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Faith and Evidence

I think the word ‘faith’ is badly in need of rehabilitation. Ambrose Bierce takes faith to be “belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.”[1] Richard Dawkins terms ‘faith’ “belief that isn’t based on evidence,”[2] and Sam Harris says “Where we have reasons for what we believe, we have no need of faith.”[3] We may want to call this “blind faith,” and to describe someone as faithful in this sense is to issue an insult. I know of no one who claims that he or she believes any proposition on this version of the word, though it is often said of others. For example, atheists sometimes describe theists as having blind faith, but theists don’t see it that way (at least not all of them). Indeed, some theists claim that their beliefs are based on evidence, and they are not bashful about saying so. For instance, Walter Brown, a young-earth creationist, claims “[M]ost dating techniques indicate that the Earth and solar system are young—possibly less than 10,000 years old.”[4] I propose theists be taken at their word (that is, that they believe that there is evidence for the existence of god and that belief in god is therefore not a matter of blind faith; I will not be addressing the quality of this evidence here). Some, of course, have attempted to conclusively prove god’s existence, whether by the cosmological argument, the ontological argument, or other “proofs.” I take it as uncontroversial that all such attempts to remove anything short of deductive certainty from the religious arena are problematic.

Others give a more sympathetic reading to ‘faith.’ Simon Kolstoe, who takes faith to be an integral part of science, says that faith, in the scientific arena, “is having enough confidence to turn your results into a published conclusion that you are happy for others to try and challenge” and believes this is “more useful” than the notion of belief absent any evidence.[5] I am not so sure. To define faith as that which lies at the heart of confidence in a scientific hypothesis seems to me to equate “faith in the truth of proposition X” with “X is indicated but not conclusively demonstrated by available evidence.” In an attempt to define faith in a less judgmental way, Kolstoe has given a definition that simply runs counter to common usage. If Kolstoe is right, we have no need of the word ‘faith.’ It could in all cases be replaced by ‘warranted by evidence,’ but, again, I think people don’t generally have this in mind when faith is invoked. If the concept of faith is to play a meaningful role in discussions involving science and religion we must be clear on its meaning.

The Modern Catholic Dictionary defines ‘faith’ as

The acceptance of the word of another, trusting that one knows what the other is saying and is honest in telling the truth. The basic motive of all faith is the authority (or right to be believed) of someone who is speaking. This authority is an adequate knowledge of what he or she is talking about, and integrity in not wanting to deceive. It is called divine faith when the one believed is God, and human faith when the persons believed are human beings.[6]

This is admittedly an appeal to authority, but it is taken to be justified if the authority is trustworthy. How may this be decided? It seems as though this could only be done inductively by investigating to see if what the authority has to say in general is accurate (directly investigating the claim in question would remove, of course, the need of faith as defined).

To simplify matters, I will proceed in the following way. I will take theism to refer to that as envisioned by the major monotheistic religions with a personal god who takes an active role in the universe and cares about the affairs of human beings. Further, I will take the scientific approach to problem solving as being representative of nontheistic thinking since while they are in the lab scientists are, as a group, at least methodological materialists. I do not claim that all theists are Jews, Christians, or Muslims, that “theist” and “scientist” are mutually exclusive categories, or that all atheists employ the scientific method in fixing their beliefs. However, the parameters outlined here will greatly reduce the number of qualifications I will have to employ. So, ignoring the notion of blind faith, and taking into account the problematic nature of extant deductive theological proofs, we may say that unless or until a compelling deductive proof of whatever is at issue is given, belief or nonbelief in theological propositions is an issue to be decided inductively. The question remains as to how this inductive evidence is treated by theists and nontheists. I will argue that the treatments are not only quite different, but that they must be, and that they are indicative of different assumptions at the bases of religion and science. I believe that it is this difference in starting positions that leads to charges of the ignoring of evidence and irrationality from those on both sides of the theist/atheist divide. In particular I want to see what may be learned about faith. I have not included every conceivable definition of faith, but whatever definition is chosen, I want to see what meaningful role, if any, it plays in the evaluation of evidence.

