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This essay tied for second place in the Mary Evans Picture Library competition. It appears here unedited.
Interviewed in his 87th year, Bertrand Russell was asked how he first came to be interested in mathematics. He replied that his brother had shown him Euclid[i]. It was, he reflected, “the most lovely stuff I’d ever seen in my life; I didn’t know there was anything so nice in the world.” However, when in his youthful excitement he asked after the foundations of Euclid’s theorems, the answer he was given disappointed him. The theorems, he was told, were based on axioms – assumptions that had to be admitted without proof, from which the rest of the work grew. The axioms were supposed to be self-evident, they neither required proof, nor could be proven. The reason for Russell's disappointment is quite understandable.
In order to live our lives, it is necessary to have beliefs about the world. Beliefs are the axioms of life; ready answers; automatic positions on particular issues. Often, they are pre-reflective. That is, we may not know why we believe the things we do; as Frank Sinatra sang it “why do I believe? I guess, oh I believe because...” The possibility that we may not be able to provide good reasons for our beliefs, or that it may not be possible to justify them, might bring about a disappointment similar to Russell’s. If our beliefs are merely assumptions, how can we have any confidence that they are really true? Russell spent what were probably the best years of his intellectual life searching for proof of the foundations of mathematics; looking for something stable; something certain which could be arrived at by logical deduction; something which did not have to fall back ultimately on an assumption. However, these “early hopes were succeeded by something very near to despair”[ii]. Ultimately, he found only contradictions.
Is this to be the fate of our beliefs? Are we simply stubbornly rehearsing ready-made dogmas like Sinatra, or do our beliefs have a firmer foundation? How hard have we really tried to provide good reasons for things we assume to be true? Here is an example: I believe I am going to die. This seems straightforward enough, but very rarely have I ever sat down and properly asked: What is death? Why do we die? How do I know that my life will eventually come to an end? Nevertheless, this is a belief that fundamentally shapes my attitude towards life. Am I justified in treating it as axiomatic?
In this essay I want to ask three basic questions: Where do we get our beliefs? How should we judge their truth-value? And can we trust any of them completely?
In exploring these questions I also want to address two further concerns: first, is there anything wrong with believing things with absolute certainty, with having faith in them? And second, what if we find that none of our beliefs can bear the full weight of our trust; what are we to do if we can’t believe in anything completely? Without certainties, what are we left with? “…Something very near to despair”?
So to begin, I want to consider several examples of beliefs – some you may hold, others you may not – that when examined closely can tell us something about different ways of knowing things, and different degrees to which someone might take that knowledge to be accurate, truthful, false, unlikely and so on. Here are some beliefs:
1) that we have basic needs; for food, water and shelter
2) that we have social needs; for companionship and love
3) that we are going to die
4) that we have immortal souls
5) that there is a supernatural world
These beliefs originate from a wide variety of sources. The first and second beliefs – that we have basic physical and social needs – seem to come to us instinctively. We do not need to be told to eat, we become hungry; we do not need to be told to find friends or mates, we fall in love. Furthermore, our instincts seem driven by the pain that persists while they go unfulfilled: the suffering of the hungry we call poverty, and consider one of the great problems of the world; the suffering of the loveless, of the friendless, we call heartbreak, or loneliness – two of the most anguishing emotions. And what of the belief that we are going to die? We are surrounded by death, observation has shown that every species of living thing around us is living only for a finite time, and that in most animals, the basic struggles of day-to-day-life – the scramble to obtain precious food and water, to feed oneself and protect one’s family - are defences against the constant threat of death. So for these three beliefs, quite aside from whether they are logically certain to occur, we believe them because we have to; if we neglect to believe them we will suffer.
But we have also noted two other beliefs - beliefs held by many people: that we have immortal souls, and that there is a supernatural world. These beliefs do not seem to originate from the same source as those previously discussed. For one thing, they are far less universal. Not everyone believes them to be true and those who don’t do not suffer for that lack of belief. So where do they come from? The psychological vagaries by which people come upon these beliefs are little understood. What is better known is the provenance of these beliefs in certain cultural traditions. Whilst they vary in the specifics, many of the world’s monotheistic religions assert the existence of a soul or spirit that may persist after death. These religions propagate these beliefs by enshrining them in holy books and places of worship and teaching them to children. But is it enough to simply say that, because these beliefs are not universal - unlike the belief that without food we will die, and without love we will suffer - they are not true?
