Disambiguating Faith: Faith Which Exploits Infinitesimal Probabilities As Openings For Strong Affirmations

Pete C. argues that because our comprehension is limited, it is hubris for us to rule out faith in things that alleged to go beyond it:

I’m not sure where I fall in the spectrum of agnosticism (if i belong there at all) so I can’t really self identify. But I will offer an explanation I have often pondered but never shared. I suspect it may drive people to irritation but I offer it nonetheless.

You repeatedly talk of evidence and its consideration, which is wholly understandable. However, to insist on evidence and its use in an argument based upon “faith” is to misunderstand what is in my mind an argument that, belive it or not, has a basis in rational thought. To differetiate “faith” from rational conclusions based on evidence I have always thought of it like this: Using logic and evidence to understand the nature of God is like using a screwdriver to cut down a tree. You may get the job done but it’s ultimately not the right tool.

Outrageous! And a cop out on some level, right? But consider what God supposedly is: omnipotent, omniscient, eternal. We understand these as concepts, but in reality, can we really behold what that actually means? Can you imagine being able to do anything, see anything, or exist independently of time? Yet we can observe the phenomenon in another direction. Consider an ant born and living its life in a small plasic contained colony on my desk. If it can comprehend me at all, would I not seem like God to him? I have the ultimate power over his entire universe. I can observe this. What I cannot observe is if I am, in fact, the ant… because I may not have the ability.

I am open to the thought that there are things that exist that are beyond my perception. I KNOW this to be true as sure as I can demonstrate that my dog can hear a dog whistle but I cannot. I am also willing to believe that there are concepts in the universe that are beyond my comprehension. I also know this to be true as i attempt to explain something to a person of considerably less intelligence (or someone of considerably greater intelligence explains something to me) and the lights just don’t turn on. The notion that there may exist a being beyond my perception and comprehension is therefore not difficult at all to swallow. Indeed, I submit that it is hubris to boldly and without reservation assert that something of that nature absolutely cannot exist simply because there is no empirical or irrefutable evidence. By it’s very nature, it defies the notion of evidence altogether.

This, for some (and I suppose for me) forms a basis of faith in SOMETHING. Whether that something actually looks and behaves like the God in the Bible is most certainly up for debate and readily disputable by evidence. But based upon the above logic, which is the only tool that I have, I see it as possible that 1) there is a “god” of some kind that 2) I cannot perceive or possibly fully comprehend.

This does not, however, prove the existence of god. It merely opens the door. Any assertion to the contrary takes my line of reasoning too far. I don’t believe in God because I don’t know what God is. I do, however, have “faith” that there are things that may exist that are greater than I, which may form the nature of God. This openness of thought is how I personally define faith. I do, however, have “faith” that there are things that may exist that are greater than I, which may form the nature of God. This openness of thought is how I personally define faith.

But it is not a faith belief to say “there are things that may exist that are greater than I, which may form the nature of God”. That is a logical statement of possibility. That’s not a faith belief, that’s just a truth. There may be things that go beyond our current conceptual scheme or abilities for detection using our senses, mathematics, logic, and other rational apparatuses. Yes, no one disputes that. And if there is a God, apparently it might have to be one of those things.

That’s not what is in dispute. That “maybe” is not in dispute. What is in dispute is what is appropriate to say about whether that conceivable possibility is an actuality. What is weaselly about arguments like the one just made when they come from the faithful is that they slip from this possibility to affirmation. You cannot go from “there may be something which we do not understand” to “I believe there is something I do not understand and I’m going to call it x and describe it as having these sets of features—omnipotence, omniscience, lovingness, a personality like humans…”

Whatever may be beyond our rational comprehension is highly unlikely to have a mind like ours, given that our minds are pretty clearly the result of various complex neural activities and do not seem to exist without specific sets of organic preconditions. To posit personhood to whatever strange and inconceivable forces go beyond our ability to understand the world is, to borrow your word, a hubris of anthropomorphism that boggles my mind.