So how is it that scientists deal with evidence? It is commonly believed by laypersons that scientists propose hypotheses from which they may deduce predictions. If a prediction is correct, then the hypothesis is to be accepted. If, on the other hand, a prediction turns out to be false, the hypothesis must be discarded. This is at best an oversimplified view. Ideally, a hypothesis is postulated and, taken in conjunction with auxiliary assumptions and any relevant initial conditions of an experimental setup, an observable prediction is deduced. If the prediction turns out to be correct, this does not imply that the hypothesis is true. After all, a valid argument may have one or more false premises and a true conclusion. Rather, the hypothesis is incrementally confirmed by the experimental outcome, and the hypothesis is given slightly more warrant. If, alternatively, the chain of reasoning leading from the hypothesis, auxiliary assumptions, and initial conditions to the prediction is cogent, the initial conditions are accurately represented, and the prediction turns out to be false, then one concludes that either the hypothesis is incorrect or at least one of the auxiliary assumptions is incorrect (or both). Since the auxiliary assumptions are usually parts of well-established theories, it is generally the hypothesis (at least in its present form) that is discarded, but this is not always the case. For example, when deviations from the predicted orbit of Uranus were discovered in the early part of the 19th century, the auxiliary assumption that there were only seven planets in the solar system was discarded, not Newtonian mechanics, which was being used to calculate Uranus’ position in the sky (interestingly, it was deviations in Mercury’s predicted orbit that played a major role in the rise of relativity and overthrow of Newton). In any case, it is the reliance on the hypothetico-deductive method, which comes from the acceptance of the notion that nature conforms to logic (specifically that no valid argument with true premises can have a false conclusion), that reveals an underlying assumption in all practice of science: Nature is ultimately comprehensible. Without this assumption, reliance on the scientific method makes no sense; one simply cannot coherently accept that the universe is ultimately predictable and simultaneously (that is, in the lab) believe that god may step in and alter the rules of the game at his whim (I apologize for the gendered pronoun). Note that the implication does not run in the opposite direction. One may deny the existence of a god envisioned by Jews, Christians, and Muslims and simultaneously deny that there are lawful relations governing the constituents of the universe. Thus, “There is no god” does not imply “The universe is knowable/understandable/predictable.”

Now consider that observations of luminous matter in the universe are inconsistent with estimates of mass in the universe if all matter is luminous. This led to the postulation of so-called “dark matter” in 1934. The nature of dark matter is not understood (over and above the idea that it doesn’t emit or scatter electromagnetic radiation). The fact that dark matter is enigmatic, however, does not imply that scientists view dark matter as ultimately mysterious. The term ‘dark matter’ is, in the end, a placeholder to be used until the nature of the universe’s “missing mass” is better understood. Once more, this approach makes no sense unless scientists believe that the nature of the universe is ultimately graspable. It is just this assumption that makes each scientific theory subject to disconfirmation and grants science its self-correcting nature.

What of the theist and evidence? Evidence confirming the existence of a loving god is not problematic for the believer. Perhaps rain comes to a drought-devastated region, peace breaks out in a war-torn country, or a loved one’s cancer goes into remission. The theist credits the almighty with these happy tidings and is ever more convinced of the reality of god; the theist’s beliefs are confirmed (though only incrementally if the theist is cautious). It’s not just good news, of course, that may strengthen the believer’s faith. Maybe the orderliness of the universe at large or the (apparently) well-designed nature of biological structures is seen as evidence for god’s existence, but how does the theist deal with disconfirming evidence? How is it that a loving god allows tsunamis to kill tens of thousands of people in Asia? How is it possible that god allowed the holocaust? Why are children starving by the thousands on a daily basis around the globe? If no rational justification can be found for all this apparent evil, mainstream theists rely on the incomprehensibility of god to rationalize these situations. The Modern Catholic Dictionary in part defines ‘incomprehensible’ in the following way:

That which cannot be fully understood. In one sense nothing is totally comprehensible by humans since they are not the first cause of anything. But, properly speaking, only God is said to be incomprehensible because only he is infinitely perfect and no finite mind can exhaustively understand the infinite. The Church teaches that God is incomprehensible … Although not comprehensible, God is not unintelligible. He can be known, here by faith and hereafter by sight. But neither on earth nor in heaven can he be totally known in the fullness of his own comprehensive knowledge of himself. “God whose Being is infinite, is infinitely knowable. No created understanding can, however, know God in an infinite manner” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, 12, 7).[7]

Since god is the ultimate reality underlying the universe, nature itself may not be fully comprehended by mankind, and, among other things, god’s motivations in allowing what seems to merely finite humans as evil cannot be completely understood. So why did god allow ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia to occur? We don’t know. Why are so many children born with catastrophic birth defects? We don’t know. We can’t know. Since god is infinite and we are but finite, god’s motives, at least in some cases, are forever beyond our ken. Notice here that belief in an incomprehensible, active god necessitates belief that the universe is ultimately unknowable. One cannot, on pain of inconsistency, accept the presence of such a being and also believe that the universe is predictable since at any time the rules governing the universe may be suspended by god. Again, the implication does not run in both directions. Assuming that the world is inherently unknowable does not imply the existence of an activist god; it may be that the universe just doesn’t run according to a set of immutable laws.

