Knowledge and Faith Can Be the Same Thing

 

F-K VennIt is commonly assumed that an item of knowledge and an article article of faith can never be the same thing. This assumption is mistaken. In this post, I will explain only one point: trust in authority can be a source of knowledge. That’s what faith is: trust. It’s still the first definition of “faith” in the dictionary. Also see the Latin fides and the Greek pistis.

So don’t believe the hype that categorically separates faith from knowledge. This separation ranges from the view William James attributes to a schoolboy (“Faith is when you believe something that you know ain’t true”) to Kant’s more sophisticated idea that “I had to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith” (in beliefs that might well be true).

We should also reject the hype that says that an argument from authority is necessarily fallacious. The best logic textbook in print will tell you otherwise. It will even tell you that there is such a thing as a valid argument appealing to an infallible authority! (“Valid” is a technical term in logic; be sure to look it up first if you’re inclined to complain that there are no infallible authorities.)

Arguments from authority are good or bad depending on what their content is: and primarily on what sort of knowledge the authority is supposed to have, and whether it is reasonable to suppose that the authority really has it.

So an argument from a reliable authority is a good argument, and an argument from an unreliable or untrustworthy authority is a bad argument.

Electrons

Protons and electrons: an article of faith

We must also dispense with the idea that science is the epistemological opposite of faith: one relying entirely on reason, one not at all. In actuality, religious faith usually relies on reason to varying degrees, up to and including this summary of Christian theology by Thomas Aquinas–quite possibly the most impressive bit of systematic reasoning in human history. And, if Thomas Kuhn is even one-quarter correct, science is not a matter of objective reason alone.

But the bigger point to be made here is that science depends on faith as much as your average religion. That is to say, it depends on trust.

Yes, of course scientific experiments can be replicated. But chances are pretty good that you didn’t replicate them, and that someone else did it for you. And if you yourself did replicate some experiments, did you repeat the replication in order altogether to avoid having to take someone else’s word for it?

To skip over various levels of this exercise, here’s the end-point it leads to, using chemistry as an example. If you want to know something in chemistry without relying on trust, you will have to begin from the very beginning and repeat all of the experiments that led to the current state of chemical knowledge: all of them, multiple times each. You would die of old age before you caught up with the present state of chemical knowledge. And all of your hard work would be useless unless others had the good sense you lacked and were willing to take your word for it at least some of the time when you said that your experiments had turned out the way they had.

Even for scientists, scientific knowledge relies heavily on trust in testimony: the testimony of other scientists. As for the scientific knowledge of those of us who aren’t scientists, we are left where Scott Adams puts us in the Introduction to this book: depending on the word of people (most of whom we’ve never met) who simply tell us how things are.

Augustine (the real Augustine, the Church Father and founder of medieval philosophy) both here (chapter 5) and here (cartoon version here) is even more helpful than Adams. These are the sort of examples he uses:

  • Do you know that Caesar became emperor of Rome about 50 BC? Yes; you know it by faith–by pistis, by fides, by trust–in the testimony of historians.
  • Do you know that Harare, Zimbabwe, exists? Yes. But if you haven’t been there, then you know it by faith–by pistis, by fides, by trust–in the testimony of geographers or of people who have been there.
  • Do you know who your parents are? You know that also by faith–by pistis, by fides, by trust in what they told you.

(On this last point my students instinctively think of DNA tests, at which point I explain to them that they would need not only to perform the test themselves, but to start from the very beginning of genetic science and reinvent it singlehandedly if the goal is to know who their parents are without taking someone’s word for something.)

Resurrection

The Resurrection of the Messiah: an article of faith

No doubt some readers will suspect that I am attacking the legitimacy of science. Not at all. To the contrary, I presume the legitimacy of science.

I am only pointing out that faith, being trust, is something on which science depends; and, since I am in fact assuming that science is a source of knowledge, other beliefs that rely on reliable testimony can also be knowledge.

What you need to get knowledge by trust is a reliable testimony. And we have plenty of reliable testimony: science, history, geography, and (for most of us) our parents. We live our lives by this testimony.

Thus, the crucial question for religious knowledge is this: Do we have any reliable testimony supporting any religious beliefs?

