Saturday, March 03, 2012

Some notes on Loftus' definition of faith

John Loftus offers this definition of faith.

John Loftus: "Faith is an attitude or feeling whereby someone attributes a higher degree of probability to the evidence than what the evidence calls for."


He goes on to say:
I further argue that reasonable faith is an oxymoron because having faith is an irrational leap over the probabilities, which again, is what all Christians do in practice. 

I replied by saying;

This strikes me as a simple error in linguistic philosophy. If Christians develop and use the term "faith" then you have to pay attention to what that linguistic community means by it. Irrationality isn't part of the meaning of faith. It may be that, in believing their religion and in having faith, they commit irrationality, but this is contingent on the evidence being different from what they suppose it to be.

If you assessed the evidence and you thought that Christianity was probably true, you could still have faith. This would be true if you were right about the evidence or wrong about the evidence. You can't presume your assessment of the evidence to define words that Christians use. Link.

And he in turn said: 

Sure we can, and we do.

Definitions of words couch arguments in disguise. In our arguments we demand a different definition of "faith" because our definitions more accurately describe what we see from believers around the world in their respective sects. It's the same phenomena all over the globe.

When it comes to evaluating the strength of the evidence for a claim, any claim, my definition works just fine. After all, we're not just talking about a word but a concept, one that should apply to everyone and not just Christians, otherwise you are special pleading. Agreement among Christians isn't a criteria for how a word is used anyway, especially since the debate over the word has been framed in the western world by Christianity.

All you need to do, Vic, is say that what you have concluded is more probable than other alternatives and that you do not claim a higher probability to the evidence than what the evidence calls for.

Can't do that?

Why not?

I can say that. I can say that I do not hold any beliefs that I consider to be less probably true than their denials. If I thought they were less probable than their denials, I wouldn't believe them. 

Now, I suppose, given lottery paradox considerations, I probably should say that I hold some beliefs as probably true which are actually probably false. But, for every belief I hold, I consider the belief to be more probably true than its denial. Yet, I maintain that I have faith in the existence of God. 


Nor does it seem plausible to me that I can only truly have faith if, in fact, I have mistakenly assessed the evidence. It doesn't seem plausible to me that when someone exhorts me to have faith in God, that what they are exhorting me to do is to make an error in my assessment of the evidence.

Now, I don't think Loftus wants to say that everyone who has religious faith recognizes the irrationality of their beliefs in the act of having faith. That would be implying that all those who have faith are fideist, and understand their position to be fideistic. But, they don't. Thomas Aquinas, C. S. Lewis, and William Lane Craig explicitly do not understand faith in this way. They think that they hold reasonable beliefs, but nevertheless they believe that they exercise faith anyway. 

The trouble is that if you make a characteristic part of a definition, you implicitly say that you couldn't use the term unless it the characteristic were present. Suppose whiteness had been part of the definition of being a swan. If that were the case, then we couldn't possibly have discovered black swans in Western Australia. The black birds we found over these would not have been white, and therefore would not be swans. But since, when we encountered these black birds, we called them swans and rejected our previously accepted idea that all swans were white. 


If you think that no one has a reasonable faith, that doesn't license you to make unreasonableness part of your definition of faith unless you are prepared, in case you do encounter someone who has reasonable faith, to say "OK, that's reasonable, so it can't be faith." In other words, in the (unlikely?) event that Loftus should change his assessment of the evidence concerning Christianity to correspond with that of William Lane Craig or Richard Swinburne, he would then have to say "Fine, Christian belief is reasonable, but what that means is that these people don't have faith. They have something else instead, such as knowledge. The are making a linguistic error by describing themselves as having faith."

What Loftus wants to say that, in fact, religious believers, in the course of having faith, believe things that are less probable than not to be true. I take it he is implying that there are objectively valid probability assessments for beliefs, something I am kind of skeptical about. Probability theory tells us how to go from one probability to another based on evidence, via Bayes' theorem. What it doesn't tell you is where the initial probabilities are supposed to come from in the first place. If we can't use personal probability assessments, as some people have maintained, the where are we supposed to get our probability assessments in the first place? Does Loftus have an epistemic probability theory that he thinks works?


A good definition of faith has to be one that language users of various persuasions can agree on. Loftus' account could succeed as a description of faith (this is what happens every time someone has faith) but it can't be a definition of faith.  


Further, a definition of faith needs to fit with our use of the term outside of religion. For example, a manager might have faith in his ace pitcher after he walks the first two batters. Now, faith does need to be in spite of something, but it doesn't need to be irrational, at least in this context.  The manager could have good reason to retain confidence in his pitcher despite his walking batters in the beginning of the game. 


I am speaking here as a fussy analytic philosopher, and not as a Christian apologist.

16 comments:

John W. Loftus said...

Vic, perhaps I'll be able to comment on this further, but you did see where professor Matt McCormick said the same thing as I did, right?

