Faith and evidence
Introduction

Before turning to some of the results from science that are philosophically important, I’d like to first discuss some of the claims of religion. In this essay, I’m going to discuss the Christian faith. The reason for this is that it is the faith with which the average reader and I are most familiar. Christians accept their religion based on faith, and I’d like to look at a couple of possible things that could mean in relation to evidence. My argument will be that that Christians do use evidence, in addition to faith, to come to their believes, and that discussions of evidence are relevant and important.

Faith and evidence

There are a number of possible ways faith could be related to evidence, for any given belief.  Let’s take a look at the possibilities.

Faith could mean accepting something completely, even though the evidence only leads one to believe it is merely probable. This could be a typical everyday experience. When one steps on the brake, one assumes the car will stop. This could be called faith. In this case it is just the practical step of not worrying about everything that is possible, and just accepting some things as virtually true.

Faith could also be a belief formed in cases where there is very little evidence for any specific hypothesis. In this case, one could argue, that since there is no way of knowing, a belief could be chosen on other criteria such as usefulness, or optimism. Faith here could be as Aquinas put it, "giving assent to something one is still thinking about".

Faith could also be a belief, where there is no evidence at all. But I don’t think this makes much sense. If there was no evidence of any kind it would be as if, for example, we were in an empty universe with just us and a bag, and no knowledge, and we then decided to have faith that the next thing we pulled out was going to be a pink unicorn. Not only is it unlikely to be true, (and in fact it may have zero probability of being true a priori), but how could we have even formulated the hypothesis with no knowledge at all? And if we could formulate it, why choose that one? In any case, I don’t think this is relevant here, since, I believe there are some types of evidence that Christians typically rely on. These in include:
1) There is the fact that many people past and present have believed it. (Tradition)
2) There is the evidence of the bible itself.
3) There is the personal experience of others whose testimony is trusted.
4) Any personal experience the person may have had themselves.
This experience could be something very specific, like Paul on the road to Damascus. Acts 22:6 "
And it came to pass, that, as I made my journey, and was come nigh unto Damascus about noon, suddenly there shone from heaven a great light round about me. 7 And I fell unto the ground, and heard a voice saying unto me, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? 8 And I answered, Who art thou, Lord? And he said unto me, I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest. 9 And they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me." Or, the experience could be something very vague, a kin to an emotion, or an intuition. A very specific experience could be evidence for a specifically Christian belief. However, I think the more general sort of experience would only constitute evidence of some more general form of the Divine, not a specifically Christian God. There may be other types of evidence that might lead one to a belief in a God, in general, but I think those listed above are the only sources of evidence for a specifically Christian belief. All of these are non-scientific forms of evidence.
(See my definitions
here.) However, they are still forms of evidence.

The way St. Augustine used the word faith is similar. He thought that before a person could come to an understanding of his own, he first had to have faith in what his teachers told him. This could also be called trust. So Augustine would say people need to make a choice to trust Christian teachers, before they understand Christian teachings.

On the other hand, do we make a choice when we accept the testimony of a source? Or do we make a judgment about the credibility of the source, based on evidence we have about that source? Do we need to look at this at another possible use for the word faith, or is it already described a part of how we consider evidence?  Is trusting someone a choice, or an evidence based judgment? I would suggest that it could be both. They may be two different paradigms for looking at the same process. One view is reductionistic and talks about the details of evidence and credibility. The other view is holistic and just talks about two people. However, trust as a choice must involve basing some sort of action on that trust, otherwise the trust is meaningless. Here we can look at the teachings of the Catholic Church which says that faith can be trust, conviction, and/or commitment. Here we are focused primarily on the idea of faith as belief.

Could faith be believing in something in direct contradiction to the evidence? I don’t think this is possible. Could a person choose to have faith that pigs can fly? I don’t think so. They might be able to say they believe it, and even try to convince themselves they believe it, but if based on the evidence, they find it highly unlikely, I don’t think they can believe it.

