Faith And Reason


Why do we exist? What an amazing question. So simple in its four words, yet has there ever been a more profound question ever asked? There will never be a formula that everyone around the world agrees on for what separates a belief from what is known in regard to this most profound question. Contrasting religious beliefs with certain scientific concepts and theories pertaining to life origins have been for centuries and will remain a struggle.

The seemingly simple concepts of faith and reason are at play here. This is not to insinuate that there is anything unreasonable about faith, but they are two totally different processes. Maybe we can temper some of the fury around this debate if we can learn not to confuse these two powerful methodologies.

Faith is the basis for all religions. The most loyal followers to a religion are the strongest believers. A concept put forth on faith is meant to be trusted and accepted as true. Reason is a process by which one does not presume to know anything until a way of testing it can be devised or a satisfactory conclusion can be deduced from known facts. Science as broadly described applies reason in a systematic practice to acquire knowledge. One of the key differences between these concepts is conclusions derived from reason or the scientific method can be subjected to further scrutiny. Faith is seldom challenged, hence such terms as the “Gospel Truth”.

By and large, people believe what they would like to be true. If you ask someone in America if they believe in Judeo Christian beliefs the answer will most likely be positive. If you ask that same person if they believe in reincarnation the answer will probably be less positive. Now, by what criteria are these beliefs determined? What evidence do we really have for the management of souls after death? The answer for most Americans is that traditional beliefs as put forth by the Bible are simply what is most comfortable. Judeo Christian beliefs have been a large part of the history of America. In another part of the world the different culture and tradition of the area will most often determine what the common beliefs are in the same way. Western cultures do not broadly accept reincarnation because, simply put, they don’t like it.

Methods of reason are generally not driven by emotional bias or preference. A simple gravitational experiment can be performed by simultaneously dropping objects of different mass. For most people this is a moment of discovery and it is unlikely that anyone performing this experiment will have any emotional vestige in the outcome; they simply satisfy their curiosity and may choose to repeat the experiment under varying conditions. No matter what culture or area of the world in which this experiment is performed the results will be the same. The conditions for such an experiment were ideal for Apollo 15 when this experiment was performed on the surface of the Moon devoid of any atmosphere to interfere with the results. In this case a hammer and a feather fell at equal rates just as Galileo had predicted centuries earlier.

Ever since man first began to study the heavens above and ponder the existence of life there has been longing for explanation and purpose. Legend and myths are pretty much as old as civilization. There was any assortment of rituals and gods that tried to explain or predict forces in nature and affect life. Over time these beliefs gained tenets and became part of wider belief systems accepted by the masses. These beliefs provided a perception of safety and security.

Human beings are creatures uniquely aware of their own mortality. Religion, or even unique personal beliefs, give us hope in that there might be more than just this life and we may again greet loved ones who have passed. People want to believe evil will ultimately be punished and good deeds rewarded in the hereafter. A sense of spirituality can provide solace and guidance through the trials and tribulations of life. Profound psychological needs such as these give faith an inherent power of persuasion in our psyche and can override the practical ability to differentiate the facts at hand.

The Greeks and the Romans gave us an assortment of gods and myths that we recognize today. One could argue humorously that men's fascination with the female breast was used to explain the existence of a bright band of light in the night sky. The Greek god Hera was said to have splashed milk across the night sky from her bosom. To this day it is referred to as the Milky Way. Mars was the Roman god of war, one of manhood’s far less enchanting enthrallments. 

In a few centuries before Christ there were several occasions of amazing understanding of the Earth acquired by careful reason and study of the natural world. During this period in the territories of Ionia one of the early conflicts between science and mysticism is believed to have occurred. The concept that the world and its place in the universe is ordered by parameters in nature and not dependent on gods was presented.

Some brilliant men such as Anaximander and Democritus existed during this time with their Ionian views. Anaximander put forth the notion that physical forces create order in the universe and from fossils and other observations reasoned that life came from simpler forms. This profound theory took about two thousand years to be examined again. Democritus sited the Milky Way as light from many stars and construed that material must be made of units called atoms.

