I’ve been reading Don Quijote (en castellano; hyperlinked books are the versions I’ve read) for about two years now. Pretty good, considering that it’s the first book outside the Book of Mormon that I’ve read in Spanish (since I’ve started it I’ve read some others).
A dominant theme of Cervantes’ masterpiece is the disconnect between idealism and realism. Don Quijote believes completely in his fantasy, to the point of facilitating others’ willfull deception of him. The hidalgo is not loyal to reality, he’s only loyal to his notion of it, whether or not they are consistent with his sensuous, phenomenal experience. Because of this, he ends up disillusioned and even somewhat embittered–but whose fault is it? It raises an interesting question, phrased by Roger Waters as the choice between “a walk-on part in the war [and] a lead role in a cage.”
Don Quijote is sincere in his efforts, but he is fundamentally incorrect, both in his approach to the world and his interpretation of it. His will to believe in knight-errantry leads him into situations quite as ridiculous as the metaphysical acrobatics in which those who believe in doubt engage.
The trick is to be both sincere and correct. The basis of approaching Truth is to approach it without preconceptions (impossible) and with complete willingness to accept the ramifications (unlikely).
Do you begin from what you know (risking starting from the conclusion) or do you reduce completely in the Cartesian sense (risking abandonment on the lone rocky outcropping of skepticism)? How do you ensure that your mental framework(s) of belief is (are) both logically self-consistent and externally consistent? Is that possible in a pluralistic world?
Personally, I’m something of a fideist when it comes down to it. I’m not antirational–reason can validate your experience and guide your path, but it is not the basis of it. There are always certain facets of your existence which you know, deep down inside, to be true; experiences you’ve had which have come to define your essence. It is possible to radically reinterpret those experiences, but not to discard them without be inauthentic to yourself.
All this brings me to my next point: David Hume and skepticism. Hume masterfully asserted (among other things) the complete unreliability of eyewitness accounts which narrate fantastic stories and religious miracles. The fatal flaw in his assumptions (and he would have been a good engineer; he always states them) is that he always assumes that you yourself, the rational being to whom Hume appeals, have had the same or substantially similar phenomenal existence that he has had. I’m not talking here about the validity of Biblical or other ancient miracles, I’m not talking about their consistency with holy writ or each other or what we perceive the nature and will of God to be; I’m talking about personal, subjective, experiential perception, yours and mine. Differences in subjective perception aside, have you ever experienced something which you consider quite unlikely to be explained by rational, reductivist means? I know that I certainly have, and although I believe that God works within physical processes and laws (regardless to our empirical understanding thereof), I know that he often effects circumstances we would recognize as frankly preternatural if we weren’t continually trying to apply post-Enlightenment reason to break them down into mechanistic terms (with mixed results). Oftentimes we can succeed in identifying the physical devices God uses, but fail to examine motivations; similarly, we attribute too much to chance and too little to Providential benevolence.
Doubt is a temporary state, not a perpetual one. It is inherently negative, because it creates nothing but only takes. (Read Kierkegaard’s Johannes Climacus for more details). It is a useful tool, but not an end. The will to believe is more powerful, and speaks to our innermost desires. For instance, our brains are pattern-detecting machines. The brain thrives on symbols and patterns, because it is looking for information and truth. In large part, how effective it is at constructing the framework is due to what we put into it. The mind wants to believe, and it will believe in doubt as firmly as it will in faith. In any case, any event, whether dubbed miraculous or not, is subject to continuing reinterpretation over the lifetime ensuing.
I am not convinced that reason can ever constitute the firm foundation of experience and interpretation, but only the exposition and development thereof. Most of our day-to-day lives are constructed on faith, and I’m not talking about the specious example of the sun rising every day or electromagnetics continuing to be true. We have faith in human goodness (or badness), faith in God or fortune or the absolute lack of both, faith that there is something called me which thinks these thoughts, and faith that there are no Cartesian demons invalidating all external sensuous perception.
I’m reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, in which he outlines the modes and nature of human thought and perception and judgment. What we generally mean when we refer to reason is the a priori (first principles) analysis he puts forth in that volume. But although the interior worldview we synthesize is a conglomerate constructed by reason (his unity of apperception), it does not mean that every element thereof is strictly rational. It just means that the pencil we used to connect the dots was reason–but the same is true of imagination. (The irony of using reason to understand reason does not escape me.)
So on what can we ultimately build? That’s not a question I’m prepared to fully answer (and may never be, in this mortal sphere), but we can build on the experiential truths we’ve acquired over the years. Many things need to be questioned, but a few do not. For instance, I have absolute faith in the physical and metaphysical reality of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, though I am far from understanding it or even its absolute necessity or mechanism. I have absolute faith in the capacity of the Holy Ghost to communicate itself directly to the heart and mind, without intervening sensuous phenomena. Those are starting points for exploring the universe, and certainly more stable than the fragile point I call ego.
The question is: What can reason do that faith cannot?