What is Faith?

During a recent (perhaps ongoing) discussion of faith (among other things), we found that the four people in the discussion are using four different definitions of faith. Naturally, this led me to ask: “What is faith?” So, I used my faith in Google and in the Internet to get some ideas.

First off, Google told me that this question is not trivial. There are several whole books written just to answer the question “What is faith?” and some of the pages that came up danced around the question without ever really defining faith. Others’ definitions required so much jargon that it seems “faith” must be a technical term that belongs only in professional journals for people with advanced degrees in Theology. (Cohomology also can’t be explained to laymen in a jargon-free sentence or two — despite having a precise definition — but I don’t blithely toss it around as though everybody knows what it means.) But a few took a stab at writing a clear and concise definition.

From About.com Christianity: “Faith is belief with strong conviction; firm belief in something for which there may be no tangible proof; complete trust; opposite of doubt.” This appears related to this definition: “Mind is rational while faith is irrational. Mind is logical; faith illogical. Mind is doubtful while faith is doubt-free. In our modern culture, we have become more dedicated to doubt than to unbridled possibility. We are more committed to the calculations of the rational mind, than to the holistic wisdom of spirit.”

(I’ve argued that people of faith shouldn’t use that definition, but clearly some use it — just watch the first few minutes of this video.)

In a related definition: “Real faith, in any promise made by God, is actually the evidence. It is the belief that is the evidence.”

Others appear to equate faith with inductive reasoning, as you’ll discover if you read all the way to the end of this one. This one seems to as well: “Pistis here is a matter of trust in a God who has demonstrated His ability to be a worthy patron, and the examples are those of clients who, knowing this ability, trust in God’s record as a patronal provider.”

According to these two faith is any belief that is strongly held and inspires action — regardless of how you came upon that belief.

Then we have this one which says “we do not acquire new knowledge through faith. Instead, faith is a response to what is revealed.” (i.e. faith is a belief in things you learned via revelation/spiritual witness).

It’s possible that some of the above can be combined — which makes it that much more confusing because it’s not clear which [combination?] of the above definitions a given person is using when s/he uses the word “faith”.

What definition of faith do you use? One (or more) of the above? Think about it for a minute.

Now, to help pin down what everybody here means by “faith”, I’ve prepared a list of statements. The “I” in each case is the subject who may-or-may-not be using “faith”. For each statement, please mark it as (F) faith, (NF) not faith, (D) it depends (on what? be specific in your answer!), (PF) partially faith, (NO) no opinion. Note that many of the statements below may be claims you think are false. Don’t just immediately mark all of the false claims “F” unless your definition of “faith” is “believing things that are false.” People can believe things that are false for many reasons.

1. I assume that some sort of external reality exists, and that my mind — synthesizing information from my senses — gives me some limited-yet-relatively-consistent window on that external reality.
2. I believe that some supernatural entity hears and understands my prayers because I have seen the results of answered prayer.
3. I believe that some supernatural entity hears and understands my prayers because I can feel it in my heart and soul.
4. I’m sure that my biological parents had sex at least once.
5. Ignoring air resistance, the speed of an object falling freely near the Earth’s surface increases by about 9.81 metres per second every second.
6. The scientific statements in the Koran are things that were known in Muhammad’s time, and that he could have had access to.
7. The Koran could not have been written without divine/supernatural assistance.
8. The Book of Mormon could not have been written without divine/supernatural assistance.
9. I think that the evidence for God’s existence leans (at least slightly) in the direction of “God exists.”
10. I think that the evidence for God’s existence leans (at least slightly) in the direction of “God does not exist.”
11. I believe God (or gods) exist(s).
12. I believe God (or gods) do(es) not exist.
13. I believe that I exist, that other humans exist, and that I can communicate with other humans through language.
14. I understand that the current scientific consensus on climate change is that human actions are changing our planet’s climate.
15. I believe the scientific consensus on climate change (that human actions are changing our planet’s climate) is accurate.
16. When I need to know some simple facts or information, I turn to Google and/or Wikipedia first because Google and Wikipedia can lead me to useful information on a variety of subjects.
17. I need to fight for what’s right and make this world a better place.
18. God loves gay people just the way they are (gay).
19. My family loves me.
20. Unfettered free-market capitalism is the most efficient way of providing goods and services.

Please write your own answers before reading anyone else’s. :)

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chanson

C. L. Hanson is the friendly American ExMormon atheist mom living in Switzerland! See "letters from a broad" and the novel ExMormon for further adventures!!

105 thoughts on “What is Faith?

