Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Good Work of Faith

I have said much on the blog thus far that might be taken as at least an interrogation, if not an all out attack, on the role of faith vis a vis science. If so, it is not because I believe faith is irreconcilable with science, but rather because I believe that there are many pitfalls to a harmony between religion and reason. The truth is always far more complicated. Rather, I believe that faith is indispensible to the practice of science in at least one crucial manner: science does not operate in a vacuum. Furthermore, science is extraordinarily limited in scope by its own methodology: whatever cannot be falsified by experiment or observation is ineligible as a scientific hypothesis. However, this leaves out arguably the most foundational and important human intellectual endeavors: history, ethics, art, literature, politics, and so forth. These are founded at least partially on the narratives of the community.

Faith is the acceptance of a narrative or explanation about reality by reason of the intrinsic authority of the source of that narrative or explanation. It does not proceed primarily by inductive reason (although it may incorporate this type of reasoning). It is absolutely critical to recognize that faith represents the primary way most human activity proceeds: we accept a story or idea on the basis of trust and credibility. The most superficial example of this is journalism, but our trust is placed in so many institutions that it is mind-boggling to list them. When we do something as simple as place money into a vending machine upon which we have never laid eyes and mindlessly drink whatever comes out of the machine, we are engaging in a very complicated act of social trust.

To a great degree, this trust or faith is a principle of action. Practically speaking, we do not have time to thoroughly investigate every potential aspect of our actions. We approach decisions usually under the pressure of the moment and must therefore accept the approximate axioms and principles of our beliefs.

Furthermore, it is precisely because discourse in faith has broader rules of validity than methodological science that it is able to also cover a much broader range of topics, topics which are absolutely necessary for human society. Inherited traditions of justice, beauty, and so forth cannot be scrutinized scientifically, but they do operate as de facto limits and motives for scientific research. In the end, the practice of science is always enmeshed in a received, extra-scientific set of assumptions, even if its actual operation can proceed without reference or interference from these assumptions. There are ethical boundaries to scientific research which exercise a limiting authority over that research, even if the relevant ethical principles have no bearing on the actual conclusions of the research. Additionally, much scientific research is pursued under the aegis of some broad project, such as medicine, the practice of which depends upon our extra-scientific assumptions about the nature of suffering, disease, death, and our moral obligations surrounding them.

Speaking broadly, then, the good work of faith is its operation as a limiting authority over reason, not as to its proper methodological conclusions but as to its broad practice. It can tell science not to chop up a living human being, though it has no place telling science to amend or change its conclusions about the human body. But it also, more importantly, places the work and conclusions of science within a meaningful context that is beyond the scope of scientific methodology, endowing its discoveries with meaning and preventing the conclusions of science from being merely an ever-increasing list of descriptions and mechanical explanations of physical phenomena.

The Catholic faith is such a communal narrative, a body of stories, doctrines, ideas, and principles with an authoritative guardian body, a well-attested history, and a living practice. It is precisely because of the embodied nature of the Catholic narrative that it most readily permits an active faith: a thoughtful investigator can trace the integrity and continuity of the transmission of its contents across time, and we have as good reason to trust that its ultimate source is a particular man named Jesus as we have reason to believe that Caesar crossed the Rubicon. I have written before in my post about beauty that there are ways to compare narratives, and that one of these is beauty. Far from being a hinderance to science, the Catholic faith properly understood truly encourages the work and embraces the findings of science. The beauty of the Incarnation is the embodiment of Truth, and the good work of faith can include the exhortation to study the physical cosmos in order to better understand the truth of its structure and actuality.

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