Three Types of Faith
Faith may be looked upon as the implicit trust one places in a person, thing, or idea, often without asking for or requiring any proof of its validity. In this sense, as I will discuss presently, it is not quite true that the scientific enterprise does not rest on any faith. Instead of the lines from Browning quoted in my previous column, we must rather say:
It must be averred,
That a faithless science is absurd.
The thesis of the faith-free nature of science arises from ill-defined notions of faith. To clarify these, let us consider the following examples:
When we are told by our mother that such and such a one is our biological father, we generally accept it as true.
When we are young, we take our teacher’s word for granted and trust that she has right knowledge of what she is teaching.
We drink fruit juice and milk from the carton we buy at the store, trusting that no one had added cyanide to it.
We board a plane, quite convinced of the pilot’s skill and sobriety.
It is impossible to go through life without accepting certain matters to be true without getting first hand confirmation about their correctness or veracity. We may describe this type of faith as quotidian faith. Quotidian faith is the unquestioning acceptance of a statement on the assumption that the probability of its being wrong is extremely small. It is not always rationally or empirically fully justifiable, but the probability of its being correct is so high that we are willing to take a risk in adopting it. Its truth content can be verified in principle by appropriate investigation. Without quotidian faith it would be impossible, in terms of time, to go through life. This idea is expressed in the New Testament (II Corinthians, v,7) thus: “We walk by faith, not by sight.”
Next consider the following beliefs:
The workings of every aspect of the world are, or will eventually be, intelligible to the human mind. That is to say, every phenomenon in the physical world can and will some day be explained fully in rational and coherent terms.
There is order and harmony underlying the physical world.
Nothing happens all by itself, i.e. every observed event has a cause.
What has been observed to occur again and again an enormously large number of times will occur again: for example, one of the reasons we are so sure the sun will rise tomorrow is that it has been doing so for many years of our life.
The only right way to answer the question of the origin of the universe is, in the words of Steven Weinberg, “by the methods of science, by theory-aided observation and observation-governed theory.”
None of these statements can be proved on logical grounds to be unassailable. There is no obvious reason why the laws of physics that are currently observed to be operating in the world should have been the same ten billion years ago, or in a galaxy three billion light-years away, nor why the ultimate truth about the origin of the universe can only be arrived at by the methodology of science.
Yet, the scientific enterprise accepts these propositions as true. These also fall under the category of faith. We may describe these as examples intelligibility-faith. Intelligibility-faith is at the very foundation of the scientific enterprise. It is adopted for at least three reasons: one cannot do any science without it, some of it seems most reasonable even to an unprobing mind (intuitively true), and it has served the scientific quest extremely well thus far. However, if circumstances necessitate, the world of science would give up, however reluctantly, one or more elements in its intelligibility-faith foundation. Thus, for example, the notion of strict causality had to be modified, though not given up, as a result of the discovery of radioactivity.
Finally, consider the following beliefs:
The Vedas have existed all through eternity.
Moses received the Ten Commandments directly from Yahweh.
Christ, the Son of God, came to save all humankind.
Mohammed received God’s message from archangel Gabriel.
Implicit acceptance of the undemonstrated validity of these propositions is required of adherents of the corresponding religious tradition. Acceptance of a proposition on the basis of its scriptural authority constitutes religious faith. Religious faith is not something that one will readily abandon even if there are demonstrable indications that it might be invalid. It is embraced, not because it conforms to what is generally regarded as common sense or because it is useful in understanding something, but because it is a fundamental tenet of a religious system. When it says in the Old Testament (Job, xix, 25), “I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth,” it is an expression of religious faith. When Nârada declares in the opening chapter of the first book of the Ramayana, “Whoever shall read the saga of Rama which purifies the mind, will be freed of all sins,” it is an example of religious faith.
Thus, religious faith is very different from the quotidian and the intelligibility types of faith. Its roots are in revelation, cultural upbringing, and religious traditions. In some traditions it is believed that religious faith is given to a select few as a blessing. Biologists might trace it to particular genes. Whatever its cause or source, religious faith is often associated with the spiritual dimension of individuals. Some type of religious faith is essential to be a whole-hearted member of any organized religion and to be committed to the spiritual quest. Religious faith is the spontaneous, voluntary and cheerful acceptance, arising from deep inner conviction, of something that one may or may not be able to prove on logical grounds. As St. Gregory is said to have declared (Homilies, No. 40), “Faith has no merit where human reason supplies the proof (Fides non habet meritum ubi humana ratio praebet experimentum).”