Monday, January 20, 2014

Is faith trust?

I want to talk for a moment about something that came out of my (now very long) Faith Discussion, and in particular I want to take a tack with regard to something Phil Vischer has definitely said and I'm pretty sure Tom Gilson has also said (though at this point, I'm not willing to dig back through everything to find out if he's said exactly this kind of thing or not).

Vischer (and I think Gilson) have sought to characterize the word "faith" in terms of trust. I have obviously tried to illustrate that I do not think that trust is justified. Here's what I'm getting at with that.

When is faith trust?

Suppose my wife promises to buy milk while she's out later today. She's pretty reliable and generally keeps her word, and I've found that I can rely upon her through repeated satisfaction of other small and large promises she's made to me. I think this is analogous to the trust that Vischer (and Gilson) want to put in God (and by extension, Christian scripture and literature). 

Never mind at all for the purpose of this discussion that I know my wife exists, I have evidence that she's been reliable in the past, etc. Vischer (and Gilson) feel exactly this way about their God, so these appeals apparently have almost no chance of hitting home with them.

To continue, then, I can trust my wife's promise. I can hope she will buy the milk she said, and I know there's some chance she'll forget. Indeed, I know there's a chance that she'll remember and renege anyway--perhaps finding it a task that isn't worth the hassle. I factor those possibilities into my trust in her promise to get milk from the store later. 

The difference

When I was a Christian--when I believed in God--I believed the usual things about God. One of those is that God is perfect. In being perfect, I believed that God never forgets and never turns his back on his promises. This, indeed, seems to be how Vischer (and Gilson) have characterized God--as a completely reliable fulfiller of all his promises--and so I do not think I am taking unfair advantage of anything for me to proceed with this assumption. 

This raises a question for them, then. I find my wife to be highly reliable. If she tells me that she will buy milk at the store later, I know there is a very high chance that it will happen, which is the same as saying I know there is a very low chance that it will not happen, no more than a few percent. The question I would like to hear Vischer (and Gilson) address is: What chance--for any reason whatsoever--do you think there is that God will slip or renege on his promises?

The thing about this

If they assign a value of "no chance" to this possibility, then I conclude that they are doing at least four things:
  1. Using that trust--which they identify as faith--as a claim to knowledge;
  2. Using that trust as a knowledge claim to pretend to know something that they do not know;
  3. Using that trust to conclude with at least the same certainty that God must exist and must have certain attributes; and 
  4. Therefore, since they use that certainty that God exists to justify the trust, engaging in circular reasoning if they use that trust to justify God's existence as well.
I will note, for the sake of completeness, that if there is so much of a shadow of a doubt in their minds that God might not exist--that is if they do not claim almost sure knowledge that God does exist--then it is not possible to conclude a higher probability that God will fulfill his promises because not existing is a valid reason (in this context) for failing to keep them.
Gentlemen, friends--you have the floor. What chance--for any reason whatsoever--do you think there is that God will slip or renege on his promises?


  1. Thank you for the question, James, but (a) I'm waiting for an answer from you on an irenically oriented clarifying question preceding this one, and (b) I've begun working through answers to three or four other questions you've asked before this one. I'm going to let those suffice for me for now.

  2. Hi James - Phil here. I'll try to respond, since I'm mentioned directly.

    I am certain that God will act in accordance with his character, with a major qualification. That qualification is my belief that Jewish and Christian teaching about the character of God is correct. Am I absolutely certain that Christian teaching is correct? No. (And I have no idea how someone could reach that level of certainty when we're talking about historical and experiential matters.)

    So I'm not absolutely certain the God of the Bible will do what the Bible says he will do, because there is no way to be absolutely certain in the claims of Jewish and Christian teachings about God.

    "Will God slip or renege on his promises?" Not if the Jewish/Christian conception of God is correct. If it's incorrect, of course, all bets are off.

    That's the best I can do based on what I think you're asking.

    1. Thanks very much for the reply, Phil!

      This is what I was looking for an answer to, so thank you kindly. Do you care to give me a rough-shod estimate on how likely you think it is that you're right about that qualification?

    2. A rough-shod estimate? Holy cow... um... 7.

      How's that?


    3. Pretty rough, Phil. :)

      Estimates of likelihood are between 0 and 1, or 0% and 100%, which can also be expressed as a fraction with top number (numerator) between 0 and the bottom number (denominator).

      If I interpret 7 as 7/10, or 70%, I have a feeling I'm misrepresenting how sure you are in your beliefs, so I won't do that.

      No pressure, by the way, and if you don't think you can do this, it's fine to say so.

    4. Sorry... just being weird.

      I have become convinced that the claims of Christianity are more likely true than not. In other words, the reality that is presented by Christianity is a reality that I have spent 30-ish years living with, and I have found it to be reliable enough to put confidence in it. Highly subjective, of course, as it is based on my experience and the experience of others that I trust.

      It feels like you're looking for math behind all of this, and I just don't think all of life can be reduced to math. Experience creates confidence. That doesn't mean I'll believe things that don't make any sense to me, but "making sense" is a pretty subjective exercise as well. What seems "senseless" to Richard Dawkins and what seems "senseless" to me vary pretty broadly, depending on philosophical assumptions, life experience and otherwise acquired biases.

      And that's okay. I don't fault him for filtering the world through his biases. I'm more concerned, frankly, about Christians who don't think critically than I am about atheists who do.

      As I've said before, I love the quality of life I've seen in people who have spent 40-50 years living with and through the Bible. (Not all of them - in some corners of Christianity people are a little nuts. Especially if given their own TV shows. But that seems to be true of almost anyone given their own TV show.)

      So that's what I'm pursuing.

      Am I 100% sure the various writings collected in the Bible are reliable? No. Am I more than 50% sure? Yes. Enough to give it a go. And my life experience after 30 years has increased my confidence.

      That's what I got. Not much math, I'm afraid.

    5. Phil, I would just like to say that I appreciate the apparent candor, honesty, and goodwill with which you address James's questions. And I can't tell you how refreshing it is to hear a theist concede less than perfect certainty regarding his faith beliefs.

    6. Thanks, Cal! You guys are awesome. I think a lot of Christians feel "certainty" is a requirement - that an admission of uncertainty or doubt of any kind is some kind of a betrayal. And that is unfortunate. It really doesn't help these sorts of conversations.

    7. For what it's worth, Phil, I would suggest that what Boghossian is characterizing as "pretending to know something you don't know" is very often the filling of that gap of uncertainty (that's the pretending part) to claim certainty.

      Working that plainly into your discussions of what he's getting at, I think, would make for productive discussion and dialogue.

  3. That certainly could be the case. "Feigned certainty," perhaps to ignore or downplay legitimate doubts.

    Good observation.