Around this time, however, Ionian methods began to give way to people believing the Moon and the Sun were gods. Reasoning that challenged these beliefs began to be met with persecution. The view of the times that followed was that the Earth was a tainted place in comparison with the heavens above being sacrosanct. The Earth could not be considered a part of the natural universe. These notions became modified and adopted through the ages by developing religions. Accurate knowledge of the universe can also be traced to Alexandria and other places and times. Unfortunately, most of it was lost by the conflicts of man, the desire to rule with absolute authority, and the adoption of religious elucidations of life and the world.

It takes a great deal of courage and intellectual prowess to recognize evidence that refutes our predisposed beliefs, but it can be done. Johannes Kepler(1571-1630) lived and studied during an era in which most rulers expected the people to adopt the religious beliefs held by the ruler. Kepler, with strong personal beliefs of his own, believed he had revealed God’s geometric plan. He designed the Platonic Solid, a model of perfect solids corresponding to the six known planets of his time. Anxious for more information, Kepler eventually was able to get his hands on some extraordinary outside data regarding planetary motion gathered by a contemporary of his by the name Tycho Brahe. The data did not add up the way he expected. After struggling with Tycho Brahe’s observations, in which he tried his best to avoid the eventual conclusion, Kepler finally accepted that the orbits of the planets did not correspond to perfect shapes but were instead ellipses with the Sun at one focus. He let the data speak and formulated Kepler’s laws of planetary motion. Kepler had the ability to be inspired by believing yet simultaneously be extremely loyal to the data at hand and apply careful reason, an astonishing achievement.

It is very hard to reconcile personal belief with a standard of reason that may show evidence to the contrary. How methods of discovery can clash with principles of faith is evident in the argument between religion and evolution. The topic is often posed as a question between believing in evolution or creation. The question itself is flawed from the onset. Evolution is part of a proposed scientific process and science is not a theology, nor is it built to prove or disprove beliefs. Science is a system unto itself. It starts with a given knowledge base, asks questions, and proposes new concepts and theories. As these concepts and theories are tested, more data accumulates, and even more questions are asked. Evolution is not meant to be believed, it is posed as a scientific concept to be examined.

Creation is depicted in The Book of Genesis as God creating the heaven and the earth. It describes the waters bringing forth abundantly the moving creatures that have life and then as the days went on man was created to have dominion over all the Earth. This description of creation is meant to be believed and not questioned or tested. If any of the notions presented by creation were verifiable there would be no need to have faith.

Evolution should be evaluated only on scientific merit and not compared with any religious points of view or personal belief. This is true of any scientific theory or concept. The scientific method demands verification and cannot be contrasted with matters of faith. Scientific principles must hold up to repeatable test results; whereas beliefs are only limited by the intuition and imagination of the believer.

The evolution debate was ushered into contemporary social debate in 1859 when Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of Species”. The possibility inferred by evolution that there could be any relationship between man and great apes was too much for many to bear. Even to this day most polls strongly suggest the majority of Americans reject the theory of evolution in part or as a whole. Darwin himself has in essence been put on trial over the years with much conjecture over what he wrote and what he himself may have really believed about his own theories, any doubt of which was reportedly denied by members of Darwin’s family. In 1925 the Scopes Monkey Trial put the theory of evolution into a dormant state until the 1960s, when again evolution began to creep back into text books and the agenda of school boards across the country. In 1987 the debate made its way to the Supreme Court which ruled the government should not promote nor prohibit religious beliefs. The debate still rages on as a matter of curriculum and manages to work its way into almost every election in one form or another.

Currently, there are any number of recognized religions and personal belief systems playing out in the societal arena. There are, however, some basic components and predominant themes at play. Creationism is the belief that God created the universe and everything in it. Creationists generally believe the earth is very young and all life was created fully formed. Intelligent design for the most part accepts evolution but argues that Charles Darwin’s theories cannot fully spell out the origins of life and looks to an unknown intelligent force as the creator. Some proponents of intelligent design argue that it is a scientific theory and should be taught in schools. Evolution is offered as the scientific explanation of the progress of life through natural selection. Indeed the more extensive scientific aspects of the argument encompass all of what brought the world and the heavens above into existence. Almost all scientists do not agree with teaching creationism and intelligent design because they have no scientific basis.

