Have a little faith

By Andy Crosbie

The notion of faith is something that receives heavy fire in the modern world. To claim to have faith is often taken to be sign of foolishness, an inability to face up to reality. I think this is an error, one which reveals a misunderstanding of what faith actually is. There are two idioms in which we commonly use the word ‘faith’: blind faith and a leap of faith. People commonly conceive faith as the former. The latter is a far more robust, more interesting notion and it is to this concept that we should direct our attention.

 Blind faith is “believing in the absence of sufficient reason”. It is a stop-gap en route to knowledge – a primitive rational achievement that we can move beyond if we gain the right evidence. Before a belief has been proven, we may still think that it is true because it helps us to understand the world or because it seems to fit with other confirmed beliefs. As this type of belief, blind faith is only needed to cover the gaps of our ignorance as we move towards a more complete understanding of the world. The more we learn, the lesser the role of faith. From this conception, it’s obvious why many people sneer at faith.

 The faith in ‘a leap of faith’ is not a belief; in fact, it is the opposite of rational knowledge. It does not aim at understanding the world but instead is a way of living in it. Belief aims at capturing the objectively observable – facts about the way the world is. Even the most detailed description of what it is like to be me will always be incomplete (as long as I’m alive) because I am more than the conjunction of my objectively observable attributes. What it is like to be me is always changing. My existence – what I am like – is something that resists objective expression. Not all of reality can be captured and explained within an objective, rational system.

 ‘Subjective truth’ lies outside a rational system. It is “a passionate personal concern about one’s existence and not about [an] objective truth claim.” (Marino, Kierkegaard in the Present Age.) Subjective truths possess an existential importance that objective truths simply cannot. If you fall into a body of water, you have no theoretical interest in whether or not you will drown – it’s life or death. (Remember what Chris wrote about why marriage was not a matter of logic?)

 A leap of faith is a matter of subjective truth. This faith is an act of will, clinging to an “objective uncertainty, held fast through appropriation with the most passionate inwardness.” (Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript.) A leap of faith is a matter of venturing against understanding, risking everything, including one’s trust in the rational mind. The transition from reason to faith is discontinuous, involving a break with reason, and thus becomes a ‘leap’.

 This faith is belief-like in that it plays a role in action. Just as the belief that I have hands partially causes me to act in a certain way – clapping, scratching my ear – so faith affects how I act. But faith involves acting against reason; thus, the person aiming at faith must risk all of their beliefs and not merely add faith to their belief system.

 Whereas blind faith is no great achievement, a leap of faith is “a task for a whole lifetime…dexterity in faith is not acquired in a few days or weeks.” (Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling.) Remaining in a position of faith is a constant balance between losing one’s faith and losing one’s mind. It is, above all things, a matter of risk. Faith pulls one way, reason pulls the other and it requires a continual force of will to avoid being ripped apart and cast into madness.

 I cannot get an immediate certainty about whether I have faith, for to have faith is this very dialectical suspension which is continually in fear and trembling and yet never despairs; faith is precisely this infinite worry about oneself.” (Kierkegaard again.)

 So if we want to challenge faith, let us at least make this second notion the target and not assume that anyone bold enough to talk about faith is automatically a fool and worthy of our derision.

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14 responses to “Have a little faith

  1. Hear hear! =)
    I respect people who are bold enough to have faith (in the ‘leap of faith’ sense), because it must take a lot of courage to invest so much belief into something that is, as you say, a risk to believe in as it is so subjective.
    It’s also pretty virtuous to have such a loyalty to something or someone that you would believe so strongly in it/them… or is it? Well, I think so anyway =)

  2. An opinion I agree whole heartedly with. In a scientific sense (and a slightly different note), without faith, what are theories but words? Scientists risk money, time and reputation on ideas that are not certainly true – There are some things which may lead them to this theory, but isn’t that the case with all matters of faith?
    Whether one is ultimately ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is irrelevant. Faith and Theories lead us outside of ‘fact’ and that which is proveable. Without this, there is no such thing as freedom.