  1. I guess how you define the word as a religious person ends up being a description of how you see your own beliefs.

    Just for the sake of discussion, might as well throw in the “Sunday School answer”…

    “And now as I said concerning faithfaith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.”

    Alma 32:21

    That’s the one I’ve heard thrown around the most. But you might also see these:

    “I would show unto the world that faith is things which are hoped for and not seen; wherefore, dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith.”

    Ether 12:6

    “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

    Hebrews 11:1

    You might use those passages too. But the first one is the one I hear the most at church. Probably because of the disclaimer at the end – “which are true.”

    And what Mormon discussion would be complete without a quote from the “Lectures on Faith”…

    “faith is the assurance which men have of the existence of things which they have not seen; and the principle of action in all intelligent beings….

    it is faith, and faith only, which is the moving cause of all action, in them; that without it, both mind and body would be in a state of inactivity, and all their exertions would cease, both physical and mental….

    Are you not dependant on your faith, or belief, for the acquisition of all knowledge, wisdom and intelligence? Would you exert yourselves to obtain wisdom and intelligence, unless you did believe that you could obtain them? Would you have ever sown if you had not believed that you would reap? … In a word, is there any thing that you would have done, either physical or mental, if you had not previously believed? Are not all your exertions, of every kind, dependant on your faith? Or may we not ask, what have you, or what do you possess, which you have not obtained by reason of your faith?….

    But faith is not only the principle of action, but of power, also, in all intelligent beings, whether in heaven, or on earth….

    Take this principle or attribute, (for it is an attribute) from the Deity and he would cease to exist….

    Faith, then, is the first great governing principle which has power, dominion, and authority over all things: by it they exist, by it they are upheld, by it they are changed, or by it they remain, agreeably to the will of God. Without it, there is no power, and without power there could be no creation, nor existence!”

    Lectures on Faith; Lecture First

    Anyway, that was Joseph Smith’s (or Sidney Rigdon’s?) take on the topic. And that’s where I was borrowing a bit of my own views in the previous discussion.

  2. OK, that’s kind of the raw material that some of the above were working from (especially the definition from Hebrews). But can you give your definition in a concise paragraph that would allow someone to guess whether — for a given statement — you’d call it faith or not?

    Or — failing that — could you answer the items on the list to give us an idea of how your definition works in practice?

  3. Statements 1 – 20 are all faith statements because I can define faith however I want.

    I haven’t read the discussion on the other post… but doesn’t it have something to do with the quality and quantity of the assumptions we hold?

    It seems like when assumptions are somehow deemed to be “small” and that there isn’t that many of them… then you don’t have “faith” but you are leaning more towards “knowing”.

  4. Chris — Of course you can define faith however you like. That’s one of the assumptions of this post. My question is how you do define faith. Are you saying that — according to the definition of faith that you use — all of those are faith?

    (Note: I’m not saying that that’s impossible. It’s quite possible to define faith as being no different than belief.)

  5. Oh ok. I believe faith is a nice way of reframing “to assume”.

    I think I’ve used “faith” to describe the act of assuming in contexts where it was “personal” (I guess that’s the word I want to use). I’ve never felt the need to say I have faith in a scientific idea/fact/theory. But when it comes to people, religion, or things I’m interacting with in a personal way, then I think I’ve typically said I have “faith” in that thing. It almost seems like when I have faith that I also have a hope in that thing/person. I hope that it’s true or I hope that that person will pull through or whatever. I’m already leaning towards the pro position because I want to. When I don’t feel like I care either way… then I would rather use the word “assume”.

    1. F
    2. F
    3. F
    4. NF
    5. NF
    6. NF
    7. F
    8. F
    9. F
    10. NF
    11. F
    12. NF
    13. NF
    14. NF
    15. NF
    16. NF
    17. PF
    18. F
    19. PF
    20. PF

  6. Yay, someone actually gave answers for my list!! I hope the rest of you will follow Chris’s example.

    I’ll list my own answers soon, but I have to think about them some more. There are a few where I’m still kind of undecided. And I’ll try not to read anyone else’s answers until I’ve formulated my own. :)

  7. The way I understand “faith” (as its used in the Christian religion) is that it’s a give and take. You have faith in God, and God informs you of His presence to validate your faith. So you come into a kind of knowing because of a relationship with something external. It’s still considered “faith” instead of “knowing,” however, because of the rest of mythology in terms of “free will” and “choosing to love God instead of being forced to,” etc. Faith requires a mythological “substance” between the two things in relation (e.g., the veil between humanity and God).

