Unapologetic Review – Part 6: Faith as Irrational Trust

Some Key Points from Part 5

Mr. Loftus is on a crusade against FAITH, and his book Unapologetic, is a part of this crusade.  But before any person who is a critical thinker (i.e. someone who “sits at the adult table”) chooses to join this crusade, Loftus needs to clearly specify the purpose of the crusade, and that means that Loftus needs to provide a clear definition or analysis of the meaning of the word “faith”.  In particular, he needs to clearly specify what it is that he means by the word “faith”, so that others can make a rational decision as to whether or not to join Loftus’ crusade against faith.

In Part 5 of this series we examined a definition of “faith” that Loftus gives in Chapter 2 of Unapologetic:

Faith is a cognitive bias that causes believers to overestimate any confirming evidence and underestimate any disconfirming evidence.  (Unapologetic, p. 55)

I also proposed a modified version of this definition, which borrows a key element from a definition of “faith” that Loftus gave in Chapter 7:

Faith is a cognitive bias that causes believers to overestimate any confirming evidence and underestimate any disconfirming evidence [for claims that they believe], which in turn results in the believer overestimating the probability of the claim in question.

On either of these definitions, the meaning of the word “faith” is the same as the meaning of the psychological term “confirmation bias”.

If “faith” just means “confirmation bias”, then I and many other atheists and skeptics would be glad to join Loftus’ crusade; however, there are some problems that result if Loftus is  asserting that the word “faith” means the same thing as “confirmation bias”:  (1) this raises doubt about the correctness of this definition because it seems very unlikely that a word that has been part of the English language for more than six centuries would happen to have the very same meaning as a modern term of scientific psychology which was invented in the second half of the 20th century (i.e. “confirmation bias”),  (2) it seems foolish to drag the unclear and controversial word “faith” into the fray, if the enemy to be vanquished is “confirmation bias”, because an attack on “faith” will provoke serious political, social, and psychological resistance (much more than an attack on “confirmation bias”),   (3) “confirmation bias” is a universal human problem that is NOT confined to religious believers; it is a widespread cause of serious intellectual deficiencies for both religious and non-religious people.

Faith As Irrational Trust

Loftus also provides a different definition of “faith” in Chapter 6:

Faith is an irrational, unevidenced, or misplaced trust in something or someone. (Unapologetic, p.152)

This definition appears to be an important one to Loftus, because he repeats it verbatum in Chapter 8 (Unapologetic, p.194).

Is this a better or less problematic definition of “faith” than the definition from Chapter 2?

This can be viewed as a genus/species definition, where the genus of “faith” is trust, and the species of “faith” is irrational (or unevidenced or misplaced).   Faith is a particular kind of trust, namely trust that is irrational.  Faith, according to this definition, is a sub-category of trust.  All instances of faith are instances of trusting something or someone, but not all instances of trusting something or someone are instances of faith.

Loftus does not provide clarification of the adjectives used in this definition: “irrational” and “unevidenced” and “misplaced”.  He does not indicate whether these three terms represent three different categories of trust, or if two of the words are being used to point to one kind of trust (“irrational” and “unevidenced” being closely-related ideas) and the third word relates to a different kind of trust (thus pointing to two different categories of trust), or if all three words are being used to describe one single category of trust.

Because Loftus provides no details about this definition, we are left to guess at his meaning (this is NOT the way those who sit at the adult table usually present definitions of very important words).  I take it that “irrational trust” and “unevidenced trust” and “misplaced trust” represent three distictly different categories of trust, and I will now attempt to explain how these concepts differ from each other.

  1. IRRATIONAL TRUST does not imply UNEVIDENCED TRUST (because one can have some evidence that a person P is worthy of trust and yet also have much stronger evidence indicating that the person P is unworthy of trust).
  2. UNEVIDENCED TRUST does not imply IRRATIONAL TRUST (because a newborn infant is about the only person who would have zero evidence to trust a person P, and thus be capable of having unevidenced trust in person P, but such trust in P by a newborn infant would not count as irrational trust).
  3. IRRATIONAL TRUST does not imply MISPLACED TRUST (because the person S who trusts person P might have evidence that strongly indicates that P is unworthy of trust, even though person P is in fact worthy of trust–evidence can sometimes point in the wrong direction).
  4. MISPLACED TRUST does not imply IRRATIONAL TRUST (because person P might in fact be unworthy of trust, so that person S’s trust in person P is misplaced trust, and yet the evidence that person S has could strongly support the view that P is worthy of trust–since evidence can sometimes be misleading).
  5. UNEVIDENCED TRUST does not imply MISPLACED TRUST (because even if a person  S has no evidence indicating that person P is worthy of trust,  S’s placing trust in P might not be misplaced trust, because P might in fact be worthy of trust).
  6. MISPLACED TRUST does not imply UNEVIDENCED TRUST (because person P in fact be unworthy of trust, so that person S’s trust in P is misplaced trust,  and yet S might have some evidence indicating that P is worthy of trust).

I take it that “misplaced trust” is an external or objective phenomenon that is NOT relative to the evidence possessed by some specific individual.  I also take it that “irrational trust” and “unevidenced trust” are internal or subjective phenomena that ARE relative to the evidence possessed by some specific individual.  Different people can be in possession of different bits of evidence, so the rationality or irrationality of person S’s trust for person P depends on the specific bits of evidence that happen to be possessed by S during the time when S trusts P.  The same goes for “unevidenced trust”.