  3. Using Andy’s definitions of faith I would praise blind faith and condemn a leap of faith. Andy writes that blind faith is ‘a stop-gap en route to knowledge…we can move beyond if we gain the right evidence… it helps us to understand the world … it seems to fit with other confirmed beliefs…Blind faith is only needed to cover the gaps of our ignorance as we move towards a more complete understanding of the world.’ It is this type of faith that is used in the creating of scientific theories (or any theory) which Grant comments on. This faith wants to be replaced by knowledge but if through testing or reasoning it is shown to be faulty it is abandoned (or at least should be). This faith is commendable because it aims at expanding our understanding of reality and self.

    Andy’s concept of a leap of faith is however ‘…the opposite of rational knowledge.’ The justification for such a faith comes from the observation that ‘Not all of reality can be captured and explained within an objective, rational system.’ Andy gives the example of the ever developing self as an example of this. This faith relies therefore on ‘subjective truths’ which seem to me to be intuitions, but what is the difference between belief in a subjective truth and blind faith? Andy also wrote ‘A leap of faith is a matter of venturing to believe against understanding, risking everything, including one’s trust in the rational mind.’ If you do not base your beliefs upon the rational mind the only other possibility is to base it on the irrational mind or the emotional mind. Andy writes that a leap of faith ‘does not aim at understanding the world but instead is a way of living in it.’ This argument seems to say that we should live by our emotions instead of our intellect.

    Andy I’m having difficulty understanding your argument.

  4. Theo, I really like that you’ve engaged with what I wrote, subjecting it to intelligent rational criticism. I was wondering if people were scared to engage with the topic.

    I would query your claim to praise blind faith. You’re right that this is the faith used in creating scientific theories, but since this faith “wants to be replaced by knowledge” there’s nothing intrinsically valuable about this faith. When it fails to lead to knowledge – say faith in ‘phlogiston’ for example – there’s nothing valuable about it at all. It only gains value by in fact leading to knowledge – and even then it seems that the growth in knowledge is what is valuable, not the steps that led there per se. It seems that success in increasing knowledge is praiseworthy, but not blind faith.

    The faith that I was talking about (which is Kierkegaard’s conception rather than my own, but a very interesting one) is an existential or religious faith. You’re right that this was not made apparent. My expression was also unclear, since at several points I slipped into describing a leap of faith as believing, which it is not. Belief is rational; a leap of faith is non-rational. It’s something other. As such, it’s hard to describe. What I’m definitely not saying is that we should live by our emotions.

    Subjective truths are neither emotions, nor are they intuitions. It would be more accurate to see scientific blind faiths as intuitions – feelings that draw you in a particular direction but you’re not sure why and may prove to be false. A subjective truth is more like love (in fact love is probably an example of subjective truth). Alternatively, imagine the effect ‘beauty’ has on a person. This is subjective truth. Such things are non-rational (not irrational) and, while they involve emotions, they are not simply emotional in the way ‘joy’ and ‘misery’ are.

    Kierkegaard talks about paradox, in particular Christian paradox. He writes about an eternal, immortal God who became mortal and temporal whilst remaining eternal and immortal at the same time. (Jesus, clearly.) We cannot comprehend this – it repels the rational mind, for how can two opposites co-exist within the same entity? Nevertheless accepting this paradox is central to his conception of a leap of faith. It’s a matter of accepting that there is more to existence than can be rationally grasped. This acceptance is the closest I can come to explaining a leap of faith – but it’s important to stress that such acceptance is not knowledge or belief. It is not settled enough to be either. Can I describe it as ‘a passionate, unsettled acceptance of paradox’? Or perhaps to requote Kierkegaard: “objective uncertainty, held fast through appropriation with the most passionate inwardness.”

    If you continue to feel unsatisfied by this explanation, I don’t blame you. These are complicated concepts to get across, ones of which I only have the shakiest of grasps. Does anyone else have anything (clarificational or critical) to add?

  5. Hi guys, great topic and discussion. Sorry Andy, but generally I agree with Theo in that i dont think there is any disctinction between ‘blind faith’ and ‘a leap of faith’. To me, faith, by definition, is having trust and belief in soemthing despite a complete lack of evidence or reason.