If this is true, then the amount of evidence for or against a religious believe is important. Faith may be able to “fill-in” where there is little evidence, but it can not be used to contradict evidence. This agrees with the position of the Catholic Church, for example, which says that faith and reason never contradict. Evidence will also be important in any attempt to convert any new person to the faith. At the very least, the Christian would have to present the potential convert, with his/her own testimony, which is a form of non-scientific evidence.

There is one more important way we cold use “faith”, although this use is rather subtle. Suppose we have two of more possible views of something. All views are equally faithful to the evidence, and none involves any ad hoc hypothesis. In this case on the basis of evidence alone, they are equivalent. But they still may offer a different perspective. Choosing one or the other in this case could be called choosing one on faith.

Then if we thought that one of those possibilities had a slight edge over all others, that could be a belief based on faith, that was both improbable, and at the same time, a justified belief.

What do various bibles say about faith?

Probably the most well known bible passage about what faith is, is Hebrews 11:1. However, different translations give distinctly different versions of what faith is. Let’s take a look at some of them.

Young's Literal Translation
Hebrews 11
1
And faith is of things hoped for a confidence, of matters not seen a conviction,

This one is very close to what I have said. A confidence in things hoped for, could be faith in situations where there is little evidence, a choice to be optimistic, or a choice of perspective. And, a conviction of things not seen could be very much like the belief that the car will stop, when the brake is applied.

Contemporary English Version
Hebrews 11
1
Faith makes us sure of what we hope for and gives us proof of what we cannot see.

New International Version
Hebrews 11
1
Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

These lean very strongly towards absolutism, which I will describe in the next section. They talk of being “sure”, or “certain”, and having “proof”.

King James Version
Hebrews 11
1
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

This says that faith is a form of evidence. I think this can lead to confusion. This is what many conservative and fundamentalists Christians mean by faith, but it may not be what many other people mean by faith. Since the word is ambiguous, I would suggest that for clear communication, we should not use it in this way. Some Christians would describe a feeling a kin to emotion or intuition as faith, but I would describe those feelings as a form of personal experience, or evidence, not as faith.

American Standard Version
Hebrews 11
1
Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen.

This one uses the word “assurance”, suggesting a promise. Now faith could be trusting someone or something, and this would be very much like the cases I have described, where we either have evidence that says we should trust the person, or thing, or where we have little evidence, and decide to be optimistic.

Personally, I like this one best -

Young's Literal Translation
Hebrews 11
1 And faith is of things hoped for a confidence, of matters not seen a conviction,

It comes the closest to what I have said above.

In the interest of clear communications, I would suggest that it might be better to use words with more precise meanings where possible, or at least make sure that the participants in the conversation are all talking about the same thing when they talk about "faith".

Pascal

One common motive for belief that is often given is known as Pascal’s wager. Basically it says that the Christian has nothing to lose by believing, and being wrong, and everything to gain, if correct. Whereas the non-Christian has everything to lose if incorrect, and nothing to gain if correct, so the wise bet is to be Christian.

The problem here, is that this could apply to anything. No matter what you choose to believe, someone of some religion or another on the planet thinks you are going to hell. Or, suppose I claim that my cat is God, and that she will send you to eternal torment, unless you immediately sacrifice a mouse to her. Would you do it? If not, then why not? Pascal’s wager still applies here. You would likely reject it, because you thought the claim was highly improbable. Or, when is the last time you said, “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet?” Or, why are you not a Mormon? Pascal’s wager applies here too. Pascal’s wager only makes sense, if there is a choice only between A and B, and if based on some sort of evidence, you already believe the claims of the religion are at least somewhat likely to be true. But in fact, in the absence of any evidence, there are an infinite number of equally likely possibilities. Moreover, it simply may not be possible to believe something in direct contradiction to the evidence you are aware of, whether you want to believe it or not. The possible consequences of an action, may influence an action, but can they influence one's assessment of truth? So, again, we do need to look at the evidence.

