Disambiguating Faith: Faith As Admirable Infinite Commitment For Finite Reasons

May your strength give us strength, may your faith give us faith, may your hope give us hope, may your love give us love.

In recent weeks I have distinguished and criticized numerous distinct belief formation and justification practices which go by the name of “faith.”  I have argued that it is neither rational nor ethically responsible to believe in propositions for whose truth you do not have sufficient evidence.  It is neither rational nor ethically responsible to believe people on authority when they do not have adequately demonstrated qualifications as authorities (or worse, when their credentials are in principle unverifiable).  It is intellectually dishonest and unethical to commit yourself to a course of deliberate rationalization to make yourself believe what you want to believe in order to preserve your way of life or your tradition when either lack adequate rational justifications.   It is detrimental to the development and advance of human reason to inculcate in children habits of rationalization, superstition, and traditionalism out of fear they will think differently than I (or we) do now.

And along the way, I’ve argued that while faith is a form of trust, it’s not a virtuous kind.  We also have some rational processes of belief formation from intuition which reliably yield true beliefs.  These processes are distinguishable from specifically faith-based beliefs because in the case of faith, we do not generate beliefs which can then be double checked for rational justification after the fact but instead by faith we refuse subsequent demands for justification altogether and refuse all genuine doubt as an option.  Rejecting faith means acknowledging that we can rely on gut intuitions as gut intuitions only until we have reasons to doubt them, at which point they must be scrutinizable or have belief in them be suspended or altogether abandoned.  I have also rejected defining faith as the rational decision to act on the hope that something unlikely yet still significantly possible is the case.  In many such cases such hope is justified and actions in accord with that hope are justified but neither belief that the hoped for situation is the case nor the faith commitment to deliberately believe in the hoped for scenario are rationally justified.

Now it comes time to explore faith’s complicated relationship to courage.  I love the Bruce Springsteen quoted above and every time I hear it I struggle with his use of the word faith.  Did the amazingly courageous firefighters who died on September 11, 2001 have faith?  We should take from them inspirations to hope, strength, and love, for sure—but did they have “faith” and should we wish that they give us “faith”?  Let’s distinguish the various components of their bravery:

1.  They acted on moral duty.  It seems to me wholly rational for them to respond to their sense of duty with action.  Of itself, that requires no faith but only a rational grasp of what their obligation requires of them and a powerful will capable of motivating themselves to follow it out, even in the face of mortal danger.  This can be justified without faith-based reasoning but entirely in terms of rationalistic moral arguments.

2. Despite some qualifications I may discuss at another time, I generally agree with the Aristotelian view of courage such that the firefighters would not have been courageous in an admirable way if they recklessly put themselves in danger at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons, or in the wrong way.  Their courage, to be the most admirable species of courage, must have been guided by rational decisions about what the good was and how best to achieve it.

By contrast, the religious fools flying the airplanes into the buildings were reckless rather than courageous precisely because they chose their date with mortality out of irrational and palpably immoral faith-based beliefs.  They were motivated by belief in what are rationally demonstrable lies.

But the firefighters were motivated by rationally defensible moral principles of duty that bound them to commit to dying for the sake of saving however many they could in those buildings.  Many of the firefighters must have realized they were effectively on a suicide mission but also understood that sometimes the moral and rationally defensible thing is to face one’s death in the process of saving others.  It is the complete inverse of the suicide pilots’ suicide missions, motivated as they were by the evil intentions of murdering innocents for the sake of obedience to authoritarian figures (both those in Afghanistan and the one believed to be in heaven).  The difference between the self-sacrifice of the firefighter and the self-sacrifice of the suicide bomber is the difference between reason and faith.

So insofar as the firefighters’ courage was rationally justifiable, it was ethically justifiable and had nothing to do with faith-based justifications.  We can fully understand within moral terms why those firefighters were morally justified.  And it was faith alone that convinced those suicide pilots that palpably evil acts were acceptable when they clearly violated all moral prohibitions against the direct, unforced political murders of innocents.

3.  Nonetheless, I do think that there is a certain connotation of the word “faith” that does apply to the firefighters and is not only commendable but supremely admirable.  While the firefighters’ reasoning was indeed rationally and morally confirmable and, so, justifiable, nonetheless from a subjective, personal point of view to commit one’s life to the fire as they did, even in the cause of justice, requires an infinite commitment beyond rational justification.

