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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Further thoughts on thinking about Faith


                (In my usual habit of switching between topics of general interest and topics from Indian philosophy, here are some further thoughts on faith. I am writing  about this topic because of my interest in thinking in general and because there is tension between faith and reason almost always)               
                I have always felt that faith and reason are like two lenses of a camera, one for close-up and one for telephoto. You use them for different purposes. Reason based on evidence is the best approach, whenever possible. However, reason is always tinged with and modified by emotions. There are situations, several in fact, when reason fails. Reason alone cannot get us through. Faith has to come in. But, one needs to be cautious since faith can lead to unwise decisions based on hope and unreasonable behavior including cruelty. Besides, faith cannot lead to any answer. As pointed out by a writer unknown to me “faith may give you comfort; but it is the doubt that gets you an answer”.
                William James gives very clear guidelines on conditions under which one may wish to use faith for action. “Our passionate nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds” said William James. Obviously, options presented in response to philosophical, metaphysical questions fall into this sphere of thinking.  (address to the Philosophical Clubs of Yale and Brown Universities in 1896. Quoted in The Enduring Questions – Main problems in Philosophy. 4th Ed Melvin Rader (editor) Holt,Reinhart and Wilson Publishers, 1980).      

                William James gives us practical ideas on how to think about faith. There are three conditions that must be met for faith to be used as the primary mode of thinking. They are:  1. The option should be genuine and William James defines genuine option as one that is “living, forced and momentous”. He goes on to define these three words. Living, as opposed to dead, is to suggest that the option is “sufficiently exciting to tempt our will”. Forced, as opposed to avoidable, is to suggest that the decision cannot be escaped. Momentous, as opposed to trivial, is to suggest that it will make a significant difference in one’s life. 2. The individual cannot prove or disprove either option with adequate proof or reason. One is no more probable than the other. Reason alone cannot deal with this question. 3. The result of believing will make life substantially better. These guidelines should be helpful for thinking about faith-related issues.

In addition, we have to ask ourselves why we believe in one option over many others on different issues in everyday life.  Is it because that particular belief gives us some comfort or gratification? Is it because we were told when we were young that to be considered a good person, we have to believe this way? Do we want to identify ourselves with someone we love or admire through this belief? Or are we following this belief out of fear? Are we being coerced overtly or indirectly? Are we being threatened with consequences if we do not believe this idea? Do we have to believe in one particular point of view to be accepted in the family or the society? Is it because we do not want to disappoint someone important in our life? 

It is also good to remember what Christopher Hitchens said about faith: “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence”.

How much evidence and evidence of what kind are needed to base our faith? Jayarasi Bhatta was a philosopher who lived in India in the 8th century. His book which is entitled “Tattva upaplava simha” translates to The lion that devours all categories.  It is obvious from the summary of his writings that he belonged to the Caravaka school or something akin to it. He was a materialist and an atheist. It is amazing how easily he rejects all the pramanas (evidences in support of /sources of knowledge).   He says: Direct perception is not totally reliable since perception can be erroneous or illusory. Inference relies on inductive reasoning and therefore not reliable since there are no universally accepted premise to start with.  Finally, testimony is not reliable since this requires a reliable witness, the definition of which requires another source or evidence. He concludes that “none of the sources of knowledge are valid. Nothing can be known for certain”. You may say that he is a cynic or nihilist. But, his argument is interesting.

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