Disambiguating Faith: Faith In The Sub-, Pre-, Or Un-conscious

Disambiguating Faith: Faith In The Sub-, Pre-, Or Un-conscious August 25, 2009

In previous posts (which you will not need to have read to understand this one, but which I recommend you catch up on if you have the time now or later), Adam has tried to argue that irrational ways of thinking may be indispensable means of getting at truth.  In response, I have tried to discern the ways that various seemingly irrational processes of reaching truths are effective means of arriving at justified truth only when rationally controlled.  I have argued that pursuing highly improbable hypotheses is rational when more likely ones have been exhausted.  I have argued that we can make guesses only as long as we have rational means of assessing them and we properly proportion our amount of belief strictly to our amount of evidence.  I have argued that speculatively brainstorming imaginative, prima facie implausible ideas is fine too as long as we do not rigidly commit to those ideas beyond evidence against them or by ignoring such evidence.  I have argued that we may speculatively indulge counter-intuitive paradigms or those which start from false premises or have what we see as other glaring flaws because sometimes those paths lead to truths otherwise inaccessible via only the most rational or sensible routes.

I have also argued that it does not matter whether our ideas start as wild guesses, come to us via flawed systems, or impress themselves upon us through a subconscious reasoning process that we are not even aware of before the ideas just burst into our minds with a feeling of sudden epiphany.  All that matters is not how we generate the ideas, however irrationally, but how we justify them. Our means of justification must be rational or we may not justifiably hold those ideas to be true.   In what follows Adam wants to insist there is still something important about irrational processes themselves in generating these ideas, regardless of how we proceed to confirm them:

Could the irrational process itself and not the way we interpret it to achieve truth be a form of something non-rational?  One could say there is a power behind the process, but to say this is to accept that this power causes rational thinking, and since thinking is rational , this power would indeed be rational.  What I am asking instead is could this irrational idea, process, or event itself be a product of something “non-rational”.  For a minute let us call this non rational process “faith”.  It’s possible then when this process leads to truth it is faith, and when it is incorrect the process is indeed our human nature twisting what is rational or irrational to appear as faith.

With this explanation faith can work as an irrational process leading to rational truth, while remaining innocent of those who turn to hate, civil war, genocide, etc… to prove it as a correct process.  I am suggesting that if one of the aforementioned processes seems irrational when leading to the truth, explaining it later in rational terms does not make the event itself rational.  Perhaps we are only using rational speech to interpret what “came out of nowhere”, an irrational process leading to a rational truth.

You are very correct that faith is dangerous, especially if we accept it as true under any rational circumstances where it can be proven incorrect or even inhumane.  However is it still possible that not faith, but the irrational process itself, whatever we may call it, is still irrational when leading to a rational truth, because the process itself is outside of what a rational thinking mind could possibly discover.  I don’t mean to suggest it can only be a thought, perhaps it is something an artist draws without rationally thinking about it, that leads to some mathematical truth about art.  Clearly the argument here is that this is a form of creativity, and still a rational process formed by the left brain.  In fact it may have been pure luck that connects the act of creativity with a rational truth.

But must all completely irrational processes be ruled as “rational guesses”, or are some actually beyond what rationality can acheive and as previously suggested, be part of the rational decision to go the “non-rational” route to acheive truth.  It would fit with problems created by faith to define faith as an irrational process guarded even in extreme contradiction.  Under the same terms it would not be fair to define the process leading to truth “faith” creates as a “rational guess” when it is indeed irrational. Especially not on the basis that some may take every event similar to faith as an absolute truth.

In fact it is more beneficial to the point I am making not to call the irrational process faith, but simply something that is part of the “non-rational”.  This way the process can be outside of rationality, without being something that is a socialized process attached to many positive and negative implications.  Again I want to avoid the point as to what power causes thinking.  The core question would be…If a thought or process used to achieve truth derives from one of the unusual methods you describe, is it possible that the event of it occurring is an irrational process, even though we can later explain it in rational terms?