Absolutism

As I discussed in the last essay, it is possible for people to get their a priori probabilities set to 1 or 0, and get stuck there. Since humans are not good at accurately dealing with small probabilities, if we become very convinced of some hypothesis, we tend to start thinking of it as completely true. Then, unless we run in to a direct contradiction with something else we believe to be completely true, we will continue to believe our hypothesis absolutely. We might avoid looking at other viewpoints that might contain contradictory data, and any data that we did come across we would view in such a way, as to fit it into the paradigm we are in. When we become closed to new evidence in this way, a major problem is that it completely blocks our ability to reach agreement with others, that do not hold the same absolute. It can also lead to extremes of behavior, since anything can then be justified, in the name of the absolute principle.The perceived absolute truth can become unquestionable, and then it must be followed to all of its logical consequences. This can lead to secular absolutists like Hitler or Stalin, and religious absolutists, like Osama, who can justify anything in the name of their one principle. Absolutism blocks one of the most important paths to true morality. It blocks the ability to put oneself in another's shoes. If the possibility of being wrong exists, however slim, then there is value to looking at the situation through other eyes. On the other hand, if you possess absolute truth, it is a worthless exercise. There is no sense in which the situation can be transposed. One side is wrong, the other right. To try to reverse the perspective would be pure foolishness. If we ever want to be able to reach agreements, and avoid perpetual conflict, we must be open to new ideas.

The problem is not believing that absolute truth exists. It very well may exist. The problem is believing that one has absolute justified certainty. Only a being with infinite knowledge could have that.

Absolutist thinking is the enemy of democracy. What is the point of getting more than one opinion, if there is only one absolute, known truth? It is the enemy of freedom. Why should we give people liberty if we know they will use it to do evil? If the truth is known with certainty, they must simply obey it. So again, being open to consideration of evidence is vital.

Some fundamentalists would argue that the goal should not be to reach agreement with the world, or even necessarily to live in peace with their neighbor, but instead to maintain an absolute belief in the authority of the inerrant word of God.

However, I don't think many Christians hold these beliefs. Many Christians hold views that are open, to various degrees, to evidence from the world. They strive to weigh the evidence of the world together with the bible. I’ve had good thoughtful discussions with people who believe this way, even when I disagree with them.

As I pointed out in the previous essay, absolute certainty is not possible for beings with anything less than infinite data and/or all possible data available to them. Those that would claim absolute certainty, put themselves in a position only an omniscient being could occupy. Also, one could see absolute biblical literalism as a form of idolatry. One could say that viewing a book as absolute truth is to regard it, in effect, as God. This is called biblidolatry. To see this in another way, Christians, of course, regard Jesus as God. Jesus is also referred to in John 1:1 as the LOGOS, or the “word”, “meaning”, “thought”, or “purpose”. John 1:1 “
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” So, up to this point we have in symbolic terms: God = Jesus = the Word. If we now also say that the bible is the perfect, absolute, inerrant, God breathed, word of God, we then have:
God = Jesus = the Word = the Bible. Or, God = the Bible. Again, this is biblidolatry.

I think this passage from Luke expresses this view well: Luke 11:32 “
Woe unto you, lawyers! for ye have taken away the key of knowledge: ye entered not in yourselves, and them that were entering in ye hindered.” In this view the key to knowledge is an open and questioning search. Those that would prevent that search, literalists and lawyers, who believe that they already possess the truth, do indeed take away the keys of knowledge.

Relativism and balance

Finally, we should note here that the extreme opposite of absolutism is also a poor choice. If we are complete relativists we will never be able to do anything. We will be completely paralyzed by indecision. Too much questioning of truths, and we can do nothing at all. Too little questioning, and we crash planes into buildings. As in many things, balance is needed here.

Conclusion

The point of this essay is that religious belief, like any other belief, needs to be based at least to some extent on evidence. It will always be possible to defend any belief against all challenges, if we are willing to make any and all needed assumptions. That is, it will never be possible to disprove any belief if it is held tightly enough. However, if our goal is growth in knowledge, and at least the potential for eventual agreement, then we must be willing to try to look at the evidence, take it at face value, and follow it where it leads. 
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