The Ethics Of… Faith

Faith is a funny thing. When your hobby is discussing the deeper themes of life, it’s something that you tend to run into a lot. There’s always been something disquieting about faith; a feeling of wrongness when the person rebuts criticism of their opinion or belief with the simple phrase “I have faith in it”. It’s certainly a successful, if frustrating, way of stymieing a philosopher. What can you say to that? No you don’t? You shouldn’t? Generally speaking the conversation ends with an awkward “let’s agree to disagree” and quick change of subject. But what is faith? Is it really such a powerful philosophical assertion or can it be countered?

Generally speaking, the test for an opinion is as follows: Can you prove your claim with evidence or logic to the point where no criticism can be found of it (for the moment)? If yes, then well done. You have a logical basis for this specific belief.

If no, then the only way you can defend your belief in this particular claim is through faith. Faith is basically defined as belief in something that cannot be proven. This is usually the end of most disagreements; after all, if you don’t have to prove something then all the evidence to the contrary is irrelevant. As I said, this sudden change of rule can really throw your debating partner off their stride.

But there’s a problem here. If you use faith to defend a belief then you must accept that others can do the same. Furthermore, the protection faith offers you against criticism must be extended to others or else it cannot apply to you; when faith itself is belief that can’t be proven then how can one form of faith be more or less valid than another? That requires judgement, and judgement requires proof.

A Muslim believes and follows the word of the Koran, despite the fact that the only assurance they have that this is legitimately the word of Allah comes from the Koran itself. They do this because they have faith – there is no other objective evidence supporting this.

How then could they criticise Christians who follow the word of the Bible? The teachings of the two books often conflict, but Christians have faith in the Bible so they need no evidence. Given the Muslim only has faith to support their own views, how could they criticise the Christian’s belief? How can they resolve these conflicts when faith cannot be debated? How can both belief systems be true when they conflict?

But there is a bigger problem here. Muslims and Christians, and the majority of religions across the world tend to have very similar themes – love each other, worship god(s), play nicely, etc. The potential for conflict is (or should be) limited. But what if you have faith in something else?

If faith does not require proof, then there are no limits to what a person can have faith in. So if we accept faith as an acceptable basis for belief, how can we judge that belief to be right or wrong, good or bad?

What of the greedy, who believe that they deserve the money they make, regardless of the methods they use? What of the bully, who believes that only physical strength deserves respect? What of the racist, who believe entire groups of people to be inferior simply due to genetics? And what about the psychopath, who has faith in the voices in their head?

Faith leaves you in a very ugly position. Suddenly any and every belief is legitimate, provided only that the person has faith in it. What do you say to the psychopath? You’re causing suffering? He’ll simply reply that he believes it to be justified. That the evidence is against him? He has faith, so evidence is irrelevant. That his action contradict your own beliefs? He disagrees with your beliefs the same as you do his.

Faith is a philosophical dead end. Evidence is irrelevant and logic does not apply. What options does this leave you when a person has faith in something dangerous to you? What do you do when someone believes they have a right to rob you? What do you do once they believe you deserve less rights, based entirely on your race or gender? You cannot reason with them – faith negates that option. And if we respect that faith, how can we appeal to the government, police or other authority? For authority to rule that faith is unjustified in one case is to undermine the legitimacy of faith entirely.

Conflicting faiths are the unstoppable force meeting the unmovable object. There cannot be compromise. There cannot be debate. And there cannot be resolution. To do any of these is to betray that faith.

Just as with the old paradox, there is only one possible result;

Violence.

Humanity is not omniscient. There is more information in the universe than we can comprehend, let alone expect to understand, and as such it is impossible to be absolutely certain about anything. It may absolutely be true that there is a god. The Scientologists may even be right for all we know. All we can do is act on the basis of the best information we have at a given moment and this leaves plenty of room for belief. But this belief must always be tempered by respect for the vast uncertainty that is the reality of human understanding, and faith does not leave room for this.

