The Benefit of the Doubt

A blog about Dialogue, Doubts, and Christian Faith ~Travis Dickinson~

Faith is NOT an Epistemology

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We are sometimes told faith is a bad or unreliable epistemology. The idea seems to be that believing something on faith (you know, belief without evidence) is a terrible or unreliable way to arrive at the truth. Now I think this is a hot mess of confusion. First, I agree believing something without evidence is a bad approach to finding truth. But I don’t even think that faith is belief, much less belief without evidence. I think this is a terrible way of thinking of faith and one nobody should accept. Secondly, I don’t think faith is, in any interesting sense, an epistemology. It’s certainly related to epistemological issues (just as many philosophical issues have epistemological issues in the neighborhood), but it is not itself an epistemology and, thus, it can’t be a bad epistemology.

What is epistemology?

Let’s unpack. What does it mean to call something an epistemology? Strictly speaking “epistemology” is the study of the nature of knowledge and justification (or some cognate of justification, such as warrant). But I don’t think this is what a person has in mind here. It seems the term ‘epistemology’ is being used as a way of knowing. So, for example, forming beliefs on the basis of sense perception (such as seeing) is, for most, a reliable way of knowing. It’s reliable even though it is possible we are hallucinating or otherwise mistaken. We don’t typically get straightforward sense based beliefs wrong and, even when we do, the beliefs are still very rational to hold (more on this below). In short, seeing is a reliable epistemology.

So the claim seems to be that faith is a way of knowing and, as such, it is a bad way of knowing. Why think faith is an unreliable way of knowing? This is thought obvious because faith is understood in a way popular among internet atheists and uninformed Christians, namely, faith is belief without evidence. But as I’ve argued before (here and here) this is not the Christian notion of faith (even if some uninformed Christians are willing to embrace it). The Christian (and biblical) notion of faith is, as I’ve argued, ventured trust. It is where we place our lived out trust or faith in God.

Is faith a way of knowing?

When one talks about a way of knowing, one is talking about a basis upon which one believes. A belief can come in a variety of different ways. What makes it one way of (possibly) knowing versus another is upon what the belief is based.  If the basis makes one’s belief likely true, then this is a proper epistemic basis and the belief is justified. If it doesn’t make the belief likely, then it is unjustified.[1] For example, if I believe that p on the basis of wishful thinking, then I have no good reason for thinking that p will be true. It’s too easy (and common) for what I wish to be the case to turn out false. Just ask a diehard sports fan whose team typically doesn’t do well! Despite their wishing it to be the case, year after year, it just isn’t.

Contrast this to visual experience. When I believe that p on the basis of clearly seeing p, it is not easy for my belief to be false. If I look out my window and see a tree and believe, on the basis of this experience, that there is a tree out my window, then it will very likely be true. It’s possible that someone has placed a realistic cardboard cutout of a tree outside my window (in which case, my belief is false) but this is an extraordinary situation.

When we think about faith as a basis for belief, it’s difficult to know what that even means if we think of faith as ventured trust. Think about this. What is it to believe on the basis of faith? It seems this should be reversed. We typically venture on something or someone once we have good reason to believe in its or their trustworthiness. I came to believe that my wife is extremely trustworthy early in our relationship. But this intellectual belief preceded my genuinely placing my trust in her.

Likewise, there are many who have come to the place of Christian belief, but they have never ventured on Christ. They may even believe Jesus was born of a virgin and rose from the dead (showing up to church on Christmas and Easter), but have never made that step of genuine faith.

It all turns on the definition of faith

But this all turns on how we understand the term ‘faith.’ As I understand it, there’s a medieval notion that understands faith as a direct confrontation of God. If that’s how one understands it, then, sure, faith can be the basis of belief. But this has always struck me as a strained use of the notion. If faith is just wishful thinking without evidence, then, again, I’d agree that is an inappropriate basis for our Christian beliefs.

If one thinks of faith as a species of trust, then it seems to follow faith is NOT a way of knowing. That is, faith is not an epistemology.

[1] For my epistemologist readers, I’m glossing over a lot of issues in epistemology for simplicity’s sake.

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