Faith: the Beginning of Understanding

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Essays

“Understanding is the reward of faith. Therefore seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand.” – St. Augustine of Hippo

When I first heard that quotation, it resonated deeply with me, and I wanted to investigate why. I’ve recently been saying to myself “Instead of believing it when I see it, I will see it when I believe it” and I think this is a similar idea.

One of my favorite subjects in mathematics was geometry. I was, for a time, obsessed with the idea of a geometric proof**. A proof requires at least one “first principle” to start. This can either be a previously proved theorem, or it can be an axiom or postulate, which is a self-evident, or a ‘given’ truth. From here, a proof uses that ‘first principle’, applies it to a given hypothesis, and by deductive reasoning arrives at a proved theorem. Point being, you have to start with a first principle if you can prove any other hypothesis. And while there are plenty of proved theorems, at the bottom of it all, there is always an axiom, or a postulate. And those don’t have to be proved, because they are either self-evident, or, yes, taken as a matter of faith. Every insight we come upon, every perspective we adopt, every strategy we employ, follows this framework. We start with a kernel of faith, and we apply a hypothesis to that kernel, until we have a theorem.

This should help explain why R.H. Coase’s quotation “if you torture the data long enough it will confess” is so brilliant to me.  It should remind you to reflect on your first principles. What are conclusions that you have taken to be a result of sound reasoning that are in fact matters of faith? And once you do recognize those first principles – those matters of faith from which you build your framework– do you identify with those beliefs? Do they line up with how you want to live your life? Relevant in business, religion, love, and all of it.

**This may explain why I was drawn to philosophy, as well.

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