The Relevant Definition of Faith Is…
I want to thank Tom for his thoughtful response to my initial post. Unfortunately, I think there are a number of serious problems with his account of faith. I’ll outline these below and in doing so, hopefully, provide a clearer statement of what exactly the issues at stake are.
For starters, let’s clear up a (merely) semantic issue. Tom correctly lists the following claims as central to the view of faith that I take to be relevant. (Note: Relevant to what? See below.) These claims are: (1) Faith goes beyond what is ordinarily reasonable; (2) faith and reason are in conflict; and (3) faith is unreasonable. Tom claims that (2) and (3) do not follow from (1), but that they “come from nowhere.” Why? Because “The conflict [between faith and reason] obtains only if one assumes that reason can only accord, conflict-free, with that which is ordinarily reasonable; but much of life and even of science goes beyond what is ordinarily reasonable.”
I think this is based on a misunderstanding of what Bishop (the author of the article from which this was quoted) means by “ordinarily reasonable.” As Bishop himself puts it: “It is thus widely held [by scholars, since the SEP is a publication by scholars, for scholars, about the ideas of scholars] that faith goes beyond what is ordinarily reasonable, in the sense that it involves accepting what cannot be established as true through the proper exercise of our naturally endowed human cognitive faculties – and this may be held to be an essential feature of faith” (some italics added). Almost immediately after this, Bishop mentions evidentialism, the most widely accepted view about what it means to establish beliefs as true (or, more carefully put, as probable) through the proper exercise of our cognitive faculties.
Thus, Tom is wrong that much of life and even of science(!) goes beyond what is ordinarily reasonable, that is, if one takes “ordinarily reasonable” to mean “proportioning our beliefs to the total evidence available to us.” Indeed, one could hardly find a domain of human activity that conforms better than science does to “the requirement, generally thought essential to rationality, to hold propositions to be true only to the extend justified on one’s available evidence” (to quote Bishop again, same paragraph). Science is the paradigm case of not venturing beyond the bounds of ordinary reason, of accepting beliefs when and only when the best checkable evidence supports them.
This being said, I would argue that (2) and (3) follow definitionally from (1). As a matter of fact, the section of Bishop’s article that I quoted at length in my initial post is entitled “Faith and reason: the epistemology of faith”! Reason pertains to being reasonable, and being reasonable pertains to having good reasons for our beliefs (where, again, the evidentialist identifies “good reasons” with “objective evidence”). It similarly follows, for purely lexical reasons, that a belief that goes beyond what we take to be reasonable will be unreasonable. These are not philosophical points, they are merely semantic ones: in the context of epistemology, “reason,” “reasonable,” “rationality,” and so on, are all neighbors living right next to each other on the same semantic block.
Moving on to more substantive matters, Tom has repeatedly admitted that the sense of “faith” that I want to focus on (and that I spend the first half of A Crisis of Faith discussing) involves a perfectly acceptable definition of the word. But Tom argues that this sense of “faith” is not the one most relevant to Christianity. I think Tom’s assertion here is very misleading, for reasons discussed below. That is to say, I think faith as Tom defines it may indeed be deeply significant to many Christians, but I also think that this sort of faith is built upon another and much more philosophically significant kind of faith. Crucially, when it comes to questions of truth and rationality, only the latter sort of faith matters.
A major topic in my recent book is the epistemology of religion. Epistemology is the study of what’s required for a belief to count as reasonable; it concerns the specific conditions under which one is justified or warranted in accepting a given belief as true. The term “faith” clearly has an epistemological sense. In books / articles on the subject (like Bishop’s article), faith of this sort is typically characterized as a kind of “propositional attitude.” This peculiar locution, from the Dictionary of Philosophically Obscure Terms, refers to a specific kind of relation (or, equivalently, “attitude”) that holds between two types of things: individuals, on the one hand, and propositions, on the other.
We know what individuals are, of course. A proposition, in contrast, is simply a description of reality – of how things are, were, will or ought to be – in linguistic form. Consider the following statement of religious conviction: “I believe that Joseph Smith communicated with the angel Moroni.” Here we have an individual – the “I” – and a proposition – “Joseph Smith communicated with the angel Moroni.” These two components, the individual and the proposition, are then joined together by the particular relation of believing. (Note also that the propositions in propositional attitudes like beliefs, desires, hopes, fears, and so on, are standardly introduced by the word “that” – so look for it!) The proposition constitutes the content of the attitude – in the case of the sentence above, “Joseph Smith communicated with the angel Moroni” is the content of the individual’s belief; it’s what the belief is about.
The point is that one interpretation of faith sees it as a species of belief: that is to say, it’s a version of believing that such and such is the case. Compare this with knowledge, which is also a species of belief: all knowing involves believing, but not all believing involves knowing. (This is what it means to be a species: all Homo sapiens are humans, for example, but not all humans are Homo sapiens, as in the case of Homo neanderthalensis and Homo erectus.) What sets knowledge apart from mere belief is that “knowing” specifically picks out beliefs that are both true and justified – at least according to the standard Platonic analysis of knowledge that philosophers still (more or less) accept today. Faith, on the other hand, is “widely held” to be belief (whether true or not) that fails to conform to the evidentialist requirement that Bishop states above. This is what makes this sort of faith a species of belief: when a belief is true and justified, that belief counts as knowledge; but when a belief fails to meet the epistemic requirements of what we take to be “ordinarily reasonable,” then it counts as faith. Thus, we know that the earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa, that humans and chimpanzees are evolutionarily related, and that quarks and leptons make up the atoms in our bodies, but the Scientologist (for example) has only faith that our souls travel to Venus after we die.
