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Thursday, 18 February 2021

I Like Locke (III) : Revelation

It's time to conclude this trilogy examining Locke's mighty Essay Concerning Human Understanding with a look at what Locke thought about faith. Locke showed that true certainty was indeed possible. How, then, do people come to be so mistaken about even their own deepest beliefs

In part one, we saw how Locke believed we can be truly certain of at least some of our own thoughts. If I say, "I'm thinking of a horny badger" then I'm (a) a bit weird and (b) probably actually thinking about a horny badger for some reason. Some of my thoughts I can know with absolute certainty, even if sometimes it would be better if I didn't.

Alas, things are not quite so clear when it comes to the external world. There I have to make certain assumptions in order to get by, though generally these are pretty reasonable. If I see a pair of socks being sold for £2.50, I can safely assume that the price hasn't been changed by an evil demon hell-bent on causing me constant confusion. It's a good bet that the world objectively exists and reality is what causes our perceptions. We can't know the true, complete form of anything, but in practice we just don't need to. Not even when it comes to horny badgers or socks. 

Clothing, the nemesis of philosophy.

In part two we looked at free will. Dualism, to me, is by far and away the most sensible, level-headed, and downright scientific interpretation of consciousness. Yes, it means acknowledging that mind over matter is possible, but only within the very specific and utterly limited realm of the brain. There's no need for any mystical woo; you don't need to subscribe to Uri Gellar's YouTube channel. But neither do you have to go around saying that "thoughts aren't real !" or "help, I'm not in control of my own actions !" or any other such bloody nonsense that people are often seduced by.

Now of course I cannot prove to you that that's what consciousness is really like. I cannot even assess the probability that this is the right answer. It's just my opinion. But I believe it to be true nonetheless : I'm placing my faith in the scientific method.

To some, this last statement causes otherwise cool heads to explode. They cannot abide the idea that science has any overlap with "belief" or "faith". The former is entirely rational and evidence-based; the latter, they say, are anything but.

I think this is just not true at all. And so, for quite different reasons, did Locke. So let's lay this silly charge that scientists don't "believe" in anything fully and finally to rest. I approach this from the perspective of an fervent agnostic, quite prepared to accept some vague philosophical notion of divinity but altogether much more skeptical of any interfering, moralistic busybody entities - whereas Locke was a Christian through and through. This ought to be interesting.


Spoiler alert : this is nothing more than a glorified terminology problem. But one that might help us resolve an awful lot of confusion - and maybe even have some practical consequences.


An Astronomer's Faith

In the previous posts we looked a little at the differences between knowledge and opinion. We all think we know what this is in principle, but often come unstuck on specific examples. If we say, "I know something", we generally mean we're certain about it. If someone else says the same thing, we don't generally and/or instantly also become as certain as they are. Unless, that is, we have supreme faith in them.

What do I mean by faith here ? Simply this : trust. If I put my faith in someone, I trust their judgement more than my own. Faith is thus quite distinct from belief in the ordinary sense. If I really believe that it's a good idea to jump into a pit of scorpions, if I'm for some reason quite convinced that it's genuinely true, then I'll do so of my own volition (and likely win a Darwin Award in the process). This ordinary kind of belief is no more than a synonym for thinking. I think the scorpion pit is safe, therefore I'm an idiot I'll jump in it. 

Of course, it's a spectrum of confidence - I don't necessarily have the same degree of assuredness in everything I think is probably true. But that's the essence of it : belief is essentially my own confidence in what I think is going on. In that sense, belief may or may not be entirely rational - it depends on how one reached a conclusion, not what that conclusion actually is. You can reach rational conclusions by irrational methods, and vice-versa.

Faith is altogether different. To act on faith, or trust, requires not a burning fire of unshakeable belief but its very opposite : doubt. For example, if I'm not a complete idiot, I can see for myself that jumping into a pit of scorpions is a terrible idea. So I won't do it. But if I have a greater faith in something else (a cult leader, a textbook, whatever), my trust in them can override my own judgement. I will say, "well, this looks like a bad idea to me, but this person surely knows better than I do, so I guess I'd better to do it." Supreme faith would then be acting against one's own certainty - to look the problems squarely in the eye and ignore them anyway. And depending on your point of view, such behaviour is either commendable or contemptible, devoted or deranged.

