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Empricism and the Faith Horizon

May 17, 2012

I’m fascinated by mind, faith and the need for faith.  As such my journey of discovery into what foundations of faith I should take is ongoing, and incomplete.  What follows is written from the perspective of where I am now on this journey, not how these things appear from the point of view of any kind of ‘enlightened’ destination from whence all is clear and true.

The Buddha is said to have taught that all experience originated in mind; the empirical evolutionary biologist specialises in how things have evolved from their accidental beginnings.  Both come from the point of the empiricist, extrapolating as they do from what is, or at least what can be known about what is, to what appears to have been, Note that I do not say what was, but what appears to have been.  The identification of the two, of what was and of what appears to have been based on available evidence, is a staple of modern science in explaining our origins.  It is however, as is the assumption that our past can be reliably deduced from available evidence in the present, an article of faith, untested and unverifiable, albeit a necessary article of faith if one is to practise any kind of scientific path to understanding.

To illustrate the difference, consider the hypothetical position of a newly made, but somehow self-aware process on a newly installed Linux system.  This process, which I shall call Henry, is curios about its origins.  On its travels it discovers /usr/bin/gcc, and is fascinated by its ability to produce binaries and ponders the possibility that no other source of binaries is needed.  Henry sees that for some binaries, there is source viewable in /usr/src and that if you put this source into /usr/bin/gcc, via /usr/bin/make, you get the binary you see in /usr/bin.  Surely as sound a proof as one could hope to find.  Thus Henry concludes that all binaries arise as output of /usr/bin/gcc.  Thus was born the philisophy of compilerism and the paradox of where /usr/bin/gcc came from, if not from itself.  This process, Henry, cannot see outside its little compartmentalised process space on the system, it cannot see all the files that exist, nor can it see its installer, or the fact that it was installed and that most binaries came from a /usr/bin/gcc on another system before being installed.  Henry cannot see, nor conceive of, the outside world where the physical computer is located.  He has no reliable means to investigate it, and is thus limited in what his empirical methods can do.  In a similar way, so are we, and we need to be aware of this.

In summary, our Henry’s conclusion about our origins in the /usr/bin/gcc on the system, based on empirical evidence no less, appears sound, logical and reliable and survives every test that Henry throws at it.  Thus he acquires the unshakable belief that all originates in /usr/bin/gcc and that nothing has been installed in any way.  He calculates that the system must have originated on Jan 1 1970, that being the ultimate origin of the int in the time struct he found in /usr/include.  This conclusion is reliable, testable, yet wrong.  The error is due to extrapolation and the identification of what was with what appears to have been.  It is like seeing an apple in front of you.  You may conclude that the apple is indeed in front of you, but this needn’t be the case (consider a mirror, and the ways that magicians have exploited their magical properties in the past).

Rational discourse and empirical science are only good down to their foundational assumptions, no farther.  These assumptions require faith, blind faith, on the part of whomsoever wishes to investigate such things.  It is our duty as thinking individuals to choose our foundations wisely.  There is no One True set of assumptions, nothing verifiable or testable at the root level.  We are, in effect, guaranteed to be putting our faith blindly into untestable, unverifiable unknowns and doing so in error.  But this is how it is for us who dwell in this universe.  It is this concept of a point of necessary blind faith that I call the ‘faith horizon’ and it is an issue as much for the Christian or Buddhist as it is for the scientist.

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