Sunday, November 20, 2011

Faith, knowledge and emotions

In the New Testament book of John chapter 20 verse 29 we get the message that Thomas was blessed for seeing the resurrected Jesus and believing in him, but we also get the message that even more blessed are all those who believe without seeing Jesus resurrected and in person. For me, this scripture was the basis of feeling that faith in Jesus, without having seen him in person, could be even more powerful than actually having seen him to verify his exalted state. This was interpreted by me to mean that the knowledge that comes from faith in the unseen is more noble than knowledge that comes from our own senses.

Perhaps this is why I got so much blow-back from believers in the LDS church that are my friends when I posted the following quote on my Facebook wall, "The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty." by Ann Lamott. This rubs members of the LDS church the wrong way. We are so conditioned to believe that the knowledge that comes from faith is superior to knowledge gained from observation that when the very nature of faith (as a principle that is not knowledge, but a tool that can be used to obtain knowledge) is pointed out to us, we feel threatened and attacked.

To have faith in things that are unseen is viewed as a virtue in a religious context, however, why don't we feel the same way when it comes to book learning? One thing I never could figure out is why there was such a difference in the way I was taught things at school versus how I was taught things at church. For example, Sunday school teachers would teach things and then "testify" of their truth at the end of the lesson. My teachers in school never did that. My science teacher never taught me about some scientific theory or idea and then closed with some variation of, "...and I want you young people to know that I have a testimony of these things..." Why not? What is the difference between knowledge gained in church versus at school? I think the difference is pretty clear.

Faith is the foundation of what is taught at church and knowledge is the foundation of what is taught in school. Teachers in school don't need to "testify" of what they teach, because they have the scientific method backing up their position. If it is possible, they want to be proven wrong and, in some cases, they are.

I remember watching an interview with Brian Greene, the physics professor at Columbia University who popularized string theory in books and PBS television specials. He was asked, "What will you do if it turns out that (a certain aspect of) string theory is not accurate?" His answer actually surprised me since it seems like he has a pretty vested interest in seeing string theory become an accepted scientific principle. His response was something to the effect of, "that would be great, because then we would be one step closer to knowing more about how things actually are in the universe!" I'm sure people can find scientists who don't share this outlook on the future of scientific discovery because they have a heavily vested interest in seeing their view of things become the accepted standard, but  I think (maybe I simply hope) that these folks are in the minority.

However, teachers at church don't want to prove anything except what they have been taught and accept on faith as truth. Learning at church is a simple exercise in agreement. Every part of the institution is set up to confirm what has been taught at one time or another as a self evident truth. While there are references to experiments and ways of finding truth in the Book of Mormon, these are really just lip service. The faithful don't really want anyone to perform experiments to find out just how beneficial prayer can be, for example. They want allegorical or anecdotal evidence to confirm their pre-existing beliefs of what they have been told is the expected outcome.

To suggest that someone has performed an experiment on their faith with any scientific objectivity is considered insulting to the faithful. To even bring it up means being met with an argument from compartmentalization. Meaning, you will be told that science (i.e. objective observation to confirm or deny the most logical explanation [theory] for something) and faith are simply incompatible. I have been told several times that one cannot prove spiritual things with science and that science will not ever be able to prove spiritual things.

While that may be true to some, science can explain the cause of experiences that we may be tempted to attribute to a "spiritual" experience. Imagine that one has some sort of spiritual epiphany that brings one closer to the deity they imagine. If we can ask the person to describe what they feel at that time, we might find that it is some sort of euphoric, warm, tingly or happy feeling. So the question is, could that same set of feelings be reproduced under different circumstances? My guess is they could. I get those feelings, that I used to attribute to spiritual communication, at very odd times, with no apparent explanation at all. Usually the feeling comes when I talk with someone I care about and desire to help them in some way. But it is not a feeling I can reproduce at will. Even if I try to duplicate the circumstances as completely as possible, there just won't be the same feeling come. There is very little in the way of a pattern or predictability for it. It comes when I don't really expect it. Much like other emotions we experience, usually there is some environmental stimulus for them, but other times they may be the result of hormonal or chemical imbalances or seem to be completely random in nature. Those emotional responses that are based on hormonal or chemical imbalances can be reproduced and experienced at will given the right set of circumstances being reproduced in the body or brain if we could measure and alter those things in a precise manner (for the most part).

