Is doubt opposed to faith? October 20, 2011Posted by shaunphilly in Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: doubt, faith, fear
Yesterday I wrote up some comments about doubt and faith. I am quite happy with it as it stands, but a question was emailed to me from an acquaintance that led me to wonder if I had not been sufficiently clear about one thing, so I wanted to publicly clarify a related question.
The comment emailed to me was this:
Doubt is not the opposite of faith – fear is the
opposite of faith
It was followed by a question about whether there is a difference between religious faith and the belief in things that you simply don’t know for sure or don’t have evidence for (yet, due to lack of sufficient information, etc).
I responded thus (edited to exclude unnecessary specific information):
I have heard that comment about faith, and I don’t buy it. I think that the fact that you don’t know [some specific fact] and faith in supernatural things, or at least things for which there is no evidence, are very different questions.
I make a distinction between a reasonable expectation and faith. Based upon your limited experience with me, your understanding of human behavior, etc you can assign some rough probability to my potential actions. You have empirical information upon which to make a guess, even if your certainty about it is shaky. But if you have a belief in a thing that you truly cannot prove, or at least that you do not have evidence to support or rational reason to accept, that is a qualitatively different question epistemologically.
Also, I would be cautious in using the word “prove” or “proof.” In questions of empiricism, such as science, we don’t ever prove things. We gather information, create a hypothesis to explain the information we have, and if that hypothesis stands up to scrutiny then we call it a “theory” which is further tested and stands or falls upon that further testing. But we cannot deductively prove such things because that is only applicable to purely logical/mathematical questions; things that only exist in the abstract. Questions such as what will happen in the real world are not subject to formal logic, and so cannot be proved. There is always room for doubt, even if it is very small.
So, to accept something like “there is a god” or “a soul exists” despite the lack of supporting empirical evidence is faith because faith is the belief in something despite the lack of evidence (or in the face of conflicting evidence). To believe something that has not yet been given support (in this case because it is a proposition about the future) is a probabilistic process; you can assign probabilities based upon experience with similar situations. But since we have no evidence which supports certain types of claims (like a soul, for example), we cannot assign any probabilities because we have no supporting data to work with. A probability assigned in such a situation would be purely fictional and arbitrary.
In short, they are not the same thing.
Fear is not the opposite of faith because it is possible to be in a position of believing something that you have no evidence for because of fear or at least while experiencing fear. Not that it must be the case, but that it is not logically incoherent. Therefore, they cannot be logically opposed. While doubt (the state of recognizing uncertainty about some question) is not the opposite of faith, is not easily consistent with it. My claim is not that doubt and faith are always incompatible or opposed, only that faith often does not long survive in the presence of doubt.
To truly doubt something means that the belief becomes mitigated. To be a skeptic (which includes doubt but is more than that) is the opposite of faith. Skeptics only believe a thing based upon evidence or reason. I am a skeptic first, and that leads necessarily to atheism and the lack of belief in many other spiritual or religious things (because of the lack of supporting evidence). Until supporting evidence is presented, this is the only rational conclusion for a skeptic. Someone who does not care about evidence to support their belief is not concerned with rational conclusions, so asking what would be rational in that case would be irrelevant.
I care what is true, and want to have as many true beliefs as possible. As a reuslt of this, I doubt things for which there is spurious or no evidence (often to the point of lacking belief in them). I still may believe untrue things, and am open to being shown that this is the case. I have not found this attitude to be true for many religious or spiritual people, although there are obviously many other exceptions to this observation.
I hope that clarifies my views on this.