A Conversation about Faith

The following excerpt is a transcription of an extended conversation about faith I had with participants on a Bible forum.

Please note: 1) I came to the Bible forum on their invitation. Even then, I made clear from the start that I was not sympathetic to their point of view, and would be expressing views they might find uncomfortable, if I stayed — and only chose to stay after they said they still wanted me there, regardless. 2) I’ve edited the conversation down and broken it up for brevity and clarity. 3) Some questionable points were left unaddressed, in order to stay on topic; 4) The conversation is somewhat lopsided, because it is quicker and easier to make problematic assertions than it is to explain how and why those assertions are problematic.

A.K.C:  Mike is not looking for our truth. [referring to God’s truth, i.e., “divine revelation,” within Christian theology.] … he has his own truth….

Mike: A.K.C. is incorrect that I “have my own truth.” This is not in the slightest anything I claim nor believe.

V.M: Perhaps, like Socrates, we should define our terms. Mike, what is truth?

Mike: V.M., for the purposes of discussion here, I think the dictionary definitions suffice. Here’s one from Webster’s Dictionary that seems fine for the discussion: The property of being in accord with fact or reality.

V.M: So how do we generally determine what is reality and what is not?

Mike: There are many epistemological methods for this. The one that appears to me to be most accurately determinative is: Put ideas, beliefs, theories, etc., to the test, if and when you can. Keep the ones that work. Toss the ones that don’t.

L.M: When you introduce faith into this, things get messy.

Mike: On that point, we can both agree.

However, that point may lead us in different directions. You might think that the inability of testing to neatly incorporate faith shows testing’s shortcomings as a method of determining reality. Whereas, I think that faith doesn’t merit a role in this regimen because it does not appear to increase the accuracy of determining reality.

The minimum requirement, in order for something to be testable, is simply that it must have an impact on the universe. Any impact of any kind at all. (To be clear, I’m talking about what is theoretically testable – what it is possible to design a test for – not necessarily what is practical for us to test.) So, to suggest adding elements to the determination of reality that are not testable is to suggest adding elements to the determination of reality that have no impact on the universe whatsoever. I am comfortable leaving such elements out of the method of determining reality.

Furthermore… Tests are expressions of the content of hypotheses. For examples: If X is true, then Y should happen under these circumstances. Or, if X is true, then Y should not happen under these circumstances. Or, if X is true, then we should also find Y. And so on.

We create tests from deriving the informative content of theories. Tests are elaborations of the information theories contain. The more a theory can accurately predict, the better. When a proposition / idea / hypothesis / theory / belief / etc., is not testable – when you cannot infer any specific, concrete prediction about it at all – that means it contains no usable information at all. If it did contain any, then it would be possible to make predictions and test them. Again, I am comfortable leaving such elements out of the determination of reality.

So, for these reasons, I am not convinced that faith merits a role in the methodology used to determine reality.

*  *  *  *  *

Mike: If you think that faith is a virtue, could you please explain why you think faith is a virtue, and how faith is virtuous? Faith appears to me to be the antithesis of a virtue, so I have a hard time grasping the notion that there is much that is positive about faith. I would love to better understand the “faith is a virtue” perspective.

Thank you.

RSH: My friend, the only way for anyone to understand the Bible and all that it says, is to become a child of God. Contrary to what people say, we are not all children of God.

DG: It’s a good question. Working from a perspective of the Bible, the virtues are based on what God loves, and those please Him. The New Testament carries this one step further by pointing out you can’t please God by disbelieving Him, so the first step towards a full understanding of any virtue or righteousness is faith. Hence why Abraham believed God “and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

JJ: Faith *in the truth* is a virtue. The mind tires and forgets so you have to remember to believe the truth God’s word regardless of what you momentarily fail to see and understand. The truth remains true regardless of what you happen to think.

Mike: Thank you for the answers, so far.

