Two Concepts of Faith: When is it Rational to Suspend Reason?

In recent discussions centred on religion, the topic of ‘faith’ has come up a number of times, and in particular the move where it serves as a refuge from difficult arguments: even if the rational cards seem stacked against the truth of religious claims, the believer can remain steadfast in the name of faith – faith ‘above’ reason, or at least ‘against’ it.

Now, if someone wants to slap a certain set of noises onto a damn-fool concept, then they have the right to do so, and declare ‘by the word ‘monkey’ I intend to refer to triangles’. But they shouldn’t be allowed to make their use of the word appear more noble than it is by quietly appropriating the associations and positive (or negative) ‘baggage’ of an already-existing word, if their new definition has nothing in common with the existing definition.

So the question I find myself asking is, how does ‘faith’, as the term is used in religion, and in particular as used in this sort of defensive maneuvre, relate to the things we call ‘faith’ that aren’t about religion? Which requires us to ask – outside of religion, and setting the religious uses of the word entirely aside, what do we use the word ‘faith’ for?

What follows is not a systematic review of linguistic habits studied rigorously; it is a somewhat-considered attempt to summarise when this word would seem reasonable to me, when I (an ardent atheist) might find myself using it positively.

I would use it in cases where for some circumstantial reason, something seemed very strongly to be true, but where I had separately reached the opinion that those circumstances made my judgement unreliable. For example, if I were to have periodic episodes of depression, then it might be that at such times, because of changes in my mood, my patterns of attention and memory, my thinking patterns, and the stimuli I get exposed to, it seems overwhelmingly that life is not worth living – that is the only idea that feels real.

But I believe that my depressive brain thinks in a faulty way, and that in fact life is worth living – and I recall this belief during the depression, even while it seems in every way shallow, absurd, and unrealistic, because it cannot connect with how I’m actually able to reason.

To hold on to this belief, this resolution to keep living, takes ‘faith’.

The same sort of thing might happen for just a day, an hour, a minute, but I chose the example of depression because it shows most clearly how valuable faith is. It is valuable because 1) it is often incredibly hard, requiring an enormous amount of mental effort, and 2) it may well be the difference between life and death.

A different sort of example might be when I have reason to be critical (in a specific way) of my general ability to reason. For instance, I might know that my personal experiences and history will make anything that I don’t have experience of seem unreal and impossible – but also know from considering history and so forth that many things quite different from my experience and from other people’s experience have happened, and hence are possible.

So then perhaps my personal experience of deceit, manipulation, and cynicism, leads me to despair of humanity and of society, or my experience of war and genocide leads me to despair of lasting peace. But I also believe that these are not actually good evidence against, say, the possibility of peace. So I continue to believe it to be possible – but it doesn’t feel possible. To maintain that hope requires faith.

A perhaps related third example is where I am engaged in some project that will only succeed if I stay committed to it. It may also be that I won’t stay committed to it if I don’t believe I will – if I think that future-me will give up next week, I’ll give up this week. Here, I need an ability to believe that future-me won’t give up next week, not on the basis of a prudent statistical prediction (after all, I gave up all the other times didn’t I?), but merely by a resolution, an act of will.

This ‘irrational’ belief about the future is necessary for me to succeed – and it would be natural to call it ‘faith’.

And finally, I have ‘faith’ in particular other people – in a way that could be also called ‘trust’. If I were just calculating probabilities by statistical methods, I might well think it quite possible that you will ‘defect’ on any deal or shared endeavour (say 20% chance), and then I might adjust my behaviour in light of that possibility (say, not giving you access to certain information). But then you don’t trust me as much, so you consider my defection more likely, as well as having more reason to defect yourself. And so it goes on.

For the relationship to work, we need to trust each other, i.e. have ‘faith in’ each other. This, again, is something that may be both very hard and very important.

Now, what can we say about these sorts of cases? They are all cases of localised irrationality in the service of overall rationality. In each case, I see, on rational grounds, that it would be advantageous for rational ends, to suspend strict rationality in certain respects, because of a defect (an irrationality) within rationality.

