Hello Pascal and friends! 🙂
There’s been some renewed discussion about faith and evidence in the last few posts and comments. I’ve touched on my issues with “faith” in previous posts like Is Love a Good Reason to Believe?, including why the word makes me uneasy as a non-believer. It’s been a while, though, and this is an important topic and we should try to come to an agreement while we’re covering it.
Pascal, in the last post you quoted Mike who had said the following:
… I’m certainly not adverse to … doing my best to convince others to embrace evidence based thinking instead of faith.
Thank you for the guest post, Mike! Very well done! 🙂
After this quote, Pascal, you highlighted that faith and evidence may be an acceptable approach for you and not an acceptable approach for me. You said:
… Russell and I have often reached a point of impasse here. Is the word instead correct? I feel that it is the pivot of the sentence at least, likely the paragraph, perhaps the thesis.
Let’s reason this out and clarify our differences. They may not be as stark and opposed as it seems. I have the floor while you’re hiking a mountain with your amazing family, so I’ll explain what faith means to me and you can tell me where you find disagreement.
At the risk of being far too long winded and spending too much of my limited time on this post (it’s already after 11 PM and I have an early start to a busy week tomorrow), I’ll try to keep this much shorter that I want to and save details for follow-up comments. Who am I kidding. That just means it will be 4k instead of 10k words. Haha. Onward.
Whether or not Socrates actually said this, I find it both cliché and extremely relevant.
The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.
What do we mean by faith? If communication is a transference of an idea from one person’s mind to another person’s, and if information theory (I’m almost finished with The Information and it’s one of my favorite books) cares about how accurately that idea is replicated, it seems essential that we cancel out the confusion and noise caused by potential meanings we don’t intend when we use words like “faith.”
Here are a few of the many, many potential things that will come to someone’s mind when one mentions faith. This is all off the top of my head, and I’m sure each of you can add many more. The point I want to make is that they tend to fall into three basic categories. Some definitions put faith in a positive light, some a more neutral, and some are more negative.
Neutral definitions of “faith”
2. Desire or expectation
3. Belief, confidence or trust in a person, object, religion, idea or view. (Dictionary.com)
Anti-faith definitions non-believers tend to hold
4. Blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence (Richard Dawkins)
5. Believing something for no good reason (Matt Dillahunty)
6. Only needed when there is insufficient evidence to hold a desired belief
7. Wishful thinking – I hope it’s true therefore I have complete confidence
8. A bias, especially special pleading, that is thus less likely to lead to truth
9. That which is required to move one in a desired direction from a position of non-belief to a position of belief
Religiously-based definitions of “faith” that believers tend to hold
10. The substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. (Heb 11:1)
11. Complete trust or confidence; based on spiritual apprehension rather than truth (Google or Siri grabbed this from somewhere)
12. An educated decision about a personal religious conviction, based on evidence, and not blind
13. A virtuous quality (something worthy to be desired, the more faith you have the more righteous you are) that makes one right with God
14. That which is granted by God to some, in varying degrees, in order to fulfill his plans.
See the Christianity section of the Wikipedia page on Faith for more interpretations.
What follows is my take on these definitions and some recommendations to readers that might help more of us increase our understanding of one-another’s perspective. Let me pause here and say that my view is not “the right view.” People come to this from different angles and my goal is not to convince anyone that X is how faith “should be interpreted.” What I hope to do here is clarify “why,” in many cases, there is disagreement between believers and non-believers about the virtue of faith. This comes from my own limited perspective, so add it to yours only if it helps. 🙂
Why the neutral definitions of faith (1-3) should be avoided
Recommendation #1: Don’t use “faith” as a substitute for a better word with a clearer meaning
If we mean something like #1-3, we should consider using words other than “faith” unless we are certain that everyone in the audience is on the same page. When we replace perfectly good and appropriate words like, confidence, trust, belief, etc., with nebulous words like faith, we risk causing some to misunderstand our meaning due to the ambiguity of “faith.” For example, if you believe in Young Earth Creationism and you tell an atheist she “has faith in Evolution or Darwinism that is no different from the faith you have,” you’re conflating two different definitions in the mind of your audience. I’ll explain why in a moment. If you use the word “confidence” instead of faith, you remove this ambiguity. You also reduce the chance that a non-believer will assume you mean “religious faith.” There is a strong difference between confidence, or trust, (terms where “faith” is often inserted) and religious faith. It’s this key difference that is usually being conflated in most of these scenarios. So, if you mean confidence, say confidence. If you mean trust, say trust. Save “faith” for religious faith, unless you really know your audience and “faith” fits what they’ve expect for the context, or unless you’re willing to take the time explaining what you mean in more detail.
