An Open Letter to Peter Boghossian On “Doxastic Openness”

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This entry is part 13 of 16 in the series Peter Boghossian


Dr. Peter Boghossian
Portland State University

Dear Dr. Boghossian,

In your Manual for Creating Atheists you say it’s really important for people to be willing to examine and revise their beliefs if therre are good reasons to reconsider. On page 51 you call that “doxastic openness.” [“Doxastic” is a technical term meaning “belief-related;” you’re talking about openness related to one’s beliefs.]

Again on page 69 you name “a willingness to reconsider” as one attitude that predisposes persons to rationality. On page 70 you say, “The moment we’re unshakably convinced we possess immutable truth, we become our own doxastic enemy.… Street epistemologists enter into discussions with an open and genuine attitude from the start – even if there is no reciprocity.” In your interviews and lectures, you have insisted that if you are shown that you are wrong you will change your mind.

In this open letter, Dr. Boghossian, I offer you the opportunity to demonstrate your  doxastic openness  with respect to your definition of the word faith.

You define faith in two ways: belief without evidence, and pretending to know things one doesn’t know. You say on page 23 of your book, “If one had sufficient evidence to warrant belief in a particular claim, then one wouldn’t believe the claim on the basis of faith. ‘Faith’ is the word one uses when one does not have enough evidence to justify holding a belief, but when one just goes ahead and believes anyway.”

I’m speaking only of Christian faith in my letter to you today; I have no interest in whether your definitions apply in other religious contexts. I’m not trying to show that your definitions are wrong in every context, for I know  you can find  Christians who would agree with you that faith is belief without evidence. I’m disputing your position that your definitions are the only correct ones. They are not. In this letter I intend to show that among people who have given it serious thought, the definitions you espouse are minority usages, and therefore rarely accurate overall.

To be more specific, I intend to demonstrate:

  1. The predominant, conventional usage(s) of any term is (are) to be determined by looking at the relevant literature.
  2. The relevance of literature for the defining of terms has nothing to do with whether that literature is believed to be true. Both fiction and non-fiction can determine the usage of a word, and can implant its conventional usage into a culture.
  3. The Bible, being the Christian’s primary source document, is the proper source to look to first in defining “faith” as Christians use the term — whether or not one believes in its truth or accuracy.
  4. The Bible presents faith in terms quite contrary to “pretending to know” and “belief without evidence.”
  5. Subsequent Christian thinkers have also presented faith in contrary terms.
  6. While some Christians may speak of faith as an epistemology, that is not the usual understanding of the term.
  7. In contrast to that, you present faith as being defined strictly and exclusively as an epistemology, as belief without evidence, and as pretending to know.
  8. If Christians are wrong in our treatment of evidences, or if some Christians understand none of it at all, those circumstances do not make your definitions correct. If we are wrong, we are wrong, not “believing without evidence” or “pretending to know.”
  9. Therefore, based on the way faith is used in the relevant literature, and in spite of the fact that some usages of faith may agree with your understanding, you are wrong to describe faith exclusively as an epistemology, as “belief without evidence,” and “pretending to know what one does not know.”

I call on you to examine the evidence I present here, and to demonstrate your doxastic openness by publicly admitting that your definitions of faith are (a) not the only correct ones, (b) largely inaccurate with respect to the historic usage of the word, and therefore (c) not necessarily descriptive of faith as practiced by Christians today, and (d) certainly not normative.

Words, Definitions, and Literature

Definitions are a matter of convention. Words acquire their meanings through their use in literature and in conversation. This is true of the word faith just as much as for any other word: the word is defined by the way it is conventionally used in the literature. Now, the literature on faith has been dominated for centuries by the Bible. This is undeniably the case whether one believes anything in the Bible is true or not. That is, the way the word is used in the Bible and in the subsequent literature determines the meaning of the word.

