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The Paradox of Trust

May 21, 2011

The other way while at church, the pastor did a sermon emphasizing the importance of having a relationship with God, and how because God was infinite and perfect, that we are able to trust God even more than we can trust ourselves. Due to the very nature of infinite (uncontrollable, unknowable) and perfection (noncommittal, due to inherent independence), I find these assertions to be fundamentally absurd, but they do shed light on the most important issue of trust in relationships– namely, the paradox of trust.

The paradox of trust, stated simply, is that “you can’t trust someone you don’t know, and you can’t begin to know someone without first trusting them; it’s a sort of chicken-egg  type paradox; There is only one way to resolve this paradox, and even that way is an inherently fallacious one: faith. In other words, you give them the benefit of the doubt– that a person is who they present themselves to be.

This isn’t so unnatural of a means of getting to know someone– in fact, it is the only method of knowing anything. Even the most basic building blocks of truth– “truth” at the epistemological level– are something that we can neither prove or disprove, and so we must take it on good faith that these “truths”, which we call “axioms”, are in fact true. There is no evidence, for example, that 1+1=2, other than the inherent, intuitive knowledge that adding a single item to another single item, will create two items. There is no evidence that this is the case, and yet we build the entire science of arithmetic on this “fact” that we can neither prove or disprove– we just “know.” Thus, even when comes to the most simple of knowledge– even with the most fundamental and mundane truths that reality itself is built on, we must take on good faith, and put our trust in what we neither know nor understand; without such blind faith, after all, the whole of reality would be unable to sustain itself, and chaos would become an inevitability.

Applying the same necessity of  “good faith” in relationships, these axioms– basic premises of “getting to know someone”– become even more complex, and people have a tendency to misrepresent themselves for fear of being rejected. Very few people will represent themselves as they truly are– but as people want them to be, or as they themselves want to be. These lies and deceptions cause misunderstandings, and give us every reason not to trust each other; after all, if even the unbiased, fair, and heart-on-its-sleeve universe can only be trusted through a show of good faith, how much more it is to trust the myriad majority of people who deliberately misrepresent themselves in pursuit of their own selfish and cutthroat ends?

But nevertheless, we all have to start somewhere. For life to be meaningful requires communication, and communication trust. So if we are to enjoy all the meaning in life, we need to learn to trust each other. Perhaps if we could trust each other  more not to reject each other, and stop living lives in fear of such a rejection, we wouldn’t need to lie to be accepted, and all the lies and deceptions that cause the mistrust in the first place would cease to exist. We are going to have to learn to trust each other, before talking about having a relationship with God; after all, if you can’t even completely trust your friends and family, how can you expect to be able to have even the most basic relationship with the unseeable, unknowable, incomprehensible and perfect God? To have a good relationship with God, first have a good relationship with people– walk before you run, as they say.

The paradox of trust, like all paradoxes, is not a pessimistic claim that trust is not possible, but merely that trust requires something that knowledge cannot provide faith. To resolve the paradox of trust requires going outside what one knows, and giving the benefit of the doubt, so as to lay the groundwork for getting to know someone, or something, in the first place. Once faith establishes the foundation necessary to begin to truly understand each other, the knowledge built upon that faith is itself what validates that faith, ironically. To trust requires a bit of guesswork at first, but once you got the basics down, it all starts to make sense, and that’s when you can begin to really get to know something, someone, or (if you believe in him!), to get to know God himself.

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