Do we have blind faith in things like history?
This was the assertion made by Ray Comfort in his debate with the Rational Response Squad on Nightline. I have also heard it presented in my personal conversations with theists. This is a particularly interesting claim since it seems to acknowledge that faith is a bad thing, but I’m more interested in whether it is true that we have blind faith in history. I will argue it is not, and I will also argue that very few things would qualify as “blind” faith, though we still have a method to separate the strength of beliefs. I hope to elucidate this point by breaking down a few example beliefs to which this faith assertion is commonly applied.
What would blind faith look like?
I would define blind faith as lacking the ability to see any reason for belief. This hopefully captures the essence of why Ray would insert the word blind into the phrase. For an example, let’s consider a variation of Bertrand Russell’s teapot. Suppose someone asserts there is a flying teapot orbiting the Earth. This teapot also happens to be invisible and undetectable by any known method. I think we can reasonably say that the person making this claim is showing blind faith. Just how this differs from other claims said to be taken on faith should become clear when we examine two crucial aspects of belief.
A Hierarchy of Beliefs
Rather than say faith, let’s consider a number of our beliefs to be unverified or not yet verified, if you prefer to imply that you may indeed verify them. You might say that I have the unverified belief that incredibly tiny subatomic particles called neutrinos exist or that Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon. Likewise, you might say that Ray has the unverified belief that God created humans as presented in the Bible. So, all of these beliefs are alike insofar as they are all unverified by the believer. However, it would be a mistake to think they are equal. I would encourage you to consider a spectrum of beliefs moving from not really verifiable to well verified (almost certain). On that spectrum, I would place our three example subject matters as follows:
Physics, often called the Queen of science, is near the top (except for perhaps theoretical notions, like string theory). History and Religion are nearer the low end of the spectrum, with Religion being lowest of the two. We’ll explore just why I’ve placed them this way in the next section.
Method for Determining Level of Verifiability
I don’t want to oversimplify the issue of verifying claims, but there seem to be two main areas that we can quickly assess when presented with a belief. Its performance in these areas can give us a rough estimate of where this belief falls on the spectrum. Let’s call these areas Plausibility and Testability. There is a bit of overlap between these notions, but hopefully the nuances will be apparent after applying them to our examples.
Plausibility can be thought of as similar to intuitive reasoning. We will use our existing knowledge to get a rough idea of the general likelihood of the belief’s truth value. Testability would be using the best available methods for verifying the claim. Why do we need both? Plausibility leads ultimately to testability, so we may be tempted to do away with the former. I think that would be a mistake for two reasons. First, consider that many ideas we now hold at one time seemed implausible and our intuitions become much less reliable as our science becomes more advanced. Second, mistaken tests could lead us to wrongly throw out ideas. If we maintain the importance also of plausibility, I think we will be more likely to try new tests. In the end, however, the testability is the biggest factor in your belief’s place on the verifiability spectrum.
Consider again our examples: the existence of neutrinos, Caesar crossing the Rubicon, and Biblical creation. I would rate them as follows:
|Crossing the Rubicon||High||Medium|
- Plausibility: On the positive side, we know of other very small subatomic particles and we saw some effects that could be explained by unknown particles. On the negative side, it’s hard to imagine a particle so small that billions pass right through you every day as if you were thin air.
- Testability: Scientific experiment is the best case scenario for this measure. The reasons for this would take us too far outside the scope of this piece, though. For now, let’s agree that you can conduct them in the present in controlled environments and they are repeatable, which are all good things.
Crossing the Rubicon
- Plausibility: This is very intuitive. We can go to the Rubicon and determine that it is plausible for Caesar’s army to have crossed given their known capabilities. We can also couple that with Caesar’s expansionist policies. (To avoid the appearance of circular reasoning, we are not just trusting historians to tell us about Caesar’s army, capabilities, and policies. The information gathered from historians is combined with archaeology and other disciplines that fare pretty well on our spectrum.)
- Testability: This is the tricky part for historians. I rated it as medium because there is a wealth of information on the Roman Empire, but generally the further back in time you go, the worse your testability will fare. Historians do have a number of methods, though, for testing claims. These include, but are not limited to, making sense in the historical context and multiple independent attestations from disinterested parties.
- Plausibility: Within this story, we are told that God took a rib from Adam and made Eve from it. This does not fare well intuitively. We have never seen such demonstrable physical interaction with a super being, as described here (God actually walks with them in the story). We have also never seen anything to suggest a rib could be turned into a woman. Modern genetics might actually someday challenge that latter statement, but there is still testability to consider.
- Testability: Assuming this ever makes it past the plausibility stage to be considered for a test, I’m not even sure how we would test it. This does not rate well, which should be obvious considering the claim. It’s quite clear that asking God to come show us again will not be successful.
So we have examined three beliefs, which could be accused of being based on faith. But we see quite clearly that there are differences among them. My hope is to provide you a way to easily break down how beliefs differ. The next time you are accused of having faith in science, you can say the difference between it and supernatural claims is its verifiability. Even though you haven’t yet verified a belief, if it measures well in both plausibility and testability (assuming that’s true for your case), then you’re in pretty good standing.