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Faith is not just an assumption

By Paul So ~

It is pretty common among religious apologists (as well as lay believers) to argue that we have faith all the time. A common argument they would use is the skeptical argument. They that if anything requires justification then so does reason and evidence, but to justify reason and evidence we have to provide a justification that is not from reason or evidence otherwise it would be circular. But we cannot find any justification for reason or evidence we simply have faith in them as much as someone might have faith in God. This argument is pervasive among lay believers who insist that we often have faith in many things such as our parents, airplane service, and law enforcers (although that one is questionable in some circumstances). They might go so far as to say that I have faith when I assume that my chair is not fragile so I sit on it.

The problem here is that they are equivocating the meaning of faith with making assumptions. While it is common between both believers and non-believers to see faith as a way to making assumptions I personally don’t think this is true. Faith does involve making assumptions but it is also more than that. Faith also involves commitment to the imperative that you cannot change certain assumptions under any circumstances because the assumption must be true. In that case the equation of faith is Faith = Assumption + Imperative that tells you not to change that assumption because it must be self-evidently true (notice that the relation between assumption and imperative are circular; Imperative says that the assumption must be true because it is true, and the assumption must be true because the imperative says so). The thing is that we all make assumptions many times in our lives; it’s usually the first step we take when we try to solve problems or learn something new. However in some of those times we learn that our assumptions are faulty or false in the face of new information so we change our assumptions in order to come closer to the right answer (or right solution). Making an assumption and then changing that assumption is fairly common in how we solve problems or find the right answers; we often do this when we realize that a certain approach in thinking does not help yield the right solution or answers so we realize the problem isn’t with reality but rather ourselves. This is how science also works: it starts with conjectures (i.e. hypothesis) about the world and then it tests those conjectures, if those conjectures are shown to be falsified then we change the conjecture in the face of new evidence.

My problem with faith is obviously not the first part which is making assumptions; again, we all make assumptions. My problem with faith lies more in the second part which is the commitment to the imperative to never change that assumption. It’s fine that we make assumptions as long as we are willing to change it in the face of new information but there is something wrong with intransigently holding unto that assumption in spite of new information. The reason is obvious: if we do not change our assumptions especially when evidence and arguments show that the assumptions are untenable then we won’t get close to the truth.

We learn that our assumptions are faulty or false in the face of new information so we change our assumptions in order to come closer to the right answerThe believer might argue that even if the definition of faith I presented is correct it still remains the case that we have faith in things like the existence of reality, that laws of nature cannot be violated (such as conservation of matter), reliability of induction, and existence of other minds. We not only assume that these things are true but we often treat those assumptions as if they are self-evident and we often make it an imperative not to change them. We also cannot take our trust off of reason and evidence; we often make it an imperative to trust in them. A response that can be given is that there are some assumptions we make about the world that are indispensable, in other words we cannot do without them. That the assumptions are indispensable should not be confused with the imperative not to change those assumptions. The reason is because the indispensability of that assumption is itself the reason not to change those assumptions, to change them we lose more progress in understanding the world than we gain. So to assume that the external reality exists, other minds exists, and induction is reliable are really indispensable because without them we cannot make any inferences, implications, and conjectures about the world and ourselves any further. The believer might argue that this is begging the question since to say that the assumptions are indispensable is to assume that the assumptions are self-evidently true. However this is not the case: for an assumption to be indispensable is for us to be able to make wide range of possible conjectures about the world which if otherwise we could not have done; we need the assumption in order to make more progress but that does not say that the assumption is therefore self-evident but rather something that we need in order to make sense out of the world. It could be the case that our world is essentially a simulation of an alien supercomputer; perhaps that’s the case but our assumption that the external world exists has helped us make conjectures that accurately describes and explains how that simulated world works. If we did find out that the world is simulated then we can change that assumption into something.

Faith is unwarranted not because it merely makes assumptions but because it makes it an imperative to not change that assumption even there are evidence and reasons that says otherwise. There are some ancient old assumptions that we never give up such as the existence of the external world but such an assumption is not something which we make an imperative not to change but rather it is indispensable to our understanding of the world. So no, we do not live by faith, we live by making assumptions yet allowing ourselves to change it when situations calls for it.