Is Faith a Valid Epistemic Tool?
Q: I’ve cornered my good friend through reductionist logic before and he’s often ended the discussion with “Well to an extent it is a matter of faith…but I know these things to be true, yada yada.” I would like you to expand on the idea of ‘faith’ being an unreliable rubric for truth. To me it is apparent why faith can be misleading if not wholly incorrect, but why can it not be used to justify an entire theology that seemingly makes sense?
The simplest way of putting it is that I take the believer at his word, i.e. that faith is a means of ascertaining knowledge.
The mistake of many is to look at faith as some kind of childish attempt at giving a glib justification for believing anything one wants. While certainly this may be the case for some religious believers of various dogmatic persuasions, it is not the issue for the more learned of religious intellectuals, notably Augustine and Aquinas or more recently Gordon Clark and Carl Henry. For these men, faith is an epistemic tool, a necessary one due to the innate problems that empirical knowledge supposedly has, based on the critical observation that numerous times in history the scientific method has led to wrong conclusions.
The immediate issue to be acknowledged by both the believer and unbeliever concerns the usage of faith. As mentioned already, faith is a tool for acquiring knowledge. When the agnostic asks the believer how they know the resurrection of Christ is true, the response is some variation of “the Bible says so” and/or “faith compels me.” Notice here in the last phrase the issue of compulsion. When I was a believer I often used this notion and have heard many others use it; this idea of faith being some kind of internal force, pushing and prodding one to believe in some predetermined thing. Curiously, the very same phraseology is used when referencing reason or logic, as when someone says, “I was forced to see his logic” or “the force of his reason was strong” or “his argument held weight.” Thus, even in our linguistic metaphor, we accept tacitly that faith and reason are synonymous at least in as far as they are a compelling inner force, pulling us along to claimed conclusions.
It is imperative that the believer accept this. The sophomoric usage that faith is often put to, as when one nonchalantly answers “faith” whenever an objection is brought up that can’t be answered any other way, needs to be seen as masking an underlying dynamic, that being the force of faith. Now, I am not at this point making a case for the efficacy of faith as a legitimate epistemic tool, but merely pointing out the power of it. Believers and unbelievers alike do themselves a disservice when they mistake the usage of faith as being simply an easy answer to tough questions. The fact is, faith isn’t easy, though not in the sense that believers declare it so, in fits of self-proclaimed martyrdom. Faith, like reason, via the perceived force that it embodies, compels people to various cognitive conclusions that are, depending on the situation, of various difficulty in accepting. Again, I am not equating the two, merely pointing out that the seeming conclusions of the two forces can be jarring to the person led to them, whether it is the resurrection of the Christ as prescribed by one faith, or special relativity as prescribed by reason.
Faith, then, is a force compelling one to certain ideological conclusions, dependent on the religion one typically grows up in. The next question is: how? It is all well and good that the nominal notion of a force has been accepted, but as with all forces, the acknowledgement of their existence is only half the issue, the other being the means by which it works. Ironically, this question is empirical in nature.
So, how does faith work? What is its modus operandi? Logic and reason, through thousands of years of philosophy and recently cognitive science, have been documented quite thoroughly as to their inner workings. In fact, anybody can go to college and take a course in logic. One can also read books and take classes in cognitive science, figuring out the inner workings of the brain and the means by which thought and analysis are done. While there are many years left, to put it lightly, before a complete understanding of human thought is understood, only the hugely obtuse individual would declare we don’t know anything or have not made great leaps in our understanding.
Where, then, are the texts and classes on the inner workings of faith? This question, in its simplicity, does not do justice to the issue at hand. In the world at large, there are billions of people going about their lives, claiming to make decisions, often of a life-altering kind, based on a system of epistemology called “faith.” Entire governments are at the mercy of this self-described inner force. Lives are continuously lost and ruined because of an inner compulsion. Bombs are set off, planes flown into buildings, court decisions and civil rights violated because of the claimed dictates of this force. Yet, not a single book, article, or letter has been written detailing the process by which faith works. What other force that affects this many people is either not understood or attempted to be understood? The answer is simple, none.
