Unapologetic Review – Part 7: Two Definitions of “Faith”

Unapologetic Review – Part 7: Two Definitions of “Faith” December 20, 2016

The Two Main Definitions of “Faith” in Unapologetic

There are seven short statements in Unapologetic that appear to be definitions of the word “faith”.  The definition given in Chapter 1 (p.37) is an incomplete version of the definition given in Chapter 2.  The definition given in Chapter 2 is clear and worthy of serious consideration:

Faith is a cognitive bias that causes believers to overestimate any confirming evidence and underestimate any disconfirming evidence.  (Unapologetic, Chapter 2, p. 55)

There is no definition of “faith” given in Chapter 3.  The definition in Chapter 4 is unclear because of metaphorical language (“gives believers permission to…”) and it is problematic because of a difficult-to-discern condition (“to pretend what they believe is true”).  The defintion in Chapter 5 is unclear because of use of a metaphorical expression (“an irrational leap over the probabilities”).  The definition given in Chapter 6 is clear (and it is repeated verbatum in Chapter 8, on page 194):

Faith is an irrational, unevidenced, or misplaced trust in something or someone. (Unapologetic, Chapter 6, p.152)

The definition in Chapter 7 is similar to the definition in Chapter 2, but is less detailed, and the key element of this definition can be added to the definition given in Chapter 2 to enhance that definition.

Modified Chapter 2 Definition:

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

The two clearest definitions of “faith” given in Unapologetic are the definitions in Chapter 2 and in Chapter 6.

These two definitions can each be summed up in just two words.  The definition in Chapter 2 (and the modified version of it) are clearly definitions of CONFIRMATION BIAS.  So, the Chapter 2 definition can be summarized like this:

FAITH = CONFIRMATION BIAS

Three different categories of trust are referenced by the definition in Chapter 6:

  • unevidenced trust
  • misplaced trust
  • irrational trust

I have argued that “unividenced trust” is insignificant because it is rare, and I have argued that “misplaced trust” is sometimes unavoidable, because the evidence available to a specific person is sometimes misleading, and because some people are skilled at deceiving others, so that even a serious effort to trust others based on objective evaluation of evidence will sometimes fail to uncover an untrustworthy person.

What matters in terms of “misplaced trust” is when such bad trusting is the result of “irrational trust”, when one ignores or downplays significant evidence indicating that a person (or thing) is unworthy of trust.  So, in the end, the key element of the definition in Chapter 6 is just ONE of the three kinds of bad trusting:

FAITH = IRRATIONAL TRUST

 

At Least One of These Two Definitions is WRONG

Clearly  CONFIRMATION BIAS is something different from IRRATIONAL TRUST.  So, at least one of these two definitions of “faith” must be wrong.  CONFIRMATION BIAS is a type of cognitive bias, but IRRATIONAL TRUST is not a type of cognitive bias.  IRRATIONAL TRUST is an attitude of a person towards another person or thing, but CONFIRMATION BIAS is not an attitude of a person towards another person or thing.  Therefore CONFIRMATION BIAS is something different than IRRATIONAL TRUST.  These two definitions disagree about the genus of faith; they disagree about what kind of thing “faith” is:

  • If  FAITH = CONFIRMATION BIAS, then it is NOT the case that FAITH = IRRATIONAL TRUST.
  • If FAITH = IRRATIONAL TRUST, then it is NOT the case that FAITH = CONFIRMATION BIAS.

Since the two clearest definitions of “faith” in Unapologetic disagree about the genus of faith, and because they equate “faith” with two differnt and distinct phenomena,  at least one of these two definitions must be wrong, mistaken, incorrect.  So, the meaning of the most important concept in Unapologetic is unclear, because the two clearest definitions of “faith” provided in Unapologetic disagree with each other.

 

Both of These Two Definitions are WRONG

 

Faith is Not CONFIRMATION BIAS

I have previously indicated two reasons why FAITH does not mean CONFIRMATION BIAS.

First, the term CONFIRMATION BIAS was invented in the second half of the 20th century, and it is a term of scientific psychology. But the word FAITH has been a part of the English language for over six centuries, so it is unlikely that the word FAITH would just happen to have the same meaning as a recently invented scientific term.

Second, the word FAITH is closely associated with religion and religious belief.  Paradigm cases of FAITH are “faith in God”, “faith in Jesus”, and “faith in the Bible”.  The scientific term CONFIRMATION BIAS has no such association with religion or religious belief. CONFIRMATION BIAS infects the thinking of humans about nearly every subject imaginable:  history, politics, ethics, biology, medicine, finances, economics, government, law, personal relationships, child rearing, problem solving, planning, policy making, elections, decision making, etc.  Furthermore, CONFIRMATION BIAS has widspread and frequent influence on the thinking of non-religious people, just as it also has widespread and frequent influence on the thinking of religious people.

Third, the word FAITH is a word in the English language, and the English language has been significantly influenced by the Christian religion, and the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels are a central and important aspect of the Christian religion, and Jesus uses the word “faith” (in English translations of the Gospels) in a way that does NOT correspond to the term CONFIRMATION BIAS:

Matthew 16:5-12 New Revised Standard Version

5 When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread.
6 Jesus said to them, “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
7 They said to one another, “It is because we have brought no bread.”
8 And becoming aware of it, Jesus said, “You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread?
9 Do you still not perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered?
10 Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered?
11 How could you fail to perceive that I was not speaking about bread? Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees!”
12 Then they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Jesus is scolding his disciples for not having a proper amount of FAITH, for not trusting that God would provide them with enough food to carry out their divine mission.  Jesus points out that they have personally witnessed at least two different miracles on different occassions where God provided them and thousands of other people with plenty of food.  In other words, Jesus is saying that they ought to have greater trust in God being willing and able to provide them with food, based on the powerful evidence of directly observing at least two different miracles where God had provided food for thousands of people.