    I would argue that the same principle is happening in your statement (1) regarding “external reality” generally, except the movement from “faith” to “knowing” for most people in that regard is usually disregarded. Most people dismiss solipsism on the basis of being around other beings in time. David Hume (18th century philosopher) made the famous argument about the feral cat that comes back to your door every night hungry, proving to us that the cat has an existence outside our own because we ourselves experience hunger and we know it doesn’t come about instantaneously. But taking this example, he drew out a number of factors that could not also be applied to God, and so he decided that it couldn’t be proven God exists, and that to have “faith” in God’s existence would be fundamentally irrational. And from there, Soren Kierkagaard (19th century) said, “You’re right, Hume, we can’t prove God exists, and there’s a reason for that! Irrationality is an essential aspect of ‘faith.'”

    The reason this conversation is significant is because before Hume’s time, European people didn’t really have “faith” that God existed, but they knew He did. The veil was more translucent because practically everyone believed in God because God was seen as acting in nature/the external world (much like the feral cat). As science came to explain the natural world, God became more distant and this “knowing” became “faith.” Of course, there are plenty of people today who think about God as “obviously acting in the world and therefore obviously real,” but there’s that opposing influx of skepticism and alternative explanations.

    Personally, I’m with David Hume on the matter. =) I don’t judge others for their “irrational” belief, but I do expect them to respect secular folks’ contributions to good (for example, the environmentalist movement was born from science and not Christianity), and it would behoove of them to get a sense of how atheists can be happy without God.

  8. “Cohomology also cant be explained to laymen in a jargon-free sentence or two…” Just start with homology and reverse the arrows (details left as an exercise for the reader). Right? Of course, to make it really clear it needs to be explained in French. I think I just broke out in a rash.

    Descriptively speaking, it seems to me that some people use “faith” in the sense of a belief held for reasons of group loyalty. For example, #15 is a weaker instance of “belief in science depends on faith”, perhaps maximally represented in this remark by Jeff Spector (comment #5, http://www.wheatandtares.org/2011/05/27/seeming-contradiction-%E2%80%9Cbut-to-be-learned-is-good-if-%E2%80%A6/):

    1+1 only equals 2 because we all agree that it does. There is no proof that it does.

    Frankly Jeff is an enigma to me, and I don’t think I know why he says what he says (I asked him if the allusion to Orwell’s 1984 was intentional, and he said not). But whatever he had in mind, it fit in with an approach of extreme skepticism expressed in other comments that accepts no distinction between fact and belief. It’s convenient for disposing of unwelcome notions like global warming or evolution. Not only are they “just theories”, they are also articles of faith in the false religion of science, to be dealt with in the same way as belief in the prophet Mohammed.

    Nothing, it seems to me, could be more antithetical to Mormonism’s concept of truth (such as it is) than this extremely skeptical viewpoint, but it’s clearly popular with apologists, consistent with some recent aspects of American politics that are not confined to Mormonism, and acceptable to many Mormons at least in specific applications. I can only conclude that it is embraced for its utility in maintaining a group identity and its corresponding orthodoxy. I’ve already indulged in some (unserious) mathematical jargon, so I’ll summarize the approach with the following mathematical analogy: the phrase “by faith” identifies an axiom in a paraconsistent logic, in which logical deduction plays a minor role compared to the process of “discovering” new truths via the introduction of new axioms “by faith”.

    1 NF; 2 F; 3 F; 4 NF; 5 NF; 6 D on more knowledge of what’s in the Koran than I have; 7 F; 8 F; 9 NF; 10 NF; 11 F; 12 F; 13 NF; 14 NF; 15 NF; 16 NF; 17 NF; 18 F; 19 NF; 20 NF.

  9. My hunch is that regardless of how differently Smith and Jones define faith, MRI scans would show faith the same for both of them. Moreover, I don’t expect there would be much difference between religious faith and a strongly held secular belief.

    By the way, an answer to question Number One would depend for me on the definition of “reality”.

  10. Badger — Thanks for answering the questions! Your math jokes made me lol.

    Paul — You didn’t answer any of my questions. From what you wrote, I would guess that your definition of faith is “any belief that is strongly held and inspires action regardless of how you came upon that belief.” But it would be easier to pin down your working definition if you’d answer the list. 😉

    Alan — Same to you, except that your definition seems to more closely resemble the “inductive reasoning” definition (people trust God because He comes through for them). But I’m not sure. From your first paragraph, it’s not clear how/whether faith differs from your relationship with your S.O. Maybe if you answered the list, it would be clearer! :)

    Also, regarding solipsism (which you’ve correctly noted that I was referring to in item #1), my preferred response is one someone left as a comment here. (Since I’m not sure that comment linking works on that post, I’ll just quote the comment here.)