In contrast, there is another (perfectly acceptable) sense of “faith” as involving trust. Specifically, this alternative meaning involves not believing that such and such but trusting in so and so (such as God, Allah, Vishnu, a doctor, a friend, the bridge that one’s walking across). Whereas the epistemological sense discussed above involves a relation between individuals and propositions, this one involves a relation between individuals and other individuals (or “agents” of some kind). As such, faith in the “fiducial” sense is non-propositional in nature: the relation it involves is something along the lines of interpersonal rather than cognitive-propositional.
This is a crucial point because it’s why I’m not primarily interested in the sense of faith that Tom prefers. A little background is needed here for this to make sense, though, so let me pose the following two questions: What sorts of entities can exhibit the property of being true or false?, and What makes those entities actually have the property of truth? With respect to the first, I think pretty much everyone agrees that a large number of objects in the world cannot exhibit the property of being true or false. Chairs, for example, are neither true nor false; my love of music – that is, the love itself – is neither true nor false; and my desire that, for example, the US never preemptively invade another country is also neither true nor false (the desire just is).
What, then, can exhibit the properties of truth and falsity? The answer: Beliefs. And this makes good sense: as mentioned in my initial post, beliefs can be thought of as little maps of reality that exist inside our heads. Whereas the content of a geographical map is expressed graphically, pictorially or imagistically, the content of our mental maps is expressible linguistically, in the form of propositions. And just as a geographical map is “true” when it accurately corresponds to the external world, so too are our beliefs true when what they say reality is like lines up with what reality is actually like. (True beliefs are those that can be successfully mapped onto reality.) This answers both the first and second questions posed above, in that order.
The important idea here is that since faith as trusting in an agent / individual / entity is non-propositional, it cannot have a truth value. (Or, more technically, it is not “truth-evaluable.”) Faith of this sort is neither true nor false, just as my love of music – the act of loving itself – is neither true nor false. (My love doesn’t represent anything the way beliefs do, so it can’t succeed or fail to map onto reality.) To be sure, this sense does have some epistemological implications, since one can still ask whether or not trust in so and so is reasonable or not. But, to be just as sure, epistemology is not central to this sense of “faith,” unlike the propositional sense discussed above.
So, this is why I care about the first version of faith the most – faith as a specific kind of belief relation that holds between maps of reality and individuals. It’s this conception of faith that’s truth-evaluable, and what I care about for the purposes of deciding which beliefs about the ultimate nature of reality I should accept is, of course, truth. That is to say: I want know if the claims that Jesus ascended into heaven, that Muhammad is the last great prophet of Allah, that Vishnu created the universe, that Jesus ministered to people in North America after his resurrection, that our souls are reincarnated, that Asura and Preta are real entities as some Buddhists claim, etc. are true or utter hogwash. I want to know whether accepting any the above proposition would be reasonable or not, given everything we currently know about what our strange universe is like and how it works.
Having said all this, Tom defines “Biblical faith” as “trust based on knowledge.” Tom claims that the trust sense of faith is more relevant to Christianity than the belief sense. Yet in his definition, he describes trust as being based on knowledge – presumably he means knowledge that God exists, that God is three completely distinct persons who are completely identical in substance (if he’s a trinitarian; I assume he is), that the existent God is the one of Bible and not the Koran, that Jesus is God’s “son,” and so on.
But this makes it sound like the “knowledge” part is prior to the “trust” part – after all, the former constitutes the base of the latter. If so, the question then becomes: what makes the relevant beliefs upon which this trust is founded count as knowledge? What justifies them? What makes them reasonable to accept? These are precisely the questions that I’m interested in asking and, as best I can, answering. And, indeed, as far as I can tell, there is virtually no compelling, more or less unambiguous, third-person, checkable evidence for the claim that (say) God is three distinct persons who are also identical in substance.
To summarize my points: First, there are multiple different senses of “faith.” Only one of these – the propositional sense – is crucially relevant to issues of reasonableness and truth, where truth concerns the relations of correspondence between (i) propositions (the content of beliefs) and (ii) reality, and reasonableness involves the extent to which one is justified / warranted in thinking that a given proposition does in fact correspond to some state of affairs in the world. The fiducial sense of faith may indeed be psychologically important to people – to Christians – but it lacks the cognitive significance that faith as a specific kind of believing that has. Second, since trusting in so and so presupposes that one already believes that so and so exists, the propositional sense appears to be more fundamental than the fiducial one. This is, I believe, implicit in Tom’s own definition of faith as trust that’s based on some kind of belief (Tom calls this kind of belief “knowledge” but, in the absence of compelling evidential support, I would call it “faith”).
There are a few options for Tom at this point, as far as I can tell: on the one hand, he could try to give me a cogent reason for thinking that propositional faith is not, as I’ve claimed, more fundamental than faith in the fiducial sense. This would presumably entail Tom changing his own definition of “Biblical faith” to specify trust in as the foundation for everything else, rather than facts being the “basis [...] underlying faith.” (Again, the epistemological question that arises here, and which I take up in my book, is: Why believe those “facts”? Can such belief count as knowledge, or is it best understood as faith in the propositional sense?)
On the other hand, Tom could concede that trusting in God presupposes believing that God exists, but argue that there are actually some epistemologically respectable reasons for holding that the dogmas and doctrines of Christianity are true. This would involve presenting an argument for the idea that particular instances of propositional faith don’t either go beyond or contradict the best available evidence. Much of A Crisis of Faith is dedicated to showing that the beliefs of Christianity, as well as other faiths around the world, are not very well supported by the evidence, and in many cases actually contradict the best available we currently have (as in the case of the existence of the soul).