Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Is Reasonable Faith an Oxymoron?

There have been a series of posts by John Loftus on his Debunking Christianity blog where he argues that reasonable faith is an oxymoron. John defines faith as, “An attitude or feeling whereby someone attributes a higher probability to the evidence than what the evidence calls for.” Is this a good definition? On one hand, yes, John is right to talk about probabilities because the only thing that we can know with absolute certainty is that we exist, everything else must be believed or rejected with varying degrees of certainty. On the other hand, I think that John’s definition is not very precise because how can we know how high a probability has to be?

What are some other definitions of faith? Merriam-Webster dictionary defines faith as, “Firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” I’m taking the Merriam-Webster definition as referring to absolute proof. The philosopher, Immanuel Kant defines faith as, “A rational attitude towards a potential object of knowledge which arises when we are subjectively certain it is true even though we are unable to gain theoretical or objective certainty.” Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” I think these definitions work better. From these definitions I think there is a faith element to all beliefs outside of the belief in our own existence. This is something that John disagrees with, but I think this is largely because of the religious connotations of the word faith, and his aversion to anything religious.

Now let’s get back to John’s discussion of faith. He writes:
I do not deny that at any given time we must assume some things since we cannot place on the table everything we think is true and examine them all at the same time. This is especially true about our notions that we exist, are communicating with other minds, that our memories represent the past, that there was a past, that there is a material world, that our senses give us accurate input that we are not dreaming right now, etc. What I deny is that we accept any of these things by faith. We might be wrong, but faith isn’t what allows us to accept such things. Scientific reasoning does. I can defend each one of my conclusions about such things though, and I do. These prior conclusions provide the background knowledge I have when involved in any discussion, and I’m allowed to have them.
John is right that we must make assumptions such as a universe exists outside of my mind but this assumption cannot be proven scientifically. John goes on to talk about our fairly reliable memories, archaeological evidence and scientific evidence for the Big Bang. It appears like we have these things, but what if all this stuff are just elaborate fictions fed to our minds by an evil genius who is trying to deceive us? What if Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin and their work are just literal as Don Quixote, Sherlock Holmes and Bilbo Baggins? There is no way to be certain, but the fact that I can’t be absolutely certain that the world, which appears to surround me, literally exists doesn't dissuade me from being confident that the world exists because I can rationally make the assumption that there is no good reason to doubt the universe’s existence.

In fact, as I’ve discussed before, even the science that John claims is the sole source of true knowledge can’t be scientifically proven. In order for science to function we must make several assumptions such as that there is a material world that behaves in a repeatable, observable and testable manner. Also, mathematics which is the heart and language of science can’t be scientifically proven—mathematical proofs such as 2+2=4 must assumed to be necessarily true.

So, we’ve seen that we can be absolutely certain about nothing but our very existence. Does this mean that we should throw up our hands and become solipsists? No, we can assume that the universe around us probably does exist. We can assume that the presuppositions of science are probably true. We can assume that our senses are probably fairly trust worthy.

In the same way we can have reasonable faith about God and spiritual issues. Even though God existence can’t be absolutely proven we can use our observations of the world to reasonably conclude that he probably does exist. Arguments such as the Kalam cosmological argument, the Leibnizian cosmological argument, the fine tuning of the universe; the historicity of Jesus’ death and resurrection; as well as Alvin Plantinga’s Two Dozen (Or So) Theistic Arguments are capable of persuading some rational people to believe. When these arguments are taken together and combined with revelation then God’s existence becomes quite probable. If I conclude that God’s existence is quite probable then I can have reasonable faith that he exists.  

As long as something is logically possible and there are good arguments or reasons to believe something then we can reasonably have faith in that thing. So, it is not reasonable to believe that square circles or married bachelors exist because these things are logically impossible. However, God is logically possible and there are good reasons to believe that he exists so I can have reasonable faith in his existence. 

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