Dr. Evangelicus said...

What does it mean to "walk a batter"?

John W. Loftus said...

While I'm at it perhaps you may want to consider my response to the fundamental objection to the OTF sometime in the future. I request that people stick to the issue of faith Vic raised in this thread though, not the OTF.

Papalinton said...

From the All References Dictionary:
"Faith is confidence or trust in a person or entity. Depending on the religion, faith is belief in a single god or multiple gods or in the doctrines or teachings of the religion. Informal usage of faith can be quite broad, including trust or belief without proof, and "faith" is often used as a substitute for "hope", "trust" or "belief".
Some critics of faith have argued that faith is opposed to reason. In contrast, some advocates of faith argue that the proper domain of faith concerns questions which cannot be settled by evidence. This is exemplified by attitudes about the future, which (by definition) has not yet occurred. Logical reasoning may proceed from any set of assumptions, positive or negative. In this view, faith is simply a positive assumption."

And despite Victor attempting to steer away from theism ["I am speaking here as a fussy analytic philosopher, and not as a Christian apologist.], the assumption he makes about the coach's use of a particular Pitcher is diametrically different from the assumption about the existence of a god[s]. The use of 'faith' in both cases cannot and must not be conflated. One cannot use 'faith' in a Pitcher as a rationale or a vindication for 'faith' in god[s]. As the definition above notes, '[l]ogical reasoning may proceed from any set of assumptions, positive or negative'; a coach's faith in his pitcher is a positive assumption, the belief in god[s] is a negative one, based on the superstitious and false assumption that god[s] exist as its first premise, despite millennia of human history clearly illustrating a narrative of old gods being forgotten as cultures create new gods to suit their community. Nothing can be more demonstrative of this fact than the creation of Mormonism and Scientology.

Crude said...

Great post, Victor. Knocking them out of the park whenever you care to I see.

These kinds of definition games on the part of the Cult of Gnu are pretty dull by now. It's a little bit like defining atheist as, among other things, 'someone who believes there's nothing really wrong with rape or prostitution'. Someone probably thinks that is a debate masterstroke - most everyone else just (rightly) rolls their eyes.

Crude said...

Victor,

To add on some commentary. You say...

Now, I don't think Loftus wants to say that everyone who has religious faith recognizes the irrationality of their beliefs in the act of having faith. That would be implying that all those who have faith are fideist, and understand their position to be fideistic. But, they don't. Thomas Aquinas, C. S. Lewis, and William Lane Craig explicitly do not understand faith in this way. They think that they hold reasonable beliefs, but nevertheless they believe that they exercise faith anyway.

What I find interesting here is that the definition of 'faith' deals with a lot of subjective factors, even as given. Loftus seems to be saying faith is consciously believing in something you think is more likely than not to be false. The problem is we have no shortage of theists who believe that God's existence is more likely than not to be true, and certainly a number of prominent Christians take this to be the case. Even if someone else thinks those Christians wrongly estimated the probabilities, they themselves seem to believe in the probabilities favoring their belief.

In which case, Loftus would have to say that plenty of people believe in God or are Christians, and that these beliefs don't require faith. (Or he'd have to claim something bizarre, like 'Christianity and theism requires faith, but if you believe Christian/theism is more likely true than false, you can't be a Christian/theist!')

But let's say that 'faith' doesn't have to do with whether or not an individual thinks that what they believe is more likely to be false than true. Let's say it has to do with whether it is, "objectively", more likely to be false than true. Well, now we've complicated matters tremendously since the "objectively" part is subject to considerable debate. More than that, it's still no longer certain that Christians have or need "faith". (After all, they may be right about their claims being more likely true than false.)

Better yet, since it's a live possibility that theism or Christianity is more likely true than false, it's also a live possibility that atheists have faith! After all, if theism or Christianity is more likely true than false, it would follow that atheism is more likely false than true. And under the 'objective' definition, atheists have faith.

I don't doubt there's some way to go back and re-rig the definitions in yet another way. But right now, with the way it' been set up, it's just a mess.

Papalinton said...

"Great post, Victor. Knocking them out of the park whenever you care to I see."

In your wildest dreams, crude.

Matt DeStefano said...

Hey Victor,

You say (emphasis mine):

"Further, a definition of faith needs to fit with our use of the term outside of religion. For example, a manager might have faith in his ace pitcher after he walks the first two batters. Now, faith does need to be in spite of something, but it doesn't need to be irrational, at least in this context. The manager could have good reason to retain confidence in his pitcher despite his walking batters in the beginning of the game. "

This is a curious way of putting it. What's faith "in spite of" when talking about the Christian faith?

Victor Reppert said...

Well, for example, in the case of the baseball manager, something happens which gives him some reason to think his ace pitcher doesn't have it in this game. Lewis says that faith is believing in spite of emotional inclinations to disbelieve. I picture it like this: you have overall reason to believe in something, you experience something that goes against that belief, but your overall confidence carries you through to being steadfast in spite of running up against something that tempts you to abandon that confidence. But that something doesn't have to be adequate rational grounds for abandoning confidence.

