The National Catholic Review
The collaboration of knowledge, belief and faith

She would have to leave her intellect behind, my friend assumed, if she followed up on a profound experience of God that had led her to Mass. Eventually she decided to enroll in the catechumenate in order to become a member of the Catholic Church. Taking this step, she explained to me, would require her to check her brain at the classroom door, but she felt her newfound religion was so important to her that she was willing to sacrifice reason for faith.

Happily, my friend soon discovered that the Catholic faith in fact encourages the use of reason. But her story reminds us that we live in a culture that tends to segregate knowledge, faith and belief. On the one hand, knowledge is seen as scientific, objective and part of a common fund. On the other, faith and belief (which are not usually distinguished) are considered unscientific, subjective and private. At best, the two categories are allowed to coexist if kept at arms’ length from each other; at worst, they are treated as mutually opposed, whether by strident atheists or religious fundamentalists.

Such attitudes toward knowledge and belief do not comport with the Catholic tradition. Nor do they accurately reflect the way our minds actually work. St. Augustine was correct when he wrote, “To believe is nothing other than to think with assent.... Believers are also thinkers: in believing, they think and in thinking, they believe.” Perhaps surprisingly, the clearest evidence for this claim can be found in the world of scientific research.

Collaboration in Science

William Wordsworth, whose college bedroom window overlooked a statue of Sir Isaac Newton, characterized this great scientist as “a mind for ever/ Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.” The image of a solitary scientist arriving at pure knowledge through the unbridled powers of his own ratiocination remains in force today, but this is out of touch with how real science is accomplished. Science is in fact a deeply collaborative effort.

The story of the most recent Nobel Prize in physics exemplifies this. It was awarded to François Englert and Peter Higgs for predicting the existence of a new particle, the Higgs boson, in the 1960s. The actual discovery of the particle, though, did not occur until 2012 at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland. The results were published in two scientific papers, only one of which lists all its authors. A quick glance reveals why: the list runs eight pages, naming 3,172 contributors from 178 institutions. It was a team effort on a huge scale, involving theorists, experimentalists, engineers and construction workers. The Nobel committee may have been forced by the limits of the award to honor only two people, but the science behind the award involved thousands.

My own research in astrophysics may involve many fewer people, but it is no less a collaborative endeavor. Take the Atacama Cosmology Telescope collaboration, of which I am a member. We are about 100 people at 20 institutions in Canada, Chile, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States. We hold over seven hours of teleconferences every week to discuss various aspects of our instrumentation, field operations, future design, data analysis and scientific results. No one person knows everything about the project; that would be impossible. We need to believe in the results that our colleagues produce. Of course, we ask each other tough questions and try to have multiple checks of important results. But ultimately it is only by sharing information, dividing up tasks and trusting one another that we make scientific progress.

This and countless similar efforts demonstrate that belief is a crucial element in scientific research. Isaac Newton himself made famous the dictum, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” His theory of gravity rested on the painstaking astronomical observations of astronomers like Tycho Brahe and John Flamsteed. He did not feel the need to remake their results but was content to believe them. Many of the scientists who analyzed the data containing evidence for the Higgs boson did not personally assemble the equipment that provided it, but rather believed that the data on their computers came from a properly run experiment. And when I reflect on my experience, I realize that I did not personally verify the vast majority of scientific theories that I learned while earning my degrees—not even Newton’s foundational laws of motion. No one, moreover, sees such instances of scientific belief as fundamentally irrational. They are an everyday behavior, repeated countless times in universities and laboratories around the world.

Knowledge and Belief

“The whole of science,” Albert Einstein once remarked, “is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking.” The roles of knowledge and belief in science mirror how these two faculties interact in other spheres of human inquiry. The historian has no way of verifying for himself that Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, but must believe Suetonius’s account. The geographer may never have done a survey of the coast of Brazil, but believes the maps in the atlas are accurate. Or, to take a very simple example, ask yourself how you know who your father is. Although today we have recourse to DNA tests, most still turn to their mothers rather than to a laboratory to answer this question. In all of these examples, we do not treat such belief as an arbitrary choice or a matter of personal taste, but as a point of access to something objective. Our own behavior demonstrates that we accept, at least implicitly, that belief is rational.

Belief and knowledge, then, are intimately interlocking rational processes and more similar than we often suppose. Consider how we come to know something. It begins with experience—the input of our senses, our memories and our affective states. We then look to understand the data and, if we are successful, have insights that show the possible intelligibility in what we have experienced. We test our insights against other data until we are satisfied that they are correct. And often, but not always, we recognize values in our knowledge that prompt a decision to act.

Belief is necessary when the processes that generate immanent knowledge are not possible. Often we lack the necessary data, or the ability to make relevant insights, or cannot quite be satisfied that our insights are right. In these moments, we have to turn to the knowledge attained by others who have the data, the understanding or the judgment we lack. But an act of belief is a decision, and if a decision, it is the response to perceived value; and if value has been perceived, it is in something concrete that we already know. When a child believes his parents, for example, it is because he has come to do so through experience, understanding and verification that their words are trustworthy and recognizes the value in assenting to them.

