Monday, July 19, 2010

faith, knowledge and the art of confusion 1

Faith: not wanting to know what is true -- Friedrich Nietzsche

When I was young and foolish, my favorite comic book character was Daredevil: The Man Without Fear, a blind catholic vigilante. Now that I am old and foolish I have become what my younger self would have despised the most: a non-blind (in more ways than one), atheist, liberal... I am Loren: Man without Faith

Why faith?
Why is this held up as a virtue by so many people?

I sit back, sometimes, in a deeply philosophical type pose, and wonder. How did this come about, what were we thinking and why don't I think that way anymore? When I say "that way" I'm referring to faith of a religious variety. The form that steps outside the realm of standard everyday decision making and into other worldly speculation and then claims these metaphysical musings as absolute truth.

Granted we all exercise faith in varying degrees whenever we undertake a task, of that there is no doubt. It is a crucial ingredient in a crude form of empiricism that drives our actions. We make a hypothesis based on our beliefs and desires: "Girls are awesome." We test our hypothesis: "She's a terrifying monster that feeds only on the hearts of men." Sometimes things don't work out as well as we might have anticipated. No matter the result of our various experiments we can be assured of a reliable feedback loop, which will either verify, or falsify our original postulate; carry us closer to, or further from our initial goal. In the end, there is a simple way of knowing if our faith is well founded.

Contrariwise, generally religious faith for the zealot requires no such feedback loop to sustain itself. Answers to a heart felt prayer are left open to the discretion and perhaps imagination of the penitent soul who offered up the supplication. A reply may take the form of a person, a tingly sensation in the bosom, a silhouette of Jesus in a taco. There is no clear indicator as to whether or not a prayer has been definitively answered by some god-like being, only interpretations.

Sometimes people receive what they feel is an affirmative answer. Perhaps they prayed to pass an exam, studied and then passed. A miracle? It should be noted that those who study for exams greatly increase their chances of passing them. Sometimes I want it to be sunny outside and often the weather will oblige. Am I then to conclude that weather patterns are subject to my whims (even though there are times that the two do not correspond)? Or is it more sensible to conclude that the laws of nature are simply going about their usual business and that cloud formations and my desires only intermittently correlate by chance, and not by some supernatural trick of wishful thinking? We shall leave aside, for now, claims of truly miraculous answers to prayer.

On the other hand, you could pray for years for a particular result and be disappointed. Was this due to lack of faith? Was the answer no? Was the answer some kind of obscure communication that was somehow overlooked? Again, it is hard to tell. The person of faith will say if you are perceptive, open to God, you will know when the answers have come whatever they be. Why settle for this method which offers results that have the appearance of being capriciously and arbitrarily dealt out (if you believe in a god), when there is a more direct and useful course: Trying to do things yourself. When asked how it is that one "knows" that an answer has been given you may hear "the spirit told me" (translation: I feel like I got an answer). Dig a little deeper for the basis of this knowledge, question how feeling good about something guarantees truth, and you may well discover that this person has faith that they know.

This is were I become confused. In many instances in religious speech "faith" and "knowledge" are used interchangeably forming a nice foundation for circular arguments. When a person says they know that god lives, particularly in the mormon tradition, they are making a truth claim about the state of the world: There are such things as gods, they are corporeal, they/it exist(s) etc. The grounds for the veracity of this statement is that they feel it is true, therefore it must be true, independent of ever having seen or not seen said being. "Ah so you think god is real because you feel good about that prospect? Well that's more akin to faith isn't? You haven't quite verified it yet?" No, not think: know. Faith is knowing. This is a shocking form of epistemology to be sure. You can't really explain peoples experiences away, they belong to them after all and are invulnerable to intellectual scrutiny, but is it too much to ask that if we're going to communicate that we at least speak the same language first?



Andrew S said...

I believe that the capacity to feed on the hearts of men counts as "awesome."

but that leads to other problems. We are going from the specific to form general conclusions. We must assume -- without ANYTHING to justify it -- that "the future will look like the past" or "other things in this category will look like the particular things I've seen."