Please excuse my impertinence, but –

“Faith is a virtue because the scriptures I have faith in say faith is a virtue”

or

“Faith is a virtue because the God I have faith in loves faith”

or

“Faith is a virtue because sometimes when the mind tires you need faith to believe”

– these kinds of answers are circular reasoning; they assume the conclusion in their premises. They don’t get to the heart of the matter that I’m trying to understand. What is good about faith? Why would God love faith and want you to have it? How is faith virtuous?

Thanks, again.

DG: I think I see where you’re looking for an answer. Forgive me if I’m wrong, but you would like objective evidence that faith is a virtue based on your comment. That is hard to arrive at for any virtue. Virtues, including faith, are value statements, saying that this goal is valuable for such and such reason. In this way, starting that “faith is a virtue because my God loves faith” is not a circular argument at all, it just tells you why the value of faith is important to those who worship God.

All virtues are prey to this because any time you state something is “good” or “virtuous” you are making a value statement, not an objective statement. Even such things that objectively advance humanity, such as vaccines or better public hygiene or crop yields are hotly debated because people have different ideas of what is good for them, or humanity, or whatever they value.

The concept of faith as a virtue grew from a culture of respecting God, in whose Scriptures it is well understood that valuing God requires believing in Him, a belief in “something unseen”, which requires faith and making it a virtue.

In short, all virtues are subjective statements of value to any human who might place value on any thing. A Christian generally believes that faith is a virtue, because without it there can be no place to stand on their walk with God.

Mike: Thank you.

I’m not necessarily looking for objective evidence that faith is a virtue. I’m just looking for something – anything – along the lines of a sensible explanation to understand. If you asked me why honesty is a virtue, or kindness, or generosity, etc., I could easily give explanations. Perhaps you wouldn’t agree with my explanations, or perhaps you might think they’re too subjective, but at least you’d understand my thinking. But when I ask why faith is a virtue, answers like “Because God says so” are explanatorily empty. Such answers don’t have any concepts underpinning them that I can try to understand.

With things like kindness or generosity, few would even bother to ask why they’re virtues, because the reasons are mostly obvious (even if you disagree with them). But in the case of faith, it is not at all obvious to me why it’s considered a virtue. In almost any other context besides religion, believing wholeheartedly and uncritically in the most extraordinary claims about things which can’t be detected, and being unwilling to to modify a position for any reason and regardless of any data, would be considered dangerous gullibility and willful ignorance, and would be immediately recognized as counterproductive. So, how is this different when it’s in a religious context? Why would God value such behavior so highly and make it a requisite for salvation? Is there any rationale you can put forth for me to understand what is virtuous about faith?

Thanks, again.

JJ: Faith is practical and that is not circular.

Mike: How is faith practical? Specifically, how is it practical to uncritically believe extraordinary claims about things which can’t be detected, and to be unwilling to modify belief in such claims for any reason, regardless of any data?

JJ: Virtue is practical when you look at it the right way. You seem to have forgotten that it is faith in the truth that is a virtue (or you intentionally neglected to respond to that). There is no virtue in believing a lie.

Mike: (1) Even if this is correct, it is only relevant if you can determine what is truth and what is a lie. But, in regard to your religious beliefs, you can’t know for sure that they are true.

You might proclaim that you definitively know you have the truth, and you may feel certain – but, no matter how sincere your proclamations are and no matter how intense your feelings are, they don’t necessarily make it so. You can’t actually know for certain, no matter how much you believe otherwise.

Meanwhile, there are billions of Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Jews, Muslims, Pagans, Shintoists, Sikhs, etc., who are just as positive that they have the truth with their religions as you are positive that you do with yours – but their beliefs contradict yours. Many, many millions of them are even convinced that they’ve personally witnessed divine revelation – with Gods and religions that contradict yours.

Faith-based certainty is an unreliable basis for knowing truth, and personal experiences of divine revelation are unreliable as a basis for knowing.