I think you are groping at several exceptional distinct but interrelated insights here.  I hope I do justice to them.  First, I think I hear you disputing my account of sub-, pre-, and unconscious forms of  idea generation as being actually “rational.”  Let’s find the commonality between epiphanies and artistic inspiration.  I love the ancient way of describing the process of artistic creation in terms of receiving ideas from muses rather than generating them from within themselves.  (Though, of course, a dangerous cousin of this is the claim to divine revelation of major religions, so it’s not an entirely great metaphor.)  What I like about the metaphor of the muses is that it places  emphasis on the lack of conscious control the artist experiences.  In many ways when we create art and when we reason we are as much recognizing something already within us as we are actively creating.  The words or notes or brush strokes pour out of us in a way that does not follow a rationally developed plan.  Even if we rationally plan things out, reason in many ways guides us.  We do not feel free to create just whatever or think just whatever but rather we express ideas that present themselves to us from within.

So, if this process of generating the ideas that consciousness will then embrace and express in art or speech as its own is itself a process that happens independent of discursive reasoning might it not be “non-rational?”   Especially if it is physiologically coming primarily from the more creative, rather than the more logical, side of the brain.

I would still argue that this is a rational process because the connections that it generates are ones that make sense to us.  As you feel a song flow out of you it conforms to rational structures.  Consciously you are not thinking about what these structures are necessarily but they make sense to you and you approve of them because they feel right to you and that feeling is not merely arbitrary but quite frequently is rationally explicable.  When you write a story, you are piecing together connections between aspects of your experience in which others will find numerous rational connections that you didn’t even fully (or at all!) consciously grasp as being there.  For those structures to be there, I do not think the process that puts them there can be entirely irrational.  I think there are rational processes going on deep within our mind which cannot articulate themselves but which form the basis of what we can articulate.  When I try to make conscious the ideas within me, I have to reach to ideas that are there are on the tip of my mind and as it were translate them into language so I can think them explicitly.  But they are already there.  We just have trouble solidifying them, remembering them, and consciously exploring them without words but they are already there I think in some form or else our words would have nothing to solidify, remember, or explore.

So, I think that ideas are present and idea processing is present on a prelinguistic level.  I think of artists as conveying their ideas in different symbolic languages.  I think that when Bob Dylan wants to communicate an idea it comes out in a series of symbols.  To ask what they “really” mean in discrete, discursive technical terms is to completely misunderstand him.  His symbols and metaphors directly translate that prelinguistic idea for him.  It is not like the prelinguistic idea gets translated into normal English sentences and then he seeks symbols and metaphors to fancy up those ordinary ideas.  Instead those prelinguistic ideas that would come out in banal ordinary sentences in us form complex symbolic patterns when they come out of him when he is writing.  When creating (and maybe even more often) the prelinguistic ideas form in the ways they come out in the art.  The same goes for other artists.  It is possible that they sketch out plans in normal, non symbolic terms but I imagine it’s rare.  Very few artists I imagine work out careful philosophical distinctions and then try to figure out what they’d look like in paint or sound like from a guitar or be evoked through symbols and metaphors.

But, nonetheless, I think that artists are like philosophers and scientists and everyday speakers in that their ideas get rationally structured for them deep below the conscious level.  The difference is that when I look in and try to explain my inchoate prelinguistic ideas and start sifting them into rigidly distinguished conceptual boxes that can admit (hopefully) of a rationally consistent ordering.  I am a philosopher, I want to analyze the rational structures which themselves connect and order the ideas that come to me.  The artist sees comparable rational structures but presents them whole with all the concepts interconnecting and undistinguished the way they are in the real world.

So, I experience the world, my subconscious mental processors sift the experience and seek connections and then when I investigate my intuitions I develop intricate conceptual categories for distinguishing all the data that the mental processor gives me.  Then I speak in a discursive, highly conceptual, logically ordered language based on the ways I have organized my information and experience.  The artist takes all of her experiences and her mental processor sifts combinations of experiences for parallels.  This one is like that one, that one evokes that other one, etc.  When she goes starts pulling out her ideas she represents the world not by distinguishing sets of concepts explicitly but rather by creating artificial structures which parallel the structures of her original experience.  So, rather than breaking her experience into concepts that order it logically, she translates her experience into sounds, colors, symbols, metaphors, patterns, etc. through which she can externally recreate through an outward medium the basic structures she experienced in the world.

