Faith and Reason

Though opposing faith against reason seems to be a modern issue resulting from a scientific mindset opposing faith, the difference between faith and reason has been long understood in the Church, centuries before the modern scientific age.   St. Isaac the Syrian for example sees faith as greater than reason/knowledge because knowledge really deals only with the things of this world while faith deals with things beyond this world.  Knowledge is thus limited to the study of nature, but then there exists the world beyond nature – divinity, spiritual beings, heaven, the soul.  The natural world has its edges and limits, and thus knowledge is bound and limited.  The life beyond nature is an existence which might be boundless, and thus is greater than nature itself.

“For knowledge is opposed to faith; but faith, in all that pertains to it, demolishes laws of knowledge—we do not, however, speak here of spiritual knowledge. For this is the  definition of knowledge: that without investigation and examination it has no authority to do anything, but must investigate whether that which it considers and desires is possible… but faith requires a mode of thinking that is single, limpidly pure, and simple, far removed from any deviousness. See how faith and knowledge are opposed to one another! The home of faith is a childlike thought and a simple heart… But knowledge conspires against and opposes both these qualities. Knowledge in all its paths keeps within the boundaries of nature. But faith makes its journey above nature.”  (The Spiritual World of St. Isaac the Syrian, page 257)

Scientists and Angelic Thinking

One of the most famous and also controversial writers in Church is Evagrius Ponticus (d. 399AD).  His writings on the desert fathers and mystical spirituality were very influential in monastic circles.  His works and spirituality were geared almost exclusively to monks.  He died in communion with the Church but by the 6th Century his writings were rejected along with the works of Origen as they tended to be taken to heretical conclusions.    But by that time they  were so wide spread that it was impossible to retract them, plus they continued to be circulated under pseudonyms.

In one quote from him that caught my eye Evagrius is distinguishing between angelic, human and demonic thoughts. In the Patristic period it was common to believe that there are different levels of meaning found in things – whether in reading Scriptures or studying nature; and there being three levels of meaning was also a common assumption.

Evagrius is said to have rejected the dualism so common among the gnostics of his day which condemned the physical world as evil.  However, Evagrius’ anthropology and cosmology are very different from thoughts we who live in the modern scientific world might have today.  Nevertheless I found his contrasts between the three types of thought to be interesting, for the questions he says angelic thought would ask about the world are completely what we would see as scientific questions.  What he calls “spiritual reasons” we would call truth or facts and we see them in the realm of what scientists try to answer.  I just find it interested that a 4th Century writer saw as angelic (or advanced) thinking what we today would see as just plain scientific thinking.

In the following quote from Evagrius, even the opening line comes right from rational, scientific thinking – you base your ideas on what can be observed.  Evagrius says they frequently observed these things which even gives some further credence to a sort of scientific method!

“After frequent observation, we have found that …

Angelic [thoughts] scrutinize the nature of things and search out their spiritual reasons.  For example, why gold was created and dispersed like sand and disseminated in the valleys of the earth, and is found only with great effort and toil; and why, once found, it is washed in water and committed to the fire, and then put into the hand of artisans who fashion it into the lamps of the tabernacle and the altar of burnt offerings and the censers and the bowls, from which, by the grace of our Redeemer, the king of Babylon now no longer drinks…  

Second, demonic thought neither understands nor knows such things.  It only suggest shamelessly the acquisition of the gold …  

Lastly, human thought seeks neither to acquire gold, not is it concerned about what gold symbolizes.  It merely brings before the mind the bare image of gold, devoid of the passion of greed.     By applying this rule mystically, one can say the same about other things.”  (DRAGON’S WINE AND ANGEL’S BREAD, pp 116-117)

Demonic thoughts in Evagrius really involve using the created world, which He believed to be good since it was created by God, for evil purposes.  It is demonic to take God’s creation and turn it to some evil purpose – greed is evil in his Christian worldview.

On the other hand, human thought is basically just seeing the world as it is without assigning any meaning to it.   Created things are not evil in and of themselves, and we can see them as being animal, vegetable, mineral, etc, and they remain neutral in value until we put them to some use.   In some ways the human thought when applied to nature is how many Patristic writers saw a basic reading of scripture:  its face value void of entering into its deeper meaning.

