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Friday, 4 January 2008

More on Faith and Reason

A correspondent of mine sent me a copy of this faith and science flow chart and asked me to comment on it. My thoughts are as follows.

1. The flow chart on faith appears to be a caricature. According to the chart faith is a three fold process, (a) one just comes up with an idea (out of nowhere it seems) (b) one ignores all the contrary evidence and (c) one continues to believe it. I don’t know who has ever held this model of religious epistemology certainly no one is cited as a representative. Whats noteworthy is that it differs from the model I have found in the writings of Christian Philosophers like Alvin Plantinga or Bill Craig or Roy Clouser. In these peoples writing the process faith involves some thing like the following: (a’) one finds the central message of Christianity to be self evident (to use Clouser’s terminology) (b’) one takes seriously evidence against Christianity and offers refutations of such arguments Finally (c’) one uses Christian beliefs as premises by which one develops a coherent perspective of the world that answers to various philosophical ethical existential questions on the basis of this message.

Now it’s simply false on this model to suggest that faith is an idea a person simply “gets” and then believes ignoring all contrary evidence. In fact several ideas a person “gets” will not be accepted on faith according to this model. Any ideas one does not find self evident and which one has no reason or arguments for believing, any ideas which are self evidentially absurd, any ideas there are good arguments against and any ideas which are incoherent or which do not provide coherent perspectives or answers to existential and philosophical problems.

Now it may be the case that Christianity fails on one or more of these criteria. However this needs to be argued. One cannot simply assume it and then define faith so as to assume this is true.

2. While Philosophy of Science is not my area the little I have read suggests the science flow chart is excessively simplistic. Two initial observations suggest themselves. The first is the issue of under-determination of theories by the empirical evidence. On the model in the above flow chart. One adopts any idea that is consistent with the evidence. However, one thing Philosophers of Science often point out is that the empirical evidence alone is frequently compatible with several mutually incompatible theories. What leads one to choose one of these theories over another are non empirical assumptions about what types of theories are an are preferable to others. The second issue is that the flow chart suggests that if a person discovers empirical evidence that is contrary to the theory it’s rejected. But this also is not how science actually operates. Scientists frequently stick to a theory is spite of evidence against it until a better or more comprehensive one emerges. Most major theories in science have trouble with some empirical data, and the problems the empirical data provide are often not resolved till many decades after the theory is adopted.

3. Finally I want to note a few things about the model of science that are relevant to the faith science issue. Accepting the account in the chart for the sake of argument three points suggest themselves. First note that for the theory to work there needs to already believe certain things. One first needs to “get an idea” now one can only get an idea if they already have a set of beliefs about the world if one believed absolutely nothing then they would have no ideas at all. Second, one needs to test this idea against evidence, which means there will already be a body of information which the scientist already accepts as true by which ideas are tested. Finally one needs to use the theory to better understand the universe. This means that prior to the theory one already has a set of beliefs about reality and that generate various questions about it that one wants answers to and which create puzzles that need explaining. Hence prior to any scientific theorizing one needs to already to have quite a bit of beliefs about the reality. These beliefs are needed for the process in the flow chart to be followed hence they cannot be discovered or based on science in the first place. Moreover if the process in the chart is to be effective these beliefs will need to be beliefs which it’s rational for the scientist to accept. Hence the chart itself suggests that a large number of beliefs are rationally accepted, despite being unable to be scientifically proven, it also suggests that without these beliefs scientific theorizing will be impossible.

So my conclusion is this, first the account of faith is a caricature very different to the accounts actually proposed by Christian epistemologists. Second the account of science seems excessively simplistic and third even if the account of science is correct it shows that that science requires a body of beliefs which are rationally believed prior to and hence independently of the scientific method. This account then is quite compatible with the idea that there are some things one knows which cannot be proven scientifically. In fact this model requires such beliefs to get off the ground.

Finally let me make a final suggestion. Perhaps on some issues what divides believers and non believers is not that one follows science and the evidence and the other does not. But rather both start with different presuppositions by which the evidence is assesed. If this is true, a mere appeal to evidence or science will not resolve the dispute, one needs to have a deeper debate about the various presuppositions employed in assessing the evidence.


  1. Unusually, you only dealt with the locutory or semantic content of the joke. But the thing about a joke is, it really doesn't matter if it's shot through with logical problems--if it's funny, it's funny. And it was funny, at the illocutory level, because it nicely evoked a popular perception of faith and theology.

    Here's another joke about faith and theology, along the same lines, but involving a conversation between Jesus and Muhammed.

    Now, you might be able to write a few more paragraphs about "presuppositions" and stuff, but I'll still find that comic funny. You might even be able to replicate the comic for Kuhnian paradigms and presupposition, but somehow I doubt that I'll be laughing quite as much.

  2. Political Commentary at it’s best!

    be inspired act for change...

  3. Dean

    First, as I noted a person sent me this link. It had been proposed to him as a serious claim not as a joke and I commented in this context.

    Second, I am inclined to disagree with your suggestion that “it doesn’t really matter if it’s shot through with logical problems” provided its funny. People often use Jokes, humor, irony, satire etc to make serious philosophical/ideological points. If the points they make are erroneous then that matters.You don’t get to promote erroneous ideas because the presentation of those ideas is funny.

    Third, you seem to suggest that it does not matter whether what a person says is accurate or true if the humor evokes a “popular perception” of a topic. This seems to me false, consider racist jokes which involve ridiculing people on the basis of popular but inaccurate stereotypes of racial minorities. Can the racist claim “Oh well the joke was funny so it does not matter if it evokes popular irrational prejudices”


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