Friday, February 4, 2011

Logic and Faith

John Dewey once wrote that the worst thing that ever happened to western civilization was our acceptance of the ideas of the classical Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. They believed in the existence of pure, ideal exemplars for “forms” of great ideas. Dewey, on the other hand, believed human beings can never truly understand these ideal forms, assuming that they exist. Dewey advocated for logic in philosophy, but not as a means of finding absolute truth. Instead, he saw logic as a tool of inquiry. In this sense, the means—inquiry—was consistent with the end—true to Dewey’s ultimate test of learning. Since ideal forms could not be discovered, the goal of philosophy was to improve our ability to inquire and to increasingly improve our understanding of what is essentially an unknowable reality.

Everyday science bears out Dewey’s sense of things. The more we learn about the universe around us, the better tools we develop to gather information, the more we understand the limits of our ability to truly know about the world around us. We know from dogs that human beings cannot hear the full spectrum of sound. We know that there is a spectrum of light waves that are invisible to the human eye. We guess that there may be dimensions beyond the three that we can directly experience, and we think there may be a fourth dimension—time—that we sense but that we can measure only in its passing. We’ve invented tools that can sharpen our senses. However, we are not able to invent tools that can help us understand what we cannot otherwise sense. We don’t know what we don’t know.

Is there a “sixth sense?” We debate it. The evidence of our five senses does not give us confidence, but we debate it because there are phenomena that we cannot otherwise explain. Is there a seventh sense? An eighth? If time is the fourth dimension, is there a fifth? A sixth? We don’t know. But we can explore. We can inquire.

We can also have faith. Throughout history, religions have been attempts to explain why things are the way they are. Some seem to hit closer to explaining things than do others. But they are all attempts to understand what cannot be directly sensed. Often, the problem with religion is that it eventually loses confidence in true faith and falls back on literal absolutes. And, given the fact that the religion’s texts often have been translated multiple times through the years, often in quite different cultural contexts, their literal “truths” are sometimes hard to decipher. Regardless, faith is better seen, not as unquestioning adherence to dogma, but as another way to guide inquiry.

Logic and faith work together to help us understand a world that we experience, but that we cannot fully sense.