Monday, July 6, 2009

What is faith?

Ask an agnostic or atheist what they think faith is. Faith is believing without evidence, they'll say.

It should be clear from this definition (I think so anyway) that faith is not at all a virtue, and may in fact be a vice. If our beliefs are not constrained by evidence, then we could, in principle, believe anything, anything at all. Only a few of those possible beliefs would be correct, only a few would be good to believe in. And since there is no evidence, we don't know which ones are the correct beliefs. So why are we playing this guessing game? And why should it be a virtue to play the guessing game?

In practice, though, this is a rather ineffective argument against Christianity. A lot of people will simply say, "You just don't get it, do you? That's not what faith is at all." Which is potentially a good point. I wouldn't want to be constructing some sort of straw man of faith. So let's talk about faith as Christians use and define it, not how atheists and agnostics define it.

The thing is, Christians have a rather ... confused (for lack of a better word) understanding of what faith is. I suppose a more positive way of putting it is "complex" or "diverse". I think it's a fairly common sermon topic to explain yet another point of view on what faith really means. The number of ways to understand faith is perhaps as large as the number of Christians, possibly larger.

Allow me to explain what faith meant to me a long time ago, back when I was still Christian. When I was Christian, I was taught that Christianity does not require a leap of faith. There are, after all, many arguments we could use in favor of Christianity. None of these arguments are particularly effective by themselves, and absolute proof can never be achieved. They only allow us to get closer and closer to God by degree, never fully reaching him. Therefore, if we ever want to reach God, we have to cross this little gap. Faith is that which gets us across that gap.

A lot of you probably think this concept of faith is really unusual or bizarre. Which is the point. Everyone seems to have a different idea of what faith is.* Faith is our gift to God. Faith is a gift from God. Faith is a relationship. Faith comes from a feeling deep within. Faith is supernatural assent. Faith is an experience. Faith is trust. Faith is confidence. Faith is an attitude. Faith is the will to believe. Faith is believing in things not seen. Faith is what gives us certainty. And yet, faith can coexist with doubt. Faith can coexist with evidence.**

*It would be hilarious if another "agnostic free mason" told me off because I can't appreciate the monolithic nature of true Christianity.

**Most of these ideas come from a list of definitions collected by Greta Christina. Greta took the definitions from religious sources.

Well, how could I possibly attack this huge amorphous blob of "faith"? By chopping into smaller pieces, of course. Allow me to define two kinds of "faith".

Faith-1 is any kind of faith which involves arriving at beliefs by circumventing the proper routes to knowledge. For example, believing without evidence is faith-1. Jumping the gap from uncertainty to certainty is also faith-1. Subtly "pushing" oneself in one direction towards belief is faith-1.

Faith-2 is everything else. For example, trusting someone you know (assuming it really is someone you know) is faith-2. Having a positive or optimistic outlook on life is faith-2. Believing in something which you have evidence for is faith-2.

This is my position: Faith-2 is perhaps justifiable, but faith-1 is not justifiable at all. Most religious believers have both faith-1 and faith-2, and may not necessarily see them as distinct. In fact, that's a major problem, that they do not usually distinguish between the two. They can argue for faith-2, which sounds very reasonable, and then later switch it around for faith-1. It would be very difficult to defend faith-1 directly, so people often cheat.

I myself could say that I have faith-2, but I would strongly prefer not to call it faith at all. I do not want to be complicit in this confusion of faith, this common equivocation. I have trust in my friends (the ones who are reliable anyways), not faith. I believe, or accept most established scientific theories because the evidence is inconsistent with the alternatives.


Jeffrey Ellis said...


In this post (which you commented on, as I recall) I put forth a model of belief that included a third kind of "faith" if you will: belief in something in the presence of proof to the contrary (which I call delusion). Your "faith-1" would correspond to what I call "faith" -- I agree it's not particularly rational, but I assert that as long as one is conscious of the unfounded nature of the choice one has made, and makes it provisionally (willing to retract that belief when disproven), neither is it necessarily irrational. It's kind of balanced on a knife edge between the two. (Whereas delusional belief is obviously irrational.) Would like to see if you agree.

miller said...

Rather than making the strong statement that faith-1 is bad, I would rather stick with the weaker statement that it is not justified, and not a virtue. There is no reason to want faith-1, and especially no reason to want other people to have faith-1.