But the angelic thought in this quote is interested in the truth or truths about things – understanding God’s creation and the mysteries that the created order presents to us.  We see things and wonder “why?” in regards to so many things about them.  This seeking of knowledge was considered angelic by Evagrius.  Interesting also that artisans who make use of these things are listed within the angelic thinking level.   Obviously Evagrius’ world is very different than our own, but one has to allow that seeking knowledge about created things would still be considered angelic by Evagrius.  Though science today is not also pursuing understanding the Creator through creation, still science continues to ask the “why?” question regarding creation.  We believers do not have to assume that scientific knowledge will always lead to atheistic ideas.  That was not the assumption of Evagrius in the 4th Century.

“Science” in the Library of Congress

Evagrius’ attitude toward scientific knowledge being angelic thinking reminds me also of a verse from the Akathist service, Glory to God for All Things, written by Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Tryphon (d. 1934), who lived and died in an atheist culture.  He places in his his hymns these words:

“The breath of Your Holy Spirit inspires artists, poets, scientists. The power of Your supreme knowledge makes them prophets and interpreters of Your laws, who reveal the depths of Your creative wisdom. Their works speak unwittingly of You. How great are You in Your creation! How great are You in man!”

Perhaps we too often accept the view of those who want to oppose scientific thinking to that of believers.  Maybe we Christians would have a better comprehension of scientific knowledge if we looked at Christians in other centuries long before the modern debates which pitted secular science with fundamentalistic biblical literalism.  Then we might see that some of the very thoughtful writers of the ancient Christian world saw no need to oppose science and Christianity but rather assumed they were working to understand the universe truthfully.

Like 4th Century Evagrius, 20th Century Metropolitan Tryphon understood the pursuit of knowledge, truth, science is also a pursuit of knowing God’s creation.  The truths uncovered by science obviously can be interpreted in an atheistic way but they also can, even if unwittingly, speak to us about God’s hand in the universe.   Evagrius thought such knowledge was angelic.  Evagrius also does not assume that all of the answers to these angelic questions are found in Scripture.  He understands that there is valuable knowledge (angelic!) which we learn from nature and observation.  He would also, I think, assume that when nature and biblical texts don’t agree, the problem is not that they must be put in opposition to each other, but rather than it demonstrates our understanding of things is inadequate.  He would not see a need to hold to a wooden literalism of the biblical text but would look for a deeper meaning in it.

The knowledge of creation is a wisdom which comes from God:

“And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and largeness of mind like the sand on the seashore,  so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt. …  He spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall; he spoke also of beasts, and of birds, and of reptiles, and of fish.  And men came from all peoples to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and from all the kings of the earth, who had heard of his wisdom.”  (1 Kings 4:29-34)

When the Book of our Life is in our Hands

I won’t claim to be a writer, though I like to write.  I found the imagery below by St. Isaac the Syrian to be an intriguing way of seeing one’s life – a draft document, a work in progress.  Of course he wrote in a day and a age when once something was in print, it was cast in stone and not easy to change.   He did not know the joy of the electronic document which can forever be updated, corrected and improved.  Despite what technology makes possible, there still is a sense that when something moves from its electronic form to its hard copy print form it becomes more permanent, indelible.  St. Isaac though when referring to a document seems to have in mind official government documents – in his time it would have been imperial documents with the king’s seal.  The documents he is thinking of in his metaphor become official decrees and laws of the empire.    But this imagery has some value to us as we consider God’s Book of Life is an imperial document with the kingdom being that of Heaven.  There is a permanency to the document – once officially issued, decreed, it will remain what it is forever.  Until that time however, we have the ability to change, alter, and improve the story of our life.

God is the author of the book known as the universe, but each of us co-authors with God our lives.  (I’ve also been intrigued by those scientists inspired by our new found ability to read the genetic code who have suggested that in that genetic code and in the human genome we can really see the hand of God with the code being a script recording what was happening to humanity through the vast time in which our ancestors have been part of t his world.)

God is writing the book of the universe’s existence, but allows each of us to write our own chapters within the Book.   As St. Isaac has it the book of our life is for a short while in our hands, and we have the ability to add good things to it.  It is marvelous imagery about how we co-operate with God and shape some of the details which God incorporates into His book of life.

