Good Reason

It's okay to be wrong. It's not okay to stay wrong.

Conversations with The Priest, part one: Faith

I had an interesting conversation yesterday with a church leader type person. I’ll call him The Priest. He’s a good guy. He thinks he’s fighting for my soul, which is very nice of him. He has some funny ideas, but they’re the same funny ideas that I had until recently. I think I understand his view better than he understands mine.

He was talking about the importance of having faith. I don’t like the idea of faith because if a theory is really valid, it works whether you believe in it or not. Nobody gets all funny about having to believe in gravity — it just works.

So he asked me, “What is faith?”

I thought it was perhaps a rhetorical question, until he repeated, “What is faith? I’m asking you.”

Well, he asked for it. So I told him what I’d written in my journal some weeks earlier:

“Faith is the willingness to suspend critical reasoning facilities in the service of a belief for which there is no adequate evidence.”

He was silent for quite a while after that. He didn’t seem happy, but he listened as I explained.

“What if I told you,” I said, “that there was a race of blue fairies that lived in the shrubbery outside? You’d expect some kind of evidence before you believed it, I hope. But what if, instead of providing you with some evidence, I merely told you to have faith?”

He’s not likely to believe in the fairies. It doesn’t do anything for him. Maybe if his mom and dad and everyone he knew believed… well, let’s just say that people can be induced to have faith in a good many things. And this has a lot to do with the way we reason.

We are bombarded by data all the time. Luckily, we have some pretty good cognitive tools that help us to group things and cut down the complexity. We can recognise that a group of shapes coming towards us is a bus, and we can get out of the way. We can categorise ideas (right- or left-wing, new-agey) or occurrences (coincidence, miracle, odd, mundane). Finding patterns in data helps us make sense of the world.

A problem comes when we used biased reasoning. Bias tends to confirm what we already believe, whether it’s valid or not. I view faith as a kind of bias, where the believer

  • accepts the patterns of a belief system
  • interprets essentially random data in a way that seems to confirm the belief system, and
  • uses this biased interpretation as evidence that the belief system is true.
  • Over time, as this cycle repeats, the certainty of the believer increases. It quickly reaches the point where, when confronted with facts that contradict the belief system, the believer dismisses the facts and keeps the system.

    One example of ‘exercising faith’ in my religion of origin is the practise of the ‘laying on of hands’ for the healing of the sick. It’s not unusual for someone to ask for a ‘blessing’ when ill. Sometimes they get better, and they have a great story to tell at church. Sometimes they don’t, but believers never seem to take this to mean the practice is ineffective. Some other explanation is invoked, such as the need to ‘understand God’s will’. I don’t know if anyone’s done the numbers to see if people with blessings get better more quickly or more often than people without. I suppose that having faith means not conducting such a test in the first place. And then explaining your way around it when it doesn’t seem to work.

    For me, learning about critical thinking broke the cycle of faith. I learned that I was engaging in many different kinds of bad reasoning in my religious practice, including selective sampling, wishful thinking, confirmation bias, and cognitive blackouts when a line of thinking became too threatening to a cherished belief. (I plan to treat each of these in future posts.)

    I could go back to ‘exercising faith’ after learning about all of this. But to do so, I’d have to be willing to suspend my critical reasoning skills, and instead just believe the beliefs. Accept the pattern. Start interpreting things according to the theory. In time, it’ll seem like it’s true.

    Of course it would. Any system is more believable if you’re willing to believe in it. But that’s not good evidence.

    This kind of talk upsets The Priest. His faith makes so much sense to him. As you might expect.


    1. I have an ongoing argument with my office share about these sorts of ideas. He isn’t a theist, but he’s also not willing to sign up to science. I am also an atheist, but have a lot of respect for science. His argument is Rorty-an – you can never escape language so you can never claim anything is true. My position is buddhist – you can explore a view without having to believe it. Do you see ‘critical thinking’ as very different to scientific method?

    2. As I understand it, critical thinking uses the scientific method. Does that sound right?

      That language view is a great one: I have figured out the ultimate theory of the universe. It explains everything and leaves nothing out. Unfortunately, it has as a central tenet the idea that all language is meaningless and false. So I can’t explain it to you.

