Thursday, April 28, 2011

The F Word

I'll be giving a lecture about faith and atheism for the UC Davis student atheist organization AgASA tonight (Thursday, April 28 at 6:00pm, Young Hall, Room 198.  The slides for the discussion are here:

The F Word

This is a slightly revised version of The F Word talk I have given in recent months.  A more detailed prose explanation of one of the main points, to go along with the perhaps cryptic slide bullet points is here:  Open the Floodgates

Some believers have protested that my account faith isn't accurate or adequate.  A wide range of examples of ordinary usage of the term like these have led me to a provisional definition:

  • I have faith that my husband will come home safely from Afghanistan.
  •  I have faith in my wife.
  •  I have faith that the Detroit Lions will win the Superbowl this year.
  •  I have faith in the President despite his recent problems.
  •  She’s lied to me so many times before, it would take a huge leap of faith to believe her now.  
  •  Loaning him the money to start his own business was an act of faith. 
  •  “Let’s have faith that right makes might; and in that faith let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”  (Abraham Lincoln)
  •   “To follow by faith alone is to follow blindly.”  (Benjamin Franklin)
  • “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”  (Martin Luther King)
  • "Faith is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted in spite of your changing moods."  (C.S. Lewis)
Provisionally then, the sense of faith that I think is most important in epistemological terms, that is widely invoked, and that is most seriously flawed is this:  

“Faith” is invoked when there’s a shortcoming in the evidence and believing is still the goal.
S believes p by faith means S believes p despite inadequate evidence.  
  • Inadequate:  on the whole, the evidence shows ~p.
  • Inadequate:  on the whole, there isn’t enough evidence to justify p.  
If there were enough evidence to justify p, then there’d be no need to invoke faith.

Faith is belief without sufficient evidential justification.   

I argue that there are a number of problems with believing through this sort of faith.  The internal problem, or the issue that the faithful believer himself ought to be troubled by, is The Floodgate Problem linked above.  The external problem concerns the degree to which one person's faith can function as a reason for someone else to believe.  If Smith has faith that p, then can Smith recommend that Jones do likewise?  I argue that at the very least, having faith is a sort of indulgence not justified by the evidence on Smith's part, and that Smith cannot have any recourse to claim that to failing to have faith is a mistake, irrational, or part of some failure to fulfill Jones's epistemic duties.  Smith can't make a leap of faith and then insist that Jones would be epistemically culpable for not doing likewise.  Atheists often ask me, "What do you say when someone says that they have faith?"  The partial answer is that no answer is needed--unlike cases where Smith gives Jones reasons, arguments, or evidence for p, if Smith goes beyond the evidence to believe p by faith, Jones can reasonably ignore him.  Evidence for p would impose a rational obligation or epistemic culpability on Jones--if there is a sound argument for p, Jones would be remiss to refuse to accept the conclusion.  But if Smith has faith, he's gone beyond what is rationally required by the evidence and this (irrational) indulgence can't be similarly recommended or prescribed to Jones.  In fact, there are a number of reasons for Jones to reject this sort of epistemic policy and that should trouble Smith than they often do.

I have been assured several times that this account of faith, despite is nearly ubiquitous occurrence among believers, is inaccurate, and that a proper Biblically or theologically based account offers a much stronger position to the faithful believer.  I have read, reread, studied these other themes in what I can find about faith for years, and I confess that for the most part, I find them either to be incoherent gibberish, or they are close enough in spirit that the problems I outline in these arguments apply directly or indirectly to them.

So I will offer a plea--if the account of faith I am considering here and elsewhere in my work is mistaken and there is some widely used sense of it that avoid the problems I'm raising, then please tell me what that is and tell me exactly how is steers clear of the problems I have raised.  But I also request that you do it without citing Biblical sources as if those claims are uncontroversial or obviously true.  That some claim occurs in the Bible falls far short of giving me, or any reasonable person, grounds for thinking it is true, or even that it makes sense, by itself.  In fact, indulge me--if it makes sense, then it should be possible to explain what faith is without citing Bible passages at all.  The only people who find those citations to be illuminating are the ones who have faith and the ones who find what the Bible has to say to be philosophically sophisticated and relevant.  Those of us on the outside aren't helped by it much.