“Our way of life in this world resembles a document that is still in draft form:  things can be added or taken out, and alterations can be made, whenever one wants.  But life in the world to come resembles the case of completed documents that have the king’s seal already upon them, and no addition or subtraction can be made.  While we are still here, where changes can be made, let us take a look at ourselves, and while we still have control over the book of our life, and it is in our hands, let us be eager to add to it by means of a good life-style, and delete from it the defects of our former life-style.” (THE WISDOM OF ST ISAAC OF NINEVEH, p 22)

Out of Darkness Light Will Shine

2 Corinthians 4:6  –  “It is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”  (St. Paul)

Saint John of Kronstadt wrote:

“Sometimes in the lives of pious Christians there are hours when God seems to have entirely abandoned them – hours of the power of darkness; and then the man from the depth of his heart cries unto God: ‘Why have You turned Your face from me, You the everlasting Light? For a strange darkness has covered me, the darkness of the accursed evil Satan, and has obscured all my soul. It is very grievous for the soul to be in his torturing darkness, which gives a presentiment of the torments and darkness of hell. Turn me, O Saviour, to the light of Your commandments and make straight my spiritual way, I fervently pray You.’ “ (My Life in Christ, pg.41)

The Word, The Information, and The Bit (PDF)

My recent blog series which began with the blog The Word, The Information and The Bit (I) is now also available as a PDF at  The Word, The Information and The Bit  (PDF).  The blog series is my reflecting on  James Gleick’s book THE INFORMATION: A HISTORY, A THEORY, A FLOOD .

I wrote some other blogs also based on Gleick’s book which may offer some insight into what originally persuaded me to read his tome:

From Incarnation to Encryption

Knowledge and Wisdom, Fact and Truth

Information Time Change

The Word, The Information, The Bit (IV)

This is the 4th and final blog in this essay series reflecting on James Gleick’s book THE INFORMATION: A HISTORY, A THEORY, A FLOOD.   The first blog is The Word, The Information, The Bit (1) and the immediately preceding blog is The Word,  The Information, The Bit (III).

The printing press by making permanent records available to all had the potential to preserve so much information from the past that we might become so overwhelmed with it that we would suffer a memory loss – no longer sure as to what was the exact past as we can now see all of the variations and changes and mistakes of the past – nothing has been forgotten and so the past becomes buried under mounds of facts which we don’t know how to measure or weigh.   Or it is possible that the new technologies in preserving more of the past make it more visible in detail to us, increasing our understanding of ourselves and of history?

“Another way to speak of the anxiety is in terms of the gap between information and knowledge.  A barrage of data so often fails to tell us what we need to know.  Knowledge, in turn, does not guarantee enlightenment or wisdom.  (T. S. Eliot [d 1965]  said that, too:  ‘Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? / Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? …)’”  (p 403)

Or as one clever wag said:

“The more we study, the more we learn.

The more we learn, the more we know.

The more we know, the more we forget.

So, why study?”

All of Gleick’s book is a study of information, whatever that is, it has become the basis of the technologies we use daily and are so dependent on – all of the computing of any sorts we do from cell phones, to GPS, to e-readers, to computers of every size.     It is a fascinating look at the history of how our ideas of information have evolved through time.

“A ‘file’ was originally – in sixteenth-century England – a wire on which slips and bills and notes and letters could be strung for preservation and reference.  Then came file folders, file drawers, and file cabinets; then the electronic namesakes of all these; and the inevitable irony.  Once a piece of information is filed, it is statistically unlikely ever to be seen again by human eyes.”  (p 410)

So the Word became flesh according to St. John, but in the modern world the word becomes filed existing in an electronic incarnation called the bit.

“It was once thought that a perfect language should have an exact one-to-one correspondence between words and their meanings.  There should be no ambiguity, no vagueness, no confusion.  Our earthly Babel is a falling off from the lost speech of Eden: a catastrophe and a punishment.”  But information theory and science says it ain’t so. “With or without God, there is no perfect language.”  (p 418)

All information requires interpretation.  It is the way of Christ who interprets Torah. It is God’s way.  Any incarnation of the word requires interpretation.   Christianity, if it is not so fearful, may come to realize that information theory tells us what we knew all along.   Islam for its part will struggle with this much more for it does hold that there is the exact original of the Quran in heaven of which all earthly volumes are precise copies –  though the Quran itself implies relying on a recited word, not one committed to print.

