The short-short summary of the discussion is that Boghossian forwarded in his book, A Manual for Creating Atheists, the idea that a workable analysis of the term "faith" in use is "pretending to know what you don't know." He calls this a definition for the word, which would hinge upon the outcome of such a linguistic analysis if we ever have the nerve to do it properly. In the debate, and in the book, Boghossian lists this definition as secondary to the less inflammatory "believing without (read: on insufficient, see below) evidence or in the face of contradictory evidence," which isn't far from the established uses.
Issues with issues
McGrew, a Christian, predictably takes serious issue with Boghossian's attempt to tease out the meaning-in-use of the term "faith." In the final word of the discussion (which is odd because he also got the opening statement), McGrew says that Boghossian should take up his point with the OED (Oxford English Dictionary). Since Boghossian is candid about the fact that he intends this understanding of the term "faith" only in religious contexts, so as to disambiguate it from synonymous better choices like hope, trust, and confidence in everyday speech, the relevant definition in the OED McGrew is referring to is the second, and it's an odd choice for raising his point.
2. Strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.The OED already explicitly states that faith, in the religious context, is based not upon proof (which I will argue, despite protestations of apologists everywhere, means "sufficient evidence to warrant belief"), but instead upon "spiritual apprehension," which absent proof of "spiritual" anything carries no weight beyond the metaphorical. So, the OED, though no so explicit, already gives Boghossian's definition for "faith" in the religious context. I am assuming that sending listeners on a silly wild goose hunt isn't why McGrew was giggling about the idea of contacting the OED at the end of their discussion.
More importantly, I'm troubled by McGrew's inconsistent application of his take on the word "faith." Sometimes, as with Christianity for him, "faith" applies. The parallel for Islam doesn't apply, though, presumably because he doesn't believe Islam and does believe Christianity. At other times, it seems like "faith" does and doesn't mean hope, at the same time.
McGrew's working definition is something closer to the OED first definition, the common-parlance use that Boghossian says needs to be disambiguated from the religious-context use, this being a major point of Boghossian's Manual. To paraphrase him, McGrew suggests that faith is confidence that one extends in an uncertain circumstance in which something significant is on the line and in which there is a lack of control of circumstances. This definition is complex and more detailed than the one given in the OED, which only lists "complete trust or confidence in someone or something," so perhaps he too should contact them for a discussion.
To understand my qualms with McGrew's application of the term, I have to delve into the small number of examples that came up in the debate as tools to discuss the use of the term. Since I don't currently have time to listen to the full debate again, I'll have to go by memory here, so forgive me if I leave any out. There may have been, particularly, examples specific to Christianity, but since McGrew is very likely to be biased on this point as a Christian anyway, I'm not going to waste time pointing out that fact if it happens to be the case in any specifics.
These examples, to the best of my recollection, are:
- Faith in Islam (specifically, Boghossian asked if McGrew has faith or evidence that Islam is false, which I think is quite a clever way to ask the question).
- Faith in a parachute while skydiving, and/or the person who packed the parachute.
- Faith in whether or not chickens exist (another clever question by Boghossian--why don't we use the word faith regarding the existence of chickens?)
McGrew's contention is that one has faith in something like Christianity because the fate of one's soul is on the line, implying a risk and circumstances beyond one's control in which one decides to place one's trust in the religious articles based upon the best assessment one can give of the available evidence. Between the lines here is the fact that one is placing trust without knowing, but that's something McGrew would be likely to agree with, so I won't harp.
I agree with McGrew that there's a risk involved in the circumstances surrounding Christianity, those being beyond one's control, but they have nothing to do with a soul. They have to do with taking a social plunge into a cult that believes in the literal truth of absurd and sometimes disgusting nonsense, but we'll set that aside too. The point is that McGrew says that Christianity qualifies for faith for this reason, and that Islam doesn't.
McGrew, who said plainly that he has read the Qur'an, is surely aware of the risks to his alleged soul if he fails to accept Islam as the absolute and highest truth. The risks are the same, in fact, as in Christianity: missing out on Paradise and inviting oneself into eternal torment in Hell. Having heard of Islam, one is bound by this risk, but McGrew specifically says that there's not a risk in rejecting Islam, something close to, "Why would I use the word faith if I'm venturing nothing on Islam?"