Why non-believers should be cautious when using the anti-faith definitions (4-9)
If we choose to assert, like Dawkins did (#4), that the trust girding faith is blind, we are erecting a straw man. Perhaps you can think of a belief that isn’t based on some evidence, but I cannot. The question is not whether evidence is present, but whether that evidence is of the caliber that warrants the level of belief a person is assigning to it. Dawkins does have a point that some faith, particularly some religious faith, is held in spite of what should be compelling evidence in opposition. However, the pivot is here: compelling to whom? They have sufficient evidence in their mind, or, by definition, they wouldn’t believe what they have faith in. Is their manner of reasoning about their evidence grounded in a mechanism that is more likely to lead to objective truth? That is the key question.
Definition 5 also turns on this point. What is “good” evidence? That is where the believer and the non-believer tend to differ, and it is the real heart of the issue about the meaning of faith. I just made up definitions 6-9 but most of them probably came form my subconscious after being reconstructed from something I previously heard. As a non-believer, I should be careful before thinking of faith this way because each use of the word requires it’s own evaluation. People often don’t mean “religious faith” when they say “faith,” and even religious faith doesn’t always meet the criteria listed in 6-9.
Why non-believers tend to distrust the religious definitions of “faith” (10-14)
First, let me say that I have immense respect for faith. I know that statement won’t sit well with many of my fellow non-believers, but I must be honest. I know the indwelling presence of joy and strength that comes from faith first-hand. It is a confidence, an assurance, an acceptance and a love like no other. Neuroscience might note that it can act like an addiction and a high like any other positive endorphin trip. That doesn’t change the experience. I just wanted to start by identifying with the believers before I explain why the feelings, while deeply treasured, are still subject to the assessment that follows.
The first definition in that set (10) makes faith sound like something to be avoided – at least that’s what the rational parts of my conscious mind say (some believer’s may call that the devil). Paul sounds poetic and it’s in the Bible so a vast number of people take it to be God’s definition and wholly accurate. This is just the KJV but please look up the possible meanings of the words in the Strong’s concordance. I use this almost every time I look up a verse in the Bible. Here’s the link to Hebrews 11:1 where this faith verse is recorded. Click the words to where else they’re used in the Bible. Click the Strong’s numbers to see the possible meanings that the words may have.
The problem I’m seeing with Paul’s definition is the same problem many non-theists probably see with most religiously based definitions they hear. Non-theists, this is my personal assessment so please let me know whether or not you agree with the following. Religious definitions of faith are in opposition to the best tools of reasoning we have for determining Truth.
I experience the sublime, but at the end of the day, the substance of hope is really best described as just “hope.” “Evidence of things unseen” is either no evidence or weak evidence, in my opinion. So, in a sense, it seems as though he’s defining faith to be hope, courage, conviction, etc., that is based on non-testable and weak evidence. That sounds very much like poor reasoning that doesn’t take advantage of what we’ve learned about coming to true beliefs since Aristotle (before Paul) and in the scientific revolution in the last four hundred years. It was written before modern philosophy of science so we can’t expect it to have taken that into account, right? The two problems that keep that from being convincing to me are that it was written post-Aristotle, and it was supposedly divine. It could have used Plato/Socrates/Aristotle-like reasoning as a basis for determining which beliefs to hold with which level of certainty, but it did the opposite and left the door open for almost all the fallacies and biases of human reasoning to enter what we accept as true. Despite 1 Thessalonians 5:21 which tells us to test all things, we aren’t given any tools for testing that will have a high chance of leading us to truth. Testing them against the Bible is circular and thus shouldn’t be believed with full-confidence. In addition, Biblical faith makes predictions that are testable and don’t pass the test when measured (e.g. the average success-rate of prayer).
Please don’t write me off as a post-modernist strong-naturalist steeped in scientism. I’m actually none of those things, by my interpretation of them. I have reasons for believing what I do about epistemology and the good brought about by the modern philosophy of science. I don’t believe it’s the answer to every question, but I know what it’s strengths and limits are. Coming to “true beliefs” is a strength it has over “reasoning without it.” More on that in a minute.
Definition 11 isn’t any better. If complete trust is to be based on spiritual apprehension rather than on truth, this highlights the problem neatly. It’s about what we value more – a false belief that feels excellent out of the box or a true belief that we have to work at before it will feel good after leaving the false belief.
Please note that I’m not saying anything about the truth or falsity of the beliefs the Bible relates. All these arguments are equally applicable to any religious, political or other ideology. The question is not whether the Bible’s claims are true or false, but whether or not the mechanism it outlines for belief is one that is more likely to lead to True beliefs. As Matt Dillahunty has pointed out, our goal should be to minimize the number of false beliefs and maximize the number of true beliefs we hold. We should all strive to hold as many true beliefs and as few false beliefs as possible. If that’s our goal, we must recognize the following.