    Faith is incompatible and almost contrary to reason, for to have faith is to believe something that the intellect cannot reasonably prove to be true. Therefore, as Theo nicely said, all forms of faith, whatever its arbitrary nickname, leap or not, has a certain ‘blindness’ to it. Blindness merely refers to a lack of evidence and reason, as if the eyes were the intellect, therefore faith is inherently blind.

    I think that when People have faith in something they amke a decision to disregard the weight of reason and evidence. It is this disregard for reason and the intellect that i am a little critical of.

    I dont “sneer” or feel angry or incredulous of people with faith. I used to be one of them. I remember when i believed in God (I was raised Catholic), and i used to feel sorry and sad for people who couldnt take the ‘risk’ of believing in something that they couldnt see with their own eyes or prove with physical, scientific evidence. I guess i felt that people who couldnt take a leap of faith didnt have the courage to risk being wrong, or misplacing their trust. I used to have intense debates with friends about their careless attitude towards religion and faith, and I would (naively and with the best intentions) try and persuade them to believe.

    But as you guys have said, belief is individual and subjective, and really only dependant on our own personal perspectives. I mean sometimes no matter what the evidence is, two people may see the same scene in different ways according to their inherently unique point of views.

    So u may have percieved that im no longer the devout catholic. Since studying philosophy, pretty much within the first sem actually (lol) i found that i couldn’t (no matter how much i wanted to) reconcile my reason and intellect with the Christian idea of God. SO basically i, like alot of people, opted to base my belief on reason rather than faith. I would love to have faith, but when i consider it (and here im referring to the Catholic faith) i feel like im compromising my reason and logic and my intellect. Because essentially, by defintion, to have faith in something requires you to believe in something that reason and the intellect does not support, and i just cant let myself have those double standards. I cant have it all.

    Sorry if i got a little personal in my argument there guys, but really we are arguing over something that cannot be philosophically proven one way or another. It basically comes down to personal values and perspectives i guess.
    What i found very interestiong about faith is WHY people have it. Obviously there’s attractions, but do those attractions undermine the value of the faith?
    What do u think about the motivations behind peoples faiths? I mean, sometimes im critical when it seems that so many people believe something merely for self-satisfaction or comfort. My Grandmother for example (who has suffered through many philosophical debates with me) seems to have an unshakeable faith in Catholicism, but when there is no reason to do so, it suggests that she believes purely out of self-interest. Perhaps she’s not consious of what motivates her to believe, but isn’t it kind of selfish to believe in something simply because its reassuring to do so? Basically by having faith in something, by placing trust in something, you are personally attesting/supporting it. SO to do so merely because it comforts you, well its kind of unethical or corrupt – u know what i mean? Its like an individual, tiny form of purgery… your kind of lying to yourself to satisfy some need for security or something…
    Anyone get me or vehemently disagree? Id luv some feedback… 🙂

  6. This: for to have faith is to believe something that the intellect cannot reasonably prove to be true.

    Contradicts this:
    I think that when People have faith in something they make a decision to disregard the weight of reason and evidence. It is this disregard for reason and the intellect that i am a little critical of.

    So what is faith – belief against reason or belief without reason or belief where reason is silent? Perhaps belief is too cognitive and faith is more existential?

    So u may have percieved that im no longer the devout catholic. Since studying philosophy, pretty much within the first sem actually (lol) i found that i couldn’t (no matter how much i wanted to) reconcile my reason and intellect with the Christian idea of God.

    That is disappointing. I am not a Catholic, but I don’t see any reason why you should feel that your Catholicism is incompatible with philosophy. One of the most respected contemporary philosophers, Charles Taylor, is a Catholic.

    she believes purely out of self-interest

    I am not sure what they taught you in first semester but self-interest is not an evil. You eat and breath out of self interest. Any faith worth the name would be bound to your self, therefore in maintaining that faith you are serving your self – there is nothing wrong with that.

    your kind of lying to yourself to satisfy some need for security or something

    It is a dangerous game to try and guess/assume why people have religious faith. Many people have done courageous things and suffered much for their faith – I would be hesitant to say they are lying to themselves. I don’t think Martin Luther King Jr or Dietrich Bonhoeffer we lying to themselves so that they would feel secure – their faith was the catalyst for their daring action.

