27 August 2005

Why orthodoxy? (Part 2: Belief without knowledge??)

Elizabeth M. posted a comment on my last post which is so penetrating and such a good question that I felt it deserved its own post, for those who don't read blog comments. Here it is:

Mike's blog: "I don't think we need to claim that we know or understand the nature of the resurrection, or of the Holy Spirit, or the sense in which Jesus' mother is called the Virgin Mary."

Elizabeth: What does it mean to "affirm a belief" in the absence of knowledge or understanding? For instance, what would it mean to say that I believe Jesus was born of a virgin, but I don't know how that could be possible and in fact don't believe it is possible in any conventional sense? Wouldn't I be saying that I in some sense "know" Jesus was born of a virgin, while simultaneously admitting there is no way for me to "know" any such thing? By this way of thinking, what would then prevent me from affirming a belief in just any old thing: the noodly spaghetti lord, the blue dogs of the moon, the existence of invisible pink unicorns?

This is really a smashingly good question, and it gets down to a deeper question: "What is belief?" (Before I tackle that one, though, I should probably make a disclaimer that I should have made before: for me personally, belief takes a back seat in importance to two other things: faith and practice. By "faith" I mean "faith in someone" as opposed to "faith that something is true." The emphasis on practice is a very Anglican thing. But anyway, at the moment we're discussing belief, as in "belief that a proposition is in some sense true"....)

So, regarding the nature of belief, I have to admit that I'm strongly convinced that belief has much more to do with choice than is has to do with knowledge. Therefore (and I think this is true empirically), nothing is to prevent anyone from affirming a belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster or the ever-popular Invisible Pink Unicorns--if they decide to believe in those things. I may tell myself that I have "become convinced" of some belief, that I have come to an understanding of it and it fits within my little monkey brain and my monkey brain has rationally judged it true in the same way that scientists construct hypotheses that become theories based on evidence. Many people believe (there's that word again) that this is the process they go through when they come to a belief in the resurrection, or the Trinity, or the divine/human dual nature of Jesus, or karma, or reincarnation, or the divine dictation of the Quran, or whatever. My personal opinion, however, is that they are full of shit. They chose to believe in those things, pure and simple. Evidence, understanding, and something like "knowledge" may play a role, but anybody who claims that something like the doctrine of the Trinity is some "knowledge" that he holds neatly in his head is fooling himself. If you believe in the Trinity, I promise you that it's not because you "understand" it. If you believe that Jesus was fully human and also fully divine, you're embracing a paradox--kind of like believing that it's somehow true to say that Jesus was born of a Virgin while also admitting that you can't understand how in any conventional sense this could be so.

Despite all that, one can choose to believe these things--or to believe in karma, reincarnation, Flying Spaghetti Monster, James Van Praagh, all of the above, whatever. There's a phrase that the modern world might apply to choosing to claim "belief" in something while admitting a lack of understanding of it: "intellectual dishonesty". I admit there's some truth in that charge. At the very least, there are some mental gymnastics involved in "believing" like this. But I contend that it's at least less dishonest to choose belief and admit lack of knowledge than it is to choose belief and claim knowledge you ain't got. But we're left once again with the question: why choose belief? Why orthodoxy? Why not skip the mental gymnastics and go for maximum intellectual honesty--which is probably a thoroughgoing skepticism? Tune in next time....

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