A common belief among rational, materialist adults is that faith is destructive. People like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins argue that all of our beliefs should be based on reason and evidence. By ignoring reason and evidence, they argue, faith allows people to believe all kinds of destructive falsehoods that end up having strongly negative human consequences. I used to think that way; I no longer do.
Like them, I believed that I should avoid faith. I tried living this way, and it didn’t work out well for me. As a result of this costly, years-long experiment, I have come to see that faith is a powerful tool. Like all tools, it’s neither good, nor bad, by itself. Whether faith is good or bad hinges on how you use it. The way I use faith is entirely congruent with both intuitive understandings of faith, as well as with reason and the values of rationality.
I’ll start with a definition here, since what I’ve ended up doing is discovering something that walks, talks, and acts so much like faith, there doesn’t seem to be a better word for it. A Google dictionary search says faith is ”complete trust or confidence in someone or something.” What I’ve been doing is almost the opposite of the opposite of faith. Instead of trusting in something, I simply don’t doubt the something. As I see it, Faith is a technique for avoiding wasted mental processing power. I believe it is rational to have faith in a proposition X, if I’ve spent a lot of mental effort considering “not X”, and have never gotten anywhere useful doing so. My definition of faith is therefore “having sufficiently strong bayesian priors in the total lack of utility in doubting X, that doubting X no longer occurs.”
Rational Inquiry Destroyed my Faith
I now have faith in an intelligible external reality that is far bigger than, and largely indifferent to, my thoughts. There’s no way I know of to prove that an external reality exists. No amount of evidence would be sufficient to prove that, for example, we aren’t living in a simulation that you can break out of by uttering the magic words. I spent years questioning the ‘reality’ hypothesis, trying to find the ‘cheat code’ that would let me escape physical reality and live in a world of my own mental construction.
All of those thoughts got me nowhere. Trying to “break out of reality” lead to some interesting and funny encounters, but was ultimately depressing, anxiety-inducing, and made my life increasingly worse each year I continued to think this way. Even though I could tell my life was getting worse, it felt impossible for me to change. I couldn’t just accept the idea that “a physical reality exists, with rules which don’t change over time,” because accepting this idea seemed very much like faith. I really didn’t want to have faith.
I grew up with faith in a bunch of different things: God, Jesus, America, and Markets. When I started to learn about formal logic, and explore what it meant for things to be true, my faith no longer worked for me. I could ask ‘why’ questions and get to axiomatic roots for mathematical truths. I could find mountains of coherent experience and evidence for physical truths. Belief in God didn’t have that property. After asking “why” enough times, I could not find any arguments that I found convincing. Every single argument I found asked me to believe something that I didn’t have evidence for, and couldn’t find a logical justification for.
I experienced the pain of losing my faith. I felt increasingly anxious about the nature of the world as a whole. I didn’t want to have faith in something that would get broken again. I wanted to understand the truth. Like a lot of people, I saw faith as being in opposition to truth. You could have faith in anything, so how could you ever feel confident having faith at all?
And so, like a lot of young people, I threw out my faith in God, Jesus, America and Markets. Unlike most people I knew, I kept going and threw out faith in things like “right and wrong,” because I could find no evidence that these things existed in an objective sense.
I couldn’t understand the mentality of people who said that belief in God requires faith, and thus rejected it, but then somehow were able to continue believing that “right and wrong” meaningfully exist in a material universe full of suffering. All the empirical evidence I had encountered best leant itself to the explanation that we are evolved primates competing for scarce resources. Any “laws of morality” were just human constructs, not objective truths. How could we meaningfully argue that some actions are “wrong” without starting with some base assertion that right and wrong exist? What evidence could there possibly be for such a belief?
I ran as long and hard as I could in the direction of “only believe things for which you have massive amounts of evidence, or can prove logically.” I had known for a while you cannot give evidence for the existence of an objective, external reality. You can’t prove logically that it exists, either. Eventually, it seemed like the last untried wall in the intellectual room I knew I was trapped in. Sure, the evidence we have from the past fits with this model the best. But why should we believe that the nature of reality won’t change tomorrow? And why should we believe our memories haven’t been tampered with? What reasons could we possibly have?
Sure, science has let us do some incredible things. I saw science as being nothing but a compressed description of all the observations humans have made. This is similar to something Elon Musk believes, apparently. If science is just a way of compactly telling the story of what has happened so far, why shouldn’t we believe the story won’t suddenly change?
Faith in Something is Absolutely Necessary
It is a form of faith which allows a materialist to assert, with confidence, that gravity will continue to work the same way tomorrow, as it does today. What evidence could there possibly be that the laws of physics won’t change tomorrow? Saying “they haven’t changed up until now” does us no good, unless we believe a priori that the past predicts the future. Materialism itself is a form of faith. Being a faith doesn’t make materialism faulty as a belief system. It argues that faith can’t be discarded, even by rigorous materialists. The only question is what you have faith in.
The reason I shouldn’t believe the story won’t suddenly change, is that it doesn’t help me to believe this. In other words, I don’t explore this hypothesis because the act of exploring that hypothesis doesn’t help me. In Buddhism, there’s the idea of right speech. “Say only what is true and useful.” The fact that something is true doesn’t make it a good idea to say it – or to think about it.
The choice of what to have faith in can be seen as an instrumental choice, such as what tool to use. The idea of beliefs as tools might seem odd to someone who says they value the truth. Shouldn’t you strive to believe only what is true, and all of what is true?
This where I remind the reader that humans are computers, and thus we have limited computational capacity. If we had infinite computational capacity, then faith would be unnecessary. If we had infinite computational capacity, we would be capable of believing all things which are true, and simultaneously exploring all possible hypotheses. We don’t have infinite computational capacity, however. We can only use our brains to do so much. Considering some hypotheses gets us nowhere. That’s why it makes sense not to bother considering hypotheses if we have already spent a lot of time considering them, and never benefitted as a result. We have limited attention, and wasting our attention is irrational.
The scarcity of our focus and attention is insurmountable. Even the wealthiest, most successful people in the world – with all of their access to money and power – still have the same limits imposed on their time and attention. The only way to avoid being kept down by this limit is to use your time and attention as wisely and effectively as you possibly can. Arguably, all of personal growth fits into this category: how are you organizing your thoughts, moment to moment? Only thinking true things is just step one; the next step is to think the most helpful true things, in a given moment.
Arguably, you’d be better off believing some false things, from time to time, if doing so allowed you to believe more useful true things on a consistent basis. You might do more to advance the cause of truth, by periodically believing false things, than by limiting your mind to thinking only known, true facts.
Someone who spends all day with their mind packed full of facts about a specific variety of fungus won’t be able to do much in the world, unless the only facts relevant to their functioning as a human being have to do with this fungus. Even professors of abstruse subjects have to understand how to write grant letters and appease administrators and coax graduate students and take care of their health and pay their taxes. Some facts and hypotheses are just more useful than others.
Because not all facts are equally useful, It’s totally reasonable and evidence-based to say “I won’t bother considering this hypothesis because it doesn’t seem like the best use of my time right now.”
You can’t simultaneously evaluate all possible hypotheses. The time and attention I spent asking whether there were some way to escape reality would have been better spent investigating what it felt like to do various kinds of exercises, or how much better I felt when I eat fewer carbohydrates. Worrying about certain concepts has never helped me. I have accumulated sufficient evidence to have decided not to worry about these things ever again. That decision simplifies things dramatically. That decision saves extremely limited cognitive resources. That decision is faith.
A Decision not to Doubt
My journey back into faith started with “reality itself”. In early 2013, I stopped questioning whether or not we are really living in this physical system which consistently follows mathematical rules. Instead of wondering about this, I focused on trying to understand the implications of all these different rules. My faith stayed at this level for years. The big change came recently, within the past few months.