The artist finds that a certain mood and a certain color or combination of notes struck her comparably within.  Then she finds another emotion which related ot that mood and another corresponding color or note combination.  Then she structures the two colors together or the two note combinations together and conveys the structural connection between the mood and the emotion that went with the two colors or the two note combinations.  She may do this on a conscious level sometimes if she is in the habit of also conceptually ordering her experiences and is reflective and conceptual about how her artistic elements function to do what they do.  But often, and probably usually, the rational processing of structures happens subconsciously.  But I think it’s still rational, comparable to the way it would be rational were she a cerebral artist who first philosophizes about structures like I do but then figures out how to artistically represent them instead of how to present them with the technical precision with which she has thought about them.

I think, in short, because what we get from these subconscious generators of epiphanies and artistic inspiration is capable of so much detailed rational analysis, I think that our minds are rationally structuring them.  They do it in non-discursive, non-conscious ways.  The mind sifts and orders without words.  This is hard for us to understand because we are only aware of ourselves on the conscious level and so only think of reasoning in terms of how it uses conscious words, but it is going on throughout our brains.

I grant you that in consciousness our ideas are different than in their pre-conscious forms.  But I wouldn’t call the pre-conscious irrational but instead an alternate, non-discursive form of rationality.  I speculate that faith beliefs feel like they make sense to people because on this pre-conscious level their minds are sorting ideas and emotions and reconciling them and finding structural associations that “make sense” the way that artistic ones do—even if they wind up proving inadequate when thought out conceptually (like a resonant story might if scrutinized in concepts).

I think that deep social and psychological associations are made between faith symbols and other important concepts and words.  I think that therefore, people feel like there is a structure that which makes genuine sense because emotionally they feel its structural, partly emotional logic.   Often when they try to translate this subconscious sense of the symbolic structure by which they interpret the world into clear and distinct concepts with logical consistency they quickly run into all the patently obvious contradictions with their modern knowledge of the world.  So the incentive is to find symbolic, metaphoric, and analogical ways of communicating this subconsciously compelling sense of the world.

And because they are still on some level conceptual thinkers, they try their best to translate those symbols into literal terms or even to treat the symbols as literal themselves.  And wherever problems occur and these tasks off translation prove inadequate, they retreat back into symbolic talk and equivocations which can express this subconsciously felt structure.  So expressing one’s faith means speaking in a mythology, a network of symbols that communicate the structures you see the world in non-discursively and sometimes in flat out contradiction of your abstract, discursive ways of seeing the world.  With this in mind, I think we can make sense of the phenomenon about which Richard Dawkins complains, whereby preachers oscillate liberally and indifferently between their symbolic religious language and their literal claims about the world.  Whereas Dawkins, a scientist and a rationalist, wants clear demarcations between one’s literal and one’s figurative expressions, the religious thinker happily glides between the two based on which one expresses the subconsciously structured view of the world better at the moment,willingness to muddle myth with fact indistinguishably with no concern for confusing the parishioners:

“Do you go to church? You’ve heard sermons?” [Dawkins] asks. “The vicar will talk absolutely straight about something like Adam and Eve. But then if you stopped him on his way out of church and you said, ‘Vicar, you don’t actually believe in Adam and Eve, do you?’ and he would say, ‘Of course I don’t believe in Adam and Eve’. And I would say, ‘Well why don’t you say so in the sermon? Because plenty of people in your congregation won’t have realised that and I think that’s a very serious point’.”

One gets the impression that he is in an almost permanent state of dumbfoundedness at humankind’s ability to hold two contradicting ideas in its head: “It’s almost as though they [vicars] don’t really see the distinction between actually what’s true and what is only true in a metaphorical or mythological sense. It’s as though they don’t really care about the difference. I think that’s it! They don’t really care about the difference!”