Whatever exceeds our grasp is far, far more likely to be wholly unlike what we experience otherwise it would not be so far beyond our grasp, and least of all is it likely to have the very particular and weird experience that is personhood, anymore than it is likely to have anthood or fishhood or any other organic being’s traits.

Everything that science has already astoundingly transfered from the “beyond our comprehension” category to the “within our comprehension” one has dispensed with the need for anthropomorphic agencies.  We no longer need a deliberate designer even to explain complex designs of organisms in nature as the “blind watchmaker” of evolution by natural selection now explains the process.  Why in the world posit that the most incomprehensible fundament of reality that exceed our grasp will actually turn out, after all, to be a personal being like us, like we are primevally inclined to think?  You would dismiss out of hand the idea that gravity had a personality, why not do the same to the notion that the incomprehensible source of being does?

And yet people’s projections onto the ineffable are all wholly shot through with anthropomorphisms. And without any evidence to move from the infinitesimally likely reality that there is a supernatural mind beyond our grasp out there, they assert its existence, they claim to know all about a number of its interventions into history, they claim to know it cares about us morally and spiritually, they claim to know practices for communicating with it, etc., etc.

They do not stop at the logical truth that there is some possibility, however infinitesimally small, that such a thing exists. They leap from an infinitesimally small possibility to bald, unjustified assertions.

My view is that infinitesimally small possibilities can be dismissed as false. I can say something is false without knowing 100% about all that can ever be known if what my mind can grasp indicates that it is only infinitesimally likely that it is true. That’s not hubris, it’s how we have plenty of effective knowledge in life. That’s why I call myself a gnostic atheist. I know just as clearly as we all know that there is no Thor or Zeus or any other palpably silly, anthropomorphic deity from ancient mythology that there is no personal god at all. Not even Yahweh or Allah, or whatever you want to call the Judeo-Christian-Islamic god. He’s just as transparently fictional if you step out of cultural conditioning and prejudices and there is no plausible account of how a personal god would be possible or likely that I know of. So, I know such a thing does not exist.

Now, maybe there is some distinct, unified cause to the universe, some deistic or Spinozistic source of all being or fundamental unity of all being. That’s a difficult metaphysical knot. And it is unclear whether or to what extent it can ever be scientifically or philosophically untied.

But the likelihood that whatever is beyond our minds is remotely personal like we are is so small as to make affirmations of belief on faith that such a being exists and intervenes in human affairs and can be communicated with through prayer, etc. is just enormously anthropomorphic hubris capable of sound dismissal.

We would laugh at anyone who reasoned that because there are some things which exceed human comprehension that it is legitimate to have faith that Thor causes thunder. Yes, I guess with logical alone we cannot rule out the bare conceivability that, all scientific insight to the contrary, it’s actually Thor causing the lightning.

But it is totally irrational to affirm it is true Thor causes lightning and wildly baseless to posit that human books are really the word of Thor or that Thor is listening to your prayers and wants a personal relationship with you.

Just substitute “Yahweh” or “Allah” or “jesus” or “personal God” and you can understand why I am a gnostic atheist who says it is irrational to have faith in God.

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

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.

  • Pete C.


    I took a number of things from your reaction to my post, but I want to note at the outset that it appears that you agree with its core premise, specifically that there *may* be a being, a “god,” that exists outside of the realm of current comprehension. I do not want to inappropriately restate what you said so if this is not the case I apologize for basing my reply on that premise. It is not my intent to twist your words. Nor is it my intent to drive a truck through the eye of a needle. However, it is a premise that is key to the understanding of faith and why it exists/persists. I understand your position to be that this awfully big “maybe” represents something so infinitesimally small as to be false. To be clear, I rely only on the concept, not a perceived admission of some kind on your part.

    I primarily agree with what you have said: anthropomorphizing of this concept, and a leap from “this may be” to “not only IS it, but it looks also like *this*,” is an entirely different kettle of fish. You seem to respectfully suggest that I have missed the point of the faith discussion but what I was attempting to do was simply explain Step 1 (if you will). So let’s move on to Step 2.