This is an outright dismissal of Islam by McGrew because, having heard of Islam, having read the Qur'an, in fact, he automatically is venturing something on Islam, if his central point about the venture of Christianity is noetic and not social, as it was. Tim McGrew ventures (almost) nothing socially on Islam, and his flat dismissal of the idea that the word "faith" applies here for him (but does apply for Muslims) belies the fact that he thinks faith only applies to ideas one already thinks are true. He then uses the term to close the confidence gap between warranted confidence and outright belief, which is what Boghossian says faith does.
Faith in chickens
McGrew argues that he doesn't have faith that chickens exist because there's nothing ventured on believing that there are chickens. He does not examine the reason for this, though. McGrew, along with everyone else, knows there are chickens. There is no evidential-warrant/belief gap here. This response was incredibly weak, and his unwillingness simply to admit "we don't have faith in chickens because we know there are chickens" tells most of his strategy: don't let faith and knowledge get on the same field.
By talking about a venture being required for "faith" to apply, McGrew exposed that it is centrally concerned with belief on a lack of knowledge. That's something I expect McGrew is likely to admit, but the important observation here is that "faith admits no doubt," which isn't just a common theme, it's an outright dogma of the Christian belief structure. If faith admits no doubt but is only appropriate in cases where there is doubt, faith is used to close the epistemic gap beyond the warrant of evidence.
Faith in parachutes
Despite his protestations, McGrew is simply wrong that "hope" is the wrong word to use in reference to the outcome of a skydive. He openly admits that skydiving carries some margin of error, a failure rate that results in venturing one's own life to circumstances beyond his control in a certain percentage of cases. That is, he knows that he doesn't know that it's going to come out okay if he jumps from a plane with a parachute on his back.
Where he's wrong--or worse--is in saying that faith, not hope, is what allows him to jump, but we'll come back to this point in a moment because it's bigger than this example alone. Let's suppose instead, though, that he isn't wrong, that it's faith that allows him to take the dive. What does he mean by this, since he explicitly says it's not the same as hope in this circumstance?
Hope is the feeling and desire to come out on the survival side of the statistic, and McGrew specifically said this is an example where "faith" applies but "hope" does not. So McGrew is saying that a mature and rational consideration of the statistics and the risks with the desire to come out good isn't sufficient to skydive. One needs something more, faith. If he was just flatly assessing the odds and taking them as they are, hope (and some courage) is all he actually needs. I won't put words in his mouth, but it seems very much to me like he implies that faith closes the confidence gap involved in the situation, or, put more plainly, lets him pretend to know something he doesn't know--that the dangerous portion of the statistic is irrelevant or doesn't exist.
[Edit: I elaborated on this section the next day after it occurred to me that McGrew might be directly connecting faith that isn't hope with cognitive bias. (Link)]
In all three examples, while making an effort to present a case that "faith" doesn't mean extending one's degree of confidence beyond the warrant of evidence, McGrew reveals that this is exactly how he's using the term himself, even if he puts his explanation in a pretty Sunday dress. I understand his reluctance to admit it, and I fully appreciate that he can't say that he's pretending to know things he doesn't when he invokes the term faith, but he can't escape it, apparently. The tricky part about pretending to know something that you don't know is that, unless you're faking it intentionally, it entails pretending that you're not pretending. This is the central bias of faith.
A mature understanding of probabilities and risks doesn't require people to pretend to know things they don't know, but the amount of maturity required here is, perhaps, quite astounding. I, personally, do not need to pretend to know I won't die in the process in order to skydive. I only need to know that only a very small proportion of people do die in that endeavor and the hope that I'm not going to be one of them. If there's a one-in-ten-thousand chance I'll die on a skydive I've elected to take, hope to be one of the fortunate 9,999 is all that a mature mind needs to be willing to take the risk, should the reward (the experience) be deemed to be worth that chance. Faith, meaning something distinguishable from hope, simply is not necessary. Getting to this state, though, I think took me a great deal of sober personal reflection on the matter, including upon my own mortality. I don't think everyone does this, and maybe not everyone can.