And if you are in the area, please come by the lecture tonight.


JS Allen said...

Wikipedia's article on "Faith" is a good start.

Obviously, people use the word in many different ways. Trying to pin the word to one definition just looks autistic, like agonizing over what the "right" definition of "love" is. You need to figure out from context how someone is using the word.

From scanning your slide deck, it looks like you're focusing on the sense of the word that Bertrand Russell was talking about when he said "Where there is evidence, no one speaks of 'faith'. We do not speak of faith that two and two are four or that the earth is round. We only speak of faith when we wish to substitute emotion for evidence."

Russell's take (and your slide deck) is a perfectly reasonable response when you're faced with people who appeal to "faith" to say that the earth is flat or that two and two aren't four.

Matt McCormick said...

That works for me, more or less, JS. There are lots of usages of the term that matter even less to the atheist. My preoccupation is use of the word in contexts where someone thinks that their faith is related to or indicative of God's being real. If it's "faith" in a context where it's not explicit or implicit that God is real and a reasonable person should accept the view that God is real, then I don't really care. Thanks for the input.

Rebecca said...

Actually, I would say that faith is a knowledge claim without sufficient evidential justification. I think when people make faith claims that they are appealing another sort of justification, (intuitiveness or holy spirit etc), that the speaker seems to believe as reliable or more reliable than evidential justification. I imagine that they see these processes working like the Truetemp model; being the benefactors of true beliefs without the understanding of the mechanism of knowledge production.

The problem for faithists (or whatever you would call them) is same as all the other challengers to JTB--finding a method of knowledge production with a proven record of accuracy. Unfortunately for faith, in current usage it has a pretty poor track record.

ps: Have you seen the video mash-up of Star Wars and Jean-Paul Sartre?

JS Allen said...

I feel that people are usually confused when they claim "faith" in that epistemological sense. They aren't really presenting evidence, so much as announcing their personal conclusion from the limited evidence they have.

In these contexts, when someone says, "I have faith that p", I interpret them to be saying, "Believe what you want, but as for me, I choose to believe p". It's the sort of "agree to disagree" tap-out.

I don't think it's a sign that the atheist has won, but it's certainly an acknowledgment that the evidence is inconclusive.

JS Allen said...

BTW, I'm not super comfortable with the wording that faith is, by definition, belief based upon "insufficient" or "inadequate" evidence. That seems to be smuggling your personal biases into the definition, because who's to say what is "adequate" or "sufficient"?

One guy might be comfortable believing that his wife isn't cheating on him while she's away on a business trip. Another guy might want to hire a private investigator to follow his wife around, before concluding that she's not cheating. It's just silly to bicker about which guy has adequate grounds for his belief, and you'd be a dick if you started playing Iago and claiming that the first guy isn't justified in trusting his wife, since he didn't hire a detective. All of this is completely orthogonal to whether or not she's actually cheating, of course.

Basically, if you start smuggling in loaded words like "adequate" or "sufficient", you're just playing Iago -- unless you acknowledge that there is no universal standard of adequacy or sufficiency.

Matt DeStefano said...

JS, it seems to me that in order to discern between cases like "I have faith that the sun will rise tomorrow" and "I have faith that the Detroit Lions will win the Super Bowl", we have to be able to reasonably judge one's justification. Otherwise, terms like 'faith' and 'knowledge' will be interchangeable and McCormick's issue with with the term will come back into play.

JS Allen said...

Matt D: Correct. I'm just saying that the standard of reasonable judgment will vary by person. When someone says, "I have faith that my wife isn't cheating", he is most emphatically NOT saying (as McCormick's definition implies), "I choose to believe, based upon insufficient evidence, that my wife isn't cheating". In fact, by using the word "faith", he is asserting that he has sufficient justification for the belief, as far as he's concerned, irrespective of whether or not anyone else agrees with him.

Rebecca said...

JS-I think McCormick's definition is correct--that saying that you have faith implies that you trust in a possitive statment our outcome even though you lack of 100% empirical evidence.

