Faith and Proper Evidence*
What does a Christian mean when he says he takes an idea “on faith?” What kind of evidence would count?
When discussing reasonable faith with skeptic Michael Shermer, I pointed out that “faith” has a great many definitions, even inside of Christendom, because (like many common words) it is used in many different ways. To make a discussion about reasonable faith more difficult, epistemology, the field that deals with how**we can be reasonable, is highly contentious.
Let’s assume if we assert a proposition is true, then we should have adequate reasons for that truth. Those reasons will be called “evidence.” Our statement about reality will be true if it corresponds to the relevant reality. If I say there is an elephant in Houston, then I should have evidence for that assertion. My statement will be true if and only if there is an elephant in Houston!
What about faith? Let’s restrict ourselves to Christian uses of the term in philosophy of religion. For the sake of brevity, I’ll consider only two important usages.
Indubitable Experience of God: Faith
Faith can be used to describe the experience of God: a mystical vision that ends the ability to doubt for the person having the experience. Still, the moment even the greatest mystic asserts something, she has moved from her experience (which may be all she needs) to a truth claim. We can examine that truth claim. If she is saying something about her experience, this is evidence. Is her interpretation of her experience correct? Is it the best interpretation? Is she telling the truth about having had an experience? Notice that we cannot merely dismiss her experience, yet our evaluation will be driven by other philosophic ideas we have adopted about reality.
Faith: Substantial Hope
Religious experience is an important definition of “faith” in the Christian context (perhaps the most important), but it is not the only one. Christians do not just make claims about internal experiences, but about the world outside the self. Let’s take a definition of faith that covers what Christians in many places, over many periods of time, and in many different Christian groups have meant by the term:
Using Biblical language: Faith is hope given substance, that is not yet seen.***
Explained: Faith is asserting the truth of a proposition, when you have some evidence, but not enough to be sure of the truth of the assertion. You could be wrong, but it is reasonable for you to live on the assumption the proposition is true.
When a Christian says she has faith in the Creed’s statement that “God exists,” then she means that she has evidence this is true but is not sure she is right. Notice I am leaving aside the Christian mystic who has seen God in so powerful a way that doubt is impossible for him. He could also use evidence to assert that someone else should have faith God exists, even before such an experience.
The case for God may not be conclusive, but one can rationally hold to God’s existence as the best explanation one has. Notice something important: a person could combine personal experience (to which we do not have access) and evidence in a way that makes it rational for them to have faith, but is not persuasive to someone else.
Both simple minded atheists and apologists make the mistake of thinking that for faith to be reasonable for me to hold, it must be obligatory for you.**** Nonsense: The world is a complicated place. If I were an atheist, I might be an idealist or a materialist. I could hold both reasonably on faith. Science certainly could not adjudicate between the two!
Kinds of Evidence for a Faith Statement
Whether one is religious or not, different kinds of assertions require different kinds of evidence. Elephants are material beings and the assertion “an elephant is in Houston” will have straightforward material evidence. Numbers (if they exist) are not material beings and the claim “numbers exist”will not depend on material evidence. Many mathematicians believe numbers do exist (even if they are atheists!) and give reasons for this belief.
Whether numbers exist in a Platonic sense or not, people have faith that they do (in the sense of “faith” as defined). Mathematical Platonists (mostly) know they might be wrong, but are persuaded by arguments of a metaphysical variety that they are right. They are rational in their faith, even if they are wrong!
In the same way, when we speak of an immaterial God, we anticipate metaphysical evidence (like the ontological argument).***** Now, one might be persuaded, despite the seeming existence of ideas and numbers, that nothing exists except things like elephants (materialism). If materialism is true, then only material evidence would count when it comes to the existence of things, yet surely no reasonable person is sure of this belief! It is a matter of “faith” (as defined). It might be a better faith than theism, but it is still faith.
Christianity does not just make claims that are metaphysical, but also historical. We say: “Jesus existed.” We take this by faith: we might be wrong, but we have evidence we are not wrong. In fact, almost no serious historian is not persuaded by the evidence for this faith assertion. Historical claims need historical evidence and, sadly, this is not generally as conclusive as the evidence for “there is an elephant in Houston.”
Did Jesus rise from the dead? That is a historical claim, though daily experience of Jesus would count as evidence too, depending on what one means by “rise from the dead.”
Bottom Line Assertions
If this is all sensible, then we can reach some useful conclusions:
- Faith can be reasonable. That does not mean that everyone should believe, just that the faithful can be reasonable.
- Only an idiot would ask for evidence different from that required by the claim. Metaphysical beings, if they exist, would have metaphysical evidence for existing.
- One could reasonably believe by faith without that faith being persuasive to everyone. For example, the woman who is a mathematician might have an experience of numbers such that is is impossible for her to doubt they exist. She could ALSO have external reasons to justify the rationality of her experience, yet to one without her experience, such arguments might seem inadequate (or not).
- All of us should go read some Quine, his critics, and then some Quine again.
*For more than this short piece can provide see:
A simple approach: A.E. Taylor, Does God Exist?
More rigor: Richard Swinburne, Faith and Reason
**I do not mean the physical mechanism of how we think, but how (having thought) we can think well. Even a materialist like Daniel Dennett writes books and articles to persuade us to think differently and (presumably) in a way that is closer to the truth.
***Hebrews 11:1. Note the confusion that results if one has an overly narrow view of the field of epistemology. Of course, Quine is debatable (very!) and numbers may be unreal, but people should know that topic before making epistemological assertions. Watch.
****And no, nobody will be damned for making an intellectual error based on best evidence and experience.
*****The article is written by a favorite atheist philosopher!
Rachel Motte edited this essay.