Faith and Knowledge

Share on email
Share on whatsapp
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on reddit

Is faith a type of knowledge? This question gets asked often in modern time, and has quite probably been asked time and again since time immemorial. There is a variation of this question which was asked (and fielded) by Monsignor Charles Pope over the weekend, concerning whether theology counts as a “science.”

On his “popular” television show The Great Ideas (the transcript of which is published in a book “How to Think About the Great Ideas“), the Philosopher Mortimer J Adler discussed the ideas of Truth, Knowledge, and Opinion. At some point during the discussion of Opinion and Knowledge, his co-host, Mr Lloyd Luckman, asks him whether faith ought to be counted as knowledge or as opinion. Professor Adler answers him by quoting Saint Thomas’ Aquinas’ The Treatise on Faith, Hope, and Charity:

“Aquinas says, ‘The intellect assents to a thing in two ways: first, through being moved to assent by its very object which is known either by itself as in the case of first principles or axioms or through something else already known as in the case of demonstrating conclusions…In either case…you have knowledge, not opinion.’ [All of this is the first way in which the intellect is moved to assent. The second way is] ‘the intellect assents to something not through being sufficiently moved to assent by its proper object, but through an act of choice, whereby it voluntarily turns to one side rather than the other.’  If this is accompanied by doubt and by far of the opposite, then you’ll have opinion. While there will be certainty and no fear of the opposite, then there will be faith [which]…’results from the fact that it is supernatural.’ It is the gift of God, for he says, ‘Since man, by assenting to matter of faith, is raised above his nature, this must needs accrue to him for some supernatural principle, moving him inwardly, and this is God. Therefor faith, as regards assent which is the chief act of faith, is from God, moving man inwardly by grace.’ That is why Aquinas says that faith is neither knowledge nor opinion, but something intermediate between them, like them both in respects….

faith is like opinion in that it is an act of the will rather than an act based upon the thing in its own terms. That is why Saint Paul defines faith as the evidence of things unseen, not seen directly through their own terms. On the other hand, faith is like knowledge because of the certitude it has, a certitude that is even greater than the certitude of ordinary knowledge, because it rests on the supernatural gift of grace.”

So much is Dr Adler’s interpretation of Saint Thomas Aquinas. There is, as always a bit of a wrinkle, which is that, as Chesterton observed, even the things to which our intellect gives assent in the first sense requires a sort of act of the will, thus a kind of faith, albeit one which is less supernatural in nature. After all, we must give assent that such dogmatic things as “axioms” and “definitions” are actually true when left unproven. We must believe that our first principles are true, albeit often we are convinced of this only after seeing them demonstrated.

But even then, we must place some amount of trust in the senses by which we observe the world, that is, that our observations of reality are really true observations. The act of inductive reasoning by which we have made so must scientific progress rests upon the assumption that just because a phenomenon has so far occurred in some particular manner under some set of conditions means that it will continue to happen in such a “predictable” manner under the same controlled conditions.

I can drop a rock and observe that it falls, and I may likewise observe its acceleration and plot its motion as it falls. I may repeat this and get the same result, and repeat it several times and observe the same thing each time [1]. After say n trials of doing this without much variation, I will grow to expect that the (n+1)th trial will also yield the same result, simply because of the correlation I have observed so far (drop -> fall, acceleration <~10 m/s^2, fall time determined by h = 1/2 a t^2 + v_i t, etc) I expect to be repeated in the future.

But what reason can I have for asserting that my past experiences (or observations) have the slightest bearing on my future experiences (or observations)? I must take it on faith that the universe is a reasonable, consistent place, even if that faith is a merely natural faith based on my past experiences. It is testable and observable, but there is still an element of faith involved. Chesterton takes this a step further in his Orthodoxy when he writes that

 It is idle to talk always about the alternative of reason and faith.

Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all. If you are merely a sceptic, you must sooner or later ask yourself the question, “Why should anything go right; even observation and deduction? Why should not good logic be as misleading as bad logic? They are both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape?” The young sceptic says, “I have the right to think for myself.” But the old sceptic, the complete sceptic, says, “I have no right to think for myself. I have no right to think at all.”

There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped. That is the ultimate evil against which all religious authority was aimed.

Monsignor Charles Pope says much the same thing when he writes that

In terms of theology, Faith is a way of knowing. I come to know certain things because God reveals them. Faith is a way of knowing based on a trust that God exists, and is both truthful and accurate in what he says. But the natural sciences also put a kind of faith in the reliability of the senses and what they reveal. By accepting the revelation that comes from God, I come to know many things.

Thus, there is a sense in which faith is knowledge, and another sense in which it is opinion. But there is yet another sense in which faith is beyond knowledge, because it underlies knowledge. We must have a supernatural faith in God, but we must also have a natural faith in our senses, and in our mind’s ability to make sense out of our observations, and in nature’s continued consistency. And like any other merely natural phenomenon, this natural faith is only a shadow of the supernatural faith.



[1] Of course, I will probably see some variations in practice, but the motion should be fairly consistently described by h = 1/2 a t^2 + v_i t + h_i, with an acceleration a of ~9.81 m/s^2 at sea level and so on.  However, I may measure slightly different times, acceleration, etc  depending on my apparatus and so on and so forth.

Photo comes from “The Great Ideas from the Great Books” (linked above)

Nicene Guy

Nicene Guy

JC is a cradle Catholic, and somewhat of a traditionalist conservative. He earned his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Texas at Austin in the summer of 2014. He is currently a tenure-track assistant professor of physics at a university in the deep south. He is a lay member of the Order of Preachers. JC has been happily married since June of 2010. He and his lovely wife have had two children born into their family, one daughter and one son; they hope to have a few more. He has at times questioned – and more often still been questioned about – his Faith, but he has never wandered far from the Church, nor from our Lord. “To whom else would I go?”

Leave a Replay

2 thoughts on “Faith and Knowledge”

  1. Avatar

    An excellent little essay. Well done. The corollary (or would it be a lemma?), of course, is not to mix things up in trying to solve the senses problem and in the course become a Cartesian. Descartes meant well, but he was tragically mistaken: something that is quite evident if we accept the bits from St. Thomas (and Chesterton) that you cite. But it might be an interesting follow-up essay.

  2. Avatar

    I’m glad you enjoyed it. That is an interesting idea for a follow-up, as you say, but I’ve made a rule for myself in blogging to never guarantee a follow-up unless (or until) I have said sequel essay finished and in-hand. But yes, it is a mistake to stop trusting the senses as reliable just because we can’t absolutely prove that they are. Worse still is to treat them as distractions to thought (as some of the Platonists did), or (worse still) as the nothing more than vehicles for temptation to enter into our minds (as some of the more extreme Manicheans might).

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Sign up for our Newsletter

Click edit button to change this text. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit

%d bloggers like this: