Faith! Faith?

I am absolutely bewildered by the word “faith.”

When I hear the word “faith,” I think of that inexplicable gusto that the mystics have, that tireless devotion and unswerving ‘inner certainty’ that lets them turn the Earth without guns or tanks, but only pure love and pure will.

But when I hear the word “faith,” I think of the act of believing in something without proof — i.e., something that you should never do.

Let me try to make you sympathetic to this idea. In science we go to outrageous lengths to make sure that we are right. We use these tedious, miserable things called “mathematics” and “formal reasoning” to try to rule out all possibility of error. We spend a lot of time caring about tiny, trivial things, just to avoid being wrong.

And you know what? Half the time, we’re still wrong. Turns out it’s really, really hard to be reliably correct, correct without error, not merely thinking that you’re correct but actually, truly correct.

No matter how intuitively appealing your idea is, sometimes you do the math and find out it’s wrong. Not just partially wrong, not just reduced to a matter of opinion — but flat out wrong. And sometimes you even do the math, and it all checks out and looks perfect, but then you find that you flipped a negative sign in one single, miserable equation and it makes the whole thing wrong. And if you’re a good scientist, you see that flipped negative sign and you throw out your beautiful idea and don’t look back.

You don’t struggle to salvage it, you don’t cling to it, and you sure as hell don’t start doing fuzzy epistemology like “oh you know, some things are a matter of opinion; let’s just agree to disagree; reason has its limits after all; you scientists think you know everything, but there’s a lot of mystery in the universe.” No. You just throw the idea in the garbage bin. Because hey, it might be beautiful, but it’s not true.

So: faith? Believing in something without proof? Without any proof at all? Hell to the no, not if you want to be right. If one flipped negative sign can destroy a brilliant scientist’s beautiful, meticulously constructed theory in its entirety, what the hell makes you think you can believe something without proof?

Now Euthypro in the audience pipes up. “OK, I get it, we’re wrong a lot, and so if we want to be sure we’re right we need proof. But surely you can’t do this all the time? You yourself pointed out that life is too complicated to scientifically study every aspect of it before we do anything. That’s not feasible. Our informally drawn conclusions are the best we’ve got; and sometimes, most of the time even, we’ve just got to go with them for the decisions we make.”

Yes, I agree. I have opinions. I have beliefs that I haven’t proven. But there are different degrees of belief. There’s the “I’ll still say the same thing if you ask me tomorrow” degree of belief. There’s the “I’ll make logical deductions from it” degree of belief. And then there’s the “I’ll tell the whole damn world and mercilessly shoot down anybody who disagrees with me” degree of belief.

This final degree of belief, you may informatively note, is almost exclusively found in scientists, politicians, and the religious.

The scientists? They deserve it. They really are right. The politicians? The religious? It’s entirely less clear that they deserve it. Not because scientists are some special, privileged group. But because it’s entirely less clear that the politicians and the religious, regarding the claim that sets them so afire, really are right.

Now let’s take an informative example: creationism. There are people who teach this in public schools, for crying out loud. That is surely the final, ultimate level of dominance that any belief can obtain. And creationism, at least in its more naive forms, is false.

In general, religious people are entirely willing to get up on the pulpit and preach their beliefs, as truth, without proof, while absolutely oozing that pompous air of authority. As a lover of the truth, this bothers me. I’m all for religion. But I’m also all for, well, actually being right before you get up on that pulpit. And I’ve seen how hard it is to achieve that.

Now we return to why I am perplexed by the word “faith.” This word surely denotes the highest and purest religious attitude, the most desirable quality that a person could have. And yet it also denotes believing something without proof. Which is something that you should never do. What am I to think about this?

Now Euthyphro says, “OK, so just invent two words. One of them can mean the highest, purest religious attitude, and the other one can mean believing something without proof. No more conflict.”

But I feel like they have something to do with each other.

I don’t really have any answers here. I just want to point out that I am confused as hell about this word. I think we philosophers don’t do enough admitting when we’re confused.

  1. Skepticism? Skepticism! « antitheology

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