Great timing, Steve. Your comment today on my "Why 'man of faith' is an insult" post came soon after I'd come across a perfect reply. But first, the comment:
Brian, thank you for taking a moment to respond to my post. I understand and agree with both of your references (although I have a special affinity for chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream).
Still, I'd like to understand your perspective on faith just a bit more. You indicate that neither of your examples require religious faith, and I agree with that premise.
My question is this (and expanding upon your examples just a bit): Do self-discoveries based upon personal experience ("I like vanilla ice cream") and scientific discoveries based upon proven methods of objective analysis (evolution, gravity, physics, chemistry, medicine, etc.) negate faith?
Steve referred to my comment-reply to his previous comment-question, "Are you a person of beliefs or a person of opinions?"
Steve, we all believe in some things that are only subjectively true. Like, I believe that I like vanilla ice cream more than chocolate, based on a lot of previous personal experience.
I also aspire to believing in objective truths, such as those known to science. Like, a big bang brought the universe into being 13.7 billion years ago, and evolution has guided life on Earth.
Neither of these sorts of beliefs requires religious faith. Hopes this points at an answer to your question.
So, yes, I do consider that both self-discoveries based on personal experience and scientific discoveries based on methods of objective analysis negate faith. More exactly, "faith" as it is used in personal experience and science is very different from how this word is used in a religious context.
Jerry Coyne, a biology professor who runs the marvelous Why Evolution is True blog, is able to explain this much better than I can.
Check out his recent post that I noticed a few days ago, "Another misguided believer claims that science is based on faith." Here's how it starts out.
I guess it was too much for me to hope that my 2013 Slate essay, “No faith in science,” would once and for all dispel the claim that science is just like religion in depending on faith. My point was simple: what “faith” means in science is “confidence based on experience,” while the same term in religion means “belief without enough evidence to convince most rational people.”
It’s the same word, but with two different meanings. Yet religious people mix up those meanings regularly—and, I expect, deliberately. I wish they’d read my goddam essay.
So someone’s done it again: Matt Emerson, a Catholic whose blog says, “I teach theology and direct the advancement office at Xavier College Preparatory in Palm Desert, CA.” He’s also written the book Why Faith? A Journey of Discovery, to be published by Paulist Press this May; it apparently aims to help people maintain and understand faith.
At any rate, Emerson published a short essay in the March 3 Wall Street Journal—”At its heart, science is faith-based too“—that, as usual, conflates the meaning of “faith” as applied to science (but we scientists avoid that word!) versus as applied to religion. Rather than go into detail, I’d recommend you read my Slate piece, and Emerson should have, too!
This got me to read Coyne's Slate "No Faith in Science" essay. It demolishes the argument that "faith" in science, or everyday life, is anything like religious faith. Here's the first part of the piece:
A common tactic of those who claim that science and religion are compatible is to argue that science, like religion, rests on faith: faith in the accuracy of what we observe, in the laws of nature, or in the value of reason.
Daniel Sarewitz, director of a science policy center at Arizona State University and an occasional Slate contributor, wrote this about the Higgs boson in the pages of Nature, one of the world’s most prestigious science journals: “For those who cannot follow the mathematics, belief in the Higgs is an act of faith, not of rationality.”
Such statements imply that science and religion are not that different because both seek the truth and use faith to find it. Indeed, science is often described as a kind of religion.
But that’s wrong, for the “faith” we have in science is completely different from the faith believers have in God and the dogmas of their creed. To see this, consider the following four statements:
“I have faith that, because I accept Jesus as my personal savior, I will join my friends and family in Heaven.”
“My faith tells me that the Messiah has not yet come, but will someday.”
“I have strep throat, but I have faith that this penicillin will clear it up.”
“I have faith that when I martyr myself for Allah, I will receive 72 virgins in Paradise.”
All of these use the word faith, but one uses it differently. The three religious claims (Christian, Jewish, and Muslim, respectively) represent faith as defined by philosopher Walter Kaufmann: “intense, usually confident, belief that is not based on evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person.”
