My definition of the epistemic concept of faith has, not surprisingly, faced some pushback. That is, some people have been unwilling to put their, er, faith in it. One of those is Robert Gressis who, while broadly sympathetic and a fellow devotee of root beer, nonetheless says the following:
As for the more central question of whether atheists have faith, I imagine they do, but I don’t think belief in the external world is a good example of faith. This is not to say that Randal is abusing the term; however, I think that if every non-demonstrative belief ends up as a matter of faith, we’ve made a mistake. There are certainly features of common usage and the common definition of faith that, if we take them to their logical conclusion, will lead to this surprising outcome, but that to me is a reductio of those common definitions of faith.
I tend to think that “faith” in its meatiest sense should be used to describe only beliefs about which there’s a fairly significant level of disagreement. If lots of people–say, 5% of the population–didn’t believe in the external world, or that the world was older than five minutes, then I would say that those should count as examples of faith-beliefs. But since that’s not the case, I think they should have a different label — say, “natural beliefs” or “properly basic beliefs”.
So while Robert concedes that the broad conception of faith that I identified exists, he believes that this broad definition is undermined by that broad application. Clearly we do not have “faith” in the external world. This must be indicative of some sort of mistake.
How another concept of faith fuels the reductio
Unfortunately, I think Robert has succumbed here to the multiple meanings of the word “faith” and that the force of his reductio derives from reading those meanings into the specific concept I’ve identified. This sentence in particular is revealing: “I think that if every non-demonstrative belief ends up as a matter of faith, we’ve made a mistake. ” Note the revealing phrase “a matter of faith”. What does it mean to make something “a matter of faith”? So far as I can see by mapping common usage, that is tantamount to “taking it on faith” and that means something like this: assenting to the truth of a proposition when it lacks any evidential support. In other words, the strength of the reductio arises from the fact that I seem to undermine rational support for our beliefs by espousing some sort of sweeping fideism. But surely that isn’t the case. Surely we have good evidence for much of what we believe.
I agree that if I were in fact making everything “a matter of faith” I would be guilty of an indefensibly sweeping definition of faith. But I didn’t do that. Under the definition of epistemic faith I am defending I haven’t made every “non-demonstrative belief … a matter of faith”.
So what exactly am I doing?
Material Risk and Belief Risk
This brings us back to the epistemic concept of faith I’ve proposed and the fact that it charts belief-risk. It may be counterintuitive to think of beliefs that are of very low risk of error constituting a belief risk, and thus consisting of faith. But so long as we recognize there are cases of negligible risk, I don’t see a problem.
Let’s illustrate the point by shifting from “belief risk” to “material risk”. Lloyds of London is famous for providing some truly strange examples of insurance coverage. According to this article in The Telegraph, Lloyds has covered the following:
In 2001 a “Captain Beaney” insured himself against abduction, impregnation and consumption by aliens for £1m.
In 2002 the Royal Falcon Hotel in Lowestoft insured its staff and customers against death and disability occasioned by poltergeist or other abnormal phenomena. The sum insured was £1m.
In 2001 Rich Hall, the comedian, insured himself against a permanent loss of humour. The sum insured was £1m.
No doubt it will seem strange to us that people could purchase insurance for such bizarre scenarios of negligible risk. But so long as it is at least possible that a person could be abducted, impregnated and consumed by aliens, and for all we know it is possible, then there is a material risk and that risk can be covered by an insurer like Lloyds.
Just as Lloyds covers material risk so they could conceivably cover belief risk. Thus, the following is possible:
Randal could insure himself against the theory of idealism being definitively established as true for £1m.
We may think that the likelihood of Randal being wrong and thus idealism being true would be very low (but not as low as idealism being true and human beings identifying it definitvely as true). Still, there is an insurable belief risk here just like there is an insurable material risk in these other cases.
So long as there is a belief risk, however low it may be, epistemic faith exists. Thus we need to keep distinct in our minds phrases like “a matter of faith” or “taking it on faith” which invoke a concept of faith that entails high belief risk from the simple definition of epistemic faith that is found in common usage and in the Christian tradition according to which any belief risk is, by definition, a (great or negligible) exercise of faith.
Should we give up on faith altogether (the word that is)?
This is the obvious question. If such confusion persists over a word with many meanings, then why not simply coin a new term? For example, why not just coin the term belief-risk to identify the concept I’m concerned with and leave the word “faith” to the referential hinterland of high belief-risk.
This is tempting. And one way to hive out your little kingdom in academia is to coin new terms. So becoming the great defender of “belief-risk” has its attractions:
“Randal Rauser? Never heard of ‘im.”
“You know the term ‘belief-risk’ don’t you?”
“Well he coined it.”
On the other hand, there is something to retaining a particular definition of a familiar term. Given that the English word faith is conceptually interwoven with the Latin fides and the Greek pistis I am loathe just to give it up and thus will fight for its clear conceptual definition awhile longer.
But if you give up sooner and instead adopt the term “belief-risk”, just give credit where credit is due.
Addendum: Robert’s Rules of Order (for using “faith”)
Robert suggests that we should restrict the word faith to matters where there is some substantial disagreement in the population. This kind of use of the term is inherently vague in application since it will always remain open how much dissent is required for a proper application of the term. This is not necessarily a problem. We use other inherently vague terms like “bald” over a broad range of cases.
Still Robert is not out of the woods. Indeed, he identifies a problem with this proposal:
However, after writing this, it does occur to me that there may have been a point in the past — say, around the year 1400 — when belief in God was something that no serious person questioned, except, perhaps, for a few Buddhist monks. So I’m now at a loss.
In other words, if we accept Robert’s proposal then people in the year 1400 didn’t have faith that God exists but the Buddhist monks had faith that God didn’t exist. Yet today people have faith that God exists.
It gets worse. Given the fuzziness as to when commitment despite dissent entails faith, a person may not know whether their commitment to the existence of non-existence of God is a faith commitment. But surely that can’t be right.
This, it seems to me, is a case of the cure being worse than the disease. Much better to adopt a clear definition of faith as belief-risk while recognizing that there are greater and lesser degrees of belief risk and thus rational and irrational instances of faith.