Monday, July 02, 2007

What's So Great About Faith?

Dialogue snippet from many films/TV shows:
Skeptic: "Doesn't it bother you that there's no real evidence that God even exists?"

Christian: "Not at all. If God gave us proof, there'd be no room left for faith!"

That line's always a conversation-stopper, for some reason. I'd like to see the conversation continue, though, as the claim raises an obvious question: what's so great about "faith"? I'd have thought it a good thing to have one's beliefs properly confirmed. To have sufficient grounds for your beliefs seems like an improvement over having insufficient grounds, right? So why does the TV-Christian imply that such a transition would be a bad thing?

I guess the idea is that uncertainty enables trust to be expressed, tested, and confirmed. If you're accused of some misdeed, immediate proof of innocence would rob you of the chance to see who really trusts you. But there are two major flaws with this analogy:

(1) The need for virtue is contingent on imperfect conditions. Hume points out that generosity would be unnecessary in conditions of abundance. Likewise, trust is pointless for one (like God) who can always dispel uncertainty and reveal the truth. If virtue is an instrument for good, it would seem awfully backward to value the instrument more than the perfection it aims to attain!

(2) The analogy is a non-starter in any case. The question of God's existence is logically prior to whether he's trustworthy. We're not assessing God himself, but rather an abstract proposition - the question whether there's anyone there for us to assess. (This conflation also underlies the silly claim that "atheists hate God.") Granted, there's a loose sense in which one can 'trust' that a proposition is true -- let's call this "de dicto trust" -- but that's a completely different matter from trusting in a person, de re.

So even if we grant that de re trust in God's goodness has intrinsic value, it still doesn't follow that there's anything good about de dicto faith in the unsupported proposition that God exists. Theists should much prefer to have solid proof supersede their blind (de dicto) "faith".

26 comments:

  1. "Theists should much prefer to have solid proof supersede their blind (de dicto) "faith"."

    Correction: "TV-Theists should much ... " Since your entire post up to that point was about TV-Christians, I assume that is what you meant.

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  2. I think that this is where the equivocation on the word "faith" gets the theist in trouble. No evidence makes room for faith, meaning belief. But faith is virtue, and therefore such a good things because it encompasses so much more than belief, i.e. trust, or whatever else. It is, however, difficult to see how a lack of evidence creates more room for trust, etc.

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  3. Richard,

    This is a very interesting question/post. I’m intrigued by the orientation of the dialogue that you reference, as I’m not so sure a Christian (even a TV-Christian) ought to accept the claim that his/her beliefs (including the belief in God’s existence) lack sufficient grounds. In fact, I think the Christian's faith itself ought to be understood as belief based upon evidence. What (if anything) makes the Christian’s faith distinct from other beliefs? My guess is that it’s the (kind of) evidence upon which it is based. (The questions of just what this evidence is and how it’s different from other kinds of evidence could lead to completely different discussions…) Here’s a Christian's definition of faith that touches upon this relationship: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). This sounds to me like faith is supposed to be a kind of certainty based upon something—just not certainty based on the sort of evidence we usually like to base our beliefs upon (evidence we ‘see’). Of course, I realize this opens up lots of other cans of lots of other worms. But I still think it’s worth considering. (Though maybe I'm misunderstanding your view of the relationship between certainty and evidence?)

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  4. A) the TV-theist presupposed that the universe is one big faith testing ground.

    1) the theist could say that faith is part of you (its part of a belief structure - which is 'you') 'goodness' is an effect of you. So there is no point valuing the person's effect on the test.

    (2)
    >The question of God's existence is logically prior to whether he's trustworthy.

    not the way the theist understands the question. to them it is effectively "considering/asumming that god exists why is there no proof of him?" Actually i think that might be a reasonable assumption.

    >Theists should much prefer to have solid proof supersede their blind (de dicto) "faith".

    refer back to "big faith testing ground"

    GNZ

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  5. Apparently, some of my punctuation got messed up along the way--argh. Sorry about that! I'll try again here. I hope it's better this time.

