There is no concept which is more important than faith for the 21st century believer. In the past, believers were able to point to the unexplained physical phenomena that they observed as evidence for the existence of God. But, as the methods of science matured, we have discovered natural explanations for many of the occurrences that once ‘proved’ the existence of God. Now we know that ignorance is not a window to God, and the fact that there may be things about the universe that we don’t understand does not mean that there is no natural explanation for them. In short, the testimony of a modern believer relies on faith almost exclusively for its existence.
But what is faith? For a concept of such importance, faith is not very well understood. Perhaps the difficulty inherent in defining faith stems from the fact that faith is a subjective experience. It is easy for two people to look through the same telescope and see the same star. If those same two people were to watch each others wedding videos, on the other hand, they might have a hard time saying exactly what the depicted events mean. This is precisely because meaning, like faith, is a subjective experience, something that we construct to make sense of our lives. Despite this difficulty in pinning down what faith actually means, I think that it is worth discussing some of the different interpretations of faith, in the hope of understanding what sorts of faith are actually worth possessing.
In discussions about religion, I frequently encounter the notion that faith is “belief without evidence.” This definition is a convenient straw-man, because if this is really what faith is, then it is trivially easy to discredit and summarily dismiss faith altogether. In reality, I don’t think that this definition is too far off the mark, but it fails to make a subtle distinction between cases where a belief is held without evidence because the evidence is not known, and cases where a belief is held without evidence because no evidence is possible. According to this definition, when someone believes that the Loch Ness Monster exists, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, that individual has the same sort of faith that a theist does. For someone trying to argue that it is unreasonable to have faith in God, this is a desirable conclusion; however, it is also a fairly poor reflection of what most theists mean when they talk about faith. Believing something contrary to abundant evidence is delusional, and for faith to be worth having, it cannot be centered in something which is demonstrably false.
Next (since this is a blog about philosophical Mormonism) let’s turn to The Book of Mormon, which describes faith this way: “faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true” (Alma 32:21). As far as scriptural definitions of faith go (and I realize that any non-Mormons reading this will probably not consider a verse from The Book of Mormon to be scriptural) I can think of none better than this one. Hebrews 11:1 is also a very popular verse about faith, but to me, it is very vague, and by introducing the notion of evidence, it comes dangerously close to the belief-without-evidence definition of faith which we have already shown to be seriously inadequate. Technically, this verse in Alma is not a definition in the strict sense. First, it is an explanation of what faith is not: faith is not a perfect knowledge. Second, it describes the outcome of faith: those who have faith will have hope in things which are not seen, but which are true. Expressed with logical operators, it looks like this: Faith → (¬Seen & True). So, by the application of basic logical principles, we can conclude that, according to The Book of Mormon, we may have hope in things that are seen and in things that are not true, but such a hope does not come from faith. So a belief that the world is only 6,000 years old is not a demonstration of faith, because the age of the earth is not “not seen” (pardon the grammatical mangling!) but is a matter of fact that can be investigated with empirical means, and because it is not true that the Earth is 6,000 years old. Such a belief fails the B.o.M. criteria of faith. One difficulty with this view is the fact that while it is easy to recognize when we have hope in something unseen, in some cases it can be difficult (or impossible) to know if our hope is in something that is true. If we knew whether a certain proposition were true (for instance, the proposition ‘God exists’) then we wouldn’t have to have faith in it.
There are probably as many different definitions of faith as there are human beings on the planet, so any attempt at a definitive explanation is probably doomed from the start. Nevertheless, I’ll hazard an attempt. The word ‘faith’ derives from the Latin ‘fidere’ which means ‘to trust.’ The etymology of the word is not, in itself, significant, but it happens that in this case, it is useful to think of ‘faith’ and ‘trust’ as being roughly synonymous. To have faith is to trust in the untestable assumptions that we make about the world. This sort of faith affects every aspect of our lives, whether we believe in God or not. Before I get into specific examples of this kind of faith, I need to make a minor digression to talk about two of the most influential skeptical philosophers in the history of the world: Rene Descartes and David Hume (from whom I have borrowed my nom de plume).
Descartes set for himself the task of discovering a set of fundamental principles that can be known to be true without any possibility of doubt. He thought that by doing so, he would be able to establish a completely reliable base upon which to construct the edifice of knowledge. So, he began a process of methodological skepticism in which he stripped away any assumption which could possibly be doubted. First, he points out that it is possible to doubt the reliability of the senses; the existence of mirages and other optical illusions suggest this. Next, he points out that we can doubt the existence of the physical world; perhaps I am dreaming or hallucinating, and nothing that I experience is real. Finally, Descartes presents his ‘evil genius’ argument, that it is possible to doubt a priori analytic propositions like ‘2+2=4’; it could be that there is some evil genius (genie) who likes nothing more than to delude human beings and every time we come close to thinking the truth, that 2+2=5, he meddles with our minds and forces us to the erroneous conclusion that 2+2=4. Ultimately, Descartes came to the most basic principle, which he believed was impossible to doubt (although Hume will eventually cast doubt even on this), namely, the famous cogito ergo sum, I think, therefore I am. From this one unassailable foundation, Descartes tries to deduce a set of axioms and true principles; however, it is far from clear that he succeeds in doing so. It is important to point out that Descartes was not a skeptic. In fact, he undertook his project to try to protect science from unreasonable skepticism, but in the end, he was not able to counter the skeptical case that he had made until he concluded (with questionable justification) that if he existed, then God had to exist as well.