I have argued this point frequently on my blog and also in discussions following my review of your [email protected] Many readers have objected to my use of the Bible in determining the word’s definition, saying that we can’t know what’s in the Bible is true. but they misunderstand the history and uses of language. The word orc has a meaning. Though many fantasy writers have used the word work in their novels and stories, undoubtedly the definition of the term is dominated by the way J. R. R. Tolkien used it in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. So we see that it’s not necessary for literature to be true for it to be the foundation upon which the word’s definition is built and maintained.

“Faith” and Its Usage in the Primary Literature

Of course I believe the Bible is true, and you believe that it is mostly not true. We can set that aside, as it’s not the point in question in my letter to you today. My focus is strictly on the use of the word faith; and in the Bible, as well as in the subsequent literature, faith is rarely used in the manner in which you characterize it.

Let me illustrate. In Matthew 9:18-30a, we read,

While he was saying these things to them, behold, a ruler came in and knelt before him, saying, “my daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” And Jesus rose and followed him, with his disciples. And behold, a woman who had suffered from a discharge of blood for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment, for she said to herself, “If I only touch his garment, I will be made well.” Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well. And when Jesus came to the ruler’s house and saw the flute players and the crowd making a commotion, he said, “go away, for the girl is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him but when the crowd had been put outside he went in and took her by the hand and the girl rose. And the report of this went through all that district.

And as Jesus passed on from there, two blind men followed him, crying aloud, “Have mercy on us, Son of David.” When he entered the house, the blind men came to him, and Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They said to him, “Yes, Lord.” Then he touched their eyes, saying, “According to your faith be it done to you.” And their eyes were opened.

In a parallel passage, Mark 5:36, while on the way to the ruler’s house Jesus tells him, “do not fear, only believe.”

Pretending To Know What One Does Not Know?

Now in this passage, Dr. Boghossian, I am going to follow the strategy that you used on pages 24 through 26 of your book, replacing the word faith with “pretending to know things you don’t know.” Here we see Jesus, by that, methodology saying, “take heart, daughter; your pretending to know things you don’t know has made you well.” He said to the ruler, “Do not fear, only pretend to know things you do not know.” He told the blind men, “According to your pretense of knowing what you don’t know be it done to you.”

The woman’s pretending to know things she didn’t know resulted in her healing. The ruler’s pretense resulted in his daughter’s being raised from death. The blind men were healed according to their pretending to know things they did not know.

If you’re right, then that’s how it comes out in the literature that is most responsible for producing the Western world’s understanding of faith. But your version is completely absurd, as I’m sure you can see. Faith has never been understood—by those who have thought about it carefully, at least— as a pretense at knowledge. That definition is completely unsupported in the literature.

Belief Without Evidence?

And what about the idea that faith is belief without evidence? That definition has a longer pedigree. It goes back to at least the 19th century, when Ambrose Bierce, author of The Devil’s Dictionary, wrote “faith is belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.” Similar ideas can be found as early as the second century CE, as we’ll see in a moment—and they were rebutted as early as the second century as well.

Many dictionaries today define faith as belief without proof. As a philosopher, you know very well that evidence and proof are two different things, and that therefore the common dictionary definitions lend no support to your contention that faith should be defined as belief without evidence.

Bierce’s view of faith was on the fringe when he articulated it. What does the dominant literature have to say on it? Again we can look to the Bible, still setting aside the question of whether the Bible is true or not, but only asking what its effect on the conventional usage of faith has been. And here we find massive evidences for faith. Moses called on the Israelites to believe in God because of what they had seen: the plagues, the opening of the Red Sea, the water from the rock, manna from heaven, smoke and fire of God. Jesus called on the disciples to believe because he showed them his power. He multiplied the loaves and fishes. He calm the storm with the word. Acts 1:3 says, “Jesus presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” I could go on and on.

Thus we see that if faith is defined as belief without evidence, then while Jesus was presenting proofs, he was undermining faith. Clearly in the literature dominating the usage of faith it does not present it as anything remotely like belief without evidence.

