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Can Faith Be Reasonable?

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Sometimes, but it hardly ever is.

by Srila Jayatirtha Maharaja

Our modern society, with its emphasis on science and technology, would certainly seek to view itself as being rooted in reason rather than in faith. Faith, after all, connotes unquestioning belief and seems at variance with the “scientific method.” If we are to be sure about our conclusions, it would seem wise to base them only on that which we can observe, measure, and verify by our own sensory perception.

Yet although this course would certainly seem rational, it has one inherent and major defect: our sensory perception is limited and imperfect, so even if we take the maximum care to reduce the errors we make in our observations, we will ultimately be able to observe only a most limited range of phenomena. Furthermore, even at this level we are forced to admit dependency on belief—or, to make things more clear, on faith.

As inquisitive persons, we seek to discover more about ourselves and the world around us. We decide that we shall accept as evidence only that which we can perceive directly with our senses. But the question arises, how much can we believe our senses? How much faith can we place in them? For example, we hear the phrase “I could scarcely believe my eyes” or “I could scarcely believe my ears.” Our decision to accept sense perception as evidence is therefore in itself a kind of faith.

The failings of this kind of faith are twofold. First of all, as we have already pointed out, our senses are imperfect. Out observations will never be exactly correct, a point that has been upheld scientifically in Heisenberg’s famous uncertainty principle. And conclusions drawn from such imperfect perceptions will necessarily be imperfect in the same way. The second failing, however, is much more serious: there is a vast range of things that we cannot perceive with our senses at all. For example, we can hear sounds only within a limited range. Even with sophisticated instruments we are unable to perceive the full range of sounds, although to assume that beyond that range no sound can exist would be the greatest conceit.

A more striking example of something we are not able to perceive (and never will be) is “the past.” Whatever occurred before our birth or before our observations began cannot possibly become known to us through direct sensory perception. Yet to presume that there was no history—simply because we did not perceive it—would be absurd. We firmly believe that there was a past, even though we never experienced it. So necessity forces us to expand the basis of our “search after the nature of things” to encompass certain things, at least, which are beyond our own sensory perception. Here we naturally become a little less sure of things, because we are now being asked not only to have faith in our own sensory perception but also to hear and believe evidence given by others. For example, to gain knowledge about ancient Grecian civilization we can turn to no contemporary source. All we can examine is a few ruined buildings. So to find out about the events of two millennia ago, we have to look into the writings of someone who lived at that time and had the foresight to write things down. Then we shall have to decide whether these writings are factual or fictional. So here we see that we have strayed onto difficult ground. Yet still we are prepared to accept such evidence. We even compile it into “history books” and spend our valuable time studying it and trying perhaps to learn some lessons from it.

To better understand the limits of our sensory perception, let us consider the hypothetical case of an aboriginal man landing in New York City. On first examining the huge, complex metropolis, the aboriginal man will naturally marvel at how it has come to be. But he will hardly be able to answer this question through direct sensory perception. He may well believe that such a place could not have been constructed by mere men, and so he may assume that it was the direct creation of some powerful spirit, or that it has always been there, like some mountain range. Or he may simply become bewildered and frightened.

On the other hand, a European man landing in New York on a first visit will have no difficulty in understanding that the city was constructed over several hundred years by countless architects and craftsmen. Although our cultured visitor did not see the city being constructed and has not met any of the architects or craftsmen involved, no one will be able to convince him that the city has come about in any other way. His belief will be entirely reasonable, but he will have to admit that, strictly speaking, it is a type of faith, albeit an entirely reasonable faith. The conclusion of the aborigine, however, must be termed unreasonable faith.

Thus we see that the two words “faith” and “reason” are not opposites, as we sometimes suppose, but rather are interrelated concepts. We may be safe in having reasonable faiths, such as the faith that New York City has been built by intelligent craftsmen, but we must be wary of unreasonable faiths or faiths based only on superstitions.

Now let us suppose further that upon landing at John F. Kennedy Airport, our European meets a wild-eyed man who hands him a book propounding the doctrine that New York City was not constructed in any of the aforementioned ways; rather, some one hundred years ago there was an explosion in the Hudson Bay region, and after the smoke cleared, the entire city (complete with skyscrapers, subways, and telephone system) was standing in place. Although by direct sensory perception the European will not be able to prove this doctrine false (since he has not personally observed the construction of the city), nonetheless he will conclude that the young man is a nut.