    Having established the mere possibility (and only that) of a “god” or other metaphysical truth that exists (presently) outside of our comprehension, how do we “leap” (to use your word) to “he has eyes and long hair and loves you, and I don’t care what you have to say about it”? Simple: that is not the next step. There are several in between. Specifically, I call into question your statement: “They do not stop at the logical truth that there is some possibility, however infinitesimally small, that such a thing exists. They leap from an infinitesimally small possibility to bald, unjustified assertions.” I disagree. This is an oversimplification of the process creating the psychology of faith.

    I pause only to reiterate that my point in writing here is not to prove the existence of God. It is to establish an argument that there is at least some rational basis, with grounds in observable phenomena and evolution, for what we are calling “faith,” which I believe to be an iterative process that begins and persists based in some way upon reason.

    If one wants to understand the nature of faith, and why faith is NOT, (as I hopefully correctly interpret some of the writings on this blog), some sort of blatantly conscious choice to disregard reality in favor of one’s imaginary friend, one must understand what comes between. One does not lead directly into the next and the progression, when viewed scientifically and in steps, is more excusable than I respectfully think many atheists permit. Dawkins himself makes a similar rational explanation when creationists argue that the universe is too complex for evolution to have occurred by chance. As I recall, Dawkins used the analogy that yes, evolution appears complex now, but when viewed from the beginning, one can see that it is an iterative process, and what appears to be a sheer cliff face from one side is actually a gradual slope on the other. Such is the psychology of faith.

    “Step 2″ actually has to do with the concept of trust. As I wrote elsewhere on your site (or perhaps on your FB) we as humans are hard wired to trust other humans. It is an evolutionary survival tool that has served us well. “Don’t go near that.” “Don’t touch that.” “Do this and you won’t get hurt.” We need to learn, as maturing organisms, how NOT to trust because there are those who have figured out how to exploit this trait. Regardless, when a trusted figure tells us something is true, we tend to listen. The same tends to happen with the existence of God.

    I recall you also mentioning elsewhere that it is understandable for a child to fall prey to this notion but less excusable for a fully functioning and rational adult to believe it despite the weight (or lack) of the evidence. I will come back to this, or save it for another day should you find it productive to continue the debate — it is, in my mind, Step 3.

    To reuse an example that I used elsewhere, objectively and in a vacuum, the question of whether or not there is a God who loves and is anthropomorphic is similar at its very core to the question of whether or not there was a Holocaust. The only reason I know there was a Holocaust is because someone told me so. The only reason I ponder God the way he is conceived by the Roman Catholic Church is that someone told me that’s how he is. Nothing more. I was not yet alive when the Holocaust happened, much like I was not around to witness God, for example, giving the Commandments to Moses. I have no personal reference point for either.

    Let me acknowledge the key differences between these two examples because I can feel you jumping in your seat already. The evidence that exists to prove that the Holocaust happened is FAR greater and more prevalent in 2011 than the evidence that exists to prove that a man went up a mountain and was given tablets by God. People are still with us who faced the former first hand. Not so much for the latter. I understand that this is an important distinction — I’m only illustrating the key concept that both beliefs are based on trust. There are those who would look at the evidence for the Holocaust yet somehow believe it didn’t happen. They don’t have the luxury of relying on what I explain below (a lack of cultural proximity) and no rational person in this age would intellectually allow them to do so.

    Why then, believe in the story of the Covenant with the same weight as one might the truth of the Holocaust? How silly.

    I’ll tell you how. You start with Step 1 – is it possible? Yes, because it can’t be affirmatively disproved and because as we’ve sort of established if there is a being beyond our comprehension it *might* have the ability to appear out of thin air and speak its mind. Also because I can observe the phenomena that I can be godlike to something lesser than myself, it’s clearly possible for that to happen to me (or a man that lived millennia ago).

