Monday, April 17, 2006

Faith vs. Reality

When I was younger, I spent about 7 years attending a weekly Christian youth club. They were wonderful people, and I spent many happy hours discussing theology with them. One thing that I never really got, though, was their reliance on faith.

Faith (heretofore defined as belief in the absence of evidence) is a very odd thing. When applied to many situations, most people would agree that it is synonymous with stupidity - for example, having faith that you can jump off a skyscraper and survive is not terribly sensible. And yet a vast number of people use it to justify strongly-held beliefs. Where's the borderline between situations where faith is and isn't acceptable, and how is that borderline justified?

My belief is that no such borderline is justified. I have never seen any situation where faith has resulted in a more accurate understanding of reality. Holy books do not generally tell us any confirmable facts about the universe that we didn't already know. They don't make any testable predictions that we couldn't already propose. Faith, when applied to understanding the universe, is completely useless.

So why do people have so much respect for faith? One way or another, I think it's an intellectual cop-out. In its simplest form, it acts as an excuse for not thinking much about the universe. It allows an individual to opt out of the reality-based community with a clear conscience. It means they don't have to waste time that could be better used advancing their position in life. The reality-based community is seriously under-represented amongst the CEOs of major corporations, and I strongly suspect that this is why.

A slightly more complex variant arises from intuitive perceptions of the universe. For example, in this article in the Observer, Richard Harries argues that:

However, religious belief is a matter of considered judgment. It involves our aesthetic sense, our moral judgment, our imagination and our intuition. In this respect, it is not totally different from making a judgment, for example, that Beckett is a great playwright, the war against Iraq was wrong or the sheer existence of the universe is awesome.

It's possible for an idea to Just Feel Right to someone. They can't justify it, but they "know" it's true - so they call upon faith to spring the trap of rationality they find themselves caught in. Faith allows them to treat objective questions ("does God exist?") as if they were subjective questions ("was Beckett a great playwright?"). Faith claims that their intuitive feelings constitute a valid argument. The problem with this, of course, is that intuitive beliefs about the universe have a regrettable tendency to be horribly inaccurate, to the point that overcoming these intuitions is an essential part of joining the reality-based community. As a rule, "self-evident truths" generally aren't.
Of course, faith of this sort has trouble surviving in a critical environment. Any scientist claiming to hold to a scientifically-testable belief on the basis of faith can and will be laughed at. There's a definite social component to faith, and I suspect that it is often provided by those whom faith does benefit - the hucksters and frauds. Religion will never die out whilst there's good money to be made exploiting those who adhere to it. The demagogues, the televangelists, the politicians who are miraculously born again just when their popularity needs a boost - all these, and the honest people they dupe, contribute to an atmosphere where criticism of faith is considered unacceptable. The same goes for other snake-oil salesmen - the psychics, the Qabbalists, the sellers of "alternative therapies".

As many of the crazier religious folk would claim, there is indeed something of an underground war going on. In the red corner, we have the scientists, the skeptics, the folk who insist on hard evidence before they'll believe. In the blue corner, we have the fundamentalists, the quacks, the preachers and the innocent folks who believe them. The former group has by far the best credibility; the latter group has by far the most convincing rhetoric. Who will win? That remains to be seen.

[Reality Check Disclaimer: This post is a rather speculative rhetorical piece, and as such may not be accurate. If you feel that any of the arguments or conclusions presented are incorrect or insufficiently justified, please call me on it]

3 comments:

Lifewish said...

For a slightly less long-winded version of the same argument, see this comment on Pharyngula:

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Fran:

See, christianity takes something you don't have, with all due respect, FAITH.

Faith is, with all due respect, little more than an apologia for helplessness. It's what you use to make "sense" out of the shit you don't understand. In short, an appeal to faith is a cop-out. It conveniently absolves you of any obligation to have the slightest clue what you're talking about, but somehow does not preclude you from expressing absolute, unshakeable certainty in that which you do not understand. It is a socially glorified form of unapologetic intellectual laziness.

If it were easy to believe in, what would be the point?

This isn't the fucking Olympics. You don't get bonus points for degree of difficulty.

If you truly experienced the LOVE of God, you would have no doubt. Even if it's totally dubious to you, I would much rather HOPE and have FAITH that I will be in Heaven with my Father than the alternate choice of being in Hell with the Father of lies. So, be careful, who's the master of lies? He's so good he has you believing the lie that Jesus did not raise from the dead that it would be impossible. Open you heart and your mind and you might see how it is possible to believe even though it seems so impossible. God bless you and keep you! He loves even you!

Yay! Lobotomies for everyone!

Dan

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What he said.

Paul (probably - maybe Liz) said...

As you know already, I disagree with you on what faith is. You are using faith in its post-modern sense of "a leap of faith" - a belief that has no grounding in reality. Faith in the Christian sense isn't the same as this. It is belief in something that is not seen, but it isn't a belief in something for which there is no evidence - for more, see here.

Also, I believe that you are epistemologically wrong to believe that scientists and skeptics are all entirely objective and rational. Consider the assertion: "I believe in things for which I have evidence". Why? Why should the universe be amenable to this interpretation? How can you know that the evidence you have is secure?

I think that the only sound answer to that sort of question can be found with reference to an external absolute - which was the basis of the development of modern science. You continue to work on the basis that the evidence is secure, the universe is a meaningful place, but without the foundation of that security or meaning. This, in my opinion, is an irrational basis for your epistemology.

Lifewish said...

As you know already, I disagree with you on what faith is.

I'm fully aware of that - many religious people prefer to treat "faith" as a synonym for "trust". The fact remains that many other religious people prefer the "you just gotta have faith" version. It is these Christians that I'm discussing in this post.

Consider the assertion: "I believe in things for which I have evidence". Why? Why should the universe be amenable to this interpretation?

See discussion of "usefulness" ad nauseam in later posts.

How can you know that the evidence you have is secure?

Who cares? If it's predictive, it's useful. Even if there's some evidence that I might possibly come across at a later date that might possibly falsify my models, merely suspecting that evidence's existence is decidedly not useful.

You continue to work on the basis that the evidence is secure, the universe is a meaningful place, but without the foundation of that security or meaning. This, in my opinion, is an irrational basis for your epistemology.

As with most issues of this kind in science, the concept of a comprehensible universe is not a premise; it's an hypothesis. If scientists discover an area of the universe that's fundamentally unpredictable, they delineate the precise boundaries of the unpredictability and (provisionally) call it a night. In fact, that's what happened with quantum mechanics.

In the majority of other cases, this hypothesis works just fine.

As a side-note, I'd point out that theists have no better explanation of all these qualities of the universe - they just push the problem back a step. Thus the atheistic approach wins on grounds of parsimony. Rather than saying "quality X exists because God wanted to create it; God's desire to create X just existed", why not simply say "quality X just existed"?