Clearly,  Jesus is NOT advocating that his disciples believe that God is willing and able to provide them with food in the face of powerful evidence against this assumption; rather Jesus is advocating that he disciples ought to have a firm belief that God is willing and able to provide them with food, given that they have personally experienced at least two miracles where God provided food for them and thousands of other people. Jesus was clearly NOT advocating CONFIRMATION BIAS to his disciples, but was, rather, advocating that they have firm belief or trust in God on the basis of strong evidence for this belief.

Of course,  I don’t believe that any such miracles of feeding actually took place, and I’m not entirely convinced that Jesus is more than just a fictional character in a mostly fictional story told by the authors of the Gospels.  However, such skeptical views about the historicity of the Gospels and about Jesus, are irrelevant to understanding the meaning of the word FAITH as it is used in this particular Gospel story.  Clearly,  the Jesus who is speaking (whether fictional or historical) believes that his disciples have witnessed at least two miracles where God provided food for thousands of people.  Clearly, this Jesus believes that this powerful empirical evidence can be the basis or ground for FAITH or firm trust in God, particularly trust that God is willing and able to provide Jesus and his disciples with enough food to eat.

When Jesus speaks of FAITH in the above passage it is clear that Jesus does NOT mean CONFIRMATION BIAS.

 

Faith is Not IRRATIONAL TRUST

First, the word FAITH is closely associated with religion and religious belief.  Paradigm cases of FAITH are “faith in God”, “faith in Jesus”, and “faith in the Bible”.  The phrase IRRATIONAL TRUST has no such association with religion or religious belief. IRRATIONAL TRUST infects the thinking of humans about people, animals, machines, foods, medicines, etc.  It is not limited to trust in God or trust in Jesus, or trust in spirits or angels.  Furthermore, IRRATIONAL TRUST has widspread and frequent influence on the thinking and behavior of non-religious people, just as it also has widespread and frequent influence on the thinking and behavior of religious people.

Second, the expression “blind faith” would be redundant, if FAITH meant IRRATIONAL TRUST.  “Blind” faith implies belief or trust that ignores relevant evidence, especially evidence that the object of trust is unworthy of trust.  So, the word “blind” implies IRRATIONAL, when it is used as a modifier of the word FAITH. Thus “blind faith” means IRRATIONAL FAITH.  So, if FAITH means IRRATIONAL TRUST, then “blind faith” means IRRATIONAL TRUST that is IRRATIONAL.  But in that case the word “blind” is completely redundant and adds nothing to what was already contained in the concept of FAITH.  This is a good reason to doubt the view that FAITH = IRRATIONAL TRUST.

Third, although FAITH is closely associated with religion, we can also speak of “faith in science”, and “faith in reason”, and “faith in democracy”.   Although such FAITH could in some cases be IRRATIONAL TRUST, it is generally reasonable and rational to have “faith in science”, “faith in reason”, and “faith in democracy”,  so in these non-religious uses of the word “faith”  it is wrong to assume that FAITH = IRRATIONAL TRUST.

Fourth, the word FAITH is a word in the English language, and the English language has been significantly influenced by the Christian religion, and the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels are a central and important aspect of the Christian religion, and Jesus uses the word “faith” (in English translations of the Gospels) in a way that does NOT correspond to the phrase  IRRATIONAL TRUST. (see the discussion of the Gospel passage above).  When Jesus speaks of FAITH in Matthew 16:5-12,  it is clear that Jesus does NOT mean IRRATIONAL TRUST.

 

Could Each of These Definitions be Partially True?

We could make use of the distinction between product and process to combine the two definitions:

FAITH =

IRRATIONAL TRUST that was produced by CONFIRMATION BIAS

Although this is an interesting concept, it is highly problematic as a definition of “faith”, because most, if not all, of the above objections to the two clear definitions of “faith” provided by Loftus apply to this definition.  Furthermore, this definition increases the problem of the significance of “faith” by reducing the scope of phenomena included under the concept of “faith”.

I agree that CONFIRMATION BIAS is a bad thing.   I agree that IRRATIONAL TRUST is a bad thing.  But in each case, it seems to me that to make a crusade that is worth joining, these targets seem a bit too small.  Why not fight against ALL forms of cognitive bias?  Why only focus on CONFIRMATION BIAS?  Why not fight against ALL forms of irrationality?  Why only focus on IRRATIONAL TRUST?  The target of Mr. Loftus’ crusade seems a bit skimpy already, but if we combine the two definitions, then the dragon to be slayed shrinks down to the size of a small dog or large rodent (perhaps a ROUS – Rodent Of Unusual Size). Not only are we to focus narrowly on IRRATIONAL TRUST, but we are to ignore all instances of IRRATIONAL TRUST that are not produced by the specific mechanisms of CONFIRMATION BIAS.

If the scope of the crusade is pared down to a fight against only a modest slice of instances of IRRATIONAL TRUST, then I’m not willing to join this crusade.  It might be realistic to tackle this fairly narrow slice of human IRRATIONALITY, but I think more than this is needed to justify a crusade.  Furthermore, the combined definition, like the two original definitions, has no close relationship to religion or religious belief.  This slice of IRRATIONAL TRUST is one that infects and impacts the thinking and actions of non-religious people and thinking about non-religious issues about as much as it infects and impacts the thinking and actions of religious people and thinking about religious issues.


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