  7. Thanks for replying, but i disagree with you on everything, except perhaps your last point.

    The definition you gave of “faith” as being belief without reason, strikes me as identical to my defition. Wether people consciously disregard, or neglect reasonable proof behind their beliefs, their faith is still without reason. Hence they believe despite a lack of reasonable evidence… You made a disctinction between “a lack of reason” and “a disregard of reason” that i think is inaccurate- both do not employ reason in the equation.

    I dont think all people who believe in faith believe “against” reason. In fact in the case of religious ideologies there is believed to be reasonable evidence – such as texts and stories etc that lend weight to the truth of those beliefs.

    When i referred to my not being able to reconcile my philosophical attitude with religious faith, I did not mean that philosophy is incompatible with faith, but that studying philosophy opened my mind to seeing both the reasonable evidence for and against the truth behind religion.

    For example, the problem of evil, or suffering. The Christian God is understood to be omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent. This belief contradicts reality; the world is not always kind, there is constant suffering occuring, if God is all knowing then he would be aware of this suffering, if he was all powerful he would be capable of preventing this suffering, and if he was all good then he would have the will to cease man’s suffering. Yet this in reality, does not occur. Hence philosophically, rationally, i cannot have faith in the concept of this God, when there exists reasonable proof that contradicts the belief.

    I did not say that having faith out of self-interest is evil. It is natural and human. As you said, without self-interest we would not survive. I merely pointed out that b elieving in something because it makes you feel good, reassures and comforts you, is not a rational, reasonable basis for deciding the truth of something. For example, imagine if a Jury, responsible for deciding wether a man was guilty of a terrible heinous crime, decided that he was guilty simply because it was a more comforting conclusion… well then they would be lying to themselves and others, and compromising their intellects for the sake of self interest. Self-interest is harmless until you start sacrificing your rational abilities of thinking and decision making for the sake of it.

    There is nothing bad about making a decision based on self interest – or having a belief or faith in something because it satisfies a need in you, but im simply pointing out that it is not a strong, thruthful, impartial or reasonable basis for discerning truth. If you make a decision out of self-interest then you are making a decision on a bias.
    Dont you agree?

  8. Hi Jacinta,

    You said: The definition you gave of “faith” as being belief without reason, strikes me as identical to my defition.

    But I didn’t put forward a definition. I quoted two contradictory definitions that you gave. First you said was believing something that the intellect can’t prove. Then you said faith was making a decision against reason/intellect.

    In your first definition faith functions when intellect/reason is absent. In your second definition faith functions against the presence of intellect/reason.

    So which is it? Or are you suggesting that there are two different types of faith like Andy/Kierkegaard?

    You made a disctinction between “a lack of reason” and “a disregard of reason” that i think is inaccurate- both do not employ reason in the equation.

    Yes both don’t employ reason, but one function when reason is silent, the other against the ‘voice’ of reason. So for example to have faith in the existence of God or in the love of a friend/spouse would be an example of the former. To have faith that the world was created in six 24 hour days or that the earth is flat would be an example of the latter.

    i cannot have faith in the concept of this God, when there exists reasonable proof that contradicts the belief. Perhaps you should change your concept of God, but anyway I have been down this path with Theo over on his earlier post and I would rather not enter this can of worms at the moment.

    I did not say that having faith out of self-interest is evil.
    No, you didn’t say it was evil but you were rather disparaging of it.

    believing in something because it makes you feel good, reassures and comforts you, is not a rational, reasonable basis for deciding the truth of something.
    Some would argue that this is precisely the basis for deciding something is true – Richard Rorty and the Pragmatists for instance. Don’t you think rejecting something that makes you feel good, reassures you and comforts you is a little irrational?

    I don’t agree with the division that you have made between rationality and self-interest. For starters you can not escape your self when you make a decision, so like it or not your self will always be in your decision.

    Does anyone knowingly and willing act or make decisions that go against their self interest? Their self preservation yes, but their self interest?

  9. Just to wade in with a small point, Jacinta, you said:
    “I dont think all people who believe in faith believe “against” reason.”