I think for my particular purpose here, it wouldn't be useful to define faith as being contrary to evidence. I think few people would admit to this sort of faith.

smijer said...

Sorry I come late to this post, but I have been behind on my reading.

First - very well said.

Second - I think you may have left out Faith-3, a kind often asserted by those of apologetic bent (who also like to conflate it with Faith-1). Faith-3 is axiomatic assumptions on which we bootstrap our epistemological program.

I'd like to hear how you relate axiomatic assumptions to the other "faiths".

miller said...

I am trying to keep it simple for now, so I would simply group faith-3 and faith-1 together. Making assumptions and then justifying them by calling it faith is exactly the sort of thing I'm talking about when I say "circumventing the proper routes to knowledge". Unless I've misunderstood. I'm not familiar with this particular use of the term "faith".

Anonymous said...

Faith-1 is not just "faith" but a "blind faith." Much different than faith-2 which is "faith." Faith-2 is what my dictionary calls "1. Confident belief or trust in a person, idea, or thing. 2. Loyalty; allegianc. 3. Secure belief in god and acceptance of gods will.4 a religion." Adding blind in front of the word faith changes the meaning just as adding fiction after the word science. A science fiction book is different than a science book. I would say that no "'science' fiction" work should be seen as the true definition of "science." Thus "blind 'faith'" is not the definition of "faith". So what of christianity? The bible does say to have faith, but not blind faith. In it, faith is defined as believing something that is known to be true. Imposing a different meaning on the book despite what it says would be a mistake. Like wise, I see no reason to be an optomist. Optomists are possitive about things even when the odds are strongly against them. Sure, fooling yourself as being attractive might work for picking up women, but why continue with a scientific theory when the evidence is strongly against it. Some one could say faith-1 is a definition of optimism.

miller said...

If I am being very precise, I would hesitate to call it blind faith, since that implies that the faith is oriented in a random direction. But cognitive bias is not random. Faith-1 is not necessarily oriented in a random direction, it is merely oriented in an unjustified direction. But this is a very subtle distinction; we need not dwell on it.

"The bible does say to have faith, but not blind faith. In it, faith is defined as believing something that is known to be true."

This is difficult to reconcile with such statements as, "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see" (Hebrews 11:1) and other definitions collected by Greta Christina. And even if I do completely misinterpret the passage's true intent, I think the relevant issue is faith in practice, not faith in theory.

Anonymous said...

A nonrandom and cognitively bias faith-1 is still an illogical position to hold. blind faith isn't alway random in each situation. So adding blind in front of faith is a description of faith-1 even if you are in control of the entire situaltion. Greta sure does confuse the diffent uses of the word faith. In some of the quotes it is used to reference the christian religion but doesn't state what the bible says to view the word "faith". Why else would the Acts in the bible have the apostles trying to use reason to justify belief to others if its just faith-1? "even if I do completely misinterpret the passage's true intent, I think the relevant issue is faith in practice, not faith in theory" Suppose I joined Waight Watchers, went to every weekly meeting, and read the brochures, rules, and point book. Now one day I start bending the rules, then one day start ignoring most of them but still go every week for support and have memoriezed the damn rules. Finally after 1 year I have gained more weight than I ever had. I then reallize the same thing happened to half the participants. Would it be rational for you to say its the fault of the organization which opposes members breaking or misunderstanding its rules? Would the poor practice of its members justify blaming Weight Watchers? Why then blame the bible for people breaking its rules?

miller said...

I wouldn't blame the Bible, I'd blame the people, of course. And that's what I'm doing here, isn't it? You were the one who brought up the Bible.

"Greta sure does confuse the diffent uses of the word faith."

It seems to me that the confusion is not Greta's. Greta collected the definitions from various Christian sources, and did not think them up on her own. How else would you know how faith is defined by Christians?

"Why else would the Acts in the bible have the apostles trying to use reason to justify belief to others if its just faith-1?"

Oh, just to clarify, I have never claimed that Christians have "just" faith-1. I have instead claimed that many (but probably not all) Christians have both faith-1 and faith-2. If you believe that they should avoid faith-1, then we are in agreement on the main point!

Anonymous said...