    Once the possibility is established the mind moves on to Step 2 – shall I believe that it happened, having not been there myself, however improbable? Yes, because someone I trust told me so. But wait, he could have been wrong! How did he find out? Someone he trusted told him, and they both believe it with an astounding level of conviction. And so on. If I continue this chain back, SOMEONE in this line *must* have been there to experience it first hand, along with the crucifixion of Christ, the parting of the sea, the great flood, the garden of Eden and the creation of the very universe.

    This is the second layer, Step 2, of the basis of what I understand to be faith — an evolutionarily fueled mechanism, or perhaps a need, to trust other people when they make assertions that are beyond the reach of our immediate point of reference. I left this out of my original post because, well, it was long. And while I firmly believe in “step 1,” “step 2″ is where the greater errors in logic begin to occur. As you point out, Step 1 in isolation isn’t faith — it is truth. Step 2 is more problematic. We can’t trace the chain back through history. It could have been altered at any point — someone could have changed details of the story or lied completely. However, the proximity to someone we know and trust, and their respective level of conviction, lend credibility where there may otherwise be none, potentially obviating the need for evidence in some minds. I didn’t really need evidence when my mother told me not to go wandering in the woods, I just listened. So perhaps I didn’t push my priest when he told me about the Covenant. The woods are unknown and scary — makes sense. The Covenant supposedly provided us with laws, and we still have laws and social mores today based upon what was supposedly on those tablets — okay, so I’ll believe that there were tablets. I don’t really have to think about it any further yet (at Step 2).

    We can go on to “Step 3,” which, in my mind, would be the answers to why and how people persist in these beliefs despite mounting evidence, but I pause here in the event you have a reaction. I also pause to take argument with a couple of your points that are relevant to the above.

    To wit, your statement: “My view is that infinitesimally small possibilities can be dismissed as false. I can say something is false without knowing 100% about all that can ever be known if what my mind can grasp indicates that it is only infinitesimally likely that it is true. That’s not hubris, it’s how we have plenty of effective knowledge in life.” I dispute this on a factual and a relative level. There is an infinitesimally small chance that I can win a jackpot in the mega millions lottery. (One in 175 million, if I recall correctly). Yet there have been many winners. Or is 1: 175M too likely a possibility to be considered “infinitesimal?” Where is the line? Is 1 in 175 quadrillion infinitesimal? God either exists or it doesn’t. That doesn’t mean there is a 50/50 chance, or a 1 in 175 quadrillion chance. It is not a concept based in probability. It is either fact or it is fiction. I would be surprised if you could posit a scenario whereby you could establish odds that God does or does not exist (although I’m sure someone has tried). It was once believed that we lived in a geocentric universe on a flat earth. Theories to the contrary were dismissed as unlikely and false. They were disproved not because of a roll of the dice, but because of proven fact. I could understand dismissing an infinitesimally small possibility as not worth your time for any number of reasons, but not dismissing it as false.

    Also: “But it is totally irrational to affirm it is true Thor causes lightning and wildly baseless to posit that human books are really the word of Thor or that Thor is listening to your prayers and wants a personal relationship with you.” To be clear, I don’t think that for the purposes of debate Allah or Yahweh are on unequal footing with Thor, at least in theory. But again, for the purposes of why faith has a rational and iterative basis, it is less rational to believe in Thor, with respect to what I have called “Step 2,” because of its lack of modern cultural proximity.

    And finally a direct answer to one of your questions: “You would dismiss out of hand the idea that gravity had a personality, why not do the same to the notion that the incomprehensible source of being does?” Because I can observe gravity. I cannot observe God and have to rely on what I’m told by many, many people.

    Again, my aim here is merely to demonstrate that those who are led by “faith” are not wholly irrational beings — no more. As an aside, will agree wholeheartedly that one who insists that Jesus of Nazareth had blonde hair and blue eyes and will not contemplate anything to the contrary is as equally guilty of hubris as someone who asserts without reservation that there cannot possibly be a God or higher force/consciousness/spaghetti monster of any kind.