For example:

  • Are there any prophets of Jehovah?
  • Are there any holy books? Any books that are God-breathed and inspired?
  • Is there a real Messiah who can tell us about God and about how we can know God?
  • Are there several predictions about the Messiah made centuries before his birth which all converge on the same person?
  • Are there accounts of the Resurrection of the Messiah coming from eyewitnesses of sound mind?
  • Is there a Roman Catholic Church with infallible authority, or at least a universal church with reliable authority?

Well, yes. We do have some of these things.

And why should you believe me when I say that? That’s a good question. And, more generally, how do you recognize a reliable testimony in religion?

To ask this question at this point is to observe that I have only showed that knowledge and (religious) faith can be the same thing–not that they ever are. It is a possibility, but that doesn’t mean it is a realized possibility.

But that’s enough ground covered for one opening post. Maybe we can talk about whether this possibility is ever realized, and about how we can know whether it is, in comments, or in a new thread.

Note from the author: We did indeed talk about it comments. See comments #s 156-161 for a handy overview of my thoughts on that subject (and an addendum showed up in comments #s 182-183, and another one in comments #s 262-263).

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  1. Larry3435 Member
    Larry3435
    @Larry3435

    Augustine:

    First, Augustine, you have more or less said that you likely would not believe in the Resurrection if you did not believe in the divinity of Jesus, and that you believe in the divinity of Jesus largely because you believe in the Resurrection.

    I have no memory of saying anything like this. I can only assume you’re thinking of this remark.

    Augustine:

    Possibly, possibly. I’m torn between two instincts. One is to say, “YES! That’s just like Plantinga!” Yeah, I started off believing.

    That’s hardly an admission of circular reasoning. It’s really only a bit of biographical information. …

    Anyway, the following remarks from me should have removed any appearance of circular reasoning:

    Augustine:

    And if you ask me why I believe the biggest reason (of many, nearly all of which will be just that–reasons) is the Resurrection and the argument for it, which begins with that empirical approach to miracles which you reject.

    Continued below . . .

    That made no sense to me.  Plantinga said that belief in God is basic, requiring neither reasoning nor evidence.  Yet you claim to adhere to an empirical approach.

    So let me ask, yes or no:  If you did not already believe that Jesus was divine, would you accept the evidence of the Resurrection as being an historically accurate account?

    • #271
  2. Larry3435 Member
    Larry3435
    @Larry3435

    Augustine:One more thing: I’m talking about miracles; you write as I think miracles are the same as randomness. They are nothing of the sort.

    I think miracles may fall into two categories:  (1) Events which require the suspension of otherwise universal laws of nature.  (2) Events that are theoretically possible, but with such astronomical odds against them that the possibility that they will happen is effectively zero.  In either case, but especially in the first case, the quantum of evidence necessary to convince me of a miracle is exceptionally large.

    If you toss a coin 100 times and it comes up heads every time, I will believe you have a crooked coin rather than believe that a miracle has occurred.  (You would believe the same thing, in my opinion.)

    • #272
  3. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @SaintAugustine

    Larry3435:

    Augustine:One more thing: I’m talking about miracles; you write as I think miracles are the same as randomness. They are nothing of the sort.

    I think miracles may fall into two categories: (1) Events which require the suspension of otherwise universal laws of nature. (2) Events that are theoretically possible, but with such astronomical odds against them that the possibility that they will happen is effectively zero. In either case, but especially in the first case, the quantum of evidence necessary to convince me of a miracle is exceptionally large.

    If you toss a coin 100 times and it comes up heads every time, I will believe you have a crooked coin rather than believe that a miracle has occurred. (You would believe the same thing, in my opinion.)

    Regarding the coin: Indeed.

    Number 2 isn’t a what I would call a miracle.

    Number 1 is what I’d call a miracle.

    Should “the quantum of evidence necessary to convince me” of such a thing’s occurrence be “exceptionally large”?  I realize you think it should.

    But I don’t, and I don’t know why I should, unless one presumes that the laws of nature are absolute.  But this is a presumption I won’t make, preferring to let experience tell me whether they are absolute.

    • #273
  4. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @SaintAugustine

    Larry3435:

    So let me ask, yes or no: If you did not already believe that Jesus was divine, would you accept the evidence of the Resurrection as being an historically accurate account?

    That’s a biographical question about another man’s life. Its answer is: I have no idea!

