Previously, I proposed that the nature of certain kinds of belief (such as religious belief) is the introduction of an element of fantasy. I then asked, ‘does the introduction of this element render religious belief incoherent?”

My short answer was ‘yes’. Now a discussion of what I think that answer means!

Faith uses the element of imagination, of human fantasy, in part to either plug gaps in our understanding or to assert that the path of faith will eventually lead to the bridging of that gap. As the old Charles Tindley gospel song says, ‘We’ll understand it better by and by.” There is definitely a lack of present coherence, with (at best) a promise of future coherence. In the meantime, not only do religious belief systems fail to provide all the answers desired, we have to acknowledge that the mental models (‘fantasies’) proposed by believers to plug the gaps in our understanding are always inadequate in some way.

So, I conclude that in this sense religious belief fails to cohere with the rest of our human experience: the introduction of fantasy on the part of the believer never succeeds in making faith externally coherent, that is, coherent with reality. Two possible objections or qualifications immediately come to mind, however: one from the Christian, and one from a philosopher of science.

The Christian would doubtless respond that this incoherence is a product of human frailty, and one acknowledged in the scripture and traditions of her faith. She would point to Yahweh’s dialogue with Job, and such statements as:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts: nor your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are exalted above the earth, so are my ways exalted above your ways, and my thoughts above your thoughts. (Isa. 55:8-9)

The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord. (Prov. 16:33)

For we know in part: and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But, when I became a man, I put away the things of a child. We see now through a glass in a dark manner: but then face to face. Now I know in part: but then I shall know even as I am known. (I Cor. 13: 9-12) *

The philosopher of science, on the other hand, might demur that the observation of external incoherence applies to models of all sorts, not just those held on faith.

In his remarkable book Cosmogenesis: The Growth of Order in the Universe, the astronomer David Layzer observes that there are ‘four great divisions of the natural sciences: quantum physics, cosmology, biology and macroscopic physics.” All of them, he writes, have unresolved problems within their domains. He goes on to note, however that “another kind of incompleteness in natural science’s picture of the world has received less attention: the four great pieces of the picture don’t quite fit together. Each piece, although still incomplete, is remarkably coherent. Each piece is connected to the other pieces. But the connections aren’t smooth. There are deep unresolved conflicts between quantum physics and macroscopic physics, between macroscopic physics and cosmology, and between the physical sciences and biology.”

So, from this standpoint the acknowledgement of external incoherence, or (if you like) incoherence between domains is neither inconsistent with Christian tradition nor an argument for or against Christianity itself.

Still, a gnawing doubt remains. What about the role of human fantasy in maintaining the internal coherence of belief systems in general, and in maintaining an individual’s faith in particular? That will be the topic of my next post!

*The skeptic is not going to be that impressed by these references: the acknowledgement of human frailty does not demonstrate either the inspiration of scripture or the correctness of the Christian faith.


Anonymous said...

Hi Scott, I was curious to see what you had to say about this. In short it looks like the fantasy/faith/religion/god of the incompleteness/incoherence/gaps to me.

Scott Hatfield . . . said...

In and of itself, it's not so much a defense of 'god of the gaps' theology as a rumination on human limitation.

When I have time, I will post about internal coherence, which is a criticism more difficult to deflect. I'm just overwhelmed in my personal life right now, though.

Anonymous said...

Hi Scott,
after a long time I just realize that you replied to my comment, thanks.
In any case, you should notice that my comment was meaning to be a kind protest because, rumination or not, I thought you were falling in the 'god of the gaps' trap, which, I think we both agree, is a bad argument. Maybe this question could inspire some of your posts: Can anybody be a theist without the 'god of the gaps' argument?
You know my answer. I'll come back occasionally to see what you have to say.