How can we justify that? Saying, "Well, let's look at more things" or "let's let more time pass" doesn't change that we don't know the future.

Loren said...

Yes, she was awesome.

Are you talking about something like Hume's problem of induction? Where we observe causes and supposed effects, but never a binding causal relation that connects one to the other. Just because the sun came up today and has done so for billions of years is no guarantee that we can expect the same tomorrow?

I'm aware that it's all ridiculous, justification is a hard thing to come by. Human knowledge is a house of cards built on metaphors. Some metaphors reconcile with reality better than others. Some are less justifiable than others. I think I'm suggesting a pragmatic approach: selecting a world view based on utility. Of course, what is useful is another argument all together.

Induction in my mind is like how Churchill describes democracy "the worst form of government, except for everything else that has been tried." Basing future decisions on past experience is about the best we can hope for when it comes to matters of self governance, I suppose, in spite of the fact that the laws of physics may one day up and change on us.

There's an old experiment involving rats, levers, food pellets and electric shocks. The rats behavior could be manipulated by doling out different ratios of shocks or food when it pressed the lever. One of the findings was that continuous reinforcement was best for developing new behaviors, but that intermittent (i.e. random) reinforcement was best for maintaining behaviors. The rat was like a problem gambler, it would persevere through pressing the lever and receiving many electric shocks on a random variable cycle (I don't know, maybe some of the rats died) because it knew eventually it would win and receive a food pellet. Exercising religious faith and praying is like gambling except that it's often impossible to know if you've "won" or not (uh oh, there's that 'K' word again). Yet people persist in doing it. I don't see the utility in this.

On a deeper level, although this post probably comes across as a smug dismissal of religious faith, I'm genuinely interested in why people, OK really why I, thought this way for almost 30 years, and at the time I believed it was one of the few things in the world that made sense. I have experienced a dramatic reversal of paradigms. Wow, all that and I don't even know if I've addressed the point you were making.

Andrew S said...

yes, I'm referring exactly to Hume's problem of induction.

Again, your utility argument relies upon one thing: faith. You essentially concede that faith in one thing is the most useful thing in the entire universe -- faith in the idea that what happened in the past can indicate what will happen in the future because there is a binding relation between them.

I can understand that many religious concepts of god go far beyond this "philosophically" bare of slim possibility, BUT I could also see how someone could take this faith, ask, "now, what could possibly supersede this problem?" and then posit some deity that's out of time, out of space, etc., It's most useful for them to do so.

From here, is it so hard to then attribute more things *from the past* to this causal possibility? Then it could make sense...I don't know, but it's possible.

Loren said...

I am beholden to philosophical argument, only when it supports my case. Everything brakes down at a certain point. Brute facts seem to be nested many layers beneath a million other facts. When we reach the bottom it is true, we may find that faith is the only thing propping all else up. Faith is inevitable but at its extremity, where god is invoked credulity is strained beyond breaking point.

There is faith, and there is blind faith. I believe in secular wisdom, because it appears a closer approximation to reality than its counterpart. I swim in the psychological comfort offered by the denizens of modernity, my ideology will set the terms of how humanity will move forward (I have faith it is so).

Jesus may surprise us all one day and descend from the heavens to smite the arses of the sinful, but as of now he is unfortunately unavailable for comment. If that day of revelation ever comes though, or one like it, then it will be fair to say that God exists.

Our knowledge is provisional at best. To think otherwise is hubris. Mistaking faith for certainty is the cardinal sin. Perhaps my wings are beginning to melt. I've flown too close to the sun, too eager too overstate my case. No matter, in the face of all evidence I feel my position is more reasonable. Humans are not completely rational creatures, but in matters of debate they like to pretend that they are.

Can one be lost at sea, and still certain of arrival at one's destination? Perhaps, but I would lead a mutiny against the captain. I have not experienced gods only monsters (of the variety heretofore mentioned). For those who claim they have, I demand: explain yourselves (though I was once counted among their number I have forgotten the rationale). In the end, Given the choice of performing
minor stunts on my BMX at noonday or extreme motorcycle jumps into the pitch dark, I choose the former and not the latter day saint approach. Faith because you have not seen puzzles me.

PS As soon as I typed the word 'utility' I knew my fate was sealed.

PPS If I was to sum up all of the above in one word, I would say: agreed

Justin said...

Loren, I think your initial posting may describe the religious faith of some (tho I felt your examples could have been a little less naive sounding), but not of others.

You wrote:
"When asked how it is that one "knows" that an answer has been given you may hear "the spirit told me" (translation: I feel like I got an answer). "

You probably wouldn't explain your recent boxing experience as "I feel that my sparring partner gave me two black eyes and likely a broken nose", you "know" would be more appropriate, and for a number of people their direct witness of the Spirit is no different. There is no way that you will be able to convince them that their lucid, multi-sensual experiences, that have congruency with the world around them are merely feelings.
Especially at the moment of them having the experience.

You experienced your injuries, and you experienced your injuries as coming from your sparing partner. Did you feel these two thing? yes, but to reduce the experience to mere feelings would be a mistake. So much more is involved than the feeling.

To say you merely felt that the experience wasn't real and that it's cause is open to question/debate is probably absurd in your mind. At the same time, to say that certain religously faithful peoples' experiences of spiritual witness is equally absurd in their mind. They experienced it as real and they experienced it as coming from God.

For them, is no gap between cause and effect.

Justin said...

Loren Wrote:
"The grounds for the veracity of this statement is that they feel it is true, therefore it must be true, independent of ever having seen or not seen said being."

Seeing may be a bit overrated. I'm sure you have verified and arrived at certainty on quite a few things in your life without actually relying on your sense of sight.

There a numberous methods of verification that people use to arrive at a testimony, not just feelings and not just sight. Usually in combination.

Loren said...

I am biased towards sight, definitely. I agree that confirmation of facts by multiple modes of knowing helps, but I think the church overemphasizes feeling to the exclusion of all else. They discourage any type of information that hasn't been bowdlerized and correlated (when you examine information that lies outside the approved materials you can see why they don't you to), affectively asking you to switch off your brain and to just trust them. Heart, mind , intuition, sight, feeling, all these factors and more probably impact holistically on how you think about the world. Why exalt one, especially one that is the hardest measure and not always wholly accurate just because some institution deems it should be so?

Justin said...

This video presentation by Wendy Ulrich is well worth watching:

Transcript available here:

Very relevant to this thread.

Loren said...

Hi again, sorry for the slow responses, I often get carried away in thought which leaves little time for action. Also, I think I have been overly snarky in some of my responses, sorry again. I will try to reign in those statements which are most blatantly offensive (although truth be told, I will tell the truth when I feel it is appropriate which may sometimes fall on the wrong side of tact).

So, a woman who has had her own personal faith crisis now shares a talk under the auspices of FAIR. I feel she made some valid points and I particularly liked her comments about the 4 stages of marriage. It is similar, but also different to Fowler's 6 stages of faith. Interesting.

I'm currently vacillating between power struggle, withdrawal, and renewal. Although one day I will finally settle at the last stage, it is unlikely to be in Mormonism (speaking from the limited perspective of the present) and here's why... If I were an economist I would say that the price of admission -- wearing the underwear, paying tithing, not ever (ok there was maybe one time) definitively experiencing a transcendent connection with god, and enduring the world's most boring meetings, to name a few-- is not worth the return on investment. Diminishing returns begin before the first mouthful. I'd rather just make up my own religion, create a god in my own image. What a wonderfully self indulgent, masturbatory distraction that would be, don't you think? I would make a wonderful death cult leader. But I'm wandering off topic again.