      It’s a good one though.

    3. lol – so it’s not just me then!

      My understanding is that critical thinking and scientific method are both based on logic (and identification of fallacy)?

      He’s doing a PhD on suicide (really interesting piece of work) and he’s using a social constructionist methodology. But essentially he’s doing it to try to open up the debate from the construction of suicide being bio-medical so he has a ‘thing’ about science. I keep needling him saying ‘but what reasoning are you using to argue? Surely it is scientific method?’ And then he goes back to the ‘there is nothing outside language argument’ What annoys him is scientists saying that things are ‘true’ and I do have sympathy with that view but I like to push him to explain himself better.

      Scientific method works better on scientific topics than human ones. Critical thinking works better, but there is a fundamental error in thinking that humans operate as logical systems! So bio-medicine is often finding itself confounded by contradictions. So Rorty probably has his uses.

    4. I decided to read a little about Rorty just now so I could understand where he’s coming from. I like some of the ideas (which doesn’t mean they’re valid!), but I’m just getting started on him.

      There are two things bugging me though:

      1) Your friend doesn’t seem to trust science.
      Well, okay, but I’m wondering what your friend does trust instead. Intuition? Superstition? How do those do the job any better?

      I like Richard Feynman’s quote: “Science is a way of trying not to get fooled.” Not sure if a phenomenon is valid? Need to find out if something’s really happening, or just all in your head? Nothing does a better job at that than science. If an idea can make it through logic, empirical verification, reproducability, statistical tests — then, shoot, that’s pretty good, because that’s a mighty tough gauntlet to run. I’ll buy that.

      Nothing in all of human endeavor has been as sucessful as science. Nothing.

      2) This idea that language somehow impedes understanding or communication.

      This is just the old Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis saying, “Oh, you can never understand something if it’s not a concept in your language.” When, in fact, we can and do.

      Language imposes some weak constraints, but even the imagination of a child is able to overcome it. (Maybe that’s not a good way to say it — the imagination of a child can be a considerable force.)

      Language gives us so much more than it takes away. I’d venture to say that without language, we wouldn’t be able to even have very complex thoughts. Claiming that it represents some kind of obstacle to expression comes very close to ingratitude.

      I do think your comments are interesting. I have also noticed that things do get trickier when we’re talking about human topics, especially speaker-dependent topics, like perceptions and emotions. Then we step back from facts and rely on argument. But that’s okay. Even hunches have their place.

    5. I think the difficulty of science in addressing human topics lies in humans’ frequent unpredictability and the fact they often act illogically. Psychology has made a reasonable attempt at applying scientific method to humans at a group level but it still isn’t as reliable as, say, a chemical reaction. I suppose you could claim a little bit of validity in terms of things like ‘statistical significance’ etc. My colleague is arguing against the notion that everyone who commits suicide has a mental illness. So it’s fair to dispute ‘mental illness’ as a ‘truth’ in that context. My friend puts faith in science when he crosses the road and remembers not to get hit by a car and when he’s grateful that someone invented the iPod.

      Psychologists often construct more and more complex structures to justify their claims which may have been reached through applying a scientific method. However they are a lot harder to disprove than saying ‘water doesn’t boil when it reaches 100degrees’. The experimental process doesn’t work in the same way.

      That’s why I was wondering whether critical thinking was in some ways more powerful than scientific method (which would necessitate a difference…)

    6. ‘Scientific method works better on scientific topics than human ones.’

      No, it works equally well there.

    7. What is science? Is it not simply a way of looking at things from a certain point of view? From an objective, logical perspective in line with a set of equations, formulas and “facts” which have been proven within this realm of science and the scientific method. Why do we say that science is above all else? Why should this scientific method tower above all other methods of investigation? True, objectivity ensures fairness. But, by accepting only what science says, and by closing our eyes to all other types of analysis, we might be missing out. To accept without question is wrong. Whether this accpetance is of faith, or indeed of this “science” that we all feel is so unquestioningly correct.

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