Why the Principle of Faith Should be a First Principle of Philosophy (Including, of Course, Epistemology and Metaphysics)

By typing this sentence, I am acting, even though I cannot see what the sentence looks like until it is finished. I cannot touch it or hear it or smell it or taste it. And I cannot see it until it appears on the screen. But I type anyway, trustingthat by moving my fingers, I will hit certain keys, keys that correspond to certain letters that I need to spell out words and sentences. I trust that when each key is pressed, some kind of electrical signals will—somehow—be sent from the keyboard and into the computer’s memory. Somehow, though I don’t quite understand how the whole process works, the letters will appear on the computer screen so that I can see what I am typing. But even though I don’t understand how the entire process works, I really don’t need to understand it. All I know is that it works. I can type sentences if I try it, if I work at it, if I act.

Typing sentences: an act of faith?

But the process of typing sentences doesn’t just include having my fingers hit certain keys. There’s also something that has to happen in order for my fingers to move at all. I’m not a neuroscientist, but I do know that when I will my fingers to move, they move. I think about them shifting from key to key, and they hit the keys that I want them to hit.

(At least, most of the time they do–when I’m typing on a laptop keyboard, my hands are a bit too big for the keyboard, and sometimes I end up hitting more than one key at the same time. But that doesn’t mean that my fingers weren’t headed in the right direction, nor does it mean that they wouldn’t have hit the right key and no other key if I had been typing on a keyboard that I had been more used to typing on.)

I don’t understand how the message moves from my brain to my fingers and makes my fingers hit certain keys. I also don’t understand how, when I press a key on the keyboard, the message of a key getting pressed eventually shows up on the monitor and I can finally see the fruit of my acts. I don’t understand these things. But I still act even though I don’t know exactly how the entire process works. I don’t know how it works, but I trust in the fact that it does work. My act of trusting is knowledge. My act of trusting is an act of faith.

And yet, I could find out, if I wanted to. I could study how the brain works and how it sends messages. I could find out how fingers move or how a keyboard and memory and monitor all work together to produce evidence of my fingers having moved across certain keys. But I do not have to know how they work in order to make them work. And even if I did know how they worked, I wouldn’t be able to efficiently type sentences if I was always thinking about how these things worked while I made them work. “A way of seeing is also a way of not seeing,” philosopher Kenneth Burke once wrote, and “a focus on object A involves a neglect of object B” (Permanence and Change 50).

The same is true for all of our acts. I can talk about making letters and words and sentences appear on a computer screen, or about I can talk about the electrical impulses that are somehow sent from my brain to my different body parts. I can talk about driving or swimming or playing the piano or tying my shoes. I may or I may not know how everything works within each of these processes. But if I am going to drive well, I have to forget about what’s going on under the hood and pay attention to what’s happening on the other side of the windshield.

We can’t always be aware of everything that’s going on. If we are to do something well, we choose to focus on doing that thing. We forget about the feeling of the chair that we’re sitting on. We forget about breathing, though the chair continues to hold us up and our respiratory system continues to take in air.

To have faith is to act without a perfect knowledge. If a perfect knowledge is based on whatever we get through our five senses, then we are constantly acting on faith. There are some things that we know that don’t come through our five senses, and even for the stuff that we do, we’re not always aware of how things come to us through our five senses. If, on the other hand, a perfect knowledge isn’t based on whatever we get through our five senses but is instead based on what we learn from reasoning, then we still act on faith because we have to forget about what we’ve learned through reasoning in order to really do anything. Either way, our actions are based on the principle of faith–we don’t know what is happening or what does happen until after we finish acting.

Typically, the history of philosophy (both in the western and the eastern traditions) has started in the wrong place. I believe that the right place to start is with faith. Joseph Smith once said that “If we start right, it is easy to go right all the time; but if we start wrong we may go wrong, and it will be a hard matter to get right” (History of the Church 6:303). Philosophies often contradict themselves because they have started wrong. But if we start right, we may go right all the time.

Faith, of course, must be grounded in something. In this post and in all subsequent posts, I claim that the right place to begin is with faith, and the object of faith ought to be God. And if we define philosophy as “the love of wisdom,” as some of the ancient Greeks defined it, then what we’re really doing when we do philosophy is what Paul Woodruff called reverence (cf. Woodruff’s book, Reverence: A Forgotten Virtue).