    This is a very interesting question/post. I am intrigued by the orientation of the dialogue that you reference, as I'm not so sure a Christian (even a TV-Christian) ought to accept the claim that his/her beliefs (including the belief that God exists) lack sufficient grounds. In fact, I think the Christian ought to understand his/her faith as belief based upon evidence. What (if anything) makes the Christian's faith distinct from other beliefs? My guess is that it's the (kind of) evidence upon which it's based. (The questions of just what this evidence is and how it is different from other kinds of evidence lead to different--but interesting!--discussions...) Here's a Christian's definition of faith that touches on that relationship: "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see" (Hebrews 11:1). This sounds to me like faith is supposed to be certainty based upon something--just not certainty based upon the sort of evidence we usually like to base our beliefs on (evidence we "see"). Of course, I realize this opens up lots of other cans of lots of other worms. But I still think it's worth considering. (Though maybe I'm misunderstanding the relationship between certainty and evidence?)

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  6. Richard, as I'm sure you know, this is a pretty common saying. However, there's also a pretty straightforward explanation for it, too. The idea is that a known fact (one that's been sufficiently demonstrated) is something you have to believe, unless you're insane. Faith, however, leaves room for personal choice. You can either choose to believe or choose not to believe, and that's what makes faith preferable.

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  7. I think that the glorification of faith - of holding absolute certainty without any evidence - has been the most horrible success of religions.

    To hold faith in claims about history, geology, physics, evolution, or the very nature of the universe is to make a complete perversion of the incredible human mind.

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  8. Macht's qualification has to be kept in mind, since TV-theists and theists don't always have even remotely similar views on faith, but with regard to your arguments:

    (1) Whether or not the need for the virtue arises doesn't seem to be relevant. I'm not sure it's actually true that generosity would be unnecessary in conditions of abundance, given that generosity is as much a matter of attitude as possessions to give away; but even granted that, its being incidentally unnecessary for practical purposes doesn't appear to make it any less desirable to cultivate. Most people, keep in mind, don't regard virtue as "an instrument for good" but a good in itself; it's not something you get in order to get to perfection but itself a component part of perfection.

    (2) Whether God's existence is logically prior to trusting God doesn't seem relevant, either; what is relevant is which is practically prior. Whether other minds exist is logically prior to regarding them as persons; but practical reasons lead us to regard others as persons without having seriously investigated the question of whether they really do have minds -- indeed, practical purposes so dominate the matter that no one actually cares much whether they have good reason for believing that other minds than their own exist. It's just assumed in the jump to practice. It can still be a defeasible assumption, of course, but practical purposes will predominate.

    There are better views of faith than that which comes out in the TV-dialogue; but I don't think it's quite so clearly wrong as you suggest. The chief problem is that it basically accepts that theism is quixotic and concedes the evidential issue to the skeptic without even a serious examination; it's a glib way for people to say they want to be left alone and not argued with. That can be fine, but it doesn't leave room for much.

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  9. Macht - "Since your entire post up to that point was about TV-Christians, I assume that is what you meant."

    No, I think that all theists (not just fictional ones) should prefer grounded belief to blind faith. The good news is that some (non-fictional) theists already do have this preference -- just as they should.

    [Though, now that I look at it, my original sentence seems to further imply that the theist's current state is one of blind faith rather than grounded belief. Fair cop if you merely meant to object to that part.]

    Chris - "You can either choose to believe or choose not to believe, and that's what makes faith preferable."

    Ah, okay, that makes (a little bit) more sense. It still seems silly though. There's value in making ethical choices, i.e. choices about how to live, act, etc. But what's the value in epistemic choices, i.e. judgments of what is the case? This seems to be another example of the old conflation between religious ritual and theological beliefs. Choosing the former doesn't require an absence of evidence; and choosing the latter has no real value. So the dialogue still rests on a basic confusion.

    Brandon - I was a bit unclear there; 'priority' isn't really the issue. What matters is that the two are distinct. Trusting in God is a different matter from "trusting" (de dicto) in his existence. The latter is not an expression of virtuous (de re) trust.

