At one time or another we have all imagined the possibility that the sum total of our lived reality is merely the conceptual illusion created by some computer simulation. This very thought experiment was the premise of the Wachowshis’ 1999 film The Matrix where Thomas A. Anderson, the hero of the movie, is shocked into the discovery that his perception of his own existence is a fraud. He learns in the course of the film that his reality is nothing more than an artificial intellectual reality foisted on unconscious human beings in order to pacify them while machines exploit their bodies as an energy source. Virtual reality, as a hypothetical alternative to the reality we think we experience, was not new to the world of science-fiction with its appearance in The Matrix. Something approaching this concept featured in Frederik Pohl’s short story The Tunnel under the World (1955), and later in the novel Simulacron 3 (1964) by Daniel F. Galouye. Richard Dawkins makes reference to this latter work (The God Delusion, 2006), albeit it under its variant title – Counterfeit World, in pointing out that this speculative simulation is a concept which he cannot think of how to disprove. Dawkins’ inability to fathom this philosophical conundrum comes as little surprise considering his dogmatic insistence that all things in a wholly naturalistic world can be untangled by reason. Unfortunately for the subscribers of the sola ratione doctrine this problem brings one to the underpinnings of epistemological certainty; the substructures of reason.
Let it not be imagined that by drawing attention to Dawkins’ self-expressed lack in this regard that the purpose of this article is to gloat. The simple truth of the matter is that this problem is one in which the competence of the physical sciences is rendered ineffectual. It has been argued frequently that the non-overlapping magisteria argument advanced by Stephen Jay Gould (Rock of Ages, 1999); that science simply cannot answer the ‘God question,’ is irrational. Mercifully at this point in the discussion we are not concerned with questions pertaining to the existence or non-existence of God, but rather with the reliability of our power to think to establish certainty concerning life as we experience it. Reason alone as a proof of the dependability of reason is an absurdity by virtue of its circularity – in the same manner that a fundamentalist Christian will argue that God exists because it says so in the Bible, and the Bible can be trusted because it was written by God. It cannot be shown by reason that by reason it can be known our perception of existence is not the product of a virtual reality simulation. Inevitably this conclusion backs Richard Dawkins into a logical cul-de-sac wherein he must produce and argument from sheer will; a reminder of his citation of the godless-geeks website and its facetious arguments for the existence of God:
“I do believe in God! I do believe in God! I do I do I do. I do believe in God. Therefore God exists.”
Science, like all branches of formal human enquiry, is a tool which, however helpful, is burdened by its limitation to its own competency. Any argument to the contrary is an argument to absurdity by reduction; it lessens science to a fictitious elixir and a cure-of-all problems. It is precisely in this false conviction that we see wishful thinking writ large. The problem of human existence, in so far as the verification of reason is concerned, is the problem of doubt. Doubt in the infallibility of reason is why the viewer was not required to suspend his or her disbelief in order to be brought into the adventure of The Matrix. Unlike the purely hypothetical zombie survival conversation which follows every such horror film, one was able, after having had watched The Matrix, to think that it was (philosophically at least) possible; before shaking it off and leaving the cinema.
This possibility leaves the thinker in something of a quandary, and this quandary is rather a famous one. Faced with the problem of certainty with regard to his own existence, Augustine of Hippo wrote, “Si fallor, sum (If I am deceived, I exist).” What he saw in the doubt of his own existence; that his life and experience were an intellectual deception, was a contradiction. If he is even able to think that his thinking is a trick then his thinking implies existence. This contradiction then opened the way to his recognition of an implied foundation for an acceptance of his existence. Yet this implication was merely a pointer to the foundation and could never amount to a proof or indeed a reason – as it was reason itself which was under scrutiny. Regrettably Augustine made this assertion only in passing in his De Libro Arbitrio and therefore did not expand on it further. The task of expanding this observation would be left another few centuries until the arrival of René Descartes.
Many are familiar with the old joke about Missus Doyle offering Descartes a cup of tea, “Do you think a cup of tea would do you good René?” “I think not,” Descartes replied before vanishing. This witticism makes sense only when one is familiar with the famous Cartesian conclusion “Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am).” Accustomed as we are to the rigorous application of reason to all things, sine qua non, this naked assumption of the veracity of being from the awareness of thought relies, and can rely, on no empirical evidence. In order to proceed to the reasonable deduction of all other things one must first reject reason in order to accept it. Thus it must be conclusively and emphatically stated that one cannot reasonably assent to the power of reason; rather one must have faith in ones’ reason to deduce existence. In this manner it is perfectly reasonable to pronounce faith to be both the mother and father of reason, as no other word in the English language captures the sense of an assumption made in the absence – and in this case with the impossibility – of any other verification. However much many philosophers and theologians might find fault with him, C. S. Lewis’ logic that ‘faith is that virtue by which one holds to the findings of reason’ (Mere Christianity, 1944) holds true. For a more precise articulation of Descartes’ conclusion one would do well to consult Copleston:
“But however far I extend the application of doubt, I cannot extend it to my own existence. For in the very act of doubting my existence is revealed. Here we have the privileged truth which is immune from the corroding influence not only of the natural doubt which I may feel concerning judgements about material things but also of the ‘hyperbolic’ doubt which is rendered possible by the fictitious hypothesis of the malin génie (‘evil genius’). If I am deceived, I must exist to be deceived: if I am dreaming, I must exist to dream (A History of Philosophy vol. iv, 1957).”
If then the argument against faith rests on the demands of reason, the argument is catastrophically damaged as the assumption of reason itself demands the primal act of faith. To this can be added two observations. When this primal act of faith is accepted as the terminus post quem of reason then this faith must be accepted, a priori, as a ‘reasonable faith,’ and, considering that it is the starting-point of reason, that it opens up the possibility of faith being the end-point of reason. At this juncture the religious may want to quote the scripture that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 1:7), but that would be to get ahead of ourselves.
So far this discussion has not touched upon an exterior object of faith, what it has done is to demonstrate reasonably that faith is a natural characteristic of the human being. Erich Fromm in Man for Himself (1947) was careful to remind his readers that it is the act of hindering a person from developing their human characteristics (here including faith) to the fullest that leads to the dysfunctional malformation of the person. The hope is that such an acceptance of faith as the progenitor of reason will open the way in the public sphere for more fruitful and meaningful dialogue on the validity and indeed the necessity of faith for the human person. Acting as an obstacle to this dialogue is the presumption that the acceptance of faith necessitates the belief in anything; no matter how strange or silly. Anyone who wishes to propose such a claim has clearly not understood clearly the zetetic nature of the preceding argument. For if the primal act of faith gives reality to the trustworthiness of reason then it follows that there exists a familial relationship between faith and reason; like begets like. Faith can no more hold a thing demonstrably contradictory to reason than a rabbit can give birth to a bear. One would like to think that this should lay to rest, once and for all, Bertrand Russell’s orbiting china teapot and the flying spaghetti monster.
Now that we have established the reasonability for a discussion of faith, we may leave the thorny issue of an object proper to this faith for the moment and continue this series in the next article with a discussion on the grounds for ethics.