My wife and I have often disagreed over how to discipline our three year old daughter. When my wife would get upset with our daughter, I often wanted to intervene. Whenever I actually did this, I just made things worse. Finally, I wrote down some rules for myself. The first rule I wrote down was “Trust your wife.” I realized that by interfering in the middle of a situation, it just made things worse. Even if I don’t agree with what she’s doing at the moment, I can’t improve things by trying to correct her. As I wrote this down, I realized what I was describing was faith. I needed to have faith in my wife.
I didn’t want to use that word, at first, because I felt like what I was doing was different. It wasn’t that I suddenly felt my wife could do no wrong. It was more that I saw the accumulated evidence. Worrying never helped, even if the objects of worry might be real. Doesn’t faith mean something like “an unshakeable belief that something must be true”, rather than “an unwillingness to consider certain hypotheses?” The main difference I could see was that with the kind of faith I’m practicing, there isn’t really a belief at the center. It isn’t that I think “my wife can do nothing wrong in disciplining our child.” I just know that there’s no utility in thinking she is doing something wrong, and then telling her this in the moment.
I had to spend a few days thinking about this before I realized this faith seemed close enough to the kind of faith religious people have, that I should just use the same word.
If you really pin me down and ask me, I’ll tell you it’s not the case that I’m confident the rules of reality won’t change tomorrow. I’m open to the possibility that they do change tomorrow. I just don’t worry about it, because I know the worrying isn’t going to help me.
This is a great spot to mention that there’s a third way, between believing the proposition X, and believing the proposition “Not X.” I simply remain agnostic. I’m not certain there is no God. I’m not certain there is. I am totally open to the possibility that the world was created by an intelligence much greater than mine, and that all of my actions are being judged or evaluated according to some metric. If that ends up being true, I hope this being sees the reasoning behind why I do what I do. If that being is reasonable, I suspect they’ll like some of what I do, and dislike other aspects of what I do, and that they won’t fault me for not knowing exactly what it is that they want, and instead pursuing values that make sense to me and seem roughly aligned with both general human intuition, as well as every major world religion. If that being is unreasonable, nothing I do about it could matter. I’m also totally open to the possibility that the world’s existence is a consequence of mathematical truth’s necessity, that the laws of physics are just one region of a giant mathematical structure that contains all truth – that there’s no creator, and after I die, that’ll be that for me. I remain agnostic to the question, and don’t bother worrying or wondering either way.
If the moon snuggles up next to the earth tomorrow, and all of the clouds turn into cotton balls, and animals start walking on two legs and talking, and all of our machines mysteriously stop working, I’m not going to sit around and figure out what’s going on. I won’t despair of having my reality model broken. That’s happened enough times for me to learn that it doesn’t really matter. I’ll focus on securing food and water for my immediate family, making sure my neighbors are OK, and then trying to contact my extended family. Everything else will be a lower priority, and I’ll trust that my epistemic framework will repair itself in time, once I’ve gathered sufficient evidence in the new regime.
This is easier said than done, of course. I still do worry, from time to time. What it looks like, in practice is, the moment I notice myself worrying, I remind myself “this worrying isn’t helpful”. I then adjust my posture, stretch, and take a deep breath, and smile – using bodily association to steer my mind back into a helpful course.
The more I have repeated this practice, the easier it has become. It was extremely difficult at first. Every time I do so, it gets easier. There are limits to how strong your muscles can grow. I suppose there are limits to how strong mental habits can be as well, but I’m not certain there. What would you call it if you become increasingly able to steer your mind in a positive direction, and increasingly able to drop worries as they enter your consciousness? This seems to be exactly what most people would call “having extremely strong faith.”