Promoting certainty of belief in concepts that we hope are true, but for which we have little evidence, is a poor method of coming to objectively true beliefs. It may make us feel good, but even if it leads to a belief that is true but non-demonstrable, we can’t relate that knowledge to others because it’s subjective by nature. In that case it is indistinguishable from the follies of our bias reasonings and logical fallacies which, when discovered, leave many of us either deeply questioning our faith or deeply opposed to what we see as the “religion of science” or “liberal intellectualism.” Any angle I examine it, I can’t find Paul’s definition of faith to be more virtuous, righteous, or valuable in terms of leading to truth than evidence-based reasoning. If truth is individual, given by God, and steeped in a web of flawed human reasoning that opposes the order or critical thought, then I still want to know it but I can’t get there.
Definitions 12 through 14 don’t make religious faith sound any more desirable, to me personally, as a path to truth. I made them up anyway. Saying a decision is educated also makes it more prone to the the MR thing I wrote about in Why I respect Pascal (I won’t write the words here since I told some important people that I’d stop mentioning it :)). Definition 14 is actually the one I’m the most okay with because it has a clear meaning within the religious context and doesn’t prescribe anything directly about how we ought to reason. I find it dubious, but I don’t take umbrage with it. I used to believe I had it and I miss it.
Why else do non-believers feel uneasy when someone says they have faith (and don’t clarify that they don’t mean religious faith)
I want to wrap this up quickly but there is a lot to cover here. I’ll try to make it quick and save most of what I was going to say for a later time. The short answer, in my opinion, is that religious faith tends to demand a level of certainty beyond the level for which it can justify good evidence.
A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence. – David Hume
When I say good evidence, I do mean evidence that can be tested and falsified. In Paul’s time, personal conviction may have been “good evidence.” I don’t think so, because he had Aristotle who’s principles would have led to much better evidence, but then again, Plato’s logic include “forms” and was more of an armchair philosophy compared to the modern empirical sciences which are significantly more accurate. Either way, it seems undeniable to me that, by today’s standards, Paul’s definitions of religious faith do not qualify as good evidence today. Why?
First, listen to this audio lecture. Seriously. If you do I’ll celebrate your awesomeness in a post and email you a secret family dessert recipe. Pascal listened to it. 🙂 I know you’ll like the course because you read this far. If you made it this far you definitely have what it takes to make it through that awesome audio.
Second, briefly, science is a subset of reason. Life forms have been reasoning about the world, their environment, themselves, each other, etc., for millions of years or more. Humans for hundreds of thousands. That reasoning power is great at self-preservation, but not engineered for finding truth. There are many flaws in our reasoning. For an idea, read The Problem, and skim the Wikipedia pages for cognitive biases and logical fallacies. The vast majority of these effect each of us every day and we are completely unaware. This is another excellent audio book on the subject. The bottom line is that if there is an objective reality (and I believe there is), we do not observe it. We construct our reality as we experience it. I’m not even talking about quantum physics here. There are several layers of processing that occur between what IS, and what we consciously experience. Those layers are faulty at many places and lead us away from the truth of what IS. Worst of all, we aren’t even aware of it most of the time. For a taste to demonstrate the principle, look at the famous dress photo (blue and black or white and gold?) and these others I got from a TED talk a while back. There are many more such images. You can find similar images by googling “optical illusions” but Neil Degrasse Tyson says we should call them “brain failures” because that’s what they are…
Okay, so our human reasoning isn’t perfect at seeing things, but we can still trust our non-scientific reasoning about things, including the supernatural, right?
Not so much. 🙂
The philosophy of science has evolved over centuries as the most effective means of stopping poor reasoning that plagues all humans. A good scientific theory provides explanation, prediction and control. We can justify belief in many concepts, but confidence should be reserved (in my opinion) to a more moderate level when dealing with things that fall outside of what we can test. The appropriate level of confidence almost always falls below the threshold of what would be considered righteousness in a religious tradition. Religious faith demands a level of confidence that is at war with the best processes we have for searching out truth today. I am not saying that science is the only way to “know” something. I am saying that we must acknowledge that our non-scientific reasoning should be distrusted to a greater degree than our reasoning that follows the scientific process accurately. Science embraces methodological naturalism which means it doesn’t say anything about the supernatural one way or the other. While it won’t tell us what God’s nature is, it can attempt things like determining which clearly defined hypotheses are less likely than others based on the predictions those hypotheses make (assuming they interact with the world in some way).
We can believe X about God Y, but if we have the same level of confidence about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin than we do about whether the sun will rise tomorrow, we’re placing as much confidence in our demonstrably far-less trustworthy evolutionary reasoning as we are in our reasoning based on science, which is encompasses the latest advances in thought throughout history (with a demonstrable track record of high-success).
