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

Disambiguating Faith: Faith Is Neither Brainstorming, Hypothesizing, Nor Simply Reasoning Counter-Intuitively August 24, 2009

In this third reply to Adam (you can read the first two here and here, but need not in order to follow this post), I will examine his following suggestions:

When I asked if it is rational to cease rationality, what I meant was the following. Since it is only rational to explore all possible paths that may lead to truth, aren’t we rationally obliged to cease being rational when it will not lead us to an answer. Simply, isn’t not being rational a rational option when rationality does not work. We do not have to choose faith as an option, but isn’t “not rational” one, just as “not a symptom” can be? One cannot deny it is an option, but may try and say it is not a good rational option to cease rationality because it has not led us to answers in the past. Or perhaps they will say, when we cease rationality, we have no human means of discerning what truths we may encounter.

Perhaps even, the whole point of being rational is to use rational thinking, when we cease the rational, we cease thinking, and thus searching for an answer.


But then couldn’t it be said that perhaps we must cease rational thinking for consistent periods of time to achieve truth, using irrational decision making to find an answer that can later be explained in the rational. Or perhaps the whole function of rational thinking is what impedes us from finding certain truths, therefore the mere fact we use rational thinking is irrational when trying to find certain truths, whether they be explaining a higher power, diagnosing an unexplainable medical case etc… This is what I meant by ceasing rationality for rational purposes. Of course basic rationale will say you can’t eliminate the practice itself under its own guidelines without being irrational.

But perhaps when you cease rationality in the name of using all rational options, instead of inversing the principle and getting a blank zero, you are actually left with a viable “not rational” rational option. Or is it impossible to make a discovery and say, using the option of what is “not rational”, we have found a rational answer.

I am realizing how difficult it would be to make a good example. Also, whatever truth is found is not good enough. All steps taken to achieve the truth using the “not rational” option must later be rationally explained for there to be a rational truth under these guidelines. All this said, is there an example of a “not rational” option? If you can guess the number of coins in the president’s drawer using an irrational option, is not that option viable. The fact that what was discovered can later be rationally explained would not take away the vitality of the irrational means of getting there.

In a case like this, something like faith or irrational thinking could possibly work to achieve rationality without destroying the very principle. Finally, if this argument can take any solid form, could not faith become a “not rational” option. So rather than an unfounded guess that improbably holds truth, faith could be a rational option for achieving truth that is sometimes correct and sometimes wrong (like using the wrong math formula for a given problem). Faith could then be defined as a rational reason for finding certain answers because it is only rational to explore the “not rational” option for certain truths.

I think you are on to a couple of provocative insights, let’s distinguish the various ways in which we might seem to have to be irrational to find the truth.

(1) Brainstorming. It does not matter that you used an irrational brainstorming method to get a good idea as long as the idea proves itself to be a rational answer when investigated.  You are right to intuit that if sometimes thinking with free association and little judgment leads to serendipitous clues to the truth then in some sense we cannot rule out all counter-intuitive thinking in general.  Sometimes we have to hypothesize something ridiculous in order to see where its logic goes so that it creates in us a thought we may not otherwise have stumbled upon.  That thought proves really powerful and we can then later on go back and create a rational justification for it.  If we had ruled out thinking in ways that seemed crazy as soon as they seemed crazy then we would have never gotten all the way to this counter-intuitive but nonetheless true point.  So, therefore, sometimes it is valuable as part of rational thinking to tread paths that we do not yet have adequate reason to trust are truth conducive because either in the process we will discover to our surprise that they are more rational than expected or that while still preposterous they lead us incidentally to other truths we might not otherwise have found.  So, in both cases, counter-intuitive and prima facie irrational free-rein brainstorming are sometimes truth generating.

I agree with these intuitions a great deal because I see the ways that the counter-intuitive may be true and we should not rule it out out of hand out of a rigid commitment to our current prejudices as to what seems plausible:

(2) Counter-Intuitive Reasoning. I enjoy hypothetically moving through all sorts of possible philosophical schema in order to see what they might have in store, even where I do not think their starting premises are likely to be right or, sometimes, even remotely plausible.  In fact, this is a way of life for me.  Teaching and studying philosophy involves investigating issues through a multiplicity of frameworks and perspectives and constantly comparing them to reality and to each other.  I have often said that Kant strikes me as fundamentally wrong in some moments and indisputably profound in others and that the profundity only is possible insofar as he pushes his intuitions imprudently far.  Where other philosophers would be more realistic and moderate their intuitions, Kant follows out the complete rationalist logic of morality and by thinking it out to its logical conclusions (even to the point of pragmatic absurdities), he hits incomparable truths.  So, I began teaching Kant six years with an extremely dismissive attitude towards him and despite thinking him an improbable source of truth have found myself grow steadily more Kantian over the course of my research and teaching.

And there are famous instances in science of bootstrapping to confirmable truth through irrational models.  Take this example given by Richard Feynman {in his essay “Seeking New Laws of Nature” from The Character of Physical Law by Richard Feynman (Cambridge: MIT Press) and reprinted in pgs. 105-111 of Twenty Questions by Solomon, Michaels, and Bowie (eds.) (United States: Wadsworth Thomson)}

The next guy who did something great was Maxwell, who obtained the laws of electricity and magnetism.  What he did was this.  He put together all the laws of electricity, due to Faraday and other people who came before him, and he looked at them and realized that they were mathematically inconsistent.  In order to straighten it out he had to add one term to an equation.  He did this by inventing for himself a model of idler heels and gears and so on in space.  He found what the new law was—but nobody paid much attention because they did not believe in the idler wheels.  We do not believe in the idler wheels today, but the equations that he obtained were correct.  So the logic may be wrong but the answer is correct.