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  10. Imagine I wrote a post saying that TV portrays atheists as arrogant and condescending. Then I went on to argue that being arrogant and condescending was wrong. And then I said, "Atheists should much prefer being humble and respectful to arrogance and condescension."

    It's not so much the conclusion that is wrong, but what is implied by the conclusion that is wrong.

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  11. Richard,

    Of course, anyone who makes the claim in the dialogue would deny that the the latter is not an expression of de re trust. And there is reason to think that this can't be simply dismissed. Suppose I am worried about whether I am hallucinating you. My trusting you de re (in some aspect of my life) involves as part of its expression de dicto trust that you really do exist. If practical matters lead me to trust in you, part of trusting in you involves trusting that you are there to trust in. If I trust in you as an honest person, that involves trusting that you are honest. And it's not so clear that you can, for instance, trust in someone as honest if you are not at least in principle willing to trust that they exist and are honest. It may be easier to trust in someone if you know that they exist and are honest; but on a loyalty conception of trust, part of trust is willingness to give someone a bit of leeway on the evidence -- if you really do trust in someone as an honest person, you will trust that they are honest even if the evidence appears contrary to this. Now, what the TV-theist wishes to do is to insist on this all across the board. Thus if someone comes around insisting that there's no public evidence for the existence of my good friend Aloysius Snuffleupagus, and I have no ready argument otherwise, my loyalty-based trust in Aloysius's friendship carries over into a loyalty-based trust that he exists. I might stand by my friend even to the point of insisting that he exists when others refuse to believe it. And this can clearly be the same sort of thing as trusting in his friendship. One could say that practical priority still plays a role: the TV-theist begins with the virtuous trust-relationship with God, and, questioned on his belief that God even exists, responds that this is part of the trust. The distinction only becomes practically important for purposes of virtuous trust if you begin on the other end and try to work forward from there.

    (And after all, it's easy to trust in someone who is necessarily omnibenevolent. It takes a bit more to act in the world trusting that that someone exists.)

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  12. Richard

    Your post assumes appears to assume that it is irrational to believe a proposition ( or to trust an authority) unless there is good evidence for the truth of the proposition ( or the reliability of the authority).

    This however is false; first, it entails sceptical problems, suppose I do not trust my memory or perception, or my reasoning faculties until I had non circular evidence for their reliability. That would lead to scepticism very quickly.

    Second, there is a regress problem, suppose I believe B on the basis of evidence E1-E6. It will be irrational to believe the propositions in E1-E6 unless we have further evidence E7-E12 and so on.

    Third the claim is self refuting, the claim: you should not believe a proposition unless you have compelling evidence for it expresses a proposition, so it should not be believed until someone offers good evidence for it. A theist who rejects theism on the basis of this proposition is irrational in doing so until such evidence is forthcoming.

    What is needed is some argument as to why belief in God requires evidence, and argument from premises a theist is required to accept on pain of rationality and which is formally valid.

    Matthew Flannagan

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  13. Matthew -- No, none of that is relevant to the comparative question of whether it's better to believe on sufficient grounds than not. (See instead this old post.)

    Brandon -- "And it's not so clear that you can, for instance, trust in someone as honest if you are not at least in principle willing to trust that they exist and are honest."

    Of course belief in their existence is a precondition for having other attitudes (e.g. trust) towards them. But that could be achieved just as well if their existence was known for certain. And it hardly seems plausible that faith in mere existence has any independent value.

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  14. faith in existance might have value to the one who you have faith in. I guess I would want people to think I exist...

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  15. Yes, for instrumental reasons. I'd be just as happy for people to *know* that I exist. (It's more fundamentally a judgment about the world than a judgment about me/my attributes.)

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  16. Richard

    Ok I see. Your claim in this post is that the person who believes on the basis of arguments is in a better epistemic situation than one who believes without such reasons. It’s not clear to me that this is always correct. Consider two people P1 and P2. P1 believes his wife exists but cannot provide an argument for this claim he has not developed any plausible answer to the so called problem of other minds. P2 also believes that his wife exists however he has come to this conclusion after an extended period of study. He for many years doubted the existence of his wife but now has become convinced of the analogical arguments cogency, and believes in her on the basis of this argument. I suggest that P1 is in a better epistemic position than P2. We would conclude that a person who does not believe in the existence of his wife or another person and needs an argument before they will do so is probably suffering from some cognitive malfunction.

    Moreover, even if P2 is in a better epistemic position there are probably still things about P1's stance which are more valuable. His relationship and commitment to his wife for example.


    Thank you for referring me to that previous post I could say a lot about this however I’ll limit myself to three points.

    1. If this post is supposed to respond to my argument then you attack a straw man. The argument I made is not that “your beliefs are unjustified too, so lets all be unjustified”. Rather it’s the point, argued by Alvin Plantinga and others in the Reformed epistemology movement, that not all beliefs need to be justified by argument or evidence and that claiming they do leads to scepticism. To avoid scepticism some beliefs need to be considered “properly basic” (to use the foundationalist term)

    An implication of this is that a person who rejects theism because he or she thinks there is no evidence for it is assuming that theism is not properly basic. The point made by the Plantinga et al is that the atheist must provide an argument for the conclusion that God is not properly basic. If he does not his position is incoherent. The atheist essentially says “on the basis of this unarged for assumption, theism is an unargued for assumption.”

    2.Your response to this line of reasoning appears to be three fold.

    First, You assert we “do have good reasons for believing in the existence of the external world, other minds etc, the existence of the past etc” and hence deny that the sceptical thesis follows. I think is simply false, I think the arguments for these things are failures. Moreover, theists who argue in the way you criticise such as William Alston have offered arguments to suggest that no non circular argument for these things is successful. I know that’s an assertion. But your claim that there are good arguments for these things is also an assertion. If an assertion that arguments exist is enough to allay sceptical worries about the external world then the theist can simply assert that there are arguments for Gods existence and that would allay skepticism about belief in God.


    Second, you suggest that beliefs are properly basic (you use the term axioms) only if they are “preconditions of success” This suggests something like the following.

    [EP] A belief is rational only if (a) it is a precondition of success or [b] there are good arguments for it from rational premises.

    EP however is incoherent, for the very reasons I have already mustered. EP is not a “precondition of success”. Hence its irrational to believe in EP until you provide me with a sound argument for its truth from premises which are themselves preconditions of success. Seeing you have offered no argument for it I cannot rationally accept it.

    Thirdly, You suggest that one can reject foundationalism and embrace coherentism. So we would have something like

    [ep1] A belief is rationally believed in iff and only if it forms part of a maximally coherent set.

    The problem with this is that it in essence concedes the reformed epistemologists point. On [ep1] the fact (if it is a fact) that there are no good arguments for theism does not entail that theism is irrational. What matters is whether theism can be part of a maximally coherent set of beliefs. That is a different question.

    There is also second problem with [ep1]. If [ep1] is true then I can rationally believe [ep1] only if [ep1] is itself part of a maximally coherent set. Now either a person needs to provide arguments for the claim that a belief is coherent in this way or they do not. If they do then it would be irrational for anyone to accept [ep1] until a good argument for it is forthcoming ( and here the regress problem will re-emerge because the premises of such arguments will themselves need to be shown to meet [ep1] and so will the premises of these further arguments and so on).

    On the other hand if you don’t need to demonstrate that a belief meets [ep2] before you rationally assent to it then the theist does not need to prove this either.

    Either way it appears that the claim that theism is irrational because the arguments for theism fail (assuming they do) is mistaken. Much more is needed.

    Matthew Flannagan.

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  17. Your comment conflates "reasons" and "arguments". (We think the wife-doubter is insane precisely because we recognize that he has every reason to believe that she exists. It's a well-grounded belief.)

    On your main point ("there are probably still things about P1's stance which are more valuable"), we've already granted that existence-beliefs may have instrumental value. You've effectively claimed that faith is preferable to doubt; but again, this is irrelevant to the question at hand, namely whether faith is preferable to (genuine, well-grounded) knowledge.

    Your other comments would be better placed over at the post they're responding to.

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  18. Of course belief in their existence is a precondition for having other attitudes (e.g. trust) towards them. But that could be achieved just as well if their existence was known for certain. And it hardly seems plausible that faith in mere existence has any independent value.

    I don't see that it would need to be independent value; it just needs to have a value of its own, even if derivative, that would be missing from the knowledge case. (I also think your framing it in terms of whether faith is preferable to knowledge is misleading. The question is not whether faith is preferable to knowledge in general, but whether there are cases where, due purely to circumstances, there would be special value in faith rather than knowledge. The TV-theist, I take it, is not committed to any universal claims about faith and knowledge, but only that under some conditions not knowing would leave more room for some valuable contribution to life than knowing. Whether this is so or not would depend more on the circumstances of this particular case than on general comparison of faith and knowledge.)

    I think you can make at least a prima facie case for scenarios in which it would have some value if 'trust' is understood in certain ways, along the lines I sketched above. (E.g., in terms of loyalty to rather than, as you seem to take it, confidence in.)

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  19. Matthew Flannagan3:18 am, July 04, 2007

    Richard

    The example you give in your post is this:

    "Skeptic: "Doesn't it bother you that there's no real evidence that God even exists?"

    Christian: "Not at all. If God gave us proof, there'd be no room left for faith!""

    Here the Christian states that
    believing on the basis faith is preferable to believing on the basis of “proof”. The term “proofs for Gods existence” usually refers to the classical *arguments* for the existence of God such, as the cosmological, ontological, teleological, moral arguments for Gods existence. Moreover when sceptics argue there is no evidence for Gods existence they usually justify this claim by criticising the above mentioned arguments. Hence I would interpret the words “evidence” and “proof” in this exchange as refering to arguments.

    If this is the case the believer is not claiming that faith is preferable to believing on the basis of any grounds at all, he is claiming its preferable to believing on the basis of “arguments”.

    If that’s how you interpret the Christians claim then I think my P1-P2 example works. It’s not always true that believing on the basis of argument or proof ( in the sense of argument) is preferable to believing in something in the absence of such arguments.

    Of course you could interpret the word “proof” in the believer’s statement as referring to any sort of ground at all. But I doubt that’s a charitable interpretation of the Christians words. This interpretation is certainly at odds with how faith is understood in major theological and philosophical Christian traditions. Where Faith is often contrasted with proof in the sense of demonstrable by argument but it is not understood to be “groundless” in the sense you mention.

    So I am inclined to respond, by saying either the believer means by “proof” "argument" in which case my counter example works or he means “grounds of any sort” in which case the whole exercise is simply an attack on a caricature of his position.

    Matthew Flannagan

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  20. Obviously I'm arguing against the popular conception of faith (as represented in the popular medium of TV), not the theologian's. That doesn't make it a "caricature", since an awful lot of people actually endorse that position. (Hence the label, "popular".)

    Brandon - the 'loyalty' conception is fine for de re trust. But I can't see any coherent way to have loyalty towards a mere proposition ('God exists'). This highlights the crucial distinction between the two kinds of "trust" -- a distinction that's elided in your earlier talk of how "part of trusting in you involves trusting that you are there to trust in." (Cf. "Part of being loyal to you involves loyally... um....")

    "it just needs to have a value of its own, even if derivative, that would be missing from the knowledge case."

    Yes, that's what I meant. Isn't it obvious that there's no extra value here that's missing from a case where one is loyal to a God they know exists?

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  21. To a pragmatist, epistemic choices are ethical choices, so Chris’ explanation might still work.

    But even if epistemic choices are not ethical, they can have instrumental value. People develop more emotional commitment to things that require personal decisions, even if those decisions are purely epistemic. If you can prove, coldly, that God exists, He may indeed be an even better god than one merely believed in by faith, but your commitment to your religion won’t be as strong as if you have to make the choice to believe in God.

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  22. Hmm, I dunno, isn't the relevant "personal choice" the one to become a practicing Christian? This shouldn't be affected by whether the prerequisite mere belief was 'chosen' or forced by the evidence.

    In any case, I have a lot of trouble with the idea of a "chosen" belief -- it seems incoherent to me. Belief is conceptually tied to judgment of what's true; to believe that P, is to judge that P is true. But of course I can't choose what is true, so (knowing this) I can't "choose" what to judge is true -- it wouldn't be a sincere epistemic judgment! So, it's psychologically impossible to believe at will. The moment I realize that my belief is without epistemic grounds, I cease to judge that it must be true, i.e. I cease to believe it.

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  23. It seems to me that you’re denying the very possibility of faith – which would make your original question meaningless. Or, rather, it would make your argument either circular or trivial: if you assert as self-evident that only (involuntary) judgment can be a valid basis for belief, then of course it follows that belief based on proof (which forces judgment) is always better than belief based on intentional faith, since the latter is more or less assumed to be impossible.

    To be psychologically accurate, I would suggest that belief is neither entirely voluntary nor entirely involuntary, and to the extent that is in fact (whether rightly or wrongly so) voluntary, you are sneaking in an ethical premise when you tie belief so tightly to judgment. In your opinion, it may be ethically wrong to have beliefs that disregard judgment, but it is surely not impossible!

    I do think that the decision to believe in God (or to believe in a particular conception of God), rather than the decision to become a practicing Christian, is the more important personal choice. One often hears of Christians who backslide, as it were, operationally, that is, they stop being practicing Christians, but they retain their belief, and eventually God saves them from some form of addiction, and they become practicing Christians again, knowing that God was with them all along. In that case, the choice to have faith is what ultimately drives the choice of Christian practice, and indeed the latter is not entirely voluntary.

    Here’s another way to think about it: faith is more a feeling than an intellectual state. It is a feeling that is both hedonically and ethically useful. You can’t have that feeling (at least, not as powerful a version of it) if you think the existence of God is proven. You might object that feelings are mushy and irrational, but what point is there to philosophy (or any other pursuit) if feelings (someone’s feelings) aren’t the ultimate objective?

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  24. knzn:
    i'm interested to know what you mean by a "voluntary" component to belief.

    in my mind, a pseudo-"voluntary" belief is one to which i will myself as a result of my desires or prejudices. it seems obvious to me that many people believe in god because they would much prefer that he exist. such a belief isn't "voluntary" in a strict sense; a person does not consciously choose to accept it. however, it is distinct from ordinary beliefs (e.g., my belief that it is 7:45) in that it seems plausible to the believer, not only in view of evidence (indeed, there may be no such evidence!), but as a result of feelings influencing judgment. we typically hold many such beliefs; for instance, parents often think that their children are charming or talented, not because they have reason to believe that their kids are exceptional, but because they love them.

    so, when i hear you invoke "voluntary" beliefs, i think of motivated beliefs. implicit in my reasoning, of course, is that motivated beliefs are broadly undesirable (perhaps not in the case of loving parents, but generally); they are essentially delusions. however, i take it that you do not frame the "choice" to believe in god in such negative terms, which is why i'm curious as to what you could possibly mean by the word.

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  25. An example of a voluntary belief might be an intentional belief that a certain medicine one is taking is effective in treating ones condition. The evidence on such matters is seldom overwhelming, but the mind tends to think in terms of propositions that are either true or false, and in this case (because of the placebo effect) it’s useful to choose “true” instead of a vague “maybe.” Belief is never entirely voluntary, but we can choose to make mental assumptions, which are then more likely to become beliefs than if we hadn’t chosen to make them.

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  26. This exposes something I call "the Douglas Adam's definition of Faith". Until 'Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' the idea that 'faith' means 'belief in the absence of evidence' and that the presentation of evidence would mean the end of faith was virtually unknown as a true definition of 'faith'. But his tongue-in-cheek description of the babel fish made it quite common in some circles.

    In reality, very few committed Christians would ever say anything like your TV example. The majority of Christian groups, especially the Catholic, Orthodox, and Episcopal groups, define faith as the Latin word 'fidere' - 'trust'.

    This is not meant to mean trust in the *existence* of God, but that God will honor the covenant with Man that is the basis of Judeo-Christian religion.

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