Evolution is often challenged by those believing in a religious explanation for existence because there are holes in the evolutionary time scale. Science freely admits not all the pieces to the puzzle in regard to life history are available. This does not negate, however, the facts it is based upon. There are portions of life history on earth which are very clear and extend to the present day. Natural selection simply states forces in nature and the environment impact the development of a species through the generations.

Many creationists insist this did not happen and ignore or explain away the fossil record and the geology of the earth. Yet this process has been manipulated by man in the very recent history of civilization. There are many breeds of cats and dogs along with many other types of animals which would not exist without man’s intervention. Obviously these animals did not exist on day one in some absolute manner. The only difference from the existence of these animals in their current forms verses other more natural breeds is that man, utilizing selective breeding, steered the course of these animals’ development from one generation to the next and not random forces in nature.

The more striking changes in the natural process of evolution are not so recognizable because they take an extremely long time to play out. A person seldom lives beyond a hundred years, but the significant development of different life forms can take millions. This is where the intelligent design camp steps in. Their contention is that minor changes in living things do occur but basic structures of life appear in life history by design. This would mean transitional species, such as something between fish and amphibians, did not occur. For example, birds where created with feathers, fish with scales, and so on. The only catch with this contention if argued from the aspect of science is how is it tested? What test is there for supernatural influence on life history?  Is it real science to conclude that if no answer to a principle is readily available the next conclusion should be a supernatural designer must have done it?

This seemingly sudden appearance of different forms of life is the aspect of evolution many people struggle to understand. There is nothing sudden about it. We often evaluate history with human lifetimes as gauges. Pictures of the American Civil War are often perceived as a very long time ago. The Roman Empire is something that happened even further in the past consuming many generations of human beings. James Ussher, a 17th century bishop, claimed he had calculated the date of the creation as beginning on the night which preceded the 23rd of October, 4004 B.C. James Ussher was a man of faith and he used Old Testament accounts to reinforce his religious beliefs along with studying many ancient manuscripts. Christians for centuries had assumed a history somewhat close to this. Martin Luther chose 4000 B.C. as the date for creation. If the James Ussher account of Earth's history is used as a measuring stick and the earth is only six thousand years old, the Civil War and most certainly the Roman Empire would be truly long periods of time in the past encompassing large percentages of the history of the Earth. Many natural occurrences could be perceived as happening suddenly if Earth history was squeezed into six thousand years or so.

Yet in scientific terms the history of the earth is much older and something like the Roman Empire would be considered a current event. In the eightieth century a farmer by the name of James Hutton, considered a founder of modern geology, began to take notice of natural processes. He suggested geological forces at work in the present day are the same as those that operated in the past. The rate that a river may be eroding a rocky area could be used to retrace the previous erosion to an earlier time. Such analysis concluded that enormous lengths of time were required to account for exposing these layers. Hutton’s theories shook up the conventional wisdom of the day that nature was formed on a 6,000 year old Earth. He did this with a system of reason challenging the world as it was presented to him.

The advancement of modern radiometric dating methods make it possible to determine the relative order of geologic units of time. In determining the age of the Earth the oldest rocks exposed on the surface of the earth are searched for and tested. This method has uncovered many ancient samples but can only determine minimum ages for the Earth because there is no definitive method to conclude when the oldest rocks have been found. This problem is compounded by the fact that many rocks on Earth have complex histories due to plate tectonics, erosion cycles, and other forces at work on the Earth.

However, because the Earth formed as part of the Solar System, dating extraterrestrial objects such as meteorites with less varied histories as Earth rocks usually records events nearer to the time of the initial formation. Most all different forms of testing various rocks all over the earth and from space have concluded that the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old.

