Friday, March 25, 2005


The previous posting led me to think about faith. What does it mean, and what are its implications? According to Merriam-Webster Online, faith is defined as follows.
1 a : allegiance to duty or a person : LOYALTY b (1) : fidelity to one's promises (2) : sincerity of intentions

2 a (1) : belief and trust in and loyalty to God (2) : belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion b (1) : firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2) : complete trust

3 : something that is believed especially with strong conviction; especially : a system of religious beliefs
In addition, in the synonyms section under belief, faith is distinguished in that it
almost always implies certitude even where there is no evidence or proof .
The lack of evidence (and perhaps even the impossibility of ever finding evidence) seems to me to be a central element of what people mean by faith, especially in a religious context. (This excludes the use of the term in a context such as "I have faith that my friend will pick me up at the airport.")

If science-based beliefs are based on evidence, faith-based beliefs must necessarily be about a domain about which evidence cannot be gathered. That would suggest that faith-based beliefs are necessarily irrelevant to the world. If there were any relevance, any way in which faith-based beliefs could be tested, then by definition, they would no longer be faith-based.

When I started this posting, I expected to go on longer. But this immediate and simple conclusion seems to say everything. How would the faith-based community respond?

One might point to evidence, for example, that people with religious beliefs tend to live longer and have happier lives. But that isn't about faith, it is about psychology. It is about how one's beliefs affects one's life, not about the truth or falsity of the beliefs themselves. There are lots of ways in which what one thinks affects how one feels. People under hypnosis, for example, seem capable of doing things that they would not ordinarily be able to do.

But faith as generally understood involves predicates that are expressed as if they were either true or false, i.e., statements about something. And yet the something about which faith-based statements refer must, as we said, be beyond evidence.

It may be that believing a statement that can't be tested may make one happier. But would the faith-based community want think of itself primarily as offering a self-help system? I doubt it. Besides there are many self-help systems (e.g., clinical psychology, Buddhist meditation) that provide similar results in a more direct way and without requiring untestable beliefs.

My own prejudice, as you can probably tell, is quite anti-faith. It's important to me to have some ground (or at least believe that there some ground can be established) for what I believe. It seems strange even to have to say that in the 21st century. But here we are, and I'm at a loss to understand about how people manage to live with beliefs that they know are beyond reality.

Perhaps the faith-based will argue that the statements they believe will be tested but only after one's death. I'm not sure what to say about that. Suppose someone said that 1,000 years from now, civilization will be so advanced that people will be able to reconstruct every human being whose DNA is available. Not only will they will do that, but through brain scans, they will examine the collective memory of all those people and determine what sorts of lives each of us has lived. Based on those results, we will each be punished or rewarded.

I'm willing to believe that the technology to achieve that may be possible — although since brains depend on more than DNA actually reconstructing brains seems a bit far-fetched. But let's assume it could be done. Then what?

First of all, I would have a hard time believing that 1,000 years from now anyone would care enough to reconstruct all previously living human beings. Why bother? But even more relevant, I doubt that it would change my life. Believing something like that seems so far removed from reality that it might as well be fantasy.

But is that the argument? Are faith-based beliefs held because those who believe them expect them to be relevant at some time in the future? If so, it makes a bit more sense to me. But as Ian McEwan said in his answer to "What do you believe that can't be proven?" I believe that my life will end with my death. Is that also a matter of faith? Somehow it seems less a matter of faith because it isn't something that I worry about — just as I don't worry about the possibility that the other side of the moon, which we can't see, may be a base for alien invaders who are planning to attack us. Believing that life ends with death seems more like a skeptical response to those who claim it doesn't in much the same way as believing that the other side of the moon does not host enemy aliens is a skeptical response to anyone who claims it does.

After all, the paranoid and the schizophrenic believe all sorts of things. Denying the reality of their claims is not on an equal footing with their beliefs.

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