May. 23rd, 2007 03:31 pm
haggholm: (Default)
[personal profile] haggholm

Written about a month ago when I got involved in a debate forum, which I subsequently abandoned because it inspired me to write this.

One of the psychological phenomena most puzzling to me is the one called faith. I do not mean in the secular sense in which the word is sometimes employed (I have faith in your ability to do this), but the religious sense, which I define as belief without evidence. It may be that some theist reading this takes offence at that statement, but I have never once seen the word employed in a context where evidence is available. Rather, You must have faith! is a statement frequently used or resorted to when no evidence exists (or when purported evidence is overthrown).

Let me reiterate this, because it's important and easily leads to a debate about semantics—well, semantics (the meaning of words) do matter, so let's nail them down for the purpose of this debate! If you tell me (actual example of what I've been told) You have faith that the building you are in will not collapse, I will assert that it is not the same thing. This is faith based on reason and experience. There are thousands of similar buildings around that do not spontaneously collapse, and there is no reason to believe that this one differs in a crucial way from those. It has stood for a long time and shows no sign of structural damage. Architects have staked their reputations and livelihood on the safety margins, and engineers and construction workers staked their lives in working on it. In other words, there is plenty of evidence that the building won't collapse. You can call this faith if you like; I call it reasonable belief and use the word faith to refer to belief not based on such tangible evidence. Like this definition or not, please keep it in mind as you read on.

So what's this religious faith about, then? It seems to be about believing what you have been told without being given any specific reason to believe that it is true. It may take the form of believing everything you are told by your pastor, rabbi, yogic guru, or imam. It may consist in considering the Bible, the Qur'an, the Veda scrolls, or the Elder Edda inerrant. Strangely, it may sometimes consist in taking one of these scriptures—the Bible, say—and believing some of the things it says based on no other evidence, whilst discarding other bits (generally ones that offend the believer's moral sensibilities). It seems to me that this is based on an a priori assumption that the scripture as a whole is true, and each statement should be held true unless proven false; whereas a rationalist world view (one to which I adhere) demands that we consider every claim suspect unless some evidence can be shown to support it.

Sometimes excuses are offered up to this; the most recent, the lamest, and the most amusing that I have heard to date it this, to paraphrase: The Bible contains scientific accuracies. It's hard to believe that's not a joke, is it not? Pretty much every book in existence makes some mention of things that are scientifically verifiable—the Bible, the Qur'an, the Illuminatus! trilogy, and even, I expect Mein Kampf; this in no way lends credibility to their general contents. I could take any load of nonsense and insert some facts.

But most of the time it seems to come down to…well, to nothing at all, really; just blind faith without any kind of rational, evidentiary, or logical support.

And people use the word faith as though it had positive connotations!

There is another word that describes the same phenomenon, and one which, although its meaning (within the context being discussed) appears closely related to faith, has very different connotations; that word is credulity—though in a very contextual form. I'm sure that many readers (or at least `many' relative to the total size of my readership…) will consider this an offensive statement when applied to religion. Oddly, the same is probably not true with respect to any other topic. Consider a text that is some two thousand years old, and consider a person who, although he has no corroborating evidence for its claims, believes whole-heartedly in it and will allow nothing to change his mind. If it is a text on astronomy, or anatomy, or physics (on an earthly scale), I am sure we will all agree that he is just plain wrong-headed. If it is a text on religion—on the origins of life—on the nature of the universe on a grander scale—why, then, nothing could be more sound than believing; it is not credulity, but faith!

(Since I first wrote this little essay, this comic went up, rather neatly accentuating the above.)

What really puzzles me is that some people go on to describe this as a virtue. Some people would have us believe that it is better to go on blind faith than to use reason and critical thinking. I can see why they should like people to do so—but what benefit can this possibly have for the followers of the creed?—it is all too obvious how it benefits the leaders.

Date: 2007-05-24 04:26 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I don't understand how your reasonable belief that the building won't collapse is not still faith. The fact that other buildings haven't collapsed isn't evidence about anything with this new building -- its not even obvious that its reasonable to assume that experience we have accumulated applies to anything in the present or future.

