Friday, May 6, 2011

Is Faith a Virtue?

The epistemic status of faith is problematic on the face of it—to believe a proposition on faith is to believe without relying on either empirical evidence or the endorsement of reason. This much seems uncontroversial, for if reason or evidence were available to support the belief faith would be redundant. When someone claims to belief in something "on faith" they are bypassing reason and empirical evidence and asserting that they are justified in doing so. The issue I'd like to address here is twofold. One, can faith be reconciled with the demands of reason and empirical evidence? Two, if it cannot, then is faith a responsible way to form beliefs?

One way to answer this question is to say "No" to the first part and to simply assert that the dictates of faith outweigh the dictates of reason and evidence. This is the stance taken by those who claim that the world is around 6000 years, evidence of geology be damned. I'm not going to address this position here. Let it suffice to say that if you're uninterested in acknowledging that claims of faith need to be reconciled with what we know about the world, the rest of this post is not for you.

There are two ways that believing on faith could be potentially be made consistent with reason and scientific inquiry, which are the other methods that have traditionally been accepted as legitimate paths to warranted beliefs. First, faith could offer access to a set of propositions the knowledge of which is only available through faith and against which neither reason nor science can dispute. On this view matters of faith occupy a different realm of knowledge, and address different matters.In order to do this, however, faith has to divide knowledge into separate categories—things we know by faith, and things we know by reason or evidence. There is no consilience of knowledge on this view, no confluence of truths of faith and truths of reason. Call this the “unconstrained view” of faith, since it is not constrained by scientific knowledge or by reason in what it can assert.

There are a couple of obvious problems with this which make this construal of faith untenable. One, there is no prior reason to believe that truths are in fact divided up this way, which makes the argument for faith from the premise of multiplicity of truths approach circularity. Faith is offered as a solution to the problem of knowing truths unavailable to reason or science, but the notion that there are such truths is a postulate of a belief that assumes the need for faith in the first place.

Two, competing claims of faith unchecked by reason or empirical evidence would be extremely difficult to adjudicate. How are we to determine which religious system we should adopt if the basic evaluation tools in our epistemological toolkit are off limits? Claiming warrant for a belief based solely on faith necessarily places these tools off limits. So faith which is unconstrained by reason or science is essentially epistemically worthless; to claim a belief on unconstrained faith is to go no way toward justifying the belief.

Alternately, those affirming a role for faith can claim that the findings of faith are consistent with reason or evidence, or at least constrained by them. On this view any propositions believed on faith are also in principle discoverable by reason or science, even if they are in actuality asserted on the basis of authority, testimony, tradition, or revelation. I’ll call this the “constrained view” of faith. Faith would here seem to be a shortcut to knowledge otherwise unavailable to the general population. For example, there may be a complex deductive argument demonstrating the necessity of the Virgin Birth, or a set of data best explained by hypothesizing the resurrection of Jesus, but the methods of logic and science are too hard for the average person (or perhaps any person) to grasp. On this view, faith is used to supplement the lack of understanding of the many who do not have access to the knowledge of the few. If there is a role for faith, I think it would have to be this.

There are a few problems with this view as well, however. I recognize that many philosophers (for example Aquinas and Leibniz) have argued that faith and reason are alternate routes to the same unified set of truths, or more accurately, to Truth; faith and reason, they claim, despite some appearance to the contrary, can never actually be in conflict. This was the received view of all thinkers when Aquinas advocated it, when science was a nascent enterprise, and when Leibniz pushed the idea at the dawn of modern science it was still defensible, although already contestable. At these points in history, the epistemic limitations of the sciences seemed to place some questions far outside the range of natural explanation. Now, however, many of the concepts that medieval and modern philosophers had declared inexplicable in natural terms and thus beyond the bounds of science’s ability to elucidate matters (mind, substance, cause, space, time) have been substantially revised or discarded in light of the findings of contemporary science. This means the justification for claiming the validity of faith as an alternate route to the same truths discoverable by science is questionable.

Another difficulty with the constrained view of faith and reason is that it is not clear just in what cases claims of faith would be subject to rules of reason or evidence, and how far such constraints could go. When does reason override faith? When do we revise our theology to accommodate scientific discoveries? An apparent consequence of allowing faith claims to be revised by the findings of philosophy or science is the well known "God of the gaps" problem. As more and more processes are shown to follow natural laws and are able to be subsumed under naturalistic explanation, the role of God as active participant in the universe will be reduced. God first looks more like the clockmaker of Enlightenment deism--active only in the first few seconds of the Big Bang, inert since.

I'll argue in a future post that there is no way to bolster faith claims through the purported reliability of traditional means (authority, tradition, revelation, etc.) in such a way as to ground the claims of faith adequately enough to provide epistemic warrant for holding beliefs without the support of reason or empirical evidence. If I'm right about this, and given that unconstrained faith erodes into relativism, one wonders why we would want to legitimize faith in the first place. It is beyond doubt that there are things about the universe that we do not understand, things that are mysterious and beyond our current comprehension. Faith promises a shortcut to knowledge of some of these mysteries, but at the cost of our beliefs being justified.

Epistemology is in part a normative enterprise. Under normal circumstances we do not consider it a virtue to believe propositions without adequate evidence. We expect people to have reasons and to be able to give reasons for their beliefs. We expect people to be able to justify those reasons. These expectations are reasonable, given that individuals all have their own perspectives but inhabit one world. There is just one way the world is, and the purpose of the pursuit of knowledge is to find out exactly what way the world is. Beliefs which have no ground in good reasons do not contribute to the shared goal of understanding the world. If people believe in astrology or reincarnation or aliens we expect them to provide some rationale or evidence for their beliefs. The same should be true of claims made on faith.

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