The Pope of Literature
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On the whole, I disagree with the basic discussion of faith that begins this chapter, particularly to the extent that it depends on our acceptance of the second definition, "firm belief in something for which there is no proof." (Although, technically speaking, if we do accept that definition, then doesn't the argument that science proceeds not by proving hypotheses correct but by disproving those that are false indicate that acceptance of unrefuted hypotheses matches that definition?) Two forms of definition are given, and a general form of the first -- faith as trust in another person or being -- seems pertinent to the explicit form given of the second. As far as I'm concerned, a person need not even describe the basis for an action as belief to have already involved faith. So long as they're acting according to a line of reasoning premised on trust, they're acting from faith. Ergo, to the extent that a person's determination of which airline is safest is premised on a survey of literature provided by other persons, getting on that plane is a matter of faith. And our trust in the findings of science are also indicative of faith -- moreso our faith in the practitioners of science than in the method of science, though to whatever extent that our trust in the method depends on the track record of science, our trust in method also partakes of that faith we have in the people who have practiced it.
One other extension to the notion of faith seems warranted. Any time we reason according to our own assumptions -- rather than actual direct observation of a thing -- we're acting on our trust of our own capacity for correctly conceiving a thing that is not before us. That we make incorrect assumptions all the time indicates the degree to which faith is at work. If I show you the tails side of a penny and ask you to describe the other side, unless you suspect a trick you're likely to tell me what Lincoln looks like in profile. Our reliance on faith becomes more acute the more the stakes are raised. Jumping out of an airplane with a parachute is an extreme example in a person's faith that a given set of periphenalia will perform as expected, though we do see evidence that parachutes fail. But while raising the stakes may change the extent to which we're willing to exercise our faith doesn't change the functional involvement of faith. If trust is, as I've suggested, the crucial component, then it doesn't matter what difference it would make to you whether it was true or not that I was sitting on chair in my kitchen. It does matter in terms of our relationship to one another, because the degree to which you take it on faith demonstrates the level of trust that exists between us.
To my mind, talking about probability doesn't change the situation that much. What does recognizing a ration of success versus failure change in the decision making process? Even when a person weighs their chances of failure, the decision to go ahead with a planned action is not based on the knowledge that they will succeed. If we're honest about the meaning of a stastical calculation like probability, then we ought to recognize that our action contributes to the next calculation of the same probability. To illustrate, if you're only the 6th person to ingest a new species of plant, you're going to change the perceived probability that anyone eating the plant will get ill by at least 1/6th, whether for the worse or better. Most of our culculations of probability are stratified by the numerical weight of persons involved, but that doesn't change the assumption that trends will continue on a stable basis. To that end, getting on an airplane (to hark back to the example given in the chapter), remains a matter of faith even when the choice of airlines is based on prior personal experience, in so much as it's based on the assumption that circumstances haven't changed, or that your personal experience has been indicative of the normal circumstances. That only one in every 400 persons who have flown an airline in the past have died may provide some comfort, but if the airplane has made severe cost cutbacks without making that information particularly well known, that ratio may rise sharply starting the day you make your trip. And the fact that you've died none of the times you've flown a given airline doesn't really demonstrate anything at all about future experiences. Any form of induction, to paraphrase Hume, is a form of faith.
What I'm getting at is that very few examples of faith really involve certainty. I have faith that the last girl I dated wouldn't have cheated on me -- otherwise, I wouldn't have dated her -- but I wouldn't have called that faith a certainty. Likewise, the fact that some theists elevate their belief in God to a certainty does not make that belief indicative of all faith. (If you want to get right down to it, it's probably fair to question whether or not their faith is, even for them, certainty -- Paul Tillich has described fundamentalism as faith which will not permit doubt, which seems to me much the same as saying, faith which will not admit the doubt it already has.)
The question that remains to be answered, so far as I'm concerned, is that of why so many naturalists, atheists and secularists want to draw a distinction between themselves and theists, to the extent that they claim not to have faith. This chapter gives a curious example in contrasting faith and thinking, as though faith were not a kind of thought. Why should a "rational confidence that science works based on the available evidence" not qualify as faith? That "religious belief is an altogether different beast" seems to be at root in the distinction, but the support for that statement seems to rely on the generalization of religion so as to resemble only its fundamentalist threads. That, in order to illustrate this difference, the chapter depends on an admittedly "extreme example" should indicate the potential fallacy here. Would a less extreme example have serve the same end? That it illustrates any difference at all is unclear, in large part because the examples of "daily faith" and "scientific faith" (like boarding an airplane) provided by the chapter are completely mundane. You can't rightly compare an extreme example to a mundane example.
On the whole, the chapter seems to proceed by painting as extreme a picture of faith as possible, and I would say that, in doing so, it distorts the issues involved. To describe faith as the "abandonment of reason and skeptical inquiry" masks the degree to which all rational discourse -- even skeptical discourse -- proceeds from premises that are taken on faith. Epistemically, that's an important point, and you need not reject it altogether to mount a defense against fundamentalist attempts to reduce all secular inquiry to their terms. The rejection of faith as a term may function as one line of defense against fundamentalists attempts to control the terms of debate, but it also implies potential secular consequences of the kind that have been illustrated in communist attempts to irradicate "faith" in social discourse.
At its worst, I worry that the rejection of faith may function as a way of controlling discourse. By rejecting individualistic bases for action and belief, some thinkers have attempted to install reason as an objective basis for making all decisions, as though by reference to some external pattern of thought we could make decisions on behalf of others. To some degree, I think that's what's involved in a lot of attempts to make others "see reason." What we want is that they should see things the way we see them. Ignoring or denying the extent to which our own perspectives depend on something so specific and individualistic as faith allows us to make the other person's persepective relative; reference to reason as pattern of thought that should be consistent from person to person resituates our own rational as something objective. Suddenly we're no longer debating the merits of our own position versus that of another person -- we're arguing what's "only reasonable" against individual error.
Which, incidentally, is almost identical what the fundamentalist tries to do. Reference to a god or a divine revelation can serve as a way of stifling the individual perspective. It doesn't have to, though, and the majority of people, religious or otherwise, don't go around trying to settle every question by reference to scripture or personal communication with God. And it seems to me that very little is solved by attempting to make reason counter dogmatism by playing the same game of dismissing individual perspective. That the latter half of the chapter is devoted to demonstrating that "once objective standards are brought into play, religious faith simply has nothing to recommend it" seems, in that light, unfortunate.