If you are thinking that this insulates theism from disconfirming evidence, I get the feeling you are right. If you are thinking this is inherently irrational, I get the feeling you are wrong. Given a belief in a god as described here, one must accept that there are things we will never understand. That is part of the cost of doing business. When something arises that the theist cannot understand, this can come as no surprise. It is built into the system. Also built into the system is the shrugging of one’s shoulders at the anomalous phenomenon and labeling it mysterious. All of this follows directly from the presuppositions of the theist; faith, however it is defined, has nothing to do with it. One may disagree with the axioms of the theist, but he is not being irrational.

If one chooses to take issue with the theist’s presuppositions, there are many tacks one may take. My personal favorite is this: If the universe is ultimately unknowable, how do you know it? While that sinks in, we may ask the scientist the analogous question: How does one come to know the universe is knowable? In response, it may be argued that science has a very good track record of coming to know things previously ascribed to god (and, therefore, unknowable). This is, of course, an inductive argument, but inductive argument is the engine that powers the scientific process. The theist may answer, also arguing inductively, that in every case where something ascribed to god has been given a naturalistic explanation, there has always been something else that is not known. Why would we expect this to change? Further, if it doesn’t, then the universe is not knowable.

In the midst of this give and take, it is tempting to insert faith as the ground for our initial assumptions. Maybe that’s how faith works its way into all this. Maybe, in the end, how we approach the universe is just a matter of faith and these different approaches to making sense of the universe are on equal footing given that faith underlies both of them. Maybe, but I don’t think so. Unless it can be shown that both worldviews are equally valuable by inductive methods, the ground for these two worldviews is equivalent only in the sense that neither may be shown deductively to be correct, but no scientist claims deductive certainty for science, and the nonexistence of a deductive solution to theological questions was the starting point of this discussion. To import faith at this point and equate the two approaches is to do nothing more than throw up one’s hands and admit anew that a deductive solution does not exist, but, once more, that’s not at issue. As for showing that the two worldviews are equally valuable inductively (i.e., by relying on reason and evidence), there is absolutely no way this can be done. Any objective examination of the evidence necessitates acceptance of the fact that the scientific worldview is vastly superior as a tool for discovering the truth. If you doubt this, ask yourself where you would go if you had an attack of appendicitis. Do you head for your local church or your local emergency room? To accept the religious worldview on faith is to have worse than blind faith (belief with no evidence); this is belief in spite of the evidence. Whatever heavy lifting faith does, it’s not done here.

I opened by saying that I thought ‘faith’ needed some rehabilitation, but I don’t know that this is possible. Faith doesn’t seem to add anything to the discussion. After chasing around this issue for some time, we are back to the familiar ground of judging the theistic and scientific orientations on their merits inductively. If there is one thing theists and nontheists agree on, it is that “The tree is known by its fruit.” If we judge science and religion on the basis of which is the surer path to knowledge, science must be the victor. This is shown by the historical trend of the rolling back of religion by science. Assuming that the universe is knowable is, as a matter of incontrovertible historical fact, a better approach to finding the truth than assuming it isn’t. I am at a loss as to where faith in any reputable form comes into play anywhere along the line.

A last consideration: It may be that I have posed a false question. Perhaps the purpose of religion is not to achieve a better understanding of the physical universe. Joseph Campbell took religions (and mythology generally) to be literally false while metaphorically true,[8] and maybe he was right. It could be that religious stories, like dark matter, serve as place holders for things not understood in the time of their first telling. Indeed, one need not take religious/mythological stories like that of King Midas or the Good Samaritan to be literally accurate for them to serve the purpose of supplying sound moral lessons. Frankly, I think there is a lot to be said in favor of this interpretation. Given this view, however, I don’t see what there is to have faith in. Faith in the factual nature of the stories? They are assumed not to be factual. Faith in the usefulness of the stories? Their usefulness is apparent, but I wish it weren’t so. If faith boiled down to belief in the notion that religious stories, even if not true, shed light on our lives, then faith would be, ironically, belief that the universe is comprehensible.


[1] Bierce, Ambrose. https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/ambrose_bierce_101270 (accessed 16 November 2011)
[2] Dawkins, Richard. “Is Science a Religion?” The Humanist 57 issue 1, Jan/Feb 1997, p. 26.
[3] Harris, S. (2004). The End of Faith. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 225.
[4] Brown, W. (2008). In the Beginning: Compelling Evidence for Creation and the Flood. Phoenix, AZ: Center for Scientific Creation, 37
[5] Kolstoe, Simon. “Scientific Faith,” Philosophy Now 85(2011). See (accessed 16 November 2011)
[6] Hardon, John. Modern Catholic Dictionary. See (accessed 16 November 2011)
[7] _____. Modern Catholic Dictionary. See (accessed 16 November 2011)
[8] Campbell, J. (1988). The Inner Reaches of Outer Space. New York: Harper & Row, 55.

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