Thursday, June 09, 2016

Faith and Reason

Stark (Bearing False Witness) has some interesting quotes on faith and reason:

"For, as Quintus Tertullian instructed in the second century: 'Reason is a thing of God, inasmuch as there is nothing which God the Maker of all has not provided, disposed, ordained by reason -- nothing which He has not willed should be handled and understood by reason'" (138).

Or, from Clement of Alexandria:

"Do not think we say these things [Christian doctrines] are only to be received by faith, but also that they are to be asserted by reason. For indeed it is not safe to commit these things to bare faith without reason, since assuredly truth cannot be without reason." (138)

The idea that faith is the opposite of reason is a fairly recent idea, and would have stunned most Christians from the time of Christ through the Middle Ages. It is based on a (willful?) misunderstanding of what was meant by "faith." So, for instance, when Bertrand Russell writes, "We may define 'faith' as a firm belief in something for which there is no evidence," we should recognize this as a piece of propaganda, and not a reasoned philosophical position.

In fact, 'faith,' properly understood, is every bit as necessary to science as it is to Christianity. You might see Michael Polanyi on this point, or consider this passage:

"I’ve found that a big difference between new coders and experienced coders is faith: faith that things are going wrong for a logical and discoverable reason, faith that problems are fixable, faith that there is a way to accomplish the goal. The path from 'not working' to 'working' might not be obvious, but with patience you can usually find it." (Emphasis mine.)

Indeed, this is something I continually have to transmit to my computer science students: they must first believe that our whole enterprise is rational, and will make sense given time, before they will be able to commit to making the effort necessary to overcome all the obstacles to understanding they will face along the way.


  1. At least until they turn on optimization and what was working no longer does and they discover it isn't and doesn't.

  2. What source does Stark give for the Clement of Alexandria quote? As far as I know, that quote is from The Recognitions of Clement, which isn't by Clement of Alexandria.


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