Faith and Epistemological Quicksand

Alvin Plantinga and Thomas Nagel are well-known senior philosophers at Notre Dame and NYU, respectively. Plantinga, a Christian, is known for his contributions to philosophy of religion, while Nagel, an atheist, is known (nevertheless) for his resistance to purely materialist/naturalist/physicalist theories of the mind (e.g. in his famous article, “What is it like to be a bat?“).

Now Nagel has reviewed Plantinga’s most recent book in the NYRB, giving it a much more sympathetic reading than most naturalists would offer. (For what it’s worth, Plantinga is a supporter of Intelligent Design, and Nagel has often spoken of it approvingly, while not quite buying the whole sales pitch.) Jerry Coyne offers a reasonable dissection of the review.

I wanted to home in on just one particular aspect because it was instructive, at least for me. There is a long-standing claim that “faith” is a way of attaining knowledge that stands independently of other methods, such as “logic” or “empiricism.” I’ve never quite understood this — how do we decide what to have faith in, if not by the use of techniques such as logic and empiricism?

Plantinga offers an answer, which I think is at least internally consistent — but that’s part of the problem.

So far we are in the territory of traditional epistemology; but what about faith? Faith, according to Plantinga, is another basic way of forming beliefs, distinct from but not in competition with reason, perception, memory, and the others. However, it is

a wholly different kettle of fish: according to the Christian tradition (including both Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin), faith is a special gift from God, not part of our ordinary epistemic equipment. Faith is a source of belief, a source that goes beyond the faculties included in reason.

God endows human beings with a sensus divinitatis that ordinarily leads them to believe in him. (In atheists the sensus divinitatis is either blocked or not functioning properly.)

Plantinga is clearly trying to separate “faith” from merely “things we would like to believe are true” — faith is knowledge that is put directly into our minds by God. Points for at least trying to offer a reason why we should put credence in beliefs based on faith even if the logic and/or evidence aren’t there.

Here, as I see it, is the problem. Any time we have beliefs of any sort, we need to admit the possibility that they are incorrect. Even if we have think that some result has been reached by nothing but the application of pristine mathematical logic (e.g. the ABC conjecture), it’s always possible that we simply made a mistake — have you ever multiplied two numbers together and gotten the wrong answer? Certainly in an empirical endeavor like science, we recognize that our theoretical understanding is necessarily contingent, and are constantly trying to do better, via more precise and far-reaching experimental tests. These are methods of reaching knowledge that have built-in methods of self-correction.

So what about faith? Even if your faith is extremely strong in some particular proposition, e.g. that God loves you, it’s important to recognize that there’s a chance you are mistaken. That should be an important part of any respectable road to knowledge. So you are faced with (at least) two alternative ideas: first, that God exists and really does love you and has put that belief into your mind via the road of faith, and second, that God doesn’t exist and that you have just made a mistake.

The problem is that you haven’t given yourself any way to legitimately decide between these two alternatives. Once you say that you have faith, and that it comes directly from God, there is no self-correction mechanism. You can justify essentially any belief at all by claiming that God gave it to you directly, despite any logical or evidence-based arguments to the contrary. This isn’t just nit-picking; it’s precisely what you see in many religious believers. An evidence-based person might reason, “I am becoming skeptical that there exists an all-powerful and all-loving deity, given how much random suffering exists in the world.” But a faith-based person can always think, “I have faith that God exists, so when I see suffering, I need to think of a reason why God would let it happen.”

Sometimes you will hear that “science requires faith,” for example faith that our sense data are reliable or that nature really obeys laws. That’s an abuse of language; science requires assumptions, just like anything else, but those assumptions are subject to testing and updating if necessary. If we built theories on the basis of our sense data, and those theories kept making predictions that turned out to be wrong, we would examine and possibly discard that assumption. If the universe exhibited a chaotic jumble of non-lawlike behavior, rather than falling into beautiful patterns, we would abandon that assumption as well. That’s the most compelling thing about science: it always stands ready to improve by casting out an old idea when the evidence demands it.

Okay, this is probably belaboring the obvious for atheists, and completely irrelevant for believers. But it’s useful to have a specific definition of “faith” right there on the page, if only to understand what its dangers are.

This entry was posted in Philosophy, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.

92 Responses to Faith and Epistemological Quicksand

  1. fraac says:

    Sean, you embarrass yourself with every post you make on this subject. You literally sound like a sophomore. Please stop. And you’ve used an apostrophe in a possessive “its”.

  2. Pingback: Faith and Epistemological Quicksand | Science Actuality

  3. Daniel Engblom says:

    @fraac: You’re not going to get far with unsubstantiated ad hominems on a science blog: Put up or Shut up: Point out where & how Sean is wrong or something, don’t just shrug and mutter how silly someone is.

    To quote Hitchens:
    “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”

    And that will apply to you, until – that is, if – you will back up your claims.

  4. Random Rambler says:

    fraac,

    Do you have anything constructive to say? Ridicule is not very enlightening. Could you describe in what way this post of Sean’s is sophomoric, or whatever? I’m not inclined to accept your characterization of Sean’s religion posts.

