Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Belief Reasonable?

Is it naive to base any aspect of our lifestyle on belief? Is it appropriate to have a condescending attitude toward those who base their decisions on their beliefs? Are such individuals blindly following an authority who has concealed, evil intentions for the purposes of manipulating others?

Many people today partition thoughts and ideas into two categories: those that are “known” that are based on science and experimentation, and then those that are “believed” that are based on religion and faith.  However, it is clear that it is important that we understand the implications of this approach, and whether this is a good model for how we make decisions.  To understand the gravity of these implications, we need only look at how they effect people’s decisions regarding the most controversial topics that we face in our culture today, such as abortion, euthanasia, homosexual unions, and many others.  To offer an example, one person might say “I believe the life of your mother has intrinsic value. Based on this belief, if she were to be in an accident and need life support, it would be immoral to kill her.” Another person might say, “You cannot prove to me that your mother’s life has intrinsic value. She serves no benefit to society, so it is best to kill her.”

Let us consider in more depth, then, this distinction between “knowing” and “believing.” What things does one know, and how does one know them? If I were to ask you, “Do you know that the image that appears to be continuous on your computer monitor is a projection of the discrete, high-speed, serially-switching transistors on the graphics processor in your computer?” Most people would probably say “yes.” Or to consider a simpler case, “Do you know that the earth is round?”  Again, most people would probably say “yes.”  So how do we know these things?  The likely response is that one could take the computer into the lab and hook it to special equipment to see what is happening within it.  And one has seen pictures of the earth taken from space, so he claims that he can say with certainty that indeed it is round.  The same person might then claim that one cannot prove through experimentation that a human being has intrinsic value.

However, there are some grievous inconsistencies in logic here.  The first is that although one could take the computer into the lab to analyze it, the vast majority of people have not done so. Further, even if one did perform this experimentation, the results of the analysis would be based on several assumptions that the person would have to verify scientifically to remain consistent by his own definition of “knowing.” For example, how does one know that the lab equipment is working correctly? How does one know that the logic analyzer has not been tampered with to provide false results? (show pictures of earth) Regarding our knowing that the earth is round, how does one know that the pictures have not been fabricated, or that the camera with which they were taken was not malfunctioning? Hence, it seems that without rigorous scientific analyses, by the definition of most contemporary thinkers, there is still a component of belief behind these claims we make.

To this line of thinking, one will likely respond, “well, there are many other facts that I know from daily experience that are congruent with these about the processor and the earth’s roundness. I have seen processors get faster over the years from increasing clock rates, and I see the sun come up everyday.”  However, this reasoning again reveals inconsistencies in logic.  Consider that from daily experience, I also know that a human being has intrinsic value. When a person goes to a restaurant to buy coffee, he is generally polite to the waiter, and may even make friendly conversation with him - even if they have never met and will likely never meet again. So it is clear that we base such behavior on the belief that the person has value - that it is good to treat people as we would like to be treated. In a similar way, we believe that the facts people have told us about processors are accurate, and that the pictures of the earth from space are genuine, and we live our lives based on the assumption that these beliefs are true.

Now, in spite of our confidence in scientifically-based claims, consider that one cannot prove the claims about the processor or the earth based on the simple fact that neither is true. The transistors on the graphics processor do not switch serially, and the earth is not round - as recent measurements have shown it to be slightly pear-shaped. But the main point here is that for the vast majority of people, these things likely don’t matter anyway. Most individuals could probably go through their lives saying that graphics processors work in a serial fashion and that the earth is round, and they’d probably get along OK. But if one were to be rude to the waiter at the coffee shop - this will probably cause him more than a little consternation. Hence, it would seem that we should not concede that basing our decisions on beliefs is naive.  More concretely, I would go further to say that for one to reject the intrinsic value of the human person while accepting other claims - such as the earth’s roundness - by the reasoning that the former is believed while the latter is known is not only naive, it is also illogical and nonsensical.

To this conclusion, one might respond, “so there is a component of belief in my claim that the earth is round - so what? It is clear that when I say ‘the earth is round’ or ‘this is a car,’ this is very different from when you say that ‘bread changes to the body of Christ during the mass, and that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist.’”  And I will concede that there is a distinction to be made in the meaning of the word ‘is.’  As Catholics, we say that the accidents of the bread during mass stay the same. That is to say, if we take the bread following the consecration into a lab and analyze it, we would confirm that it retains the chemical composition of bread. However, the substance - that is, the essence of the bread - has changed to the body of Christ. One response to this statement that I have heard is, “well, this is the only case in which anyone would use the word ‘is’ in this manner. In every other case - such as the statement ‘this is a car’ - ‘is’ corresponds to a reality that is experimentally verifiable.”  However, to this I say, when a man makes the statement ‘this is a car,’ does he mean ‘is’ in the same way as when he makes the statement ‘this woman is my wife’? Certainly not.  Is there an experimentally verifiable phenomenon that renders the woman his wife? Perhaps the only imaginable response to this is that the wedding ring is such a physical reality, but certainly no one who understands marriage to any extent would try to argue that the ring is more than a symbol of the couple’s marital vows.

Hence, it is not through only laboratory studies or experimental verification that we get to the essence - that is, the true nature - of an object. Although experimentation is useful in its own right, it is necessarily subordinate to other aspects of human existence.  Basing one’s decisions in life on beliefs is not only not naive, it is quite reasonable. (show picture of maxwell’s equations, then ultrasound) Although in academic discourse one might attempt to refute the necessity of belief, each of our lives confirms the necessity of belief in all of our endeavors.

Note: if one can only know the truth through studying it under a microscope, does one not first believe that truth is findable through such means? So, <pause> how can it be logical to place scientific discovery ahead of belief, sense it would seem that the necessity of belief precedes even that?

Note: if it is thought within academic circles and among the members of the intelligencia that value is merely subjective because value can not be definitively defined through scientific study to arrive at an objective result which does not rely upon human interpretation, is not this too, simply a belief?

Note: is value, the value of human life specifically, perceived to not have intrinsic value because it is convenient to think that way, which negates all personal responsibility.  Or is value definable using other means? Say,"pause" the science of theology? Or is it that we choose to negate other sciences, other thoughtful endeavors, to reveal truth because it requires believing that other rigorous mental endeavors might actually lead us to truth and we would be equally obliged to accept those truths found.  Or, is it that we wish to do as we please and use empirical science in a manner that best supports our personal agenda?

Note: rights, responsibility, value and truth; are these words the boogiemen of intellectual hedonists? What do you believe?