A simple question: when you purchase a can of beans from your local Supermarket, how can you be sure that you are buying some beans? The answer is not quite so simple. You may point to the label on the can – but that simply shows the manufacturer’s intent, not what necessarily happened on that day, in that plant. You may recount the numerous times in the past that you purchased identically marked cans, and every one contained beans. You may even rely on the fact that if the can contains something less than savory beans, you will be given a refund, so the question does not really matter.
But, in short, your belief that the can will contain beans as an act of faith. Until it is time to open the can, you cannot be 100% certain there are beans in that can. This is one of life’s many and varied acts of faith, that allow us to move along on cruise control without being totally destroyed if one such act is belied by some future reality.
On the other hand, sometimes we have “unwritten” faith over possible future outcomes. When I board a train that I am told is going from Los Angeles to San Francisco, I have faith that I shall pass through the various railroad stations between those two cities. If I observe that the stopping points indicate that I traveling towards San Diego, a quick chat with the conductor will reveal whether the train is not the one I thought it was, or we are going through a complex detour. But I am 100% certain that this train, on this day, will not eventually disembark its passengers in London, England,
Here we have three outcomes to contend with: arriving in San Francisco – very high probability, arriving in San Diego- very low probability and arriving in London – a zero probability. Only the last outcome is faith based, per se, and comes from the fact that there is not one single piece of supporting evidence to suggest that such a trip is capable of taking place, without bringing in extraordinary secondary events, possibly including flying saucers of one sort or another…
This, so far, may seem to be one of those academic after dinner party games that go well with a single malt or other drink of a digestive nature.
But the underlying tenets in it apply to just about everything.
For example, believing in science is just as much an act of faith as believing that one of the myriad of religions available to us actually has The Truth at its heart.
But science is full of evidence, and facts, and proofs. How can believing in evidence and facts and proofs be dismissed as being an act of faith? Because, unless you personally collected the material, conducted the experiment and correlated the data, you are taking it that the scientist concerned is telling you the truth.
A bit of a stretch? Not really. Piltdown man was “good” science for 40 years, and then turned out to be an elaborate hoax. And on the other hand, early specimens of the duck-billed platypus were dismissed as hoaxes by European scientists, on the grounds that such a creature could not exist on planet earth.
We have studies where it is discovered sooner or later that the results were skewed to favor a pet theory of the researcher. And contrary-indicative evidence suppressed from reports. For almost 8 years, it was US government policy to insert the words “controversial theory of” before any report containing the words “global warming” – not because of anything science had to say, but because of what political aspirations demanded.
Having said that, are we entitled to say “all science is junk”? No. You may never have seen an electron in your life, and all those scientific theories, experiments and studies leave you stone cold. But when you switch on your television to watch the six o’clock news tonight, a whole slew of faith based beliefs come into play as you once again groan in disbelief at what they are using as teasers, and even bigger ones when they get to the reveal.
Science may be the sum of a specific category of faiths – but the end result is a set of technologies that consistently produce forecast-able outcomes. The LA – SFO rail system was built on the back of science, and whether you have faith in the science or not, you do have a reasonably reliable method of transport.
Let us now turn to those things people believe despite the total lack of evidence to support such beliefs, except that which can be explained by chance or coincidence. Such as lucky numbers. That every “scientific” experiment fails to make any connection between numbers and good or bad luck matters not to the believer. Some things are outside the realm of science.
There are many reasons that the human brain can experience the sensation of Religious Experience, and the mechanism is understood well enough to be reproducible in lab experiments. Science has yet to show that it is impossible for one such cause to be the act of divine intervention – should science every have a mind to undertake such a remarkable demonstration.
Since it is not impossible that numbers are lucky, and it is not impossible that RE is induced by a divine being, then there is no reason not to believe in such things. Provided, of course, that the belief does not cause unnecessary suffering to others. It does not seem to me to be acceptable to tell the kids that they have to beg for food for the rest of the month because the faith that a failed bet based on lucky numbers has taken away the ability to provide adequate nourishment for them.
The point of all this, is that we only have the one word “faith” to describe a multitude of belief systems. And when discussing belief systems, those that hold to a single definition of faith can make their debating adversaries very uncomfortable. We may be made to concede that the theist has a belief based on faith, and the secularist has a belief based on faith. If you think about it,you may come to the conclusion that they are different sorts of faith.
I think as a matter of prudence that henceforth we should be required to add an adjective or other other descriptor in front of the word faith to state what sort we are talking about. I give you my simple three as a first stab:
- Evidential faith – a faith that is based on facts and theories that produce outcomes that are routinely replicated world wide.
- Non-evidential faith – a faith that exists despite the lack of any hard facts or theories, and do not produce any outcome that can be reliably replicated.
- Wishful thinking faith – a faith that would be wonderful if it turns out to be based on the truth.
If we are clear about which sort of faith we are dealing with, it makes for much more relevant discussion. I would never wish to dissuade anyone that having faith in can label is fool-hardy. Would you?