“To believe is nothing other than to think with assent.” We base our decisions to believe on the same rational processes that give us knowledge. If we really want to be precise, many of the things we say we know, like scientific facts, historical events or the details of current affairs, we should say we believe—and we should not be less satisfied just because we rationally assented to someone else’s knowledge.

Knowledge and Belief in Religion

Belief is popularly considered to be constitutive of religion, but if, as I have argued, belief and knowledge go hand in hand, then authentic religion must also include knowledge. This is indeed the case. For instance, John the Evangelist writes, “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us” (1 Jn 1:3). He is speaking about someone he knew—someone he has “seen and heard”—not just believed in. Knowledge of a person is at the heart of the Gospel message. Today, though we cannot know the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth in the same way the apostles did, our belief in God is complemented by the immanent knowledge of God we acquire through prayer and spiritual experiences. Thus, in Ignatian spirituality, for example, we examine the data of our feelings and desires in order to understand and come to know how God is working in our lives.

Further, there is a long and venerable tradition in Christianity of using philosophy, or human reasoning, to know things about God. The First Vatican Council dogmatically affirmed this ancient tradition in “Dei Filius,” its document on revelation (No. 2):

The same Holy Mother Church holds and teaches that God, the source and end of all things, can be known with certainty from the consideration of created things, by the natural power of human reason: ever since the creation of the world, his invisible nature has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.

Knowledge, therefore, takes its rightful place alongside belief in Catholic theology. But they alone are not enough, and the council hastens to add that many aspects of the Christian religion are beyond mere human knowledge and belief, and explains why divine revelation is necessary: “The reason is that God directed human beings to a supernatural end, that is a sharing in the good things of God that utterly surpasses the understanding of the human mind.”

This is a point worth dwelling upon, for it is a curious fact that although our rational capacity is limited, our desire for knowledge is unlimited. We want to know the ultimate truth and to love the ultimate good, but in our finitude we are incapable of doing so on our own. We yearn for the supernatural, but unaided knowledge and belief can only know the natural. It is not simply that knowledge of God is accessible only to those with the leisure and philosophical talent to pursue him. There is the added fact that philosophy can go only so far. If we are to come into the full communion with God that our unlimited desire longs for, we need to reach somehow beyond what we are capable of knowing and believing through the sciences. We need a gift from God: faith.

Transcending Human Limits

“Faith,” according to the Book of Hebrews, “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1). It is not an assurance of a good that we possess, but of “things hoped for”; it is a conviction not of what we see and can understand through our own reason, but of “things not seen.” In his magnificent encyclical “Fides et Ratio,” St. John Paul II explained: “Moving beyond the stage of simple believing, Christian faith immerses human beings in the order of grace, which enables them to share in the mystery of Christ, which in turn offers them a true and coherent knowledge of the Triune God” (No. 33).

Faith is thus primarily a grace that draws us beyond the sort of believing and knowing that we can achieve through human reason. “True and coherent knowledge of the Triune God” is not accessible to our unaided intellects, but our intellects were never made to work unaided. Faith is grace perfecting our natural rational capacity so that we can contemplate what reason ultimately desires: unconditional goodness and unconditional truth—that is, God.

At this point, it is important to come full circle. If faith perfects reason, then it certainly does not destroy reason. Rather, authentic faith is the guarantor of the validity of human reason, which, on its own, has no way of proving its own trustworthiness. One cannot, for instance, justify the scientific method using the scientific method, but must appeal to something more fundamental. And since our reason is limited, it will never find within itself its own justification. The only way we can be assured that the human sciences tell us true information about the world is if we accept that they are part of a larger, rational order. “It is the one and the same God,” Pope John Paul II continues, “who establishes and guarantees the intelligibility and reasonableness of the natural order of things upon which scientists confidently depend, and who reveals himself as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The contemporary urge to separate knowledge from belief not only fails to grasp their interdependence; it overlooks the essentially collaborative nature of human inquiry. By cordoning reason off from faith, it also threatens to strike at the very root of rationality itself. For human inquiry was never meant to be a purely human collaboration, but a collaboration with the mind of God. If we expel God from the intellectual life, we may find that reason itself soon withers.

Adam D. Hincks, S.J., is an astrophysicist at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. He blogs at ibosjca.


Charles Erlinger | 9/16/2014 - 12:25pm

Thanks to the author and to the editors for this article. Hopefully it is a foundation for a series that makes rational distinctions helpful to serious discussion.

Christopher Rushlau | 9/12/2014 - 7:19pm

I like to say creation is a matter of revelation because there is no necessity that we exist. If we minded our borders, border-concepts, perhaps, we might not have such trouble in this life. Where exactly do I leave off searching and accept the incomprehensible as a constituent of my experience? I would say, at the point where I notice myself about to start encroaching on God's turf, or yielding up my own to some idol, such as "anti-terrorism".

Recently by Adam D. Hincks

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