In trying to understand how to value both spiritual and scientific information, I've found the following analogy helpful.
I think everyone in the world is constantly engaged in assessing what is likely to be true, and the assessment is the sum of calculations our mind is constantly performing in the background. It's as if reality is a mathematical function of endless complexity that includes erratic twists and turns when graphed on a Cartesian plane. From the moment we're born, as humans, we gather bits and pieces of information and incorporate them as variables into our own equation that approximates that graph of real reality. The more successfully we are able to match our conception of reality with actual reality, the more empowered we become.
Early on we realize that our variables must be weighted with a relevant coefficient to achieve the best results. Certain pieces of information are deemed reliable and others are judged to be anomalous and are consequently given a low coefficient. We learn to be alternately skeptical and trusting in certain circumstances. We solve parts of the overall equation all the time, compartmentalizing and simplifying the data we have to keep in mind on an ongoing basis. Occasionally we find a clever way to resolve a set of variables that others may miss. It's natural and inevitable that variables drop out over time, either by being incorporated into some larger statement, or from being relegated to the distant past of forgotten experience.
We also have the opportunity to get huge swaths of the equation second-hand from parents and teachers. We can plug this data into our equation to see if it works, or add the information piece by piece based on our own experiences.
There is an inevitable challenge in managing this equation. Some previously resolved portion of the formula eventually ends up contradicting another. There's a division by zero, of sorts. Sometimes when this happens, you can go back and check the math, but that can be entirely impractical for sections of the formula that have incorporated hundreds of thousands of variables over years.
So, we add coefficients. We fudge. And I think we all do this out of necessity. We choose to devalue certain pieces of information to a fraction of their original value because they come into direct conflict with other more powerfully verified portions of the formula. The effort is always to judge rationally which terms carry more collective weight, which have more collective evidence. In really troubling instances, spot checks help sort out the facts. But often there are is no apparent way out of the mess despite that plenty in the peanut gallery claim a certain way to be the only legitimate one--and they frequently don't agree with each other.
The art of life, in my opinion, is learning how to best manage the whole enterprise. We all do it whether we realize it or not--it's just part of life as a biological creature. We assign coefficients to the evidence that presents itself in the cleverest way possible. Ideally we learn how to efficiently secure solved portions of the equation with the highest relevance and value. Life is about finding balance.
Some get carried away inflating the value of some information while zeroing out others. A piece of information zeroed out for its incompatibility with some other weighty established phrase may seem inconsequential alone, but if enough data is neglected serially over a long period of time, the person has managed to deceive himself thoroughly. It is this self-deception that many attribute to people of faith.
Another self-deception happens when new information is given higher credibility than old merely because of it's immediacy on the mind. Years of experience corroborated with a steady stream of consistent information is thrown away in an instant because of some plausible new bit at odds. Certain significant memories of a more ethereal character are more likely to be forgotten. They have to be vigilantly kept in the fore-front to be kept at all.
On the other hand, some people try admirably to keep all the data unmodified, accepting only raw information of the most demonstrable nature as legitimate. This approach is wonderfully successful for filling in certain parts of the graph, but is too inefficient to cover much and largely neglects certain key portions of the graph.
Being fully aware of the aforementioned limitations and pitfalls, I sit perched with my number two pencil and my sheet of graph paper wondering how best to tackle the variables I've assembled. I decide to compartmentalize where possible, and address the data by prioritizing by urgency, importance, and purpose. The process perpetuates itself as solved portions of the equation cast new light on previously obscure variables. In this way I'm persuaded by preliminary results that hope, when used judiciously, can sometimes be a legitimate coefficient. I'm persuaded that observance of certain rituals and covenants has surprising power, while others are silly or harmful. I'm persuaded that Occam's razor isn't always the final word.
The fact that I believe in free will leads me to believe that how I manage the effort will be an expression of who I am most fundamentally. Plunging the depth and breadth, traversing the whole while scooping up critical minutia here and there--it's all an art, a rewarding enterprise, and an expression of my soul.
Index to series:
Rational faith 1: Science
Rational faith 2: Spirituality
Rational faith 3: Grand unifying theory
Rational faith 4: Creative calculus
Rational faith 5: Wrap up