Victor Reppert said...

I'd further add that the Bible doesn't contrast faith with reason, it contrasts it with sight. I think getting clear on what Paul means by sight will help to clarify the conception of faith. I think you can't conflate sight with reason.

Mike Darus said...

If my friend tells me, "I won the lottery.", does reason require that I conclude that he is lying?

Eric said...

Victor, excellent point on faith vs. reason and faith vs. sight.

The common example adduced by those who try to defend the notion that faith = ignorance is that of doubting Thomas, but rather than refuting you, this actually *makes* the point you've been defending. Thomas, as a disciple of Christ's, witnessed many miracles, knew Jesus personally, was taught by Jesus, knew the character of his fellow disciples, etc. yet despite all these *reasons* for *trusting* Christ's claims, he chose to doubt. Note, skeptics, he didn't choose to doubt in the absence of *evidence* -- he had plenty of that -- but in the absence of 'sight.' Christ was chastising him for doubting *despite* all the reasons he had to trust in what he was told, not for doubting instead of believing with no reason whatsoever.

Papalinton said...

"I'd further add that the Bible doesn't contrast faith with reason, it contrasts it with sight."

No it's not. Faith contrasts with that which is not seen. Whatever faith is about, it is about what is out-of-sight.

Hebrews 11:1 [Various convolutions. Please note conflation of 'conviction' with 'evidence' with 'assurance'. Note also the conflation of 'things we expect' with 'things we hope for'. Note also how 'faith' implies 'evidence'.]

New International Version (©1984)
Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

New Living Translation (©2007)
Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see.

English Standard Version (©2001)
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

New American Standard Bible (©1995)
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

King James Bible (Cambridge Ed.)
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

International Standard Version (©2008)
Now faith is the assurance that what we hope for will come about and the certainty that what we cannot see exists.

Aramaic Bible in Plain English (©2010)
Now faith is the conviction concerning those things that are in hope, as if it were these things in action, and the revelation of those things that are unseen;

GOD'S WORD® Translation (©1995)
Faith assures us of things we expect and convinces us of the existence of things we cannot see.

Is there any wonder that when theist philosophers trot out definitions, they simply bend with the breeze to make their point? The examples of rampant Apologetics above underscores the manner in which christian theists play very loose with the truth.

Just as Eric says, "Christ was chastising him for doubting *despite* all the reasons he had to trust in what he was told ....." Faith is all about believing "what is told", not about evidence or proofs but about what he is told to believe. Religious totalitarianism.

BenYachov said...

@Paps

You are so grasping at straws.

Victor wrote:
>"I'd further add that the Bible doesn't contrast faith with reason, it contrasts it with sight."

Paps wrote:
>No it's not. Faith contrasts with that which is not seen. Whatever faith is about, it is about what is out-of-sight.

I reply: I believe we call this in the Queen's English a distinction without a difference.

Paps cites
Hebrews 11:1 various translations.

Well first of all citing one text is about as convincing as when a Jehovah's witness let's say cites the Gospel of John where Jesus says
"The Father is greater than I" in order to deny the Deity of Christ and ignores or down plays verses like "the Father and I are one. Who has seen Me has seen the Father" or "The Word was God" or "Before Abraham was I AM(i.e. YHWH).etc....

A text without a context is a pretext.

Seriously Paps? Reading your own self-serving meaning into one text of the Bible is a bit of a stretch don't you think?

Even if God doesn't exist why should I accept you claim here?

OTOH let indulge some of your wackyness for the sake of argument.

Taken by itself regardless of translation Heb 11:1 makes absolutely no contrast of Faith with reason. The text cited simply doesn't say it even implicitly.

It does contrast Faith with what is "not seen" with for some wacko jacko reason Paps thinks is conception-ally different than
"sight"?

Weird!

Paps does Loftus have to be infallibly right in everything in order for you to continue to dis-believe in God or gods?

I think this show an immature lack of faith(pun so intended) on your part in your own Atheism.

Get a clue down under boy. You make it too easy.

djindra said...

That's the problem with the word "faith" -- it means pretty much whatever the user wants it to mean. So it's easily abused. I don't think even many Christians would agree "faith" means the same thing in every context.

I have faith the sun will rise tomorrow.

I have faith the sun will not rise tomorrow.

Surely these sentences say something entirely different about the professors of those faiths.

Zach said...

Perhaps John's definition works for some Christians, not others. How many will it apply to? Victor, does he cite people that it clearly applies to, or is this more his impression (after years in the clergy, so I don't mean 'impression' in a pejorative sense).

My understanding is less of a leap despite probabilities, more a leap into what is undeniable yet I cannot prove purely with logic and empirical evidence (and nobody can disprove purely with logic and empirical evidence).