I hold to my faith that life is worth living, because I see rationally that the rational goal of staying alive is best served by ignoring what seems to be rational to my depressive brain, because I rationally recognise a defectiveness in that rationality. I keep my faith in the future and the possibility of progress because I see rationally that what seems to be rational in some respects is defective, because it is irrationally affected by my personal experience.

I keep faith in myself and my abilities, because I see rationally that my rational goal of completing my projects will be best served by suspending rationality in a certain respect, because that rationality is prone to lapsing into vicious circles and self-fulfilling paradoxes.

I keep faith with others because I see rationally that my rational goal of having relationships requires suspending rationality in a certain respect, because our shared rationality is similarly prone to paradox (e.g. prisoner’s dilemma situations).

In all these cases, ‘faith’ is of enormous value, because it is reason’s ability to manage and repair its own failings. Faith is an integral part of reason, and gets its value from reason. When it goes beyond the boundaries reason gives it, it becomes ‘misplaced faith’, i.e. a blind and stupid sort of optimism.

And now back to religion – not religion in general, of course, because there have been many religious people who have held their beliefs to be rational, and saw faith as playing exactly the role mentioned above. Rather, the maneuvre of presenting faith as an alternative to reason in grounding beliefs.

Now suddenly we see, not reason suspending itself for its own reasons from a recognition of its specific failings, we see the total suspension of reason. It’s not for a particular time, but for your whole life; not from a determinate failing, but from a general disparagement of reason (which is, among other things, the faculty of identifying determinate failings); not within a particular sphere, but concerning a grand set of beliefs about the ultimate nature of the world and about what sorts of clothes to wear.

This almost seems like a bad joke. This can no longer be justified by the sorts of reasons why faith in non-religious matters had seemed so valuable and so important. Why not? Because they were rational reasons – as is the whole point of ‘reasons’. It’s like declaring ’emergency powers’ and then making them permanent. What might have made sense as a brief suspension of civil liberties to protect them at other times, can only be justified permanently by giving up the whole idea of liberty.

Similarly, what was justified in a particular small domain or short period, can only be justified in one’s life-long most important beliefs, by entirely putting aside the idea of being rational and understanding things. But faith, in the non-religious sense, is a part of reason: sacrificing reason to faith is like eating your own intestines.

7 Responses to “Two Concepts of Faith: When is it Rational to Suspend Reason?”

  1. SnowdropExplodes Says:

    Rather, the maneuvre of presenting faith as an alternative to reason in grounding beliefs.

    Now suddenly we see, not reason suspending itself for its own reasons from a recognition of its specific failings, we see the total suspension of reason. It’s not for a particular time, but for your whole life; not from a determinate failing, but from a general disparagement of reason (which is, among other things, the faculty of identifying determinate failings); not within a particular sphere, but concerning a grand set of beliefs about the ultimate nature of the world and about what sorts of clothes to wear.

    This sounds suspiciously like an argument that is itself conjured out of faith instead of reason. Because it takes as an article of faith that there are actually people who do this.

    You say, “it looks to me like people are doing this, therefore I believe that is what they are really doing”. I take as my article of faith that people do not actually do this, so if it looks like they are then there must be something that we are not seeing about what they are saying or doing.

    Also, it is possible that they have reasons and are using reason, but they are basing their reason on premises that you don’t like, or disagree with.

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “it takes as an article of faith that there are actually people who do this”
    That this phenomenon exists seemed relatively obvious to me. It was put to me by several people over the last few days, and it’s certainly be proposed by certain philosophers (e.g. Kierkegaard).

    “it is possible that…they are basing their reason on premises that you don’t like, or disagree with.”
    Well yes, but premises are themselves subject to discussion. I’ll admit that I come into this with a certain background: having considered the arguments that people have developed over centuries for theistic conclusions, and the further arguments for religious conclusions, I’ve always found them wanting. Moreover, I’ve not got the impression that the 5 billion or so religious people in the world have all either convinced themselves that they have good reason for their (conflicting) beliefs, or else are cautious and doubtful in those beliefs. So for many people, to at least some extent, it seems that ‘faith’ serves in place of reason.