I've seen it from shoddier minds, and I really didn't expect it from McGrew, to be honest--though perhaps I should have, given that it's gaining a lot of currency lately. There's a pedantic attack on the proposed understanding of faith, "belief without evidence," which is obviously not written to be technical but rather as imprecise shorthand, and it crops up a lot.
You can't say no evidence if you mean not enough evidence!In an important, technical publication, I would totally agree. Everywhere else in the social universe, though, yes we can, and we mean the same thing by it.
Let me expand upon this, though, so that even in a trite technicality kind of way, it's technically correct. If faith is being used to close the confidence gap beyond the warrant of evidence to the level of belief (which is typically complete belief), then there is no evidence for what goes in that gap, and yet that degree of belief is held anyway, thusly on no evidence. This, though, is stupid. Mature people don't fuss with this kind of pedantry; they just use shorthand and recognize that other people use shorthand and ask for clarification--not blast challenges--when needed.
Informed people don't really even think about belief this way anymore. Take a scientific article, say general relativity (because McGrew brings it up in a different context). We don't "believe" general relativity. Indeed, we don't even talk about general relativity being true outside of colloquial, everyday speech. We talk about two main components of general relativity and draw the line: its predictive potency, with error bars, and its explanatory salience, particularly how not ad hoc it is. When we say that we "believe" general relativity is "true," we mean that we appreciate that as a theory it is pretty low in ad-hoc-ness, matches the observed data to a sufficiently accurate (and stated) degree, and provides remarkably good predictions within the same or another sufficiently accurate (and stated) range.
It's a bit ironic that this comes up since McGrew opens the entire discussion by pointing out that non-experts talk about fields they find interesting in ways that are decades out of date. It's a bit sad that he brings this up since technically this understanding, employed by some scientists better than others, is one of the philosophy of science, not science itself. At least he got his chuckles in, though, again.
Do you know what's Orwellian? Accusing your opponents of doing something really dastardly and contemptible that they didn't do in a hope to score rhetorical points to stir people into going against them. That's one example of an Orwellian thing to do.
McGrew, though the thought is hardly unique to him, complains that Boghossian's attempt to redefine faith is another kind of Orwellian thing, an outright attempt to undermine belief by controlling language. He accuses Boghossian of making a Newspeak mockery of the word "faith" (which he thereby tacitly admits in the process is required to maintain belief in religious articles, the evidence not being sufficient to warrant it). That sounds pretty bad on Boghossian, trying to modify the language to make a mockery of faith and foist unbelief on a blinded populace, and no doubt lots of Christians, maybe even McGrew, are eager to believe it. But.
Boghossian has only said about a million times, including directly to McGrew in the discussion, that he's calling for a linguistic analysis of how the word is used, saying the definition should reflect the results. McGrew clearly understood this point, agreeing that it could be determined empirically and getting into the idea of some kind of unscientific Internet poll that pretends to try to uncover this. Calling for an honest, evidence-based appraisal of something along with calling for our agreed-upon understanding of that something to follow the appraisal is about as un-Orwellian as it is possible to be.
Instead of being so Orwellian, Boghossian should realize that "faith" has always meant and will always mean what the Bible says it means. Amen.
The central point
The central matter of the discussion, the contemporary (and maybe older) use of the word "faith," remains unresolved. McGrew, the far more experienced debater, came off tighter in what he had to say and hid his weaknesses well, better than did Boghossian. Still, as we've seen, he left quite a gaping hole in his case just by virtue of having to use a word that actually means what he says it doesn't mean. Boghossian directly called for what is necessary to resolve the dispute: empirical evidence about how people use the word "faith" in a study that is appropriately designed to reveal just that. Absent such a study, Boghossian says people use it that way, McGrew says they don't (while doing it unintentionally), and very little gets resolved. No Christian could admit, even to herself, that's what it means, and many atheists are unwilling to use a word like "pretending" with its accusatory connotation.
Interestingly, we should note that both participants agreed that empirical evidence on how the word "faith" gets used would resolve the debate. The reason, of course, is that it would provide the requisite knowledge, which would render faith--pretending to know what we don't--in either position irrelevant.