Faith in faith

Normally, I don’t take faith—of the blind faith, leap in the dark, I have a feeling down deep it’s true varieties—too seriously. It’s intellectually worthless, and too transparently an attempt to protect some claims from criticism.

That doesn’t, however, mean that the faith-attitude isn’t widespread and effective. This past week I encountered a lot of it in the classroom, as I let my students’ discussions wander without steering them too heavy-handedly. I teach a course I call Weird Science, devoted to arguing about paranormal and fringe-science claims. This year I’m starting them off by having them discuss the nature of science, and the question of “well, homeopathy/astrology/creationism/whatever might not be scientific but it might be true nonetheless” came up. I naturally have an overwhelmingly Christian-majority class, and soon many started bringing up the notion of faith, and religion as something that was out of bounds to science but nevertheless true.

Now, most of my students didn’t seem to have an overly coherent view of faith—they could say that faith was something without evidence, by definition, but on further questioning some thought that faith was mainly trust in a community or institution, which need not have connotations of a complete leap in the dark. To futher confuse matters, it turned out that a good number thought of “truth” as being personal, as opposed to “fact.” Anything a person believed in was “true for them,” but a fact was more public and objective, something “proven.”

To try and get a better feel for how my students thought (by now it was getting obvious that the way I’ve been brainwashed and the way they’ve been brought up are very different), I asked what I hoped was a more concrete question. I invited them to imagine themselves to be in a situation where they need to figure out whether astrology was factually correct. Maybe a roommate swears that astrology works wonders and is trying to convince them to follow astrological advice, or maybe they’re simply paid to take on a research project where they have to figure out if astrology works as claimed. Then, I had them think of two alternative scenarios. One is where the first information they encounter about astrology is that the astrology proponent (their roommate or the author of a pro-astrology book) claims that astrology is scientific, that it is a very ancient and well-proven science, and that lots of evidence supports astrological claims and predictions. The other scenario is where the astrology proponent immediately states that astrology is not scientific, but insists it is correct nonetheless, and that they know this because it is a spiritual kind of thing, and that they have this deep conviction in their heart that astrology works. I now asked them in which of the two scenarios would they be initially inclined to think that astrology might be correct. They’d have opportunity for further research and experience later, but what would their gut feeelings be?

It turned out that except for a few students who stated they were more skeptical by temperament, many in the class said that the feeling-in-heart scenario would inspire more trust in astrology. Some went all the way with that, and others said a mixture of the two scenarios would work best for them, but by and large, the whole feel-down-deep aspect of the pro-astrology position impressed them.

Very interesting. I’m not sure what to make of all this; I’m not even certain I’m understanding my students correctly at this point. But I’m tempted to speculate that this is an instance of the faith-attitude being more generalizable than I expected. The classic skeptical approach to a claim like faith in the Bible is to point out that there are other people who take rival truth-claims on faith, such as Muslims believing without question in the Quran. So how do you sort out who, if anyone, is right? A common believers’ response seems to be to acknowledge the intellectual difficulty posed by this symmetry, and either adopt a confused relativism or simply end up reasserting their own faith. After all, the job of faith is to insulate a belief from criticism, and that attitude tends to be learnt pretty well. But when a faith-claim does not immediately seem to be a rival, as in the case of astrology (since they don’t know too much about it), it might seem that they can have both faiths, and the warm associations of the faith-attitude more readily generalizes.

OK, sheer speculation. But if I ever want to devise a paranormal belief (a lot more money in that than physics, certainly), I probably should include a lot of faith-linked warm-and-fuzzies. It seems to be a good way to get people to lower their guard—but only if it doesn’t obviously go against their already established faiths.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University


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