A middle-aged man dreaming of the day when he can stop begging for scraps and write for a living.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Faith versus Knowledge

Alternative title: Why is knowledge so important?

In the atheist and skeptical communities there's an awful lot of emphasis on the role of knowledge or its lack thereof in determining what we believe. We think it's vitally important that we be able to verify what we think is true because our beliefs inform our actions; no one crosses the street or buys a product unless they can justify to themselves why they think it's a good idea or at least better than the alternative. Some believers, including members of my family, claim that faith is superior to knowledge which is why it's better to believe than to know.

I've been struggling to come up with a succinct argument to describe why I feel knowledge is so important to our beliefs. I think it crystalized when I read this open thread in the Guardian about whether or not aliens are atheists. Of course there's lots of back and forth about how they'd be believers because that's obviously true or whether they'd be atheists because there's simply no evidence to support belief in any gods. In almost every case the argument revolves around what the person making the argument believes to be true. I think that's the crux of the matter. So here's my judgement:

Since aliens haven't been discovered and we can only speculate of what they might be like, I'm free to project my bias on them all I want.

In the end, that's what faith offers. It presents an empty canvas that we can paint with our feelings and bias that no one can refute because no one has concrete knowledge that says otherwise. It's just as valid to say that aliens are Hindus as to say that they're Christian or Buddhist or Muslim or atheist. Each claim has an equal amount of justification as any other, making all such claims useless. That's why there are approximately forty-one thousand different Christians denominations around the world and no one can demonstrate that their claim is more valid than any other. They don't have anything concrete on which to base their claims so they fill in the gaps with their own opinions and call it divine revelation. The informal name for this phenomenon is the argument from inconsistent revelations.

At this point some believers like to quibble over the definition of faith. I have faith in science which places it at the same level of religion, right? No it doesn't, which brings us back to the importance of knowledge. Science is a process, not a belief. One of the criticisms believers use against science is that it's constantly changing and updating its claims based on new evidence and conclusions that better fit the facts. It relies on what we can verify as opposed to what we want to believe is true.

We know the Big Bang really happened because it best fits the evidence available to us. That led to speculation about a Big Crunch in which everything collapses back into a point of singularity which sparks a new Big Bang, but for that to happen the inflation event would have to end and gravity would have to pull everything back together. However, the evidence tells us that isn't happening and instead everything continues to accelerate away from everything else suggesting a more likely scenario is what they call the "Big Rip." Rather than attempt to explain my layman's understanding I'll let Lawrence Krauss give his expert opinion. But that too may turn out to be abandoned as our understanding is clarified by new evidence. We don't know what the future will bring. Science requires us to test our assumptions and not cling to them based on faith. I don't have faith that my chair will hold me up because some god wills it; my faith is based on past experience and should the chair fail on me as physical objects eventually do then I will change my position on the trustworthiness of that chair, prompting me to abandon it and use a new one. Faith will not require me to keep using the same broken chair long after its usefulness has come to an end as religion demands.

Everyone approaches religious beliefs differently. Not everyone clings to the religious claim of Young Earth Creationism but many do. Not everyone claims an intercessory god but still many do. Many people try to reconcile science and religion, refusing to admit that it's a losing proposition; either religion is true or not, and if its claims can't be tested then it isn't compatible with science. Neil DeGrasse Tyson explained this best:
Does it mean, if you don’t understand something, and the community of physicists don’t understand it, that means God did it? Is that how you want to play this game? Because if it is, here’s a list of things in the past that the physicists at the time didn’t understand [and now we do understand] [...]. If that’s how you want to invoke your evidence for God, then God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance that’s getting smaller and smaller and smaller as time moves on - so just be ready for that to happen, if that’s how you want to come at the problem.
Where religion is concerned faith has only one definition that accurately describes it, and it's summarized best in the Bible, specifically Hebrews 11:1: "Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see." This is why I reject the faith required by religion, because it is not superior to knowledge. It is demonstrably inferior.


christianVII said...


i came across this post from your link on /r/atheism.

sorry if i'm being slow, but i was just wondering if you can spell out for me specifically why Faith is inherently (or only demonstrably?) inferior to Knowledge?

i don't understand why Faith is "demonstrably infereior" to Knowledge from your post alone. you demonstrated some positive qualities of Knowledge but i don't see how that makes it superior to Faith.


SpaceGhoti said...

Sorry for the tardy response, christian.

I'm not sure what confuses you. I quoted Hebrews 11:1 for you as a workable definition of faith. The problem is that we don't use this for practical matters like cutting steak or driving to the grocery store. When was the last time you got behind the wheel of a car, drove into traffic and closed your eyes for the remainder of the trip, trusting in faith that your god will deliver you safely to your destination?

We live our lives by gathering knowledge. Do we eat the leftovers in the fridge or do we pay attention to the fuzzy mold growing on it? Do we trust in the Lord to cure us of this persistent cough or do we find a doctor to diagnose it and lead us to a cure?

As the old saying goes, knowledge builds skyscrapers. Faith flies us into them. When we rely on faith for practical living we end up regretting the results more often than not.