Indeed, there is no evidence beyond revelation, authority, and scripture to support the religious claims above, and most of the world’s believers would reject at least one of them. To state it bluntly, such faith involves pretending to know things you don’t. Behind it is wish-thinking, as clearly expressed in Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
In contrast, the third statement relies on evidence: penicillin almost invariably kills streptococcus bacteria. In such cases the word faith doesn’t mean “belief without good evidence,” but “confidence derived from scientific tests and repeated, documented experience.”
You have faith (i.e., confidence) that the sun will rise tomorrow because it always has, and there’s no evidence that the Earth has stopped rotating or the sun has burnt out. You have faith in your doctor because, presumably, she has treated you and others successfully, and you know that what she prescribes is tested scientifically. You wouldn’t go to a shaman or a spiritual healer for strep throat—unless you want to waste your money.
Of course they are different, but not to the extent you described. It is more a matter of differences in "degree" rather than "kind." We have faith that the sun will rise tomorrow because of empirical observation: it rose yesterday, and the day before, and the preceding x amount of days that we know about. That doesn't guarantee it will rise tomorrow, only that it is more likely than not.
Believing in Jesus is of a different "degree" of faith but ultimately of the same kind. One believes the historical evidence (Gospels, the historian Josephus, several Greek writers) for his existence, believes he was telling the truth, etc. Obviously, this requires some amount of faith: there is no guarantee he did anything of the things we read about.
The distinction then is one of degree--that is, how much faith is required to hold the belief. Clearly, it takes more faith to believe in Jesus than to believe the sun will rise. But ultimately both are beliefs, situated in a larger system of beliefs. Most scientific claims depend on the belief in the "uniformity of nature" to make sense. We must assume that the way things have worked in the past (the sun rising) will hold for the future (the sun will always rise). Bertrand Russell, not a theist by any means, sums this up.
"Thus all knowledge which, on a basis of experience tells us something about what is not experienced, is based upon a belief which experience can neither confirm nor confute."
Posted by: David | March 11, 2016 at 08:32 PM
My thanks again Brian. Linguistics forms a key aspect of your response. I enjoyed the article.
After reading it, however, I didn't make the connection with my question about self-discoveries/objective analysis and their potential influence on faith. I read a lot about contextual differences resident in use of the word "faith" and I appreciate that. I have faith that I understand your faithful interpretation of the linguistic nuance of the word!
Science is wonderful...many of us owe our lives to it. Science provides empirical evidence for theories we can't see and context for things we don't understand. It (science) explains why things happen and is often capable of predicting when, how and why they will happen again. (except weather in the Pacific Northwest)
There is great comfort in knowing that science and the scientific method (as well as mathematics, chemistry, physics, mechanics etc.) will instill in us confidence to know (or think we can know) the unknown. Yes, I have faith in science just as I have faith in the doctor who opens my chest cavity and the pilot who flies me across the country at 650 miles an hour at an altitude of 6 miles above the Earth. Without faith, we would neither lie on an operating table nor fasten our seat belts.
We place our faith in these people without asking to read their medical or flight school transcripts or ask them if they had a good nights' sleep last night. We place our faith in a quality and capability and level of skill we can never fully understand or fully appreciate. Yes, we have faith in them without empirical proof of their competence. Is it because we presume the know what they are doing? I think it's because we have simple faith in them as another human being. We trust them because we have faith in them. Scary. (I'm always reminded, though, that 50% of all doctors finished in the bottom half of their med school class).
One more question, Brian, if I may: Does the concept of "hope" reside in your world view? Not as in "I hope the Seahawks win the Super Bowl" or "I hope it doesn't rain tomorrow." I mean real, human hope....the kind that encompasses more than personal desire or wishful thinking. Real H-O-P-E.
I hope you do.
Perhaps there is an article about that waiting just beyond the search bar on Google.
Posted by: Steve Baxter | March 11, 2016 at 10:53 PM