The Difference Between Faith and Fallibilism; the Difference Between Belief and Action; OR: Against Faith Part I.

This little screed will have two preliminary sections, drawing two distinctions. It then will have a final section (which probably won’t be more than a few sentences) applying those distinctions to take potshots at an argument I dislike. If I were a responsible screed-writer, there’d be some kind of an introductory paragraph explaining what I’m actually going to argue here. But bugger that for a game of soldiers. You’ll just have to trust me (but not take it on faith!) that I’m about to say something worth reading. (It’s also written in one draft without actually proofreading or anything, so apologies in advance for any glitches, it’s late at night now and I have to get up early tomorrow, so maybe I’ll go over and clean up in about 20 hours.)

I will say that this is meant to be a refutation of the proposition, made on behalf of defenders of religious faith, that we take things on faith all the time. A possible part II will be a discussion of William James’s “The Will to Believe.” I’m about halfway through reading it, and think what I’ve read so far can mostly be answered based on the stuff in here (working title for part II: “Why William James was Wrong, Wrong, Wrong, Wrong, Wrong, Wrong, Wrong, and why I do not Make That Assertion on Faith.”), but, who knows, maybe he’ll convince me in the second half.

Action Without Belief
Suppose I’m playing blackjack, and I’ve drawn four cards — a 3, a 5, a 6, and a 2. I’m counting cards, and based on this counting, my subjective probability in the next card being five or less is above .5. I stand to double my money if I win. In this circumstance, it’s rational, assuming I’m risk averse (and assuming I have the right idea about how the rules of betting in blackjack work — I’m not actually sure how card counting works either — but you get the point) to hit.

In such a situation, we wouldn’t say that I believe that the next card is going to be five or less. I don’t believe the next card is going to be five or less. I believe it’s more likely than not that the next card will be five or less, but I know that the next card could be five or less, or it could be more than five. I could bust. I recognize the possibility that I could bust — I don’t have any belief that excludes my busting on the next draw. Such as, for example, the belief that the next card is going to be five or less.

Nonetheless, I act as if I believe the next card will be five or less. Because I have to make a decision — hit or stand — and hitting is the decision I must make if I believe the next card will to be five or less, standing if I believe it will be at least six. I know that the next card will either be five or less, or at least six, and being forced to choose between the actions appropriate for each of those disjoint and exhaustive probability masses, I choose the one that I think is most likely, without thereby committing to the belief it’s true.

Now suppose I’m not counting cards. Suppose, furthermore, that I don’t even know how to count frequencies, so I’m in a state of radical uncertainty as to what the next card will be. I decide whether to hit or stand by flipping a coin. Not because I think flipping a coin gives me access to any information about the state of the deck, but simply because I must make a practical (not a theoretical) decision — to hit or stand? — and have no other means by which to do so. In this situation, I don’t even believe that it’s more likely than not that the next card will be five or less. We can say that my decision in this circumstance, whatever it is, is defensible: I must either hit or stand (or, I suppose, run screaming out of the casino, but then I leave my money on the table!), and under uncertainty each option is no more defensible than the other, therefore both are defensible. Yet we can also say that I don’t hold any beliefs at all about the next card. Nonetheless, I’m able to take action — rationally defensible action! — without forming any beliefs whatsoever about the facts underlying the choice of which action to take.

Fallibilism Without Faith

Here’s another way of making essentially the same distinction. Suppose I’m forced to decide to which proposition to commit among several mutually exclusive and exhaustive propositions. Not actions. Propositions. Suppose, for example, that I’m called to make a prediction about which party willl win the 2012 presidential election. And suppose, for some reason, that the answer “I don’t know” is inadmissible. (Perhaps I have an extraordinarily obnoxious interlocutor who will keep on nagging me and nagging me, calling me in the middle of the night [or worse, at about 6:30 am each morning], until I give some kind of definitive answer.) But I have grotesquely inadequate information on which to base this decision. Eventually, I make my best guess: “no matter how much Obama screws up, he won’t do anything bad enough to make the American people want four more years of Republicans.” I have some information on which to base this propositional commitment — I’ve read press reports about Obama’s positions, I’ve talked to people (my fellow liberal academic Californians) about their general political beliefs. But I don’t have very good information.

