The Life of Faith in Reason: A Hegelian Perspective
“Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”¹ If these words by Pope John Paul II are true, why is it that faith and reason are commonly construed in opposition? Reason is often presented as the world of objectivity and thoughtfulness, while faith is viewed as the whimsical and impulsive, a belief in something which cannot be objectively or logically proven. Scientific reasoning targets the very areas where faith exists, areas where our knowledge is incomplete, and, in doing so, chips away at what must be taken by faith. In a world where prominent atheists align themselves with advanced science and fundamentalist religious groups are on the rise, this presentation of faith and reason may seem complete and well-illustrated. It is not. Faith and reason not only coexist but share many aspects in common. Certain forms of reasoning naturally come into conflict with the realm of faith, but others grow alongside and within it. As a look into Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and an overview of inductive reasoning will show, the inability to prove a belief is not only reasonable, but it is the very essence of faith, which gives confidence to today’s believer who may struggle with the pressure of proving their beliefs in the mathematical sense.
One of the most prominent philosophers in modern history, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) devoted a significant section of his Phenomenology of Spirit to the interactions between faith and enlightenment-based reason. Hegel responded to many subjects publicized by Enlightenment philosophers of the eighteenth century, thus he was aware of the antagonistic relationship between religion and philosophy at that time. Even philosophers who did not commit themselves to wholehearted attacks on the church acknowledged the effects of Enlightenment reasoning on both religious institutions and faithful individuals. Riding a high of Enlightenment thought, Immanuel Kant portrayed Enlightenment reason as transcendent over the church, something with which priests themselves could and must engage but which did not necessarily alter their religions duties.² Hegel’s position in the post-Enlightenment era allowed him to take a dispassionate look at the relationship between faith and reason, a look which began by defining the terms.
Faith, to Hegel, begins with a deficiency in our knowledge or understanding of a situation. This frequently happens in life; we find ourselves in a situation where we do not have all the facts, but we still must make a conclusion or decision in order to continue. Think of when you have been waiting at a red light, and then the light turns green. An undistracted driver would normally begin to accelerate, even though there are a myriad of unknowns in the situation which, if known, would alter that driver’s actions. What if someone is running the red light and might hit you, or what if your car’s radiator is damaged and driving any further would result in expensive repairs? What if the light turned green by mistake? While some options seem outlandish, Hegel’s basic conception of faith is that it provides us with the will to step beyond our absolute knowledge. In a more complex application, faith then plays a strong role in the systems of belief, ethics, justice, and science by establishing concepts of universal truth and individual resolve. Faith is thus content, meaning that no substantive framework can exist without stepping beyond the verifiable.³ Compare this to the Bible’s New Testament passage in Hebrews 11, in which the author writes that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."⁴ Faith is a calculated step in reasoning when gaps in our understanding are present.
In contrast to Hegel’s view, the Enlightenment produced something which sets itself up in opposition to faith: what Hegel calls, pure inquiry. Pure inquiry is opposed to faith because, while faith makes calculated leaps, pure inquiry actively seeks out every area of the unknown and tries to find knowledge and understanding therein. Pure inquiry sees vanity in making a strong conclusion without complete understanding.³ So, like an investigative detective, this inquiry looks for answers which remove the faith element—answers which require no leap of faith. However, pure inquiry “can have no activity or content of its own,” and thus needs faith and its content as a foundation on which to build; in other words, this kind of reasoning needs a starting framework, and faith gives it this context.³ For example, Galileo did not spontaneously become interested in the stars and planets but took to studying them because of the emphasis of Western religious thought on the heavenly bodies. Faith’s content directs pure inquiry and gives it content to explore. Because it wants to bridge as many gaps in our knowledge as possible, pure inquiry proceeds to challenge faith’s leaps, and if it successfully places faith completely under its influence, it kills it.³ It suffocates faith by taking away its most essential aspect: its leaps over gaps in our knowledge. With every filled in or avoided gap or hole in our knowledge, not only is faith unnecessary, it cannot exist.³ Does this mean that faith and reason are diametrically opposed, each seeking to kill the another? The answer is simple: not at all. While pure inquiry destroys faith under these circumstances, pure inquiry is not the only kind of reasoning. In fact, one form of reasoning in particular works well alongside faith: inductive reasoning.
One of the main types of logical reasoning is inductive reasoning, which is similar to faith in that it is applied when information is incomplete. Inductive reasoning is often presented in contrast to deductive reasoning; while deductive reasoning guarantees and proves its conclusion, inductive reasoning cannot prove anything but only supports and offers evidence for its conclusion.⁵ Inductive reasoning is used daily, in most situations when we make a conclusion that cannot be completely proven by the information we possess. One of my favorite examples of inductive reasoning involves a person who comes home to find her spouse is gone, along with their dog and dog leash. She could conclude from the data that her spouse has simply taken the dog for a walk, an inductive conclusion which most of us would find reasonable. On the other hand, it would not contradict the data to say that her spouse had been kidnapped, along with the dog and the leash, or that a UFO had passed over and teleported the spouse, dog, and leash into space. While these possibilities sound absurd, the point is that no logical reasoning can unquestionably prove what has happened to the characters involved.
Even though it cannot decidedly prove a conclusion, inductive reasoning is not relativistic; its conclusions can be comparatively evaluated in terms of strength and weakness, as not every conclusion is as strong as another. In the previous hypothetical, two of the conclusions seem more outlandish on the surface, and this surface evaluation is reasonable. The dog-walking explanation is stronger from multiple angles. From a statistical perspective, it is much more likely that the spouse has taken the dog for a walk than that a kidnapping or alien abduction has occurred, for leashes, dogs, and people are the principal components of dog-walks. It all sounds a bit silly, but the key part to all this is that the person who just arrived home does not need to look up the statistics for dog-walking, kidnappings, or UFO abductions to make her inductive conclusion. Instead, she can rely on her life experience to conclude that her spouse is just on a walk and will be back soon.
