General Thoughts on Epistemology IV: The Difficulty of “Faith”

A man praying at a Japanese Shintō shrine.

First, I don’t want to step on anybody’s beliefs, but, well, here we go. -Brian Regan

Given an understanding of the world based on the scientific method—what I call the “wager” process—there are some tricky things that happen when we try to reconcile the concept of “faith.” In what follows, I will explain why the term is unintelligible unless it is used to describe a situation in which one believes something while ignoring evidence to the contrary.

To reiterate what I have explained in previous entries, the “wager” theory claims that coming to a belief always involves a kind of wager. When a wager is made in gambling, risk is adopted that the wager will fail. The wager is then confirmed or denied when the cards (or what have you) are revealed. In the same way, holding a belief adopts the risk that it will be disproven, and it is confirmed or denied by physical or logical tests.

The Oxford Dictionary defines “faith” as “complete trust or confidence in someone or something.”  The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy breaks it into three broad categories: affectivecognitive, and volitional. The affective component refers to the psychological state or attitude often denoted in the phrase “losing one’s faith.” The cognitive component gets at the epistemic nature of the concept, suggesting that it is an actual cognitive faculty by which we can come to “know” things. It is perhaps most accurately categorized as a kind of belief. The volitional component adds the notion that one can choose whether or not to have “faith”—to accept this special kind of belief. Most of what I will address here are the linguistic aspects of the cognitive component.

There is a basic definition given by the Hebrew bible that has a number of translations. The English Standard version is as follows: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11.1) Within every translation, two recurring elements of “faith” that appear to be essential components are “hope” and a sense of certainty that goes beyond mere belief. First, combining “hope” with “certainty” does not appear to give us any semantic tool that we don’t already have or refer to some mental state that we cannot pinpoint otherwise. Moreover, the two concepts appear to be at odds. Saying that I hope x will occur usually requires that I am uncertain that x will occur. It is often a conscious hedging away from certainty. As aspects of “faith,” they also run into issues on their own.

“Hope” is primarily a stronger form of “desire”. When we hope for something to be the case, we desire for it to happen. If “faith” is another type of desire—a stronger version of “hope” perhaps—then it wouldn’t serve any epistemic purpose whatsoever. My desire for something to happen or be true has nothing at all to do with attempting to discover the actual outcome.

On the other hand, “certainty” does imply an epistemic relation. Use seems to vacillate between having absolute conviction and having a mere strong conviction. “Faith” does appear to have an absolute quality about it, since having only a strong conviction doesn’t quite cut it as a substitute for having faith in most circles. If “faith” is more of an absolute conviction, however, then it begs a series of questions: By what standard is it absolute? And is it ever logically permissible to have such a conviction? And if/when it is permissible, is “faith” a reasonable vehicle to get there?

I haven’t yet seen an acceptable set of answers that suggests “faith” is a helpful and coherent tool in epistemology. Even if one can muster up an adequate description and justification of “absolute” conviction, we are still left with showing how “faith” works and making the case that it is something reasonable to use.

The problem is that there really is no good explanation for how it works. “Faith” is considered quite mysterious, intentionally so. And because reasonable use is contingent upon there being at least some tenable understanding of its function, the chances that faith and reason coincide are slim at best.

There are some attempts to do this, however. One way would be to identify faith as a component of every belief and that it somehow accounts for the gap between our natural state of ignorance and the actions we take. According to this model, every action we take requires an extra push to get us there from our beliefs. But “faith” doesn’t appear to provide any explanatory power here. And once we add the parts we need to describe the basic epistemic process—placing proposition-based wagers and using actions and “intuition pumps” as tests to confirm or deny them—it becomes unnecessary to add any more components.

We could attempt to identify the concept as the same exact thing as making a wager, but for “faith” proponents, this would probably be undesirable, for the element of certainty would be lost in this case. A bet (much like scientific theory) is something that holds strongly to the assumption that its failure is within the realm of possibility. Unless I am mistaken, it is clearly the opposite for matters of faith.

Another attempt would be to note that “faith” is more applicable when deciding whether or not to trust another human being, the thought being that we are so complex and unpredictable, that the only viable option is to take some “leap.” If so, then it would imply that faith and rationality are quite separate, since the assumption is that we cannot predict what will happen with reason.

However, the “wager” theory still acts as an intelligible substitute for this even if we cannot reasonably “predict” what will happen. One can effectively bet on what someone will do and hope that they do it. Nothing more is needed. To use “faith” as a replacement for these two operations still seems to fly in the face of the  certainty requirement. To tack it on as an extra piece of the puzzle seems to either be unintelligible or create a contradiction (being certain and uncertain simultaneously).