(As an aside, this partly helps with the paradox of controlling one's own thoughts I discussed last time. We arguably don't have much choice about what we believe, but belief, desire, and choice are all separate - if related - things. There's more to choice than belief.)

This is not always dangerous though, and often it's necessary. We can have this sort of faith in experts or different methodologies - happens all the time, and a jolly good thing true.

As a scientist, I confront this daily. My intuition isn't always bad, but it often leads me astray : I see a pattern in the data and think, "hah, yes, surely this time I've discovered something that will win me the Nobel Prize !". But I don't immediately rush to publish it, because I trust the established scientific method. I have faith that a proper statistical analysis will reveal things that a casual inspection simply can't. So I go ahead and do things properly, not because I think I've done anything wrong, but because the methodology has a proven, reliable track record of being better than my own instantaneous judgement.

This, I think, helps explain the idea of a leap of faith quite nicely :

And it also explains the difference between ordinary belief, what's also known as judgement or opinion, and true faith (usually associated with religion). A belief in a thing is also usually this sort of quasi-religious faith. You can and should believe that chairs exist - in fact, you can be said to know that they exist; knowledge can be seen to be just an extreme form of this kind of everyday belief. But you can't really believe in them.

This "belief in", rather than of, is usually something quite different, and more like the trusting sort of faith. So you can't really believe in chairs in this sense : they don't offer you any sort of knowledge contrary to your own. Well, I suppose if you're counting on a chair to support your weight, when you have a deep suspicion that it looks a bit flimsy, in that specific and limited circumstance you could "believe" in the chair - you could trust it despite your own misgivings - but that's about as far as it goes.

Sometimes faith is only just strong enough to overcome doubt. I will gloss over a significant caveat that the desire to actually do something is arguably quite distinct from the belief that it's a good idea.

So should scientists get angry when people say they "believe" in things ? No, absolutely not. And that goes for both senses of the word.

If I say, "I believe in dark matter", I could mean one of two things :

  1. I could simply mean that I think, on balance, that it's more likely to exist than not exist. I have a genuine degree of confidence in the prospect. That belief (for me) is well-founded on solid scientific principles, evidence and reason. This is perfectly sensible and unavoidable. I don't have to commit my entire body and soul to my opinion, but I can't very well avoid having an opinion at all - that would be silly. 
  2. Alternatively, I could mean that I trust the evidence over my own intuition, which might incline against invoking large amounts of a mysterious substance that makes galaxies spin. That too would be rational and proper, which not even the most skeptical should have any problem with. Trusting the method is perfectly rational given its proven track record - and to repeat, neither faith nor beliefs are absolutes. I can say, "well, this is just my best guess", or "the analysis suggests this result, but I'm not fully convinced". Like the terrified young lady above, the net strength of faith or belief can sometimes be only marginal.

But of course sometimes faith does become silly. If I find evidence against dark matter, but I persist in maintaining the full strength of my belief, then my faith is a hindrance to knowledge. The stronger the evidence I choose to (or otherwise) ignore, the more dangerous my faith becomes. It's not trust that's important, it's what I put my trust in.

Now if you're a rationalist, you might well object to having your world view labelled as a variety of faith. But I would argue that it is. Given all the uncertainties and necessary assumptions regarding knowledge we looked at in part one, you have to have some trust that the evidence of your own senses is a sensible way to form a judgment. It doesn't have to be very much, and some of it is unavoidable - but still there is some

A rather stronger form of faith pervades rationalism when it comes to specific methodologies. We sometimes seem to forget that the scientific method itself is subject to revision, that we're always developing new tools to analyse data and new criteria for establishing facts - especially when it comes to statistics. We all of us suffer a particularly blind sort of faith when we trust the current methods too much, when we forget that this too is subject to improvement. We think, paraphrasing an earlier quote, that all the methods we have are all the methods there are.

Yet, by and large, faith that aligns with the evidence and current analytical methods is seldom much of a cause for concern. It's probably the best we can ever hope for, and certainly better than believing someone just because they dress like a pirate or say things that sound nice. In a sense, it's possible to have faith in your own self-doubt : to trust that there are better methods than your own intuition, but that you yourself are capable of deciding which methods are better and which are worse.