I understand “misplaced trust” to be an external or objective phenomenon that is primarily concerned with whether the object of trust is in fact worthy of trust.  Thus:

Person S has MISPLACED TRUST in person P  if and only if:  

(a) person S trusts person P, and

(b) person P is unworthy of trust. 

In the above comparisons of “unevidenced trust” with “irrational trust” and with “misplaced trust” I interpreted “unevidenced trust” to mean that one person trusts person P while having zero evidence in support of the view that P is worthy of trust.  But perhaps that sense of this phrase is too strong, since only a newborn infant would be in a position to have zero evidence about whether to trust a person.  The rest of us almost always have some relevant evidence based on past experiences with trusting other people, and in most cases we have some relevant evidence about the appearance and demeanor of the person in question, which is relevant to making such judgements (even if not very significant), or we have some relevant evidence based on past experiences with some category of people to which this particular person belongs.  So “unevidenced trust” might not mean trust that is based on ZERO evidence relevant to whether the person in question is worthy of trust, but might instead mean something like having ZERO evidence based directly on the past actions and behavior of that specific person.

If “unevidenced trust” just means trusting a person without having any evidence based directly on the past actions and behavior of that specific person, then one could have rational trust in a person P, even if that trust was “unevidenced trust”, since one might have other information that supports the view that person P is worthy of trust.  Thus, “unevidenced trust” on this weaker interpretation still does not imply “irrational trust”.

Shoud We Join this Crusade against “faith”?

Should we be willing to join a crusade against trust in something or someone when that trust is either “irrational trust” or “unevidenced trust” or “misplaced trust”?

Misplaced trust is clearly a bad thing, but it is unavoidable to an extent, because even when one makes a serious effort to trust people only when the available evidence indicates that a person is worthy of trust, we are still going to make some mistakes and end up trusting some people who are in fact unworthy of trust.  This is because evidence can sometimes be misleading, and because it can often be difficult to determine that a person is unworthy of trust, especially if that person is good at deceiving others.  It would be good to try to reduce the amount of “misplaced trust” in the world, but we are going to have to live with a significant amount of “misplaced trust” even if we get nearly everyone to be more rational about what and whom they trust.

Should we be willing to join a crusade against “unevidenced trust”?  In the strong sense of “unevidenced trust” where this means trusting a person P when one has ZERO evidence in support of the view that person P is worthy of trust, then I would not join such a crusade, because “unevidenced trust” is extremely rare, and probably only occurs in newborn infants.  We have no way to persaude newborn infants to alter their behavior, since they have not yet mastered basic language skills, so there would be no point to such a crusade.

Furthermore, if we understand “unevidenced trust” in a weaker sense where this means trusting a person P when one has ZERO evidence based directly on the past actions and behavior of that specific person, then I would not be inteterested in joining a crusade against “unevidenced trust”, because we can have other sorts of evidence for making rational decisions about whether to trust a person.  So, in this weaker sense of “unevidenced trust” such trust is often not such a bad thing.

If there is anything called out by the definition of “faith” in Chapter 6  that is worthy of fighting against, it is “irrational trust”.  Irrationality is something that critical thinkers oppose, and something that we who sit at the adult table are very concerned about.  Human beings are the “rational animal” in the sense that we are THINKING animals, but our thinking is very often biased, illogical, unclear, confused, ignorant, and unreasonable.  We humans are perhaps better named the “irrational animal”, as evidenced by the recent election of an ignorant, racist, bigoted, idiotic demagogue as president of the United States of America.  Perhaps “irrational trust” in something or someone, is an evil that is worthy of a crusade.

But “irrationality” is more than a problem concerning who we decide to trust.  Irrationality affects and infects all of our thinking, all of our believing, and all of our decisions.  So, why not make the crusade against irrationality in general?  Why focus on only irrational trusting?  Furthermore, if we are going to focus in on just one area of irrationality for a crusade, why not irrationality in elections? or irrationality in decision making?  I’m not yet convinced that irrational trusting should be at the top of our list of priorities.

Suppose, however, that I am mistaken, and that irrational trust ought to be at or near the top of our list of evils to fight and overcome.  Some of the same objections that I had about a crusade against confirmation bias apply here.  If irrational trust is the dragon that we wish to slay, then why bring the unclear and controversial word “faith” into the fray?  This will provoke a serious amount of political, social, and psycological resistance, so it seems foolish to make “faith” the target of a crusade, when it is actually “irrational trust” that we want to reduce or eliminate.

Irrational trust of things and persons is a universal human problem.  This is not something that is isolated just to Christian believers, nor to religious persons.  If every religious person in the world were to vanish into thin air tonight at midnight, in the morning the world would still be populated by people who frequently engage in irrational trust of things and persons.  Atheists, agnostics, skeptics, marxists, secular humanists, communists, and every sort of “none-of-the-above” non-religious person engages in irrational trust in things and persons.  Irrational trust is a universal human problem, not just a problem for religious people.

Finally,  I myself view Christian trust in Jesus, and Christian trust in God, as irrational trust, as trust that is not reasonable and rationally justifiable (Loftus and I agree on this point).  But I think that one important way of helping people to see that their trust in someone is irrational, is to challenge them to defend the reasonableness of this trust with reasons and arguments, and then to point out problems in, and objections to, the reasons and arguments that they provide in response to this challenge (including problems with lack of factual evidence, or with questionable factual claims and assumptions).

When we challenge Christian believers to rationally justify their trust in Jesus or trust in God, and when we criticize reasons and arguments they provide in support of trusting in Jesus or trusting in God, we are DOING philosophy of religion.  So, if we are going to join a crusade against “irrational trusting”, then an important part of that crusade would require that we engage in some philosophy of religion.

 

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