Disambiguating Faith: Not All Beliefs Held Without Certainty Are Faith Beliefs

Disambiguating Faith: Not All Beliefs Held Without Certainty Are Faith Beliefs June 30, 2010

David Crowther raises a crucial point of contention:

What I really want to do, is get back to the question of whether atheism is necessarily a “faith position”. If we generalize the term “faith” to mean believing or relying on something without absolute proof, than I think it is true to say that every possible idea or belief or even fact we acknowledge is taken on “faith”; whether it be ludicrous, illogical fanaticism, or the “law” of gravity. You have explained it best yourself (was it the above post?) when you laid out your “reasonable certitude” that you have parents. Even something as necessary to our existence as it stands and as verifiable as gravity, can only be said to be a law, in that it has never been proven not to occur.

Therefore, we must make the assumption that many of the things we understand as proven day in and day out are only reasonably certain. I would call this faith: believing or relying on a concept or idea that is not 100% proven.

This to me says something about our ability to know anything. How do we know what we know; or how do we know what we know is true?

Dan, I am compelled by your explanation of your own “search for truth” (if you will permit me use the term in that way), because I believe (with all the baggage of the term) that I do what you do: I also “do not worship any alleged certainty that some day I will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence.” I also test what information or opinion or belief comes my way, with all the faculties I have available to me. I think it is unfair and untrue, as some of your posters (people who posted) have implied or said, that to hold to a religious faith or belief is to hold to ignorance (BUffy posts above: “The problem is that most religious people look at any question and say “goddunnit” rather than seeking actual answers. To make matters worse, they ignore any answer that discounts their “goddunnit” notions”; or your own comment, that “faithful believers think that aspiring to the attitude of certainty without the warrant for certainty is praiseworthy”: I certainly do not!) I fully acknowledge that there are many many people who cling dangerously and fruitlessly to faith or beliefs with no rationality and with a fear that it will, in fact be proven to be irrational, false, etc., to the point where they kill and hate, etc.

The problem with equating faith with any belief that is not 100% certain is that to do so would blur from our language important distinctions.  When our words do not make as many discriminations between similar kinds we are far more prone to equivocation.  If we constrain our language to have only two kinds of assent to propositions: non-100%-certain assent (faith) and 100%-certain assent (knowledge) then our conceptual thinking becomes impoverished.  We start lumping together all sorts of beliefs which are radically different in their degree or kind of evidential warrant and their degree of actual verisimilitude (their ability to approximate reality truthfully, or we might say, attain “truthlikeness”)  such that we confusingly refer to them all by the same misleading word term, “faith beliefs”.

And you make clear that you understand this implication of your use of language when you say, “If we generalize the term ‘faith’ to mean believing or relying on something without absolute proof, than I think it is true to say that every possible idea or belief or even fact we acknowledge is taken on ‘faith’; whether it be ludicrous, illogical fanaticism, or the ‘law’ of gravity.”  I couldn’t (and don’t think I just did above) put the point better myself.  So, let me ask you, does it make our language clearer and our distinctions more truth-conducive if we use the same word to describe the relative knowledge-status of beliefs that come from “ludicrous, illogical fanaticism” that we use to describe the relative knowledge-status of beliefs about the law of gravity?

When you say that we can make no discrimination in kind between ludicrous, illogical beliefs and the law of gravity, you are, in essence saying, that the defining and most important feature of all beliefs is that they are held by fallible human beings such that even the very best of them might have even a faint and infinitesimal possibility that they are wrong.  And you are saying that this bare possibility means that we should call all of them alike equally faith beliefs and not make any qualitative distinctions between them such that some are actually knowledge and others not.

You are in essence saying that the language is better off highlighting the similarity, rather than the extreme difference, between ludicrous, illogical beliefs on the one hand, and, on the other hand, scientific beliefs so incredibly successful at describing the world that they account for nuclear bombs, trips to the moon, i-pods, vaccines, and the very computer through which you and I are communicating across a couple hundred miles.  I think, to be honest, that you are calling for greater, more counter-productive, and confusing uses of language.

The level on which both the ludicrous and illogical belief and the logical and philosophically or, better, scientifically powerful belief are the same is the level at which they happen to be propositions assented to by human beings.  We acknowledge this bare similarity by calling both the ridiculous and the most profoundly true human “beliefs”.  But to call them both faith beliefs or to say that the inherent fallibility of the human mind precludes any being worthy of being called true beliefs, i.e., knowledge, is to deny both reality and, more specifically, the reality of greater human epistemic success and lesser human epistemic success.

Both in the quoted portion above and in what follows it you say more that is worth parsing out, but in the interest of occasionally trying to keep my posts a bit shorter, I will save the next important distinctions we need to make to answer you for another post.  The next key questions will be, even if we are going to make distinctions between some beliefs as faith beliefs and others as not faith beliefs, why draw the line between faith beliefs and other beliefs precisely where I do and am I justified in saying that “faithful believers think that aspiring to the attitude of certainty without the warrant for certainty is praiseworthy“.

ON EDIT:  A Facebook friend dismissed this post as merely “antics with semantics” and received from another Facebook friend this perfect reply I just had to share:

Oh… and as for the ‘antics with semantics’ comment. I like that… it is salient because it rhymes. But it is essentially tautological… we already know that the controversy is about the meaning of words and just stating that someone holds a different definition than you does not further the argument. It’s like you were served a tennis ball and instead of volleying it back you tossed it over the fence.

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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