“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” – John 12:24
“The last enemy to be destroyed is death...Death is swallowed up in victory.” – 1 Corinthians 15:26, 54
"The greater the sin, the greater the mercy, the deeper the death and the brighter the rebirth.” - C. S. Lewis
"This story...has the very taste of primary truth." - J. R. R. Tolkien

Sunday, January 27, 2008

What Is Faith?

Christians have faith in Jesus Christ. People of other religions have faith in their prophets or the truth of their doctrines. What does the word "faith" mean, though? According to Merriam-Webster.com, faith is "firm belief in something for which there is no proof." Similarly, belief is defined as "a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing." These are fair enough definitions, but let us probe deeper. Faith is defined in terms of belief, and belief in terms of trust and confidence. The idea seems to be that faith in some idea is a cognitive acceptance of the truth of that idea, but that the idea is not proven true. We do not have "faith" in something that is proven - we simply recognize it as true. How, then, can one have faith in the unproven, if faith is some mental or emotional acceptance. Surely we cannot know with certainty that something unproven is true, so what does it mean to accept it as truth? My understanding is that one has faith in an idea if one subjectively or emotionally embraces the truth of the idea despite some level of objective uncertainty, and then lives and acts as if there were no doubt to its truth. You could sincerely believe something unproven and be unaware of the uncertainty, but this would be somewhat of a delusion - I am thinking more of faith that is aware of reality and recognizes the uncertainty, but is still able to embrace something as true.

Of course, now we come to the issue of probability - is it reasonable to have faith in something that is estimated to have a 30% likelihood of being true? Is it reasonable to accept it as true, despite the 70% uncertainty? No. How about faith in something that we are 99% certain is true. Yes - it would almost certainly be reasonable to both subjectively embrace it as truth and live in light of its truth. Where, then, is the line between reasonable faith and unreasonable faith. I don't think there is a definite line, but the important point is that it may be reasonable to accept something as true despite some level of probabilistic uncertainty to its truth.

6 comments:

  1. Elliot,
    It's been interestesting to read your blogs over these last weeks and I've refrained from commenting but I thought I'd chime in here.

    The way you approach the issue of probablility seems a bit presumptuous. I'm not sure you're implying that Christianity could be objectively determined to be 99% certain to be "true" but, even if that's not what you're suggesting, the obvious question is: Who determines your odds? Whatever percentage you use, this is something that's absolutely impossible to determine. And I would say that of any faith - or lack thereof. Don't odds have to be determined by objective means? Whatever number you use, how do you arrive at it? My guess is that your determination of the odds is based in good part on your pre-existing faith. Which I suppose is, in turn based on your odds... The more faith you have, the better those odds look. What were you saying about circular reasoning a while back?

    I think faith probably seems reasonable & logical to anyone who's been able to make that leap but isn't faith, by its very nature, unreasonable and subjective? Do you need belief to be reasonable to reconcile it with with logic and science? Does a faith that's in conflict with logic or broadly accepted science seem reasonable? I'm not saying it should or shouldn't - I can only answer that for myself.

    Tony

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  2. Hey uncle Tony -

    Although I was thinking primarily of Christianity in writing that post, I wasn't specifically implying that Christianity could be determined at that level of certainty. You bring up an interesting idea - there would likely be some "uncertainty in the uncertainty" for whatever is being considered. Only in rare cases could a definite uncertainty be agreed upon by all, I would guess. However, I don't think the fact that different people may estimate different uncertainties or that there might be uncertainty in the uncertainty invalidate any given person's judgment based on the information he has. Any one person may not have all the possible relevant information out there, but based on what he knows he can still make an estimation of the uncertainty. I suppose this could lead to epistemological discussions which could lead to quantum mechanics, where different observers may describe the same object differently because they perceive differently. Anyways, the fact that I may lack relevant information does not mean I cannot estimate the odds based on what I do know. Naturally I would try to dig up more info to reduce the uncertainty in MY estimated odds, but I am still fair in acting based on what I know. Someone else could come up with different odds based on different information, but there would be nothing wrong with them judging what is true based on what they do know. So, all that to say, odds do have to be determined by objective means, yet because of each person's limited knowledge of what is objectively true, different people may arrive at different odds. If all people calculated their odds based on the same knowledge, their odds would be the same. This would be ideal, and I suppose each person can improve their odds by taking a look at the information of others, and thus we would, theoretically, approach some definite uncertainty.

    Of course that isn't very likely to happen, for reasons you touch on. Each person's odds are likely affected by subjective, emotional, or incommunicable factors. This is an objection I frequently get from atheists on facebook who say that I am a Christian because I was raised that way and my objective judgment of the evidence is subjectively and subconsciously affected by my upbringing and/or emotions. Certainly I am influenced by my upbringing. I am no psychologist so I can't give a good answer as to what extent I may be subconsciously swayed, but I can say that I try hard to approach the evidence objectively and think critically. Failing to consider the evidence objectively would likely lead to circular arguments, such as "Jesus rose because the Bible says so [which is true because Jesus said so, and we can trust Jesus because he rose]." I probably mentioned something to this effect earlier.

    Some people might think of faith as believing that there is no objective uncertainty in something, when clearly this cannot be proven logically. In this case, yes, it would be unreasonable and subjective, and something of a delusion. Faith, as I understand it, does not imply objective uncertainty. To me, faith means saying, "although there is some uncertainty, the odds, as I estimate based on the information I have and the information I have sought out in order to improve my odds, highly suggest this is true - and so I will live and act as if it were proven beyond uncertainty, despite the fact that I have some small level of doubt."

    But faith could only be reasonable if the odds were quite decisive, and the uncertainty quite small. Faith that is in conflict with broadly accepted science would almost definitely be unreasonable. If it contradicts what science observes in the perceived world, then almost certainly it is not true. As far as Christianity goes, I do not think this is the case, in fact quite the opposite.

    Well, thanks a lot for reading my blog. I am always glad to have readers out there.

    -Elliot

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  3. Are you saying that objectivity varies depending on your perspective and is, therefore subjective?

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  4. No, not quite.
    Each person's judgment may be carried out objectively, but based on limited information. So the cause of different perspectives is not necessarily that people are subjective or irrational (although this certainly contributes as well) but that they have limited and different information or experiences by which they judge. If all the knowledge in the world was shared by all there would be much more agreement, I would guess.

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  5. "objectivity is the fruit of authentic subjectivity"
    how would we get to objectivity except through our subjectivities?

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  6. If by "subjectivities" you mean our mental/emotional faculties, or, physically speaking, our brain, then that is indeed the only way to knowledge of the (objective) truth. No knowledge is unmediated or uninterpreted, as it were, but it can still remain accurate knowledge of objective reality.

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