by Michael Maciel
Faith is actually a technical term and has nothing at all to do with belief. Let me give an example:
Robert Heinlein once wrote a novel called “Orphans of the Sky,” in which a huge, cylindrical spaceship was sent to a distant star system light-years away.
Being cylindrical, there were “upper decks” and “lower” decks. “Up” was towards the central axis of the ship and “down” was towards the outer walls—the bulkhead.
The trip was to last hundreds of years, meaning that entire generations of passengers would live out their lives before the ship would reach its final destination. The knowledge of their mission was handed down from generation to generation, and a kind of religion formed around the narrative. When someone died, for instance, they were said to have “made the trip.”
But an insurrection occurred, and all the intelligentsia were killed. The insurrectionists retreated to the upper decks while the general population remained below. The decks in between were no-man-lands.
I’m painting a picture here of the background of the story so that two relevant points regarding faith can hopefully become obvious.
What began as a quasi-religion became a full-blown superstition as the original knowledge of the ship’s mission was lost over time. Everyone forgot that they were on a spaceship traveling to a distant star. Instead, they came to believe that the interior of the ship was the full extent of reality. The upper decks were mythic regions of mortal danger, and the bulkhead—the last barrier between the lowest deck and outer space wasn’t a “bulkhead,” it was simply the end of reality.
The question as to what was beyond the bulkhead did not exist in the minds of the passengers. As a concept, it was simply inconceivable. There was no frame of reference for it to arise in their thinking. The question itself did not, in fact, could not exist in their collective consciousness.
The hero of the story wanders into the upper decks and is captured by the descendants of the original insurrectionists who know the true nature of the ship and where it is in space. They have access to the observation deck at the far end of the cylinder, so their concept of space far exceeds the spatial awareness of the passengers below who have no windows and thus no perspective.
The insurrectionists decide to “initiate” their captive to the reality of the ship and its mission by taking him to the observation deck. When he sees for the first time the immensity of outer space, which is not only spatially greater than the cramped quarters he grew up in but conceptually greater as well.
The experience overwhelms him. His head spins, he becomes violently nauseous and comes close to going insane. But eventually, he acclimatizes and begins to grasp the true nature of reality.
Now, here’s the metaphor. Where in your life is there a “bulkhead”? What for you is simply the “end of reality”? Logic alone would demand that there is such a limit to your understanding. The physicist, Arthur Eddington, said, “The universe is not only stranger than we think, it’s stranger than we CAN think.” Today’s physicists are coming face-to-face with that conundrum. What they’re seeing goes against all conceptions of reality as we know it. But they’re starting to prod and poke the bulkhead and little by little, points of light are beginning to appear.
They’re starting to suspect that consciousness itself is not epiphenomenal to the brain but rather part of the fundamental structure of reality itself. It’s still a hypothesis but it’s a plausible hypothesis. They don’t know WHAT is on the other side of the bulkhead, but they do know that SOMETHING exists there. It HAS to. Everything they know points to that conclusion.
That “knowing” is faith.
Faith is the understanding that “what we don’t know what we don’t know” is a reality we cannot dismiss. It’s what lies beyond the circumference of our capacity to conceive. It’s the X-factor.
Now, the more sophisticated scientists, like Eddington, know this. It informs their thinking. And, it allows them to think outside of the box or, in this case, outside the circumference of human knowledge. But, they don’t teach this to their students—their acolytes—because they know that in order for these young minds to learn anything at all, they have to have a set of “knowns” that they can “believe” in. Otherwise, their entire pursuit of scientific knowledge would become unmoored. Thus, a hierarchy develops, a hierarchy of the initiated.
Science is no different from religion in this regard. In fact, they borrowed it from religion. Whenever we’re confronted with the unquestioning belief of a true believer, this is what we’re dealing with—the uninitiated understanding of a neophyte. For them, their beliefs are the solid ground they need in order to survive in a vast expanse of unknowable unknowns.
And if we try to “enlighten” them, they have the same reaction as the hero of the lower decks in Orphans of the Sky. The cognitive dissonance would simply be more than they could tolerate. Their psyches would implode. The “truth” is literally a threat to their sanity, which is why true believers are willing to die for their beliefs.
This dilemma, of course, exists on many different levels. We all have a system of beliefs that acts like a scaffolding upon which we can safely stand as we struggle to open up to greater and greater vistas of the real world. Our systems of beliefs can be sophisticated or they can be superstitions. What makes them one or the other is the humility of mind that allows for the X-factor. Knowing of the X-factor’s inevitable and omnipresent existence enables us to advance in our quest for knowledge in ways that certainty—about anything—cannot.
The X-factor is and always will be greater than our minds can comprehend, just as Eddington stated. We can only regard it with awe, knowing that whatever more there is to life, reality, and the knowledge of such things can only come from there. It is, so to speak, the Source of All. Over time, if we are “faithful” to it—meaning that we always include the X-factor in our equations—the circumference of our tiny circle of understanding will grow, just as it has throughout the millennia of our existence.
This, in a nutshell, is the logos of both science and religion, both of which, in the final analysis, are our attempts to find the true nature of reality itself. Both disciplines, when practiced intelligently, are our best hope of “making the trip.”
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