Now, from scientific observation we learn that the physical structure of a living cell is more complex than that of the entire city of New York (complete with telephone lines, electrical circuits, and plumbing, and what have you) and that the human body has more than thirty trillion of these cells. Furthermore, unlike New York City, the human body works smoothly and with amazing precision. Even more amazing, these complex cells have the ability to regenerate themselves—a concept that the city’s planning commissioners could not even begin to conceive of (though understandably they could envy it).

Now, if we were to conclude that the human body has also been planned and constructed by some highly intelligent person or persons, then we would be possessed of what might be called reasonable faith. But so-called scientific people who propose that the human body arose from a chance combination of molecules originally set into action by some tremendous explosion—these people can only be compared to the wild-eyed fanatic claiming that New York City came from an explosion in Hudson Bay. It will not even do to call such a hypothesis “unreasonable faith.” It is nothing short of insanity.

Therefore, the basic conclusion of theism, namely that this highly complex universe has been conceived of and constructed by a highly intelligent being—in fact by a being possessed of genius beyond our imagination—is altogether reasonable. Although we may label it a conclusion based on faith, it is based on an altogether reasonable faith.

Someone may object at this point that although we may verify beyond reasonable doubt that the city of New York was designed and fashioned by intelligent men, we cannot use the same method to verify our conclusion that the universe has been designed and fashioned by a Supreme Being. But we may reply that in the first place, no one will take the trouble to verify that the city was built in that way, because it is a self-evident fact that does not really require verification. Yet if someone is moved for some reason to seek verification, he can inquire from city records, from older citizens who have themselves witnessed parts of the construction, and so on. If he agrees to have faith in the authenticity of these people’s words or the city’s records, then he may surely satisfy himself beyond a reasonable doubt.

In much the same way, God’s existence is not at all without a means for verification. It is simply that no one takes the trouble to seek verification. We choose instead, it seems, to accept the pseudo-rationality of modern scientists and philosophers who reject faith in God as unreasonable. Yet by the scientific practice of yoga (especially bhakti yoga) we can verify the existence of God, just as by experimentation we can verify physical laws. The difficulty is simply our unwillingness to conduct the experiment.

Our modern society has drifted toward the assumption that God does not exist, or that if He does exist, His existence is of no fundamental importance in developing our civilization. As so-called rationalists, we have found it impossible to take seriously a Being we cannot perceive directly with our senses, because to accept such a Being would require a commitment of faith. But in fact every conclusion we come to requires faith, even if it is the simple faith that our sensory perceptions are accurate. So the real task is to discriminate between reasonable faith and unreasonable faith.

Since we can have reasonable faith that this universe and its contents, including ourselves, are the creation of an eminently intelligent, powerful, and expert Being, it is a rather foolish if not outright dangerous assumption that this Being no longer has any relevance to our existence and to our civilization. Instead, it would seem clear that we should apply considerable thought to the task of better understanding who this Being is, what the nature of His existence is, how He has come to create this universe (and ourselves), what continuing interest He may have in His creations, what our relationship with Him is, what our residual obligations to Him are, and a host of other relevant inquiries that His existence naturally raises.

Space does not permit us to examine the answers to the questions posed above: However, we can recommend to our readers that they undertake a serious study of the works on scientific theism that have been left to us by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. These works comprise exacting translations and authoritative commentaries on great classics of ancient wisdom—Bhagavad-gita As It Is, Srimad-Bhagavatam, Sri Caitanya-caritamrta, and others. Altogether, more than fifty full volumes are available, and with impeccable logic and clarity each volume answers questions about God and the origin and duties of man. These books bring the subjects of religion and faith out of the cloudy region of dogma and superstition and clearly into a realm of supramundane rationality. Men who are thoughtful and who seek to obey the ancient command “Know thyself” will find the greatest delight in these works. We will consider our purpose in attempting this short article completely fulfilled if it moves our readers to make a further investigation of this literature.

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