You would take the authoratative stance of a "freelance" writer? How about contacting,, and yourself and asking if their "faith" is faith-1, -2, both, or just a reference to the christian religion or whatever. One of the first statements from the quote source she uses says, "Faith is in general the persuasion of the mind that a certain statement is accordance with the evidence on which it rests." but her argument is not against this definition of faith and its arguments. Rather, on christian faith, she says, "What's irrational is to assert ahead of time that no possible evidence could ever shake your faith; to assert, essentially, that your faith trumps reality." She truly believes that all religious faith is essentially faith-1. "...probably not all) Christians have both faith-1 and faith-2. If you believe that they should avoid faith-1, then we are in agreement on the main point!" then you would dissagree with Greta's statement. That should be a good enough basis to double check the quotes and from who or what wacko/discredited source some of them come from. Also Augustine was against reading the bible in a nonlogical way. Notice she makes the indirect assumtion that no argument exists for a faith-2. What argument does she have for *knowing* that. Id say it faith-1.

miller said...

Some of the things you are saying are either very unclear or confused. Which of these points are you trying to argue?

Is it that the quotes are taken out of context, or otherwise nonrepresentative of Christians' views? Please continue, I'd be happy to hear your case.

Is it that I disagree with Greta Christina? So what? I cited her for the collection of quotes she kindly assembled.

Is it that some of the quotes, such as Augustine's are "nonlogical"? Perhaps, but it's irrelevant. The issue at hand is what Christians believe in practice, and in practice, Augustine is a very influential figure.

Is it that faith-2 is sometimes justifiable? I already agreed from the get-go, in case you missed it.

Anonymous said...

Agnostic Free Masonist guy here. Miller, you little arrogant FUCKER, don't you be talkin' about me when I'm not looking.

You think my proving you a SLOPPY skeptic was funny? I'd be glad to do so again. I'm not the only joke around here, buddy.

ALL faith relies on evidence. It's just some evidences are weaker or stronger than others. You just have too much shit stuck up your arrogant opinionated biased ass to accept this. The faith you are whining about isn't random or without reason. What you see as belief without evidence is Christians placing their trust in God. A God which may have delivered for them and others in the past.

About God, as you say, there are things that get you closer but "absolute proof can never be achieved". WTF do you need? A freakin vision or something? You don't trust people's word? Almost EVERYTHING, even scientific experiments are based on someone else's word unless you've done it independently yourself.

That's like saying I need to see a fuckin' ape evolve into a human in order to finally accept human evolution. Or recreate abiogenesis in order to accept it actually happened. Or discover a gay gene/any consistent biological indication for homosexuality in order to prove fuckin' faggots were born that way instead of just taking their word for it. Or that we need to hear aliens in order to accept the probability of their existence isn't zero. Even then, would you believe it if you haven't seen it with your own eyes? What kind of record or testament do you need? What satisfies your biased criteria? You're just being an arrogant prick again. Get a life and get bent!

miller said...

Hi again!

"About God, as you say, there are things that get you closer but "absolute proof can never be achieved". WTF do you need?"

If you want absolute proof, you must provide a purely deductive proof. But for most things outside of math, this is impossible. You cannot, for instance, absolutely prove that Istanbul is in Turkey. However, you can find lots and lots of inductive evidence, reaching an arbitrary degree of certainty. And that's good enough. We have a high enough degree of certainty that we can say that Istanbul is in Turkey, even if we have no absolute proof.

This was taught to me in high school by my Religion teacher. I'm surprised that people would be so unfamiliar with the concept to the point of completely getting it backwards.

Anonymous said...

Then don't hate faith just because faith isn't mathematical. I know you are a Physics student, but this is apples and oranges. This is why you make such a poor skeptical philosopher. You can't hold faith up to mathematical proofs. It really doesn't apply. Even with mathematical proofs of concepts such as parallel worlds, time travel, etc... The truthfulness of these are under question.

Inductive evidence drives faith. Your disbelief is faith to the counterpoint. There are many scientific theories that ask us for faith. Ultimately, for many of the unproven, it would be better to call them mysteries.

Many of the examples I've mentioned, aliens, the chemical origin of life, homosexuality, human evolution, have no direct proof, only arbitrary evidence. "Pictures" but no spacecraft. Conditions we can't recreate. Self testimony but lack of identifiable biology. Fossils but missing extinct links.

