I owe a large debt of gratitude to James Lindsay and others for helping me discover something new about myself.
It goes back to weeks ago when I started interacting with the idea that “faith is belief without evidence.” I objected to that for reasons that didn’t include any evidences for faith. Several people came back and said, “Come on, Tom. If faith is belief with evidence, then show us that evidence.” I didn’t do it. They wondered why. I gave answers, and they weren’t satisfied with them. At times they speculated darkly that I was hiding some secret problem of not having any evidence after all. Perhaps I was keeping that hidden even from myself, to support my confirmation bias.
A Disposition Toward Taking Ideas Apart and Putting Them Together Again
Well, I’ve been reflecting, too, on why I haven’t answered the way they wanted. I woke up this morning with a fresh realization about that. The reason I haven’t done it is because it’s not the way I naturally work. Others can do it a lot better than I can. I have another mode of operation that’s more in tune with who I am.
It’s a matter of disposition. Apparently I’m not, primarily or by preference, a relayer and displayer of evidences. Evidences certainly matter to me, but they matter (along with all kinds of other ideas) as raw materials—raw materials for a kind of idea workbench, where I take ideas apart, put them together again, and check how they fit.
That’s the main thing I do here on this blog. It’s how I’m wired, it’s what I seem to be good at, and it’s what I enjoy—all of which matter a lot, considering I don’t get paid for writing here!
The Idea Workbench
Imagine an inventer (maybe even a mad scientist?) taking some new idea out to the garage/shop, to test it and see if he should add it to his collection of usable materials. He’s been collecting parts for years, and he’s had a reasonably good budget, so he’s got quite a jumble of hardware.
It seems rather mess out there, since he hardly ever throws anything away, but on closer inspection it’s not as bad as it looks. The workbench is neatly organized. He has his hardware sorted according to quality, the junk in one large corner, the great stuff in another, and in-between stuff in between. He keeps the junk because it’s useful in a way (although here I’m straining my analogy): when he gets a new piece of hardware, then more it looks and acts like the junk he has stored, the more likely it is to be junk. But he really prefers to test new stuff by comparing it with what’s in his good pile.
A Recent Negative Example
How does that fanciful illustration work out in reality? Let’s take the thought, “Faith, by definition, is always belief without evidence.” I put this idea on the test bench, and I pull out a few other ideas to test this one against. I am confident these other comparison ideas are solid, true, and widely shared; so if the new idea doesn’t fit with them it fails the test, and it goes in the junk pile.
So, here’s how that worked out recently when I took the above-mentioned definition of faith to the workbench. I pulled some comparison ideas out of my “good” pile. These were solid, true, non-controversial and widely shared ideas, listed here as numbers 1, 2, 3, and 5. I fastened them together (numbers 4, 6, and 7) with the screws and nails of logic.
- Jesus Christ is universally regarded as a character (either historical or fictional) who promoted faith.
- His characters’ influence (whether historical or fictional) has been so great that for a great proportion of humanity for thousands of years, “faith” has been understood to be that which Jesus Christ promoted.
- The character of Jesus Christ is known (whether as history or as fiction) as one who presented evidences for faith everywhere he went.
- Therefore, for a great proportion of humanity for thousands of years, faith meant belief according to evidences: that’s how the word was used.
- Definitions are a matter of how words are actually, conventionally used.
- Therefore the definition of “faith” could never have been strictly and only, “belief without evidence.”
- Therefore it is not true that “faith, by definition, is always belief without evidence.” It can’t be: it doesn’t fit with other ideas that are known to be true.
Number seven summarizes the result: there was no place left in the assembly to include, “Faith is always belief without evidence.” That meant it didn’t belong in the good pile. It was a junk idea.
A Powerful Approach That Not Everyone Prefers
That’s how I did it. It’s not the approach everyone prefers, though. Others who wanted to challenge Boghossian would have gone straight to the evidences:
- Boghossian says “faith is always belief without evidences.”
- But I have evidences a, b, c, … underpinning my faith.
- Therefore Boghossian is wrong.
