Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Morality and the Concept of Faith

In my recent writings on the nature of faith and morality, a member of the studio audience wrote:

My own Christian faith is quite consistent with evidence, and has been based on evidence from the start. It is also not unreasoned. Maybe you don't agree with its conclusions, but that does not mean it is unreasoned.

I hold that by definition faith is belief ungrounded on any type of evidence. So, to the degree that a person has religious belief grounded on evidence then, by that fact alone, I would hold that this is not faith. It would be religious belief, but not faith.

This might not be how others have decided to use the term but, in the end, those types of consideations are not relevant. As long as a person keeps the use of a term consistent within his own writings, no matter how far it might deviate from the way somebody else uses the term, then this cannot be made the basis of an argument against him.

Changing definitions in mid-argument would make one guilty of the fallacy of equivocation.

However, keeping a constant definition throughout an argument, even if it is an unusual definition, does not commit any fallacy or lend itself automatically to any defect of reason.

You may disagree with this use of the term. You may have an interest in promoting some other term. Yet, none of that would change the fact that such a dispute is purely semantic and bears no substantive fruit.

We may dispute whether Pluto is a planet. However, when all is said and done, the dispute does not count for much. The diameter, surface features, distance from the sun, and chemical composition do not change whether we call it a planet or not.

No dispute over where to attach the term "faith" will affect the nature of belief without evidence.

The fact remains that I am talking about a defense of policies that cost others their life, their health, and their liberty. And I am talking about the type of evidence that is morally required to make those types of claims - and religious evidence does not qualify. What matters is the type of evidence that would be admissible in court.

If a person is advocating harm to others based on any weaker type of evidence - a type of evidence that would not be found acceptable in a court of law - then that person is acting immorally towards those that he argues shall be deprived of their life, health, or their liberty.

It does not matter what the name is. What matters is whether the type of evidence available is of a quality that can justify doing harm to others. That is the question to be asked, and that is the question the courtroom analogy helps us to answer.

19 comments:

Tom Gilson said...

Your loyal member of the studio audience, mentioned in the blog post here, finds this rather interesting:

"I hold that by definition faith is belief ungrounded on any type of evidence."

Apparently I don't have faith in Jesus Christ. That's the first time since 1975, when I first thought I had faith in him, that I've had reason to doubt that I did. How odd to find out so late in life...

But really, what you've done is to commit the very error I pointed out last time:

"Atheists and skeptics keep on defining what faith is according to their own understanding of it, and never listen to how it's defined by people who actually know, from experience, what faith is. What is it that makes non-believers think it's acceptable to be so unknowledgeable about religious belief--and yet speak as if from knowledge?"

This time you've redefined faith so as to make it unrecognizable to the very people you're talking about as having faith! I still don't think you know what faith is. In fact, your definition of faith is itself ungrounded on any type of evidence, other than prejudicial stererotypes, which (since you've brought it up twice now) I don't think you'd want admit to your court of law either!

I'll offer a better, reality-based definition of faith. Faith is belief or trust, based on knowledge, that a certain person, entity, or system of thought can be trusted. I have faith that my wife will treat me with love, faithfulness, and commitment. This belief is based on knowledge. I trust (have faith) that when I eat out for lunch today, the food will be nutritious and not have poison added to it in the kitchen. Do I know this? Of course not; I won't be watching them there. It is a matter of faith, based on knowledge.

My faith in God is the same kind of thing, and the same definition fits: it's based on knowledge of and experience with him, and as I mentioned last time, also on objective evidence.

This is not, by the way, a tendentious re-definition to suit my purposes. It's an historically accepted view of faith, going back to the original Biblical languages. Your re-definition is idiosyncratic, and if you think it applies to any actual religion, I'm here to tell you that Christianity is not one of them. (I'll let other religions speak for themselves.)

So your definition is just wrong; or, to the extent that it is true (in your own mind at least) it's irrelevant, for it does not apply to real-life Christianity.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Tom Gilson

As I said, if it is a mistake, then it is a mistake of no consequences because it is a mistake in semantics only.

It is a mistake that does not effect the conclusion - that the type of evidence morally required to justify policies that cost others their lives, health, and liberty are the types of evidence that would be acceptable in a court of law.

Anonymous said...

"As I said, ... court of law."

My babel-fish must be broken: it insists that the last post means "Don't bother me with the facts, I like my beliefs as they are, thank you very much."

How ironic!

Tom Gilson said...