That's my take then. Belief is confidence in one's own opinion, faith is confidence that someone else's opinion is better. Neither is intrinsically good or bad, and neither are fundamental to or fundamentally opposed to rational inquiry. They're just parts of the human condition.

Well, I feel an awful lot better for having clarified my position. At last we may turn to Locke.


Locke's Faith

Locke's view on faith proceeded from a different angle. Knowledge, he says, comes from direct perception and deductive reasoning. We may have ideas that are in accordance with, contrary to, or above (beyond) reason : the latter meaning things that are unprovable by rational inquiry. There isn't any inherent pejorative here, but he doesn't immediately view faith as falling into this category :

Faith is nothing but a firm assent of the mind : which, if it be regulated, as is our duty, cannot be afforded to anything but upon good reason, and so cannot be opposite to it.

Locke then views faith as much more similar to the common meaning of belief or opinion, albeit perhaps with a high degree of confidence. He acknowledges that beliefs can be irrational, but doesn't set faith into any special category :

He that believes without having any reason for believing, may be in love with his own fancies, but neither seeks truth as he ought, nor pays the obedience due to his Maker, who would have him use those discerning faculties he has given him, to keep him out of mistakes and error.

To search for truth by rational inquiry is, in Locke's view, a form of service to God. Why else would he have given you the capabilities to do so if not to use them ? The idea that God would demand blind obedience does not feature anywhere : quite the opposite ! The religious overtones associated with the modern use of the word "faith" don't really feature much here, except indirectly in that some religious beliefs do tend to be especially fervent.

Clearly you can have beliefs without any real evidence to back them up. For Locke this is nothing virtuous; again, he doesn't much distinguish between faith and belief. But he does acknowledge that some people take faith to wholly irrational by definition :

I find every sect, so far as reason will help them, make use of it [reason] gladly : and where it fails them, they cry out, "It is a matter of faith, and above reason."

This at least alludes to the notion of faith as a kind of trust, but potentially with an added factor that I've hitherto overlooked. It depends on just how irrational you think people can be. Rational people can have a solidly rational faith, placing their trust in a source that's been previously proven correct when there's limited knowledge of a current topic. Irrational people may do something very much stranger, trusting that a result is true even if inherently unprovable by rational methods. So here we have yet another sense of the what "faith" can be taken to mean - and a quite legitimate one too, since some beliefs certainly fall into this category. Defining faith as "an inherently unprovable belief" would, needless to say, be markedly different to my own inclination, but entirely plausible. 

Locke's sigh of indignation almost audibly emanates from the pages. How can such people argue with anyone, he laments, without clearly distinguishing between faith and reason ?

He proposes that the key difference is how people arrive at their conclusions. Reason is the process of logical deduction. Faith, in contrast, is revelation - an idea communicated through "some extraordinary way of communication" from God. So this is quite distinct from ordinary belief after all. But this is not to say that faith is inherently irrational - and not just because Locke himself happened to believe in divine revelation. It's both subtler and more interesting than that.

Firstly, revelation (according to Locke) is surprisingly limited considering its progenitor's omnipotence. God can't give you wholly new perceptions - at least not by revelation alone. That is, if you were born deaf, you can't know what hearing is like except by gaining the sense of hearing, which is more than the knowledge that can be communicated through linguistic revelation :

This revelation, if it be of new simple ideas, cannot be conveyed to another, either by words or any other signs. Because words, by their immediate operation on us, cause no other ideas but of their natural sounds, and it is by the custom of using them for signs that they excite and revive in our minds latent ideas - but yet only such as ideas as were there before. 

Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that if God did give you a new sense, you couldn't properly describe this to anyone who didn't also receive such a gift. This echoes earlier, medieval ideas that even God can't violate logic. Locke imagines aliens living on Jupiter or Saturn ("for that it is possible there may be such, nobody can deny"*) with a sixth sense** :

* I don't know if Locke had any difficulties with religious authorities over this, though I doubt it.
** I'm surprised that Locke isn't mentioned more often in popular articles describing Mary's Room. His aliens certainly get to the heart of the matter : arguably more so than Mary, since they have a literally unimaginable extra sense that Mary can never possess.