  3. Pejar Says:

    Interesting. The religious use of faith as superior to reason does fascinate me. The unspoken definition underneath this appears to be that faith in X = belief in X because the subject wants X to be true. This seems to be the only definition that explains why, without resorting to rational arguments, the subject would have faith in X (say, the Christian god) rather than Y (say, the Muslim god): For some reason they would prefer X to Y, usually because of their investment in X being true.

    Is this type of faith rational? On the one hand, it is more likely to lead people to believe things which are not, in fact, true. On the other hand, believing things which you want to be true, if done carefully (sticking to things which are not patently clear one way or the other), may well make you feel happier and more satisfied. Presuming that that is one’s (generally subconscious) end, does that not make this kind of faith rational?

    Now I’m not defending self-delusion, and I think that anyone who accepts that they are doing this should probably have to take a step back from deciding things for other people (say, through elected office). But can we call them irrational? Or is it irrational iff they do not realise they are doing it?

    Sorry to ramble, but as I said I do find this fascinating.

  4. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    I think an idea like ‘wants X to be true’ is more complex than it looks. There are reasons for belief intermediate between ‘wanting’ and ‘having good evidence’. For instance, it may often be the case that a certain belief just feels really true to someone (at times) but for reasons that they must recognise as not good ones. E.g. someone who interprets everything negatively because of traumatic experiences in their past: those experiences have ‘taught them’ that the world is hostile and out to get them, without being, considered in perspective, good reasons for drawing such a global conclusion. This would seem to be a result of cognitive faculties designed to work on a much smaller, more hunter-gatherery world being adapted to form beliefs about the whole universe forever.

    It’s obviously not such a stretch to suppose that tendencies of this sort could be operative in at least some cases of religious belief (and of irrelegion), whether it’s about what one’s parents and culture beliefs ‘feeling true’, or about certain features of theism in general (or other doctrine, inc. atheism) connecting with certain emotional aspects of experience.

    As to whether we can call active self-delusion for the sake of happiness rational, I’d suggest that we don’t have a prior notion of what it is that ‘happiness’ means, at least one that would make it a priori rational to pursue, and so we shouldn’t elevate any desire to believe over the desire to believe truly, because we need to know the truth to inform our sense of what constitutes our happiness.

  5. Mark Says:

    thank you for this article.
    In listening to many debates on the subject of faith I have been have typically found both sides to be very unsatisfying. Many atheists have pointed out the weakness in the faith defense, but this often relied on the idea that faith is always wrong and that humans can function by reason alone. Though this argument has always felt flawed to me, I have never been able to express why.
    I agree that the purpose of faith is to overcome the defects within ones own rationality and is necessary part of rational decision. However, I am less sure that positive (or simply useful) faith necessary comes from ‘rational ground’ to be used for ‘rational ends’ or that faith ‘gets it value from reason’. This may well be the case for a culture/society/individual that elevates the concept of rationality, but need not be a universal necessity. I’m not sure of this and will certainly think about it further.

  6. Q Says:

    If reason has identified a flaw in reason and has a solution that comes from reason, was reason really flawed in the first place?
    If by the process of science a scientific theory is found to have a flaw and the flaw is corrected by application of scientific method, was science flawed?

  7. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Did the solution that was scientifically applied have to implement forms of thought or action not themselves scientific (e.g. a moral trust in such-and-such)? If so, then this at least shows that science is not ‘autonomous’, and cannot solve all of its own problems (which is probably true). But ‘rationality’ can’t simply be ‘incomplete’ because completeness is part of its definition: a fully rational judgement is an ‘all-things-considered’ judgement. So rationality is in this sense, perhaps ‘inconsistent’ in a weak sense. But it’s still the only game in town.


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