Alonzo, two thoughts in response:

1. Of course the types of morality that should be used in decisions that affect life, liberty, etc. should be well-grounded. I've never seen an atheistic ethic that was, and I've studied them extensively. I'm still trying to catch up with yours, so I'll suspend judgment on that one for now.

2. You have aimed a particular arrow at "faith-based" morality. My point is that your idiosyncratic definition of "faith" means your arrow is pointed at a target that doesn't exist, for your definition of "faith" is a definition that doesn't apply to any actual Christians I know of, except the most unreflective of them all.

Rather than re-defining a term that has a current meaning, and confusing readers into thinking you're talking about something they have heard of before, I suggest you simplify things by coining some new term of your own. Then you can stipulate its definition, and no one will be misled--especially yourself, for I think you really still think your definition of faith actually applies to something in the real world. You're fooling yourself if you do.

By the way, you were strangely silent in response to my question whether you have read any good Christian thinkers. The question is still out there.

It never ceases to astonish me that there is what I call such "acceptable ignorance" on the one system of thought and life that has arguably had the most historic influence on global culture. Why do people think (as Dawkins and Myers did with their "Courtier's Reply) that they don't need to dig in and understand what they're talking about?

But maybe you've studied the great theists more than you've indicated. I'm still awaiting your answer.

Tom Gilson said...

Here's a better way to put it, I think, as I eagerly await your answer to the question about reading widely.

Let's define atheism as a belief about the nature of reality based on no evidence and no reasoning whatsoever. That's not the standard definition and it may not fit any actual atheist, but that's just semantics, right? And we don't need to worry about semantics. So Alonzo, for what follows I'm not necessarily speaking about you, I'm talking about people who accept atheism as I've chosen to define it.

By my definition, atheism is a completely nonsensical basis for any ethical decision-making whatsoever, and no atheistic morality ought to be considered in any decision-making that affects people's lives, because quite clearly and by definition it's based on standards of evidence-free, unreasoning belief that would never be admitted in a court of law.

Whether there are any such atheists in the world is probably not worth worrying about.

You can feel free to disagree with me, but you're just quibbling over semantics, and my logic is really quite unassailable. The fact that you think of atheism one way can't prevent me from using the term another way, can it?

Tom Gilson said...

By the way, in case it wasn't clear, I don't believe what I wrote in the last comment to be true of atheism. I'm just trying to demonstrate that the "semantics" defense does not work for Alonzo, any more than it would work for me if I were to take that position.

Silvio Ricardo Cordeiro said...

I thought Christians agreed that faith wasn't reality-based.
Whatever happened to Hebrews 11:1...

Faith is not evidence-based. It's treated by some as evidence, obviously, but it's not based on evidence.

It's "...things not seen", right? Hmmm maybe the Bible got the definition wrong? Or maybe it's outdated...

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Anonymous

Your babel-fish is broken. If it were functioning properly it would insist that the last post means, "It is not sufficient that a claim be true. It must also be relevant. If it is irrelevant, then it does not matter whether or not it is true."

Dan said...

Evidence is measurable and testable. Belief based on evidence is therefore falsifiable.

Faith in God (Faith with a captial F?) is different from faith in the predictable behavior of your wife or the contents of your kitchen pantry (faith with a lower-case f?).

Faith requires a belief in a being which is not measurable or testable. The other faith can be tested: "Honey? Did you poison the food? No? Well, can you offer another evidence-based reason why the dog is dead with his head in a bag of chips in the pantry?"

Tom, it's a yes/no question: Do you believe in the supernatural?

Eneasz said...

Tom, I think the objection to the terms used can be easily explained (altho not resolved) by stating the following.

The skeptic requires firm evidence - the kind that would be admisable in court - to accept any extraordinary claim. To a skeptic, nothing less counts as valid evidence. That is why a skeptic will always refer to faith as evidence-free belief. Because such firm evidence simply does not exist for anything supernatural.

The believer requires a much lesser degree of evidence. To them, things like intuition, imagination, superstition, and hearsay count as perfectly acceptable evidence. That is why they say they that their faith IS based on evidence.

That's really all it comes down to. Whether one thinks that faith is based on evidence or not depends on how high they set the bar for evidence.

Tony Hoffman said...

Tom,

While I applaud you for engaging in debate outside your blog I do disagree with what you have written.

The fact that you think of atheism one way can't prevent me from using the term another way, can it?

This is interesting for a person who holds that atheism is not as atheists define the term (the absence of belief in God) but as he defines it – that atheism is a belief in the same way that Christianity is a belief. So pretending that you’re opposed, on principle, to defining terms that those who are so defined don’t agree with reads as disingenuous.