So, if I am genuinely interested in establishing whether or not these spiritual experiences are coming from some deity somewhere (Where exactly, no one seems to know. On a side note, the physical locations in the known universe that God could be existing/hiding in are pretty remote at this point. About the only place God could possibly exist is in other dimensions - which we have yet to prove exist with any certainty - or at some sub, sub, sub, sub atomic level that we don't have the ability to observe yet) or being generated as a simple, and somewhat predictable, emotional response, I would begin with a hypothesis.

That is; feelings of euphoria, peace, love, joy, happiness, goodness (internal sense of right and wrong) come from an unseen deity or they are merely appendages of the continuum of emotions we all experience in our human experience.

It would seem pretty simple to show that if any of the emotional responses we experience in everyday life overlap anywhere with what we might label as "spiritual" experiences that would be pretty damning to the belief that they originate from God. However, let's say that God IS found in all the mundane and petty details of our lives that stimulate emotional responses - i.e. God is the source of ALL of our emotions. If that is the case, then there is no way to differentiate between those feelings that are beneficial - and intended to bring us closer to God - and those that are just part of the everyday human experience. If that is the case, then it seems pretty meaningless to attach meaning where no meaning can be objectively derived. If God is the source of ALL emotion (and He very well could be), my conclusion is that emotional responses are not a good indicator of the existence of God or as a tool that should be used to gauge effectiveness in living a life worthy of God's approval. It is also safe to say that such emotional responses do not contain any explicit set of instructions or interpretations to go along with them (at least mine don't anyway but, then again, I may be a defective unit). This is especially troubling when we realize that emotional responses can be triggered through manipulation.

If someone tells me that someone close to me has died (and I trust them to the point that I don't think to question their information) then that could easily elicit a strong emotional response in me. In that case, my outpouring of feelings expressed at such news would have been generated by false information. If God is the source of all our feelings, why does He rely on such an unreliable medium to convey what could be seen as, arguably, the most important information we need (i.e. knowledge of the plan for being able to determine our ETERNAL station related to God)? To quote Boyd K. Packer, "Why would God do such a thing?" It really makes no sense.

So, until someone can explain why God would choose to place so much emphasis on such an unreliable mechanism for determining truth, I will maintain my position that faith is only useful if it brings us to knowledge (that is real, provable and able to be duplicated under any differing circumstances through objective experiment) otherwise, faith in things that can be repeatedly dis proven is not a useful mechanism to lead us to knowledge and deserves to be discarded in favor of something better (a better faith).

By the way, faith is actually a pretty useful tool in science, although it doesn't receive nearly as much airtime in science as it does in religious circles. Something that has really helped me understand the place of faith in the world of science is that faith is what motivates the performing of experiments to validate a belief in how the world works. If someone comes up with an idea about how they think things ought to work they try to develop a hypothesis (i.e. a statement about what they believe so that it could become a law to guide future scientists). Once a hypothesis is arrived at, a scientist - having faith in their hypothesis - attempts to come up with experiments to prove or disprove their hypothesis. Faith certainly drives the scientist to keep going when the going is difficult, but the ultimate courage (and test of faith) comes when the experiment reveals the truth or falsehood of the hypothesis. In that moment, faith is either strengthened or diminished in that belief (hypothesis). Of course, it is kind of odd to think that if faith is strengthened, that means it is actually going away because it is leading to knowledge. This is the way it should be. Faith either leads us to knowledge (where knowledge displaces our faith in something) or it leads to a revision of our hypothesis and faith in something different.  Faith is a tool that is useful as a stepping stone to knowledge, but that's it. It's not really good for much more than that.

To maintain faith in something that can't be proven through experiment seems pretty silly. In fact, I wonder what God would say to people who advocated maintaining their faith in Him in spite of lots of observable evidence to the contrary? Will He reward those who do not test and try to disprove their faith? Or how will He look on those who tried to find the best possible explanations for the world as we know it and tried to eliminate those ideas that turned out to be contradictory, unreliable, or non-universal in nature? I would like to think that God will look kindly on those that challenged their faith and relied on logic and reason to determine ultimate truth. I don't think God wants blind followers, I think God wants people who can think and reason and make tough decisions (even if that means they see that abandoning faith fits with experiment and observations in piecing together the big picture of who and what we are as people). People who have to come up with other things to base morality on besides tradition and ancient mythology. I hope God sees those people as deserving of great rewards in the afterlife believers cling to. Otherwise, I'm screwed, but I'm OK with that.

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