Even though Ruby is not with her husband 24/7 she has faith in her husband's fidelity, because he has proven trustworthy in the past.

Saying, "I have faith the sun will rise tomorrow," implies the listener might have had doubts about the sun rising tomorrow. While entertaining to say, "I have faith.." instead of, "I know...", the two expressions clearly have different connotations.

Also, I think it's only fair to assume that Mccormic acknowledges difference between faith and Faith; faith being subject to empirical data and Faith as not. Ruby has faith will take good care of their children while she goes on a business trip. But when she returns and sees empirical evidence (her children are distressed, hungry, unwashed, etc) she will loose her faith in her husband.
The problem with Faith is that Christianity has believing in God despite the lack of empirical evidence is a virtue to be cultivated.

JS Allen said...

Hi Rebecca,

I think we're in agreement. Ruby does not have 100% empirical evidence, yet she "has faith in her husband's fidelity, because he has proven trustworthy in the past."

I'm just objecting to any definition which would say that Ruby doesn't have sufficient evidence. That's just a mean thing to tell someone, and we don't get to decide how much proof Ruby should obtain before deciding that she has sufficient faith in her husband's fidelity.

Rebecca said...

Hi JS!
I'm not so sure we are in agreement. The difference between a faith claim and a knowledge claim is that a faith claim involves a gap in knowledge that requires trust. There is a risk to faith that is not present in knowledge.

If Ruby was sitting next to her husband all night, she would know if her husband was or was not cheating with another women.

If Ruby was on a business trip she would have faith based on previous experience that her husband was not cheating on her, and her faith could be very well justified. However, Ruby is not present and does not have evidence.

The important thing is that evidence can justify faith but faith cannot justify knowledge.

FancyNancy said...

'The important thing is that evidence can justify faith but faith cannot justify knowledge.'

Rebecca is right imho.

'Faith is believing what know aint so' - Nathaniel Hawthorne

or kinder 'believing what you have *decided* (leap of faith) - for whatever reason - *is* so'

Yes, Martin Luther King may be right too - you have to have sufficient 'faith' to take the next step in a direction of your choosing ... the 'vision' thing ... another sort of 'leap of faith' that what we do can change the world for the better ... speaking of which, I have stuff to do ... thanks for 'listening' :)

Brownianout said...

Hey, kudos to you for at least tipping your hat to the multivalence of language here. I was just watching a talk by Boghossian that was sorely disappointing on that count:

I still don't quite understand the fixation on focusing on a single definition and a single use in the philosophical, first-principles, language-aware arm of advocacy for atheism. To me this tends to lead to problems downstream in a rhetoric that accuses the faithful of meaning something that they don't entirely mean, which induces a feeling of being strawmanned -- heaven knows that we don't need more indignant theists. I don't dispute that "belief against the evidence" is an important part of the rhetoric of faith, but I think an important part of dismantling it is to show the multivalence of the term and be more specific about the exact usage than the theist. One of my maxims is that (modern) theistic rhetoric gets much of its force from equivocation. So simply introducing a partitioned vocabulary will tend to disarm the rhetoric and override the error, without necessarily even calling for a direct rebuttal. Faith is used at all points along the path taking people from pretending to believing, from probative trust to unshakable (and hence irrational) commitment.

It's rhetoric that encourages people to pretend to believe as much as they can for the purpose of sticking with the program and keeping with the community. It's rhetoric that encourages people to admire those that actually do believe (or seem to) through and through. People who make the commitment to "try out" the group with a kind of tentative trust find themselves in a position of cognitive dissonance, believing-but-not-really, under circumstances where total belief is encouraged heavily, both inwardly and outwardly. With that kind of pressure to conform, the believer will feel inclined to double down. If they produce stronger outward commitment without the inward belief also increasing, the dissonance will get even stronger, and eventually many will find themselves adopting the belief pretty strongly, just because it relieves the dissonance.

Using an ambiguous word like 'faith' to cover the whole process of development within the religious system, helps to hide naturalistic explanations of religious belief from view. The ambiguated term aids, abets, and covers for the sorts of cognitive errors that lead people into the faith.