Faith is a commonly used concept in casual discussions of epistemology. When faced with an intellectual dilemma that we can’t quite figure out, people often turn to this idea of faith. It’s as if we can start a logical argument, follow it step by step, and then the moment we reach something that is hard to solve, we might simply say, “well I guess you just have to have faith”. And often, such a statement is accepted as a sufficient explanation of any phenomenon. But why?
There seem to be all sorts of interesting and bizarre ideas out in the world about what faith is. There are many who belief that (1) faith is some sort of gut feeling about what is true and what isn’t, and then there are others who seem to think that (2) faith is the act of believing something in spite of reason. Still others believe (3) it is neither of these, and then there are those who believe (4) it is all of the above (including the latter!). But over arching all of these claims about what faith is, there exists a common thread: faith is a virtue.
As for myself, I don’t think it is possible for me to count belief against reason as a virtue. Indeed, I feel compelled (from my gut) to think quite the opposite; that is, that honest scholarship and intellectual searching for truth are virtues, and that supposing things to be true just because you want them to be is a vice.
There is, however, something to be said for each side of the argument, and therefore, I should think that faith might have at least a few definitions, all of which function on different levels at different times, and perhaps even in ways that interact which each other definition.
As for the first definition, I might refer the reader to my post on “The Art of Thought.” It seems that there is a particular aesthetic of that which is true that pleases our higher desires more than falsehood, which might please our lower desires. Indeed, within the logical scope, we are made to assume that the human mind posses a natural inclination towards the truth (the inclination of logic), and so it doesn’t seem much of a stretch that our sense of aesthetic should have a similar inclination. Hence there is some merit to be found in the virtue of faith as it is a guttural instinct of what is true.
I of course mean this from a purely normative perspective. I do not see reason why a person might be right in thinking something is true about the physical realm due to instinct. For example, I would not think that someone could instinctively devise a model of quantum gravity that would properly solve the physical dilemma. That instead requires research and usage of empirical data (which cannot be formed in the gut–unless the subject matter is biology).
The second definition is, perhaps, the most troubling to me. How am I supposed to believe in that which my reason tells me is false? How am I even supposed to believe then, that such is a definition of faith? Am I supposed to even have faith regarding the definition of faith? All this seems ridiculous, for “sure he that made us, with such large discourse, / Looking before and after, gave us not that godlike capability and reason / to fust in us unused.”
However there is yet some merit in the claim. I would first refer the reader to my quixotic post, and see if the sort of valiant battle described there doesn’t fall under this definition of the virtue of faith. But aside from that, we might say there are at least cases in which one might believe something not in spite of his reason, but perhaps without reason.
If reason is a faculty of perception, like vision, then I can only use it on that which it perceives. I doubt everything I see, and it is only that which I cannot see that I cannot doubt. I cannot see whether my normative vision, my reason, is accurately portraying reality to me, and so I cannot rationally doubt that it is. “Faith is the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).
So all that is well, but I suspect faith of having even more compelling grounds than these. So far we have but addressed the nuances of faith, but on a more general level, all we have really formed is a definition of sanity, for of course a sane person will not believe something in spite of reason nor doubt something without reason, and perhaps not even think against his or her guttural inclinations. And all that might indeed be a virtue, but it seems a simple one–like the virtue of refraining to commit murder. And so I feel led to believe that faith is something more than just this.
Perhaps there is that part of faith which functions to determine what the mind can best think to be true, but the core virtue of faith is perhaps the act of willing the belief in such things. I have a friend who once told me, “hay aquellos que saben a dios, y entonces hay aquellos que lo conocen,” which roughly translates “there are those who know about God, and then there are those who know God personally.” He said it in Spanish so that he could use the verbs saber and conocer, which come from the Latin words sapere and cognoscere from whence we get “cognition” and “savant” respectively. There is no literal English translation for these words, but “saber” means, roughly, to know a thing or to know how to do something, while “conocer” means to know a person or place.
So what my friend was getting at is that there is a big difference between knowing that God exists and knowing him personally. Perhaps this distinction is something of the one that needs to be made between the simple side of faith as we have discussed it thus far and the profound part of faith. For it is one thing for me to be aware of God and to write blog posts about him, but it is an entirely different matter for me to know him as intimately as I do myself. The call to faith is one to not only be aware of the truth, but to trust in what is true. Not only must you know rationally that it is wisest for you to give your whole heart, mind, and soul over to God for him alone to keep, but you must actually do it.