    The worth of a scientific theory is its predictive power. Specifically, its ability to predict future observations not yet made.

    It is not necessary to even refer to the concept of “reality” in order to make those predictions. If I’m living in the Matrix (or Plato’s cave; the idea has been around for over 2000 years), that doesn’t matter. The predictions still predict what I will observe, so they’re useful.

    Now, the best available theories operate AS IF there’s an external objective reality, so I tend to assume its existence as a convenience. But really, I don’t need a position on the nature of reality to use the theories.

    There are an infinite number of “realities” in which I could be dreaming I’m a 3-dimensional hairless ape, but until some evidence to prefer one over the other shows up, Occam’s razor suggests I stick with the simplest: the reality I appear to observe really is there.

    In the end, though, it doesn’t matter. Until you can suggest an experiment that could distinguish a “real” reality from a very good simulation, the question is moot. Both assumptions lead to the same observations, so they are scientifically indistinguishable.

    You can say “the simulation we’re living in acts like so”, and I can say “the universe we live in acts like so”. As long as we get the same answers, there’s nothing to argue about.

  11. Now, it’s time for my answers!

    Everyone please do not read anyone else’s answers until you’ve independently worked out your own!

    As I said, my working definition of faith is “deliberate application of some types of subjective reasoning.” In the definitions above (which I found while writing this post), mine most closely resembles “faith is a belief in things you learned via revelation/spiritual witness”.

    1. NF
    2. NF
    3. F
    4. NF
    5. NF
    6. NF
    7. PF
    8. PF
    9. D (If the body of evidence you’re using includes things like revelation/spiritual witness, then it’s faith. If it’s exclusively arguments like Pascal’s Wager and “every watch needs a watchmaker”, then it’s not faith.)
    10. NF
    11. same as 9
    12. NF
    13. NF
    14. NF
    15. NF
    16. NF (I was joking when I called this “faith” in the post above — partially because I know that it does fit some common definitions of faith. Just not mine.)
    17. NF
    18. F
    19. NF
    20. D (If your reasoning is “I read Ayn Rand’s novels and they seemed so real to me! then it’s faith — otherwise, probably not.)

  12. People of faith are right about one thing there are more things in Heaven and Earth than Richard Dawkins is capable of dreaming but that does not mean they are right about everything. There is something more in the cosmos than matter and energy but that does not mean that all of it is worth worshipping. A man cavorting with spirits that happen to be devils may be a person of faith but much more wicked than an atheist..The atheist is wrong about devils but at least isn t worshipping them..That a man has faith may be good but it may also be worse than having no faith it depends on how his faith was achieved and the object of his belief.

  13. Here’s mine:

    1. F
    2. F
    3. F
    4. NF
    5. NF
    6. NF
    7. PF
    8. PF
    9. PF
    10. PF
    11. F
    12. F
    13. PF
    14. PF
    15. PF
    16. F
    17. F
    18. F
    19. F
    20. PF

  14. My working definition of faith is “assuming an actuality that can be reasonably doubted.”

    1. F (Cartesian dualism is actually rationally collapsible)
    2. F (The phrase “I believe” connotes that the speaker is aware that others could reasonably doubt)
    3. F (same as above)
    4. NF
    5. F (scientists allow for that .00000000000000001% of doubting all physical laws because “they’re only true because of their consistency”)
    6. F (because it was so long ago!)
    7. F
    8. F
    9. F
    10. F
    11. F
    12. F
    13. F (What I said at 1. applies here.)
    14. F
    15. F
    16. NF
    17. NF
    18. F
    19. D (Unfortunately for this speaker, there are situations in which this might be reasonably doubtful)
    20. F

  15. I’m not sure, but I’ll give it a try. I would say it depends in large part on a) the available evidence and b) a person’s knowledge of the evidence. If there is sufficient evidence to draw a conclusion, and one is aware of that evidence, and one is able reason logically about that evidence, and that is how one arrives at the belief, then it’s Not Faith. If there is insufficient evidence, or one is unaware of the evidence, or one is unable to reason logically about it, and one believes anyway, then it’s Faith.

  16. Yeah. Actually, I’m not even sure “faith” exists, at least not in the sense that it’s a “something” that people “have” or that it’s somehow different from other kinds of belief.

  17. I agree with kuri. It seems to me, as I read the New Testament, that faith and belief are used interchangeably. Faith, like grace, is a religion specific terms, or that is where it carries its greatest weight. Where in Mormonism you might be asked, “how strong is your testimony,” in the Protestant world it is, “how strong is your faith.” That somehow, in both cases, carries greater leverage and implies something deeper than what is actually being asked: “To what extent do you believe . . . .”