This brings us on nicely to our second question: How should we judge the truth-value of our beliefs? This is a tricky question, with far-reaching implications. To answer it we have to look at the best of philosophy, mathematics and science, and challenges to these traditions that have emerged from academia and theology.
First a philosophical point. Notice that I have assumed that there are such things as true and false. This is an assumption that forms what the philosopher John Searle has termed The Background[iii] – the supposition that there is such a thing as the real world, independent of us and the way we perceive and describe it, and in relation to which statements we make about it may be true or false. In other words, contrary to the claims of various schools of thought generally labelled idealist, relativist or postmodernist, I am assuming that there is a real world and that we can usefully talk about it by means of rational enquiry. This is an axiom. It may not be true. Notice also that this does not necessarily mean it is possible to know reality completely, only that there is such a thing as reality for us to try and know.
With that preamble aside, let us move on to discuss our greatest aid in the search for truth: reason. “Reason is merely an instrument which … helps people draw inferences from given premises without inconsistency”[iv], says philosopher AC Grayling. In the history of questioning, whenever in the distant past it took place, the invention of reason is surely a decisive event, and since that moment, we have come upon and cultivated two great reasoning tools: induction and deduction.
The first is best exemplified by experimental science. Inductive arguments utilise evidence gathered by observation to draw conclusions about what is likely to be the case in the real world. For instance, every species of life ever observed has been mortal; therefore all living creatures are probably mortal. This is an inductive argument, its conclusion does not necessarily follow from its premise – it is perfectly possible that some immortal species of alien creature somewhere exists; it is just, in the light of all the present evidence, very unlikely. This is the situation with all scientific knowledge, and this is very important, facts about the world can never be proven to be true or false, only more or less probable. Science cannot give us certainties.
Deduction, on the other hand, is principally the stuff of philosophy and mathematics. Deductive arguments may prove a conclusion valid or invalid without recourse to observation of the world; for instance, I can say - if the King of France is a man, and all men are mortal, the King of France is mortal - and be certain of my conclusion. The conclusion of this argument is valid; however, it is demonstrably untrue, as there is no such person in the real world as the King of France. It is in mathematical logic that deduction was hoped to reach its apotheosis.
At the beginning of twentieth century, logicians, chief among them Bertrand Russell, and slightly later Kurt Gödel, embarked upon a project of enquiry that aimed to demonstrate that mathematics was totally logically consistent. The adventure this aim led them on is exciting but also extremely complicated, and here I can only crudely summarise its conclusions as follows: its two great findings were two paradoxes; one discovered by Russell, and another, Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, which has always been most comprehensibly conveyed to me in the form of the paradox “this statement is false”. The point of Gödel’s theorem is that there are true statements in mathematics which cannot be proven, analogous to the statement above which, if a true statement, is really false, and if false, is really true. This incoherence sounds the death knell for certainty in mathematical logic.[v]
In the search for truth, reason, it seems, can only point us towards probable answers, or lead us to conclusions that must always be qualified by dependence on axiomatic assumptions that underlie our enquiry. In short, nothing is certain.
However, we have already met a couple of examples that do not appear to fit neatly into this scheme. How exactly do beliefs in a supernatural world or an immortal soul – religious beliefs – relate to reason? Whilst, in the light of reason, it seems apparent that we cannot know anything certainly, we do not have to look far to find examples of people who still act as if this isn’t the case – people who believe they can know the truth beyond doubt. The great virtue professed by religious believers is faith. Faith is complete, unquestioning trust. It is important to note the kinds of claims many religious people are placing that trust in.
Many of the world’s monotheistic religions assert the existence of a God who created the natural world and everything in it. In most cases, he supervises and monitors his creation, perhaps occasionally intervening in the lives of those who inhabit it. He can, though undoubtedly busy, be contacted via means of prayer, and does, from time to time, return the correspondence. Now, this conception of a God is obviously one in which his existence would have observable consequences in the real world.
In other words, the existence of such a God, like any hypothesis about the workings of the world in which we live, is a matter for inductive enquiry. Here’s an example of a hypothesis that follows from this conception, it comes from the book of James in the New Testament: “Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up.” (James 5: 14-16). This is a nice, clearly stated hypothesis. If such a God exists, prayer to him will heal the sick; if this in fact is observed to happen, we can take that as a piece of evidence that goes toward building the inductive argument that this God probably exists.
With this in mind, and remembering what was noted earlier about reasoning, I want at this point to interject a simple deductive argument, as follows:
Premise 1: A prejudice is an opinion which is not based on reason or a careful consideration of the evidence for or against it.
Premise 2: No amount of evidence can ever be enough to provide complete trust in the truth of a proposition.
Premise 3: To have faith in a claim is to have complete trust in its truth.
Conclusion: Faith is a prejudice.
What is at issue here is the unjustifiable placement of faith – complete trust – in a proposition that can always be shown to be in doubt. This is especially true because claims about things like the healing power of prayer (decidedly unsupported by the evidence so far: see ‘Prayers don’t help heart surgery patients’ by William J.Cromie at www.harvardscience.harvard.edu), being hypotheses about the observable world, are claims that can only be supported or refuted by inductive evidence, like all scientific hypotheses. That is to say, even if all of the facts so far observed pointed to the existence of one of the Gods described by religion, we would not be justified in having faith in that God’s existence. That would be prejudice.
This seems to be a problem because, if beliefs guide the way we live, it seems likely that prejudicial beliefs – which are by definition inaccurate – will guide us astray. In order to make progress, we first have to admit that we are uncertain; that there are things we do not know; things to be known. One of the strongest arguments against prejudices is that they stunt questioning, for to ask questions we must admit both our optimism and our ignorance. Furthermore, questioning lies at the heart of ethics; in order to live a good life, we have to consider the question: how are we to live? Is it then possible that prejudicial beliefs like religious faith are unethical?
Of course, many kinds of prejudice – believing that all members of a particular race, sex or species are inferior to your own, for instance – are unethical in that, in a consequentialist ethics, concerned with reducing suffering by consideration of the interests of beings who have them, those considered inferior will suffer as a result of that prejudice. But are all kinds of prejudice unethical? Is religious faith an unethical prejudice?
Historically, in some quarters the answer to the former question has been yes. In 1877, the Cambridge mathematician W.K. Clifford wrote, in an article entitled ‘The Ethics of Belief’ that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything on insufficient evidence”. Equally, in 1748, the philosopher David Hume wrote “a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence”[vi].
What is particularly problematic about the prejudice of religious faith is that it is also worshipful. Worship is defined in the Compact Oxford English Dictionary as “the practice of showing deep respect for and praying to a god or goddess... [and to] feel great admiration for [them]”. Faithful religious believers who worship their God as creator of the universe are therefore showing ‘deep respect’ and ‘admiration’ for a character who, in this author’s opinion, has a lot of explaining to do.
Is it really ethical to admire and respect someone with the power to create a universe, yet who in doing so has utilised it to create human beings who “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”? To worship a creator who treats his creations – over whom his power is absolute – capriciously, uncaringly? As Shakespeare in King Lear described the relationship: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods; / They kill us for their sport”? Is it ethical to worship a God who daily allows sentient animals to suffer at the hands of natural phenomena like disaster and disease? Such a God is surely not to be worshiped, but to be held in contempt. To admire and respect such an abuse of power is to endorse the suffering of billions of sentient beings, it is as such unethical.
But even so, is it not possible to excuse the prejudiced; allow them their little corner of the world, exempt from debate? Unfortunately not. It is the position of some religious faiths that the ‘truth’ to which they have privileged access should be disseminated widely. This is a dangerous characteristic. No adherents to any belief-system are exempt from the responsibilities to which all members of society are beholden, paramount among which is the duty to consider the consequences of that belief-system for the lives of others around them.
It is in the latter regard that the failings of the proselytising religions are made most manifest: when outmoded, discredited notions like creationism are taught to children; when a Jihad is declared; when a belief is inculcated in vulnerable, under- or entirely un-educated followers that AIDS is a bad disease, but contraception worse still - when these events occur, religions eschew their responsibilities and go from being privately chosen attitudes to publicly forceful doctrines of suffering. We should not stop questioning these ideas simply because those who hold them do not believe in the necessity of good answers.
There is also what might be called an aesthetic objection to religious belief; for such belief at its most extreme amounts to a kind of intellectual masochism. Here is the theologian Meister Eckhardt, quoted in Saul Bellow’s novel Mr Sammler’s Planet:
“See to it that you are stripped of all creatures, of all consolation from creatures. For certainly as long as creatures comfort and are able to comfort you, you will never find true comfort. But if nothing can comfort you save God, truly God will console you.”[vii]
This is an awful but perhaps not shocking sentiment. We would all like to be immune to the pain of loss - loss of love and loss of life. As the poet Philip Larkin described it:
“This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear – no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.”[viii]
I cannot offer consolation for this fear. But it is a real fear, and it is the shadow under which we all must live our lives. Eckhardt may deny it, but that will not make it go away, and the answer he provides - the solace of an imaginary friend, at the expense of all real companionship – is surely one few people would or could accept.