As I have said before faith is a matter of choice. Every religion seems to suffer from the same pretentious malady, the illusion that they (and only they) are gods chosen people. I have the good sense to avoid these types people, because I'm better than any of them. But seriously, I just don't see it: one religion to rule them all. The Mormon God, a meticulous bureaucrat, and mass producer extraordinaire of cookie cutter do gooders. So many different types of people (just this idea alone, lots of people, lots of different people, cries out: why one way?) lay claim to ecstatic and spiritual experiences, why believe Mormonism is the only religion with valid (or more valid) ones? Especially when the church doesn't excite me at all. And besides, I'm an atheist.

Justin said...

Hi Loren, don't worry, your replies are best if only occasional. Anything more than that irrisistably unbalances me away from my other responsibilities. Once a week or less is fine.

you wrote,
"why believe Mormonism is the only religion with valid (or more valid) ones?"

I don't like long personal talks but, I went from catholic to agnostic and eastern-like and then to Mormon worldviews...i do not beleive Mormonism is the only religion with valid spiritual experiences.

Although I could study and ponder about the issue more, I do not have any difficulty believing that a catholic receives, say, a vision of the Virgin Mary. I do not have need to doubt that such an experience would have spiritual importance to that individual.

I beleive that the issue of many different individuals having different types of spiritual experience is quite reasonable and should be expected. I beleive that the particular form of manifestation of spiritual experiences to an indivivual will be that which the individual can personally understand and cope with.

The reason why I beleive that Mormon position (should I say my Mormon position?) is a more valid than those of other religions is that... well lets see.

1. Relative to the other religious systems I find the LDS doctrine/theology the most internally consistant and reasonable(Yes, it even helped me to understand the problem of evil/pain. And yeah, I'll post more about the SoP issue later), despite the fact that I don't know all the answers. YET.

2. Although Mormon Doctrine/theology helps me to understand the limitations of other religious, it also helps me to see and accept the validity, use and benefit of other religions (even though in a perfect world they wouldn't exist).

3. I find the Mormon doctrine/theology extremely purpose inspiring (yeah, we know many people in church seem to be less inspired and motivated than we would expect), especially when connected with other disciplines in the world (e.g. suddenly teaching whining naughty kids becomes "helping the struggling children of God to reach their divine potential")

4. The Book of Mormon is definately a true and Divinely inspired record (Tho, I admit I haven't explicitely received spiritual witness from the Moroni 10 prayer we all know about.. actually I don't even think I need it) And that rules out a whole lot of other possibilities.

5. Being LDS and going to church and engaging in service makes me happy, as long as I approach it with the right attitude. I know you've had that +ve experience yourself. The whole return on investment analogy you use only counts if you don't beleive the church is true in the first place.

Because the above list satisfies me emotionally, spiritually, physically, and perhaps even physically, I really don't have many other places to turn. I'm often faced with new information that challenges my religius beleifs, but that's OK.

As the talk above explains, working through it forces me to grow and improves my relationship with an objective God.

Who God is and what reality is shouldn't be kept in the box of perception and expectation that we may have. "The box" of perception and expectation that I have now is far removed/expanded from the box that I held 9 years ago on my conversion/baptism. Despite that, I'm still happy to say I'm LDS with a strong testimony.

P.S. speaking of challenging perceptions have you ever heard of Thomas Cambell, author of "My Big Toe"?

Loren said...

Thanks for sharing Justin (note: not being sarcastic). I can see you're quite happy with your decision, so you're all in. I wasn't so enamored, which is why I folded. Gotta know when to hold'em, when to fold 'em, know when to walk away, know when to run. Kenny Rogers tells me so. you like the answers they give, I don't. Let's agree to disagree while I'm in a diplomatic mood. Threat? No. Promise? You get the idea...

Loren said...

yeah I started reading My Big TOE once ages ago, at least I think it was this guys book (didn't finish it). All I remember is a lot of stuff about out of body experiences, which according to the author are incredibly common especially for children. Um, not me. I think he also claimed to have willed the universe into allowing him to marry a playboy playmate, which intrigued me greatly. I might have the wrong guy though.