He could no more, by words, produce in the minds of other men those ideas imprinted by that sixth sense, than one of use could convey the idea of any colour, by the sound of words, into a man who, having the other four senses perfect, had always totally wanted the fifth, of seeing. For our simple ideas, then... we can by no means receive them, or any of them, from traditional revelation.

Second, nothing prevents revelation from agreeing with reason. God is necessarily good, so he wouldn't go around filling your head with a load of cobblers. This means there's no reason at all why he wouldn't reveal things to you that you could have figured out entirely by yourself, just because he wants to give you a helping hand. God, in effect, is the equivalent of fifty-fifty on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.

Obviously from the parts of the Bible they left out.

But more importantly, revelation isn't as certain as ordinary knowledge. Even if it's God telling you stuff, in the end, this is never as good as seeing something for yourself. So much for religious dogma.

The knowledge we have that this revelation came at first from God, can never be so sure as the knowledge we have from the clear and distinct perception of the agreement or disagreement of our own ideas. Nobody, I think, will say he has as certain and clear a knowledge of the Flood as Noah, that saw it, or that he himself would have had, had he then been alive and seen it.

Third, and most strikingly of all, even divine revelation must fail before reason. God does not tell lies, and there's nothing more certain than direct perception or logical deduction. Therefore anything that contradicts rational inquiry must be false (or beyond reason).

No proposition can be received for divine revelation, or obtain the assent due to all such, if it be contradictory to our clear intuitive knowledge. Because this would be to subvert the principles of all knowledge, evidence, and assent whatsoever, and there would be left no difference between truth and falsehood, no measures of credible and incredible in the world, if doubtful propositions shall take place before self-evident, and what we certainly know give way to what we may possibly be mistaken in.

If someone claims to have had a divine revelation, but what they say goes against reason, then they must be lying or mistaken. This says nothing about the truth of God, just his believers. He's really, really, really insistent that knowledge must always prevail over "faith".

For faith can never convince us of anything that contradicts our knowledge. Since the whole strength of our certainty depends upon our knowledge that God revealed it, which, in this case, where the propositions supposed revealed contradicts our knowledge or reason, will always have this objections hanging to it, viz. that we cannot tell how to conceive that it come from God, the bountiful Author of our being, which, if received for true, must overturn all the principles and foundations of knowledge he has given us, render all our faculties useless, wholly destroy the most excellent part of his workmanship, our understandings, and put a man in a condition where he will have less light, less conduct than the beast that perisheth.
This particular anti-religion meme does have a point...y hat. But seriously, reason ought to have prevailed over faith here.

So convinced is Locke of the rational nature of the Universe and the benevolence of God, that he goes even a step further. Any divine revelation, he says, must also be achievable through ordinary inquiry. 

To all those who pretend not to immediate revelation, reason has a great deal more to do, and it is only that which can induce us to receive the truths revealed to others.

Which raises the question : does faith - in revelatory sense - have any use at all ? Yes, says Locke, it has three purposes. First, he concedes that it can indeed allow us to know things which are beyond reason and not subject to rational analysis. Things which are unfalsifiable (in the modern Popperian parlance) can be revealed this way and no other ("not how the heavens go", and all that) :

These, as being beyond the discovery of our natural faculties, and above reason, are the proper matter of faith. Thus, that part of the angels that rebelled against god, and that the dead shall rise and live again, these and the like, being beyond the discovery of reason, are purely matters of faith, which reason has directly nothing to do.

Second, when evidence is lacking, faith can tip the balance. If we're more confident of a revelation than we are of the evidence, then revelation can help overturn even what seems otherwise the more probable (but under no circumstances certain) conclusion. And thirdly, if God really wants us to know something achievable with rational analysis, he can provide instructions on how to do so. Hmm, yes, "we chose to fit a third-order polynomial to the data because God told us to"... good luck getting that one past a modern reviewer. #OverlyHonestMethods.

