One of the most controversial dialectical tensions throughout human history exists between the opposing forces of faith–the conviction of things not justified by the physical senses–and knowledge–the demonstration of truth exclusively through experiential or sensorial means. These two principles–though complementary–remain in constant conflict within the constraints of the physical world. As Alma teaches in his famous sermon in Alma 32 in The Book of Mormon, faith ceases to exist once justified by sensorial means, and knowledge without demonstrable evidence is impossible.
In the current science-based climate, knowledge seems to enjoy higher cultural privileges. Indeed, the methodology of the scientific method–with its emphasis on the capacity of our physical senses to measure and observe–has become the centerpiece of most disciplines of formal learning. Nevertheless, this has not always been the case. Throughout history, the establishment of fact based on sensorial evidence threatened the existence of faith-based systems of epistemology. In such systems, observers were skeptical of the evidence from the physical senses due to their subjectivity and general inaccuracy. Instead, they relied on their spiritual senses–their faith–for concrete answers about the physical world.
Perhaps the best example of this conflict existed during the Renaissance when older faith-based systems of knowing (called Scholasticism) encountered strict adherents to sense-based knowledge (most often referred to as Humanism). The Eastern Roman Empire (also known as the Byzantine Empire), having greatly surpassed its Western counterpart in all areas of learning, began to crumble in the 1400s. Witnessing the destruction, scholars gathered their materials and fled to the West, entering through important ports like Venice. Western scholars, who had limited access to materials and had long embraced a culture that relied on dialectic and associationism for justification, began to study these works in earnest. This sparked a fire of intensely rigorous study in which scholars challenged inherited traditions and demanded concrete evidence for truth rather than recourse to faith.
The conflict between these two groups grew as each side fortified their position through propaganda and authoritarian support. The interest in knowledge mediated by the physical senses gained strength through its basis in logic and reason. Proto-scientists like Copernicus, Leonardo da Vinci, and Galileo Galilei gathered information about their physical world based on first-hand sensorial observation (such as the theory that the sun occupied the central place in the solar system and the Earth orbited) that contradicted long-held faith-based beliefs (like the belief that the Earth was the center of the universe and it was orbited by the sun and planets in a sequence of celestial spheres). Ultimately, the conflict famously erupted in numerous disputes, excommunications, trials of heresy, executions, secret organizations, and oppressive inquisitors. On one side, the inquisitors understood the scholars' position as a slippery slope, leading to the widespread abandonment of submissive humility in favor of arrogance and pride. On the other, the scholars thought that withholding knowledge was manipulative and deceptive.
Like other dialectical tensions, there is no universal correct answer. Individuals must navigate this tension to arrive at personal and individual conclusions.
Want to know more?
The development of and advocacy for new epistemological approaches in the Renaissance is widely researched. Echoes of this fundamental issue appear in many different forms and genres. Here are a few places you might begin to explore.
- The Dynamics of Faith by Paul Tillich (especially "What Faith Is," pages 1-34)
- Midnight Children by Salman Rushdie
- Candide by Voltaire