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Religion, science

What is Reason Based Faith?

In response to my last post, Dean Cameron has made the following snarky reply:

Perhaps some of us Religious People should consider taking up Reason-Based Faith!
Oh, wait. Some already have! Never mind.

I’m actually glad someone said this.  It brings into sharp relief a problem we run into in almost every discussion of religion.  Simply put, most people don’t understand the difference between faith and reason.

Now bear in mind — I understand that “faith” means different things to different people.  However, there’s an important epistemological principle that we must understand before we discuss faith in any detail.  There are two senses in which we can discuss the existence of a concept.  Some concepts exist simply because they are believed.  “Santa Claus” exists.  He is in the minds of millions of children, and as a concept, he exists.  Likewise, God exists.

Other kinds of concepts exist regardless of the context of people’s belief in them.  For instance, there are principles in algebra that simply work.  What we do to one side of an equation, we must do to the other side of the equation when we are simplifying.  Regardless of my belief about it, this principle does objectively exist.

We must keep this distinction in mind as we discuss faith.  I am not concerned with what any number of people believe about the nature of faith.  If their conception is sufficiently different from mine, than we are not talking about the same things.  I am talking about a real, objectively existing methodology, and calling it “Faith.”  We can call it whatever we like, and it doesn’t matter.  This methodology can be demonstrated.  It exists.

Now, on to working definitions of faith and reason.  I’ve written about this at length in my article, Science vs Religion. (I believe this is the most important article on my blog, bar none.  If you have not read it, please take the time to do so.)  Here is the crux of the entire article:

Science is the description of the ONLY possible way to acquire empirical knowledge.

If you disagree with this statement, then there are only a couple of possibilities:

1) You don’t know what science is.  Please, read the article I just linked to.

2) You have discovered a new methodology, and need to get your work in front of the Nobel Prize Committee at your earliest convenience.

It might sound as if I’m being overly dramatic, or sewing shut a case that still ought to be open, but I’m not.  Remember — what some people believe about science is not pertinent to a discussion of the real, objectively demonstrable process which I am referring to when I say “science.”  (Seriously.  If you haven’t read the article, READ IT! If you don’t understand this point, nothing in this article will make sense to you.)

Ok.  With all that (hopefully) out of the way, I will contrast science with its polar opposite, faith.  I will begin with a specific definition.  Faith is the belief in something despite evidence to the contrary, or a lack of evidence for the thing. This is, by definition, in direct opposition to the scientific method, which necessitates that knowledge requires evidence.  So, to make the point even more clear, we are not stretching our epistemological rights by saying:

Faith is belief which is by definition, NON-Scientific.

Since science is the ONLY possible way to arrive at knowledge, it is literally impossible to arrive at knowledge through faith.

I’m sorry to keep bashing a point, but let me make this abundantly clear.  If you do not agree with my definition of faith, that’s fine, but you and I are not talking about the same thing.  There IS an objectively real method of arriving at belief which consists of believing in that for which there is no evidence or evidence to the contrary. This is what I’m talking about when I say “faith.”  We can call it something else if it makes you happy, but the concept will exist, regardless of the word we use to refer to it.

So, with the working definitions in place, we can see that there are two concepts which are necessarily, by definition, in complete opposition.  There can be no agreement between the two.  Faith and Science are completely and utterly incompatible.  We can now move on to the next point.

What is Reason?

For this discussion, we will be using a very precise and limited definition of “reason.”  Again, remember, we are talking about real, objectively existing concepts, and the existence of other conceptions of reason is not pertinent.  The word is not important.  The concept is what we’re talking about.

Reason is the cognitive process by which we perform logic.  That’s it.  Logic is the description of how we move from premises to conclusions — how we see that a thing is true or false.  Reason is the faculty with which we perform logic.

So… how can there be reason based faith?  Simply put, there can’t be.  It’s like saying “married bachelor.”  Since reason is the faculty with which we perform science and thereby gain knowledge, and faith is, by definition, that which is not scientific (and by extension, not logical, and by extension, not reasonable), there simply cannot be “reason based faith.”

What do some people think they mean when they say “reason based faith”?

I don’t think Dean Cameron is an idiot.  Most likely, he’s pretty intelligent.  I would guess, based on his comment, that he doesn’t buy into a lot of religious lunacy, and believes that his religious beliefs are compatible with science and rationalism.  And to be honest, most of them probably are.

But that’s not reason based faith.  That’s reason based reason.  Something lines up with the evidence, and we believe it for that reason.  That’s not faith.

Some people believe that there are questions which are outside of the realm of science — questions of meaning, for instance, or the existence of God.  I’m sorry to be blunt, but these people are just wrong. God is a hypothesis.  The supernatural is a hypothesis. The special pleading for the existence of concepts for which there can be no scientific description is just that — special pleading.

I’m sorry for beating this horse to death, but if you don’t understand that last sentence, you don’t understand what science is.  Please, for the love of all that’s holy, read my article.