God when he makes the prophet does not unmake the man. When he illuminates the mind with supernatural light, he does not extinguish that which is natural. If he would have us assent to the truth of any proposition, he either evidences that truth by the usual methods of natural reason, or else makes it known to be a truth which he would have us assent to by his authority, and convinces is us that it is from him, by some marks which reason cannot be mistaken in. Reason must be our last judge and guide us in everything.

Divine revelation has long fallen from scientific grace, but Locke's solution is a clever way to avoid the obvious problem of charlatans and madmen. His view again echoes earlier theologians who held that you were free to try any medical, rational cure for illness that you wanted - it would only overcome a heaven-sent illness if God had decided you'd had enough. Likewise, so Locke expects God to provide rational, testable proof that claimed divine revelations were really his own work. You were not expected to take it - ahem - on faith.

For Locke, trust is something that's earned. For others, this misses the whole point. Locke's view of such fanatics is little short of contempt :

Enthusiasm [fanaticism] takes away both reason and revelation, and substitutes in the room of them the ungrounded fancies of a man's own brain, and assumes them for a foundation both of opinion and conduct. For a strong conceit, like a new principle, carries all easily with it, when got above common sense, and freed from all restraint of reason and check of reflections, it is heightened into a divine authority, in concurrence with our own temper and inclination.

The love of something extraordinary, the ease and glory it is to be inspired, and be above the common and natural ways of knowledge, so flatters many men's laziness, ignorance, and vanity, that, when once they are got into this way of immediate revelation, of illumination without search, and of certainty without proof and without examination, it is a hard matter to get them out of it. Reason is lost upon them, and they are above it... what they have a sensible experience of admits no doubt, needs no probation.

Fanatics are generally sincere in their beliefs, according to Locke. They think themselves experiencing divine revelation with the same degree of intuitive certainty that we see "the Sun at noon... and need not the twilight of reason to show it us." 

All the more need, then, for reason. Someone experiencing true revelation will be able to rationally prove either what they say is true and/or that it came from God. A deluded fanatic, on the other hand, can only offer a perfectly circular argument :

This is the way of talking of these men : they are sure, because they are sure, and their persuasions are right, because they are strong in them. For, when what they say is stripped of the metaphor of seeing and feeling, this is all it amounts to, and yet those similes so impose on the they they serve them for certainty in themselves, and demonstration to others. It is a revelation, because they firmly believe it, and they believe it, because it is a revelation.

This is surely the very worst variety of "faith" we've come across : not merely nonsense, but self-justifying nonsense. Locke hates it. We should only believe something, he says, so far as the evidence allows, and anyone going further than this is being irrational and possibly fanatical. "Whoever goes beyond this measure of assent, it is plain receives not the truth in the love of it; loves not truth for truth's sake but for some other bye-end".

Flattery will get you everywhere.


So how about that "God" chap ?

There is one final teensy-weensy thing we need to address though. Locke has given us a clear way to test if claimed prophets are genuine or not. But he falls down, I think, on two other areas. First, he has no clear way to tell if one's own intuitive knowledge is at fault. He asks the right questions, but the answer is not at all satisfying :

How do I know that God is the revealed of this to me, that this impressions is made upon my mind by his Holy Spirit, and that therefore I ought to obey it ? For, if I mistake them not, these men receive it for true, because they presume God revealed it. Does it not, then, stand upon them to examine upon which grounds they presume it to be a revelation from God ? Or else all their confidence is mere presumption, and this light they are so dazzled with is nothing but an ignis fatuus [will-o'-the-wisp].

Alas, while he does state the general solution, that God could choose to provide a rationally-verifiable answer if he wanted, this is a rare case where he doesn't give a specific example. Yes, God could surely make his revelations provable, and make it equally provable to a rational, skeptical observer that he was indeed responsible, but how exactly would this manifest itself in practise ? Would He descend as a burning bush and co-author a paper ? Locke has no answer. Except, perhaps, when it comes to the existence of God itself - the only major part of the Essay I found disappointing.

Descartes starts his Meditations by attempting to doubt everything. As well as becoming certain of his own existence, pretty soon he also establishes the existence of God through one of the most annoying ideas in history : the ontological argument. In essence, God is perfect, and one of the necessary qualities of perfection is that it exists, so God exists. Bam, done.