We can say, if we must, that I believe that the democrats will win in 2012. But I won’t say that my credence in that belief (which we can express either as a subjective probability judgment like good little bayesians, or, equivalently, as a claim about the strength of evidence it would get me to change my position) is very strong. I’m not very committed to that belief. I can recognize that someone might reasonably believe differently — might do so even with the same evidence available to me, if they evaluate it differently. I also can recognize that someone might reasonably believe differently even if they evaluate evidence the same way, if they have slightly different evidence (perhaps all their friends are bible-thumping midwesterners). Call this credence level A. As I get more information (perhaps I see the results of a good nationwide opinion poll) my credence in that belief grows stronger. Call my state of belief after seeing a whole crapload of opinion polls, all of which agree with my preexisting belief, credence level B. Even at credence level B, my belief that the democrats will win in 2012 is still defeasible. There’s still evidence that can cause me to change it. Indeed, it might still be changeable with a change in my knowledge of even one additional relevant fact, so long as I evaluate that additional relevant’s fact’s being different as low-enough (subjective) probability. For example, if I wake up one morning and the headline of the New York Times is “Obama Caught Snorting Blow With Osama bin Laden off Naked Body of Three Underage Hookers Paid for by Goldman Sachs in Exchange for Having CEO of Goldman Competitor Tortured in Abu Ghraib” then I will immediately find myself with at least credence level B in a Republican victory — it just so happens that until such a time, I assign exceedingly low subjective probability to the appearance of that headline.*

The key claim I now want to make here is that neither credence level A nor credence level B counts as faith. The easy way to tell this is that (a) my credence level, and, ultimately, the truth-value I ascribe to the proposition under consideration varies with the strength of the evidence available to me (ideally, I’ll have some idea in advance of the sort of evidence that will change my credence level), and (b) I won’t describe myself as certain.** Let us say that “faith” is any kind of belief that fails either (a) or (b). We can imagine kinds of belief that fail either (or both) (a) or (b). Suppose, for example, that I assign credence level B to the proposition “my spouse isn’t cheating on me.” Then I get a bunch of new evidence — there’s unfamiliar underwear of the wrong gender in the laundry, the telephone rings at odd hours and the caller hangs up when I answer, I suddenly can’t reach my spouse late at night, etc. Yet I still assign credence level B to the no-cheating proposition. I fail (a) in that situation. Or suppose I insist that I know, absolutely and completely, that my spouse isn’t cheating on me. Then I fail (b).

If song be past, and hope undone,
And pulse, and head, and heart, are flame;
It is thy work, thou faithless one!
But, no!—I will not name thy name!***

How did I get away with the last paragraph in the previous section? Why, that is, can’t someone just say that beliefs that meet (a) and (b) are faith too, just different sorts of faith?

Well, you could. You can use words any way you want. You can say that both beliefs that meet (a) and (b) and beliefs that don’t are called faith, or schmaith, or PRETTYSHINYKITTENWANTWANTWANT!! But that claim — that it’s all faith — is usually made on behalf of a certain sort of defense of religious belief. Let me try and replicate the dialectic here.

Hard-line Atheist: “The religious believe in god on faith alone, and it’s irrational to believe things on faith alone!”

Believer or Sympathetic/More Tolerant Non-Believer: “You’re actually committed to the opposite. You believe all kinds of things on faith — including even the nonexistence of god.”

HA: “What do you mean by believing on faith?”

BS: “Believing without sufficient evidence. You believe all kinds of things without sufficient evidence — you have moral beliefs, you believe your actions/life are/is meaningful enough to motivate you to get out of bed in the morning, you believe your friends aren’t going to screw you over.”****

Here’s the problem with the last BS argument. These kinds of beliefs are different from the kinds of beliefs religious people hold. Even if we believe that our friends won’t screw us over without sufficient evidence — or even without any evidence at all, simply because the world is such that we’re forced to come to some kind of belief about those topics without sufficient evidence, we recognize that we don’t have sufficient evidence, and adjust the credence we assign to that belief accordingly. And sometimes (like in the second blackjack example) we don’t hold any beliefs at all — we just act as if we held a belief, because it’s the best we can do in the situation.

By contrast, the religious believer doesn’t just believe it’s more likely than not that god is real. The religious believer is certain that God is real. And the believer isn’t amenable to evidence otherwise — in fact, many professions of religious faith specifically exclude the possibility of evidence against the proposition (or for it) that their god exists, etc. Here’s an example from the Catholics:

(a) The twofold order of knowledge. — “The Catholic Church”, says the Vatican Council, III, iv, “has always held that there is a twofold order of knowledge, and that these two orders are distinguished from one another not only in their principle but in their object; in one we know by natural reason, in the other by Divine faith; the object of the one is truth attainable by natural reason, the object of the other is mysteries hidden in God, but which we have to believe and which can only be known to us by Divine revelation.”

* * *

(d) That such Divine faith is necessary, follows from the fact of Divine revelation. For revelation means that the Supreme Truth has spoken to man and revealed to him truths which are not in themselves evident to the human mind. We must, then, either reject revelation altogether, or accept it by faith; that is, we must submit our intellect to truths which we cannot understand, but which come to us on Divine authority.

