On Justice and Rational Belief

lazarus

All human attempts to make sense of the universe – whether scientific or otherwise – are based upon a very bold leap of faith: they are based upon the assumption that the universe does, in fact, make sense, and that we simply need to find out how. Rather than accepting a model with missing pieces, pure religion and pure science both require us to operate under the belief that, once all of the pieces are found, they will fit together.

Many times, I have been told something along these lines: “You just need to grow up and accept the fact that there is no great force of justice in the universe and that there is nothing after death. I know it’s scary to think that true justice will never come or that your loved ones who have died are gone forever. It was certainly scary for me at first. But I’ve learned to accept it, and I am better off because of it.” However, as many times as I have heard that assertion, I have never believed it. I am not even talking about how I do not believe in the implications for life, the universe, and everything, while that is certainly the case. Rather, I am saying that I do not even believe in the implications for the person making the assertion: I have never been convinced that any person has ever learned to accept the idea, regardless of what they may say. Such people do of course live their lives in a state of disbelief, but it is a suspended disbelief. That is, while their intellect acknowledges what they feel to be the truth, they still reject it in practice. For example, I have seen many anti-theists seek to protect human life with religious fervor, but if there is nothing of quintessential value to that human life – as a worldview that is truly based purely on science would suggest – such behavior has all the meaning of an MMORPG, in which we commit heroic acts because we like to feel heroic, and not because we feel that we are actually accomplishing anything. Suspension of disbelief is necessary to get full enjoyment from many movies, novels, games, etc., but to require it in every aspect of one’s life would be a depressing thing indeed.

And then comes the inevitable response: “It doesn’t matter whether it is depressing or not. It’s the truth, and that’s all that matters.” But this statement leads to a string of questions that the people who make it cannot answer:

  • If the truth is that there is no real point to anything – other than what we invent for ourselves – what’s the point of knowing the truth anyway? If nothing is of ultimate importance, how could anything be of any importance? If nothing is of any importance, why are we even having this discussion?
  • If the truth is that there is no ultimate justice, what is your standard for immediate justice? If you have no such standard for justice, how can you define injustice – other than by some private definition that is always going to be different from someone else’s? If you cannot define injustice, how can you use injustice as an excuse to reject the existence of Deity?
  • How can you place such value in the effort of making sense of the universe through verifiable evidence and empirical reason when you have already decided that the universe makes no sense?

As an illustration of this fallacy, Sam Harris, militant anti-theist, once wrote the following:

Somewhere in the world a man has abducted a little girl. Soon he will rape, torture and kill her. If an atrocity of this kind is not occurring at precisely this moment, it will happen in a few hours or days at most. Such is the confidence we can draw from the statistical laws that govern the lives of 6 billion human beings. The same statistics also suggest that this girl’s parents believe at this very moment that an all-powerful and all-loving God is watching over them and their family. Are they right to believe this? Is it good that they believe this?

No.

The entirety of atheism is contained in this response.

The first thing we should note about this statement is that, while many atheists would insist that their worldview is not fundamentally pessimistic, Sam Harris has clearly stated otherwise. Aside from that, though, we should note that Sam Harris is clearly appealing to a sense of right and wrong to show us how there can be no God. This matter could lead to any number of discussions, but the central point to take note of is the fact that even the most militant “non-believer” still tends to have a sense of ultimate justice and rightness – not because scientific evidence defines it for him, but because it just feels right…which is a very unscientific basis for any perspective.

People like Sam Harris argue that relying on God to bring us justice only causes us to become indolent and fail to enact justice on our own. There is certainly some validity to this sentiment. However, there is another side to it: while Sam Harris would enjoin us to fight injustice, his worldview also requires us to accept it. For instance, a likely outcome of his scenario is that the perpetrator will never be arrested for his crimes. And, according to Sam Harris, the victim will never get the real justice that only comes on the far side of recovery and wholeness. In his mind, she has been violated and destroyed, and the carbon, nitrogen, and hydrogen of her body will soon be spread across the world as if she never existed. (Not that human existence has any real meaning.) In his mind, only by accepting this fact can we lead meaningful lives. (Even though meaning is a matter of perception rather than reality.) In his mind, the only thing that makes sense is to assume that the universe does not make sense.

I believe. I believe in God, in ultimate justice, and in life after death. I believe in these things not because I am irrational, but because I am rational: I believe in them because, like any scientist who has a passion for what he does, I know that the universe necessarily must make sense. How is it rational to assume that the equation does not balance? I am not so foolish as to believe that I can avoid all harm by following God’s will; any religious person who does believe this should probably think some more about his religion, as he will surely be disappointed at some point in the future. However, I do believe that everything will be made right in the end. I believe that justice – true justice – will be served, not only for the perpetrator, but also for the victim. I believe that innocence lost due to the sins of others can and will be restored, and that those whose souls have seemingly perished in misery can rise again like Lazarus, as if they had never died, without the slightest blemish on their countenances. To believe otherwise would be like believing in the creation or destruction of matter or energy: it would be utterly opposed to the idea that we live in a universe of action and reaction and immutable natural laws.

The immediate response to this profession of belief would be to say that justice is not *real* per se: it is something we think of and experience, but it is not a natural force or phenomenon like gravity and the refraction of light are. Therefore, it is not subject to natural law in the way that *real* things are. The intended implication of this argument would be that justice, not being *real*, does not actually *mean* anything. But if that is the case, why is Sam Harris – like every other vocal atheist I have met – so adamantly fixated on the idea that it does exist and does mean something, such that he places it at the very core of his worldview? Why get so worked up about something that is not real? If justice is simply a figment of our imagination, how is a worldview founded upon a belief in justice any more rational than a worldview founded upon a belief in an imaginary deity?

The reason for which Sam Harris and others are so preoccupied with the perceived injustice of the world around them is precisely because they feel that it is something unnatural, something that does not make any sense, and something all too real. While they may say that their refusal or inability to believe in ultimate justice is a sign of their intellectual maturity, it actually seems to be the opposite: they assume that, because the equation does not balance on their terms, it must not balance at all. Reality must make sense, however – even if it does not make sense to us – and the equation always must balance.

When I say that I have faith, I do not mean that I assume things to be true just because it is pleasant or convenient to do so. Rather, when I say that I have faith, I mean that I know that everything necessarily must make sense, even if I do not now completely understand how. Such an assumption should not seem foreign to the scientific mind, as it is actually integral to scientific pursuit. However, a worldview that accepts an imbalanced universe in which natural laws exist only to a limited extent – such that they are needed but not present – is both juvenile and irrational. This is as true for justice as it is for gravitation. Yes, I do find the idea of ultimate justice comforting, but that no more disqualifies my belief in it than does the comfort I feel in having a periodic table or a multiplication table without gaps.

As I make my case for ultimate justice and faith, though, please note that I am not defending religion in general: I do not advocate false religious ideas any more than I advocate false non-religious ideas. What I advocate is the implicit truth, which is that, in a universe with rational laws that cannot contradict each other, justice must be a reality – even if we do not quite understand how or when it will be achieved. All of the unjust suffering of this world, all of the loss that feels so unnatural and innately wrong, will be redressed. The equation will balance. Wholeness will become evident, though I do not understand the method through which this wholeness shall be achieved. I have faith in this fact precisely because I am a rational person who believes in a rational universe.

Advertisements