Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Faith as based on fact

Imagine this: you've just received, brand new, a Nokia 9500 Communicator. You plug in your SIM card and fire up the cellphone, and voila! You're good to go. You call a few of your friends to boast of your good fortune. You even send off a few pictures taken with its built-in camera via MMS. Then you realize that you still have to enable its built-in WiFi and Bluetooth, but that's beyond your scope of experience. So what do you do? You read the manual, of course, and in short order you're connected to the nearest access point.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is an example of faith at work.

What does faith have to do with a cellphone? Well, it's like this: you yourself don't really know the inner workings of the Communicator and as a brand-new user you're only familiar with the basic phone features. But you follow the instructions on the manual -- written by someone you don't personally know but whose authority you trust -- and you get the advanced features to work. Therein is an implication of belief.

Talk about faith and the immediate association that comes to mind is God. But that isn't so. Faith is a human act that we practice as a matter of course. We believe that the world is round. We believe that when we dial a number we'll reach the person at the other end. We believe that when we follow the instructions on a manual we'll get the results we're looking for. This is faith on a natural scale, necessary for daily survival.

Let's dissect this process of faith, using the example above.

In the first place, we begin with practical sensible experience. We see the cellphone, we can flip it open, we can press the buttons, we can see the displays, and we can hear the beeps. We don't know the circuitry or the software of the cellphone, but we do know at least a bit to use some of the basic functions.

Then we have the purpose to which we're aiming, but don't quite know how to reach. We want to connect wirelessly to an access point, something out of the range of our experience.

In the face of this difficulty, we turn to an authority. In this case, it's the manual. We don't quite know who wrote the manual but we trust it implicitly. In all likelihood, it's been written by a technical writer, not by the actual designers of the phone itself. Nevertheless, we're quite willing to go along with the instructions because we believe them to be true.

Why should we believe the instructions in the manual? Most telling, of course, is that it bears the same logo as the phone and came from the same box. But there's also the communal and historical aspects of this belief. Possibly hundreds of other Nokia 9500 owners have followed the same instructions with positive effect. Similarly, earlier generations of Nokia cellphones also worked according to the instructions given.

We then apply the instructions on the cellphone, putting our faith in the anonymous author of the manual to the test, as it were. If the writer did his job and we followed instructions properly, then we should be able to get a connection; if otherwise, then we don't get a signal. Assuming that we did follow all the instructions of the manual to the letter, then justifiably our faith in the writer would have proven to be misplaced. Then, it's an angry call to the customer service center.

At no point would you take an action on your Nokia 9500 knowing that the instructions were bogus. It's a very expensive cellphone, after all. To be sure, the writer of the manual could have made a mistake, even maliciously inserted some errors, but we work on the assumption that his instructions were correct. In any case, our experience upon application will bear it out.

It's an imperfect analogy, but the same principles of operations would be at work with supernatural faith.

So what is the cellphone analogous to? God? That's probably the association that comes to mind, but no.

The cellphone stands for ourselves. We have experience with ourselves, and we have experience with the world. We don't know everything about ourselves, but we do know enough to fulfill some of our basic longings.

God is the ultimate end which we're aiming for, that connection to the access point, if you will. He is something out of the range of our human experience, though we feel some intimations of this objective. It's hardcoded longing in our souls, as it were.

If you say that there is no God or that we cannot make the connection to God, then that's another story. That's outside the scope of this argument, unfortunately. You can stay with the basic functions of human beings. But you'd be missing out on a lot....

To reach our objective of God, we turn to an authority. We make an act of faith that what this authority says will lead us to our objective. This authority is not the designer of the product, i.e., the human being, but we believe that he's studied the product and has conferred with the designer of the product, who also happens to be God.

Here we might hit our first difficulty. Talked with the Designer himself? Yes, it sounds alright between technical writer and cellphone designer, but between a human authority and God? It sounds preposterous! But this is a condition that we must accept, otherwise how can we truly believe that the instructions this authority gives will move us towards that end which is God?

At this point, we should already rule out all "authorities" who do not claim a direct line from God. We might commend them for their honesty, but we can be certain they won't have the answers to making that connection to God.

Why should believe this authority and not another? In the early stages of our relationship with the authority, it might be because of the communal and historical aspects of this authority. Is there a community of believers around this authority? Has this authority been proven historically? It's a good first test.

The real test, however, is in the application and in the results. Are we making that connection to God? Here's where it becomes a little difficult. With a cellphone, you get instant feedback; with a human being, you don't. It's extremely hard to say when you're both the operator and the machine.

But this is not an insurmountable difficulty. We have feedback mechanisms in the form of conscience and reflection. Yes, these can be hard to use, but it does grow easier with practice (30 minutes a day is the recommended period). Can the conscience be mistaken? Yes, and that is why we have to form it and exercise it. But for a fact, we will never be mistaken in following it; it is the imperative.

And if we're not making that connection to God? Then it's one of three things: either we didn't follow the instructions of the authority to the letter (in which case, follow the instructions to the letter); or we're not reading the instrumentation properly (in which case, reflect some more); or that, sadly, the authority we're listening to is mistaken. Before you jump to the last conclusion, though, you would have to double check on the first two; most problems come from failing to follow instructions properly and failing to read the signals properly.

This essay, out of place as it may seem on this blog, is my attempt to trace the action of faith in order to show that faith cannot be based on fictional premises. We may be wrong in our faith, but we cannot logically adopt it if we know that it is wrong. This is my response to the supposition that fiction is a valid basis for faith.

Note that I have not identified any specific Faith in this discourse. I leave it up to readers to act according to their conscience. But if any readers need help, they're free to call up the customer service center I subscribe to.