Accepting Religious Faith as Rational
I don’t believe there’s an all-powerful deity who has a plan specifically for me. I do believe that, regardless of the circumstances I find myself in, if I resolve to better the situation, I will be able to find concrete actions that will better the situation. The prescriptive results of both of these beliefs are the same: I worry less, and focus more on how I can better my situation.
When two theories produce the same predictions, I think it makes sense to consider these two theories the same, and see them as being “translations” of each other. So If someone says they have faith in a deity that loves them and takes care of the world, I don’t see how this is destructive or harmful. If we can’t persuade them to do things like take care of the environment, maybe we should try speaking their native language and asking whether we have a responsibility to take care of the world created for us.
If someone has faith in something that isn’t true, this could be interpreted as a statement that every time they have considered the alternative, it’s so distressing and worrying that it prevents them from functioning. That’s exactly what it was like for me to lack faith in material reality. If we really need people to let go of faith in false beliefs, we need to make it as easy as possible for them to let go. Mocking them for having faith is only going to make the faith stronger because we’re further increasing the difficulty of letting go. The approach of trying to talk people out of their faith doesn’t seem rational to me. It sounds more like a faith argument of a fervent missionary, who insists the entire world would be better if everyone just believed what he believes.
The insistence on virally propagating any mindset is destructive. It’s like saying every computer should run Windows 10, when many computers don’t have the hardware to run Windows 10! It’s better for each individual computer to run an OS and applications based on its hardware and capabilities. Likewise, it’s much better for individual people to believe what they are capable of believing. My worldview requires intense scientific understanding with a lot of mathematical intuition. I can’t possibly expect most people to reason about configuration spaces, the curse of dimensionality, or uncomputability as it applies to moral thinking. I don’t think we should be steamrolling other people’s oversimplified models of the world, even if they are believing in spherical cows that sometimes roll about. Insisting everyone view things in the same way strikes me as far more destructive than people believing, a priori, that they are loved, that they will be OK, and there is a meaning to life even if it isn’t intuitive in the present difficult circumstances.
One of the strongest values that comes out of materialism is diversity. We see, over again, how ecosystems flourish when they have a diversity of life, and they suffer when the diversity is destroyed by a monoculture. I believe I have benefitted immensely from studying the values and beliefs in Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, the Bahá’í faith and other belief systems. I believe our world is richer for their presence. I think the proper, rational, materialist attitude towards faith should be to delight in the diversity of the intellectual ecosystem, just as we delight in the many species of beetles, or the large numbers of meteorological and astronomical phenomena. These are all fascinating manifestations of the laws of physics. We shouldn’t be trying to push our ideology over all others, any more than we should try to replace all animals with humans.
If we were a race of intelligent aliens, who never had faith and only believed in what we could see or hear or touch, and we encountered a race of primates with these belief systems, I think we’d see faith for what it is – a powerful technology for managing limited cognitive resources.
One thought on “Faith as Rational Technique”
“My definition of faith is therefore “having sufficiently strong bayesian priors in the total lack of utility in doubting X, that doubting X no longer occurs.”
Maybe I am not familiar enough with the Bayesian approach. Are priors strong when they favor one possibility over others to an extreme, or when an evaluation of the evidence that has been received (or perhaps could be gathered?) indicates that the well has gone dry? If I start out with high priors, does that justify faith or just indicate it? No, I suppose I could begin with extreme priors but with more or less curiosity or doubt about the reliability of those priors.
I like your idea that faith is the absence/opposite of doubt. But that means you should define doubt too.
And language is messy. “Certainty” can also be considered the opposite of doubt, and is closely related to faith, but are they the same thing?
When is it useful to doubt one’s ideas, and when is it better to have faith? Doubt assists those who wish to learn and certainty helps those who want to get things done. This strikes me as a version of the explore/exploit trade off analysis known as the multi-armed bandit problem. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multi-armed_bandit
When is faith justified? Maybe when the cost of being wrong looks low or the benefit from investigating looks low compared to the cost, or both?