The real issue is whether or not something is falsifiable. If it isn’t, we can still believe it and potentially justly so. But we can’t call it science. Popper helped solidify that with his problem of demarcation. Science which encompasses mathematics, statistics, probabilities, confidence intervals, margins of error, peer reviews, efforts to disprove hypotheses, checks against personal biases, double-blind trials, and the formidable advantage of formulas and logic to weed out the ambiguous nature of human reasoning and language – is far more likely, on average, to lead to true beliefs (beliefs that accurately reflect the reality that is) than using non-scientific processes based on flawed reasoning and circular logic about how we feel about a given subject.
If you disagree, I’ll be happy to dedicate a post to defending that position. Before doing so, consider that most religions require an ante of belief upon conversion. You must believe X and Y to be a true follower of religion Z. Once there, the balance between eternal bliss and eternal torment due to apostasy often hinges on your level of religious faith. With that in mind, consider Bill Nye’s answer at the end of the Creation vs Evolution debate about what would change his mind. A single piece of evidence (paraphrase). His opponents answer was “nothing.”
Please don’t think I’m saying that all believers hold faith “in the teeth of evidence” or that Ken was not right to do so. Perhaps he does have the proper belief or perhaps he would change his mind when the right pieces of evidence appear, but he just can’t imagine it yet. What matters is not whether faith in X or Y is warranted, or even whether idea Z is true or false. I’m asking you to consider which process of reasoning, on average, is more likely to yield more true beliefs and fewer false beliefs. Regardless of your answer, know that non-believers tend to think that the methodology of reasoning is different for religious faith than it is for science (yes, they conflict), and that religious faith is far less reliable. That is why they tend to define it differently and why it makes them uneasy to hear someone say they are using “faith.”
The word “faith” means so many things, many of them very polarizing, and there is almost a certainty that people with opposing theological beliefs are not going to accept the same interpretations. We all have flaws in our reasoning, naturally, from birth – especially me. No matter how much we try to overcome them through learning about them or studying logic, biases, meta-cognition, etc., none of us are completely immune to the hidden biases that creep in. For this reason alone, we should be cautious of the types of reasoning that make us certain about untestable claims. We should also be aware of when we think we’re testing claims against our experience but we’re really failing to take account of confirmation bias, or other biases for which we are often unaware until we learn about them and examine our beliefs against them.
Is faith good or bad? I may be largely a personality thing. Evidence seems to support the idea that some personality types (mainly “feelers”) tend to be more likely to land on the pro-religious-faith side than their opposites. I don’t know if that’s true, but the Myers-Briggs profile analyses seem to say so.
In some sense it depends on how important truth is to you. Faith feels wonderful. Oh how I miss it. But is the quality of evidence in religious faith sufficient to warrant the level of belief we hold in our religious tenets? Those who reason by faith usually say yes. Those who don’t tend to say no. Who’s right? As a general principle, my assessment is that religious faith is less trustworthy than scientific reasoning, so I trust it less. I do not completely distrust it but I’m a little more skeptical of it. I think this is good because wanting something to be true means we should be even more cautious of it, examining it even more, because our natural tendency is to do the opposite (another blind spot).
So Pascal, if we’re talking about how we reason as humans, I think we should focus on evidence-based reasoning over faith-based reasoning. I actually think that’s not the best way to consider the conflict. I still want there to be faith-based reasoning because the things that come to us through our faith are a kind of evidence. It’s all under the umbrella of human reasoning. We just need to subject our faith-based thoughts and intuitions through the same two filters that we subject every other kind of thought.
Filter 1: a list of all the biases and logical fallacies we’re subject too.
Filter 2: evidence-based testing (e.g. scientific method, testing, repeatability etc.).
We shouldn’t necessarily disbelieve it if it fails one of these filters, but the degree to which it passes both filters is the degree to which we should trust it, wherever it comes from (faith-based reasoning or elsewhere). This is where I support the “and” over the “instead.”
To me, “faith” is a red-flag warning of potential belief that exceeds what’s warranted by the evidence. I see faith as a potential multiplier that takes what we should believe based on evidence and boosts it some degree with confidence from what we want to be true. Evidence always informs faith, but faith has a tendency to go further than good, fallacy-filtered evidence warrants. If we hold up the white-flag of humility alongside the red-flag of hope (e.g. if we say, “I think and hope this but I don’t know”), then I’m much more okay with faith and evidence rather than limiting to just faith instead of evidence. Of course, you have this quality in spades. Go climb your mountain, you awesome dad. 🙂
Next week, let me know if we’re at an impasse with faith and where I made things more confusing or more clear. I know you already knew the vast majority of this, but I’m putting it down for posterity and the off chance it might help someone. Sorry you had to wade through it. Please forgive the typos. It is very late now.
Readers, did any of you make it this far? If you’re a non-believer are you uneasy when people say you “have faith in X?” If you’re a believer are did this post irritate you? Do you disagree? If so, I apologize. Want to add anything?
Gentleness and respect,