You can't prove to me that everytime I let go of this ball its going to drop, and just because it did the last 10 times doesn't mean I have any evidence to prove its going to drop the next time.

There is no proof that the "rules" of the universe don't change.

Why is believing that they don't "reasonable belief" and not "blind faith"?

Date: 2007-05-24 04:36 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Absolute proof is a matter of mathematics and philosophy, not empirical sciences. There's certainly evidence that the rules of the universe don't change, though. I can make observations one day and note the way things happen—objects I drop fall down, light bulbs grow hot after glowing for a while, drinking water does not cause me to combust, and structurally sound buildings do not collapse. If I assume that the rules of the universe stay the same, then I can make the prediction that the same things will happen the next day. So far this has held true, and I have not a single data point to indicate the contrary, so it seems reasonable to assume that the rules are constant. If someone can demonstrate that at any time gravitation was repulsive or structurally sound buildings spontaneously collapsed, then it might be reasonable to assume that the rules change.

Of course we cannot absolutely know anything based on observation, because the measurements may be inaccurate, or it may just be that the exceptions to the rules we perceive are extremely rare and we have not observed them yet but may in the future—but we may infer that the probability of things such as the above is extremely low, and live out our lives making choices based on the assumption that they most probably won't ever happen.

That seems to work fairly well for me. I'm even going to go out on a limb and bet that you, too, assume that gravitation will in all likelihood remain an attractive force.

This is also a testable (or falsifiable) hypothesis. I make the assertion that gravitation is attractive; you are free to attempt to disprove it. It can be done: All you need to do is describe a way to drop a ball and have it repulsed or unaffected by gravitation.

Reasonable belief, then, is based on observed evidence and testable hypotheses. Blind faith is defined by exclusion: Assertions made that are not based on observable evidence and generate no falsifiable predictions.

Date: 2007-05-24 05:55 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I might also point out that an expectation of constancy is necessary in order for reason to have any value whatsoever. If we assume that the laws of the universe may change arbitrarily at any moment, then there is no rationale for any specific belief or behaviour; you may as well flail your limbs at random and spout some gibberish (in the hope of thereby turning into a unicorn, which subsists on sunlight alone) as eat a sandwich to still your hunger—the two are equivalent. Why not? If we cannot make somewhat reliable predictions—that is, figure out what is more or less likely to happen next—then thoughts are of no value.

Religion, too, tends to assume a priori a certain constancy in the nature of the universe. A Christian, for instance, assumes that his god, Yahwe, will not suddenly turn into Satan; that his Heaven and Hell will not change places and designations; and that the Bible has not at some point been modified into a set of subtle, very convincing, but spiritually corrupting instructions written by the devil to lead people to damnation. (The latter, I think, is amusing to contemplate. It would probably be even more amusing to see a theist attempt to refute this type of speculative argument.)

Date: 2007-05-24 06:38 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Just because constancy is required for reason to have any value doesn't make it anymore reasonable to believe that constancy exists.

The problem with your arguments is that they all depend on that constancy exists, but you have no reason to believe or proof that it does. So your belief in constancy seems to be just faith, and from that you build the rest of your reality.

I share your idea that without constancy we might as well flail around and hope for stuff to happen, or whatever. But just because without it a lot of the stuff we do or think are true are useless doesn't mean that it exists.

I'm not saying we should just abandon all hope of anything and flail about, but at least admit what in our own beliefs happens to be just faith too. Science isn't truth.

Date: 2007-05-24 06:55 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Did you not read my other comment, to which this was but a side note? I will reiterate the key point: There is no evidence—not a single datum—to indicate that the physical laws of the universe are arbitrarily mutable in the fashion you describe. I do not arbitrarily assume that they are constant; I draw upon a vast body of evidence in the form of the observations made by myself and others. Mankind has observed gravity (albeit at a very low level of understanding) for thousands of years, and over billions upon billions of observations, not a single time has it failed to act on free masses. I therefore conclude that with a very high probability (, gravitation is a fact.


Science isn't truth. Science is a process whereby we seek the truth, by means of systematically determining which candidates for the truth are more probable.