Reason can justify only finite actions for us.  It can tell us that “this specific act is good for that, for these reasons.”  Existentially however to lay down one’s life is to commit the entirety of what you are.  Even in the most rational deduction of one’s moral duty, the fallibility of human reason is such that there is still some room for doubt.  I categorically deny that one should make the infinite commitment of surrendering one’s life for less than the highest levels of certainty.   I categorically reject Kiekegaard’s crude permissiveness to stake an infinite commitment on the highly unlikely, the outright absurd, the obviously contradictory, or even the merely probable.    That is rankly reckless, irresponsible irrationalism which should never be romanticized.

But even where there is a 99% moral and rational certainty of an action’s worth, when one’s very existence is on the line the commitment to act even on 99% certainty is not completely existentially justified as far as I can see.  This is because even more primarily than rational or moral beings, we are rightly and necessarily self-concerned creatures with a primary commitment to our fundamental interests in our minimal survival and our maximum flourishing.  To be willing to surrender the entirety of what you are requires, I think, entire certainty that you should—a certainty that is never possible as long as the voice of one’s own survival concern is permitted even .01% weight in the calculations.   The act of accepting the dictates of one’s moral reasoning where it compels one only 99% but it costs you 100% of all you are and ever will be and fundamentally vetoes your rational concern for survival, makes one astoundingly heroic.  Quite simply it is the essence of heroism itself.

The fullest, most courageous realization of heroism trusts so completely in the dictates of moral conscience as to go beyond merely moral and rational reasonableness, prudence, decency, and dutifulness to make an absolute commitment of one’s entire self to the noble.  And such an absolute commitment can never be rationally justified, morally, or existentially justified by anything less than absolute rational, moral, and existential justification.  And given the finitude of our minds it is hard to say we ever have anything like that kind of absoluteness of justification present to our minds outside of only the most formal logical necessities like the law of non-contradiction.  No premise in a practical syllogism can be truly absolute and warrant a truly absolute conclusion upon which to have enough basis to make an absolute commitment.

So, when one commits one’s will to what reason and morality favor with great probability and with overwhelming calculation of relative goodness, but which nonetheless they cannot guarantee with absolute certainty or with absolute justification according to all the goods for which one lives, one makes as courageous and admirable a leap possible.  It is a leap of faith beyond mere reasonableness, prudence, and dutifulness to a sort of perfection of will according to reason and morality, a complete uniting of will to these things above and to the exclusion of everything else the will could ever attach itself to existentially, including the very conditions of its being itself.  And the commitment this embodies when the sacrifice is for others’ lives (which seems the only time we could ever be asked to knowingly give up our own) represents a bond of faithfulness to our community (however widely or narrow this word is interpreted) that goes so far beyond all of our finite contractual and moral obligations to others to be worth calling only a profound kind of “keeping faith” with those to whom and for whom we give our lives.

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For further discussion of the ideas in this post, see the post “Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice“, in which I develop a reply to KM’s objection to this post found in the comments section below.

Your Thoughts?

Your Thoughts?


For more on faith, read any or all posts in my “Disambiguating Faith” series (listed below) which strike you as interesting or whose titles indicate they might answer your own questions, concerns, or objections having read the post above.  It is unnecessary to read all the posts below to understand any given one. They are written to each stand on their own but also contribute to a long sustained argument if read all together.

Faith in a Comprehensive Nutshell


How Faith Poisons Religion


What About The Good Things People Call “Faith”? (Or “Why I Take Such A Strong Semantic Stand Against The Word Faith”)


How Religious Beliefs Become Specifically *Faith* Beliefs


Faith There’s A God vs. Faith In God

Trustworthiness, Loyalty, And Honesty

Faith As Loyally Trusting Those Insufficiently Proven To Be Trustworthy

Faith As Tradition

Blind Faith: How Faith Traditions Turn Trust Without Warrant Into A Test Of Loyalty

Faith As Tradition’s Advocate And Enforcer, Which Actively Opposes Merely Provisional Forms Of Trust

The Threatening Abomination Of The Faithless

Rational Beliefs, Rational Actions, And When It Is Rational To Act On What You Don’t Think Is True

Faith As Guessing

Are True Gut Feelings And Epiphanies Beliefs Justified By Faith?

