03 January, 2012

Do We Need Faith?

The topic that I wish to discuss here is, obviously, faith. I wrote this in response to an argument that I often hear that is phrased in a few different ways. The core of this argument is either that we all have faith in something or another, or that statement's corollary, that we need faith/cannot live life without some sort of faith.

This line of thinking is deeply troublesome to me, for several reasons. But before we launch into my critique of the argument, let us first examine an example of how it is usually brought up in discussion, typically with some form of religious adherent or another (all of these statements have actually been observed):
There's just one question that you have to ask
yourself. Is that car going to stay in it's lane, or
not? Well? Do you feel faithful, punk?
Well, do ya?

'Everybody has faith in something or another. I have faith in God. You have faith that there is no God. You have faith that the oncoming drivers will stay in their lane and not swerve over into yours. You have faith that when you sit down in a chair that it will support your weight. We cannot avoid having faith, therefore, we all have faith. And since we all have faith, faith is (and here is where it can differ) a good thing (or) an intrinsic part of being human that cannot be avoided.'

At first glance, this seems like a legitimate counter to (my) claims that faith is something which is to be avoided, and something which is not desirable as a part of the cognitive processes in the quest toward truth. If, in fact, we all have some sort of faith, then clearly faith cannot be avoided. And (and this is the unspoken part which is perhaps the most incisive of all) since we must use faith in our everyday life to navigate our environment (think: the chair, the drivers), faith can be a valid path toward truth.

First, we must unfortunately play the semantics game. I find myself constantly having to pin down the definition of what the word 'faith' means in the context of these discussions. So, here it is, once more:
Faith is a noun. It means a belief that was formed in the absence of evidence and/or experience, or that is held despite evidence and/or experience to the contrary, regardless of whether that evidence and/or experience was available at the time the belief was formed.
Important to note here is that at no point does that definition include mention of superstition, religion, deities, et al., and so therefore I do not consider a belief in such to automatically be faiths (though they often are).

So, on to the refutation. Do we all have faith?

1. Must we have faith?

I wonder if this boy is aware of the philosophical
ramifications of his chair-sitting
To specifically address the example with the chair (again, because the chair example seem to be the one which is trotted out time and again, but I digress...), I submit the following:

I do not have faith that the chair holds me up. More precisely, even if I choose to have faith that the chair will do so, I don't need to have that faith, and I can operate just fine without that faith. But how?

I see the chair in front of me. I have learned, through the course of my life (trillions of repetitions) that I can generally trust my eyesight's reliability (especially when it comes to recognizing chairs and other solid objects). Ergo, I can rationalize my decision to rely on the information my eyes are giving me; in this case, that there is a chair in front of me.

As I sit down on this chair, placing my weight upon it, I do so because through years and years of repeated experience I have learned that the solid objects in the world around me tend to be impermeable to my body. I also know why this is so (it has to do with the Pauli exclusion principle), but that is not necessary. It is enough that I have repeated (at least) tens of thousand of what might be called experiments, and in each, my body has failed to pass through a solid object (though it has, in some cases, broken them).

Now, you might ask, what about the first time that one comes upon a chair? With no prior knowledge, isn't that first experiment; the first time that one sits in a chair; a leap of faith? Even if we discount every instance when we encounter a solid object from birth to that moment, we can still rationalize that sitting in a chair is safe. We see other people do it all the time, with no deleterious effect. We can reason that such an object was created for a purpose, and that that purpose appears to be for sitting. There are literally dozens of ways that one could figure out that a chair is most likely safe for seating without having to recourse to faith.

I feel like I'm exhausting the point, but I want to be absolutely clear that no faith is required for that particular example.

We can then proceed with argument by analogy that faith is not necessary in any circumstance. An open challenge that a few acquaintances and I have formed seeks to find some instance when faith is incontrovertibly necessary. No challenges have succeeded. Faith just isn't necessary.

That is not to say, however, that faith is impossible or that faith is necessarily undesirable. Clearly, one could simply have faith that the chair will bear his or her weight. But, and this is a crucial 'but,' they don't have to. They could, should they choose, use reason. And since we can always use reason instead of faith, faith is not necessary.

This is really only possible because we have a fortunate consistency in physical laws and the observations thereof. No matter where we look in the universe, and no matter how many times we repeat an experiment, we always see the same laws of nature. It is this consistency, and our experience therewith, that allows us collectively and individually to accumulate knowledge and make accurate predictions about the future.

Including that the damned chair will hold up my weight No faith need be involved.

2. Is faith good?

Now that we have established that faith is not necessary, an important question comes up: is faith desirable? Since we have a choice between faith and reason (and guessing, for that matter), what is the best choice for a route toward truth?

Clearly, both faith and reason seek to discover (or establish) precisely what is true and what isn't. However, the two processes, faith and reason, are drastically different in their approach.

Faith, as we defined earlier, is a belief (about what is/isn't true) formed without evidence or held in spite of evidence. In other words, one simply makes an assumption about what is true, and stops there. Often, this assumption is guided by one's desires to see something be true. Other times, it is based upon what one is told is true. Rarely, it is based upon previous experiences. In each case, the core process is the same: an assertion is made and that is where the process stops.

Reason, on the other hand, begins with an assumption [in this case called a hypothesis] but then move on to testing and modification. The hypothesis is tested with logic and/or experiment and modified according to the results of that test. To put it another way, one begins with an assumption. Then, that assumption is checked for logical soundness and validity. Next, that assumption is tested in some sort of experiment in which it's truth can be directly tested. Finally, the results of those checks and experiments are used to modify the original assumption into a new one.

But the process is not over. The new assumption, the result of modification based upon testing and checking, and now called a 'theory,' is now fed back in to the beginning of the entire chain and the cycle starts anew. Through this process, an idea is constantly refined and modified in relentless pursuit of truth.

At any point along the continuum, the resulting theory is better than the assumption/hypothesis that we begin with. Whether a theory has been fed through the cycle once or one thousand times, it is necessarily closer to the truth than it was to begin with. This is why reason is superior to faith.

Faith has the potential to get the right answer, but contains no mechanism for self-correction or even of verification. When one uses faith, one has no real way of knowing whether or not that faith is true, nor of correcting if it is not. Essentially, the best that faith can do is an educated guess; a shot in the dark.

Without delving into morals (which would provide another plank in the case against faith), we can demonstrate that it [faith] is inferior to reason as a path to truth. So, in the end, no. Faith is not preferable to reason in any case. Faith is not good.