    Sorry chanson, my lack of faith cause me to comment, rather than responding to your questions like you asked. I guess I’m a product of old Mormonism that never talked about faith, since we were so preoccupied with works, which typically was a code for “obedience.”

  18. I define faith as follows:

    Faith is that thing which fills the gap between the amount of confidence you can reasonably have in a proposition based on evidence and the amount of confidence you want to have.

    How much faith a person has depends on how large that gap is, and that gap can be subjective. Although evidence is an indicator of real truth, you can still accept a false proposition without needing faith and you can accept a true proposition while needing faith. In general though, false propositions stand to benefit more from faith than true propositions. Sometimes faith can inspire confidence in someone to press on with their efforts toward a goal and allow them to achieve it despite the odds against them. Other times faith leads people down a treacherous path of disillusionment or exploitation.

    My answers to the questions reveal what I believe the reasonable conclusions based on evidence are, but my given definition of faith does not require these specific answers:

    1. F
    2. F
    3. F
    4. NF
    5. NF
    6. NO (not familiar with the statements)
    7. F
    8. F
    9. F
    10. NF
    11. F
    12. NF
    13. NF
    14. NF
    15. NF
    16. NF
    17. D – This isn’t really clear. Are we talking about the belief in the need or the belief that one can make this world a better place? I’m not sure where to put this one.
    18. F
    19. NF – Depends on your family I suppose.
    20. F

  19. Pingback: Faith « The Philosophies of Chris
  20. Fun! My turn:

    1. NF (In philosophy of science, this is what we call an “assumption.” Some may claim it requires faith, but in science it is simply a starting point and both science and philosophy need a starting point.)
    2. F
    3. F
    4. NF
    5. NF
    6. NF
    7. F
    8. F
    9. F
    10. F
    11. F
    12. NF
    13. NF (Ditto #1)
    14. NF
    15. NF
    16. NF
    17. Other – This is a value statement, not a statement as to the veracity of something. No faith required when expressing an opinion.
    18. F
    19. D – Do you have empirical evidence you could present to others to illustrate that your family loves you? If so, NF. If not, F.
    20. Other or simply wrong. Like 17, this is a value statement. It’s also erroneous (I’m a sociologist; of course I’m going to say it’s wrong). So, if someone is ignorant enough to not realize it is wrong, then I would say it is a value statement. If they are knowledgeable enough to know it is wrong and still believe it, it is F.

    My definition: Belief in things that lack empirical evidence.

  21. Thanks for the answers! Even those of you who have indicated that you don’t think it makes sense to try to define faith as being something different than belief.

  22. FWIW, according to the definition of faith that I use most often, statements 1-20 (indeed all possible statements) require faith, but to varying degrees.

  23. Jonathan — thanks for your answer! Actually, that’s kind of what I thought you’d say — which is why I said that your working definition and mine are not the same.

    Now, it would be cool to get Daniel’s answer, and perhaps a few others…

  24. The Ever Wonderful Chanson: “Paul You didnt answer any of my questions. From what you wrote, I would guess that your definition of faith is any belief that is strongly held and inspires action regardless of how you came upon that belief. But it would be easier to pin down your working definition if youd answer the list. ;)”

    Sorry, Chanson, I got extremely busy for a few days. I have some time this morning, though. And I’d like to say, your questions were far more fun than I thought answering 20 questions first thing in the morning would be. OK, here are my answers:

    1) F – It is ultimately a matter of faith to believe in the existence of any reality one does not directly experience. What else could it be?
    2) F – If I correctly understand your example, then it is a matter of faith to take a correlation as conclusive evidence of causation.
    3) F – Again, assuming I understand your example, it is faith to believe our feelings of deity mirror reality — like saying that because I see red, I know red exists apart from my eyes and brain.
    4) D – If I was being anal, its a faith statement because it rests on induction. But in practice, I would be inclined to take a statement of that sort as Not Faith.
    5) D – See four. Rests on induction if and when it is asserted as a prediction of future events. But on a daily basis, I promise I really am not so anal — I casually accept such statements as Not Faith.
    6) NF – Im going to quit being so strict.
    7) NO – Im inclined towards F, but your case doesnt mention grounds, so NO.
    8) NO
    9) NF – on the basis they are going by the evidence.
    10) NF — see 9.
    11) F
    12) F
    13) D – I exist is NF, Others exist is F, and I can communicate is only if you are not trying to say anything important.
    14) NF – It should not take faith for me to know what my beliefs are.
    15) D – on how one arrived at his or her belief here.
    16) M – M for madness to trust Wiki. But Wiki can point the way. Its a good start sometimes.
    17) NO – appears irrelevant to an epistemology.
    18) F
    19) D – on how one arrived at this conclusion.
    20) BS

  25. Ok, Chanson, I just went back and read some of the other responses in this thread, including yours. So, now I’m curious what you mean by, faith is a belief in things you learned via revelation/spiritual witness. That is, I believe I understand to some extent what you are saying, but I am curious why you have defined faith as you have.