So, what it boils down to is this.  There are some kinds of religious beliefs which are factual.  We label them as “religious beliefs” because they happen to be part of the religious dogma, but in fact, they are scientific beliefs.  The evidence backs them up.  There are some kinds of religious beliefs which are not factual.   Science disagrees with them, and anyone who believes them is defying reason.  There simply is no middle ground.

So when someone says “Faith based reasoning,” what they’re trying to do is create a compromise between that which is supported by evidence and that which is not, and the compromise is simply impossible.   The scientific method accounts for degrees of certainty, for unfalsifiability, and for the Problem of Induction.  There is no place for faith to insert itself and add anything at all to the equation.

Dean is equivocating or he’s wrong.  Either he’s talking about the existence of a religion which is completely supported by the evidence — which is fine, but most people would call that a “philosophy,” not a religion — or he’s talking about something that’s just nonsensical.  (Or, he could simply be using another definition for faith, in which case, he might or might not be onto something.  We’d have to know exactly what his definition is before we could have a discussion about it.)

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6 thoughts on “What is Reason Based Faith?

  1. Which dean cameron? Certainly not me.

    Posted by dean cameron | January 13, 2010, 4:54 pm
  2. Lol… no… totally different email addresses and service providers, so… unless you have a pretty serious split personality, I’d guess it wasn’t you!

    Posted by hambydammit | January 13, 2010, 5:05 pm
  3. Mind discussing the difference between “belief without evidence”[i.e Faith] and “an educated guess”?

    Posted by Alison | January 16, 2010, 2:46 am
  4. Sure. An educated guess has two main connotations and common usages.

    To Joe Ordinary, an educated guess simply means a guess that isn’t a shot in the dark. There’s some reason to suspect that a thing is so, but not enough to say with certainty. Since many of the things we make “educated guesses” about aren’t terribly important, we can get away with a lot more leeway as evidence goes.

    You: Where do you want to eat?
    Me: I don’t know. I’m not familiar with any of these places.
    You: Well, that one over there is Zagat rated. It’s probably good.

    That’s an educated guess. You know that Zagat ratings tend to be given only to restaurants that are consistently above average. But you probably wouldn’t bet the farm on it. Zagat ratings are good for a year, and a lot can happen in a year. New management, high turnover, increase in prices to the point where it’s not a good value anymore. It’s just a guess. But it’s based on some good evidence.

    You: Where do you want to eat?
    Me: I don’t know anything around here. It’s up to you.
    You: (pointing towards a restaurant ad in a paper you just picked up) Let’s try there.

    That’s just a wild guess. Any restaurant at all can print an ad in a paper. You’ve never heard of the restaurant before. Etc… etc…

    This can also apply to science issues. For instance, I was recently asked about the difference between men and women’s reactions to casual sex in terms of desire to see the other person again. Based on the context of the question, I said, “I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing it might have something to do with vassopressin in males and oxytocin in females, as they are two chemicals that are associated with bonding in the sexes, respectively.”

    That’s not a hypothesis. I’m offering a direction of inquiry, not a hard fast opinion. The educated part of it is that I know something about what I’m talking about. The guess part is that I really don’t know enough to offer a scientifically authoritative answer.

    This is contrasted with faith, which does one of three things. (Yes, I know I normally say it’s two things.)

    1) There is no evidence for belief. (“I just know that humans can one day overcome their nature and end murder completely.”)
    2) There is substantial evidence contrary to the belief (and no supporting evidence). (“The world is 6000 years old.”)
    3) This is really the same as #1, {Edited for content} but I need to point out that sometimes, people cite invalid evidence for a thing. This gets a little more complicated, since it gets into the methods of evaluating the weight and validity of arguments, but it’s worth saying, since lots of Christians think there’s lots of evidence for the existence of God, or against evolution. They’re just wrong.

    Number three opens up a nasty can of worms. Is it faith when someone is either ignorant of the lack of evidence, or believes there is evidence when there is not? To be very, very pedantic, I’d say that this is a matter of local vs. global categorization. In other words, to the person who has not been shown evidence to the contrary, who genuinely believes that there is strong evidence in support of their belief, we can say that they may not be relying on faith. They may be using very good logic and very flawed information. (Remember our discussions about how a thing can be externally irrational but the belief in it could be rational?) {Edited for content.}

    This does not change the fact that in the abstract, Belief X is a faith based belief. That is, there is no evidence for it in the totality of human knowledge. Anyone who believes it does so objectively without any real knowledge. But it does raise another important question. Is there a substantial difference between behaviors stemming from faith based belief and those stemming from plain old wrong belief?

    Frankly, I think that question is too broad to deal with here, but I’d suggest that a good starting place for answering it would be examining whether the person holding the belief has dogmatic belief in its truth or is acting scientifically — always keeping his mind open and searching for the truth.

    Have I addressed what you were asking?

    {EDIT: I should add that the principle giveaway to a thing being faith based is the belief in faith as a virtue. Some people genuinely do believe that evidence is a bad thing when it contradicts certain beliefs. That’s pretty much always faith.}

    Posted by hambydammit | January 16, 2010, 4:02 am
  5. Yes and you even illustrated the problem I’ve been having when thinking about this. [#3]

    Posted by Alison | January 16, 2010, 3:03 pm


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