    The concept of faith I was writing about – a Kierkegaardian leap of faith – is not a common faith. It is not the faith of ‘religious ideologies’, not the faith of mass congregations. Most people who claim to have faith do not have the kind of faith I’m describing. This faith is “a task for a whole lifetime…dexterity in faith is not acquired in a few days or weeks.” It is not something that many people have been able to acquire.

    I think it might help the discussion if you stopped thinking in terms of common faith such as millions profess to have. This notion is something different, something infinitely more challenging. And it’s not belief either.

  10. I said: “i cannot have faith in the concept of this God, when there exists reasonable proof that contradicts the belief.”
    Chris replied: “Perhaps you should change your concept of God”

    Firstly, it is not MY concept of God that i cannot agree with – im not sure if i believe in God so i certainly am not referring to any personal conceptual belief here – i was referring to The Catholic God, so thats not a concept i just happened to create – its not even my interpretation of the Catholic belief – its part of the most basic ideas of Catholicism, that the Christian God’s identity is inherently omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent. Its this established, traditional concept of God that i cant reasonably agree with. So please don’t advise me to alter this idea, when its not mine – its actually been around for about 2000 years and millions of people (cue footage from World Youth Day) have complete faith in it.

    Your right about the difference between belief without reason and belief against reason – the latter shows a definite disregard – the former shows something very similar to disregard.

    Your right that humans are inherently subjective, and therefore we cannot possibly remove our “self” from our psyches, from our person etc… Who we are – largely our ‘self’ – is an essential and irremovable part of the decision making process… But i totally disagree with you on the following:

    “Don’t you think rejecting something that makes you feel good, reassures you and comforts you is a little irrational?”

    If your ultimate aim is to reassure and comfort yourself then sure, making a decision which doesn’t do that would be illogical. However i think there are several more important values to base judgments on than what makes you, as an individual, feel good. I’m sure Hitler felt good, felt in control, felt comforted and reassured when he was eliminating Jews across Europe – woops that was bad reasoning on his part. Hitler reasoned, believed and acted out of self-interest – which you suggested would be irrational not to do – and look how wrong his beliefs and actions were.

    Im saying if you are going to believe in something, have faith in something, it better be for a more important, selfless and less biased reason than “it makes me feel good”. Basically if u make a decision on that, then the foundations for your belief are totally subjective. So your basing your faith on something other than your intellect, than your reason or fact, your basing it on emotion i guess, and for the selfish satisfaction it gives you. What kind of reliable criteria is that for deciding whats true and whats good? As i mentioned in an earlier analogy, if any legal system was based on believing in soemthing out of self-interest, then i doubt anyone would choose to believe that any criminal did the things he/she did. It would make u feel much better to have faith in the comforting belief that there is no crime in the world. No jury would ever condemn anyone, if it was the right thing to have faith in something because it “felt nice”.

    I think an essential part of becoming mature is learning to do things and face things and realise the truth of things, despite the discomfort or lack of pleasure it gives you. So much of life involves us doing things for more important reasons than self-interest – putting your family first, slaving away so they can eat, walking the dog in the middle of freezing winter so it gets its exercise… etc etc. Being a mature, reasonable, rational adult generally means putting others before yourself. Thats the whole definition of “selfless”. “Self- less”. Isn’t that something we aspire to and hopefully regularly achieve? So no, its not irrational to believe something or have faith in something that does not give you comfort or pleasure. Its just a choice based on a different set of values.

    Andy, sorry if i’ve misinterpreted the faith that you were refering to, but im not sure if i understand the difference of this ‘Kierkegaardian leap of faith’ to any other type of faith. Could you give me an example of this distinct type of faith that takes so long to aquire? I’ve simply referred to religious faith in this debate because i think it is the most common and most relevant… I’m still very skeptical of there being any genuine reasons that distinguish faith into ‘types’.

  11. Andy, you say that love is an example of subjective truth but I’m unclear what part of love is not emotional. Love is a powerful and important feeling, one which may override our rationality but to take a leap of faith towards love is to live by your emotions. Alternatively you say that;

    ‘imagine the effect ‘beauty’ has on a person. This is subjective truth. Such things are non-rational (not irrational) and, while they involve emotions, they are not simply emotional in the way ‘joy’ and ‘misery’ are.’