    Then again, maybe I don’t entirely understand what you are saying. For instance: Suppose Jones had a mystical experience. Suppose Jones refuses to speculate what might be behind that experience. In other words, Jones is like the woman who sees the color Blue, but refuses to say what causes the color Blue. If Jones now says, “I’ve had a spiritual experience, I don’t know what caused it, but my experience involved an overwhelming sense of Oneness”, is there anything in that statement you would identify as “faith”?

  26. Alan: My working definition of faith is assuming an actuality that can be reasonably doubted.

    Alan, you’ve got my curiosity up. I’m wondering what makes a doubt reasonable or not?

  27. I just realized I have not given my own definition of faith. On a psychological level, I consider faith to be a synonym for belief. I anticipate — that is, I provisionally believe — that future tMRI studies will support my notion there is no neurological distinction between the two.

    On another level, I provisionally think of faith as any belief not based on our direct experience. What we believe because we have experienced it ourselves is not faith. But to whatever extent our belief is based on something other than our experience — to whatever extent it is speculative — is faith.

  28. Questions 9 and 10 have been haunting me ever since I posted my response to them. Upon further consideration, I would answer both NO or D. Either “No opinion”, or “Depends”. That’s because I don’t know what evidence is being used for the claims made.

    Now that I’ve said that, I can at last rest easy. My heart is no longer troubled. Once again, all is well with my world.

    I fear I might be a geek.

  29. So, now Im curious what you mean by, faith is a belief in things you learned via revelation/spiritual witness. That is, I believe I understand to some extent what you are saying, but I am curious why you have defined faith as you have.

    Coming from a Mormon background, I constantly encounter people who claim that they know that the church is true (and that the BofM is true) because they have received a spiritual witness so powerful that it can’t just have a natural explanation. So they’re basing their conclusion on evidence — just not a type of evidence that I would consider valid or trustworthy evidence. But that kind of gets back to what ProfXM said @27 about assumptions. I’ll just grant that they’re working from a different set of assumptions than I’m working from.

    It is convenient to call this type of reasoning “faith” because it needs a name, and that’s one of the common meanings of the word “faith”.

    If Jones now says, Ive had a spiritual experience, I dont know what caused it, but my experience involved an overwhelming sense of Oneness, is there anything in that statement you would identify as faith?

    No, I wouldn’t call that faith at all. Perhaps my needs further clarification, but by “revelation” and “spiritual witness” I don’t mean making naturalistic observations about the functioning of your brain.

    As another example consider the “god helmet” — which stimulates parts of a person’s brain and tends to provoke a sense that there is another presence. Suppose you try it out and get a sense that there is another presence. Then you like it so much that you decide to wear it all the time, but you program it to turn itself on randomly without warning. Then, if at some point you suddenly have a sense of a mystical presence, and you say, “Aha, my god helmet probably turned itself on,” then I wouldn’t call that “faith.”

  30. Thanks, Chanson. I forgot all about how so very many Mormon’s talk of having “a spiritual witness” and what it means to them.

    I’ve always found it curious that a deity considered capable of sending people “a spiritual witness” doesn’t just go whole hog and send them a complete set of instructions and revelations perfectly tailored to them, and stated for them in their favorite languages, complete with charts and grafts. I mean, why is the Grand Old Coot of Mormonism so reluctant to go whole hog with the spiritual witnesses he sends?

  31. You mean, why doesn’t God act like all the other neurotic, obsessive, risk averse, “helicopter moms” our society is currently producing?

    Gee… I wonder…

  32. If a person has what we typically call an emotional experience, the person can label it a number of things including a spiritual experience, a feeling of pervasive love, a feeling on oneness, for example. The feeling is simply that–a feeling. It is only when the person attributes the feeling to a super natural being who is sending them a message, i.e. something is true, or I am loved by super natural being, etc., that I would I would say that “faith” has been evoked.

  33. Looking over the answers so far (excluding Paul Sunstone’s, which I hadn’t yet seen), there seems to be a spectrum with Chanson at one end and Alan at the other, with Alan much more likely to give “F” as an answer and Chanson much likelier to give “NF”. It’s rather subjective, but on this scale, which doesn’t adequately represent the full range of our views, I’d order us as Chanson, Badger, profxm, Carson, Chris, Seth R, Alan.

