On faith

Please excuse me if I use the “F” word often.

I realize that many people are afraid of that word and are disgusted by its frequent use in contemporary letters. Even tough-minded scientists like Jerry Coyne are quick to correct themselves if the “F” word sneaks out. In a recent Point of Inquiry podcast, Coyne, in talking about his book Why Evolution is True, says “most evolutionists take it [the evidence for evolution] on faith … well, not faith…”. He immediately corrects himself and restructures the sentence. It was as if he had used the other “f” word in a church or mosque. Faith is the “F” word that people either love or hate.

Much of the problem with the “f” word comes about because of a built in ambiguity between capital F and small case faith.  Faith/faith: Faith = belief without compelling evidence; while faith =  trust, or beliefs that are knowable in principle. For example when my Catholic acquaintance eats the wafer he has Faith that it will transubstantiate; when I go to start my car in the morning I have faith that it will start. If my car does not start it is possible in principle for me or a mechanic to determine what’s wrong. If the wafer does not change to the flesh of Christ conversion is the only solution.

In science, James notes, we can afford to await the outcome of investigation before coming to a belief, but in other cases we are “forced,” in that we must come to some belief even if all the relevant evidence is not in. If I am on a isolated mountain trail, faced with an icy ledge to cross, and do not know whether I can make it, I may be forced to consider the question whether I can or should believe that I can cross the ledge. This question is not only forced, it is “momentous”: if I am wrong I may fall to my death, and if I believe rightly that I can cross the ledge, my holding of the belief may itself contribute to my success. In such a case, James asserts, I have the “right to believe” — precisely because such a belief may help bring about the fact believed in. This is a case “where a fact cannot come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming”.


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Faith is required for religious belief. Faith is the way of knowing for the religious believer. Faith is, in this religious sense, more like hope.

Remember 9/11 was a Faith based enterprise.

For the scientific minded Faith is merely an emotion, a state of mind. It is to believe without any evidence. Tertullian’s “I believe because it is absurd” catches this sense. I’ll let Nietzsche have the last word:

“’Faith’ means not wanting to know what is true”

Last week we talked about truth using the same notion of capital T/ small t to unpack the ambiguity that abounds in the use of the term. As you can see faith works in much the same way. Just think for a minute of all the Catholic parents who had FAITH that their children were safe with the friendly parish priest. Those parents would never do anything to put their children in danger.

They were certain that all was well in the safety of the church.

But as we learned last week certainty is demonic.

Listen to a cool radio program about Faith. Weird, catchy, long.

2 thoughts on “On faith

  1. I think that it is also very important to make a distinction between “a theory” as a hypothesis and “a (scientific) theory”.
    We hear:
    Evolution is not True, it is just theory….
    One of my students told me her philosophy teacher at school explained there are two kinds of theories about human creation: the evolutionary theories (theories?) and the creationist theories. Mmmmm…

    Like

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