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Sunday, July 31, 2011

What Would a Faith-Based Epistemology Involve?

I fear I may have jumped the gun recently.  I delved right into analyzing faith-based epistemology vs science without first providing a very detailed account of either.  So I'm going to take a brief hiatus from my faith-bashing agenda in order to examine these two ideas.  In this article, I'm going to examine how one might develop a method for obtaining new beliefs that relies (at least in part) on faith.  In the next article, I'm going to assess the pros and cons of the ideas I develop here.  After that, I'll start explaining the way science works.  Along the way, I will look at various ideas about the compatibility and relative scope of science and religion.

I've said before that faith alone doesn't actually constitute a beliefs system.  Rather, it's faith in something that gives you a set of beliefs.  So if the religious are championing faith as an epistemology, they need to tell us how to use faith not just to support a belief that I've already obtained, but to figure out what to believe in the first place.  After all, if something faith-based is really going to function as an epistemology, then it needs to be capable of doing more than simply pointing out whether some presented belief system passes or fails.  That's a benchmark.  An epistemology has to do more than that.  It has to take the pass/fail responses of the benchmarks involved (faith, in this case) and figure out what beliefs to present next.  An epistemology must do something to help illuminate the path from Fail beliefs to Pass beliefs.

This may seem trivial at first glance.  I suspect theists may be inclined to say that the faith-based epistemology tells you exactly where to go.  After all, the faith benchmark is faith in something.  When you belief Fails the benchmark, you are supposed to start believing in set of things that define the benchmark.  Belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster obviously fails the benchmark of the typical Christian faith, in which case the purported epistemology clearly indicates that you should abandon this belief and start believing in God and Jesus and all that jazz.  That's a pretty clear path, right?

Well, okay, in that case, sure.  But what about less direct cases?  How about cryptography?  (For those of you who don't know, cryptography is basically the art of disguising messages, such as via letter-by-letter substitutions.)  In the US, there was once a fairly long battle over whether or not certain computerized cryptographic techniques should be made illegal (fun fact, at one point this debacle actually led to it being ruled illegal to "export" certain bits of math).

Should a particular cryptographic system (say, RSA) be legal for exportation?  I pose this question to the faith-based epistemology.  Not something so utterly obvious (to the epistemology) as "should I believe in a different religion?"  I am unaware of any holy text passage or official church position on matters of cryptography.  So all you champions of a faith-based belief-producing mechanism, how do I use your epistemology to determine a stance on this once heated political topic?

Now I can already anticipate one fully justified response.  There are, of course, many questions that are very difficult (though not necessarily impossible) to address scientifically, and yet I am still championing science.  The religious may very well say that the difficulty a faith-based epistemology has in answering this question is not necessarily an indicator of a failure of the epistemology.

So let's go further and try to understand why this question is difficult to address in a religious manner. The problem, as I see it, is that nothing in the set of "things I have faith in" has any immediate and obvious relation to the legalization of computer cryptography.  This seems to hold for most if not all of the faith-based belief systems out there.  The vast majority of them were developed before cryptography was widely used, and even most of the newer systems seem to make no mention of, well, anything digital.  So in order to assess the question of computer cryptography in a way that uses faith, the religious must first come up with some way to link computer cryptography with something they already have faith in.

This link, whatever it may be, isn't just faith.  After all, it's a link from what the religious  have faith in to something outside the current purview of that faith.  And it's not just this question that requires such a link. Any question substantially outside the purview of things already believed as a matter of faith is going to require the believer to extrapolate.  It's going to require the believer to find some way of going from what is already believed through faith, to something that is not yet believed through faith.  So the difficulty in answering the question about cryptography is indicative of something that needs to be addressed.  A faith based epistemology needs some sort of link-producing mechanism.

One possibility for addressing this issue is to use some non-faith method to analyze these ideas.  These people will have faith in some small group of statements like "god exists," and may have faith some answers to questions that science and logic haven't currently figured out, but they generally accept the things that science and logic have figured.  They also tend to accept the idea that we should use science and reason for a significant portion of our epistemological concerns, but maintain faith for the things where these other methods don't work.

This idea is compatibilistic, by which I mean that it sees science and faith as compatible.  It has often been referred to as "god of the gaps," which refers to the way in which the religion's god (or other supernatural entity) is inserted into the gaps of our scientific knowledge.  The idea often goes hand-in-hand with NOMA, which stands for non-overlapping magisteria.  NOMA is the idea that the questions addressed by science and the questions addressed by religion do not overlap.  NOMA is pretty much how this method achieves compatibility.

The problem that makes this idea untenable is that it doesn't actually use a faith-based link.  It retains faith in a small set of statements, but the statements that rely on faith never grows, because all the growth occurs through science.  In this way, there isn't actually any faith involved in the epistemology; it's only involved in the initial set of beliefs.  More to the point, what about those cases where science doesn't work? (assuming they exist).  The above idea says we're supposed to use faith in these methods, but it doesn't tell us how.