There is still one definition for “faith” that fits neatly into this narrative, and that is “to believe a proposition despite evident contradictions.” In this case, “faith” would not be something that is part of the proper epistemic process. It would describe a decisively irrational function by which one may believe certain propositions to be true while ignoring conflicting test results for reasons external to the epistemic process. Although employing “faith” could not be rational on this account, it may still have some positive psychological effects for various people. And it may even bring more happiness to those lives than “proper epistemology” would. Even so, I would not subscribe to it. But that’s just me.

Pascal’s Wager and the Giant Meatball

English: raw meatball, before frying it עברית:...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Blaise Pascal said in the seventeenth century that we ought to choose to believe in God because an assessment of the consequences tells us that we have more to gain by doing so. If God does exist, we gain infinitely by believing and we lose infinitely by not believing. If God does not exist, we (presumably) gain finitely by not believing and lose finitely by believing. Because the infinite consequence of our decision in the “God exists” world will always outweigh any finite consequence of our decision in the “God doesn’t exist” world, we stand more to gain by choosing to believe.

Pascal builds his argument upon the assumption that there is no way to reasonably determine the existence of God. Therefore, we must “wager” by weighing the possible outcomes. His argument also presumes, however, that it is reasonable for a belief to be determined by weighing the consequences—that belief is no different from any other action in this regard. My position is this: to hold a belief on any ground other than a justification of its truth-value is either irrational or non-rational. If it is decidedly impossible to justify the truth-value of a proposition, then it is irrational to believe the proposition.

Let’s apply Pascal’s Wager to a different scenario. Suppose I believe that there is a giant invisible space-meatball speeding towards Earth that will knock it into the sun, and the only way to survive is to steal a local space ship from the shipyard and travel to the moon colony (this is a sci-fi example). I tell my friend this, and he is extremely skeptical. He says that I can’t prove it is true. I respond that he cannot prove to me that it is false. We mutually agree that we will never reasonably determine the truth-value of my claim.

But then I tell him we stand more to gain by choosing to believe that the space-meatball exists. If it does exist, we will gain our lives by believing, but lose our lives by not believing. If it does not exist, we will gain or lose little relative to our lives. My friend reluctantly agrees, and we spend the rest of our lives on the moon as ship-stealing fugitives, anxiously awaiting a giant cataclysmic meatball that never comes.

It is clear that using this wager-mode of thinking without giving any attention to the truth-value of one’s beliefs could be fairly disastrous if it results in dangerous behavior. The difference between this example and the example with God, is that if I can remain skeptical about the meatball and travel to the moon, I will still accomplish my goal if the meatball exists. However, I cannot merely act in life as if God exists and make it through the pearly gates. I must legitimately believe (at least in the Christian tradition). This means that I must believe despite an ability to falsify or prove the claim in order to accomplish my goal of not burning in hellfire for eternity.

Pascal wants to treat belief in God more like an action than a belief. It isn’t a physical action though. When it comes to justifying physical action, one may wager in terms of desired outcome. In complex cases, one must weigh possible outcomes in conjunction with risk. If I want to buy a clown nose at Walmart, I must think about the possibility that they don’t sell them and the risk that I will arrive to find that they have none. If I call, and the person says they have them in stock, I reason that I have reduced the risk that I won’t be able to purchase one at the store. The decision of what action to take is dependent both upon what I predict to be true and what I want to happen.

When it comes to belief, the thought process does not include desired outcome. Belief, by definition, is the mental state we have when we regard a proposition as true. So it must be grounded in a justification of whether or not a proposition correctly describes reality in order to fulfill its function. Therefore, the mental process leading up to belief is the means by which we figure out what is real and what is not. If all this is accurate, I think it follows that it makes no sense to believe something without having at least some justification for it. And I am fairly certain that to know what belief rationally entails while disregarding it purposefully is downright irrational.

Since belief in God is required to accomplish the goal of not suffering at the hands of demons forever, people who do not believe are thrust into an odd position. In order for an agnostic to believe in God, one must disregard the entire function of belief. This is what Pascal asks us to do. An agnostic must therefore decide between a rational decision to not hold a belief and a decision to cast rationality aside in favor of soul-insurance.  Many would call this faith and would agree that believing in God necessitates that one disregard rational thought in this case. Some have no problem with this. I used to have trouble understanding how it is possible, but there is no doubting the evidence that it is possible for human beings to hold beliefs that contradict other beliefs. It happens all the time.