The time it took life processes to play out is very difficult to comprehend. For about the first billion years or so there isn’t much in the way of life on Earth. Then, some 3.5 billion years ago evidence of life begins to appear. For the next couple billion years life is pretty much single celled life forms which don’t do much other than divide. It took all these billions of years for the right combination of cells to start to group until about 570 million years ago new more complex life forms began to appear in the oceans. Roughly 375 million years ago early forms of fish started sticking their heads out of the water. These are extremely vast periods of time in the past and are hard to unearth and document. The likelihood that someone will step into their backyard and flip over a rock with some grand answer is pretty slim. But, to the chagrin of creationists and intelligent design proponents alike, transitional fossils do exist. Recently, a 47 million year old specimen of a human ancestor has come to public attention. This fossil appears to be from a key period in which anthropoid primates, the set of primates that would later evolve and include humans, separated from lemurs and their subsequent primate groupings. This fossil may fill a huge gap in the story of human and primate evolution.

Even if transitional fossils do not provide enough evidence for some within the standard argument of evolution we have to consider other scientific discoveries. There is no question Darwin understood natural selection. In the past 150 years there has not been any solid scientific evidence to refute it. But, there is also little doubt Darwin did not understand why it worked. Exactly how traits arose or how they where passed on were things Darwin could not explain.

DNA and the science of genetics explains how and why life progresses the way it does. Through the generations random mutations occur. Some of these mutations are negative, for example one wing of a bird may be smaller than the other. This of course means the demise of that bird. Some mutations may be relatively benign, and have no consequence. Yet some, over very long periods of time, prove very positive in the development of a species. These positive mutations have a greater chance of survival and procreation, and before long creatures with these features become dominant. Again, this happens over an immense period of time encompassing millions of years and countless generations. The criticisms of this process by creationists as impossible to occur suddenly as if morphing from one creature to another in a summer afternoon are misleading. 

Understanding the molecular heart of life transcends the relationship between man and the great ape. Nucleic acids as hereditary material, along with many other very significant similarities in the chemistry of cells from one living thing to the next, embody a relationship of all life that is hard to ignore. A general conclusion is that all life is descendent from a common occurrence in the origin of microscopic life on the young Earth.

Faith and reason each have their place in our progress as a society. Religion at its best tries to provide assurances in the decisions we make governing our lives are morally correct. Galileo once said, “The Bible was intended to teach men how to go to Heaven, not how the heavens go.”

Albert Einstein once said this in part on the subject:

“Science can only ascertain what is, but not what should be, and outside of its domain value judgments of all kinds remain necessary. Religion, on the other hand, deals only with evaluations of human thought and action: it cannot justifiably speak of facts and relationships between facts.”

Ever since man was enough of an intellectual being to contemplate his own existence we have wanted to believe there is more to life than the physical. It is ironic that since the concept of an afterlife started in human civilization we have killed each other in religious conflicts over how best to obtain it. This is so very tragic when you consider contrasting beliefs of any kind are equally impossible to prove in the strictest sense and yet have generated so much hatred and violence. It seems as though man’s willingness to wage war for any reason never wanes. Maybe that is why it is so scary to have our belief in divinity challenged. It is because we have no faith in ourselves. We can’t trust each other to behave with dignity and respect toward others simply because we care for each other.

The answers as to why we exist might very well lie in a combination of faith and reason, but we must keep each in the proper perspective. Religion and morality keep our actions in check and provide hope and purpose in our daily lives. Indeed there are many philosophical questions to be explored such as what is the consciousness in human beings and where does it reside? Could there be spiritual matters relevant to life processes? Wonderments such as these can inspire great curiosity and learning about our place in the universe. The great pyramids in Egypt are awe inspiring even in modern times and are symbols of what man can achieve when he believes. However, faith must not override the practical ability to evaluate the facts at hand. It wasn’t that long ago when the people in charge insisted that the Earth was the center of the universe when others knew better. It took centuries for the arguments of our place in the universe to play out often at the threat of persecution. Although science and methods of reason have not removed the roles of mystery and wonderment in regard to our place in the universe, it should be maintained that religion, spiritual beliefs, or any personal faith that may block or control the growth of knowledge should be resisted.