Where does this leave the believer then? It would seem that the lynchpin of religious dogmatic adherence is incapable of being elucidated as to exactly how it compels people to particular conclusions. Thus, the believer seems to be stuck in a secondary epistemic position, that of believing in the power of faith to compel belief in something. Looked at this way, what should really be under discussion is why someone believes that “faith,” a force without definition, would lead necessarily to any conclusion.
As I mentioned earlier, the question as to the inner workings of faith as an epistemic tool is an empirical one. Since faith is used as an answer to questions that have no empirical basis, like the resurrection, how exactly sin functions, the tripartite existence of “god”, and the virgin birth (to name a few) then it cannot rely for its own justification upon a system of thought that is incapable of supplying the conclusions sought after. Now, I can already hear the religious apologists of the empirical camp raising their objections. Who has not heard the poetically put point of “reason brings you to the water and faith makes you jump in?” Kierkegaard referred to it as a “leap” of faith, into the unknown. These “answers” skip a point however, that being the why and hence the how of faith’s compulsion to jump in the water or take that leap. I consider this a rather important question. If someone were to jump off a bridge and survive, the first question asked of that person once he or she is fetched from the water is why, and once an answer given, the how of its power to incite the act is next on the list. These questions are basic to how we deal with the actions of people and have been so since Freud first shocked us into the knowledge that the inner workings of the mind are the real force behind our actions. No answer to the why of an action is ever taken completely at face value, as is shown anytime we become puzzled over an answer that doesn’t seem to fit. It doesn’t fit because we find it difficult to understand the how, or power, of the why to incite such an act.
Yet, when it comes to religious acts, the why is never followed up with the how. Faith is blindly accepted as an answer to the why of an act and yet never pursued further as to the how of its power. As noted above, this lack of the second question should be astoundingly puzzling. We constantly grasp at the reasons why people do the things they do, often asking in various states of incredulity or hysteria “why did you do that?” When the answer is given, while we may not understand it personally, there is a weight lifted by the knowledge, this being because we now know the compelling force, the reason. Who has not heard or said the phrase after hearing a reason given, “I can see how that would force you to do it” or some variation?
If faith is not capable of answering the why/how questions of human action, there must be another route. Now, one way out is to posit the notion that faith actions occur in a vacuum without any causal predecessor. However, since the actions of faith are said to be, by any religion, moral in nature and morality is claimed to be by these same people, moral only if there is will (self-causation) behind it, saying that faith acts occur without causal connection would destroy the moral mandate of absolutism.
The conclusion reached is that faith is not an answer in the traditional sense of a cause, but rather faith exists as a cognitive box holding together various ideas that are believed for other reasons. In other words, faith is an answer to “why,” but the “how” is to be found in psychology, sociology, memetics and cognitive science. Faith is not a belief itself, but the object of belief, a concept used to hide the real reasons behind belief in something. By positing a nebulous, undefined, concept as the power behind belief, it inculcates the believer from having to deal properly with the so-called conclusions that “faith” has brought him or her to.
I am not denying the power that faith has. I am allowing the power of its force to be more fully understood by thinking of it in the way that I have so far described. Here is the answer to why “faith” is given as an answer to the “why” of belief and yet those beliefs number in the thousands, with individual permutations numbering in the still more thousands. That’s because the “how” is different for everyone. Faith is a force with no motor device, it is waves without water. The power of faith is then to be found in the ability of it to mask the “how” of human action, to end discussion before it goes further.
This, then, is why faith cannot be used to justify an entire theology or anything else; it has no means of explicating the how of its compulsion and therefore no means of delineating between legitimate true faith concepts and the false.
Is it any great surprise that people who grow up around a specific religion tend to identify with it? Or when the story of conversion happens, it is most often told in the light of some great emotional experience surrounded by mystery? The confusion created by a lack of truly knowing the how of conversion is covered up and hidden by yet another uncertainty, allowing the believer to continue on without getting in touch with a very real human, not divine, experience.
Faith, as used by the religionist, cannot make true/false delineations between competing conclusions. Nor can it be defined in any way that allows us to understand the how of its compulsion. Therefore, it cannot be a valid source of epistemology, no matter how many times the word is used.