Posted on Jan 2, 2014 by Tom Gilson
Though he has yet to respond to mine, which came first in the sequence of our discussions, I’m going to devote some time now to James Lindsay’s “central question, ” which is whether the epistemology of faith is unreliable. The answer is no, because the question is wrong in its premises.
I’ll have to apologize for the length of this post. It takes time to answer a question, when the first step is to explain how the question is built on wrong premises to start with.
He has asked the question more than once, but I think this is the cleanest version to work from:
… I have done so. In fact, that is my central point–the methods of faith are unreliable and so faith is an unreliable way to know.
Now, I suppose Lindsay might expect me to rush immediately to contradict the word “unreliable.” That, however, would be making the mistake of accepting the premise of his question. Right answers do not flow from wrong questions. So while I’m going to answer his question, I’m going to take a different tack than he might have expected, and start with words he would probably not expect me to begin with.
I’m going to center my initial response around the shortest two words in Lindsay’s question: “Is a(n).” He says “faith is an unreliable methodology;” that “putting more confidence in a belief than it is worth is exactly the way the word ‘faith; is used:” that “the word faith is used to mean, I don’t have enough evidence etc.”
I don’t have a problem with using a variation of “to be” in those phrases. The problem is in the implication that faith is this and not anything else. For Boghossian, all of faith can be summed up in this, or its variant forms of “belief without evidence” or “pretending to know what one cannot know.” That’s all there is to faith, in his view, and I think also in Lindsay’s view.
This not the first time I have encountered the tendency among atheists to reduce interestingly real multi-dimensional matters down to rhetorically convenient but unrealistic simplicities. It still surprises me when I see it.
It’s as if they were of the opinion that faith is the same thing, and operates the same way, for Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, tribal religionists, and Oprah Winfrey. It’s as if they don’t recognize that faith has been an extremely powerful motivating for a large proportion of Western art, music, literature, architecture, morality, and yes, science as well; or if they do recognize it, they think that one univocal understanding of faith covers that, too, along with the faith of all the religions. And it’s also as if they can’t read; for I have explained my analytical response for James repeatedly, and though he hasn’t countered my objections to his view, he still puts it forth as if it were the received wisdom.
Those are some general reflections. More analytically, the idea that “faith is a failed epistemology, etc.” may fit some contexts. Maybe some Christians get it wrong that way. Maybe it’s even normative in some other religion. I have never denied that examples of such could be found. The error is in considering it to be that and nothing else.
The second point of error in the premises of his question is in calling faith an epistemology.
I do not disagree that faith is sometimes treated as an epistemology. For example: “I know it’s true because I have faith!” This is fideism in its rawest form, and if Lindsay and Boghossian want to complain that it’s a poor way to think about life and reality, they’ll have loads of company from within the ranks of thoughtful Christians. Let’s just stipulate, then, that we agree that this happens. But let’s not suppose that fideism comprises all that can be said of faith!
Catholic Views (Such As I Know Them)
There is language in some Catholic doctrine that speaks of faith as a way of knowing. I’m not a Roman Catholic, and while I have seen the statements I have not studied them, so I don’t know what they mean in context. I do know this much, however: these statements are traceable to Thomas Aquinas (and I suppose to his predecessors, though as I say I haven’t studied it). Thomas was anything but a fideist. If he said that faith was a way of knowing, he certainly never intended to say that it was the sole way of knowing any of the truths of what we call “the faith.” As I understand it, for him the other side of the coin from reason; and the two together functioned to lead one to some fullness of knowledge of the faith.
So for Roman Catholicism, God is known through other methods than faith, and conversely, faith means much more than a methodology for knowing God. But I will deal no longer with Catholicism, for that’s not who I am nor does their understanding of faith define mine.
One Facet of Faith From a Protestant Perspective
From a Protestant perspective, faith may also be a way of knowing, but far more often it’s an epistemic attitude regarding what is known.
I’ll explain by way of illustration, bringing into the conversation some things that I know as a Christian. James will want to know how I know these things; in fact, I’m sure he’ll deny that I could know these things. What I want to show with this illustration is that that’s a good question, but it’s a rather ordinary question of knowledge, not of some mystical “faith” epistemology.
I know these things to be true:
I know that Jesus Christ lived in Palestine some 2,000 years ago. I know that he traveled the region as a teacher and a healer, gaining a remarkable reputation for himself until finally he was crucified outside Jerusalem. I know that after his crucifixion his followers had experiences of him that they interpreted as his having been bodily resurrected, and that they held to that belief to the very end, most of them dying for it. I know that the early Jesus movement was opposed by one Saul who converted to Christianity because, on his own account, he too had had an experience with the resurrected Jesus.
I’ll pause a moment now and point out that the prior paragraph contains information that virtually every person with an interest in the topic could and should know, because there is historical consensus on these matters. Both skeptical and believing experts broadly agree with that list.
But I know more than that. I know that the sacrifice Christ made of his life on the cross was a fulfillment of prophecy, and it was at the same time the ultimate expression of self-sacrificial love. I know that through Christ and through other events in Scripture, God proved himself to be a keeper of his word. I know that in his resurrection Jesus Christ showed that death need not be forever. I know that he promised eternal life to those who enter into his living Kingdom through faith.
An Epistemic Attitude of Trust, Not a Methodology
All of those are knowledge claims. The term “faith” entered in to that list very late. When it does come in, faith is about an attitude of trust in the knowable character of God, as revealed in history.
Now, all those claims are testable. They could be true or they could be false; they could be supported evidentially or they could be unsupported by evidences. I have my opinion on that, and James has a different opinion, but the salient fact is that they are claims in the realm of history and of ordinary knowledge.