    Perhaps you are attempting a non-biographical question: Is my belief in the Resurrection sufficiently independent of my belief in Jesus’ divinity that I would accept the Resurrection on grounds other than Jesus’ divinity?

    The answer is: Yes, as I have already explained!

    This I know: The vast majority of the reasons for my faith of which I am consciously aware are just that–reasons, and not circular ones.

    The biggest reason and the most central reason (not the only reason) is the evidence for the Resurrection overviewed in #s 157-159.  And that reason does not presume the divinity of Jesus.

    Plantinga said that belief in God is basic, requiring neither reasoning nor evidence. Yet you claim to adhere to an empirical approach.

    Basic, but not without warrant!

    Is it possible that I have hidden reasons for believing which are not empirical?  Sure!  They might be based on my bias, they might be the result of the hidden workings of the Holy Spirit, or they might be the work of the sensus divinitatis of which Calvin and Plantinga spoke–warrant without evidence.

    But my biggest conscious reasons for belief are quite thoroughly empirical.

    • #274
  5. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @SaintAugustine

    Augustine:

    Larry3435:

    Plantinga said that belief in God is basic, requiring neither reasoning nor evidence.

    Basic, but not without warrant!

    . . . the sensus divinitatis of which Calvin and Plantinga spoke–warrant without evidence.

    This Plantinga idea always sounds crazy at first.  A short explanation of warrant without evidence is here and in the following two comments.  (The explanation doesn’t get into the sensus divinitatis thing.)

    • #275
  6. Larry3435 Member
    Larry3435
    @Larry3435

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):
    The truth is that agreement, even agreement among intelligent and educated people, has never been a necessary condition for knowledge. (If it were, the first scientists to adopt a new and correct theory couldn’t know it; and no one would know much of anything about economics.)

    No one does know much of anything about economics.  At least not about macroeconomics.  The only thing we actually “know” is that when a system reaches a certain level of complexity, centralized control becomes much less efficient than emergent order.  And even that we don’t know based on theory, but only based on trial and error.  And error.  And error.  Etc.  It’s a shame that the theory still sounds good, since in each generation it attracts a new bunch of young, ignorant, and often stupid, adherents.  Sorry for the digression.  I’ll go back to reading the comments now.

    • #276
  7. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Larry3435 (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):
    The truth is that agreement, even agreement among intelligent and educated people, has never been a necessary condition for knowledge. (If it were, the first scientists to adopt a new and correct theory couldn’t know it; and no one would know much of anything about economics.)

    No one does know much of anything about economics. At least not about macroeconomics. The only thing we actually “know” is that when a system reaches a certain level of complexity, centralized control becomes much less efficient than emergent order.  And even that we don’t know based on theory, but only based on trial and error. And error. And error. Etc.

    Still quite a thing to know, and a good way of knowing it!

    Moreover, there is much else that can be known about economics besides this.  Ronald Coase, for example, knew some stuff about economics besides this.

    It’s a shame that the theory still sounds good, since in each generation it attracts a new bunch of young, ignorant, and often stupid, adherents. Sorry for the digression. I’ll go back to reading the comments now.

    May I ask what brought this on?  Did you not read them last time?

    • #277
  8. Larry3435 Member
    Larry3435
    @Larry3435

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Larry3435 (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):
    The truth is that agreement, even agreement among intelligent and educated people, has never been a necessary condition for knowledge. (If it were, the first scientists to adopt a new and correct theory couldn’t know it; and no one would know much of anything about economics.)

    No one does know much of anything about economics. At least not about macroeconomics. The only thing we actually “know” is that when a system reaches a certain level of complexity, centralized control becomes much less efficient than emergent order. And even that we don’t know based on theory, but only based on trial and error. And error. And error. Etc.

    Still quite a thing to know, and a good way of knowing it.

    It’s a shame that the theory still sounds good, since in each generation it attracts a new bunch of young, ignorant, and often stupid, adherents. Sorry for the digression. I’ll go back to reading the comments now.

    May I ask what brought this on? Did you not read them last time?

    Some of them.  Maybe all of them, but it was years ago.  You linked this thread in a recent comment, and I just clicked through and started reading.  I didn’t recall this thread specifically, although you have repeated these ideas many times.

    • #278
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