Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Andrew Sullivan on faith and truth

Sam Harris, famous athiest, and Andrew Sullivan, famous author of the Conservative Soul, are debating religion. Here's how Sullivan sums up the issue so far.
Here's the nub, I think. You write:
I think that faith is, in principle, in conflict with reason (and, therefore, that religion is necessarily in conflict with science), while you do not.
Agreed. As the Pope said last year, I believe that God is truth and truth is, by definition, reasonable. Science cannot disprove true faith; because true faith rests on the truth; and science cannot be in ultimate conflict with the truth. So I am perfectly happy to believe in evolution, for example, as the most powerful theory yet devised explaining human history and pre-history. I have no fear of what science will tell us about the universe - since God is definitionally the Creator of such a universe; and the meaning of the universe cannot be in conflict with its Creator. I do not, in other words, see reason as somehow in conflict with faith - since both are reconciled by a Truth that may yet be beyond our understanding.
It seems to me that Sullivan falls victim to what I had earlier called the anthropomorphism of thought. There is no such thing as truth except when it refers to a thought in one's mind. A thought may be true, but that's the only thing that can be true. The word true applies only to thoughts. To say that "Truth may be beyond our human understanding" may be poetic, but it doesn't have any real meaning as far as I'm concerned. Truth is exactly a matter of human understanding. There may certainly be experience which is beyond our current (or perhaps even future) ability to explain or conceptualize. The experience of red, for example, is not a matter of true; it's a matter of experiencing red. I wouldn't call that sort of thing "truth."

Similarly, to say that "God is truth" doesn't seem to me to be saying very much if truth has no concrete meaning. If God is truth in the traditional sense of truth, then Sullivan is saying that God is science or whatever science reveals. (He does seem to be saying something like that.) That may, of course, be a useful way to think about God since it certainly is not a good idea for religion to set God against science. So if one wants to say that the universe is wonderful and that whatever science finds out about it is all due to God then perhaps everyone can be happy. The scientists can say that such a statement is fine if it makes you feel good, but it doesn't mean a whole lot. The religionists can say that their faith is justified. I suspect that Sullivan means more than that, but I don't know what it is. I'm surprised to see Sullivan speak in such foggy terms. He is generally a clear thinker. I thought he would do a better job of representing the religious position.

P.S. Normally I include a picture of the person I'm writing about in blog entries. In this case, I couldn't resist. When I looked for a picture of Sullivan this is the first thing that came up. It was a picture that he had published on his blog. It's difficult to concentrate on the weighty subject matter of this blog piece with that picture there, isn't it.

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