So then how does faith enter in where it does? Remember, it’s not one-dimensional, so I need to dwell on it a while longer.
One way it enters in is this: knowing that (in history) God has been shown to be a keeper of his word, that death is not necessarily forever, and that he has promised eternal life to those who acknowledge the reality of his promise-keeping character and his power, I have faith that he will grant me eternal life. Faith, here, is an epistemic attitude of (a) recognizing the reality of what is known, (b) drawing rational conclusions from there regarding the not-yet-knowable, and (c) trusting in God to do according to what he has promised.
Success, Failure: Where’s the Locus?
That’s from my perspective. From James’ perspective, it’s more like this: I have falsely concluded that God is, that he has overpowered death, and that he has made reliable promises that I can experience the benefits of his victory over death. Therefore the faith conclusion that I draw is unfounded.
Now, suppose James is right. What failed, epistemically? It wasn’t “faith.” My faith-conclusion is an entirely sensible one, given the premises I accept. If anything failed there it was the premises upon which I’ve based my faith. The locus of the failure is not in “faith.” It’s an ordinary-knowledge failure. In fact faith as an epistemology hardly enters in here; it’s an attitude of trust, not a method of gaining knowledge. The vast majority of the epistemic work is done in the realm of ordinary knowledge. Faith comes in only as a conclusion drawn out of the result of that kind of epistemic work.
And frankly I can’t imagine anyone denying the quality of the conclusion, given the premises; for if it could be known to be true that God is a trustworthy promise keeper, that he has promised eternal life to those who believe in him, and he has demonstrated the power to carry out that promise, the faith-conclusion that I can trust him to give me eternal life makes perfectly good rational sense.
In this sense, faith can be defined as drawing rational conclusions about the unknown based on the known. This is why in other contexts I have said that faith goes beyond provable knowledge. It does so, certainly; but it does not do so irrationally.
Some atheists, following in Boghossian’s trail, deny that faith and trust are synonymous, or even nearly so. They say it is just is an epistemology. They are just wrong. As a description of my own religious experience shows, faith is a matter of trusting in the conclusions I draw, starting from ordinary-knowledge premises.
There’s more to faith than that, of course; it’s only one facet of this multidimensional term faith. This view isn’t the least bit unusual or uncommon among thoughtful Christians. It’s part of the word’s definitional package, and it has been ever since “Jesus showed himself alive by many convincing proofs” (Acts 1:3); or, if you prefer, since the first time someone took it to be true that he said that. It’s part of the package either way: whether Jesus actually did those things, or someone merely was convinced that he did, still the multi-varied definition of faith includes drawing rational conclusions about the unknown based on the known.
Now, what if no one ever in the history of the world had any good reason to believe that God is a trustworthy promise-keeper, that Christ appeared alive again bodily after death, or that God made death-defeating promises to us? I’ve already answered that from one angle. The error in that case would be in the realm of ordinary knowledge, not in the faith-conclusion-drawing that follows upon those mistaken beliefs.
But let’s treat this as seriously as we can. If that were the case, then in the illustration I’ve been working from, faith could be described as drawing rational conclusions based on erroneous premises. In that case there would be a failed epistemology, for sure, but it would not be in the faith locus but in the ordinary-knowledge locus.
It’s Time To Give Up One-Dimensional Definitions—Especially Tendentious Ones
There are other facets to faith as well, but let me place a stake in the ground here. This one facet is sufficient to prove that Boghossian’s and Lindsay’s univocal, unidimensional definition fails by way of being falsely circumscribed. Not only that, because they drew their circle around the least rational and defensible variant of “faith,” this suggests that they chose that circle for purposes of rhetorical convenience, not for purposes of promoting or participating in any serious discussion on faith.
It’s false, it’s tendentious, and it’s intellectually irresponsible.
But Are There Evidences For Faith?
To James Lindsay: I suspect you will still want me to answer whether there could ever be evidences for faith, James. I hope you can understand why I had to deal with the premise of the question before I answered the question.
I hope you will also recognize that I’m concentrating on this for a reason. You see, I consider this whole series to be primarily a response to Boghossian, not (pardon me) to you. Boghossian advises in his Manual to avoid facts and to focus on faith as an epistemology.* Following his cue, that’s exactly what I’m doing.
If I were to take a turn toward actually providing specific evidences for faith, I would have to do it in one of two ways. Either I would have to give it a very thorough and comprehensive treatment, which would amount to changing the subject altogether; or I would have to give it a superficial treatment, which would necessarily be weak for its superficiality. It would be attacked, and then defended, and that, too would change the subject.
But realize this: it’s not because of any paucity in the evidences. If you want to know whether there are evidences for faith, there are libraries full of material on it. It’s also not because I have any personal reluctance to discuss evidences. I have a 4500-word article on the topic, in queue for print publication soon. When that’s the topic I’m writing about, I’m glad to write about it.
But Boghossian didn’t bring any evidences against Christianity, other than his discovery that many Christians don’t know the evidences they can draw upon to support their faith (which of course isn’t evidence against the faith anyway). To answer him by bringing evidences against his non-evidences would be not to answer him at all. It would be changing the subject. So I have chosen so far to remain on the topic of what faith is.
“Why Won’t Tom Gilson Answer My Questions?” Reprised
I think I’ve answered your question in part, but probably not in whole. You’re welcome to ask me follow-on questions, for I am not unwilling to answer you at all—unless your question is, “but what evidence do you have to show for your faith?” If you want to know why I’m not answering that question, please re-read the previous section.
*That may come as a surprise to those who haven’t read the book. That is indeed his recommendation. It is why in other contexts I have said that I think his methods are likely to be effective among people who don’t understand their faith as well as they could.