“Faith” In Subsequent Literature

The following are a small but representative sampling of how “faith” has been used down through the centuries. (This material is freely adapted from the work of David Marshall at creatingatheists.com. I use block quotes in this section for primary sources, and quotation marks outside of block quotes where I quote from David’s comments. Sources for these quotes may be found on the linked page.)

Clement of Alexandria wrote,

So also here, I call him truly learned who brings everything to bear on the truth; so that, from geometry, and music, and grammar, and philosophy itself, culling what is useful, he guards the faith against assault….

Origen disputed an opponent of the faith named Celsus on many points, one of which he describes thus in Contra Celsus:

He [Celsus] next proceeds to recommend, that in adopting opinions we should follow reason and a rational guide, since he who assents to opinions without following this course is very liable to be deceived. And he compares inconsiderate believers to Metragytae, and soothsayers, and Mithrae, and Sabbadians, and to anything else that one may fall in with, and to the phantoms of Hecate, or any other demon or demons. For as amongst such persons are frequently to be found wicked men, who, taking advantage of the ignorance of those who are easily deceived, lead them away whither they will, so also, he says, is the case among Christians. And he asserts that certain persons who do not wish either to give or receive a reason for their belief, keep repeating, “Do not examine, but believe!: and “Your faith will save you!”

But the whole point of Contra Celsus is to give reasons for belief, pointing to multiple lines of evidence, “including archaeology, miracles, history both secular and Christian, and especially prophecy.”

Concerning Augustine of Hippo, Marshall quotes from Kenneth Samples,

In his Sermon (43.7, 9) Augustine asserted: Crede, ut intelligas (‘Believe in order that you may understand’). For Augustine, faith (“trust in a reliable source”) is an indispensable element in knowledge. One must believe in something in order to know anything. Knowledge begins with faith and faith provides a foundation for knowledge. Faith is itself indirect knowledge (like testimony or authority). While faith comes first in time, knowledge comes first in importance. Faith and reason do not conflict, but instead complement one another. Augustine believed that while reason does not cause faith, reason everywhere supports faith. Augustine also argued that Christians should seek to use their reason to understand doctrines (the Trinity, Incarnation, etc.) that are given via divine revelation (thus ‘faith seeking understanding’). Augustine’s writings about the role of faith influenced Credo, ut intelligam (‘I believe in order that I might understand’) by St. Anselm (a.d. 1033-1109).

Aquinas wrote,

The existence of God and other like truths about God, which can be known by natural reason, are not articles of faith, but are preambles to the articles; for faith presupposes natural knowledge, even as grace presupposes nature and perfection the perfectible.

From effects not proportioned to the cause no perfect knowledge of that cause can be obtained. Yet from every effect the existence of the cause can be clearly demonstrated, and so we can demonstrate the existence of God from His effects; though from them we cannot know God perfectly as He is in His essence.

Marshall adds this comment from Historian Donald Treadgold:

Aquinas’ great achievement was to expound the relation between faith and reason in such a way that those who regarded Aristotle as authoritative in philosophy could wholeheartedly remain Christian . . . to build strong intellectual foundations for Christianity and to vindicate the use of reason . . . (A History of Christianity, 110) .

And also this from philosopher Richard Swinburne:

“The Summa doesn’t start from faith or religious experience or the Bible; it starts from the observable world . . . While I realized that the details were not always satisfactory, it seemed to me that the approach of the Summa was 100 percent right. I came to see that the irrationalist spirit of modern theology was a modern phenomena, a head-in-the-sand defensive mechanism. In general, I believe, it is the spirit of St. Thomas rather than the spirit of Kierkegaard that has been the more prevalent over two millennia of Christian theology.” (Philosophers Who Believe)

John Locke had this to say:

Reason, therefore . . . I take to be the discovery of the certainty or probability of such propositions or truths, which the mind arrives at by deduction made from such ideas, which it has got by the use of its natural faculties; viz., by sensation or reflection.

