Faith is about specifics, not generalities

Tonight, as I opened up a can of peanut butter, I found the safety seal to be broken. Generally speaking, the entire purpose of the safety seal is to indicate whether the seal has been compromised. If it has, its function is to let you know not to eat the peanut butter for it may be intentionally contaminated. That’s what the rational approach indicates.

From an intuitive perspective, I view the same situation differently. I have to ask myself, in this moment, standing here at night in my sweat clothes at my own kitchen counter, with a jar of peanut butter in my hand that I can either eat or throw away, what is the actual truth of the situation? Is the peanut butter poisoned or not? Am I going to die? Answering these questions for myself right now, in this moment, my intuition is very clear: no, I’m going to be fine. Relaxing here in my jammies, I think it is far more likely that the seal was faulty than that I am about to get poisoned.

There is a bit of a paradox here. On one hand, I have never encountered a situation where a broken seal actually meant I was in danger. From a human perspective, that’s an important fact. Frankly, it seems kind of silly for me to freak out about something that has never happened to me before. Yet that is the entire purpose of that device: to warn me that the peanut butter may have been compromised so that I will take the action of discarding it. In classical statistics, the fact that it has never happened has no impact on whether it could happen in the future, since each event is independent.

For me, this moment is a small personal exploration of what it means to have faith. The obvious facts indicate that I should act one way, but some other facts make me feel pretty clearly that I should act another way.

Tonight, I ate the peanut butter. It’s a simple action, but it’s also a crucial moment of faith. What do I believe to be true here? Do I believe I am OK? Do I believe I am holding poison in my hand? What am I going to choose? Am I going to act out of hope and love, or fear and suspicion?

On one hand I see a generality of what could happen to me, what has happened to some others before. Indeed, people have gotten sick and died from tampered food before. On the other hand I see the specifics of what is actually going to happen to me. From a phenomenological perspective, what actually happens to me is imminently more real for me than what I have read in the newspaper about someone else, what could potentially happen to me. I don’t need to bother myself with every possibility. Yet this requires a bit of faith, doesn’t it?

For me, this experience of faith is about comprehending the large number of general possibilities that could statistically occur, but having a clear sense of what is true for this specific situation, for me right here, right now. Sometimes that means going against the obvious evidence and paying attention to more subtle pieces of information. It is a fact that I have never gotten sick from intentionally compromised food in my entire life. All I know about that experience is what I’ve seen on TV. That’s a pretty important piece of data, yet it is harder to see than the in-my-face fact that the seal was broken.

I acknowledge that some people might have an immediate response that this is irresponsible and undermines the whole point of scientific thought. For instance, if we all decided to stop getting immunized against disease, that would have terrible consequences, for those diseases would likely reemerge in the population. Yet, let’s drop the general and focus on specifics. In a given winter I may decide I simply do not feel the urge to get the flu shot. It’s not because I don’t think it’s valid or I have faith I won’t get sick. It’s about prioritizing what I worry about. Some years, it’s just not worth my effort to be paranoid about getting the flu shot. It’s a subtle difference between generalities—modern medicine is immensely effective and important—and specifics—right now, I’m going to be fine without the shot.

The peanut butter was good. We’ll see if I am still around in the morning!

Sky Nelson-IsaacsComment