Saturday, February 26, 2011

"F" word, Round Three

The issue that was bothering me when I wrote “More "F" word” is that there is one word, "faith," that is used to mean everything from "This is impossible but I believe it anyway," to “If the ball I’m holding feels heavy then it will fall if release it.”

Youtube user C0nc0rdance does well in describing faith as a lack of doubt. From time mark 1:38 through 2:50 it’s like he’s reading my mind. I’m sure somewhere I’ve previously used the example of when taking a step we have faith that the floor will meet our sole. Based on sensory input and experience it may be reasonable to expect that the floor will be there. As likely as it is though, it is not certain.

When it comes to belief, trust, expectation or faith we are dealing with probabilities. And hopefully credibility figures into our assessments of probability. Thus all things are almost certain, almost certainly not or somewhere in between. While many things fall somewhere in between it is difficult, if not impossible, to function without some expectation/faith that our environment is how (or at least similar to how) we perceive it. Conversely, if we assume everything, or any one thing, is exactly as we perceive it, we leave no room for correction… we couldn’t learn nor could we respond to change.

So we need something like faith to function. But we also need skepticism or doubt to reduce and correct errors. “Faith” is used for too wide a spectrum of belief and expectation. If one speaks out against intractable belief, the least doubting extreme on that spectrum, a proponent of faith is likely to cite the benefits of faith in the form of reasonable expectation, optimism, altruism and adventurous exploration. But the necessity of reasonable expectation and the potential benefits of speculative assessment do not justify convicted belief in anything that defies objective evidence. And this is a problem.

“You just gotta have faith.” “You just gotta believe.” “Believing is seeing.” Believing something does not make it true. I don’t think anyone outside of children’s authors is making that argument. But these clichés are appealing to the faithful. The suggestion is that through belief or faith the truth (or a truth) will be revealed. But this blatantly ignores very real psychological stumbling blocks. If we approach a subject with an assumption of truth then any point of doubt may be dismissed as generally untrue or untrue specifically as it relates to the belief. Cognitive dissonance insures that if conflicting information threatens the perceived truth, the conflicting information (true or not) will be mitigated, discounted or disbelieved. Something's gotta give. While all this is going on, that which is believed is not any truer though the believer may be further convinced.

“Faith” by its various names is a useful tool for basic human functionality. But it is the worst possible tool for reducing ignorance. When gaining knowledge the presenter may be correct but if we don't question why it is true then our understanding is less complete. The type of faith that is promoted by the religious and their prophets as the most valuable or most important kind of faith (it’s really the only kind they refer to) is the unquestioning intractable faith in that which cannot be seen. It is this kind of faith by which good people can be convinced to do bad things. It is this kind of faith that convinces people to act against their own best interest. It is this kind of faith that allows people to justify harming the innocent. And yet, this insidious mode of belief is labeled with the same word as well-reasoned assumption.

There are really two problems. From the perspective of the prophets, it is an insult that such lackluster common everyday reasonable belief is in any way compared the blessed unquestioning faith of the devoutly faithful. Desiring that faith be supported by reason or evidence only diminishes the purity of one’s faith. It’s practically sinful. From the perspective of the otherwise rational believer, it is impossible to function without the reasonable-expectation variety of faith and therefore faith itself is not the problem. Should we infer that if it is detrimental to distrust everything and everyone it is therefore better to have faith in everything and everyone? Unearned trust may be part of the answer but it is definitely not the whole answer.

To call reasonable expectation “faith” is an insult to the prophets, their deities and their ideals. To call blind adherence to an unsubstantiated belief “faith” makes it sound more reasonable than it is. To call cautious optimism “faith” is to miss the point entirely. This word leaves too much open to interpretation. It is self-equivocating. Using the word “faith” circumvents clarity and intellectual responsibility.

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