Why believing precedes knowing…and EVERYONE has a faith.

Posted on December 2, 2012 By

“Anybody who has seriously been engaged in scientific work of any kind realizes that over the entrance to the gates of the temple of science are written the words: Ye must have faith. It is a quality which the scientist cannot dispense with… Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. That is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are a part of nature and therefore a part of the very mystery that we are trying to solve.”

–Max Planck, the Nobel Prize winning physicist who founded quantum theory, and who is therefore one of the most important physicists of all time.


Being an atheist must be truly frustrating. Struggling to talk reason into all of the obstinate faith-heads, who stubbornly insist on holding beliefs that are not solely the result of scientific inquiry, is surely exhausting. But the atheist who is thus frustrated would be well advised to just give up trying to talk sense into such people…because he is himself a faith-head.

Many atheists would have you believe that they hold no beliefs which are not the product of scientific inquiry. But, unfortunately for atheists who believe this, such a state of affairs is actually impossible. The person who disbelieves in God can only do so from the vantage point of some other belief which precedes and therefore underlies scientific inquiry…not from the vantage point of a “skeptical“ lack of any belief.

It is impossible to be a complete “skeptic” since to be skeptical of all beliefs would entail having no beliefs.

Timothy Keller deftly points out that even the most hardened “skeptic” has a faith, in The Reason for God:

“But even as believers should learn to look for reasons behind their faith, skeptics must learn to look for a type of faith hidden within their reasoning. All doubts, however skeptical and cynical they may seem, are really a set of alternate beliefs. You cannot doubt Belief A except from a position of faith in Belief B. For example, if you doubt Christianity because, ‘There can’t be just one true religion,’ you must recognize that this statement is itself an act of faith. No one can prove it empirically, and it is not a universal truth that everyone accepts. If you went to the Middle East and said, ‘There can’t be just one true religion,’ nearly everyone would say, ‘Why not?’ The reason you doubt Christianity’s Belief A is because you hold unprovable Belief B. Every doubt, therefore is based on a leap of faith.”

Atheists are “skeptical” of Christianity (etc.), but are very rarely skeptical of the belief system that is alternately referred to as materialism or naturalism. This belief system says that the material world is all that exists and that therefore all natural phenomena will eventually be explainable in materialistic terms. The eminent philosopher of science Karl Popper contemptuously refers to this belief as “promissory materialism,” since it promises to eventually explain everything (including consciousness, the origin of life, the origin of the universe, etc.) in material terms.

And the philosopher of science Michael Polanyi (who was also an Oxford University chemist, elected to the Royal Society) demonstrates why it is necessary to first believe before one can know. In other words, belief precedes knowing. Mark T. Mitchell discusses Polanyi’s philosophical insights in his article The False Dilemma of Modernity:

“…the rationalist, who refuses to begin with any commitment or faith and instead seeks to proceed on the basis of reason alone, actually cannot avoid beginning with faith. At the simplest level, he necessarily begins with a faith in his rational faculties. Furthermore, as Polanyi argues, all thinking persons necessarily depend on a tacit commitment to a particular tradition, which includes one’s language and one’s culture, and even to articulate a rejection of one’s tradition requires a dependence on resources provided by that tradition.”

“Since all knowing rests on a fiduciary framework, belief, as we have seen, precedes knowing. [Fiduciary is defined as ‘involving trust’] But belief requires an object, and this role is filled by tradition operating within a community committed to its perpetuation. For example, at its most basic, language requires belief. When a child learns a language, he believes that the language-speakers who surround him are not uttering gibberish. The acquisition of skills, as we have seen, requires submission to a master even though the novice does not yet comprehend the meaning of that which he is practicing. Science is no different, for the aspiring scientist must submit himself to the authority of a scientist, and such submission requires belief. ‘Thus,’ in Polanyi’s words, ‘to accord validity to science—or to any other of the great domains of the mind—is to express a faith which can be upheld only within a community. We realize here the connection between Science, Faith and Society.’ The connection is that science or any other area of knowing, depends on a fiduciary framework in which belief necessarily precedes all knowing. This belief, though, cannot exist apart from a community of believers who sustain the tradition by passing it to the next generation through a process of apprenticeship.”

Because we are so accustomed to taking our rational faculties for granted, the idea that we rely on a faith in these faculties in order to participate in activities such as science may seem strange to many in modern day society. But, as Albert Einstein famously said, “The most unintelligible thing about the universe is that it is intelligible at all.”

Because we are so accustomed to taking our rational faculties for granted, the idea that we rely on a faith in these faculties in order to participate in activities such as science may seem strange to many in modern day society. But, as Albert Einstein famously said, “The most unintelligible thing about the universe is that it is intelligible at all.”

