Monday, January 21, 2013

A Logical Construction of Faith, Part 1: Axioms of Faith

Probably the best course I ever took in my education was Foundations of Mathematics taught by Steve MacDonald. It was a course that not only changed the way I looked at math and statistics, but the way in which I looked at the world.

To start the course, we studied logical structures and how to construct verifiable and indisputable proofs. We would then use these tools to reconstruct the very building blocks of our mathematical knowledge.

One of the segments that really stood out to me was "The Axiomatic Approach to the Real Number System." An axiom is a statement we assert to be true without proof. Very commonly, we assert their truth based on experience and common sense. If we are a little less academic in describing axioms, we say they are true because we can't imagine how to prove they are false.

Some examples of axioms in the real number system are

x + 0 = x (additive identity)
x + y = y + x (commutivity of addition)
x * 1 = x (multiplicative identity)
x (a + b) = x*a + x*b (distributive property)

There are 13 such axioms. If we ever were to find a counter example to one of those axioms, much of our mathematical theory would be reduced to a steaming pile of crap.

The choice of axioms, it turns out, can have a dramatic effect on our conclusions. For example, using the axioms, we can prove that -x * -1 = x (that is, the product of two negatives is a positive number). This is only true, however, if we accept the distributive axiom. If we reject that axiom, we are forced to conclude that the product of two negatives is also negative (-1 * -x = -x).

What a difference the axioms can make!

With some time, I began to wonder if the axiomatic approach to faith might be a good way to explore both my religion and religion in general.  As it turns out, this approach has really helped me understand not only my faith, but the faith of others.  In fact, the choice of axioms one adopts in their religion is extremely important in understanding their religion.

And so, I'd like to present the axioms of my faith.  I assume these are true, without proof, for no other reason than I feel good about assuming they are true.  They closely mimic the LDS Articles of Faith (okay, I've outright plagiarized them) , but I don't accept all of the Articles as axiomatic (that doesn't mean I think they aren't true, just that I don't accept them without proof or consider them essential starting points to building theology).  The entirety of my faith is built on these axioms.

  1. I believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.
  2. I believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.
  3. I believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.
  4. I believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, Repentance; third, Baptism; Fourth, reception of the Holy Ghost.
  5. I believe that a man must be called of God, by prophecy.
  6. I believe in the gift of tongues, prophecy, revelation, visions, healing, interpretation of tongues, and so forth.
  7. I believe that revealed scripture, as accepted through formal canonization, contains the word of God.
  8. I believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and I believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.
  9. I believe that through the revelatory process, each individual may become acquainted with God and understand His will.
  10. I claim the privilege of worshipping Almighty God according to the dictates of my own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.
  11. I believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.

One thing that these axioms do not do is establish the truthfulness of any denomination of Christianity.  In other words, I do not accept as axiomatic that the LDS Church is the true church of God.  I also do not accept as an axiom the truthfulness of such books of scripture as the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price.  Those books become admitted through a subsequent assumption (more on assumptions later this week) of the Church's canon.  If I reject the Church's canon, then any conclusions that depend on those books may no longer be supported.

In closing, allow me to circle back to the fact that these axioms do not, by themselves, establish the truthfulness of any denomination of Christianity.  This was a deliberate decision on my part.  Moving on from these axioms to build any body of faith will require additional assumptions.  The validity of the conclusions reached will depend on the validity of the additional assumptions.  I feel that, beyond these axioms, any additional assumptions are prone to a great deal of subjectivity--a characteristic that isn't highly valued in axioms (truth be told, some of these axioms are more subjective than a pure academic would probably be comfortable with).  The influence that these additional assumptions have on the conclusions we reach is something I plan to explore later this week.

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