The Will to Believe and the Willfulness Not To
Saint Thomas discusses this in the first question of the Summa, pointing out that the science of theology is no different than any other, in the sense that it proceeds by drawing out the implications of first principles that are taken on faith, i.e., revelation. I'm not sure what this or that scientist would say are his first principles, because most scientists obviously don't bother with metaphysics, any more than your auto mechanic bothers with the physics of motion. And scientists who do dabble in metaphysics, such as Dawkins, are just incoherent.
The deeper point here is that it is impossible to think ourselves "all the way to the bottom of the cosmos," so to speak. Rather, at some point a free act of faith is required, emphasis on both words, free and act.
What this means is that the will is actually prior to the intellect, in that no one in a free society can force you to believe anything. At some point you have to choose to believe, even if it is choosing the idea that the laws of physics are an adequate explanation for everything.
Ideally one makes this choice consciously, but generally speaking, only religious people do this (at least in the west). In other words, everyone understands that an intrinsic aspect of religion is belief in the idea that the absolute principle has revealed itself to men. But as I have said on many occasions, the irreligious person usually believes the same thing, only implicitly and unconsciously, or in a garbled manner. There are very few genuine nihilists who have no faith in anything.
It should not be surprising that in our particular civilization, people who are supposedly ideological opposites are actually rooted in the same principles, for example, that the world is intelligible to human intelligence. This is not something that is believed in the Islamic world, since its first principles differ radically from ours. A major reason why the Islamic world has not "developed" is that their first principles make it impossible. To say that man may know natural things with his natural reason, independent of God, is just not kosher there.
Christian civilization has a much more expansive view of God, and with it, a much deeper appreciation of man's intrinsic dignity, nobility, and value. Here we are able to "partner up" with God and discover real truths about the cosmos.
But in Islam, God has no partners: there is no God but God. The idea that the Absolute would actually incarnate as a man is unthinkable and heretical. This is why the Koran makes allowances for Jesus, but only as a second rate prophet, certainly not as the Word made flesh.
But this distinctive idea of the enfleshment of God's Reason is again central to our civilization, whether you like it or not. The main difference between the believer and the atheist is simply in how far to take this principle. The atheist arbitrarily stops his journey into Truth midway, -- where it remains suspended in miderr, grounded in nothing -- whereas the believer remains focused on the only possible source and end of Truth, which is God.
To put it another way -- Saint Thomas's way -- "Of the practical sciences, that one is nobler which is ordained to a further purpose..." This is another way of making Wilber's point that a deeper explanation both transcends and includes a lower or more shallow one, say, the way in which relativity transcends and includes Newtonian physics.
But it also means that the value of science is determined by its end, which, in the end, is none other than ananda, or "celestial bliss," or heaven if you like. On first consideration this may sound strange, but again, it is simply a result of drawing first principles to their final deustination. All of you are aware of that tingle of delight that occurs when you grasp a deep truth. Now, just magnify that. That's ananda, baby.
To paraphrase Kreeft, things are either meaningful or they are not. This is a true either/or, for there is literally nothing in between. If things are not ultimately meaningful, then they are not meaningful, period.
Now, are things ultimately meaningful? The believer says yes, which is admittedly an act of faith. The atheist/nihilist says no, which is unadmittedly an act of faith. The difference is that our faith is rooted in Reason, whereas his is not, for the atheist has no real reason to believe anything at all.
Was that clear? This is the difficulty of "arguing" with a nihilist troll, when argument with him is impossible, precisely. It is impossible because a genuine argument can only take place if one's interlocuter has explicit principles to defend. If he has no principles, then he is just caviling, which is a very typical narcissistic defense, in that the clinical narcissist -- who is often developmentally arrested at the age of two or so -- can say "no" but not "yes."
In other words, this type of narcissist is very clear about what he doesn't like and doesn't believe. But to believe and defend requires a clear yes to things that are beloved (be-lief is related to be-loved).
Those of you who have had a two year old understand this well. In being defiant or negativisitic, the child is not trying to be difficult. Rather, he is simply trying to establish his boundaries as a separate individual. And obviously, his first attempts to do this will be clumsy and ham-handed, just like the first time he picks up a pencil.
But as Bobby Knight once said of journalists, "all of us learn to write in the second grade, but most of us go on to better things." It is the same with narcissism. All of us learn to say no by the time we're two years old, but most of us go on to saying yes to better things, e.g., truth, love, beauty, God, etc.
In contrast, the atheist spends his life saying no to God. Whether this is a result of a primitive boundary issue depends upon the individual case. It would be true of the militant atheists I have known, but I doubt if it applies to the person who is just indifferent to God. They usually have a different sort of malady.
Now, the "yes" of faith is not without its potential problems and pitfalls -- for example, "blind faith," or a bogus certitude of things about which man can never be certain. Faith is not certitude.
But nor is it doubt, opinion, or supposition, which all have their own distinct definitions. I believe that Thomas distinguishes it from knowing, but as I mentioned yesterday, I believe it is a variety of knowing, or a tacit foreknowledge of as yet undiscovered truths, very much as Polanyi describes the attitude of the scientist, who can somehow distinguish between potentially fruitful and fruitless avenues of discovery.
It reminds me of this: have you ever had the experience of knowing that you don't know something vs. knowing that you do, but just can't remember it? Often I will have the instantaneous experience of knowing I don't know something, and that there is no point in trying to recall it. But other times I have the instantaneous experience that I do know it. And I don't necessarily mean that I can recall the answer if I try, but that the answer is knowable.
The closest approximation I can think of at the moment is a certain ability to know whether or not there is potential humor in a situation, or whether it's not worth the try -- for example, in coming up with a funny caption for a photo. Somehow, a part of me is able to instantaneously know whether I will be able to come up with a gag, before I've come up with it. Often I have the strong feeling that I know there's a joke here! Keep trying! I should add that this is a very different dynamic than forced humor, which is usually a result of ignoring the voice that says "no gag here. Move on."
So, just as we can smell the potential humor in a situation, or sniff the potential discovery in the data, we can sense the sacred -- the presence of God -- in certain beliefs and principles. Otherwise, no one would believe. Everyone would be exactly like the atheist who looks at Christianity and says "what a bunch of nonsense. No point in exploring that avenue." In the words of a particular two year-old of our acquaintance, "it's just a very long-lived personality cult. I should cleave to Jesus because he said so and lots of other people have too. Forgive me if I'm not the least bit interested."
Nothing in, nihilism out.