What is faith?


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Gentle Reader,

There are a number of articles out there about what constitutes evidence: i.e. epistemological discussions on how can we know anything is real, and once we accept our environment, which input must we have for it to be evidence of what is real.  This has led me to a question of faith; or rather: what faith is.  In the past I’ve thought of faith as belief without evidence.  However, do we ever really believe anything without evidence?  Or is it simply incredulous evidence to which we are susceptible that forms our faith? far

A great deal of what we learn, the things we “know”, are things told to us by people we trust.  These people are our teachers, our friends, and our parents.  But even with these close roles in positions of authority, still we do not believe blindly.  We believe because of the many times that the information from these sources is verified.  It starts with the basics – information about protection and survival: going out in the rain can make you cold, touching the stove did hurt, and people that care tell you things that are true to protect you.  Our friends share social truths about how the world works.  Our teachers list facts for us, and teach us to think.  In each of these, we test any comment we can against experience and our environment.

We could even push this argument further, and say that most of what we think we know came from human sources, and has not been fully verified.  The more doubtful we are of the source, the more likely we are to want to see the data behind the claim.  However, if the source has often given us useful and correct information (consider for example the New York Times, or CNN, or Stephen Hawking), we are probably willing to take their word that they’ve done the proper validation, and have the proper supporting data.

But what happens when we are told something that we do not have the tools to test (e.g. I tend to believe what Hawking calculates because of a very small subset of things I’ve checked and the fact that others are checking his work, but I don’t even have the tools to check most of it)?  If we have an established trust with that person, wouldn’t we take anything they say as evidence (not proof, but evidence)?  If it’s an unfalsifiable claim (of ghosts, of gods, etc.), we now have the trusted word for it and no way to gather evidence against the claim.  Carl Sagan said “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, but if your parents, and your friends, and your teachers all tell you the same unfalsifiable claim it begins to feel extraordinary, and from your perspective, this would be evidence.  Hence, it seems to me that faith isn’t belief without evidence, but rather belief with only social evidence.    

This is why it’s so hard for the secular ideas to take root.  Since you can’t prove the supernatural isn’t real (and understanding it’s a poorly defined concept is really hard), then explaining that there is no reason to believe comes across like an attack on the veracity of the people we cherish most.  I know (like most of you do) that my parents never (intentionally) told me anything that wasn’t true or at least for my own good.  So, why would I believe that they lied to me about there being a god?  Instead I had to realize that they were lied to by the people they trusted, and likely those people before them.  It’s true that there are some people (see winners of the Golden Crockoduck) who intentionally lie, but most are just duped.  This leads to another problem: since it is exactly the people that we trust whose word we take as evidence, what would it take for us now believe that trusted source was wrong?

It seems to me that faith is the unsubstantiated claims made by those we trust, and asking people to give up that faith isn’t just asking them to recognize that blind faith isn’t worth building a life on, but asking them to reject information from their most trusted sources.  I’d love to hear what you think.