I hate this. It's just gaaaargh. Sophistry. OVERLOAD. Let us never speak of this again.

Locke's position is... slightly more sophisticated. It isn't mere wordplay, at least. But in the end I don't find it any more convincing.

He has two reasons for believing in God, both closely related. Since we ourselves exist, and nothing cannot come of nothing, it follows that something must have produced us. Or indeed the entire world around us - there's not really an anthropic argument here just yet. 

Man knows, by an intuitive certainty, that bare nothing can no more produce any real being, that it can be equal to two right angles. If we known that there is some being being, and that nonentity cannot produce any real being, it is an evident demonstration, that from eternity there has been something, since was not from eternity had a beginning and what had a beginning must be produced by something else.

In some ways this is not too bad. How a state of total non-existence (I mean the complete absence even of any governing physical laws, not merely the absence of matter or even of space and time themselves) can give rise to existence is a deep philosophical and physical problem which, in all likelihood, is beyond human understanding. After all, non-existence can't exist by definition. 

Go, have fun with that one. I'll wait.

For the sake of argument, let's assume that something has always existed, and ignore the tricky problem of where and when such a thing has existed. It certainly doesn't necessarily follow that what existed before us was any kind of entity, whereas Locke finds it almost self-evident that the being was both the most powerful and most knowing entity of all. I think he's perhaps extending the principle of "nothing can come of nothing" too far - that because we have some knowledge, our progenitor must have done so too. In contrast, it seems self-evident enough to me that we are born knowing nothing but learn things later on, whereas Locke disagrees :

If it be said, there was a time when no being had any knowledge, when that eternal being was void of all understanding, I reply, then it was impossible that there should have been any knowledge - it being impossible that things wholly void of knowledge, and operating blindly, and without any perception, should produce a knowing being, as it is impossible that a triangle should make itself three angles bigger than two right ones.

Which just doesn't make sense to me. We don't even need to bring in evolution for this. I'm certainly not born with any prior knowledge of fish or differential equations or custard. None whatsoever. My perception also begins (as a fertilised cell) as zero. I acquire both perception and knowledge from literally nothing. So I don't see why this eternal being, even conceding the already strange point that it "must" have existed, need be any kind of supreme being as Locke thinks.

It's popular idea that the universe could just be an accident created by some moron in a laboratory, but this doesn't really address the root problem : where does stupidity intelligence, awareness, understanding originally come from ?

This brings in Locke's second point, which he's equally convinced about but doesn't persuasively justify - that mindless matter cannot come to have a mind. 

For it is as repugnant to the idea of senseless matter, that it should put into itself sense, perception, and knowledge, as it is repugnant to the idea of a triangle, that it should out into itself greater angles than two right ones.

I wonder what Locke would have made of non-Euclidian geometry, computers, and optical illusions. Today we take such things for granted, but in Locke's day there was absolutely no reason to do so. Still, he had books (which store knowledge) and illusions were hardly unknown either. So he ought to have realised that his perceptive intuition was potentially more fallible than he gave it credit for. It's also a bit strange, given (as we saw in part two) Locke's sympathy with the idea of consciousness being transplantable, and, more explicitly, his acknowledgement that God could choose to allow matter to think.

Locke, I think, was a little bit of a panpsychist, essentially arguing that consciousness is a property that matter has, not something it generates. But there's no hint of the idea that all matter has some degree of consciousness, which makes it all the stranger how only some types of matter - apparently in very specific configurations - can be conscious and not others.

He does at least attempt to elaborate as to why he's so against the idea of thinking matter though :

Let us suppose the matter of the next pebble we meet... if there no other being in the world, must it not eternally remain at rest, a dead inactive lump ? Is it possible to conceive it can add motion to itself, being purely matter, or produce anything ? Matter then, by its own strength, cannot produce in itself so much as motion.