Date: 2007-05-24 07:48 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Religion is scientific; at least, my set of spiritual beliefs which I call my "religion" are scientifically accrued beliefs. I touch on this in that email I sent you.

- Keith

Date: 2007-05-24 08:16 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Maybe I don't understand your definition of evidence, but your reasoning seems pretty circular.

For you to draw any conclusion about the future from past events, you have to know that constancy is a fact.

Then you use the idea that you predict the future based on past occurences (and call this evidence) to say that constancy is a fact.

What am I misunderstanding here?

Date: 2007-05-24 09:55 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I use predictions to test the notions of constancy. If I assume that certain physical laws hold constant, then I can generate predictions from those physical laws: If the laws are indeed constant, I shall expect my predictions to hold, whereas if they are not, I have no reason to suppose that they will be correct. Since such predictions are very much feasible and do tend to generate accurate predictions, it seems highly probable that there is constancy.

Date: 2007-05-24 07:04 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]

Another sidenote. You said:

Just because constancy is required for reason to have any value doesn't make it anymore reasonable to believe that constancy exists.

In general, the argument you make is an argument against wishful thinking: Just because you'd like X to be true, that does not make X any more likely to be true. In its general form, of course, I agree with you. However—I admit that I'm waxing philosophical here!—I would argue that this is a special case.

By your own admission, if constancy exists, then reason works; if constancy does not exist, then reason is worthless. Your assertion is that it is not therefore reasonable to assume that constancy exists. However, if constancy does not exist, then as we have already agreed, reason is of no value, and to say that my position is unreasonable is an assertion with no value at all. Making sense and being reasonable are concepts limited to a universe with constancy. In other words, either constancy exists, and I am right; or constancy does not exist, and being right or being wrong are states without meaning.

Please note this time that this is but a philosophical side note, not main matter.

Date: 2007-05-24 08:19 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Yeah, I pretty much agree with this. I mean, it seems to be a pretty hopeless situation to not have constancy, and I don't advocate believing that it doesn't exist because we wouldn't make any "progress" anywhere.

I'm merely arguing that we be honest about what we are taking on faith to proceed.

Date: 2007-05-24 05:45 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I'm currenltly reading The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky, which is a kind of interesting comment on the whole thing.

Date: 2007-05-25 12:20 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I will read it as soon as the library emails me and tells me it's back in. (Imagine, I can get books for free, and they'll even hunt them down for me… I really need to break this addiction to book stores.)

Date: 2007-05-24 08:04 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
"Fides et ratio" = faith and reason. These are the two faculties of the human intellect, that is, of the human power to know. You can know things through the one faculty: reason. An example: it makes sense that since [(5 x 5 x5)/5] = 5^2 = 5 x 5, and [(5 x 5)/5] = 5 = 5^1, then 5^0 = one, because 1 = [(5)/5]. (When I learned why anything to the zero power equals one, I was overjoyed with how logical it was. Bc seriously it made no sense to me why all of a sudden anything to the zero power was one.)

Faith is the other side of the coin, the other means by which people know things. That other anonymous dude's argument makes sense: you DO take things on faith everyday. "take things on faith" = know something via faith. I take it on faith that my chair will support me when I sit down on it; I take it on faith that my mother loves me; that sculpture is beautiful; etc. Such things cannot be proven in the conventional sense that things known via the faculty of REASON can be proven, but that does not make them less true.

I have faith in my religious beliefs, but not because I feel there is no logical argument to explain what's really going on and thus I just cite "faith" as my reason to believe, because it's easier that way. (The alternative would be to abandon my belief system, which is a life-changing, effortful process, so I'll just be lazy, you argue, and say some nonsense about faith.)

No, rather I really feel that my beliefs are truth: BUT, by saying I know them through faith, I am saying I know them via a very specific method, or faculty.

No one ever did an experiment and concluded that God is a benevolent being, who sent his son, or concluded that Ganesh is the god of good fortune; no. These are things known through faith. But faith is a way of knowing, though I definitely agree: many people incorrectly use the term, citing it as their reason to believe in God when they feel their arguments are exhausted.