And does this fuzzy-headedness mystify him? “Yes, it does. And they will say things like, ‘Well it’s obviously not true but who cares in what’s true?’ And they’re not really interested in what’s true, they’re interested in what feels right or what feels good or what’s moral or, um … if I may put it this way, what feels to be true: ‘There’s a deeper truth than mere scientific truth’ and that sort of thing. ‘There are spiritual truths that transcend scientific truths and which are so much more valuable and humane’.” And what goes through Dawkins’ head when he’s listening to these kinds of opinions? “Well! A kind of intense irritation! Because I don’t mind people talking about mythological truth but I do mind them muddling it up. There is such a thing as scientific truth and I think it matters, and if you don’t think it matters then I get annoyed.”

I share Dawkins’s concern that the muddling of what is myth with what is literal is dangerous.  I think people’s mythically represented, emotionally satisfying subconscious logic needs to be subjected to rigorous conceptual challenge and readjustment so that those emotionally logical but cognitively incoherent ways of religiously thinking do not disrupt people’s abilities to discursively reason about science, politics, morality, etc.  There is nothing wrong with viscerally connecting with art in ways that follow emotionally logical structures but not cognitively logical ones.  But those visceral associations cannot lead us to ideas that contradict rational concepts and moral thinking.  We need to keep a firm grip on when art is helping us engage our emotional logic and when we are thinking literally.  Religion, I’m afraid, shamelessly confuses people on precisely this score. And faith is the name for the decision to accept myth over fact because it just feels so right subconsciously.  And that’s why faith is the key irrational component of religious thinking.  It’s the part which volitionally commits on principle to subordinating reason to myth wherever they conflict.

Your Thoughts?


For more on faith, read any or all posts in my “Disambiguating Faith” series (listed below) which strike you as interesting or whose titles indicate they might answer your own questions, concerns, or objections having read the post above.  It is unnecessary to read all the posts below to understand any given one. They are written to each stand on their own but also contribute to a long sustained argument if read all together.

Faith in a Comprehensive Nutshell


How Faith Poisons Religion


What About The Good Things People Call “Faith”? (Or “Why I Take Such A Strong Semantic Stand Against The Word Faith”)


How Religious Beliefs Become Specifically *Faith* Beliefs


Faith There’s A God vs. Faith In God

Trustworthiness, Loyalty, And Honesty

Faith As Loyally Trusting Those Insufficiently Proven To Be Trustworthy

Faith As Tradition

Blind Faith: How Faith Traditions Turn Trust Without Warrant Into A Test Of Loyalty

Faith As Tradition’s Advocate And Enforcer, Which Actively Opposes Merely Provisional Forms Of Trust

The Threatening Abomination Of The Faithless

Rational Beliefs, Rational Actions, And When It Is Rational To Act On What You Don’t Think Is True

Faith As Guessing

Are True Gut Feelings And Epiphanies Beliefs Justified By Faith?

Faith Is Neither Brainstorming, Hypothesizing, Nor Simply Reasoning Counter-Intuitively

Faith In The Sub-, Pre-, Or Un-conscious

Can Rationality Overcome Faith?

Faith As A Form Of Rationalization Unique To Religion

Faith As Deliberate Commitment To Rationalization

Heart Over Reason

Faith As Corruption Of Children’s Intellectual Judgment

Faith As Subjectivity Which Claims Objectivity

Faith Is Preconditioned By Doubt, But Precludes Serious Doubting

Soul Searching With Clergy Guy

Faith As Admirable Infinite Commitment For Finite Reasons

Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice

How A Lack Of Belief In God May Differ From Various Kinds Of Beliefs That Gods Do Not Exist

Why Faith Is Unethical (Or “In Defense Of The Ethical Obligation To Always Proportion Belief To Evidence”

Not All Beliefs Held Without Certainty Are Faith Beliefs

Defending My Definition Of Faith As “Belief Or Trust Beyond Rational Warrant”

Implicit Faith

Agnostics Or Apistics?

The Evidence-Impervious Agnostic Theists

Faith Which Exploits Infinitesimal Probabilities As Openings For Strong Affirmations

Why You Cannot Prove Inductive Reasoning Is Faith-Based Reasoning But Instead Only Assert That By Faith

How Just Opposing Faith, In Principle, Means You Actually Don’t Have Faith, In Practice

Naturalism, Materialism, Empiricism, And Wrong, Weak, And Unsupported Beliefs Are All Not Necessarily Faith Positions

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