True enough, but as soon as you add any other matter at all, the picture changes. The Essay was published only three years after Newton's theory of gravity, but the obvious retort is :

Matter can certainly induce motion. But even granting this, Locke doesn't concede this could ever be true of thought :

Matter, whatever changes it might produce of figure and bulk, could never produce thought : knowledge will still be as far beyond the power of motion and matter to produce, as matter is beyond the power of nothing or nonentity to produce. Divide matter into as many parts as you will, and you may as rationally expect to produce sense, thought, and knowledge, by putting together, in a certain figure and motions, gross particles of matter, as by those that are the very minutest that anywhere do exist. They knock, impel, and resist one another, and that is all they can do. For it is impossible to conceive that matter could have originally, in and from itself, sense, perception, and knowledge, as is evident from hence, that then sense, perception, and knowledge, must be a property eternally inseparable from matter and every particle of it.

Panpsychist tendencies indeed ! But... why ? What is so self-evident about the notion that matter cannot think ? I could equally well claim, without justification, that the non-physical cannot affect the physical and so render God (who Locke says cannot be made of matter) useless. Now I'll cheerfully grant that the modern assumption that matter can think is equally strange - it's the supposedly self-evident nature of the assumptions that's the problem.

So for all Locke's commendable efforts to support a rational view not merely of faith in general, but religious faith specifically, I find myself unmoved in my agnosticism. It's good to prioritise reason above faith. It's commendable indeed to invoke the notion of a God who wouldn't ask you to abandon science, who gave you the faculty of reason so that you might use it, not to defy it as a test of a truly perverted notion of subservient, prostrating sort of faith. I just don't think that when it comes to the actual issue of the existence of God, Locke has anything useful to say.


Summary and Conclusions

We've seen several different contenders for how we define faith, so let's recap. First, we had the ideas of faith and belief as relating to confidence in any particular idea :

  • It's just a synonym for opinion, or more usually belief - the confidence we have in an opinion. This has rather fallen out of favour. While people do use "think" and "believe" interchangeably, few if any use "faith" in this way. "I think my fish is ill" and "I believe my fish is ill" - both sound fine, but, "I have faith my fish is sick" is just downright weird.
  • With belief being a measure of confidence in our own opinion, faith is our confidence that an external opinion is superior to our own. This kind of faith requires us to have our own, somewhat opposing opinion. And acting on faith can then become a far more impressive feat. Faith overcomes doubt rather than reducing it.
In these two interpretations, there's nothing inherently good or bad, rational or irrational, about faith itself. That depends entirely on how our beliefs (or the beliefs of those we trust) happen to be aligned with rational evidence and methodologies. In this sense, it's perfectly reasonable to speak of scientists having faith in what they do.

But people often use the word faith in quite a different, more explicitly irrational sense, and this terminology has value too :
  • Faith is nothing to do with confidence or trust, but only a particular kind of belief : one that is inherently unprovable. In this definition you can think that chairs exist, but you can't believe in them. You can only have faith, or believe in, things which are beyond what's measurably real.
  • At the extreme, faith, or more particularly fanaticism, is self-justifying irrational belief. This is circular and inherently illogical : the strength of one's belief is used as evidence for the strength of the belief, making it virtually invulnerable to reasoned argument.
The reason I get a bit cross when people start ranting about how scientists don't believe in things is because I generally use the term in the simple opinion-sense. Of course we make basic assumptions about reality. It's unavoidable. So I see nothing wrong in us saying our findings are (evidence-based) opinions, or that we have personal preferences that are influenced in part by non-rational factors. To pretend that science is so aloof is, I think, dangerous. I'm extremely wary of anyone claiming to be that far above ordinary human biases; such people are, in my experience, often by far the most convinced of their own opinions.

But it is true that the fanatical-variant of faith is also an important human condition. If someone uses faith in this sense, then no, most scientists certainly don't think like this. The areas in the Venn diagram would not be entirely separate, but the overlap would be marginal - some aspects of some theories are unprovable or interpretative; some individual scientists are simply mad.

Generally I think this latter version is the less helpful. I don't agree with Locke that so much of religious faith is a rational, provable assertion - I think far more of it is "above reason" than he did. Nor can I ignore fanaticism. No, it seems to me that trust is the underlying common factor. Trust is what unifies these two diametrically opposed schools of thought. It does not impose a moral judgement on either (though my own preference should by now be clear), for trust itself is neither right nor wrong. Instead, it describes and explains : trust in objectivity, measurement, repeatability and consistency leads to science; trust in feeling, intuition, doctrine and emotion lead to religion.