Even within Christianity alone, there are over 40,000 different recognized denominations, most of which split off from the others due to irreconcilable disagreements of belief about every aspect of Christian doctrine. In fact, most Christians disagree with most other Christians about what are and what are not the correct tenets of Christian faith. Whether it’s the Protestants rejecting transubstantiation, or the Quakers rejecting baptism, or the Christian Scientists rejecting the trinity, or the Calvinists rejecting that faith and works affect foreordained election to Heaven, or the Orthodox Christians rejecting immaculate conception and original sin, or Jehovah’s witnesses rejecting the divinity of Jesus and instead insisting that he is actually the Archangel Michael, or Christadelphians rejecting the immortality of the soul, or Mormons adding the Book of Mormon to the Old Testament and the New Testament, or The New Church rejecting the historicity of Adam and Eve and saying they are metaphorical, to name just a few examples – most Christians consider at least some of the beliefs of most other Christians to be heresy. Indeed, some of the worst wars in human history have involved differences among Christians about what is true Christian doctrine. In this context, each sect’s and believer’s declarations of exclusive truth are a little hard to swallow.

We may not be able to definitively determine whether any one person’s specific beliefs are true or false, however we can know for sure – because there are so many different religions that contradict and exclude each other, and none have close to a majority of the world’s religious population – that at least most, or possibly all, people are mistaken about their religious beliefs. Everyone believes “I’m the one who got it right,” but statistically speaking, you are probably one of the people who got it wrong.

(2) Adding “in the truth” to “faith is a virtue”“faith in the truth is a virtue” – does not seem to me to make it any more sensible.

How and why would faith in the truth be a virtue? Other epistemological alternatives, such as logic, testing, and corroboration, have strong records of success at distinguishing truth from falsehood well enough for practical application. Whereas faith does not. Faith only comes into play when the preferable epistemological options are unavailable, and faith is only used in cases where the conclusion has been decided from the start for other reasons. Faith turns the most productive knowledge methods we have upside down, from looking for flaws to disconfirm ideas which don’t pass muster, to looking for ways to justify ideas which don’t pass muster.

Again, faith seems to me to be the antithesis of a virtue.

I do not have faith in the truth. I don’t even consider the best-tested and most corroborated scientific theories to be utterly securely founded as “truth”. Rather, I merely consider them to be models that best fit with the currently available data, and consider them to always be tentative, always subject to revision, based upon better information.

JJ: What do you have against the fact that objects can’t make you so the fact is you have a supernatural maker?

Mike: A few things.

[A] It’s an unfounded, unexamined, untested, uncorroborated assertion.

Basically, it has nothing going for it that might lead me to take it seriously. If it did, I would.

[B] The general assertion “God did it” is empty of informative content. It gives no specific explanations to understand, no specific predictions to infer, no practical applications to utilize. It’s more like an empty placeholder for an answer than like an actual answer. I’d rather look for answers with some substance, answers that actually answer something.

[C] You are connecting the negation of hypothesis X (that objects can make themselves) with the verification of hypothesis Y (you have a supernatural maker). However, these two are not actually connected. The failure of one hypothesis does not, on its own, constitute the triumph of another hypothesis. (Whether our hypothesis X is actually a failure is a matter I’ll put aside for some other time.) Each hypothesis has to be evaluated on its own merits, not upon the standing of other hypotheses. The negation of X tells you nothing that verifies Y. If you assert hypothesis Y, you still must make the case for hypothesis Y, regardless of the status of hypothesis X.

[D] Your assertion fails if you try to apply it consistently, due to infinite regression.

An infinite regress is defined in the dictionary as, “causal or logical relation of terms in a series without the possibility of a term initiating the series.”

In this case, if you assume that things like me require a maker, such as God, to design and create them, then you are merely moving back one step in a regression that never ends, as you must further assume that your explanation for “What created Mike?” – God – also requires a maker – Grand-God – to create it, which requires Great-Grand-God to create it, and so on. No conclusions are ever reached by this path; the question just keeps getting rephrased. (i.e., Instead of previously asking, “What created humankind?”, now asking, “What created God?”) Most theists stop short of assuming that God also requires a maker, content with the idea that God is timeless, had no beginning and no end, and never “originated.” Accepting that God is not the product of special creation by Grand-God is an acceptance that beings do not require supernatural makers. And if we accept that, then there is no reason to resort to this kind of explanation for you and me.