belief, faith, truth

From: Stathis Papaioannou <>
Date: Mon, 30 Jan 2006 00:36:46 +1100

Danny Mayes writes:

>My belief is that in matters of faith, you can choose to believe or not
>believe based on whether it suits your personal preferences. Your example
>of the Nazis would not apply because there is overwhelming evidence that
>the Nazis existed. Perhaps it can be argued that there is meaningful
>evidence that the God described in Sunday school class exists as well,
>however I don't think anyone would argue that the evidence for that God is
>nearly as strong as evidence of the Nazis. As you say, religion, by
>necessity, is based on faith and therefore little to no objective evidence.
> I guess your point was that if you already have the faith in something
>without evidence, the fact that you are then taught as part of the belief
>system that there are some aspects not very appealing should not have any
>bearing on whether you still have your faith? I would disagree with that
>in that you can have faith in something because the concept is attractive
>to you, but then lose your faith when the concept is shown to be less
>attractive. (this was not really my situation as a child- I was never
>really presented the opportunity to examine the faith until presented with
>the teachings described in the original post). This is not entirely
>unrelated to the sciences. Science has pushed into many areas into realms
>that can only tangentially, at best, be proven with objective evidence.
>The MWI is a good example. I believe in it, because I think it provides
>the most explanatory power over competing ideas. However, it would be
>difficult to fault someone for demanding more in the way of direct
>evidence. In a sense, there is an element of faith in such theories.
>String theory is another example. I'm not saying these things are not
>science, just that they are theories beyond our reach to prove or disprove
>at the present time. Many scientists are quoted as endorsing string theory
>in part due to the elegance of the theory. This goes with what I was
>saying above about accepting something on faith as long as it appears to be
>the most attractive idea, even if it is not supported by much objective
>I doubt the beliefs of fundementalist Christianity will ever be absolutely
>proven or disproven, and as a faith belief I reserve the right to discard
>it at my choosing!

I think you are referring to that aspect of belief which has little to do
with whether or not the belief is in accordance with reality. This is very
common in everyday life, but it is also probably common in science or other
supposedly objective fields of enquiry. One could even speculate that having
"faith" in a scientific theory in its nascent phase - that is, believing it
to be true with greater certainty than the available evidence warrants - is
important in motivating the theorist to do the experimental work which will
ultimately validate the theory to the satisfaction of the rest of the
scientific community. This is fine, as long as we are clear that there is a
distinction between the utility of a belief and the truth value of that
belief. An interesting illustration of this distinction in philosophy of
religion is "Pascal's Wager". Pascal aknowledged that it is not possible to
decide with any certainty whether God exists, but continued to ask the
question, should we believe that God exists? If we believe that he does and
it turns out that we are right, we gain eternal life in Heaven, while if it
turns out we are wrong, we gain or lose nothing as a result of our false
belief. On the other hand, if we declare ourselves atheists and are right,
we gain or lose nothing, but if we are wrong, we end up in Hell. Therefore,
we are better off believing that God does exist.

The problem with almost all people with fundamentalist-type religious
convictions that I have met, however, is that they are not as honest as
Pascal was. They claim that their belief is certainly or almost certainly
correct, and that it is based on empirical evidence, such as the historical
record contained in the Bible. Pressed further, they might describe "faith"
as a kind of religious experience which allows no more doubt about the
existence of God than ordinary sensory experience allows doubt about the
existence of the world - "and if you had this experience, you would
understand". If I suggest to them that they only believe because they were
brought up that way, or because they want it to be true (and I think these
two reasons account for the vast majority of people with religious belief in
the world), they deny this vehemently.

Returning to the point in my original post, I should have clarified it by
saying that when it comes to the *truth* value of a belief, our attitude
towards that belief is irrelevant. If some far future historian studying the
legend of the Nazis in the 20th century decides that the legend is true
simply because it would further his career if it were true, he would deserve
the contempt of his peers. If the evidence does not allow a conclusion one
way or the other, the correct answer is that the evidence does not allow a
conclusion one way or the other; it is not a license to choose whatever
conclusion takes your fancy.

[Incidently, can you see the logical flaw in Pascal's Wager as described

Stathis Papaioannou

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Received on Sun Jan 29 2006 - 08:40:41 PST

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