Monday, November 15, 2010

Faith vs. Bias

My earlier post on faith was apparently confusing (judging from the comments). No wonder -- it was a bit of a double-negative: I wrote something negative about what faith isn't. To compensate, I'd like to say something positive about what faith is. (People of faith: please feel free to correct/clarify in the comments -- I don't claim to be an expert on this subject).

I'll start with a definition from my own tradition (Alma 32:21):

faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.

So what is the justification for believing something that's not "seen"? (Here, I assume that things which are "seen" means things which are measurable via the standard senses and/or scientific instruments.)

Here are some possible justifications for believing a given proposition:

  1. Spiritual/Miraculous Witness: "I have experienced spiritual or miraculous manifestations that defy natural explanation."

  2. Hope or Leap-of-Faith: "I'm totally sure that X is true, however I think X deserves the benefit of the doubt, so I believe X."

  3. Unintentional Bias: "I want X to be true, and my bias prevents me from approaching the question with any kind of even-handedness or objectivity."

  4. Wilful Dishonesty: "I want X to be true, and I feel justified in believing whatever I want because I'm sure that everyone else is biased or dishonest too."

Now, the whole point of my earlier post (and its predecessor) was that options #3 and #4 are not "faith". If you are a person of faith, and you think that either #3 or #4 is a reasonable description of how "faith" works, then you should do a little introspection and perhaps hold yourself up to a higher standard of honesty. And when you accuse atheists of having "faith" of varieties #3 and #4 above, you are not paying your own faith a compliment.

Now how does atheism [lack of belief in God(s)] fit into the above four categories?

Atheists are all over the map, so they can potentially fall into any of them:

  1. Spiritual/Miraculous Witness: This is the one atheists are most likely to reject, yet there do exist people who believe in the supernatural without believing in God(s).

  2. Hope or Leap-of-Faith: There are perhaps a few atheists here, but I think most atheists fall into a related category which I'll call category 5. Weighing Naturalistic Evidence: "I'm not 100% certain that X is correct, however, I have examined the evidence, and of all the possibilities, I think X is the most likely." (That's pretty much how science works in general.)

  3. Unintentional Bias: Atheists are only human, so some of them almost certainly fall into this category. (I'm not claiming 100% certainty here though! ;^) )

  4. Wilful Dishonesty: As with #3, there are probably some here too.

Note that's it's also possible to consider a question even-handedly and still make an honest mistake. That can account for some of the disagreement in the world.

Also, IMHO, category 4 (I want X to be true, and I feel justified in believing whatever I want because I'm sure that everyone else is biased or dishonest too) is the one that is truly repugnant. All the others are either right or potentially honest mistakes.

I think that it's probably impossible for humans to overcome (or even recognize) all of their biases 100%. However, there is a very big difference between honestly trying to compensate for your biases and deliberately not trying.

It's like what I said about racism: It is probably impossible for humans to completely avoid mentally grouping people into stereotyped "other" categories. But that's not an excuse to throw in the towel. Addressing your own biases and prejudices is a lifelong effort. But it's a necessary and worthwhile effort -- that is, if you're curious about the universe, the world, and the people in it.


Anonymous said...

Like Joe, I also think it takes a bit of a leap of faith (or an assumption) to declare that you know there is no God. However, I would not equate that leap as equal to that of declaring the opposite.

Is assuming that Santa doesn't exist the equivalent as assuming that he does exist?

Absence of evidence may not prove that there is absence. But I think, that because there is absence of evidence the faith-leap required to claim non-existence is less than the faith-leap required to claim existence.

Or maybe I'm just making shit up.

Joe said...

The classic definition of faith becomes a rather circular argument though has an element I like. Faith is a belief with hope attached. The problem is adding "which is true" which quickly results in the argument that since I have faith, ergo what I have faith in is true else I wouldn't have faith.

Fortunately, the scriptures do come to a rescue. The lecture in James on faith without works is dead means that someone with faith will demonstrate that faith in unmistakable ways. If they don't, their faith is dead/no good.

Of course, you have the problem that works may demonstrate faith, but may also be completely phony. Moreover, just because someone has faith and backs it up with deeds, doesn't mean the object in which they have faith is true, valid or even makes any sense at all.

As for me, I prefer a disprovable hypothesis. I also ascribe to Occam's razor. Most faith promoting experiences have extremely rational explanations (i.e. most people who claim to have been healed were never sick in the first place. Does that mean there aren't miracles? I don't know. So I go with agnosticism--actually I go with apatheism since I don't particularly care and, if God exist, I don't think He cares either based purely on the evidence that if He does, he's an asshole and I prefer an indifferent God letting us sink or swim on our own than a capricious, sadistic jerk who actually likes sycophants.)