Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Way to see by Faith, is to shut the Eye of Reason

I’d like to challenge the widely subscribed notion that faith is a virtue. Faith, as I understand it, is belief without sufficient evidence (and often belief in the face of evidence). Used in a religious context it is the certainty in a god or gods for whom there is no tangible evidence. Faith is employed to fill the space that would otherwise have been filled with reason.

Faith is the central requirement of every religion and so it is hardly surprising that clerics of every denomination hold as a virtue. Yet in no other context is recourse to faith considered virtuous. No one relies on faith when buying a car, when deciding whom to vote for, where to live, or whose medical advice to rely on. No parent in their right mind would allow their child to stroke a strange dog? Who dives into murky water without first checking the depth? Even in completely trivial activities such as choosing a washing detergent or going to see a film, few people will simply make their choice arbitrarily without consulting reviews or comparisons. Yet on a subject that informs the decisions and actions taken by people on a day-to-day basis, many are prepared to go on faith alone.

So would you not consider faith in a friend a virtue? It is a common response in defence of faith, yet it is sophistry or - more charitably - playing with the language. These are simply two different senses of the word faith. I would say that there is no such thing as faith in a friend – if a person’s nature or capabilities are so unmeasured, or in opposition to what would be desirable, how then can the person in question be counted a friend? If I were, for example, to ask a stranger, or mere acquaintance, or indeed a known thief, to housesit for me – then I would be employing faith. A friend is a friend precisely because their nature and qualities are known to some reasonable degree and are considered favourable.

So when referring to friends I prefer to use the word trust, as distinct from faith. Trust in my friends is foundered on empirical evidence. My friends will, for the most part go out of their way to help me. A friend will not deliberately, sabotage my happiness or cause me undue discomfort if it can be prevented. If this were not the case they would simply not qualify as friends.

Of course everyone requires different attributes in their friends and many people count dishonest and untrustworthy people amongst this number. If these same people (provided they are aware of the nature of their friends) were to trust or rely on the honesty of their untrustworthy or dishonest friends, then they would indeed by relying on faith. Yet is this really all that likely to happen? So it is my contention that the term faith in the context of friends is nearly always misused, and does not correlate with the meaning of faith applied to belief in the unknowable.

A much better argument would be that I have faith in science. I am as ill equiped to verify that the Holocaust occurred as I am to demonstrate the role of micro organisms in causing disease, yet I do not doubt the truth of either. There are incalculable millions of assertions made, in every field of human endeavour, which I take to be true yet I will probably never have the time or the ability to verify for myself. This will doubtless always be the case.

However what I have verified for myself is the method by which all scientific assertions consistently undergo rigorous scrutiny by people who do understand the relevant field. A new theory is not simply accepted because all the proponents of it are unanimous in their agreement. A theory is accepted when the opponents agree. When the critics are compelled to change their minds due to overwhelming evidence then it is safe to say that this is the best theory we have.

For example, I am led to understand that Quantum theory, whilst far beyond my grasp, is one of the most highly corroborated models in theoretical physics. I know that at the time of its proposal it was highly contentious and seriously debated by many. So as little as I understand it, it is enough for me to know that every mathematician who was able was following the debate and checking the maths. Maths doesn’t lie and, in the end, the best theory won by shear weight of evidence. It should be noted that this does not mean that it is correct, but it is without a shadow of reasonable doubt the best model we have to fit the facts.

So is faith necessary for religion? Yes. Is faith a virtue? I think not.

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