You will find I am much more amenable to concession. If I lack a response to your arguments, I will gladly tell you so, because that's the whole point of dialogue. I want to come to the point where I am forced to admit "defeat", because that, to me, is a success. If you can change my mind, by all means.

Date: 2007-05-24 10:10 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]

Even if you express it in Latin, I'm not convinced that faith is much of an intellectual faculty. The two faculties necessary for science are reason and observation of evidence. In my experience, the scientific method is the best method available for figuring out what's true and what isn't.

Here is where it seems we are arguing about semantics, and I refer back to the caveat early in the essay itself:

I do not mean in the secular sense in which the word is sometimes employed (I have faith in your ability to do this), but the religious sense, which I define as belief without evidence. It may be that some theist reading this takes offence at that statement, but I have never once seen the word employed in a context where evidence is available. Rather, You must have faith! is a statement frequently used or resorted to when no evidence exists (or when purported evidence is overthrown).

That is, I employ the word faith throughout the essay (and, in fact, in my everyday speech) to denote what you might call blind faith—faith without evidentiary support. You don't have blind faith in your chair's ability to support you: You have direct evidence that it can, because you have sat on it without having it collapse. You have indirect evidence that your mother loves you, because she has done kind and probably self-sacrificing things for you; you have observed these acts and inferred love from their existence. (The sculpture bit is a matter of opinion not fact and so irrelevant.) These, then, are beliefs supported by evidence, not blind faith.

This is very different from the case with religion. The Christian does not have any evidence for the existence of Yahweh, let alone any of the myriad very specific claims made in even those choice sections of the Bible he actually believes in.

The theist who claims to have evidence for the existence of his god enters another realm entirely. If you want to call his belief in that god's existence faith still, then so be it, but you are then using the word in a different sense from that which I (explicitly!) employed in my essay. While I have encountered many theists who claim to have evidence and reason on their side, however, I have yet to meet any who stand up long to scrutiny.


Date: 2012-04-17 02:25 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Let me start by affirming with my brothers and sisters in Christ that the faith we've entered into is not without evidence. Much as biologists observe cellular structures so we have observed nature and from it conclude that these things have been created by God. As we have observed people, places and things we conclude that something greater than ourselves must exist. Who this God is from that point we may differ but the theist never concludes that God exists apart from evidence.... So faith... it is the medium by which we invest our lives in that which is unseen. This is not blind faith, this faith is a step by step (sometimes experimental) process that we take based on the evidence that God presents before us based on the premise that possibly there is a God who exists... Consider... most if not all believers in Jesus were at one time unbelievers, many of us were skeptics in short "God made believers out of us."

The very deduction process that you've come to believe that there is no God is the very process by which we have come to believe in this God that you love to reject.

My life is an interesting one, unlike crazy testimonies that you may have heard, I placed my life/faith/trust in Christ after praying and seeking and seeing God answer through people in with such consistency that I could not avoid the truth that he really exists. Pain was not the ultimate factor in my placing my faith in Him it was the evidence. I prayed/talked to God (who I could not see) and he sent people to tell me about him and people who challenged my current belief system at the time -- your modern day prophets as it were. Upon considering the facts, that yes I was in fact immoral, symptoms include, I was a liar ( I lied plenty of times in my life), I was a thief (I'd stolen before), I was greedy (I longed heavily for other men's wives), etc. In light of these facts based on seeing the evidence of God's law/Bible and how I transgressed - I asked, "God if "this Jesus person" was real I really need Him." In light of the evidence I was a criminal condemned by my very nature which is constantly against God. From that point on I was changed. There was evidence of this new birth that the Bible affirms -- "Wow this Jesus is really real, I exclaimed!" So it is with me.

God continues to show up in my life and not only mine, but others big and small, the intellectual and "dumb" (as you say). Based on evidence we continue to trust/put our faith in Jesus, our evidence mostly now being the bible. It speaks truthfully about this world and the people in it, so I and many others deduce that it can be trusted as God's word. God is answering promises laid out in these scriptures continually. So it is with great probability that I can say trust in the Lord Jesus and receive forgiveness from your sins or stand condemned before him in the great day of judgment when he will deal completely with your sin and lawlessness.


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Petter Häggholm

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