Faith Is Neither Brainstorming, Hypothesizing, Nor Simply Reasoning Counter-Intuitively

Faith In The Sub-, Pre-, Or Un-conscious

Can Rationality Overcome Faith?

Faith As A Form Of Rationalization Unique To Religion

Faith As Deliberate Commitment To Rationalization

Heart Over Reason

Faith As Corruption Of Children’s Intellectual Judgment

Faith As Subjectivity Which Claims Objectivity

Faith Is Preconditioned By Doubt, But Precludes Serious Doubting

Soul Searching With Clergy Guy

Faith As Admirable Infinite Commitment For Finite Reasons

Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice

How A Lack Of Belief In God May Differ From Various Kinds Of Beliefs That Gods Do Not Exist

Why Faith Is Unethical (Or “In Defense Of The Ethical Obligation To Always Proportion Belief To Evidence”

Not All Beliefs Held Without Certainty Are Faith Beliefs

Defending My Definition Of Faith As “Belief Or Trust Beyond Rational Warrant”

Implicit Faith

Agnostics Or Apistics?

The Evidence-Impervious Agnostic Theists

Faith Which Exploits Infinitesimal Probabilities As Openings For Strong Affirmations

Why You Cannot Prove Inductive Reasoning Is Faith-Based Reasoning But Instead Only Assert That By Faith

How Just Opposing Faith, In Principle, Means You Actually Don’t Have Faith, In Practice

Naturalism, Materialism, Empiricism, And Wrong, Weak, And Unsupported Beliefs Are All Not Necessarily Faith Positions

Talk to Me For Free About Philosophy of Love, Philosophy and Suicide, or Nietzsche
A Moral Philosopher on The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson
Comparing Humanism and Religion and Exploring Their Relationships to Each Other
Alix Jules On Being An African American Humanist
About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • David


    What is your assessment of faith as the starting point of tradition constituted inquiry as understood by MacIntyre? This is accepting the standards of argument, explanation, justification internal to and partially constitutive of the extended argument that constitutes what MacIntyre calls a tradition. In this case, such faith is NOT meant simply to preserve your tradition (particularly not as currently constituted). The view is that one isn’t really part of a tradition unless one is engaged in questioning and improving the assumptions, standards and positions of the tradition by entering the ongoing conflicts and debates within the tradition. On this conception the whole point of this “faith” is testing it to see if its claims to truth can be rationally vindicated. Now, MacIntyre has a view of rational vindication that is controversial; I just point out here that his view of rational vindication is that it is more and other than defending the claims of a tradition according to terms of rational justification acceptable to it. MacIntyre claims that one tradition can defend its claims according to its terms such that its claims are shown to be vindicated over the claims of a rival tradition on the terms of rational justification of that rival tradition.

    I’ll note here that engaging in such tradition constituted inquiry entails taking up at some point or other a position of faith in some other senses that you object to – in particular, it requires one to believe on authority without full rational vindication of those claims to authority. But it requires this as a precondition to putting those claims of authority to the question to see if they are rationally vindicatable. You might argue that one can put those claims to the question without taking up a position of provisional trust, but is doing so any more objectionable than accepting beliefs on intuition then testing them to see if they are rationally vindicatable?

    Do you have epistemological objections to MacIntyre’s basic account? Or are you fine with his view of justification, but hold that no believer’s claims ever are (or could be?) rationally vindicated in this way.

  • David

    One clarification: My question in the last line is ambiguous. What I meant to ask was whether you thought the faith of any RELIGIOUS believer never is (or never could be) rationally vindicated in the way I’ve outlined.

  • KM


    What exactly to you mean by ‘existential justification’? You stated that even if one has 99% rational and moral certainty of the worth of an action, if their existence is on the line then to committ to that action (short of 100%) is not existentially justified.

    Does that mean ultimately irrational? Morally reprehensible? Probably not, they would have more to do with moral and rational justification. Or perhaps whether it is existentially ‘worthwhile’ – if you are short of 100% then it is not existentially worth it to risk your life for something less then certain.

    But that seems like a misuse of terms. What makes something existential is the determination of its pertinence to a person; an action is an existential action in the moment of deciding to identify one’s existence with that which the action represents. The question of justifiction isn’t even pertinent; the existential act might be rationally inexcusable or morally despicable but that only makes it, perhaps, stupid and immoral – not existentially illegimate.

