A Reasonable Faith is an Oxymoron

This is what I think. I’ve previously argued for this in a different way when I quipped, Faith is an Irrational Leap Over the Probabilities.

This is an ongoing discussion though. It would take more than what I’ve written to show this to be the case. But I think it is the case. Sometimes in a post all I can do is state my conclusions and give a few good reasons for them. This is especially true here. I have changed my mind on this since becoming a non-believer. Part of this issue has to do with definitions. Another part has to do with Plantinga’s notion of properly basic beliefs. Part of it has to do with religion in general. I can’t say all that I know, but this is what I think with a great deal of probability. Christians have been thinking about this issue ever since the apostle Paul, Augustine, Anselm. Aquinas, and Calvin. So Christians in the western world have unfortunately framed the debate.

The reason this issue is so important to believers is, well, because they are believers. I am a doubter, a skeptic. I think this is the direction science leads thinking people. It leads us to doubt and to come to conclusions based on sufficient evidence. It’s what we should do, so it doesn’t matter if we don’t always do it. What I think should have nothing to do with faith. It should only have to do with what is probable, and faith adds nothing to the probabilities. What we need is sufficient evidence to come to any conclusion if we are to be reasonable with the evidence. Okay so far? ;-)

What is faith? Let me define it as an attitude or feeling whereby someone attributes a higher probability to the evidence than what the evidence calls for. Christians will bristle at this definition, sure, but who cares? I see no reason why I must accept their definition of faith.

Christians claim all knowledge has a faith element to it, and that since nothing is certain people must assume some things based in faith in order to come to any knowledge at all.

I do not deny that at any given time we must assume some things since we cannot place on the table everything we think is true and examine them all at the same time. This is especially true about our notions that we exist, are communicating with other minds, that our memories represent the past, that there was a past, that there is a material world, that our senses give us accurate input, that we are not dreaming right now, etc. What I deny is that we accept any of these things by faith. We might be wrong, but faith isn’t what allows us to accept such things. Scientific reasoning does. I can defend each one of my conclusions about such things though, and I do. These prior conclusions provide the background knowledge I have when involved in any discussion, and I’m allowed to have them.

I have looked at some of the above possibilities before. If you want to read why I think it's highly probable that there is a material universe look no further than here. I have also briefly examined the Matrix possibility, and the demon and dream hypothesis right here.

After reading the above links you can appreciate the evidence that we have existed for more than five minutes. [Do I really have to do this?] We have memories that are usually correct, we know people whom we can reminisce with, we have pictures of our past, and artifacts from previous eras, including archaeological digs from the ancient past. We also have scientific evidence for the Big Bang which took place in the past from which the universe of galaxies and stars came into existence. There are geological rock formations that show the earth is a few billion years old. Occam's Razor does the requisite work from here. Concluding we have lived longer than five minutes is highly probable. To someone who claims differently I merely say, so what? Possibility does not matter. Only probability does. Do you understand this? No wonder I think scientifically uniformed philosophy is of little use. No wonder it has little or no respect among real scientists.

Skeptics and believers have disputed definitions of faith for centuries. In my opinion Christians define words in such a way as to favor their faith even though those words do not make much sense. I call this strategy Definitional Apologetics, and they do a lot to obfuscate and hinder a clear-headed understanding of what words mean in deference to their faith. They claim not to know what an extraordinary claim is in the face of a supposed virgin birth or a resurrection. They claim not to know what the scientific method is even though science continues to progress presumably without one (how’s that possible?). They claim atheism is a religion even though atheists do not believe in any supernatural forces or beings. They claim atheists have faith because nothing can be known with certainty. They also claim critics of their religion cannot say what is evil even though there is massive and ubiquitous suffering in our world, and even though Muslims would say Christians don’t know what evil is because for them the Koran should tell us what it is.

Christian philosopher Randal Rauser says I have merely established that I know “next to nothing about what Christians actually say about faith.” He asks, “How do you spend that much time on a topic and yet still remain that ignorant about it? Presumably you really have to work at it.”

Nope. I know what Christians believe. I just disagree. Probability is all that matters. Faith is an irrational leap over the probabilities.

Rauser thinks what I’ve written applies to other people besides believers: “The fact is that everyone can be guilty of holding a belief beyond what the evidence warrants. You can have an irrational commitment in your favorite sports team, or the rightness of your nation’s foreign policy, or your own intellectual prowess (*cough cough*).”

So? I agree that’s what people do. What I don’t agree is that’s what reasonable people should do, at least, not in some specific cases. Rooting for a sports team is fun. It bonds people together, we root for bragging rights, and can even win a bet. So we do it. We hope our team wins. I do it. In the case of football I have rooted for the Colts and for Peyton Manning for years. But I was also reasonable enough to think Tom Brady was probably a better quarterback. When it comes to hoping to win the affections of a lover, or do a good job at something, or even hoping our arguments are good ones (*cough cough*), that’s a hope that without it we could not achieve what we hope for. A person can reasonably hope beyond the actual probabilities when that person can achieve more with such a hope than without it. It helps people overcome the odds because we can change them with positive thoughts. That’s because positive thinking works, not because there is a supernatural force out there, but because people react positively to someone who acts positively and because positive thinking helps us overcome the odds. Therefore thinking positively against low odds is a reasonable thing to do in many cases, if the hope is reachable rather than unreachable. Hoping against the odds changes the actual probabilities when the person doing the hoping is part of the odds.

But hoping to change facts that do not involve the person doing the hoping is irrational. Either a virgin had a baby or she did not. Hope has nothing to do with whether she did or not.

Rauser calls this John’s BS (belief stricture) and asks how I can know that probability is all that matters, as if I need a meta-justification for what seems obvious, or that I need to prove it. But I never said this conclusion was a certain one derived from a deductive argument. It’s an inductive conclusion. Probability is what makes for scientific progress and for good sound reasoning, so therefore unless someone can show why I should accept a less than probable conclusion I should still base my thinking on the probabilities. Again, probability is the only thing that matters. If Rauser wants to hang his hat on possibilities then it's possible he's a poached egg! (Sorry my friend).

Christians will continue to argue that there is such a thing as misplaced faith and so there must be a well-founded or reasonable faith--that faith is not always irrational. I simply argue that people misjudge the probabilities, and that’s it. Faith should have nothing to do with this process. When it does then that’s irrational.

My claim once again is that there is no such thing as a reasonable faith because faith is an irrational leap over the probabilities. We must only go with the probabilities when assessing whether something is the case or not. Probability is all that matters.

Why would anyone disagree against the probabilities?