David Hume, unlike Descartes, was a genuine skeptic. Hume is particularly well known for posing the problem of induction. An inductive inference occurs when we make a general conclusion from a finite set of examples. Hume argues that such an inference is not logically valid. Consider this example:
- The sun has always risen in the past.
- The future resembles the past.
- Therefore, the sun will rise tomorrow.
Most people would probably feel very comfortable with this argument, in fact, we depend on it. We naturally assume that the sun will rise tomorrow just as it always has. We understand the principles of momentum that keep the planet revolving and the forces of gravity that keep the Earth tethered to the Sun. It is not Hume’s intent to argue that the sun won’t rise tomorrow. He merely points out that our belief that the sun will rise tomorrow is not based on valid logic. The problem is with the second premise, that the future resembles the past. Our only reason for thinking that the future will resemble the past is that so far, the future always has resembled the past. This is circular reasoning, because it relies on induction to justify induction itself. Hume’s critique of induction is so devastating and thorough that for the most part, philosophers have ceded the issue and admitted that inductive reasoning is not valid, but that it is something which we cannot help but use. Without induction, we lose the notions of causation, of a self in which thoughts inhere, of predictable laws of physics, and so on.
To this day, no scientist, philosopher, or theologian has been able (in my opinion) to adequately resolve the skeptical concerns that Descartes and Hume raised. This doesn’t mean that I believe that the sun won’t rise tomorrow or that there is no material world or that it is not the case that 2+2=4 or that the laws of physics may suddenly change. In fact, I believe the opposite: that the sun will rise tomorrow, that the world is real and that we know things about it. But my belief in these things is essentially a matter of faith. By believing these things, I am trusting in an untestable assumption that I have made about the world. There is no way for me to ever test the assumption that the laws of physics that I observe today will also be observable tomorrow, nevertheless, I trust my assumption that they will not.
Now, let me point out that having faith in the existence of God is not identical to having faith that laws of physics will still apply in the future. We can seriously doubt the existence of God but we really can only doubt that the laws of physics will continue to hold in an academic sense. No one (that I know of) organizes his or her life around the possibility that gravity will suddenly stop holding us to the ground. No one who jumps off a bridge does so with the expectation that he or she will not eventually hit the water below. Even though the assumption is untestable, we cannot help but trust that the laws of physics are consistent. Faith in God is not so automatic.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this (lengthier than I initially hoped) article, I mentioned that there is a considerable amount of subjectivity involved in our conception of God. In fact, some critics (Freud, most famously, but plenty of people before and after him have made similar arguments) have suggested that God is simply a projection, a construction of the human mind, a way to impose meaning on a meaningless world. I believe that any honest theist has to admit that this is at least possible. But ultimately, our assumptions about God are not assumptions about the objective world (if objectivity is even possible) but deal with the subjectivity of being and meaning. Faith in God, or trust in the untestable assumption that God exists, is more closely related to faith that life has meaning or that living a moral life is important — non-empirical principles which we nevertheless assume to be true. Of the famous atheist philosophers, Nietzsche alone has really come to grips with what faith in God actually is, and what it would mean to abolish it. If it is unreasonable to believe that the universe has meaning due to God’s existence, then what good alternative is there to give meaning to the universe? Darwinian natural selection is inadequate; it may explain why we think that our lives have meaning, or why we think that certain behaviors are more ethical than others, but it provides no basis for believing that our lives really do have meaning or that we actually are constrained by moral conventions.
As I have mentioned, I am in the middle of a serious re-evaluation of my beliefs, but after more than a year of leaning towards atheism, I am beginning to realize that the world described by Richard Dawkins and cohort is a fantasy. Without God, we get the world that Nietzsche describes, not the world as it currently is minus suicide bombers as the new crop of atheists seem to think. And while I recognize that perhaps I feel this way simply because I have stood at the precipice and flinched, I choose to trust my untestable assumption that my life, and the lives of others have meaning and value. In other words, I have faith that meaning exists, and although this is a far cry from the concept of God that gets discussed in Sunday schools, I call this meaning ‘God.’ If this is a fabrication of my own mind, then surely it is one which I am entitled to make.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section.