To think and act we have to trust things that go beyond what we can perceive or demonstrate. Our knowledge cannot be a mere summary of the evidence but must rest on something further—at a minimum, on a belief that future evidence will validate it. It is a system of coherent belief, and like any other cannot exist without tradition and thus faith. In the end, there are no skeptics. None of us can abandon faith without abandoning thought and life.
Reason and experience depend on an everyday kind of faith. We need that faith to tell us that our memories can be relied on, that the experience of others is like our own, even that things exist independently of us and our thoughts. Reason is not self-sustaining. It cannot demonstrate the conditions of its functioning: the validity of first principles, the coherence of memory, the trustworthiness of perception, or the reliability of the linguistic and cultural setting it needs to operate. To trust reason we must trust those things, and to trust experience we must trust both our perceptions and the thoughts that enable us to sort them out and come to grips with them. We understand tradition, the accumulated thought and experience of our people, much more by accepting it than by weighing and judging it from outside. We treat it as something that comes to us with an authority that goes beyond anything we can fully explain. Our confidence is based on faith that it is not random or arbitrary but revelatory, that through it the bits, pieces and glimmerings that are immediately available to us have grown into attitudes, practices, beliefs and symbols that show how things are and make truths available to us we could not attain directly.
That attitude requires explanation and justification. To some extent our trust in knowledge that cannot be demonstrated—which in the long run, because of the mutual dependence of things, includes all knowledge—is justified by the assumption that our species, society and traditions of knowledge would not have lasted as long as they have unless they were in touch with reality. We always have some belief or other, and it seems that those with true beliefs prosper more than others so their beliefs do so as well. Nonetheless, it seems doubtful that our knowledge can be explained and justified by a Darwinian standard of past promotion of survival and reproduction, whether that standard is applied to biology or culture. Our knowledge is not limited to survival needs. It reflects our orientation and interests, which go beyond survival and reproduction and are sometimes at odds with them. It is discontinuous with the knowledge of the lower animals, and thus with evolutionary history. And most importantly, it has to do with what is true, which is not the same as what is advantageous. Our theory of knowledge should be consistent with what we believe about knowledge, and that is not so with a Darwinian theory because such a theory explains only usefulness and not truth.
In its extreme form Darwinian thought purports to give a simple and self-contained explanation of everything: what exists is what has arisen by chance and thereafter survived. Whatever seems to fall outside the closed circle of mechanistic explanation, like consciousness, rational justification or peculiarities of the world that appear designed, it denies, tries to explain away, or simply refuses to discuss. It would show a lack of good sense to accept, without better arguments than seem to be available, a view that combines such extreme ambition with such conceptual and ontological minimalism and such suitability to the needs of the public order now dominant. And in any event, to say that something has been helpful to survival is not to explain what it is, why it works, or whether it is justified. It may be natural selection that made electric eels electric, but that does not explain what electricity is, why it is useful to eels, or exactly how they produce it. The same seems true of human knowledge.
Some have suggested that we can dispense with the truth regarding the whole, and that modern natural science, which for many people sets the standard for all knowledge, is simply a collection of models and methods of prediction that have been found helpful. The suggestion does not survive questioning. Is it true that scientific models and predictions have been found useful, and that our experience of their usefulness is a good guide to the future? If so, they get their importance as part of a larger system of knowledge. If not, we have no reason to bother with them. At bottom, the question as to knowledge is whether it is simply a concoction of human desire, need, experience, and biological functioning, or whether it points beyond those things to something independent of them. We must accept that the latter is the case. Knowledge has its uses, and usefulness is a sign of truth, but the true and the useful are not the same. Knowledge cannot be useful or explain experience unless it goes beyond considerations of usefulness. The things we know and their uses depend on the whole of which they are part, and the nature of that whole is not a matter of usefulness even though it determines what is useful. Nor is it a matter of scientific demonstration, but must, to some extent, be a matter of faith.
Our knowledge thus remains to some extent a matter of faith and therefore mystery. Faith is our connection to what exceeds the limits of thought and so to the whole. Hebrews calls it “the evidence of things not seen.” It ties thought, experience and action to an order of things that gives them a stable and comprehensive unity justifiable by reference to something beyond themselves. We need it for the sense of something beyond us that we need to place ourselves in the world, and must rely on it, simply because our thought has objects outside itself and cannot be self-contained. Rationalists claim faith overreaches, because it goes beyond things we fully grasp, and is bigoted, because it is particular and denies other possible faiths. To the contrary, however, it is necessary to a sense of limits. It is concrete, because we need to build our lives in relation to settled points of reference that cannot be reduced to experience and reasoning. To accept faith is therefore to recognize concretely that which exceeds us, so to reject it is not humility but hybris. Without some concrete sense of what it is that exceeds us, our limitations become too abstract to seem relevant. We cannot say anything whatever about them, so we ignore them. To understand our limits and thus our position in the world requires a wisdom greater than our own, and we inevitably accept something as such. Whatever we so accept becomes our faith.
[From my book-in-progress.]