Knowledge, Belief and Faith

New Scientist is a favourite weekly read for me. As well as much to inform and entertain, there is often something to make me (as a person of faith) think and sometimes squirm. That may be deliberate! Despite the evident angles and awkwardnesses, though, with which some contributors approach the subject, it’s remarkable how often the subject comes up, and I’m glad it does. Better that than silence.

The approach of Easter seemed to be the cue for more coverage than usual, and an editorial noted the recent “discovery” that the rise of religion may have been more central to that of civilization than that of say agriculture. I’m not sure on the basis of what I know about early Mesopotamian civilization that the three can be easily separated, so I am not rushing to give plaudits to Near Eastern faith, but I was struck by the editorial’s ending:

Some secularists dislike the idea that spiritual needs drove the rise of civilisation. They fret that it will reinforce or restore religion’s central place in society. But just because spirituality may have led to civilisation, it doesn’t follow that it should lead it now. If religion did have an early founding role, we must acknowledge this, learn from it – and move on.

Where did the “should” and “move on” come from? Granted this was the editorial not the substantive article, and opinion is to be expected, but I am interested and intrigued to know if there is a definite editorial standpoint or policy involved (and would be happier if there was if it was overt, I suppose). I’m going to see if I can call in at their office and have a conversation – off the record since I am not aiming to “expose” or embarrass, just understand.

A week later (1st April, but no fooling) Easter really was with us and belief was back with a leader on “Don’t believe in belief”. The topic this time was belief itself, and the growing understanding or acceptance (I’m not sure how “new” it is, despite the almost obligatory use of that word) that it is not just religion that builds belief on instincts and intuitions but science too, at least insofar as scientists “are influenced by their own beliefs about what is important, what they might find and what their findings mean.” I would add that these influences do not just affect say the moral application of science or choices of topics and funders, but also the conception of and choice between hypotheses (which I agree the scientific method then tests and seeks to falsify, or leave standing as potential “truth”). As the editorial says, this method is “still by far the best way to distinguish what we believe from what we know”, and so it is, although “know” here is not such a cut-and-dried concept as you might suppose. Leaving aside all the philosophical issues and staying with a straightforward “critical realist” approach, knowing on normal historical grounds accepted in the academy that Jesus Christ lived, is not the same as knowing that he preached and taught as recorded in the scriptures (where it is plain that the construction and transmission of those texts however divinely guided presents us with contradictions and quandaries, even if the main gist is clear), and certainly not the same as knowing that he rose from the dead (since even though the historical and textual evidence is not insignificant such a by-definition unique event will never be addressable by the scientific method and will always require a clear a priori personal choice in our response). Nor are any of these really equivalent to my knowing Christ for myself, or indeed my children, though these are still perfectly fair uses of the word, and have real content.

This time the editorial ended as follows:

This new view of belief is still incomplete, but unsettling. Belief is a potent force in human affairs. It is hard to think of a major historic event not motivated by it in some way: we might not have civilisation without it (see “Should we thank god for civilisation?”). And our leaders’ convictions may count as much as, or more than, their arguments. But where should we locate our beliefs within modern society? Religion is respected as routinely as its dictates are ignored. We cannot extend the same Janus-faced attitude to all beliefs. But we can reject belief, without robust supporting evidence or argument, as an insufficient basis for politics or policy. Don’t believe that belief alone is enough.

Once again the editorial style likes to put a sting in the tail. It is hard to disagree with the line being taken in one way. But take for instance the research evidence reported in NS’s current edition that trickle-down theories of spreading prosperity don’t work. The Cambridge-based contributor Ha-Joon Chong bemoans the fact that vested interest means that this reality will be ignored and policy changed. I agree with the insight and share the sadness. But I do so partly because of a prior, faith-based commitment to an equal and mutual society, that is more than a general utilitarian assumption that it must be right to maximise everyone’s wealth and happiness. As people we make real choices here both about what we think a good society is like and whether we will in fact work for it or just stick up for ourselves. (Another research article in NS recently pointed out that far more people say they will be buy ethically produce trainers than actually do…) So we cannot only base our politics and policy on a sort of technocratic calculation of what will work: belief of one sort or another will be part of the mix. What we can hope for, though, is that any such belief will be transparently stated and cogently argued for, and open to challenge, debate and possible overturning. (But there, I am showing my underskirts of belief again about what sort of society I deem to be good.)

Interwoven in this tapestry of debate are various claims about knowledge, belief and faith. The latest contribution, a letter from Stephen Welch, contributes as follows:

In his fascinating look at belief, Lawton concentrates on the distinction between knowledge and belief. But the philosopher David Hume argues that we find actual knowledge only in maths and logic: everything else is belief, to which we ascribe probabilities based on our experience in the world. Such belief is obviously subjective, but it also becomes the basis of science via shared and repeatable experiments. The distinction between belief and faith is more telling. We can believe in something when we have evidence for it. But faith is a belief in something without evidence, indeed often in the face of evidence.

The first part of the letter helpfully rehearses one of the ways in which belief of a sort is present in any inductive system of reasoning. But where does the idea that faith is a belief in something without evidence come from. I know as a student of language that the Humpty Dumpty principle means that actual usage determines the meaning of words, and I have heard others make the faith-belief distinction in this way. But I am not sure that that is the majority usage and from the standpoint of someone with religious faith I also think it is a misleading usage. The two terms are not distinguished by one being more founded on evidence than the other. There is a fluidity of meaning involved but belief tends to refer to mental conviction of truth while faith captures a personal confidence in such a truth or a person (including God) and concomitant faithfulness in response. It is not helpful to use the words in such a way as to imply that faith is unevidenced and less trustworthy when to the one having faith, whether that be in their spouse or their God, the whole point is that they do place their trust here.

We are, I hope, not going to cease any time soon from striving to identify evidenced knowledge, of various kinds, nor to conform our belief to that knowledge. But nor I hope are we going to pretend that we can strip out from our humanity those in-principle intuitions of and convictions about truth, beauty, justice and ultimate reality that will continue to be a core part of that humanity and to motivate much of what we do. Better to pay careful attention to them, educate ourselves about them, debate them with appropriate courtesy in the public square, and learn to use them for the common good.