What is faith?

Carol R. writes:

I recently had a discussion with an atheist and the subject of having “faith in reason” came up. Of course the atheist said that faith and reason were antipodes. He cited George H. Smith’s treatment of faith in Atheism: The Case Against God. But you have used the term “faith in reason” many times and it made sense to me. I was hoping that you could blog on this and lay out the case so I could learn from it and refer to it.

Specifically, I was wondering what a good definition of faith is. Atheists always trot out “belief in the absence of evidence.” But I know you don’t believe that. So I was hoping for a good definition of faith and an explanation of why reason is incomplete on its own and needs to be supplemented with faith (does it have something to do with the fact that the senses are not perfect and can’t be relied on?). I think this is the crux of the matter and this is where atheists have to be defeated if they can be (which I admit I am unsure of). You rarely blog on metaphysics which is something of a shame because you are so much better at it than many of the Presuppositionalists that do.

LA replies:

Faith is not a word I use very often (and I only find one instance at VFR of the phrase, “faith in reason”), because “faith” does have the modern connotation of “belief in the absence of evidence.” That sounds to me like a definition by a secular rationalist who is seeking to put down religion, by making it seem like simply a mindless state of belief: “I believe the moon is made of green cheese, because I believe it.” And indeed that is exactly the way modern secularists (liberal and “conservative”) use the word faith. You’ve seen at my site the liberal and materialist commenters who keep saying that the arguments of anti-Darwinists are just based in faith, not in reason. They don’t allow that any non material view can be based in reason.

So if faith has a good definition, it can’t just be “belief in the absence of evidence.” There has to have been something real there that made us believe in the first place. The problem is that spiritual things are not simply “there,” like a physical object. We apprehend things about them, each moment we apprehend something different, or we stop apprehending anything. But the point is that there is or has been an apprehension of a reality, and we don’t see it all, yet we’ve seen enough of it that we believe in its truth and we stay loyal to that truth. Faith is a committed relationship with something we partly see, but don’t completely see. Having seen enough of it to believe that it is true, we maintain that relationship, the orientation of our selves toward that thing.

So in that sense faith is not a state of “believing something,” or rather it’s a state of believing something plus a personal commitment to that thing. Faith is a quality of a relationship with the thing in which one believes. For example, in John 15 Jesus tells his disciples, “Abide in me, and I in you.” He’s not telling them to have some idea about him, “I believe that Jesus is this,” or “I believe that Jesus is like that.” He’s telling them to have a relationship with him, he’s telling them to be present with him, to make him present in their lives, within them, next to them, and they in him, as though he were present in them, and they in him.

Now non-believers could say that this is a state of pure imagination, which shows that religion is about non-existent fantasies. But let us suppose for the moment that God really existed and wanted human beings to establish a relationship with him. How would he go about getting them to do this? By telling them to think about him, telling them to bring him into their lives, so that he becomes a part of them. Suppose a man is in love with a woman and is thinking about her all the time when they’re apart, keeping her in thought, imagining things they would say to each other if they were together. Does the fact that he’s having imaginary thoughts about the woman mean that she doesn’t actually exist? Of course not. She really exists, and he is bringing himself into relationship with her by thinking about her, picturing her with him. Leaving aside the difference between the human and the divine, it’s the same with the relationship that Jesus tells his followers to have with him.

- end of initial entry -

Jeff W. writes:

In answer to Carol R., I would discuss the different kinds of knowledge available to man. You have discussed these different kinds of knowledge previously on VFR.

One kind of knowledge is knowledge of the physical universe. This is knowledge that we can obtain through our five senses and the measuring equipment that has been devised. This is the only kind of knowledge that materialist reductionists admit into evidence.

Then there is experiential knowledge not measurable or obtained through five senses. This category includes the knowledge of the self as a conscious being, and spiritual experiences, such as the experience of John Wesley when he felt that his heart was strangely warmed.

Then there are inferences or conclusions that we develop from knowledge. The theory of evolution is an inference developed from studies of fossils, of animals in the Galapagos Islands, etc. Whether that theory can continue satisfactorily to explain new facts coming from the fossil record and from the study of life at the cellular level remains to be seen.

