Faith in the absence of the supernatural, part 2

In the previous post, I talked briefly about how religious faith must ultimately include some element of faith in people, and how that element leads to its pitfalls. The same could be said of secular faith, although the pitfalls are different. I, myself, have admittedly kept stumbling into them throughout my life, and my hiatus in posting on this blog is largely due to my struggles with relentlessly betrayed and tarnished faith.

 I will be talking about different kinds of faith, and it helps to distinguish between them.

There is faith in the existence of entities with some concrete (as opposed to abstract) component, be they people, gods, institutions and other social constructs, and inanimate objects. An explorer at sea may hold faith in the presence of land beyond the horizon; a good person living among hypocrites may hold faith in the existence of honest people, knowing himself to be one; and burglars may hold faith in the possessions of the house they are about to break into. Although I do entertain the possibility of different entities whose existence I have not confirmed, and enjoy exploring how these entities may fit into the world, I do not act on the basis of such entities’ existence.

Concepts – abstract entities – do not require this sort of faith. Anyone who may envision them has discovered them and is assured of their existence. This is, perhaps, the greatest strength of nonreligious morality: one may dismiss the notion of a timeless, immutable god, but one cannot deny the existence of timeless, immutable moral principles. One may only challenge them on moral grounds. There are those who will certainly claim that these principles are human inventions; but that would be like saying that the circle and the exponential function are human inventions, yet assuredly, the space defined by all points equidistant to a given point would still exist, and the decay of radioactive substances would still occur, in the absence of humans. We understand these concepts, yet we are not their creators – merely the creators of our own understanding, our own interpretation of them.

There are other kinds of faith concerning entities: faith in their actual and potential properties; faith in their actual and potential processes (either actions that these entities carry out or phenomena that they undergo). I have faith in certain potential properties and processes, provided that I am assured of the existence of the entities to whom they pertain, though I rely on evidence, rather than faith, to assess whether properties or processes of any given kind exist.

As with entities, properties and processes that have some concrete component require faith. I am happy to envision their possibility (and may thus discover them to exist) but  cannot act on their basis unless I know they exist. By contrast, as with abstract entities, I know that abstract processes and properties exist as soon as I confirm their logical consistency.

In short, I do not hold faith that some concrete entity exists, existed or will exist; that some concrete process happened, is happening or will happen; or that some entity or process had, has or will have certain properties. Rather, I hold faith in the potential for processes to occur, for entities to arise and for them to take on certain properties. This is what fundamentally distinguishes religious from secular faith – the former deals with actuality, whereas the latter addresses potential.

Morality, as I define it, is the organization of one’s own intent. In order for intent to arise, there must be an imagined situation – however concrete or abstract – towards whose realization the intent exists. Faith in potential situations, then, is faith that can drive the mind to bring about these situations. Whereas religious faith often assumes that supernatural entities will bring about such situations even without human intervention, secular morality assumes that the supernatural does not exist, and so, the only moral agents in the world are sentient creatures.

This has a tremendous implication: whereas religion may give comfort to believers in the form of great, protective deities, those who adhere to secular morality acknowledge no such deity, and believe we must fight in the name of our principles within a world that offers no supernatural safeguards. It is ultimately the responsibility of good people to bring about definitive good, and no divine hand is assumed to descend from the heavens to rescue our toils should we fail. Moreover, we do not have the comfort of a deity that can forgive our crimes; if we commit wrongs, we must settle them with those who were wronged, and should those people die before we can fulfill our duty to them, we must find a way to redeem ourselves against those similarly wronged. There is always the possibility – the extreme scenario – that we will simply be unable to redeem ourselves, particularly in the event that our own actions cause irreparable harm to our own moral reasoning and our ability to act on it. All this intensifies our desire to ensure that we are doing the right thing in all our actions, and therefore improves, through practice, our ability to pursue moral reasoning.

Faith in potential situations is rightly limited by our understanding of the world. Certain things – such as squaring the circle – simply cannot be done. Complexity theory can show other problems to be intractable using the currently available algorithms. In our physical existence, once we place ourselves into a given scenario, we may not be able to secure the desired outcome for it. If we had somehow found ourselves in Hiroshima on the 6th of August, 1945, an hour before the atomic bomb fell, no amount of preparation could have prevented our deaths. Likewise, we may place ourselves into a losing position during a fight, or find ourselves striving to keep a doomed business afloat, unaware of its impending collapse. Yet given the best of our knowledge, we have faith that success is attainable.