* * *

The foregoing analyses will enable us to define an act of Divine supernatural faith as “the act of the intellect assenting to a Divine truth owing to the movement of the will, which is itself moved by the grace of God” (St. Thomas, II-II, Q. iv, a. 2). And just as the light of faith is a gift supernaturally bestowed upon the understanding, so also this Divine grace moving the will is, as its name implies, an equally supernatural and an absolutely gratuitous gift. Neither gift is due to previous study neither of them can be acquired by human efforts, but “Ask and ye shall receive.”

So, fine, if you want to call these other kinds of belief — like that my friends won’t screw me over (what I’d call “trust”) “faith,” then call them “faith.” Then sure, I don’t object to faith. But I object to the kind of belief that religious believers have, which we can call superfaith. The point is, the religious believe that god exists in a much stronger way than I believe that my friends won’t stab me in the back.

(Incidentally, here’s a good example of an atheist demonstrating that her atheism is not a matter of faith by stating evidence that would convince her that god is real.)

One final objection is worth considering: it’s possible that religious believers could have a more humble kind of belief: they could believe the evidence is such that it’s more likely true than not that god exists, but they’re not certain and they’re open to evidence to the contrary. Some believers who work with the argument from design claim to hold their belief that way — with something less than faith. To them, I’d say “great, now let’s talk about how you’re evaluating the evidence wrong,” and then see if they can actually be convinced to change their credence level. Any bets?

* It would totally be worth four years of Republicans to see a headline like that.

** I was going to make an exception here for tautologies, axiomatic systems, etc., but, actually, I’m not even going to go that far. For I wouldn’t say I’m certain that, say, 2+2=4. It’s always possible that I could have grotesquely misunderstood arithmetic. Just very, very, very low subjective probability. Likewise, I could have misunderstood the laws of logic such that something I think is a contradiction actually isn’t, etc. etc. (Or the laws of logic that I correctly understood could be wrong. Consider the occasional talk about dumping the law of excluded middle.) We should distinguish what we might call ontological certainty — the fact that some true propositions express conceptual or logical claims s.t. if they’re true, which they are, they’re true in all possible worlds — with epistemic certainty, i.e., with the proposition that I ascribe certainty to my belief in those propositions. You can have one without the other.

*** Letitia Elizabeth Landon, Sappho’s Song.

**** These examples borrowed from my friend Aysha. This post comes out of a facebook argument with her on this very subject. Other notes on those examples: I don’t think we have to believe our actions/lives are meaningful in order to motivate action (see the argument against the claim that our actions are taken “under the guise of the good” in Kieran Setiya, Reasons Without Rationalism, Princeton University Press 2007 for more on this), and it can be perfectly rational to trust a friend as a heuristic given the low likely cost of getting screwed over and large benefit from having friends, see also evolutionary reasons for behaviors in accord with both of these. And if our moral beliefs are completely voluntary, we’re kinda screwed for criticizing wicked ones.


9 Responses to “The Difference Between Faith and Fallibilism; the Difference Between Belief and Action; OR: Against Faith Part I.”

  1. Paul Gowder Says:

    (Afterthought/addendum: except in cases of faith, we don’t tend to believe things without sufficient evidence except when we’re forced to make a decision. I don’t believe my friends aren’t going to stab me in the back willy-nilly, I believe that because I’m forced to decide on a moment-to-moment basis whether to, say leave my wallet unattended with them. By contrast, religious belief isn’t so forced — nobody comes up to you with a gun and says “choose now, god or no god!”)

  2. Kenny Says:

    (1) I believe that some people, including myself, are rational in having religious beliefs, and that beliefs that meet your definition of ‘faith’ are ipso facto irrational. I guess that puts me in the “more humble” camp you describe.

    (2) If we’re concerned with Christianity, then the relevant term is the Greek pistis, rather than the English ‘faith’ and, in fact, pistis is, at least in most contexts (including most of the New Testament), more accurately translated by ‘trust’ than ‘faith’. Now, it is probably true that the average Christian doesn’t know this, and holds the sort of irrational belief you criticize, but I dare say most leading Christian intellectuals don’t. (Maybe that’s a tautology – it’s hard to see how you could be a leading intellectual of any sort if you self-consciously embrace the irrational.)

    (3) I would deny that faith, properly understood (and here I use ‘faith’ simply as a drop-in for Greek pistis) is a variety of belief at all. Rather, faith is a practical matter. You have faith in your friends when you leave your wallet with them. If you are rational, this will involve some kind of belief, perhaps the belief that they are not very likely to steal it. But the belief is not faith. Faith is the settled attitude toward your friends which is expressed by such actions as leaving your wallet with them. That’s why ‘trust’ is a better word in English.