Babel was aimed at preventing humans from conspiring against heaven, not to prevent humans from understanding God who intended Babel to be a lesson.

But science in information theory sees itself moving in a particular direction.  Dexter Palmer wrote:

“In a modern age without an Author looking down on us from heaven, language is not a thing of definite certainty, but infinite possibility; without the comforting illusion of meaningful order we have no choice but to stare into the face of meaningless disorder; without the feeling that meaning can be certain, we find ourselves overwhelmed by all things that words might mean.” (p 419)

This seems to assume that humans are isolated and alienated from each other, and from all others and from God – extreme individualism with no shared anything.   But we share a world, and can share not only information but also understanding and meaning.  We can interpret and debate because we can share meaning.  Everything is not random.  Humans do some things with intention and with intended meaning – in other words, we do communicate.  It is also the nature of divine revelation, which is at the heart of Christian claims.  The reality may be that there is a pattern to all that exists, but we simply lack the perspective – the God view – to see it.  We are limited beings and do not like such limitations.

The English language according to Claude Shannon’s   (d 2001) statistics has close to 75% redundancy.  Certain letters follow other letters regularly, some combinations are totally rare.  It is what enables Google to “read my mind” when I do a search as it “guesses” the next letter in my search.  Randomness is not complete, order is both in the information and imposed on it.     And Gleick can write a 526 page book about it which does convey meaning in written form to any who read his book.   Even in the quantum world of unpredictability, there is a great amount of information conveyable to those who know how to read the signs.

Too bad that I read his book, and got my e-reader afterwards.  His may be the last of its kind for me – I’ll look for “books” that are available on Kindle.   It is a technology made possible by information theory.

“In the beginning was the Word…”   And that word was not coterminous with printed letters, but as a spoken word had no physical form, no letters serving as bookends to contain it within certain symbols.

The word became print, but that never altered the Word which retains all of its divinity.  Perhaps technology is freeing that Word once again so we will never mistakenly equate the Word with a written script, but rather will understand that the Word in its electronic manifestation (no incarnation, but an electronation?) will be much closer to its original revelation when God said, “let there be light.”

See also my blogs:  From Incarnation to Encryption and Knowledge and Wisdom, Fact and Truth

Knowledge and Wisdom, Fact and Truth

I have been really enjoying reading James Gleick’s THE INFORMATION: A HISTORY, A THEORY, A FLOOD.    I’ll comment more in a future blog, I’m sure.  It completely captivated me from the git-go by mentioning Claude Shannon’s 1948 monograph “A Mathematical Theory of Communication.”  (see my blog From Incarnation to Encryption which touches upon where I learned about this book)

Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef

The very notion of there being a mathematical theory of communication or information staggers the mind.  It is a collaboration between science, the arts and creativity which is not naturally intuited – it is human genius.    It is something that revolutionized the modern world and made this blog possible by being the theory that led to the creation of the technology needed.

More about all that on a later date.

One quote that I read that amused me (there are many in the book) because it combines different fields of knowledge and experience comes under the rubric of “Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit.  Wisdom is knowing not to put tomato in a fruit salad.”

Charles Babbage, a 19th Century inventor and genius, is sometimes credited with having invented the computer even though his “Difference Engine” as he called it never came to successful fruition.  But he was famous in his day, not only for his inventiveness, but also for his mathematical sense of humor.  Babbage, “tongue in cheek”,  wrote to poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson about a line in one of his poems which read:

“Every minute, dies a man,/ Every minute one is born.”

Babbage wrote an intentionally humorous correction of the poetic phrase:

“I need hardly point out to you that this calculation would tend to keep the sum total of the world’s population in a state of perpetual equipoise, whereas it is a well-known fact that the said sum total is constantly on the increase.  I would therefore take the liberty of suggesting that in the next edition of your excellent poem the erroneous calculation to which I refer should be corrected as follows: ‘Every moment dies a man / And one and a sixteenth is born.’  I may add that the exact figures are 1.167, but something must, of course, be conceded to the laws of metre.”

There is a difference between fact and truth, knowledge and wisdom.   Some are wise enough to express that fact humorously.