we look at the history of science, we see that in fact it owes an immense debt to the religious world. In the early Middle Ages a time when Christian Europe turned away from scientific thinking — the science, mathematics, and astronomy of the ancient Greeks was kept alive in the Islamic world, where it was further developed and enriched by Moslem scholars.

In the thirteenth century when this scientific heritage began to filter back into Western Europe, it was originally taken up by Christian monks and theologians (Counterbalance, faith and reason). To sum up this idea, scholars found a way to “change science to support religion. Scientists today view science as something derived from experimentation. In earlier times, medieval scholars saw science as something derived from tradition. Such scholars had probably established these traditions of science as Plato, Pythagoras and Ptolemy. However, these men were probably not scientists, in fact, they were most likely philosophers.

These philosophers sought to explain natural phenomena in a way that made sense to them. Many people, including those of Christian belief then read the works of these classical writers. Of the many classical writers whose works were available to the medieval scholars, the most influential one had to be Plato. In Norman Cantors book, he observes that, Christianity was built as much on Plato as on the Judaic tradition (Cantor, 18). Because Platos work so influential, it would be illuminating to look at exactly what Platos ideas were, as well as how they were reinterpreted by medieval scholars.

According to Cantor, To Plato ideas, or conceptual forms, were not idle fantasies, but essential realities. When we refer to justice or the state or love, we are actually referring to something that has an independent existence outside our minds (Cantor, 16). On the other hand, material objects such as a table, which are commonly assumed to have more reality than mere ideas, actually have less reality to a Platonist, because A table would not have come into existence without the idea of a table; it is the idea that gives it shape and reality.

Pure, ultimate reality is pure Idea, and the physical world that we touch and see has a reality only insofar as it participates in or is formed by pure Idea (Cantor, 16). It is easy to see how a philosophy like this could have been eagerly assimilated into medieval Christianity, which denigrated the body in favor of the spirit, and all material things in favor of God. However, it is important to recognize that Platonism, or, more specifically, Neoplatonism, as the form reinterpreted by the medieval Christians came to be called, carries within it enormous implications for the medieval scientist.

Truly refined and intellectual minds had no reason to resort to the analysis of nature as a way of approaching or appreciating the Divine, because reality was not to be found in nature but in ideas. Consequently, it would have been absurd (and sacrilegious) to learn about anatomy from a cadaver, because we know all we need to know about man from reflecting on the Ideal Man with our rational sense. Thus it was possible for men to believe for thousands of years that the world was flat, or that the sun revolved around the earth, because the hypothesis was never tested.

The Bible implies that God created the earth as a central focal point for all his activities; Ptolemy agreed that the earth was the center of the cosmos; and that was enough for the medieval scientist. Over the course of time, however, scientists began to make their own experiments, sometimes as offshoots of astrology or alchemy. And often their results surprised and disturbed them. The Counterbalance Foundation notes that Almost all the great pioneers and founders of the new science were religious men who wanted a science that would harmonize with their faith.

All three founders of the new heliocentric cosmology, Nicholas Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, and Isaac Newton, saw their new vision of the universe as an offshoot of their theology. Newton, in particular, was a religious fanatic whose whole life work can be seen as a search for God. Even the infamous Galileo was a committed Catholic who wanted nothing more than for the Pope to endorse his vision of the heavens (Counterbalance, Faith and Reason). Unfortunately, it simply was not possible. The Church insisted on a certain agenda, and the scientific evidence these men produced contradicted that.

From that time on, there were two different books, the book of faith, and the book of science. This idea was articulated by Enlightenment rationalists such as Kant and Rousseau, and became firmly entrenched in the furor over Darwins theory of evolution in the nineteenth century. As the Counterbalance Foundation points out, In the wake of [Darwins] book, some Christian believers and theologians began to see science as a threat to their faith. On the other hand, some scientists also began to see religion as a threat to scientific freedom (Counterbalance, Faith and Reason).

On the other hand, reason has often been applied to religion, with somewhat vague results. St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, sought to prove the existence of God by postulating that, We see things changing. Now anything changing is being changed by something else… This something else, if itself changing, is being changed by yet another thing; and this last by another. Now we must stop somewhere, otherwise there will be no first cause of the change, and, as a result, no subsequent causes…

We arrive then at some first cause of change not itself being changed by anything, and this is what everybody understands by God (Aquinas, cited in Haldane, xx). This First Cause was accepted as being the paramount proof of the existence of God until people stopped trying to prove something that was so clearly an element of faith. Most educated people today accept that faith is something personal and special that is not really subject to the laws of reason; if a person is inspired by his belief in angels, for example, it is insensitive to try to talk him out of it.

They also accept that there are certain gray areas in which faith and science collide, such as a circumstance where a parent refuses medical treatment for a child on the basis of a religious objection, but scientists believe that the rejected treatment would save the childs life. In those instances, the law generally sets aside its hands-off policy toward religion, and rules in favor of treating the child despite the parents objections. But in general, we let faith alone.

As Haldane notes, science is good at giving explanations of events and circumstances within nature, [but] it is not equipped to explain the preconditions of the possibility of there being a natural order (Haldane, xx). In other words, science can explain what it can see and test, but not what it cannot. For that we need faith, which can inspire us, ennoble us, and fill us with joy in a way that pure rationalism never could. While it may no longer be possible to merge faith and reason, it may be just as well after all.


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