Faith is absolutely essential; without it, nothing would get done. We would not stride into the world to accomplish our plans, and would not come to build the means to verify their feasibility, were we not endowed with our faith to begin with. To engender the assumption that things cannot be done unless they have already been done is to forsake innovation on one’s part; and in a world littered with trinkets of past innovation, all demonstrating of the success of innovative thinking, this is a deeply false assumption to make.

If one begins with faith, rather than skepticism, in potential situations, one is able to examine all of them, both to assess their validity in different contexts (for instance, whether they can manifest in different worlds) and to determine their moral value. One can therefore understand far more than . Indeed, one can envision  and . .

A crucial aspect of religion is that there exists a potential situation, such as passage into the afterlife, that people can bring about or prevent through their moral actions. Hindus and Buddhists believe in moksha, the escape from the endless cycle of death and rebirth that defines worldly existence (samsara) in Hindu cosmology; they do not assume they will automatically attain moksha in a finite number of lives, and so they strive towards attaining it by doing good deeds and developing the right state of mind. The pagan Norsemen sought to die in battle and thus potentially arise in Valhalla, whereupon they would train ceaselessly in preparation for an apocalyptic war. Zoroastrians and Jews believe in an eventual Day of Judgement in which the worthy dead will be resurrected and live immortally. Christians and Muslims likewise believe in the Day of Judgement, as well as the judgement of individual souls upon death. Even ideological faiths, such as the Marxist and Fascist branches of Socialism, assume the possibility or the inevitability of some process that will lead to the triumph of the ideologies’ (pseudo)moral tenets throughout the world, and the judgement (in the practical rather than moral sense) of both collaborators and reactionaries. Ultimately, in these narratives, morality itself (or its ideological proxy) has an impact on the world, either through its manifestation as concrete pursuits (such as the cataclysmic battle against evil) or by its own merit, irrespective of such pursuits (as in the judgement of souls about to enter an afterlife). Without such overarching moral processes, one has no reason to interact with the supernatural other than for the satisfaction of mundane desires, be they the quelling of supernatural threats through ritual sacrifice or the provision of a good harvest through prayer.

[work in progress]

As an example, my own faith lies chiefly in potential processes, specifically in my ability to gain an accurate understanding of right and wrong, universally, and to follow it unflinchingly; to support good in all its forms, wherever it manifests, and to oppose evil in all its forms, wherever it manifests. Though I do not believe in any afterlife, I do believe the present life, by serving as a manifestation of abstract ideals, is rendered sacred, and so I carry out judgements upon myself by reasoning about my actions (past, present or future), and am open to the fair-minded, good-intentioned judgement of others.

I have tremendous faith that good can manifest ubiquitously in the world, and that the good may bring about the complete dissolution of evil; that, while such an outcome is far from certain, it is available for the virtuous to pursue. I further believe that I can aid this process by cultivating good and opposing evil within and by way of my every action; that I can build virtue within myself and manifestations of good – be they acts of compassion, inspiration, violence against evil or any other noble pursuit – outside of myself, while refusing to pursue whatever actions might contribute to the manifold causes of evil. Rather than take the consequentialist belief that “the end justifies the means”, I recognize that every means is an end in and of itself, to be judged with the same determination as the overarching goal it leads to, and so I refrain from evil entirely.

Believing in the absolute victory of good, I therefore have faith that good people can, with adequate knowledge and the wisdom to apply it, bring about the definitive triumph of good. This does, in principle, assume that there are enough good people in the world to do this – and so it clashes with my natural skepticism. It also assumes that populations of good people can self-perpetuate, which may be an incorrect assumption in the event that certain feminine traits that drive women to pursue evil, such as hypergamy, are ubiquitous among women. However, it would not be far-fetched to assume that the top 2% of the population in regrards to moral ability, be they male or female, enjoy either the absence of inborn evil desires or the capacity to transcend these desires. This top 2%, if it became organized as a community, would hopefully be able to bring the world out of its corrupt state. This is not something that can be done by coercing the immoral (coercion is evil, as I will set out to prove) or showing to the amoral that (manipulation is evil, as I will also set out to prove), but by mutually strengthening those who are moral, providing them with aid in their pursuit of justice, kindness, understanding and devotion.

Moral reasoning is an essential part of this process; indeed, without possessing moral reasoning, one can never ascertain one’s goal. The unrestrained pursuit of moral enquiry is thus essential for the development of authentic moral goals.

[work in progress]

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