(3) Testing Improbable Hypotheses. We might have to adopt an improbable hypothesis that we have brainstormed or counter-intuitively derived.  While adopting such a hypothesis, one has to hypothetically act as though it were true and see if the world turns out to be as it would require it to be were it in fact true.  Holding a position hypothetically in order to investigate how it matches the world is a rational thing to do, however.  It is rational to recognize that even the improbable is among the possible and worth investigating—when all the more probable explanations have been exhausted.  But these hypotheses should be held only hypothetically and should not be allowed to determine the structure or nature of the rest of your beliefs—except hypothetically as part of testing the hypothesis.  And should the hypothesis prove unverifiable and unfalsifiable and should it require too many other more certain beliefs to be modified in order to account for it, and in a host of other possible ways prove itself unsupported or problematic to hold, it should simply be abandoned.

Such a hypothesis is not a faith.  It is a rational guess subjected to tests, which reason is willing to see it fail if that happens to be the result.  If the hypothesis stands up under rigorous scrutiny reason will assent to it.  If it fails to stand up  to the tests, reason will reject it.  A faith commitment involves an act of will to believe a hypothesis regardless of whether or not there ever is or could be evidence for it.  And worse, a faith commitment involves committing to believing the hypothesis in the teeth of both overwhelming counter-evidence and rational impossibility.

A faith commitment leads someone even to illicitly redefine much more clearly understood beliefs to accommodate the hypothesis held by faith.  So, for example: the normal modern, religious, moral human being normally has no compunction about calling genocide unequivocally and absolutely immoral under all circumstances.  This is a firm belief, one far clearer to most than the belief that the Bible is somehow inspired by a good God.  Yet when confronted with the numerous passages in the Bible where God unequivocally commands horrific genocides of men, women, children, and animals, those committed by faith to the hypothesis that the Bible is inspired by a good God contort all their definitions of right and wrong so that now they can accommodate genocide when God commands it, rather than simply drawing the intuitive inference that either God is evil or the Bible was not inspired by God.  They are forced to start making the wrongness of genocide not absolute nor natural at all but right or wrong only in relationship to God’s covenants.  Or they have to interpret “inspired by God” to mean something watered down so much that the Bible writers can be totally wrong about the whole genocide thing being God’s will and yet still somehow speak authoritatively for God overall and trump other beliefs we have with those other things they say.  Or they can try another of a thousand redefinitions of morality or inspiration or genocide or God, etc., etc.  But what they cannot do is abandon the hypothesis committed to by faith, because faith itself is held to justify that belief, no matter what contortions of logic, morality, and external reality they have to make to accommodate those faith beliefs.  So, faith is an intellectual vice whereby one holds a hypothesis imprudently strongly.

Roman Catholics pay lip service to the idea of a Unity of Truth whereby faith can theoretically never contradict reason but only supplement it.  But then they claim that daily crackers become the literal body of Jesus Christ and wine becomes his literal blood.  They try to make this “compatible” with reason through astoundingly twisting Aristotelian/medieval metaphysical categories in ways that are technically “consistent” but so utterly ludicrous as to make a mockery of the whole idea of restricting faith only to what is compatible with reason.  Holding faith to what is compatible with reason might, if this is a real possibility at all, be something like holding a strong opinion that might be true but which is yet unconfirmable either way.  But where there are clear absolutes (like crackers are not the body of Jesus and wine is not his blood, like no one can be fully God and fully human at the same time, like virgins cannot conceive children, like good beings cannot punish people for others’ sins, etc.) you cannot distort your definitions of all these natural and moral laws and then claim that your faith is compatible with your reason.  You are subjugating reason to faith at every conflict.  That’s not reconciliation of faith to reason, it’s the abuse of reason.

There is nothing wrong with brainstorming, hypothetically adopting counter-intuitive premises to see what truth they might yield, or testing low-probability hypotheses.  But faith is none of these things because faith involves volitional commitment to believe in the hypotheses in greater proportion of strength than their evidence allows.  It ruins creativity by turning a few wild speculations that may be fruitful into dreadful dogmas that squelch future lines of speculation and that require us to twist even known facts beyond recognition to accommodate them.

Finally, faith hypotheses like those from religion are not only held with unjustifiable strength and on the principle of faith itself made impervious to rejection in light of future counter-evidence or exposure of their basic irrationality, but on top of all this faith hypotheses also are proposed quite frequently not at all as merely improbable possibilities but outright superstitious, counter- or pre-scientific guesses wildly at odds with the nature of reality as experienced.

For more of my thoughts on faith, see the rest of the “Disambiguating Faith” series, wherein I argue that, beyond just an attempt to develop beliefs, faith is first and foremost a form of loyalty. And more than that even, it is a form of trust which does not calibrate itself to objective standards of trustworthiness but trusts people despite their limitations as provably trustworthy people or even despite counter-evidence to the notion that they are worthy of trust at all. Faith helps serve traditions’ tasks of  uniting their members and transmitting their values and practices down through generations. One of faith’s distinctive contributions to creating cohesion is its ability to make trust beyond warrant in traditions and their institutions into a condition of loyalty to one’s group—even when the tradition or the institutions seem at odds with reason and conscience. And, somewhat amazingly, this conditions even the most nominal believers to respond with knee jerk suspicion to those who are outright faithless.

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

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