Seeing is believing. Or according to empiricism, certainty can only, or primarily, come through sensory experience. Based on that, the notorious question of whether it is possible to believe in something that we cannot see – more so if faith can be blind. The answer to this is long and philosophical, but it exists between two realities: do we see everything we believe in? Should we believe everything we see?
Classic Beliefs in Things We Can’t See
The classic anecdote is that: we believe in many things that we cannot see, like wind, oxygen and gravity. Our belief in those things is not mere – we believe wind changes and affects things, we think that without oxygen we cannot breathe (hence live), and that gravity is central to the subsistence of equilibrium.
While the matter is not simple, because the scientific method relies on observation, and we can confirm the existence of matters like wind and gravity through experiment, we can, in a similar manner, believe in God; as in the Qu’ran:
Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of the night and the day, and the [great] ships which sail through the sea with that which benefits people, and what Allah has sent down from the heavens of rain, giving life thereby to the earth after its lifelessness and dispersing therein every [kind of] moving creature, and [His] directing of the winds and the clouds controlled between the heaven and earth are signs for a people who use reason.” [Qur’an 2:164]. (1)
Belief in God
Even though we do not see God, and cannot confirm His existence in a laboratory, there exist signs around us which comply with there existing a higher being. God, the Almighty states in the Qur’an:
We will show them Our signs in the horizons and within themselves until it becomes clear to them that it is the truth. But is it not sufficient concerning your Lord that He is, over all things, a Witness?” [Qur’an 41:53](2)
So, while science cannot empirically verify that a God exists, science can prove a correspondence between religious doctrine and present-day knowledge. Another source of proof is God’s interaction with humankind, which is what is referred to as “within themselves” in the verse. Just like with gravity, we cannot see God, but we can detect His being through His effects on physical objects, on us.
Can We Always Trust What We See?
In retrospect, the real question becomes: can we always trust what we see? The renowned philosopher Rene Descartes attempted to answer this question in detail through his meditations, where he starts with radical doubt in order to break down reality and knowledge with the purpose of reconstruction on the firmer ground through Skepticism.
Descartes first assesses that reason and perception both cannot be trusted as it is possible we are mistaken about their deliverances; have you not, in the past, experienced a visual illusion? Or have you never confused a dream for reality?
This constructs that believing only what you see still makes you vulnerable to uncertain realities. And if we do rule out that you are not experiencing an illusion, how are you sure you are that an evil being controls you and makes you believe all that you do? One thing you can know for sure, however, is that you exist.
Role of Fitrah ‘ Common Sense’ in Belief
You know that you are at least a mind. Then, how does this prove that we can believe in something we cannot visually perceive? As Descartes puts it: your being doubtful makes you imperfect and unaware of all things, which means that there is a source to the concept of perfection, clearly not yourself; leading us to a conclusion: there must be a greater, unbounded power that precedes us, and if one exists, and exists since they think, it means there must be a reason for one’s existence. In Islamic theology, we can portray this mind as the soul, in which lies the instinct. This instinct is known as the fitrah, which all humans are born with. Inclining to this innate tendency is the belief that there exists a God. But because this fitrah must be perpetuated or is else altered, many people divert from this God-seeking instinct.
Pertaining to the idea of fitrah is Kant’s Transcendental Idealism, built on Rationalism, which constructs that the world is the product of the mind’s innate categorical structures – such as space, time, and causality. These cognitive structures affect our thought process in a sense which makes them influence the deliverances of our individual senses, hence our experience of the world.
Evidence of Prior Knowledge
But, according to Kant, what we observe exists beyond how we experience it (i.e. independently exists, Noumena) as much as it exists through how we observe it (Phenomena), and what truly makes our empirical experiences possible is our preceding knowledge (synthetic a priori knowledge).
In terms of God, this preceding knowledge relies mostly on the concept of morality, in the sense that the idea of a Higher power existing is a precondition on the reasonableness of our moral practices. In more elaborative terms, our concept of a just, omnipotent, omniscient Creator rationalizes and guides our behavior as an exemplar or pattern that we can strive to emulate.
So, while the concept of God is not a result of an empirical experience, our understanding constructs the concept, and the idea comes to play a role in our practical judgment.
The answer to whether we can believe in something we cannot see depends greatly on whether we limit seeing to visual discerning or if we allow it to extend to other means of observation, like reflection and deduction. Besides, empiricism would still not identify the source because it would only offer an empirical truth, which is not necessarily the ultimate truth, so in a way something will always be missing or unclear. The evidence you need lies in your own pondering; in answering the question: how many times have you seen God?