Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Reason and Faith - Compatible? Apparently so

I came across a topic about whether or not faith and reason were incompatible. We all know my position - that they're the antithesis of one another. Someone disagrees, and left some comments saying so.

If by faith, we mean "belief without evidence" then it is not only compatible but also an indispensible part of our epistemic framework. 
"belief without evidence" is not at all incompatible with reason, it is actually the way that we form our foundational beliefs to build our epistemic framework. Ironically, if we believe science helps us explain the world as it truly is, we need to start with some basic beliefs that we take on fsith.

I, of course, objected. He further pulled solipsism into the debate, saying we had to take it on faith that reality was a true thing, and this isn't all just a simulation, etc. There was a smattering of other comments, but you get the idea.

Basically, his argument is that faith and reason are compatible, because reason requires faith to even get started - believing that reality exists, as well as that we must believe that our observations are consistent (such as gravity) across space and time... but we have to take that on faith first.

Kicking out Solipsism

First, let us dispense with the whole solipsism objection. It's a complete red herring. I don't know whether we're just brains in a vat or not... the "reality" I'm interacting with, whether truly real, or a simulation, has a set of rules. We're figuring out those rules as we speak.

We don't have to take anything on faith, because I'm not starting with a belief one way or another. I'm interacting with something that has rules. The question is, what are those rules? Science is how we figure it out.

It's not faith


This individual needs to become familiar with the concept of "hypothesis testing." A hypothesis isn't a belief. It's an assertion of a possible outcome, based on current data. Its primary purpose is to be tested, and return the results for analysis. I can formulate and test a hypothesis that it was a raccoon that tore open my garbage bags. That's not the same thing as positively believing it was.

The hypothesis would be structured something like "If it was a raccoon, we should be able to detect some residual radiation", or something.

Likewise, we don't simply assume that the universe is consistent (in fact some constants may vary across the universe). We can build a hypothesis, such as "If the universe is consistent, we should be able to apply the laws from our descriptive models and find they work repeatedly and consistently." We can test, and build a significant amount of evidence that the universe is consistently... consistent.


It's not something we had to first believe. Does he really think that, before science and modern epistemology, we weren't paying attention to reality? It was from direct observation that reality was consistent. This was something we understood from experience long before we had any concepts of science or epistemology.

Therefore, it's not faith.

Anything that's supported by sufficient evidence is not faith, definitionally. In that regard, we're not holding anything on faith.

The only way I can make the commenter's statements make sense is if we equivocate between not knowing something 100% absolutely true, and faith - but he himself defined it as a belief unsupported by evidence.

Core Assumption versus Ongoing Assumptions

Even if we were to concede that initial set of assumptions - mainly that reality exists and the universe is consistent - those would be the "core" assumptions. Meaning, those are the things that absolutely must be held as true before we can continue.

...But that's the exception, not the rule.

While we're imperfect, and we can't totally eliminate assumptions, that's not a license to make whatever assumptions you want, nor does it make assumptions an indispensable part of investigation.

That's insanity.

If anything, we go to great lengths to minimize assumptions as much as possible. The more assumptions we're making, the more likely we are to be wrong - it's the same with faith.

To say that faith in indispensable would mean that going around saying "I don't know what's in this box - I'm going to believe there's a goat in there, based on no evidence" is now valid epistemology.

That's insanity.

Faith is not a tool for understanding reality, even if we had to make one absolutely core assumption at the very beginning. That does not make it compatible with reason. There is nothing compatible between evaluating evidence and coming to conclusions (reason) and coming to conclusions without any evidence, or in the face of contrary evidence (faith). We're not merely talking about two concepts which don't get along. They are literally, definitionally, the complete antithesis of one another.

They're unambiguously mutually exclusive... and a supposed initial technicality doesn't nullify those differences.

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