Yesterday I had an energetic discussion with a former minister friend on the topic of faith. One of the joys of the English language is there’s often room to doubt that you’re actually talking about the same thing when you use the same word. Dictionary.com provides several different uses of the word that seem to be summarizable to…
- A synonym for confidence.
- An organization based on a system of religious beliefs.
- A belief that is not based on proof.
Of these three the first is poetic, the second is a category, but the third is interesting and valuable to consider. I’m hoping and believe that it was that definition that we were discussing.
Humans don’t exist in linear sequential reality. In order for us to create the stories that help us to survive and thrive we often need to make up a scene in order to get to the next chapter. Making up these scenes is not a problem. In science these are called hypothesis. We expect them to lead us to certain kinds of outcomes. The trick with science is that if they don’t lead to the expected outcomes then the hypothesis is [supposed to be] tossed and replaced by a new one.
Unfortunately, hypothesis development is a lot of work. It can take an enormous amount of effort if the data that you’re trying to account for is especially complex. Humans have a natural, evolution based bias toward conserving energy. A favorite human response is avoiding this energy expenditure when there don’t seem to be any immediate consequences. Another favorite response is to invoke magic, which doesn’t require us to spend a lot of time accounting for inconsistent facts. Burning mental energy seems to be relatively painful for many humans. They get angry if you suggest it.
There are a lot of grand questions in this universe. Many aren’t particularly urgent such as “How did it all begin?” or “Where did humans come from?” For most people on the planet these aren’t urgent questions and they’re readily explained by magic. Case closed, what’s for dinner and who am I going to have sex with next?
The irony is the often equally unshakable faith that many people have in the power of reason. Yes, when iteratively applied it will over time provide you with an increasingly more consistent story. Yes, when applied to a long list of important questions it will dramatically enhance your chances of survival and success. Unfortunately, most people don’t really care and no amount of additional reason will change their faith. More reason won’t make the unreasonable reasonable. This makes forums like Facebook particularly hilarious.
The only forces that are powerful enough to make the unreasonable reasonable are time, fear and opportunity. Of these, the most powerful is time. Change is inevitable. Beliefs are replaced by new beliefs. Beliefs are abandoned from one generation to the next. Some are refined and transformed to account for the change in circumstances. No system of beliefs is immune to this, but it can take a very long time.
Fear and it’s much weaker cousin opportunity are next in line. These can cause change very quickly but aren’t always successful. Our history is filled with stories of those who would rather die than adapt their beliefs to clearly different understanding. That’s a tough call. Not changing your belief implies a parallel belief that all the data isn’t in yet and when it is then your belief will win the day. Another perspective is that your belief really addresses an outcome at a higher level of abstraction1. This may be at the root of more reasoned adherence to faith based beliefs. These higher level systems can be incredibly complicated and have caused us to create tools like mathematics in order to better understand them.
One of the many ways we refine beliefs is through discussion. If you find yourself in a discussion with someone who isn’t looking to improve their system of beliefs but has already found “the answer” then I suggest gracefully switching the topic to yesterday’s (not tomorrow’s) weather. Smile and move on.
- E.g. I could lie now and gain an immediate benefit. If I become known as a liar then my reputation will be ruined and no one will believe me even when I’m telling the truth. ↩