Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Why Faith Is Not A Virtue

Let's look at a thought experiment to see what the nature of faith is.

Say you are in a steady relationship with a significant other. There have been the usual ups and downs of a relationship, but overall things are going pretty good. Let's say, however, that one day you do the one thing that your significant other would possibly break up with you over. What do you do? Let's say there's no chance of them ever finding out. What now? Do you risk it and tell them, being honest? Or do you keep it from them, so that they remain faithful to you?

I admit this is a pretty tough decision. But what is underlying this is whether you simply want to possess the person, or if you love and respect them.

Actually, don't even answer the question. Your particular character isn't what I'm trying to point out here. What I would like to know is: What would a person who values [your] faith over everything else do in this situation? What will they do necessarily? That's right; they would have no second guesses about lying to you to maintain your faith in them.

Now, what if there is no second party involed. No significant other. What if it is just you confronted with a decision to face something that might make you lose faith in someone/something or to ignore that thing? What would a person who values faith do? That's right. They would have no qualms about lying to themselves to maintain their faith.

So what exactly is the difference between faith and self-deception? I don't think there is any difference. If a person cares more about faith than honesty (or "the truth") then any other option is necessarily some form of deception.

Hope vs. Faith

What about hope? Isn't that the same thing as faith? Wouldn't that mean that hope is also self-deception? Let's look at another thought experiment to see if there is a subtle difference between the two.

You have just taken a math test. You're not sure if you did well or did poorly. When you get back to your dorm, your roommate asks you how you did. How do you respond?

"I hope I did well on the test". This, to me, seems like approaching the uncertainty about the math test from a point of humility. It acknowledges the doubt inherent in your uncertainty on the math test. It fully embraces the uncertainty. As in, "I hope I did well on the test, but I might not have".

"I have faith I did well on the test". This, to me, seems like approaching the uncertainty about the math test from a point of... well, no uncertainty at all. From an arrogant perspective; a perspective of [self] deception about the state of uncertainty you earlier had about the math test. 

Faith vs. Trust

If faith is such a negative virtue to me, how do I go about navigating the world and maintaining interpersonal relationships? The key difference is between faith and trust. Who are some of the people in your life that you can say that you trust? Chances are, these are people that you have known for a long time, and know their character very well. In essense, this sort of trust is an inductive inference.

Induction, in logic, is making a prediction about future behavior based on past behavior. Your buddy Joe has always been a person of integrity the entire four years that you've known him, so you can trust him to maintain his integrity the next time it is put to the test. He almost certainly will hold on to your prized collection of Star Wars die-cast collectibles while your apartment is being fumigated.

In essense, you can think of induction as a statistical argument. If Beth has gotten hammered 89% of the times that you two have went to the bar, the chances are the next time she goes to the bar with you she will get hammered. You can trust her to get completely wasted and have to carry her home.

Faith vs. Doubt

Some have said that faith seeks understanding. But after looking into the above thought experiments, I cannot see how this can be the case. Doubt, on the other hand - by its very nature - seeks understanding. Look at how all of our "knowledge seeking" statements begin: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? These words are all "doubt" words. They are "uncertainty" words. "Question" words. Without these words, we would have no straightforward means of discovering knowledge about the world we live in.

Every single modern convenience is built on the foundation of doubt. This is because every single modern convenience follows from some sort of rigorous methodology, which only functions because of doubt. This is why there are peer-reviews, double blind studies, external controls, independent verification, etc. They are all predicated on the concept of doubt.

The entire school system is built on doubt. This is why we take tests. This is why we defend theses. We don't get end of year exams because our professors have faith in us, we get end of year exams because of the concept of doubt. We don't stand in front of boards and present an oral defense of our thesis because of faith. It is presented under the pretense of doubt.

We've been conditioned to think of doubt as a negative virtue. But doubt is the only reason why we even know anything to a high degree of certainty. Well, doubting and then testing; but we would never test something unless we doubted it first. Conversely, we've been conditioned to think of faith as an across the board positive virtue. But it isn't. From the starting point of faith, we have no reason whatsoever to test something. This is because test implies doubting.

If I have faith that it is 9:31am, does this mean that I actually know what time it is? Would this faith prompt me to actually check the time? Of course not; actually checking the time implies doubt on my part.

"Embracing uncertainty is one of science's great strengths--it allows new information to modulate judgments and correct mistaken beliefs. The skill is in distinguishing between what is certain and what isn't (or at least what lies closer to one end or the other of that spectrum). Editorial, SCIENCE NEWS Dece. 4, 2010

A system built on doubt is a system that encourages self-correction. What system of self-correction is there in one predicated on faith? Self-correction itself implies doubt; I do not see how any faith system can self-correct without outside influence.

The Role Of Faith

It seems as though faith really only has currency in religious discussions. But why even allow it currency there? Liberal religionists try to distance themselves from their more fundamentalist or conservative bretheren. But would this even be necessary if faith was not seen as a virtue? Liberal religionists who recognize that faith is a virtue are the springboard for the fundementalists. "See?", say the fundamentalists, "Faith is a virtue, and I am exercising my virtuousness just like you are". It is only a difference in scale.

It seems the easiest way to rob the extremists of their power would be to remove the idea that faith has some sort of inherent value. Unfortunately, it seems as though even the most liberal religionists believe the same - so they would in effect be removing their only reasons for believing. Faith is the common thread between the liberal and fundamentalist religionist.

As long as faith is seen as a virtue, we can continue to encounter people who think that faith based actions such as 9/11 are virtuous.

1 comment:

Langdon said...

Really good points you make. I'd been having difficulty defining "faith" in the sense that most people use it, and I'm not *quite* sure I accept your equating of religious faith to "relationship" faith, but I'll see if I can.

Faith and belief seem pretty closely linked, and indeed, are interchangable to most speakers. However, I recall Alan Watts considering faith to be "almost the opposite" of belief- That Faith is more of an acceptance of what your senses tell you, a trust that the system we find ourselves embedded in is able to provide and understanding of truth. Belief, on the other hand, denies the possibility of your belief's opposite. By his definition, faith is rational, or at the very least, open-minded.

Still, in our culture, faith just about equals belief, and you've proven that it's difficult to consider it a virtue.