Inductive reasoning often utilizes this sort of anecdotal evidence to support its conclusions, the same type of evidence that often supports faith. Anecdotal evidence is the evidence one has from experiences, something which cannot be empirically tested or deduced by means of logic; it thus stands in contrast to empirical and logical evidence. Without anecdotal evidence, common inductive reasoning would be very difficult. In our dog-walking example, no logical formula or empirical test could prove any conclusion. No syllogism or statistic could decisively determine whether the spouse and dog were going for a walk, were kidnapped, or were in space. Inductive reasoning makes an assumption, a calculated leap based on current and former information and understanding possessed by an individual.
To summarize, faith and inductive reasoning share many characteristics. Both rely on anecdotal evidence and experience to draw conclusions and require trust in a conclusion since not all information is known or can be deduced through tests or formulae. Furthermore, just as inductive reasoning can be evaluated as relatively strong or weak, so also can faith. I do not mean in terms of strength of conviction, but in terms of the depth of evidence for faith. Someone who believes in God simply because he or she has always believed has a weaker faith than someone who has dedicated years questioning and considering God and the spiritual world, even if both people have equally fervent beliefs. In these many ways, faith and reason not only coexist, but they thrive together. The same reasons which undergird inductive reasoning can also support faith. Just as we conclude through perspective and life experiences that the spouse has taken the dog for a walk, people of faith use reasonable perspectives and experiences to ground their beliefs. Faith and inductive reasoning also have no problem with logic or empirical evidence; both can be applied in their conclusions, just as the statistics of UFO kidnappings can be applied to our dog-walking hypothetical. Yet, neither faith nor inductive reasoning can survive when held to the standard of mathematical certainty, which accepts only the deductive and rejects the anecdotal.
Just as pure inquiry tries to submit faith to its standard of conclusively filling in all the gaps in our knowledge, faith today is challenged by questions of falsifiability and testability. The existence of God cannot be empirically proven, Jesus cannot be deductively proven to have performed miracles, and can a logical syllogism cannot determine that Jesus redeemed humankind through his life, death, and resurrection. It is exactly scientific method’s lack of influence over the content of faith which critics present as its greatest weakness. In Richard Dawkins’ words, “one of the truly bad effects of religion is that it teaches us that virtue is to be satisfied without understanding.”⁶ However, this standard that every conclusion must be satisfied through deductive or empirical understanding would leave the person in the dog-walking hypothetical in an unsolvable quandary, one in which no conclusion could be made since nothing short of instantly locating the missing parties would suffice as complete understanding. What this standard misses is that understanding, knowledge, and reasoning are not synonymous with mathematical certainty.
Under the standards of pure inquiry, deductive reasoning, and the scientific method, neither faith nor inductive reasoning can survive, and their disappearance produces skepticism. When only what is deductive or mathematically verifiable³ is accepted, not only is faith prevented from making its leaps, but inductive reasoning cannot operate effectively. Practically, this would lead an individual to a position of skepticism, wherein many forms of knowledge are impossible. With the death of the content of faith under the auspices of pure inquiry, not only does knowledge itself disappear, but also our way of life. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) describes this death of faith in his famous narrative on the death of God, which shows how although humankind has murdered God, it has received nothing in consolation or in God’s place. Nothing can replace the content of faith.⁷ So also, life without inductive reasoning is nothing short of skepticism. The person wondering where their spouse and dog had gone is left with nothing to conclude, as nothing is provable. Yet, this only happens if one places faith and inductive reasoning under the standard of the mathematical certainty. Faith and reason otherwise coexist in harmony; they rely on and necessitate each other.
The overlaps between faith and inductive reasoning change the narrative about the relationship between faith and reason. While some forms of reason may challenge faith, which is in itself sometimes helpful, other forms of reason grow naturally with faith but without substantial conflict. For people of faith, this connection between faith and inductive reason is a helpful way to evaluate our faith. We can ask ourselves why we believe what we believe, or how we can support our faith with reason. We do not have to be afraid of exploring the world of reason and philosophy, since it is not an enemy, but an ally of faith. It is skepticism, not reason, which is opposed to faith. For those who criticize faith as an unprovable conjecture or as unscientific, the close similarities between faith and inductive reasoning demand that, if one is to remain objective, the same criticism must also be applied to every case of inductive reasoning. In this sense, not only does a life of reason coexist with a life of faith, but a life of inductive reasoning needs the trusting leaps which faith takes. Perhaps a life of reason truly is then a life of faith, two wings of the same human spirit.
1. John Paul II. (14 September 1998). Fides et ratio. Retrieved from http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_14091998_fides-et-ratio.html.
2. Kant, Immanuel. (1783). What is Enlightenment. Berlinische Monatsschrift, 14, 481-494.
3. Hegel, G.W.F. (1807). Phänomenologie des geistes [The phenomenology of spirit]. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
4. Hebrews 11:1, King James Version
5. Tomassi, Paul. (1999). Logic. London: Routledge.
6. Dawkins, Richard. (2006). The god delusion. London: Bantam Press.
7. Hegel, G.W.F. (1807). Phänomenologie des geistes [The phenomenology of spirit]. Oxford: Oxford University Press.