So consider your beliefs. If you tested them, would you find them reasonable? That there is evidence to support them? If so, you have no need for faith. But if not, ask yourself the question – what might someone else faithfully believe should be done to me?

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13 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Faith

  1. An interesting post, however I believe a key issue in an interrogation of ‘Ethics of Faith’ is not so much the problematic of forming a belief (or “truth”) based on faith in opposition to one based on logic and ‘rational’ thinking (i.e. ‘proven’ with evidence, with an insinuation of the latter pertaining more to a ‘ethical’ belief than the former), but more the mutual reliance of both camps on a mode of systematic conviction required to maintain such beliefs. Rationalism and ‘evidence’ should not innately assume a position as benefactor of truth. In fact, I would argue that it is more dangerous to believe in an ideology which equates itself with irrefutable (as much as can be) knowledge than it is to believe in unsubstantiated faith: faith, by its very definition, admits the translucency of it’s conclusion; belief, based on ‘fact’ and ‘rationality’ hides behind the sign of it’s own assumed authority, even self-righteousness.

    Whilst I agree that unsubstantiated faith can be extremely problematic, we cannot forget that it is also necessary to have faith in rationalism, logic and other decisively conclusive modes of thought in order to substantiate knowledge and, consequently, our ‘rational’ world views. We cannot forget that, historically, rationalism and logic have led to the most frightening conclusions, particularly in the case of totalitarian states and events of genocide.

    Whilst you can always refute the viability of “God’s Will” in a decision to attack an opposing religious faith as ‘incoherent’ and ‘illogical’, it is the very nature of ‘rational’ and logical’ beliefs as ethically ‘superior’ which establishes a near impermeable defence, allowing for the justification of horrific social and political actions under the guise of ‘rational’ and ‘logical’ thinking.

    Ty for the post.

    • Hi waxnwings, thanks for the response. I agree entirely that the ‘reason and evidence’ model of decision making is vulnerable to enormous errors – the horror committed in the name of the scientific theory of Eugenics are an excellent example of that. Logic is beyond criticism as a method, but it is only as good as the evidence informing it – give a computer the wrong data and it will form a false, yet perfectly logical conclusion. Since people are a lot less logical than computers and rarely have enough information to ensure they are fully informed, the ‘logic and evidence’ model often fails.

      That said, this is not a criticism of the model itself, but rather how it is used; it is the duty of all people to ensure that their logic is correct and their evidence the very best available, and furthermore to challenge themselves and each other to improve wherever possible. Faith as a method of making decisions not only lacks this call for improvement, but actively denies its necessity – my beliefs are correct because I believe in them; no more discussion is necessary.

      You’ve inspired me incidentally, and I’ll address the failings of the ‘logic and evidence’ method in a future post.

  2. Thank you for the thought provoking post. I agree with everything you say, but want to perhaps throw an extra thought perhaps in your head. I think that those who have faith are not basing that faith on no evidence. In a more basic way let us consider the idea that I have faith in a friend. He’s always been there for me before. He’s dependable. We are close. If a future problem arises, the truth is I don’t know for certain that he will be there for me, but my faith in him is based on evidence.

    Now let us look at faith in god. God is most likely an attempt to try to explain a world we were not even close to understanding. So once the idea of God is implanted in our brains, the next thing we do as apply our propensity for type 1 errors: seeing patterns where none exist. So we pray to God for rain. Most of the time it doesn’t happen, but sometimes it does. We then say well prayer seems to work and when it doesn’t work it must be because we were praying wrong, or we are somehow inherently bad people and don’t deserve rain. That’s why there is drought. But we make these errors all the time, and our memory also leans towards remembering hits and forgetting the misses. The evidence is weak, but we think there is evidence. Knowing that is only sometimes true that prayer works requires us to develop faith. Because after all what other evidence have we got. As these things get passed down they become codified in our cultures and questioning them becomes dangerous because it then would require a change in cultural identity. This probably wouldn’t be so bad if we weren’t social creatures who are fiercely loyal to our group and are fearful of other groups that would cause our identities to change, even if it was through a peaceful mixing of perspectives. The irony being that understanding increases when we incorporate different perspectives into our views.