Which is not to say either is always good or bad or always opposed to the other. The point is more that the human condition is largely a blend of these two states, not one or the other.

For me the biggest weakness of Locke is not his failure to prove the existence of God - I would hardly expect anyone to be able to do that ! - but his inability to explain how someone could prove their "divine" revelation wasn't their own internal delusion, a prospect he clearly admits happens all too often. The divinity aspect of the problem is minor : I think this points to a bigger flaw with his definition of certainty and knowledge. 

If the thing we can be most certain of is our own thoughts, but we can be deluded about even this, if we can think ourselves certain but not actually be so, then what exactly are we left with ? Can we hold anything to be truly certain if no-one else can verify it ?

Suppose, for example, that God did give us a revelatory message. Let's say that one day he decides to warn us about the fate of our beloved pet fish. Suddenly we find ourselves thinking, "YOUR PET FISH IS QUITE ILL. YOU SHOULD TAKE HIM TO THE VET." But that's it, and after that God buggers off and gives no further information at all. How do we respond ?

I'll grant that we can absolutely certain that we are actually thinking the message itself about said fish. This is self-fulfilling : we can, in effect, directly perceive it. The problem is that of course we can't truly be certain about the origin of the message - we can't directly see its origin any more than we could smell crime or see music. Yet people claim they are indeed as certain of the origin as they are of the message, that they can directly perceive this - and because other people haven't had this unique revelatory experience, there's no way to convince them, just as we can't describe the colour red to a blind man. 

This puts us in a terrible, terrible dilemma. One side is certain and the other has no way of accessing that certainty. Any further argument is useless. Either the believer is mistaken, and our most fundamental sense of certainty is deeply flawed, or they're correct but others are denied access to this most basic knowledge. So we have a wretched paradox : we can be truly certain of some of our own thoughts, but equally convinced in our certainty even of falsehoods. We can apparently "know" unverifiable, unknowable truths. Like mathematical proofs that only a select few can truly understand, sometimes we have no recourse but to faith.

Of course the cat probably doesn't have faith here, he probably just hasn't thought it through at all. But for more on when science oversteps its proper boundaries, try this.

All this leads to the very practical consequence of science denial. It helps us appreciate just how vast the gulf between these two opposing world views can sometimes be. It's not a matter of one side lacking information, but something enormously deeper. It's well-summarised by a quote by idealism supporter Jonathan Black :
While we should try and reconcile religion with reason, what it cannot be reconciled with is materialism. If you concede that matter came before mind, you have conceded so much that there is nothing left worth defending... if the only meanings the cosmos has are the ones we invent for it, then the great claims of religion are false. If we came from nothing, the world's religions are worth nothing.
Creationism, Flat Earth, and other ideas are basically forms of idealism. To fly so fully in the face of scientific, material evidence requires that God actively shapes and reshapes reality : very much to the effect of reality being constructed of consciousness, not objective matter. Countering arguments in favour of such beliefs with scientific proof will not help, because the adherent's world view is fundamentally different and fundamentally irrational - or at the very least, based on an entirely different theory of knowledge. The two belief systems - and science is indeed a belief system - are simply not compatible. Even if Creationists don't admit to this (and I suspect many of them wouldn't even understand it), that is the "truth" they are willing to accept. Unless you tackle that first and head-on, then evidence-based, rationalist, materialist arguments will never succeed against someone who rejects evidence and all rational argument.

Of course, the two great world views, the mystical and the methodical, are not usually so far apart or as fiercely opposed as Creationism and geology. Most of the time the two can happily exist alongside one another. It's only, as Locke says, when the boundary between the two domains is improperly blurred that either has difficulties. And most adherents of either system do not fully adopt only one of the other in all things. But when they do conflict, it's important to realise what's going on is not purely a matter of who trusts what. The reasons for preferring one source over another are profoundly linked to the most basic view of reality. And the ultimate truth of that can, surely, only ever be a matter of faith.

Thus forever settling the argument between science and religion so that there need be no further discussion. Hurrah !

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