That would have killed Boghossian’s theory right quick, too. It’s a great way to answer. I didn’t do it that way because I’m not wired that way. It’s not what I do most naturally: it’s not taking ideas apart and putting them back together to see how they fit.
It’s more direct than what I do, and for some people I’m sure it’s more satisfying than what I do. But note this: both methods show that Boghossian is wrong. Put the two approaches together and they make a really solid case, because if there is evidential reason to believe that Jesus was historical rather than ficitional, then faith in him could never have meant belief without evidences—not in any context.
But look again at what my approach offers that the usual evidential approach does not. It uses ideas that every halfway-informed person already has stored away in their “good” pile. Contrast that with an evidential approach, whereby, for example, we could argue for days over whether Suetonius serves as reliable near-contemporary attestation for the existence of Jesus in history. I don’t think the arguments against that are very good (I am informed about these topics, even if I don’t write about them), but that doesn’t mean the disputes couldn’t go on for days! No one, however, could rationally disagree with any of the “parts” I used to build my case against Boghossian’s definition. They’re all part of the common mental furniture of educated Westerners. If there’s a weakness in my case, it’s not in the parts, it’s in the assembly.
And I can’t think of anyone pulling together any strong objection to what I wrote, either to the parts or to the fasteners. Instead they said, “Where’s your evidence?” It’s a valid question, yet it has nothing to do with the case I had built. My objection to Boghossian’s definition doesn’t accomplish the same thing as an evidence-based argument, but it does seem to accomplish what it sets out to do, which is to show that his definition can’t be taken seriously from either an historical or linguistic perspective.
“But Where are the Evidences?”
Still I have to face the fact that although I like my approach well enough, it frustrates people who really want the evidences. I’ve tried to satisfy them by saying, “Look around the shop—the evidences are everywhere! Go to the libraries—the evidences are everywhere!” But this frustrates them, too, since they want me to put the evidences on the bench for display. The problem is, that’s not me: I don’t display things that way. I take them apart and put them together instead.
Now, that doesn’t mean I would never put some item of evidence out where others could examine it; I’m talking about a disposition I have, not a strict rule of life. I didn’t even recognize this disposition in myself until this morning. Now that I’ve seen it, I hope I’ll be more aware of how it both helps and hurts my writing. I might even end up displaying more evidences, the better to balance out my work.
A Preview of an Upcoming Positive Example
This isn’t only about figuring out what doesn’t fit. I’ve been asked, “What could cause you to give up your faith in Christ?” Some Christians answer that question, “The bones of Jesus Christ, showing he didn’t rise from the dead.” I think that’s weak. It’s too safe, for one thing, because how could anyone prove they were his bones? My answer instead would go like this: Any fact discovered anywhere that seriously undermined the tremendous coherence I find in the Christian worldvew.
I’ll write more on this soon. Here’s the short version of what I’ll say when I do that. When I take ideas apart and put them back together again, they fit together best when I assemble them according to a biblically-based view of reality. The ideas I’m talking about include everything in the shop. They include information gained from evidences. They include the facts of our shared humanness. They include the fasteners: the principles by which raw thinking materials are assembled together into solid structures, i.e., logic and reasoning.
When I try to assemble all those kinds of things in alignment with a Christian understanding of reality, they work. They fit. They make a solid, stable structure. No, it’s not flawless. There are a few pieces still laying on the workbench, puzzling me as to where they belong. But they come together that way a whole lot better than when I try to put them together in any other shape. If I try to assemble an atheistic/naturalistic framework, for example, it leaves humanness orphaned on the workbench, with no place to belong. I can’t find a place to attach it—at least not without hammering it into an unrecognizable shape.
I won’t detail the reasons for that today. This is just a preview of work I’ll be presenting over the next week or two. My purpose in mentioning it wasn’t to argue for which pieces fit which framework, but to explain and illustrate the way I prefer to work on questions like these.
Understanding Myself Better, I Have a Better Answer
So for those of you who have been wondering why I haven’t given you the evidences you asked for, that’s my answer. I’m disposed toward a different kind of discussion. It’s a better answer—more accurate, that is—than any I’ve given you before, because I understand myself and my reasons better now myself.