Faith vs. Evidence in the Evaluation of Claims

 In Building Knowledge

Since life is so often filled with uncertainty and confusion, many people turn to faith in order to provide more fulfilling purpose and meaning to their lives.  There are things that we don’t know and can’t know, and some people fill these gaps through leaps of faith.  It is necessary to clarify what is meant by “faith” in this context.  In some contexts, faith refers to an ongoing relationship between people where each party has certain obligations to the other and to break such obligations is therefore said to be “unfaithful”.  Faith may also refer to certain types of community involvement or rituals.  In this context, it simply means dogmatically believing in an idea despite the lack of evidence or even in the face of counterevidence.  This is also referred to as “blind faith” to distinguish it from the other senses of the word.

If we take account of the things that we can know with utter certainty on the basis of evidence alone, we would not honestly come up with a very long list.  The truth is that we only directly perceive bits and pieces of information and that our minds bring it together to construct our conception of reality.  Some will argue that this entails that it is inevitably one’s faith that binds together the otherwise meaningless and disconnected bits of information that are perceived so that a full and meaningful picture of reality can be possible in our minds.  Such lines of reasoning are mistaken because it is possible for one to go through the mental process of conceptualizing reality on the basis of evidence and without resorting to blind faith.  We can acknowledge that there isn’t always an abundance of evidence that ties our sensory information together and it isn’t always clear how the laws of nature work within the greater universe.  However, we do at least have sufficient evidence to come to reasonable conclusions about these matters, and this process does not require a leap of faith.

There is a spectrum of degrees of epistemic justifiability that can apply to any conclusion that we might come to.  At the low end of the spectrum, where evidence is not considered, is blind faith.  At the other end are situations where an abundance of evidence provides undeniable proof and where there is no possibility of reasonable doubt.  The latter is not often possible in life, but we nonetheless can utilize the evidence available to us to make reasonable conclusions.  If one believes in a claim, account, or narrative that cannot be proven but nonetheless has some evidence in its favor, then this has a higher level of epistemic justification than other scenarios wherein one simply accepts these things based on blind faith.  Anytime someone comes across a claim, account, or narrative, they can consider the evidence and determine if anything can be found to support it.  If none can be found, then the most reasonable option is to simply not accept the information.

Although there are many people in the world who believe in some sort of so-called holy scriptures, the reason given by such people usually rests on their own faith rather than on evidence.  A sober assessment of this would have to classify such belief as dogmatic.  It is possible that some holy scriptures can be supported by strong historical or scientific evidence.  Indeed, there are portions of each of the foundational scriptural books of every major world religion that does stand up to such scrutiny.  There are actual historical events recorded in the Jewish Old Testament (Tanakh), the Christian New Testament, the Islamic Qur’an, and in some of the central books of Hinduism and Buddhism as well.  However, the firm belief that everything written in a book is entirely true is very unreasonable and dogmatic.

An example of having dogmatic faith in an idea would be when one believes in the afterlife because of a claim someone else made or that was written in a book, despite them never having seen any evidence of someone living after they die.  It is still conceivable that a person could logically conclude that there is some sort of life after death, but this conclusion would have to somehow be logically implied from empirical data.  If one simply believes in the afterlife even though they have no empirical or logical evidence in favor of this, then this belief would have to be the product of blind faith.  An example of faith in the face of counterevidence would be if someone believed that the world was created in seven days, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that this process took much, much longer.

Although some people talk about having “strong faith” or “insufficient faith”, often in religious contexts, a better way of thinking about faith is to consider each individual claim on its own merits and also how different claims are dependent upon each other.  It should be possible for one to isolate anything that they believe and to determine whether or not this idea by itself has evidence in its favor.  Either a given idea has evidence in favor of it, and thus does not require faith in order to believe it, or it lacks evidence, and thus does requires faith in order to believe it.  Most beliefs that one has, though, are dependent on other beliefs.  For example, if a person believes that the god Thor is responsible for the lightning bolts that come from the clouds, then this depends on this person also believing that Thor exists, and neither of these two ideas has evidence in its favor.  Therefore, in order for one to belief that Thor sends lightning bolts from the clouds, they must not only have faith in this idea but also have faith in all of the ideas on which this depends.  So sometimes for one to believe in some idea on the basis of faith, they must also believe in other ideas on which the original idea is dependent.

One must have faith in order to believe in a claim that is supernatural, unless it is somehow directly experienced.  It seems doubtful, but at least possible, that there are supernatural occurrences happening in the universe.  At least, we can say that anyone believing a claim or account of supposed supernatural events would have to be relying on faith if they did not also observe such phenomena.  The track record of the person or organization who produced the information is also relevant when assessing how reasonable are the claims that come from that source.  If a claim comes from a source that lacks credibility because it has provided misinformation in the past or because it is seen as lacking credibility among its peers, then there is less of a reason for one to believe the information that is coming from that source.  In such situations, for one to accept those claims, they must have faith that this person or organization is telling the truth.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

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