Another idea that actually does serve the necessary purpose is divine revelation (it's usually divine, but there are some religions that rely on non-divine revelations).  The religious may maintain that in the event that knowledge of some new matter is required, some prophet or other will receive the answer directly from the divine, or perhaps each individual can pray and thereby receive the answer directly from the divine.  Either way, the basic idea is that some higher entity (typically supernatural and conscious) provides us with the information.  This idea is reflected in religions that encourage meditation (used in the sense of obtaining a connection to some higher entity, be it the divine, nature, the cosmos, or whatever) and/or praying for guidance as well as in the various prophets involved in religions.

The second method actually uses faith in the act of obtaining new beliefs, whereas the first method only seems to use faith to retain old beliefs.  On the other hand, very few religious people seriously contend that divine revelation is the only way we obtain new information.  The vast majority of people tend to combine the two ideas.  This results in a system where science is applied where we can apply science while divine revelation is anticipated where we can't.  This combination is also compatibilistic and relies on NOMA.  In this sense, the faith-based epistemology is offered as a supplement to science, rather than a competitor.  I think this combination system best represents the ideas held by religious moderates in America.

Lastly, I should point out that the nature of the revelations involved must be such that they do not allow us to justify the belief using science or logic.  In addition to destroying NOMA, such a revelation would undermine the whole notion of a faith-based epistemology because belief in the epistemology's conclusions would not require faith.  One could easily see such a "revelation" as merely a burst of inspiration that does not come from some divine, supernatural, or otherwise "higher" entity, but rather from the mind of the human being involved.  If we can justify the conclusion with science or logic, then there's no need to reference "comes from a higher entity" in order to retain the belief.  In such a system, we can do away with the higher entity (at least in the context of the new idea) and obtain exactly the same result with fewer pieces involved.  So in order actually make use of faith, faith that the higher entity provided the revelation and faith in the higher entity's accuracy need to serve as the justification for belief in the thing being revealed.

That's all I have time for tonight.  Next week (it might be the week after.  I have family visiting next weekend and may have to throw up some filler) I will attempt a critical analysis of this system.


  1. I'd agree that faith fails as a means of obtaining knowledge, but I think you are wrong as to why. Your example of using faith as a means of deciding if strong crypto should be legal for export is an example of special pleading. You are arguing that because faith does not provide guidance to solving this problem, it is not a problem solving methodology. That would be like saying that mathematics alone is not a means of obtaining knowledge because is can't answer the question "What is a cat?" This does not cast doubt on the validity of mathematics, it's simply that the question "What is a cat?" is not within the purview of questions answered by mathematics. Biology (and the scientific method more generally) would be the framework to use in answering that question. You can have an epistemology with a defined scope.

  2. The paragraph immmediately after the crypto question points out your response (more or less) and calls it "fully justified." I'm only using the crypto example as a means to analyze what kinds of questions faith has difficulty with and how a faith-based epistemology (or a general, multi-epistemological system that includes a faith-based epistemology) might go about facing these difficulties.

    Basically, I made an "attack" against faith-based epistemologies for the sole purpose of strengthening the one I'm constructing. It was not a serious attempt to refute the epistemology. The goal of the excercise was to strengthen the position I attribute to the opposition so that I won't end up presenting a straw-man argument next week.

  3. Ah, Zaq, I don't see how that works. You are making an argument against faith-based epistemology that is not a serious attempt to refute faith-based epistemology? How exactly does that work?
    Also, you talk of strengthening the position that you attribute to the opposition so that you will not be committing a straw-man fallacy. The problem with a straw-man argument is that the position attributed is not the position held by it's proponents. You should not need to do anything other than state the position they hold, doing your best to be as accurate as possible, then make your own argument. You should not need to alter their position by weakening or strengthening it.
    I fully agree with you that faith-based epistemologies don't work, but the argument you are using to assert this is fallacious. It doesn't matter if you are using it to make a point in isolation or using it as a foundation for some later argument, a fallacious argument is a bad way to do either.

  4. My "opponents" hold way too many positions. I'm trying to attack the strongest of them. I guess straw-man may not have been the best phrase to use. On the other hand, if I were to develope and later refute an epistemology involving ONLY divine revelation, I think I would be criticised for making a straw-man argument.

    Though I know it doesn't work stylistically, your concerns may be addressed if you think of the post as being written by a theist trying to develop a faith-including epistemology. A common excercise in developing a position is to present and refute potential criticism in advance of the criticism actually being applied. That is basically the purpose of the crypto passage. It is fallacious against the position I end up with, but it is not fallacious against a "faith only" position, and thus it forces the faith-based epistemology to develop into a stronger position.