    RR

  5. Sean Samis says:

    This is a very good post, minor grammatical errors aside. Which is probably why it frightens the likes of @fraac.

    As Mark Twain wrote once of Christian Science, “I wish to say that of Mrs. Eddy I am not requiring perfect English, but only good English. No one can write perfect English and keep it up through a stretch of ten chapters. It has never been done. It was approached in the “well of English undefiled”; it has been approached in Mrs. Eddy’s Annex to that Book; it has been approached in several English grammars; I have even approached it myself; but none of us has made port.”

  6. Sean Carroll says:

    fraac, thanks for catching the typo. The unsupported whining, not so much.

  7. Joe S says:

    Sean, I really approcoiate your writings on this subject. Having been raised a christian and turning away from that over the past 10 years (and toward anything but reason and logic), I find your interest on both sides of the argument worth reading. I’ve often considered faith a necessary tool in our evolution – the ability to believe something for which you have no evidence to support: the proverbial leap of faith may have been across an actual ravine. Sure there is determination, but often what was needed was faith in someone elses determination to find a way to get across that ravine.

  8. Gene says:

    Faith is not meant to be a replacement for logic and empiricism. I see it as simillar to the more prosaic intuition which is crucial for any type of understanding.

  9. Zerub says:

    I would love to see you debate either Plantinga or maybe William Lane Craig. Both of you are familiar with Philosophy and Cosmology. And importantly, you both spent an unusual amount of time thinking about time.

    Is there a chance this might happen? Maybe just about the Kalam Cosmological Argument atleast?

  10. E says:

    Can I recommend http://lesswrong.com/lw/e25/bayes_for_schizophrenics_reasoning_in_delusional/
    which relates to an inability to update an explanation in the face of new evidence? I’m not suggesting believers are damaged, but sometimes there seems to be something unshiftable about their belief .

  11. Neal J. King says:

    Scientific knowledge has to be self-consistent.

    Faith-based knowledge has to be emotionally satisfying to the individual.

    As long as the faith-based knowledge is not inconsistent with (has no intersection with) the scientific knowledge, who, aside from the individual, has to care about it?

  12. phhht says:

    How do you distinguish sensus divinitatis from plain old everyday delusional disorder?

  13. Al says:

    Personally I prefer to call myself a non-theist instead of atheist. Atheist like atypical both give the impression of something not normal or defective.
    Being a non-theist is a normal part of the forward march in human evolution.
    We stated out worshipping the trees, mountains, sun, and moon. Then we worshiped gods and goddess that had the ability to shape shift and affect the human condition. Next we moved on to worshiping a single god while considering ourselves the center of the universe. Now with intelligent design we have moved to worshiping the universe.
    The next step is to realize that we are but an infinitesimal part of an insignificant small planet orbiting a non-descript star.
    The sooner we realize that our survival rests on our collective behaviors and actions the sooner we will find true peace.

  14. Pingback: Nagel reviews Plantinga in the NYRB « Why Evolution Is True

  15. Physicalist says:

    It’s worth pointing out that the word “faith” is given many different meanings by the faithful.

    According to the Catholics, to say something is accepted on “faith” is merely to say that it is accepted on someone else’s authority.

    Here’s the example the Catholic Encyclopedia offers:

    . . . for example, we accept the statement that the sun is 90,000,000 miles distant from the earth because competent, veracious authorities vouch for the fact. This last kind of knowledge is termed faith.

    Not what Plantinga or most of the rest of mean, I’d hazard.

  16. Ray Higgins says:

    if faith is something god put in your head, why is it always limited to what you learned or at least some variant of that. If faith really was from god what we attribute to faith would be the same for every one and independent of any religious belief we start with. If all people shared a common faith or any specific single belief independent of our reality that might be a sign that god exist… but they don’t and it doesn’t. Reality is, faith is the excuse we make up when the evidence tells were wrong but we won’t accept the truth.

  17. abb3w says:

    Sometimes you will hear that “science requires faith,” for example faith that our sense data are reliable or that nature really obeys laws. That’s an abuse of language; science requires assumptions, just like anything else, but those assumptions are subject to testing and updating if necessary. If we built theories on the basis of our sense data, and those theories kept making predictions that turned out to be wrong, we would examine and possibly discard that assumption. If the universe exhibited a chaotic jumble of non-lawlike behavior, rather than falling into beautiful patterns, we would abandon that assumption as well.

    As an iota of quibble, there’s two sort of assumptions you’re not paying enough attention to.

    First, science uses mathematics as a language; and thus, implicitly takes the axioms of mathematics. Taking an axiom is, in effect, “on faith”, in that it is not an inference justified from any prior propositions. It’s simply taken absolutely and directly as truth. If an axiom isn’t redundant, it may as an alternative be taken in refutation, without any alteration of the system’s scope for truth (although changing whether some propositions may be valid theorems or not). However, this level of “faith” doesn’t help theologians much. For one thing, the usual axioms taken are so basic as to be hard to take the Refutation of with a straight face. For another, the axiom system starting points are to some degree fairly arbitrary. ZF and vNBG lead to the exact same theorems. Other alternatives may involve some more translation, but remain akin to a choice of doing philosophy in English or French. Finally, it’s hard to avoid getting any language to discuss philosophy without implicitly picking up mathematics along the way.