Faith, on the other side, is the assent to any proposition, not thus made out by the deductions of reason, but upon the credit of the proposer, as coming from God, in some extraordinary way of communication. This way of discovering truths to men we call revelation.

C. S. Lewis wrote in various places,

Have we now got to a position from which we can talk about Faith without being misunderstood? For in general we are shy of speaking plain about Faith as a virtue. It looks so like praising an intention to believe what you want to believe in the face of evidence to the contrary: the American in the old story defined Faith as ‘the power of believing what we know to be untrue.’ Now I define Faith as the power of continuing to believe what we once honestly thought to be true until cogent reasons for honestly changing our minds are brought before us.”

There is, of course, no question so far of belief without evidence. We must beware of confusion between the way in which a Christian first assents to certain propositions, and the way in which he afterwards adheres to them. These must be carefully distinguished. Of the second it is true, in a sense, to say that Christians do recommend a certain discounting of apparent contrary evidence, and I will later attempt to explain why. But so far as I know it is not expected that a man should assent to those propositions in the first place without evidence or in the teeth of the evidence. At any rate, if anyone expects that, I certainly do not. And in fact, the man who accepts Christianity always thinks he had good evidence; whether, like Dante, [physical and metaphysical argumentation], or historical evidence, or the evidence of religious experience, or authority, or all these together. For of course authority, however we may value it in this or that particular instance, is a kind of evidence.

I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of the evidence is against it. That is not the point at which Faith comes in. But supposing a man’s reason once decides that the weight of the evidence is for it. I can tell that man what is going to happen to him in the next few weeks. There will come a moment when… all at once his emotions will rise up and carry out a sort of blitz on his belief. […] I am not talking of moments at which any real new reasons against Christianity turn up. Those have to be faced and that is a different matter. I am talking about moments where a mere mood rises up against it. “Now Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods. For moods will change, whatever view your reason takes.

Many more examples could be adduced, but this small sampling from major Christian writers should suffice to show that faith, conventionally understood, is by no means contrary to evidence or knowledge.

Faith As An Epistemology

You claim, Dr. Boghossian, that faith is an epistemology, and an unreliable one at that. You give examples of people who “know” that Jesus walked on water “because they have faith that he did.” If that’s how they “know” it, then of course in such instances faith could be described as an epistemology. But you present it is though that were all there is to be said about it; you give no place for faith being anything other than that. This is not the way faith is conventionally understood, however.

In my case, I know Jesus walked on water the same way you know that the core of the earth consists of a molten nickel-iron mix: through the reliable testimony of credible authorities. That is to say, I have evidences leading me to believe that the writers of the Gospels recorded events accurately and faithfully, and I have no reason to doubt that the walking-on-water incident was any different from anything else they recorded correctly. If that’s using faith as a religious epistemology, then you likewise are using faith as an earth science epistemology. But in fact it’s not accurate to call that an epistemology in either of our cases.

Here’s another example where faith is undeniably involved. I have faith that Jesus will return. Do I have “evidence” that he will? Not in the sense of seeing his tracks in the sky heading our direction, obviously! But I do have evidence supporting the ideas that (a) Jesus made the promise of his return, that (b) he has the power to fulfill the promise, and that (c) he is known to be one who tells the truth. In this case, the epistemology behind my expectation of Jesus’ return is identical in form to the epistemology behind my expectation that my wife will come back from the errand she’s currently running. Faith enters in identically in both places: I have faith in the character and promises of Jesus Christ, and I have faith in my wife’s character and promises.

(I know you claim that faith must only be used in religious contexts, but that’s an idiosyncratic, authoritarian, move on your part, completely divorced from the term’s conventional usage, motivated by your rhetorical purposes rather than by any evidence concerning the conventional usage of faith. There’s no reason for anyone to pay such a tactic the slightest attention.)

