In Praise of Unquestioning Faith and Unthinking Obedience
One of the things that can instantly raise the hackles of post-moderns is the suggestion that critical thinking is anything other than an unalloyed good.
The assumption which lies behind this comes, of course, from bitter experience, particularly the experiences of the 20th century where lack of critical thinking led to multiple bloodbaths.
Many postmoderns assume that unquestioning faith and unthinking obedience are fundamental criteria for religious belief, particularly Christian religious belief. And some strains of Christian preaching, like the famous Jesuit enthusiasms of piety which declared that “if the Pope said white was black then so it would be for an obedient Jesuit” give that perception oxygen.
But of course, when you’ve met one Catholic, you’ve met one Catholic. Every Dominican in the world–and above al St. Thomas–would regard such a crazy proclamation thusly:
For Thomas, all truth is God’s truth because God the Creator who is the Author of Nature is also God the Redeemer whose miracles transcend, but do not contradict, what he reveals to our senses. Black is not white and it is silly to say it is. Indeed, Thomas will argue that the Argument from Authority (he means merely human authority obviously, not Divine Authority) is the weakest of all arguments.
That is why, though Thomas will cite sundry authorities as a lawyer might cite corroborating testimony, he feels no obligation to bow to authority when it seems to him to be wrong. Consequently, lots of people don’t realize that he begins his entire discussion of the question “Does God Exist?” by dynamiting the argument offered by St. Anselm, who claimed that the existence of God was self-evident and there was no need to demonstrate it.
Such critical thinking is, in fact, one of the marks of the medieval Latin mind, so it isn not terribly surprising to find medieval Latin Europe inventing three of the foundational institutions of modernity out of its inveterate love of questioning and arguing about stuff: the parliamentary system, the university, and the scientific method.
Yet still and all, I would argue that there remain ways in which, despite our prejudices, we have all experienced the benefits of unquestioning faith and uncritical obedience.
Perhaps the most foundational way is in language learning. Thanks be to God, he has designed our brains in such a way that our very capacity for critical thinking simply is not there yet when the process of language acquisition begins. Were it not for that, no mortal would ever learn English. Children do not critically examine grammar and spelling and rigorously interrogate why it is mouse/mice but not house/hice. They do not criticize that I drive and I drove but I thrive and I thrived. The plural of sheep is sheep and moose is moose, but the plural of cow is cattle and they simply take it in without question.
And all this results, not in mind-numbed slavery to Big Brother or the drooling acceptance of a soul-crushing dogma, but in mastery of language, ease of communication, and the free exchange of ideas that can lead to Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, and the “I Have a Dream” speech.
Indeed, much of human learning proceeds much more quickly when people do not insist on re-inventing every wheel and trust that the bulk of what they are told is passed on in good faith by decent people who were not lying to us. As Chesterton wrote in his Autobiography:
Bowing down in blind credulity, as is my custom, before mere authority and the tradition of the elders, superstitiously swallowing a story I could not test at the time by experiment or private judgment, I am firmly of opinion that I was born on the 29th of May, 1874, on Campden Hill, Kensington; and baptised according to the formularies of the Church of England in the little church of St. George opposite the large Waterworks Tower that dominated that ridge.
In the same way, there is the curious trut that even the sciences run on a certain amount of unquestioning faith and blind obedience. If you don’t believe it, just try sitting through a science lecture in a room filled with people familiar with the material while one “WAKE UP, SHEEPLE!!!!!” type keeps “asking questions” about every single detail being discussed and driving everybody mad. Absolute skepticism about the trustworthiness of Everybody but Me, is the most effective sand in the gears of learning that postermodernity has yet devised and it has released a bumper crop of deeply stupid fake clever people into the world, wreaking incalculable harm.
The sciences, like everything else, depend on unquestioning faith in a few unprovable axioms such as “Yes, Something exists” and “My senses are accurately reporting that Something to me” and “Other somethings called ‘people’ are also capable of accurately perceiving the same Something my senses are perceiving” and “All that Something is governed by laws that determine how its parts interact with each other” and “the three pound piece of meat behind my eyes can understand those laws.”
None of that is provable. All of it is taken on faith and then we go from there.
I have no problem with that.