    If we look now at religion which is a more sophisticated attempt to explain the world we see mankind trying to do more, but still representing very little understanding. When you read the book of Leviticus in the diet you can see that almost the entire chapter is about how to stay clean and have good hygiene. People would get sick. Why? Who knew. Maybe it had something to do with blood. Maybe it had something to do with that rash. How did you get that rash? Oh you touched that one animal. Let’s just avoid it all. Again when you can’t truly identify the patterns you sort of have to make it up. Play if safe. As social creatures much of how we form attachments and love is based on how rewarded we feel by the other person. When there is unexplained death and disease, if we have the concept of God, then the answer must be that someone up there doesn’t love us. And so we try to determine what we need to do so that God does love us and doesn’t inflict these unknown illnesses upon us.

    So if it is true that I have faith in logic and the scientific method, what gives me a sense of self-righteousness about it is simply because it works. Religion works partially. It works for some people, not all people. It works some of the time, but not all of the time. The story is different from different people. The laws of physics operate independently of our presence. The operate the same for someone from China as they do for a Canadian. They are testable. Repeatable. We apply this knowledge to technology and it works. And if something comes along that doesn’t seem to fit a scientific theory, then we come up with a new theory. This is principle difference with faith. As you suggest everyone should be aware that their beliefs are always just guesses. Things that should be transformed and adjusted.

    • Hi Swarn Gill, thanks for the comment and apologies for the delay in replying. I agree wholeheartedly with your analysis – there is certainly considerable overlap between the foundations of religion and the scientific method/evidenced-based ethics – your analysis of Leviticus is one I share completely. Unfortunately, as you point out, these good starts tend to become set in stone over time, especially when associated with a the authority of a higher power.

      I should emphasise that my post wasn’t so much a critique of modern religions as of using faith in decision-making. I see what you mean about having faith in a friend, though it depends on how we define faith of course – in this case it overlaps considerably with probability based on prior evidence. Were you to have faith in your friend in the absence of that evidence (say they’d let you down fairly often in the past), I would consider this more the concept of faith I’m referring to – a belief in something without evidence to support it, likely (though not certain) to lead to a bad outcome.

      Thanks again for your comment, I found it quite compelling! Your statement that you ascribe to the scientific method “because it works” resonates strongly with me – you may be interested in an upcoming post about ‘The Ethics Of Ethics’, as I believe that “because it works” pretty much defines good ethical systems.

      • I assumed you had a life so no worries. I appreciate the response, and enjoy your blogs quite a bit as they are always thought provoking. I seem to follow a lot of blogs that are talking about faith recently. I think it is something that is on the mind often of atheists and agnostics. lol

        I understand where you are coming from in terms what kind of faith you were talking about, and I agree. My point was to simply say that the person of faith that we are talking about would view them as the same simply because where they really disagree with us on the definition of what qualifies as evidence.

        You are probably familiar with the Skinner experiment from 70’s where he tested a bunch of pigeon where he found that pigeons mistakenly correlated their actions, positions, movements to the dispensing of food, even when it only led to food being dispensed a minority of times. So not only were they unable to discern the correct pattern, but they were still satisfied in making the mistake provided they achieved the desired results some of the time. As a scientist, we know that if something only works a small percentage of the time, there has to be a better explanation. But theists rarely see this. In addition you see many belief driven people accepting things like anecdotal evidence as being equal or even more important than statistical sampling. Our brains of course rationalize and reinforce our beliefs, so perhaps that is what convinces somebody that something is evidence when in fact it isn’t. I’m not sure.

        I look forward to the ethics of ethics. 🙂

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