    Everyone so far agrees with “F” as the answer to questions 3 and 8, and Paul’s arrival breaks up a previous unanimity for “NF” on question 4. It’s not unanimous, but there is a strong tendency to see faith in questions 3, 18, 11, 7, 8, and 2. Questions 9, 1, and 20 begin to distinguish the “low-faith” answerers near Chanson’s end of the scale, then there is an increasing tendency to “NF” answers in questions 12, 17, and 19. After that, questions 10, 6, 13, 15, 14, 5, 16, and 4 get solid “NF” answers from all us except Seth and Alan, who give mixed answers in this group. Paul sort of joins them with some “depends” answers.

    The most consistent divisions appear to be on question 1, a perfect NF/F split where chanson, I and profxm are the “NF”s; and 5 and 13-16, where only Seth and Alan (and now Paul) give any answers different from “NF” (the answers to 6 and 10 are similar but not fully consistent).

    Reviewing these six questions briefly:

    Q1 External reality exists: chanson, badger, profxm say NF; others say F.
    Q5 Acceleration of gravity: Alan says F, rest except Paul S say NF; Paul almost agrees with NF.
    Q13 I exist, other humans exist, communication: Most say NF; Alan has F, Seth R PF, and Paul distinguishes between parts of the question.
    Q14 climate change, understanding: PF for Seth, F for Alan, NF for the rest.
    Q15 climate change, correctness: D for Paul, PF for Seth, F for Alan, NF for the rest.
    Q16 Wikipedia and google: F for Seth, Paul pleads insanity, NF for the rest.

    I see a bit of a connection with my previous comment, in that some of the differences on these questions could be viewed in the light of how expansively “faith” is extended to questions with an empirical component. It’s doesn’t seem to be a very strong connection, though.

    Outliers: based purely on my subjective assessment, Chanson’s “NF” answer to Q2, my “F” to Q12, profxm’s “F” to Q10, and Seth’s “F” to Q16 seem a little counter to expectations based on patterns of answers (not consistency of beliefs). For me on Q12, I make a distinction between “I believe God(s) does/do not exist” and “I do not believe God(s) exist” and would have answered the second version differently.

  34. Sorry for the inevitable mistakes in my last comment. I see I said we were unanimous on Q8, but I meant Q18. More importantly, apologies to anyone whose answers I mischaracterized.

  35. If you don’t think that relying on Wikipedia is an act of faith, you haven’t yet had to deal with the topics where they get it seriously wrong.

    Wikipedia is a quintessential example of group faith in action. Everyone relies on the knowledge of everyone else, and simply believes that over time, the correct information will surface. And maybe some experience bears that out. But is it necessarily true that it always will?

  36. Badger — Thanks for doing the analysis!!

    Personally, I use a narrow-but-specific definition because I think it makes the term more useful than if it means a lot of different not-necessarily-related things. That said, after performing this experiment, I’m starting to think perhaps the term “faith” simply isn’t useful after all. It clearly means very different things to different people, so just because two people are both using the word faith doesn’t mean they’re necessarily talking about the same thing — or that they realize that they’re using distinct definitions.

    It’s interesting that my answer to Q2 is an outlier. If you think that prayer works (to cause external events, not just as meditation), and you think that implies the existence of the supernatural, that’s empirical-type reasoning, even if it’s poorly reasoned.

    Actually, I feel like people didn’t always take my “don’t call it faith just because it’s false” advice. For example Q6. Whether the statement is true or false, it’s the sort of thing where you could do some research and form an evidence-based conclusion.

    One point that kind of surprised me also was the answers to 9, 10, 11, 12 — specifically that so many people saw a need for “faith” to go from “I think X is the proposition best supported by the evidence” to “I believe X is accurate.” To me, that’s simple logic. The proposition best supported by the evidence is the one that’s most likely to be true.

    But, again, it points to people using a different definition of faith. Clearly some people are using “faith” to mean “drawing a conclusion when you don’t have 100% proof.” But you essentially never have 100% proof for any conclusions, so “faith” then becomes no different than simply drawing conclusions.

  37. Seth, speaking for myself, it’s not that I haven’t seen Wikipedia go off the rails, it’s just that I wouldn’t use the word “faith”. “Credulity” seems like a better fit.

    Chanson, thank you for making this discussion possible. I don’t know that I’d dignify my comment with the term “analysis”, but I guess it’s evident I’ve found it very interesting to compare the answers.

