The Fine Line Between Faith and Delusion, Part II of III

In the previous part, I discussed my pursuit of science and skepticism and my avoidance of anything that could be called “faith.”

Stumbling Upon Faith

What we were trying to do was totally impossible. The only reason we were able to do it was because we didn’t know it was impossible…so we did it anyway. — Bill Atkinson, part of the original Macintosh team at Apple

My daughter was one of about a hundred Oregonian girls selected to travel to Corvallis for the OMEA All-State Middle School Girl’s choir. During the conference, she would have the opportunity to audition for a solo part in the choir’s performance. She assured me before leaving that she would not be trying out. Her chances of being selected were very poor, she explained, as she would be competing against a hundred of the state’s best singers. Also, she was more interested in relaxing after a long day of rehearsal.

I argued that she must try. After all, if she auditioned, she had a nonzero chance at accomplishment and fame--a chance at being recognized as the best of the best in the state. However, by not even trying, she would certainly eliminate any chance. Now, as is familiar to parents of teenagers, my argument fell upon deaf ears. Fortunately, her friend encouraged her to join in the auditions, and peer pressure apparently changed her mind. In the end, four girls were selected to perform the solo part, and she was proud to be one of them.

In my mindfulness group at work, we discussed “possibility thinking” and risk-taking. Risk-taking is required for innovation, and is frequently required to do our very best work, to express our “inner genius.” Among the obstacles to risk-taking are our own doubts and insecurities, and the sincere cautions of well-wishers. Additional obstacles include those placed by fellow employees to meet financial and operational objectives. There are also the arguments and political schemes of fellow employees competing for our resources. It goes without saying that our industry competitors are employing marketing and legal tactics to thwart the success of our innovations.

I, for one, have learned to overcome the obstacles from myself and my well-wishers, and am learning to overcome the rest. However, I have been surprised to encounter many people who seem to give up easily on innovation and on expressing their own inner genius.

The stories of innovators like Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers, and even those of survivors like Viktor Frankl, who persisted in the face of overwhelming internal and external obstacles, who proved the naysayers wrong, are legendary. No doubt they earned their success with sacrifice. Perhaps they recognized what has been suggested in this article, that beyond a certain level of merit, success is a matter of chance. And repeated attempts are required to achieve it. Their persistence has itself made their ultimate success more meaningful. They are poetically hailed in Apple’s Crazy Ones commercial:

This level of persistence demands a certain quality. Is “faith” not the best word for following an intuition, when confronted by evidence to the contrary? Does it not require faith to persist in the face of overwhelming internal and external obstacles? Do not scientists persist in endless repetition of experiments, faithful that the scientific method will prove out their intuitions? Do not entrepreneurs struggle to make and sell their works, persisting in the faith that the world will eventually be ready for their ideas?

I think so, but this is hard for me to accept. How can I have been pursuing and promoting faith while at the same time shunning it? To accept this idea makes it difficult to distinguish this faith from outright denial or delusion. What distinguishes the deniers of global warming or the Flat Earth Society from Edison and the Wright brothers? How are creationists different from Darwin and Galileo in their faith? How is this faith different from the faith of the religious fundamentalist, who trusts the vengeful personal God of his scripture to answer his prayers? How is it different from the faith of the New Age spiritualist, who trusts the “energy of the universal quantum field” to “self-organize in the fulfillment of his intention”?

Even Steve Jobs, arguably the greatest innovator of our time, was said to project a reality distortion field, convincing people that the impossible was possible.

In the next part, I’ll consider ways to distinguish these kinds of faith.

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Updated at: 10 March 2015 8:03 PM