You contend that the correct definition of Faith means that it is based on evidence. Alonzo contends that such Faith has no evidence (“the type of evidence that would be admissible in court”) to stand on. If you are going to disagree with Alonzo you need to provide such evidence in support of your claim, or, for the sake of clarity, alter your definition of Faith.

In fact, your definition of faith is itself ungrounded on any type of evidence, other than prejudicial stererotypes…

This is false. Many people throughout history and in common usage define Faith exactly the way Alonzo has. The Random House dictionary sitting on my desktop says “Belief which is not based on proof.” as its second definition of the word. I have always understood Martin Luther’s interpretation of the word to mean a seeking of God that precedes evidence, as have countless other Lutherans before me. It is your definition that appears idiosyncratic.

Tom Gilson said...

Silvio,

I thought Christians agreed that faith wasn't reality-based.
Whatever happened to Hebrews 11:1...


To say it's not reality-based is completely off the mark. Hebrews 11 is itself a passage that points at events that really happened in history. Faith goes beyond what is visible, certainly, but it goes beyond in a way similar to the way we trust the kitchen staff at a restaurant to serve us real food and not poison. We don't test them ourselves, or monitor their every move, we almost never see them. But we trust them based on knowledge.

Dan,

Tom, it's a yes/no question: Do you believe in the supernatural?
Of course. Why not? There is abundant historical and philosophical justification for it.

Eneasz,

The skeptic requires firm evidence - the kind that would be admisable in court - to accept any extraordinary claim. To a skeptic, nothing less counts as valid evidence.

I'm not at all sure you're as consistent in that as you think.

Tony,

You contend that the correct definition of Faith means that it is based on evidence. Alonzo contends that such Faith has no evidence (“the type of evidence that would be admissible in court”) to stand on. If you are going to disagree with Alonzo you need to provide such evidence in support of your claim, or, for the sake of clarity, alter your definition of Faith.

It would take a long time--a book or two, really--to provide the evidences you ask for, so I'm afraid now is not the time. I could refer you to one such book for starters: Reasonable Faith by W.L. Craig.

“Belief which is not based on proof.”

That is not the same as Alonzo's sense of belief totally divorced from evidence or reason.

Eneasz said...

Tom - your link quoted another article which I read. It makes two claims. 1 - God is by definition necessary, and thus is not extraoridinary. 2 - Nature is not necessary, adn thus is extraordinary and requires extraoridinary evidence.

For starts, I'd like to quote Deacon Duncan: "The dictum that says “extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence” is simply a rejection of superstition." (please check out his whole post when you get a chance)

1 - This is simply defining your god into existance. "I say he's necessary, so he is!". Poor form. We didn't let Descartes get away with it, and we're not gonna let it through now. If you claim the existance of an unlimited, omnipotent, all-knowning, eternal, yet strangly undetectable god that acts just like a human would with those sorts of abilities - then you're gonna have to provide a bit more than just "I believe he is necessary!"

2 - I'll grant that Nature is extraordinary. Fortunatly, we have extraordinary evidence for the existance of nature. Every action, every observation, in anyway and anywhere, by everyone who's ever lived, has provided nothing but uninterrupted evidence that the real world exists. I consider that pretty conclusive. I'm not sure how much more conclusive you could get, really.

Tom Gilson said...

Eneasz, somehow you missed the point completely. Two points.

One, I wasn't trying to prove that God is less extraordinary a claim that naturalism, but that they are equally extraordinary.

More tellingly, you thought the other linked posts saying that the existence of nature is an extraordinary claim. No, no, no. That's too obvious. It is the existence of nature in its present state as a contingent thing that is extraordinary. How did nature come to be the way it is, as a product of the Big Bang? How did the universe come to be so fine tuned for life? What banged the Big Bang (what caused the beginning of the universe)? These are the questions to which atheists (philosophical naturalists) make extraordinary claims in answer.

faithlessgod said...

Hi Tom

One, I wasn't trying to prove that God is less extraordinary a claim that naturalism, but that they are equally extraordinary.
Unfortunately for you comparing the record of religious claims about how the world works versus methodological naturalism, dramatically indicates that in Bayesian terms extensions of methodological naturalism beyond what we know are far more likely to be correct than any equivalent theist-based reasoning. Past records of success and failures of both show that theistic claims are still and even more so than in the past far more extraordinary (in both sense of this term) than those of methodological naturalism.