    Although I called your Q2 answer an outlier, I thought I knew why you answered as you did, and your last comment agreed with my expectations. On Q9-12, in the context of a religious discussion I don’t use “faith” for beliefs with no religious content. I said “NF” for Q9 and Q10 (the “evidence” forms) because they stop (barely) short of a religious conclusion. My interpretation of the questions allowed for the possibility that someone might assent to Q9, but not reach the faith conclusion of Q11 because, in their view, God’s existence is a priori unlikely, and the required standard of proof is more stringent than “evidence slightly in favor”.

    I’m with you on people using different definitions of faith, but as I more or less said before, I don’t think it can be assumed that everyone who uses the term has a very specific definition. There seems to be general agreement that it has something to do with belief, but I think it’s perfectly possible to stop there, and follow an operational approach in which a (perceived) social group consensus defines what is accepted by faith on a case by case basis.

  38. I’m going to be an outlier. I think the apostle Pauls formulation that faith is belief in things unseen, is totally unhelpful and it should be discarded as counterproductive.

    For me, faith is just a traditional, hopeful word used to describe a persons investment in their own, individual world-view. Its properly used in a sentence like this: Ultimately, I have faith in human nature; on the whole, people are good. However, that statement should not be read: I have no evidence how humans behave, and, lacking such evidence, I merely choose to believe something happy.

    From some of the answers, I think people tend to define faith as believing in something without evidence or in defiance of evidence. I dont really think people believe in things without evidence. People are always working from some kind of evidence, whether they understand what theyre doing or not. Paul himself thought he had sufficient evidence (in the form of his vision and spiritual experience) to believe that hed found the way to experience a happy afterlife.

    The fact that he was wrong doesnt mean that faith in general is wrong or even (despite Pauls own definition) that his faith functioned in defiance of evidence. Rather, it shows that Pauls capacity to evaluate evidence was poor, which left him having faith in a proposition that was false. Or rather, a proposition that I believe I have sufficient evidence and evaluative capacity to rule our as false.

    Given my definition, I dont find your test relevant. If the person making each statement does believe the statements you give, then that is part of their belief system and that is a kind of faith. Therefore, in my view, the answers are:

    1. F, 2. F, 3. F, 4. F, 5. F, 6. F, 7. F, 8. F, 9. F, 10. F, 11. F, 12. F, 13. F, 14. F, 16. F, 17. F, 18. F, 19. F, 20. F.

    All of these things could be consonant with the speakers beliefs (or not) as the individual case may be. Faith in some of the propositions (e.g., 14) illustrates that the person has relatively reasonable capacity to weigh evidence, while faith in others (e.g., 8) merely shows either a lack of such capacity, or insufficient education on the topic.

  39. John, for the first half of your comment, I started out thinking that we disagree but by the end thought that we basically agree.

    Ultimately, I have faith in human nature; on the whole, people are good. However, that statement should not be read: I have no evidence how humans behave, and, lacking such evidence, I merely choose to believe something happy.

    I think when people make this kind of statement, they are expressing hope in the face of acknowledged uncertainty. This hope motivates trust which allows them to act as though the belief were true. So the translation should be “I can’t be certain, but I hope and trust — based on my experience — that people are good.”

  40. John I agree more with that definition that you gave. Not your conclusions in the second half, of course, but I think the definition is much more helpful than “belief in unprovable stuff” or “belief when you have no evidence.”

    Those definitions don’t even adequately express the way we use the word “faith” in the English language.

    What does it mean when a film director sincerely declares “I have faith in my film crew”?

  41. From Descartes on, there’s an acknowledgment that some degree of uncertainty exists about almost every proposition. The basis of a rational world-view is weighing the evidence to find the most likely propositions based on their consonance with the preponderance of the evidence. Most everything doesn’t work with the 100% certainly that may exists in mathematics or legal theory. The preponderance of evidence leaves no doubt that humans are causing global climate change; but that doesn’t mean that we’re at 100% certainty on everything. We never will be; to continue to be rational, we are always open to reevaluation based on additional evidence and even new insights and interpretations of existing evidence.

    Book of Mormon historicity apologetics functions by demanding 100% certainty of a negative. Critics somehow must prove with 100% certainty that no sliver of the text could have been literally lived out in some way in some place in actual history. Obviously, that’s not possible to do. But we don’t need to do that to evaluate the question rationally. We just have to weigh the preponderance of evidence and determine the most likely explanation. If you do that, there is absolutely no doubt that the Book of Mormon lacks historicity. Understanding that the phrase “absolutely no doubt” is not some abstract mathematical or legal theory precept that means we’ve achieved some kind of 100% certainty. Rather, it means that no rational person given the evidence and the capacity to evaluate evidence can evaluate the evidence and come to the alternate conclusion.

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