And unless one has spent some time studying various philosophical and cultural traditions, one may fail to realize that there have been, and continue to be, many such traditions which reject the belief that our rational faculties are reliable, and therefore that the universe can be intelligible to humans. The most up-to-date example would be the philosophical stance known as “postmodernism”. As this article mentions:

“In the postmodern understanding, interpretation is everything; reality only comes into being through our interpretations of what the world means to us individually. Postmodernism relies on concrete experience over abstract principles, knowing always that the outcome of one’s own experience will necessarily be fallible and relative, rather than certain and universal.”

Postmodernism is ‘post’ because it is denies the existence of any ultimate principles, and it lacks the optimism of there being a scientific, philosophical, or religious truth which will explain everything for everybody – a characteristic of the so-called ‘modern’ mind.”

One is compelled to ask: How could scientific progress ever occur in an intellectual climate which lacks belief in such a thing as scientific truth? How could scientific progress occur among a group of people who don’t believe human rational faculties are reliable because there is no objective world for our rational faculties to study?

In short, scientific knowledge can only be constructed upon an adequate framework of underlying belief. The concept of scientists advancing science without a suitable underlying belief framework, upon which to build, is as absurd as the concept of a child advancing his/her understanding of the world without a language structure (as Polanyi alludes to above).

Here, the important question is which belief framework fits best with reality, and therefore, best allows for scientific progress. The physicist, philosopher of science (and Catholic priest) Stanley Jaki demonstrated that belief frameworks other than Christianity failed to allow for the rapid growth of science. This article, titled The Origin of Science details Jaki’s insights:

“Modern experimental science was rendered possible, Jaki has shown, as a result of the Christian philosophical atmosphere of the Middle Ages. Although a talent for science was certainly present in the ancient world (for example in the design and construction of the Egyptian pyramids), nevertheless the philosophical and psychological climate was hostile to a self-sustaining scientific process. Thus science suffered still-births in the cultures of ancient China, India, Egypt and Babylonia. It also failed to come to fruition among the Maya, Incas and Aztecs of the Americas. Even though ancient Greece came closer to achieving a continuous scientific enterprise than any other ancient culture, science was not born there either. Science did not come to birth among the medieval Muslim heirs to Aristotle.”

“….The psychological climate of such ancient cultures, with their belief that the universe was infinite and time an endless repetition of historical cycles, was often either hopelessness or complacency (hardly what is needed to spur and sustain scientific progress); and in either case there was a failure to arrive at a belief in the existence of God the Creator and of creation itself as therefore rational and intelligible. Thus their inability to produce a self-sustaining scientific enterprise.”

In short, science was not rendered possible until the Christian belief in a rationally intelligible universe (anchored in a rational and intelligent God) provided a belief framework upon which science could develop.

And, as I demonstrate in Why Atheism Is Self-Defeating, by rejecting God, the materialist/naturalist belief system fails to provide an adequate belief framework upon which to anchor the reliability of any human beliefs. An excerpt from that essay:

The renowned philosopher of neuroscience Patricia Churchland, despite being a staunch naturalist, admits to this problem with naturalism in her article Epistemology in the Age of Neuroscience:

“The principal chore of nervous systems is to get the body parts where they should be in order that the organism may survive. . . Improvements in sensorimotor control confer an evolutionary advantage: a fancier style of representing [the world] is advantageous so long as it . . . enhances the organism’s chances for survival. Truth, whatever that is, definitely takes the hindmost.”

Prominent atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel admits to the same in his book Mind and Cosmos, and devotes much of the rest of the book trying to wriggle free from theism. He writes:

“Evolutionary naturalism implies that we shouldn’t take any of our convictions seriously, including the scientific world picture on which evolutionary naturalism itself depends.”

Naturalism, simply put, leaves us no reason whatsoever to think that any of our beliefs are reliable…such as a belief in naturalism. Please recall that naturalism insists that the evolutionary mechanism of natural selection is mindless and random.  Also recall that natural selection selects for survivability, not for truth. And, if one stops to think, there is no reason to think that certain false beliefs could not provide just as much survival value as a corresponding true belief. For example, the belief that eating a particular plant should be avoided because doing so would cause one to turn into a werewolf provides just as much survival value as the belief that eating that plant should be avoided because doing so puts poison into one’s body.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, atheist reasoning often deceives through the clever application of terminology. Belief in God (theism) is labelled a “religious,” whereas belief in naturalism/materialism is labelled “scientific.” But both theism and naturalism/materialism are belief systems that precede and underly science, and are therefore meta-scientific.