It is the existence of nature in its present state as a contingent thing that is extraordinary. How did nature come to be the way it is, as a product of the Big Bang? How did the universe come to be so fine tuned for life? What banged the Big Bang (what caused the beginning of the universe)? These are the questions to which atheists (philosophical naturalists) make extraordinary claims in answer.
Is it not ironical that you can only make these arguments based on the success of methodological naturalism rather than the repeated non-existent success of theistic explanations of the universe?

These questions are works in progress that is all. As they are answered to some degree of satisfaction and acceptance I predict you will move on to others still unanswered. This is nothing god-of-the-gaps reasoning, which has failed in the past, as previous gaps have been closed (if they existed at all). Theistic based explanations here again have been inordinately bad, so again on Bayesian terms, the likelihood of you being correct now is exrtaorndinarily low.

Dan said...

Do you believe in the supernatural?
Of course. Why not? There is abundant historical and philosophical justification for it.


Justification, sure. You can justify just about anything. I think you'd be hard pressed to turn any of that justification of the supernatural into evidence of the supernatural. You can certainly find evidence of justification, but that's another story.

Perhaps a flaw in Alonzo's original argument is an assumption of the quality of 'evidence.' Some folks think the bible is evidence that a supernatural being exists. Some folks think that the bible is evidence that some folks wrote a book.

Eneasz said...

I wasn't trying to prove that God is less extraordinary a claim that naturalism, but that they are equally extraordinary.

Naturalism is merely a statement of what we already know to be true. I don't see how that is extraordinary. Is it extraordinary to state that the speed of light is aprox 300,000km/sec? We've got a tremendous amount of evidence that this is the case, one might even say an extraordinary amount of evidence.

How did nature come to be the way it is, as a product of the Big Bang? How did the universe come to be so fine tuned for life? What banged the Big Bang (what caused the beginning of the universe)? These are the questions to which atheists (philosophical naturalists) make extraordinary claims in answer.

Actually, as far as I know, all scientists (atheist or not) claim that the answer is "We don't know yet." That's not extraordinary at all. In fact, that is completely ordinary, we don't know most things.

The one exception may be "How did the universe come to be so fine-tuned for life?", which is simply a wrong question. The universe is NOT fine-tuned for life. If anything, the universe is fine-tuned for the creation of the maximum amount of black-holes possible.

The earth's surface is an immesurably small fraction of the total mass and volume of our galaxy. The human brain is incapable of processing a fraction so small (at least for 99+% of the population). And it is the only place we know of that life exists. That seems more like fine-tuning for the non-existance of life.

Tom Gilson said...

Eneasz, apparently you are not up to date on the science on fine tuning. Briefly stated (though I highly recommend the article, which is decidedly non-theistic, by the way), if any of a couple dozen or so physical constants and initial boundary conditions for our universe were different by factors as small as 10^-100, then no chemical or physical complexity of any kind could exist anywhere in the universe. It's not just "life as we know it," or "life in some small corner pocket of the universe." It's any chemical or physical complexity of any sort anywhere.

There is a tremendous irony in that article near the end, to which I responded here.

Eneasz said...

Hello again Tom.

First I want to say I appreciate this discussion, and I have more respect for your sort of thought-out faith than for what most people cling to.

On to the post. Sigh. There is so much to say here that it's overwhelming. I'll try to keep it to the highlights.

then no chemical or physical complexity of any kind could exist anywhere in the universe

In this case you are arguing for a universe that's fine-tuned for chemical/physical complexity, not for one that's fine-tuned for life.

were different by factors as small as 10^-100

The numbers seem impressively small, but they don't mean much. You have nothing to compare them to, so you don't know what the likelyhood of the constants having different values is, nor if it's even possible for them to have different values.

Quick random points:
*There is no knowledge of how a universe aquires its constants. You do not have enough information to make any claims about whether these particular values are remarkable or not.

*This is a god-of-the-gaps argument. "We don't know why the constants are what they are, so god did it." This type of argument has a track record going back thousands of years, and to date it has a 100% failure rate.

*You seem to be arguing that without this universe, no life would be possible. However (unless I'm mistaken) you also claim that God existed BEFORE this universe, and that he is alive. You're being self-contradictory.

*If a being created this universe because he was interested in creating life, he did an extremely poor job of it.

*There are other hypothetical explanations which you are dismissing. They may prove to be wrong. All this shows is that we do not know. Postulating "God did it" has never done any good to humanity.

Please also see these brief summaries of the failures of fine-tuning arguments.