What C. S. Lewis wrote, quoted above, is especially apropos here. Faith is not (at least not necessarily, or not always) the way we come to know anything. It’s the attitude of holding on to what we know, even when present circumstances seem to make that knowledge uncertain.

But What If Our Beliefs Are All Wrong?

At this point I expect another objection, for I have heard it from others, and indeed it’s an obvious one. “Sure, you Christians claim to base your faith on evidences, but you’re all quite mistaken about the whole thing.” That’s an interesting topic and worthy of much discussion, but not here: for present purposes there’s no need here for me to take up the question whether we’re right or wrong. There are some things we can surely agree on, and those few things are enough for my purposes here.

Surely there’s no denying that Christians present evidences for our beliefs: that’s what the whole enterprise of Christian apologetics is all about. (There’s a branch of apologetics, presuppositionalism, that eschews evidentialism, but that’s beside the point here: there are still plenty of apologists presenting plenty of evidences.) So faith cannot be belief without evidence. It might be belief based on mistaken interpretation of evidences, but that’s an entirely different matter. Ptolemy based his cosmology on the evidences available, which he misinterpreted. His view of the universe wasn’t evidence-free. It was just wrong. The problem is not in our faith, it’s in our interpretation of evidences.

Similarly, if we’re mistaken about our beliefs, we’re not pretending to know things we don’t know. We’re mistaken. Being mistaken and pretending are two different things. Ptolemy wasn’t pretending to know the earth was at the center of the universe. He was just wrong.

And What About Christians Who Misunderstand All This?

In your book, on page 122, you describe people who resist your re-definitions of faith as “suffering from severe doxastic pathologies.” On page 73, you tell us, with emphasis, that “Every religious apologist is epistemically debilitated.” Thank you for that compliment; it goes nicely with your espoused value of considering a person of faith as “someone who needs your help—as opposed to passing judgment. A positive, accepting attitude will translate into an increased likelihood of treatment effectiveness” (p. 68). May I tell you how deeply I appreciate your non-judgmentalism expressed there?

At any rate, your advice is not to tangle with people who have thought through these matters — apologists, for example. That’s a wise tactical move on your part. You will find considerably more success among Christians who have given little thought to what their faith really means, or where it comes from. But this letter is not about tactical success or failure, it is about the definition of faith. Sure, you can find people of faith who can’t articulate a clear reason for belief or a sound definition of the term. Their lack of knowledge or skill does not make their position normative.

Recap and Invitation to Respond

This letter has run long, I know, but there was much to say. To recapitulate,, I have made these points:

  1. The historically predominant and conventional usage of (Christian) faith is to be determined by looking at the relevant literature.
  2. The relevance of literature for the defining of terms has nothing to do with whether that literature is believed to be true. Both fiction and non-fiction can determine the usage of a word, and can implant its conventional usage into a culture.
  3. The Bible, being the Christian’s primary source document, is therefore the proper source to look to first in defining Christian faith, whether or not one believes in its truth or accuracy.
  4. The Bible presents faith in terms quite contrary to “pretending to know” and “belief without evidence.”
  5. Subsequent Christian thinkers have also presented faith in contrary terms.
  6. While some Christian thinkers may speak of faith as an epistemology, that is not the usual understanding of the term.
  7. In contrast to that, you present faith as being defined strictly and exclusively as an epistemology, as belief without evidence, and as pretending to know.
  8. If Christians are wrong in our treatment of evidences, or if some Christians understand none of it at all, those circumstances do not make your definitions correct. If we are wrong, we are wrong, not “believing without evidence” or “pretending to know.”
  9. Therefore, based on the way faith is used in the relevant literature, and in spite of the fact that some usages of faith may agree with your understanding, you are wrong to describe faith exclusively as an epistemology, as “belief without evidence,” and “pretending to know what one does not know.”

You affirm doxastic openness, and you maintain that if you are shown to be wrong in any belief, you will change your mind. Now is your opportunity to demonstrate that you mean what you say.

 

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