In modern “secular” society, however, it is commonly accepted that people who go to church (or mosque, etc.) and believe in God are “religious”, whereas people who are atheist (or at least don’t participate in the worship of God) are “non-religious” or “secular.” This viewpoint, however prevalent in our culture, is nothing but a cultural artifact without any intrinsic meaning. In my essay titled Doesn’t Religion Cause Killing?, I cite religious scholar William T. Cavanaugh in his book The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict. Although he writes in the context of discussing “religious” violence, his comments are relevant to the matter at hand:

“What would be necessary to prove the claim that religion has caused more violence than any other institutional force over the course of human history? One would first need a concept of religion that would be at least theoretically separable from other institutional forces over the course of human history. …The problem is that there was no category of religion separable from such political institutions until the modern era, and then it was primarily in the West. What meaning could we give to either the claim that Roman religion is to blame for the imperialist violence of ancient Rome, or the claim that it is Roman politics and not Roman religion that is to blame? Either claim would be nonsensical, because there was no neat division between religion and politics.”

“It is not simply that religion and politics were jumbled together until the modern West got them properly sorted out. As Wilfred Cantwell Smith showed in his landmark book, The Meaning and End of Religion, religion as a discrete category of human activity separable from culture, politics, and other areas of life is an invention of the modern West.”

“…The first conclusion is that there is no trans-historical or trans-cultural concept of religion. Religion has a history, and what counts as religion and what does not in any given context depends on different configurations of power and authority. The second conclusion is that the attempt to say that there is a trans-historical and trans-cultural concept of religion that is separable from secular phenomena is itself part of a particular configuration of power, that of the modern, liberal nation-state as it is developed in the West.”

Indeed, scholars have been entirely unable to reach an agreed upon definition of “religion,” as this article discusses. The modern cultural context which associates theism with “religion,” but materialism/naturalism with “science,” serves to persuade many that theism is faith-based, whereas materialism/naturalism is scientifically and empirically based. But this cultural context, again, is devoid of any intrinsic meaning since both worldviews are meta-scientific in nature. Materialism/naturalism is no more or less of a “faith-based religion” than theism.

  1. RATIONAL DUDE says:

    I think that explaining the Tripartite Theory of Knowledge would have been a beautiful addition!

    Belief precedes knowing because knowledge is Justified True Belief!
    It is impossible to know something unless you believe in it (belief is logically prior to knowledge) for that reason.

  2. J.T. Bridges says:

    JTB is only one theory of knowledge. If you add that, then you better be ready to answer Gettier objections as well.

    • Scott Youngren says:


      The fact that there are other theories of knowledge is of no relevance whatsover. Since the theme of this website is the question of God’s existence, the question is this: Can you construct a coherent atheistic theory of reason? Science and philosophy are grounded in reason, but in what is reason grounded? Theism says that reason is grounded in the mind of God. This view is strongly supported by, and dovetails neatly with, the findings of modern physics (as I demonstrate God is Real: Why Modern Physics Has Discredited Atheism), the findings of modern cosmology and astrophysics (as I demonstrate in Is There A God?: What is the Chance That Our World is the Result of Chance?), and the findings of origin-of-life studies, (as I demonstrate in How Atheism Relies on “Special Pleading.”).

      Atheism cannot provide a coherent ontological grounding for reason, as I discuss in Why Atheism is Self-Defeating. Do you have faith in your rational faculties? If so, in what is this faith grounded? In what is your reason grounded? If not, why bother even commenting on this topic…or any other topic. In other words, if we don’t have any reason to trust our reason, why even bother trying to reason?

      You can discuss theories of knowledge and reason until you are blue in the face, but you must provide some sort ontological grounding for reason and knowledge.


    • RATIONALDUDE says:

      Yes, there are other theories of knowledge.
      (I’ve had a chance to read Gettier’s objections, but they don’t stick to me; it seems like one of us has overlooked something.)
      The fact is, regardless of what knowledge is, one cannot know something which they do not believe in. You cannot know that unicorns exist unless you believe in their existence. You cannot know that apples exist without also believing in apples.

      • Symph says:

        I totally disagree, for I do not believe in apples, I merely have some in my fridge and eat them from time to time. Your theories are redonkulous, and so is my humorous sarcasm.

        • RATIONAL DUDE says:

          Am I allowed to ask what makes my preferred theory of knowledge ridiculous?
          Because I still believe that Gettier’s counter-examples to the classical tripartite theory are based on faulty definitions of “Justified True Belief”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *