Monday, May 05, 2008

The right word

"The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning." -- Mark Twain

Greta Christina has an excellent post on the difference between religious faith and skeptical faith. But she indulges in what I see as a form of sloppiness and imprecision unacceptably pervasive in atheist and skeptical writing: using the same word in formal expository writing to denote two fundamentally and substantively different concepts.

Lexicographers must explain all the meanings of any word, including the imprecise context-dependent uses employed in informal speech and writing. Since the the meanings of words such as "faith", "trust" and "confidence" show considerable overlap in informal use, the dictionary must enumerate all the various meanings. The informal overlap is trivially granted. But expository writing, where the writer makes a specific intellectual point, is not so informal. The writer has the time to choose his or her words carefully, and pick not just a good enough word but the best word for the job.

There's simply no excuse for using the word "faith" in writing to describe any sort of skeptical thinking. We have two perfectly good words, short words, words with commonly understood meanings, to describe skepticism: trust and confidence. If one needs to be even more precise, we can employ philosophical jargon: justification and warrant. When we want to talk about ideas that don't require rational justification, we can talk about our opinions and preferences.

The religious own the word "faith", it's their word, and they define its meaning. To even use the word to describe skeptical thinking is to equivocate, to concede too much, to concede to the religious the framing of the question, "How shall we best think?" as "What sort of arbitrary, unprovable beliefs should we adopt without regard to — or in spite of — the evidence?"

To describe skeptical thinking as a particular kind of faith is to put skepticism and atheism on the same menu, with equal status, as Christianity, Islam, Mormonism, Hinduism, New Age crystal woo-woo: just another arbitrary belief that deserves equal status. Throw all the provisos and differentiation you want, to call skepticism any kind of faith is call it just a different religion, separate but equal.

But skepticism isn't equal, it isn't just a different kind of religion. Skepticism is not a religion. It's not a faith. It's a way of thinking about the world that actually works; religion is a way of not thinking about the world.


  1. I think I agree with your point on expository writing, but not so much about faith. Here's how I put it to someone else:

    There are at least two different things that people call 'faith', and it is best to identify all of them. One of the two I can think of is trust, confidence, or whatever else it goes by. This is usually believed to be earned in some way--there is always a reason for someone having this sort of faith.

    The other kind of faith is the formation of an inference from statements and conditions insufficient to establish the inference.

    Religious faith is often a mixture of the two. However, the weak link in the chain is that the second kind of faith is used to "conclude" that a deity even exists. Only after that inference is made can the other type of faith occur. (Note that said inference is, in the vast majority of cases, made due to indoctrination and peer pressure, which aren't legitimate methodologies when it comes to ascertaining truth.)

    The second type of faith, which is really the only one we should be talking about due to faith's purported relationship with reason, I would not describe as 'beyond logic'. I would describe it as illogical. It goes against the basic principles of reasoning to make inferences where none are established. There is no virtue in jumping wildly to conclusions, and doing so with respect to deities is often done by arguing in a circle--you have to already be a believer to "justify" belief. This makes it idiotic and without merit, not virtuous.

    If something can't be argued except by emotion (which, sans reason, is the only other motivator for faith that I can think of), then everyone's willy-nilly claims hold the same status as anyone else's, and not only is there no reason to believe one unsubstantiated claim over another, but a barrier to effective communication is set up.

    Most religiously faithful people who argue for faith, if not all such people, tend to use reason in order to argue that faith is virtuous and reason is not needed. As should be obvious from this point and from everything else that can be thought of, humans have no way of communicating ideas and their truth except by the use of reason. It's just how the human mind works. To reject reason is to reject sanity.

    Faith is inevitable because we are not omniscient and function largely on induction. But to actually endorse wildly jumping to conclusions (i.e. faith) and to state that one is throwing reason out the window... these are ludicrous, and whoever does these things is loony.

    In the second-to-last paragraph I did make the mistake of implying that whoever argues for faith also argues against reason. Merely arguing for faith is just putting an upper limit on reason, artificial and arbitrary or not.

  2. Hi BB,

    I tracked over from your comment in Greta Christina's blog. I won't repeat all of what I said there except to note that I agreed with your critique. But part of my comment there is directly relevant to mark c.'s contribution above, so I will repeat myself a little bit:

    I find it particularly obfuscatory to characterize beliefs based on inferences with anything less than 100% certainty to be any sort of "faith." Justification for one's beliefs is not about - and should never be implied to be about - absolute certainty. Believing a claim which is a conclusion drawn from evidence and reason should not be termed "faith" simply because we cannot have all possible evidence and self-certifiably airtight reasoning. Certainty's hard to come by outside the realm of axiomatic abstractions like math and symbolic logic: In the altogether messier real world where we don't get to define ambiguity out of existence and set up all the rules and basic principles in advance, demanding absolute certainty is a sucker's game. The demand for certainty is usually no more than a bit of cheap theatrical rhetoric when aimed outward, and a transparent bit of rationalization when aimed inward. Calling belief based on anything shy of absolute certainty "faith" - however qualified - stretches even this malleable word's definition beyond recognition. Please stop.

  3. "As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality." -- Albert Einstein

  4. There's a big, substantive, fundamental difference — not just a difference of degree — between "not being 100% certain" and "having no actual evidence or rational justification whatsoever."

  5. Would it be more accurate, in your opinion, to say that faith is as I've described (the conclusion of an unsound argument) with the additional requirement that when one has faith in X, one has, at the very least, no reason to believe X over ~X?

  6. Mark C.

    when one has faith in X, one has, at the very least, no reason to believe X over ~X?

    That seems pretty close to the mark; the primary dictionary denotation of faith as belief without evidence or argument.

    We must also make an enormously important distinction, however, concerning the ambiguous and equivocal word, "belief"; in this context we are referring to a truth-apt belief, a belief with specifically propositional content.

    People have non-truth-apt ideas, such as opinions or preferences, which do not have propositional content; they are not truth-apt.


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