So though they are welcome to do so, I cannot help but feel that those who profess worshipful faith in the existence of a God are engaged in a sad and demeaning activity, surrendering their right to utilise science, logic and reason – the tools of humanity’s ignorance, ever being sharpened against the whetstone of reality, and available to all – and giving up their chance to contribute one of an infinity of new insights to the store of tentative but hard-won knowledge that credits our species, and for what? A story told by our fearful ancestors, taken and transmogrified into myriad forms as their societies split apart, reinforced not by observation of reality but by authoritarianism and indoctrination.
I hope to have shown in this essay that though the various scaffolds we erect to support our beliefs may differ in their strength, none is indestructible, and that certainty – for better or for worse – is beyond us.
If, nonetheless, it still appears that some people are living in a structure shored all around by the firmest supports, it appears so not because we have surveyed the design of their struts and poles – for these are stripped away with the first application of scrutiny – but because those inside insist on telling us that they are uniquely protected, that their house will never fall down. It is not so. They are exposed to the same hardships as those who know the fragility of the framework within which they are building their houses, their lives. This feeling of invulnerability – felt from beneath closed eyes – is prejudiced. Not only does it prevent those who feel it from building the best dwelling, but worse, it can become callous - forcing those who cannot ignore the tribulations of nature that assail us all to suffer within its flimsy walls, when a better shelter might be built, if only it were recognised that one was needed.
My argument therefore has also been intended to demonstrate that acting on the basis of prejudice is unethical. Such action ignores the possibility of new facts, new ideas which might call for a different response, one qualified by careful doubt. Furthermore, prejudices are compounded by an attitude of deference and worship, the surrender of progress to helplessness, from which preventable suffering ensues.
But all this undoing of certainties has not been intended destructively. Though it may be difficult, I believe it is possible to live without certainty – free from certainty, perhaps – and that, though the comforts of uncertainty are transient and not guaranteed, we make our lives by searching for them and offering them to others.
I want to give some space here to the writer and chemist Primo Levi:
“Sooner or later in life everyone realises that perfect happiness is unrealisable, but there are few who pause to consider the antithesis: that perfect unhappiness is equally unattainable. The obstacles preventing the realisation of both these extreme states are of the same nature: they derive from our human condition which is opposed to everything infinite. Our ever-insufficient knowledge of the future opposes it: and this is called, in the one instance, hope, and in the other, uncertainty of the following day. The certainty of death opposes it: for it places a limit on every joy, but also on every grief. The inevitable material concerns oppose it: for as they poison every lasting happiness, they equally assiduously distract us from our misfortunes and make our consciousness of them intermittent and hence supportable.”[ix]
This extract comes from If This Is a Man, Levi’s reflections on his experiences as a prisoner at Auschwitz in 1944 and 1945. I include it here because it summarises eloquently the ambivalence that comes with uncertainty, but also the hope it may offer.
There is something affirming about facing up to the reality of our position. About not knowing. Free from absolutes, we gain possibilities. Our desire to transcend our finitude is most admirable not when it turns us to an imagined heaven or hell, but when it turns us towards each other: those with whom we live are the guarantors of our transcendence. My hope is that this religious impulse – our desire to go beyond our limited perspective, and become part of something wider and enduring – might be characterised in the future not by faith but by a hopeful uncertainty; the basis of a project of collaborative questioning; an empowering, constant refinement of our knowledge.
In this imagined future the relationship of prayer would not be with God but with each other; not one of pleas for vicarious absolution, but of mutual support and equipment – providing each other with the tools to build ideas anew when old ones decay or collapse. As Kafka put it: “The relationship to one’s fellow man is the relationship of prayer, the relationship to oneself is the relationship of striving; from the prayer is drawn the strength for the striving.”
[ii] Russell, B. (2009). The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell. Oxon: Routledge.
[iii] Searle, J.R. (1999). Mind, Language and Society. New York: Basic Books
[iv] Grayling, A.C. (2001). The Meaning of Things. London: Phoenix
[v] Cryan, D., Shatil, S & Mayblin, B. (2007). Logic a Graphic Guide. Cambridge: Icon Books ltd.
[vi] Mautner, T. (2000). Dictionary of Philosophy. London: Penguin.
[vii] Bellow, S. (1970). Mr Sammler’s Planet. London: Penguin.
[viii] Larkin, P. (1977). Aubade.
[ix]Levi, P. (1991). If This Is a Man. London: Little Brown Book Group