    (4) Christians believe that there is a forced choice of the sort you mention in your addendum. Christians believe that we all exhibit a sort of moral corruption which we are incapable of correcting. I am Kantian enough to think that the worst part is the fact that I deserve punishment; the thought that I might actually be punished as I deserve is also a frightful one but is (or at least ought to be) a secondary consideration. So even without begging the question in favor of the existence of God, I can see myself as in need of salvation: if there is no God then I will probably not be punished and this will be a great injustice. Christianity as a package is supposed to be a way out of this mess.

    I have discussed my understanding of faith (pistis) here and here.

    I look forward to the rest of your series.

  3. Philosopher’s Carnival CXII « A Concentrated Tincture Says:

    [...] Gowder presents The Difference Between Faith and Fallibilism; the Difference Between Belief and Action; OR: Against … posted at Uncommon Priors. I’d cross post this one with Philosophy of Religion if there where [...]

  4. Maryann Spikes Says:

    Because it ‘is’ faith, subjective certainty (excluding absolute certainty, which is unattainable by finite minds) that is strengthened despite counter-evidence is bad and blind, just like bad and blind faith. Bad faith ‘is’ blind subjective certainty, and blind subjective certainty ‘is’ bad faith. Any level of subjective certainty below absolute certainty ‘is’ faith. The more subjective certainty is strengthened, the less the weaker levels of subjective certainty are needed, just like faith is only needed when absolute certainty is lacking. The stronger the level of good subjective certainty, the stronger the good faith—because they are the same and are strengthened with strong evidence and weakened by counter-evidence.

  5. Luke Says:


    But still, whether or not you trust your friend with your wallet will change based on your friend’s behavior. That doesn’t seem to be the case for the Christian. Indeed, as the case of Job is meant to show, it’s quite the opposite.

  6. Kenny Says:

    Luke, on one point I agree that there is a difference; the analogy is not perfect. This is because our friends are people more or less like us. They don’t have vastly superior mental faculties or vastly more knowledge, and they are not in higher positions of authority. So usually when we trust our friends in something like the wallet case, we are trusting them to do what we think best. They are not much better equipped than we are to determine what’s best, and, even if they were, they wouldn’t have the moral authority to impose that on others.

    The upshot is, if anyone has good reason to believe that God exists and is vastly intellectually superior to us, and has moral authority over us, then the fact that God sometimes does things that look bad to us will not necessarily be a strong reason to stop trusting God. This is not to say that no evidential argument from evil has any force, it’s just to say that it’s not the same as observing our friends misbehaving.

    I do not, however, think that Christian faith ought to be immune from revision. We are always encountering new evidence, and ought always to be prepared to revise our views accordingly.

  7. Luke Says:

    Kenny, isn’t the very point at issue whether or not anybody has good reason to believe that God exists? The second paragraph of your response seems to imply that one must already believe in God to have faith in God. If that is the case, then Paul’s original post does not just get things wrong but is entirely misguided. It should have treated pistis as simply a virtue that Christians strive to achieve after they’ve already accepted the existence of God and other aspects of the teachings of Christ.

    Your third paragraph, however, seems to imply that pistis IS a form of belief. After all, you say it’s sensitive to evidence and you seem to equate it with “our views”. Perhaps only views consistent with the basic precepts of Christianity fall under the aegis of pistis? But if that’s the case, then it still seems like belief in God doesn’t ever face revision…

    But I think maybe this is all just a semantic matter. Even if we don’t call it “faith”, what the original post addresses is the cognitive faculty that provides the believer with a belief in God. Perhaps this is better called the sensus divinatis a la Calvin via Plantinga. Whatever we call it, the issue is not whether we should trust in God once we believe in Him, but rather whether we should believe in Him in the first place.

  8. Kenny Says:

    I said previously that faith is not itself a variety of belief, but does (when rational) involve belief. If you revise your beliefs, then your ‘faith’ may be subject to revision as well.

    What I am concerned here to say is simply that I deny that anyone ought to form the kinds of beliefs that Paul calls ‘faith’ in his post. Plantinga is at pains to show that adherence to the sensus divinitatis or, as he calls it elsewhere, divine nisus is not irrational. If that defense fails, then people who believe in God in the way Plantinga describes should stop believing. I don’t think Plantinga’s is the only way of defending belief in God. At any rate, it is absolutely my position that, as you say, “pistis [is] simply a virtue that Christians strive to achieve after they’ve already accepted the existence of God and other aspects of the teachings of Christ.” This is a good way of putting it.

  9. Maryann Spikes Says:

    Believing is a virtue like courage when everything you’ve ever “known” is attacking the new input. It is like fighting against old schema.

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