    But the effect that beauty has on people is precisely feelings like ‘joy’ and ‘misery’ along with more complex emotions as well obviously, but no more than emotions (no less either).

    The acceptance of paradoxes is another keystone in Kierkegaard’s faith. You mention a particular Christian paradox which is in reality no more than a contradiction. To live your life accepting contradictions is absurd. Paradoxes, such as Xeno’s paradoxes (not clear contradictions) are riddles to be solved not things to have faith in.

    Another point, what you have defined as ‘blind faith’ which is the faith/intuition that is used to create and advance theories is not infact blind. It is built upon rationality and designed to be tested. I’m unsure whether we should call this a faith at all.

    Blind faith is instead what Janinta and Chris have been discussing which is faith that is against reason or faith in which reason is absent (this is what people have agreed upon right?). I think that Kierkegaard’s leap of faith does not transcend blind faith.

  12. Hello Jacinta,

    Sorry for the delay in getting back to you – the semester jumped on me from behind and wrestled me to the ground – only now have I had the opportunity to free myself from its grasp and address your comments, albeit inadequately.

    I won’t get into the whole self-interest thing, primarily because I think we are talking about the same thing but with different terminology. All that I have to say really is about the concept of God.

    You seem to have taken some offence to my suggestion that you should change your conception of God. You say that the concept of God that you have and that you are rejecting is the orthodox one, the traditional one that has been around for 2000 years – the Christian God’s identity is inherently omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent.

    I however would dispute that this conception of God is a) accurate and b) been around for 2000 years.

    Firstly in regard to its accuracy it is a skeletal and limited conception to begin with. It is like saying that bolognaise sauce is tomato based, has meat, and spices – sure you can’t have bolognaise without those three ingredients but there is a lot more to the sauce than just those three ingredients. There are some obvious weaknesses to this example – but my basic point is that the concept of God that you describe leaves a lot of significant and relevant characteristics out. Yes, I know a lot of philosophers have accepted this conception of God, but I am saying that it is a skewed portrayal of the God of the Bible, and that rather being the Christian God it is the God of the Philosopher – a construction. This brings me to b)

    The concept of God that you describe is not 2000 years old. It is a historical construction that has been the play-thing of theologians and philosophers for around 1500 years. Considering the Christian God is around 4000/5000 years old there is a 2500 year gap (including the time of Christ and the years following) that this God was conceived differently. If you can find anywhere in the Bible were God is described as omnipresent, omnipotent and omnibelevolent I will eat my hat. Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, the Prophets, Jesus, John, Paul etc – none of these guys ever describe God solely and simply as omnipresent etc. Sure they uses synonyms the sort of mean omni-etc but they are always talking in real historical time with a vast array of characteristics that are relevant to the situation and draw on past situations. The omnipresent… conception is mostly created by philosophers and is a historical conception of God that is largely abstracted from the God of the Bible or any kind of God that anybody acknowledges.

  13. Sorry about the grammatical errors in the above post – I hope you can decipher the jist.

    Also for those interested there are some excellent lectures on iTunesU by Prof Hubert Dreyfus on Kierkegaard and existentialism.

  14. Hi Chris,
    Thanks for replying, but im afraid we are going to have to agree to disagree. We obviously disagree on the conceptual identity of the Christian Orthodox God, and thats fine. But while you may have an alternative definition of The Christian God that differs from my understanding – which includes omniscience, omnipotence and omnibenevolence and therefore includes the problem of evil, it was this understanding that i was objecting too. So theres not much point on us arguing over something that obviously comes down to a matter of personal opinion etc.

    SO whatever, religion is always going to be a subject of much debate, but trying to philosophically argue with someone about religion is like yelling at a brick wall – they are two very different fields that sometimes get meshed together and create confusion. One is concerned with matters of spirituality, mysticism and individual religious faith, while the other is concerned with the nature of reality… i guess religions can be seen as a type of philosophy, but religious debates are just so exhausting, cause they’re near impossible to get anywhere with, as they don’t rely on logic or reasoning like general philosophy, but rather depend on each persons individual understanding and values etc etc.

    Thanks for the interesting discussion though – it did get me going 🙂

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