The rational part of my faith is an inference from a combination of material evidence and nonmaterial experiential evidence. Though materialists rule nonmaterial experiential evidence out of bounds, I rule it as fully in bounds, and I condemn them for their arrogance and willful ignorance in refusing to admit into evidence such universally acknowledged experiential facts as the existence of human consciousness.

Leonard D. writes:

“I was hoping for a good definition of faith and an explanation of why reason is incomplete on its own and needs to be supplemented with faith”

Reason is incomplete (in one sense) because one of its most powerful methods, induction, is not logically sound. Induction is the process of generalizing from specific instances to general laws. Wikipedia has a tolerably good article on this, as a start. Of course we all use induction, all the time; it is part of our common sense. But that observation just moves the problem.

Ultimately, to believe almost anything beyond “I am”, you must rely on some belief in something unprovable, i.e., that the universe has laws which hold over all space and all time. This may seem obvious (as with any common sense), but can you prove that, say, the law of gravity will hold tomorrow? You cannot. You can merely state that the law of gravity has always held in all the cases we have observed in the past.

LA replies:

Leonard’s point also backs up a point made, I think, by Alan Roebuck: that the very premises on which science is based are not themselves provable by science, and that science depends on non-falsiable assumptions. Therefore the attempt some have made to exclude from knowledge all non-falsiable assertions is false.

John B. writes:

From Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, “Third Essay: What is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals?” Section 24, translation by Walter Kaufmann:

Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as science “without any presuppositions”; this thought does not bear thinking through, it is paralogical: a philosophy, a “faith,” must always be there first of all, so that science can acquire from it a direction, a meaning, a limit, a method, a right to exist. (Whoever has the opposite notion, whoever tries, for example, to place philosophy “on a strictly scientific basis,” first needs to stand not only philosophy but truth itself on its head—the grossest violation of decency possible in relation to two such venerable females!) There is no doubt of it—and here I cite the fifth book of my Gay Science (section 344):

“The truthful man, in the audacious and ultimate sense presupposed by the faith in science, thereby affirms another world than that of life, nature, and history; and insofar as he affirms this ‘other world,’ does this not mean that he has to deny its antithesis, this world, our world? … It is still a metaphysical faith that underlies our faith in science—and we men of knowledge of today, we godless men and anti-metaphysicians, we, too, still derive our flame from the fire ignited by a faith millennia old, the Christian faith, which was also Plato’s, that God is truth, that truth is divine.”

Kristor writes:

As it happens, I addressed just this question in my sally over at Secular Right earlier this year, replying to commenter The Kat. It works pretty well if you substitute “faith” for “belief”:

The Kat: You say that “it is not possible to make a rational argument for belief in God, because reason and faith-based belief are fundamentally incompatible.” But “faith-based belief” is just a way of writing “belief-based belief.” What you’ve written, then, is, “reason and belief are fundamentally incompatible.” But if this were true, you couldn’t perform the act of believing something you had logically demonstrated to be true.

Belief is not ipso facto unreasonable. Even things we believe, not by having thought them through, but as a result of a direct delivery of the senses—such as that fire is hot—are not therefore necessarily unreasonable. Beliefs are unreasonable only if they contradict our experience or our reason.

But with respect to the existence of God, that is precisely the question. Does the proposition that He exists contradict our experience or our reason? In arguing about that, we are not yet arguing about belief in God. St. Thomas argued that faith, properly construed, is, not credence in a proposition you cannot rationally support, but rather an act of the will to adopt as true the propositions you have demonstrated to be true by a process of ratiocination. The credence that follows upon a logical demonstration of the truth of a proposition does not come into play until one has reached the conclusion.

We all have faith in this Thomistic sense all the time. We believe we are standing on the outer surface of a ball, when if we look around us that idea seems just whacked. But, when we reason carefully about our experience, we are forced to admit that the floating ball cosmology makes more sense, however improbable it might have seemed on its face. It was in just this sense, for example, that Planck, in contravention to his deepest intuitions about nature, admitted that it had to be fundamentally discontinuous. He forced himself to believe in this conclusion, even though he didn’t want to believe it, even though he hated the idea.

Does God exist? We examine the arguments as honestly and carefully as possible, and follow where they lead. If at the end of the day we find that they indicate His existence, then we decide to believe in His existence. In terms of the volitional experience, it’s just like deciding that we really do live on a floating ball.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at August 25, 2009 03:15 PM | Send

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