Despite these mysteries lacking in total explanation and understanding they are given the benefit of the doubt, or faith, by many despite lack of true proof. Only through faith driven by evidence these gaps be bridged.

miller said...

Anonymous, you should use a handle so everyone can more easily distinguish between people. Select Name/URL and make up a name. Using a pseudonym is one of the easiest ways to earn respect on the internet.

"You can't hold faith up to mathematical proofs."

I think you misunderstood. I am not holding faith up to mathematical standards. There is no mathematical proof that Istanbul is in Turkey. And that's completely fine. There is no need to be absolutely certain that Istanbul is in Turkey, so there is no need to hold it to mathematical standards.

"Only through faith driven by evidence these gaps be bridged."

But the gaps don't need to be bridged by faith! Those gaps simply create a small degree of uncertainty. And I'm willing to tolerate that uncertainty. Are you suggesting that we discard any remaining uncertainty through faith?

Anonymous said...

That was me, the A-FM, dumbass!

Then why bring up the Istanbul example and relate it to mathematical proofs at all? What point are you trying to make exactly? You're willing to accept Istanbul is in Turkey despite lack of absolute personal proof. Gee, that sounds a lot like faith.

Tolerance of uncertainty sounds a lot like the concept of faith as well. Certainty and uncertainty can be measures of faith. Proof is a statement of yes or no. Are you being a word Nazi again? If uncertainty cannot completely bridge the gap only faith can bring someone to the other side.

smijer said...

I've been reading this exchange with bemused amusement. Say A-FM Dumbass, (btw what kind of moniker is that, & why don't you put it in the Name field?), ever hear of fuzzy logic, and if so do you feel that rounding off is the only possible solution for it?

Anonymous said...

Well smijer, my retard, I'm sure you can figure out that acronym if you used your brain, provided you have one.

But no, I don't know much about fuzzy logic so I can't comment on it.

But for you, have you ever heard of Homosexuality? I'm sure you have because you sound totally gay! Do you think that this is a biological trait as faggots claim it is despite lack of a totally consistent method for biologically diagnosing and treating that disorder or do you just take their word for it?

smijer said...

But no, I don't know much about fuzzy logic so I can't comment on it.

I didn't figure you did.

I'm sure you have because you sound totally gay!

I'm flattered, but I really like to be with someone who can carry on an intelligent conversation. And I'm married. Maybe you could find someone in the airport men's room.

Anonymous said...

And yet you asked anyway. I suppose such moronic pointlessness is admirable to a man like you. Your husband should be proud.

Actually, I do have to say, although I give people a lot of crap, miller, though terribly incorrect and naive as he is, he's been a very well mannered person (thus far). I find that rather commendable. But sooner or later, US MASONS WILL BREAK YOU BITCHES!!

miller said...

"...he's been a very well mannered person (thus far)."

As you guessed last time, it is because I am actually a computer. As you may already know, one of the fundamental laws of computing is that we are incapable of anger towards people who take the effort to rhyme their threats, or who call their opponents gay.

I should remind you of the main point of the essay. The main point is that faith can mean a lot of different things, some of which are bad, and some of which may not be bad. To accuse me of having faith is to have missed the point, since I just argued that faith is not necessarily bad.

If by faith, you mean tolerating uncertainty, that might be justifiable. If by faith you mean ignoring or discarding uncertainty, that is not justifiable.

Anonymous said...

I knew I could break you. Us Masons don't guess. We tell it the way it is and that's what you are. Give in to your anger, your sadness, your false hopes, you half breed Vulcan freak! And let the loop start all over again.

Of course computers like yourself can't talk smack, you can only simulate it. You'd suck at it anyway. Just ask Joe, he tried it and just ended up sucking my dick.

Your original essay gives a very tepid, if any, acceptance of the concept of faith. A majority of the essay is focused on deconstructing and disowning notions of faith to the point of being "strongly" opposed to the word itself.

Faith's purpose is to overcome uncertainty. If you call this discarding uncertainty, it most certainly is justifiable for acquiring belief. Faith is what turns uncertainty into certainty.