    Furthermore, hypothetically if that 100% certainty of the moral worth of the act was required then, even if it was somehow attained, the act would not thereby gain existential justification but rather the contrary: it would be existentially nullified. Requiring 100% certainty means one is looking at the worth of the action soley from a consequentialist angle: “the act of ‘surrendering’ ones existence is significant only in the actuality of the acts goodness; if it turns out that our 99% probability was wrong, our sacrifice of that which we hold most dear (ourselves) is, conquently, utterly inconsequential.” But if we’re talking about existential actions in any sense of term then that angle is skewed. The value of an action, when speaking of existential worth, is completely independent of the consequence of that action or, for that matter, the ontology of the action itself. The significance of it lie in fact that the doer of the act has identified himself with the qualities that he believes the act calls for. Even lacking certainty, even if mistaken, the doer has become the quality of person he existentially committed himself to be.

    My further perplexion lies in that, at different places, you seem to both dance around the point of existential identification and then also capture it entirely. That last paragraph was very well written. You vividly described the quintissential fusing of the two aspects, existentially embracing and defining one’s being in accordance with what is dictated by reason and morality: a heroic leap of faith, as you so called.

    But you “categorically reject” Kierkegaard’s leap of faith – why the distinction? I actually thought your description of the leap was one of the better ones I’ve heard that could easily explain Kierkegaard (he’s far to wordy to be easily ascertained).

    I completely agree that it is horrrendous ungodly and pathetically stupid to try and forth yourself – or others – to believe groundless obsurdities, irrational dogmas or logically-contradictory non-notions in the name of “faith”. Passionatly. I group up in evangelical churches that made “blind faith” a virtue: the less difficulty you have believeing what you dont understand the more spiritual you are. I don’t think Kierkegaard is saying that though. You seem to have a view similiar to that of your buddy Rod, who somehow derived the conclusion that Kierkegaard is saying we can only have knowledge of god by means of our noetic faculty via prayer data stream that conveys nonobjectively contingent objective truths that are not relative but sourced only in unclarifiable subjective sensations that are unique only to me and possible only if I make a leap of faith, which is synonymous with muting my mind’s belligerent attempts to heed logic’s first principles. — What’s really interesting though is that he then says it makes ‘sense’! While maybe not heroic, it is a remarkable feat, reminicant of the Queen of Hearts.

    But really, you would be hard-presssed to make Kierkegaad espouse that, even with the poetics. He would completely agree that fallacious beliefs have no bearing on reality – no matter how hard you believe – as well as repudiate the claim that knowledge of God has a subjectively mystical basis. His polemic and societal critiques were in the same vein as Nietzsche’s; Nietzsche’s monotonous, unthinking German herd is parallel to the thoughtless and unreflective masses of Kierkegaard’s Danish Church.

    The meaning of the leap – I think – is more along the lines of the existential act I started going off about higher up. Rather then passing the burden of thinking to the Hegelian ‘Speculative Thought’, people must become indivdiduals and think, examine and deciede for themselves what they believe. The ‘leap’ is the individual engaging for himself with the question of God/Christianity for himself. Swallowing ones doubts and difficulties would actually be antithetical Kierkegaard’s whole project: if you are not striving to better understand life and reality there is no way you could sincerely care about truth.

    The existential vs intellectual distinction – or Rod’s subjective vs intellectual truth – is really only relevent if acknolwedging Christianity as ‘objectively’ true form the start. It has nothing to do with truths being only subjectively perceiveable. Kiekegaard’s point is on authenticty: if one asserts that Hodge’s systematic theology is of found reasoning (hypothetical) and thereby Christian must be true, it does not mean he is a Christian. An individial cannot not adopt beliefs, he must forge his own – a process never finished, but constantly developing, unfolding and coming to be over time.

    Anyway! Think i have spewed enough for the time being.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Thanks, KM, your challenges are much appreciated (and I don’t take them as at all “spewed”) though I may come back with a couple of questions for clarification when time permits. And hopefully, even if it takes a week or two, I hope to work up a follow up post in reply to your take on this. In short, as soon as the dissertation is done, I hope to give such excellent remarks treatment they deserve. ’til then…

    • Karl

      No problem. I take no offense that your dissertation takes precedence over blog replies. Good luck