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Monday 12 December 2016

But, But... You Have Faith Too!

What does it mean to have faith?

This is a question I struggle to answer, because I have no experience of it. That said, I have some grasp of the relevant subject matter, and I feel the need to address some common apologetic arguments regarding faith and belief, and to elucidate the reasons why these are problematic terms. As is often the case with such topics, this is largely going to be about semantics. That shouldn't put us off because, contrary to popular tropes, semantics is an extremely important discipline, and forms the backbone of philosophy, and indeed thought. For more on this, see the previous outings Are Babies Atheist? and The Map is not the Terrain, wherein this is dealt with at length.

Most dictionaries will describe faith as 'complete trust or confidence', which seems on the face of it to be fine, but as we start to unpack the terms in that definition, we see that there are pitfalls. For example, what exactly do we mean by 'complete'?

While I was never a believer, I've spent a lot of time in discussion with former believers of all stripe, and they generally tell me much the same thing, namely that their faith was unshakeable, unquestionable even, right until the cognitive dissonance became unbearable and the cracks started to appear. Regular readers won't find this surprising, not least because, I suspect, most of my readers were once believers, but also because this touches on ground we've covered before, not least in Patterns and the Inertia of Ideas, in which we discussed a phenomenon for which I later coined the phrase 'cognitive inertia' for our tendency to resist ideas that didn't fit well into our existing intellectual frameworks, and the tendency to give in to our cognitive biases.

Often, it begins with the storing of a few innocuous-seeming bits of information that don't appear to have any impact on the framework in general. Then once enough of these innocuous facts are in place, it can take a single fact that fits with these facts but doesn't fit with the original framework to make the cracks start to appear. Sometimes, this can happen all in a rush, as a true epiphany.

The general point here is that faith is total, unswerving and unquestioned. I define it as 'acceptance of a truth-claim without evidence or in the face of contradictory evidence'. 

What about belief?

I've talked previously about belief in The Art of Philosophy, and why I think it's a problematic term. I won't belabour the point here, except to say that I have no use for the term because it covers such a broad range of disparate concepts, each of which is better described by a more accurate and specific term, as to be next to meaningless. I only ever employ the term in settings like this, in which I'm discussing the term itself. One of the things I realised very early in my studies of epistemology is that there are very few propositions in which we can be categorically certain of the truth. As a result, I've worked hard to shed any firm acceptance of propositions that can't be demonstrated to be absolutely true. 

I define belief as 'acceptance of a truth-claim absent a demonstration of its truth'. This definition in mind, I have no beliefs. It's worth noting once again that the definitions I employ here are mine, and mine alone, and do not necessarily reflect usage. The two previously-linked posts on semantics deal with why that is, rooted in the proper use of semantics.

This opens up all sorts of problems and, when I've expressed this without qualification, it's generally led to much discussion around whether or not I believe the sky is blue, or some such, so it's worth categorising the levels of epistemology here as I see them.
  1. There is that which I know: I call this knowledge.
  2. There is that which I accept as the best explanation currently available for the data: I call this empirical adequacy. 
  3. There is that which I don't know: I call this ignorance.
What do I mean by empirical adequacy? This simply means that any hypothesis that stands as an explanation for all the available data and has not yet been shown to be wrong - we'll come back to this shortly - stands as an extant hypothesis. It needn't be the only empirically adequate hypothesis, and indeed it's rarely the case that we have a single hypothesis for any area of science.

As should be readily apparent, there is no room in there for belief. The only possible domicile for belief in there is 2, but it's also clear that this is tentative and, moreover, enjoys evidential support. There's certainly no room in there for faith.

Ultimately, what this boils down to is degrees of confidence. Hume tells us that we should apportion our confidence to the evidence available and the degree of consilience between our models and the data. 

This should be sufficient groundwork for us to delve into the topic proper, which is to treat some common claims from apologists, the broad class of which is reflected in the title of this missive; the claim that reason, science, etc, require faith.

We'll start with something much closer to home, though, because a corollary claim is that we must have faith in the love of our families. This is a specious argument, because we don't love in a vacuum. We might lust, but our love is based on experience. This is true not only of our own love, but of our confidence in the love of those close to us. Mrs Slash's love for me is not remotely in doubt. This isn't a matter of faith, it's a matter of accord with the data, based on the evidence provided me by nearly 30 years of her putting up with my foibles and nonsense, and still being there, and with me, and concerned for my well-being, despite the fact that I can be an intolerable shit at times, and so pragmatic that I can seem emotionally detached and cold. There is no room for faith in this. 

So what about science and reason? Do I have faith in them? Do they require faith?

As the above should make abundantly clear, the same epistemological trichotomy applies to those as I've erected above. Indeed, it's via the application of reason and the methodology of science that this trichotomy was devised.

As we explored in Deduction, Induction, Abduction and Fallacy in some considerable detail, science proceeds by showing hypotheses to be wrong. This is a principle famously formalised by Popper as 'falsification', and it involves testing the predictions generated by hypotheses, either in the form of not observing something that should definitely be observed if the hypothesis is correct and the critical conditions are met, or of observing something that should definitely not be observed. Science never asserts its hypotheses to be correct, because to do so would require that every potentially falsifying observation has been made with no challenge to the hypothesis. Since being able to assert that we've made every possible observation would require omniscience, we can never go that far, because omniscience is self-refuting, as we saw in All Kinds of Everything

That's not to say, of course, that we can never assert that something is true, contrary to the popular translation of soundbites on the topic. When I dropped my pencil a few moments ago, it fell to the floor. This is objectively and eternally true. However, it isn't beyond the realm of possibility that our model that explains this - the general theory of relativity - will be shown to be wrong, in the same way that Newtonian gravity was shown to be wrong.

What this tells us is that our trichotomy above is reflected in science in the following manner.

  1. Observations, along with falsified hypotheses. These we call knowledge, or facts.
  2. Theories and hypotheses. These we call empirical adequacy.
  3. Areas of open research. These we call ignorance.

So what we actually have with regard to science is confidence that's rooted in a large body
of evidence that tells us that the method is reliable, and that confidence is proportional to the evidence available at any given time. As more data are gathered in support of a hypothesis, our confidence increases. It only takes a single observation to kill a theory stone dead. 

So, while I have no doubt that there are those who accept the conclusions of science on faith, it isn't actually required. For myself, even in those areas of science in which my knowledge is less than entirely robust, I understand both the underlying principles detailed in the research and, more importantly, the method by which our scientific models. Also, even for those who simply accept the conclusions of science, they're reliant on a large body of evidence that the underlying process of science works.

Faith is the illusion of knowledge, the excuse we give when we should simply plead ignorance.
“Faith is the surrender of the mind, it's the surrender of reason, it's the surrender of the only thing that makes us different from other animals. It's our need to believe and to surrender our skepticism and our reason, our yearning to discard that and put all our trust or faith in someone or something, that is the sinister thing to me. ... Out of all the virtues, all the supposed virtues, faith must be the most overrated” - Christopher Hitchens

Thanks for reading.


  1. Often, it begins... That paragraph reminds me of Imre Lakatos and his work on scientific research programmes. Have you read it per chance? I thought it most interesting and seems to fit your line of work perfectly. Cheers Hack, interesting read.

    1. Thank you. I haven't read it, but I'll put it on my reading list.

      Much appreciated, and thanks for reading.


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