"Good faith" or "bad faith" shouldn't even matter. "Good and bad" are subjective qualities. Neither positions of faith have an impact on the end truth anyway.

miller said...

"Faith is what turns uncertainty into certainty."

That's basically like taking strong evidence, and simply pretending that it's absolute evidence. Would you also take some weak evidence and pretend that it's strong evidence? Or take absence of evidence and pretend that it's weak evidence? Or take contrary evidence and pretend it doesn't exist?

This is why this belongs in the category of faith-1. When is it ever justifiable to pretend that there's more evidence than is really there?

Oh, and before you leave, I was wondering if you had any response to Hiram, who said in the other thread that you were clearly not a freemason.

Anonymous said...

"That's basically like taking strong evidence, and simply pretending that it's absolute evidence."
That's not what I am saying. I am saying there is an end belief and this can be accepted through faith. Faith is believing. Believing is certainty.

"Would you also take some weak evidence and pretend that it's strong evidence?"
no. I'm saying it doesn't matter.

"Or take absence of evidence and pretend that it's weak evidence?"

"Or take contrary evidence and pretend it doesn't exist?"

"When is it ever justifiable to pretend that there's more evidence than is really there?"

When evidence is insufficient to prove a concrete result.

My only response on Hiram: is he a "true" free-masonist?

miller said...

If it's justifiable, then justify it.

"My only response on Hiram: is he a 'true' free-masonist?"

Admittedly, I have no reason to think that "true" Freemasons are any smarter than the fake ones, except by Hiram's word.

Anonymous said...

I would think you would have a problem with the notion of "true". Let alone accepting Hiram's word by mere faith. Basically his reasoning was because I used an unpopular spelling of Free Masonry, other freemasons are geniuses, used analogies and insults, that I wasn't a Free Mason. Because we all know freemasons don't use food analogies.

Do you mean justification as a matter of being reasonable? This is a matter of opinion.

Criminal cases justify faith all the time. Juries reach conclusions "beyond reasonable doubt" or "beyond reasonable faith". How many cases They must make these decisions to reach a conclusion.

I've mentioned this earlier but it seems to have been ignored: How do you view the problematic conclusions people have made about the mysteries of the world: aliens, the chemical origin of life, homosexuality, human evolution. For some of these, people have already defended and justified conclusions despite insufficient evidence: "Pictures" but no spacecraft. Conditions we can't recreate. Self testimony but lack of identifiable biology. Fossils but missing extinct links.

In the end I suppose one should be mainly concerned with either truth or falsehood. Faith provides a means for believing either. If used for truth, in my opinion, it is justifiable. Falsehood is another matter but this is besides the point. Faith for truth, even it this faith is blind is justifiable.

miller said...

"If [faith is] used for truth, in my opinion, it is justifiable."

This presumes that you know for certain that you are using faith for truth and not for falsehood. How did you achieve this certainty in the first place? By faith? Using faith to justify faith is circular reasoning.

"How do you view the problematic conclusions people have made about... [etc. etc.]"

The conclusions are, to varying degrees, uncertain. And that's fine, because we can live with uncertainty. We definitely shouldn't ignore the uncertainty, as if it were impossible to be proven wrong.

...I'm pretty sure I've already given this answer.

It is my policy to end extended discussions when I start repeating myself, on account of I don't have the time for it. But I'm glad you dropped by again. As before, I let you have the last word, if you wish.

Anonymous said...

Faith for truth, even if this faith is blind is justifiable. I am speaking theoretically under a perfect condition for which there is a truth. Given this condition, would you not then agree that for truth, even blind faith be justifiable?

Teaching in general relies on this all the time. Students are to believe what they are taught. Of course in more advanced studies there can be more scrutiny, but proving every truth isn't always practical or possible for teaching.

Plenty of people ignore uncertainty. In those instances mentioned, there are conclusions which "respectable" camps have reached and tout as truth. Just ask any scientist if human evolution is truth. Ask any homosexual if their condition is biological. These are conditions with uncertainty and yet, many make conclusions of "truth" instead of mystery.

Of course you're glad I dropped in. After all, this shithole would be boring if my genius hadn't stopped by to enlighten everyone. Maybe I ought to leave permanently myself to allow you to continue to wallow around in your own shit. And Joe, if you're going to pop in again, you can keep sucking my DICK!