Faith and Doubt

Knowing and believing are two different things. Below I discuss 1) facts and opinions, 2) the inability to prove or disprove God’s existence, 3) faith and belief, 4) key sources of doubt, and 5) engaging the tension of faith and doubt.

I. Facts and opinions

  • Sense impressions in the natural world, which the brain organizes into ideas, are the starting point for knowledge about the world.
    • Our capacity for reason—the logical relation of propositions to each other—is central to this process.
    • But reason can’t prove that reason by itself can establish truth. However, we can say that logically contradictory things are false.
    • Further, emotions are the catalyst for motivation and action more often than reason is, but emotions frequently are ambivalent and/or conflicted.
    • In addition to reason, we all have beliefs based on intuition, emotion, and personal experience. 
  • Facts are statements that contain or lack truth to varying degrees. That is, facts are not relativistic.
    • Scientific objectivity includes facts about the natural world that can be independently demonstrated to others (e.g. how gravity works).
      • Scientific theories are approximations of reality and thus are provisional and open to revision.
    • Claims about reality which are not scientifically testable or falsifiable—including universal meaning, morality, existential questions, and metaphysics—contain degrees of truth of falsity, and are objective in that sense, but can’t be proven or disproven.
  • Opinions are relativistic perspectives that are neither true nor false beyond the individual’s perspective (e.g. chocolate is the best ice cream flavor).

II. God’s existence can’t be proven or disproven

  • God is not directly experienced through sense impressions in the natural world, so God is not a scientific question.
  • Even with reason alone, God’s existence can neither be proven nor disproven.
    • While alleged proofs of God’s existence show that God’s existence is possible, these proofs do not show that God must exist, nor do they rule out alternatives.
    • God is not falsifiable, so it’s a mistake to think we can prove God’s existence.
    • And God isn’t necessary to understand the laws of nature (i.e. how the universe functions).

III. Faith and belief

  • Because God’s existence is possible, but not provable or disprovable, faith in God isn’t irrational.
    • Some atheists claim that it’s irrational to believe something unless it can be proven through reason or science. But this is a claim itself that can’t be proven through reason or science.
  • Beliefs based on intuition, emotion, and personal experience are subjective, so faith is subjective.
    • A belief taken on faith, however, has degrees of truth or falsity. So the belief is objective, though not in the scientific sense, while the basis for the belief (faith) is subjective.
    • So, the definition that faith is belief without evidence is valid. Faith isn’t simply belief without certainty (a broader definition) because scientific theories also can have a low degree of certainty (and so are provisional and not widely accepted).
  • Further, most Christians believe that faith begins with God as encountered in the Bible, through experience, intuition, etc. and from there seek understanding, rather than starting with natural observations which are then construed to prove God’s existence.
  • And there are key reasons one might believe in God:
    • There can’t be an infinite regress of causality, so something must be self-existent:
      • That the universe appears finely tuned for life shows that our universe is highly unlikely to be self-existent. The multiverse could be self-existent, but it may not be falsifiable. If not, the multiverse is speculation rather than science.
      • Christian theology holds that God is the uncaused cause—God is the ground of all being, existence itself rather than a thing that exists (ipsum esse, “I am”). This also is objective (true or false), but not in the scientific sense.
    • Another reason one might believe in God is that if there is no God, then moral relativism is most likely the case. But no one believes that anything goes. Instead, relativism claims that there’s no absolute standard to settle moral disagreements (which itself is an absolute claim).
      • A moral absolute is an existing, objective (but unfalsifiable), and unchanging moral law.
      • With moral relativism, however, whether one’s actions actually are moral isn’t the question. In everyday life, the question more often is whether other individuals and/or society agree with one’s actions.
      • However, even if morality is objective, Christians disagree on some moral principles.
        • Christians believe that this is due to human error. But it also means there will be times when we’re not sure if we’re doing the right thing.
        • Grace, Christians believe, is something God extends to human beings.
    • Similarly, if there is no God then there’s likely no objective meaning in life beyond what the individual relativistically chooses for her or his life. In other words, without God soft nihilism is most likely the case.

IV. Key sources of doubt

  • Particular sources of doubt include:
    • The problem of evil: If God is omnipotent He could stop evil, and if He’s omnibenevolent He would have to. So why does evil exist?
      • In addition to atheism, common answers include:
        • God is not omnipotent and/or not omnibenevolent.
        • Free will: Evil is not a thing, but rather is alienation from love and goodness (and God is love and goodness). God’s permissive will allows for things that violate God’s perfect will because love can only be participated in freely. But the greater the heights of love, the worse the void in the absence of love.
          • The free will defense requires one to believe that the resulting good is greater than the suffering it entails, and that there’s no other way for God to arrive at the same good without compromising free will.
          • The free will defense doesn’t explain natural evil—suffering caused by natural disasters, disease, and so on.
            • Some Christians say that natural evil is the result of a fallen, sinful world and/or demonic activity.
            • Or, that natural evil is a result of natural laws, which God created for the greatest good even if this is inscrutable to us.
              • Soul building could be one reason because natural evil forces us to make moral choices. But this doesn’t explain animal suffering that humans have no control over.
              • The laws of nature must function on autopilot and allow for spontaneity in order for the universe to be a changing system separate from God (John Polkinghorne).
              • Or, the world is still in the process of becoming (i.e. creation is incomplete), and God is an inspirational rather than a coercive force (process theology).
            • Some deny that natural evil is actually evil because no moral choices are involved.
    • Miracles require an even greater leap of faith because miracles are extraordinary compared to most people’s everyday experiences of the natural world.
      • In addition to atheism, possible solutions include:
        • Miracles don’t really happen, but God still exists.
        • God can and does suspend the laws of nature on rare occasions.
        • Miracles don’t violate the laws of nature but instead involve processes we don’t understand.
      • But if one believes in miracles, then what stops one from believing anything and everything? That is, how does one decide which alleged miracles are true or false?
        • Revelation is the most common arbiter: the Bible and/or church authority. This is a particularly big leap of faith.

V. Engaging the tension of faith and doubt

  • Certainty is proportional to the evidence. So scientific beliefs, being testable and falsifiable, have a higher degree of certainty than religious beliefs, which while objective in the sense of having degrees of truth and falsity, are unfalsifiable.
  • Faith is faith because of uncertainty and lack of evidence, and faith is in tension with doubt.
    • Fundamentalists assert certainty and atheists won’t believe unless given certainty.
    • But faith (as the basis for belief) is minimized when certainty (a “generation looking for a sign”) is the goal.
    • Faith, however, can embrace the tension with doubt as an ongoing journey.
  • And faith isn’t simply belief or feeling, nor is it limited to religion: faith is also trust, action, and relationship.

In sum,

  • Belief in God is based on faith, not reason, because reason can’t prove or disprove God’s existence. But faith is belief without evidence.
  • Faith begins with God as encountered in the Bible rather than natural observations that are construed to prove God’s existence.
  • One’s faith-based beliefs are either true or false, so they are objective even though they’re unfalsifiable. But the way of believing—faith—is subjective.
  • Causality can’t be an infinite regress, so something must be self-existent. Our universe is finely tuned for life, however, so it is unlikely to be self-existent. God or the multiverse could be self-existent, but neither belief is falsifiable.
  • Without God, moral relativism and soft nihilism are most likely the case.
  • The problem of evil and the extraordinary claims of miracles are particular sources of doubt.
  • Faith and doubt are in tension, but one can engage this tension as an ongoing journey.

Published by Dave DuBay

Dave is a Florida man. He blogs at https://fratresestoics.com. He's also at twitter.com/Dave_DuBay.

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