    Second, you’re neglecting some of the math about a “chaotic jumble”. The notion of “lawlike behavior” can be expressed marginally more formally that experience is information with a complexity recognizable by a Turing Hypercomputer of some ordinal degree. This implicitly takes ZF (independent on Choice), but axioms schema interesting enough to handle “four plus three to the exponent of two equals thirteen” can construct analogs. Given this assumption of lawlike behavior, something can be derived as a consequent implication, that is analogous to the scientific method as a means of competitive testing of empirical hypotheses for probability of correctness. However, as with any non-redundant axiomatic assumption, it can be taken in refutation, and insist that there is overall non-lawlike behavior. Under this (ZF-based) alternative, one may then wander over to Ramsey’s Theorem — which describes how islands of order are inevitable with sufficiently large seas of chaos. This allows an alternate interpretation (loosely speaking) for any apparent order in experiential data: it’s the emergence of an isolated Boltzmann Brain in a really big sea of chaos. Contrariwise, this again doesn’t help theologians much. A scientist can merely sigh, and shut up the philosophical pedant by prefixing “So, EITHER all experience is an illusion of an isolated Boltzmann Brain, OR it currently looks most likely that…” before the latest scientific theory.

  18. Mr. Anthony says:

    #18. abb3w: Thanks for that. I understood <50% but am intrigued and will bookmark this page for future study.

    I have this book that I ordered and still haven't read: 'Where Mathematics Comes From' by Lakoff and Nunez. What do you think? http://books.google.ca/books/about/Where_Mathematics_Come_From_How_The_Embo.html?id=YXv6SEjTNKsC

  19. Mr. Anthony says:

    Regarding the article:

    Someone once pointed out that people seem to be literally ‘in-love’ with their religions which is why religious criticism is received about as well as telling someone their spouse is unattractive. Going with that analogy, telling a religious person that their faith is unreliable is like asking a married guy how he knows his wife really loves him.

  20. Sean Carroll says:

    abb3w– I think those are reasonable caveats, but also that the informality of my original statements were acceptable within dashed-off-blog-post standards. There certainly are issues of radical epistemological skepticism, of which Boltzmann Brains are a recent example, which I’ve talked about elsewhere.

  21. Lord says:

    Presumably there is a correction method, one that occurs posthumously, or not.

  22. Josh says:

    Zerub — It’s not a very good idea to get into debates directly with the likes of Plantinga or Craig. The problem with these scholastic philosophers is that they are jacks-of-all-trades and masters of none. Craig once based his rejection of Hawking’s proposal that there was no ab initio event associated with the Big Bang Singularity because Hawking invoked imaginary time which could not possible be correct as it was… imaginary. Yes, Craig as the same irrational fear of imaginary numbers as though Descartes had the last say on what was or was not “proper” in mathematical theory. He may have changed his tune since then, but the very fact that this was part of this argument should give one pause for thought: why is it that the “giants” of Christian “philosophy” are so poorly informed about the basics of the mathematical and natural world?

  23. Blunt Instrument says:

    An evidence-based person might reason, “I am becoming skeptical that there exists an all-powerful and all-loving deity, given how much random suffering exists in the world.”

    A small child might reason, “I am becoming skeptical that my parents love me because they make me eat these horrible-tasting vegetables for dinner.”

  24. Len Ornstein says:

    There’s a lot of semantic confusion in this thread. abb3w (17) at least raises the issue of axiomatics.

    Faith is basically an axiomatic commitment to unprovable fundamentals that a ‘follower’ accepts when joining a ‘discipline’. Language, in general, and formal logic and math, also require commitment to unprovable axiomatic rules and definitions for similar reasons – to try to assure that the members of the discipline are ‘on the same page’.

    So Sean’s criticism is specious because his arguments incorrectly imply that science has no dependence on ‘faith-like’ elements – despite the axiomatic structures of language and deductive logic that are the sine qua non bed of scientific endeavors.

    For what may be a more ‘realistic’ examination of the most fundamental similarities and differences of scientific and religious foundations, see:

    http://www.pipeline.com/~lenornst/ScienceInTheSpectrumOfBelief.pdf

  25. Adrian Ratnapala says:

    Amazingly enough, I found myself sympathising with @fraac, which isn’t very nice of me. I think the reason is this:

    Sometimes you will hear that “science requires faith,” for example faith that our sense data are reliable or that nature really obeys laws. That’s an abuse of language; science requires assumptions, just like anything else, but those assumptions are subject to testing and updating if necessary.

    But this isn’t enough; our ability to intepret, and even gather evidence depends on assumptions; they can’t all be tested without circularity. Today I see a orderly world obeying the same laws I remember from yesterday, except there was no yesterday, my memory is just an illusion.

    This is a possibility, but not one I often bother considering. I just say “that’s silly” and move on. If we push skepticism far enough in every direction, we have to fall back “that’s silly”, or “well let’s make-beleive” or some such thing.