On Faith and Inductive Logic
May 17, 2011

On Faith and Inductive Logic

Perhaps largely due to its strong religious associations, the word 'faith' is often significantly abused by both sides of the religious debate. The result has been some consistent misconceptions about the meaning and significance of the word.

Firstly, it should be noted that faith is a state of being; namely, the state of being of having confidence in the truth value of some set of claims. In comparison, reasoning (which can have many forms, some of which have utilitarian value and some of which do not) is a process through which it is possible to arrive at a state of faith. It is sometimes considered that faith in and of itself is a bad thing and that having faith comes at the exclusion of having some process to arrive that faith. Quite the opposite, it is possible to use logical reasoning with a strong evidential basis to be the process to arrive at a state of being of having faith in some particular truth claim. It is also possible to use other processes - or no process at all - to arrive at a state of faith. For example, one could have a compelling religious experience that resulted in the state of religious faith. What should be emphasized is that faith  in and of itself is not a process for forming beliefs and should neither be maintained or judged as such.

As a side note, there is an epistemological question about the possibility of certain beliefs. Considering certain beliefs to be impossible or ill posed invalidates the concept of faith as a state of certain belief. One can have this philosophical debate; however, we can consider a more workable notion of faith as a state of likely belief and sidestep this issue. Of course, many religious claims are framed as certain beliefs and I think there is a strong argument against framing religious claims with such certainty. Nonetheless, let us return to considering this somewhat weaker concept of faith.

An example that seems to be raised all the time as a meme, particularly by religious people, as a form of defense of faith is the comparison to having faith that the sun will rise tomorrow. Today we can use our knowledge of physics and astronomy to form a deductive argument to demonstrate that the sun will rise tomorrow (up to epistemological uncertainty and under the assumption of the validity of the underlining physical laws). Let us pretend instead to be, say, a middle ages fisherman with no such scientific knowledge. The fisherman, and us today, all have faith that the sun will come up tomorrow. That is simply a state of belief. However, this state of belief can arise from a coherent and reasonable process namely that of inductive logic. The repeated body of past evidence implies, through inductive logic, the strong likelihood of future occurrence of the sun rising.  I can't, without other knowledge like astronomy, deductively demonstrate that it will rise but it is still very much meaningful to conclude inductively that it will.

It is thus reasonable to have faith in the sun's future rising, but it isn't a defense of faith in the sense of not needing to have a reasoned procedure for belief. Indeed, this method of inductive logic (which most of us do all the time even if we don't call it that) provides a specific procedure to arrive at this belief about the universe that we can do with enough certainty to have a reasonable faith in. As a mathematician, all the work in math that I do is purely deductive. In the practical world, however, such deductive logic is rarely applicable but inductive logic and other forms of reasoning are very much possible and indeed they have a clear utilitarian value in being able to operate successfully. Returning briefly to the epistemological question, there is an issue of whether the lack of absolutism in inductive logic invalidates the ability to make certain statements. However, if we accept the weaker concepts of likely statements, inductive logic and the various other heuristics of decision making which have utilitarian value in our world are perfectly acceptable.

The problem is when one has faith in various truth claims without some form of reasonable procedure to arrive at that state of being. Having faith that the sun will come up tomorrow is perfectly fine given that we have a procedure to reasonably deduce this. Having faith that the sun will not come up tomorrow causes obvious problems that stem not from the idea of faith in and of itself but faith without a reasonable procedure to derive it. We can debate what ought and what ought not to be considered a reasonable procedure, but we should all agree about the need for some such procedure. We actually don't have a word for 'strong belief that is not determined in a reasonable way'. Sometime 'faith' is misconstrued to mean this but that isn't actually the definition. As such, it isn't faith that is the problem - as many non religious people claim - but faith in the absence of a coherent and reasonable process for determining beliefs that is the problem. Conversely, religious people ought not to attempt to present examples like the fishermen wondering about the sun as a defense of faith because that isn't a defense against the appropriate criticism that ought to be made about religious belief. That criticism isn't believing in the existence of God in and of itself but is in celebrating this belief without a reasonable process for this belief that would stand as valid in any other context. 

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

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Adam McCann said...

Can you give an example of a form of reasoning that does not have utilitarian value?

You should coin a word for 'strong belief not determined in a reasonable way'.

bazie said...

Take the following line of thinking: I should do X because a particular religious text advocates for X. This doesn't categorically not have any utilitarian value - one can imagine various examples where X turns out to be beneficial - but at the same time this form of decision making clearly can run into a lot of troubles.

There is a growing surge in the number of exorcisms being performed in Mexico over the last couple of years which appear to be spreading as a culturo-religious phenomenon. On the surface these are relatively benign ceremonial events that might not seem to be damaging but the problem is that they are becoming a replacement for seeking proper attention to bipolar, schizophrenia and other mental disorders that then get left untreated even by the rudimentary folk medicine let alone modern psychiatric practice.

I think the word should be 'McCann' ;)

Adam said...

Thank you for the response.

Allow me to counter-propose agnopistis.

jongh said...

Great post!

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