Friday, March 14, 2008

Are Honesty and Faith at Odds?

Honesty can describe one's interactions with others, but at an even more basic level, honesty is a description of how one informs oneself. Many people deceive others, but I suspect more people deceive themselves. Willing self-deception is what I am here referring to as dishonesty. The opposite of this, honesty, is playing straight with one's self. That is, seeking to be informed by truth and not comforting lies.

Now some things are certainly true, while others certainly false, but many have various levels of likelihood of being true. A form of self deception is to convince oneself that something is certainly true or certainly false when the evidence for either is far from conclusive. A helpful way to think of it is in probabilities: we ought to assess the probability that a claim is true conditioned on the evidence available to us. Unfortunately humans are poor probabilistic or Bayesian reasoners. Nevertheless we can at least make qualitative estimates such as: given the evidence, certain claims are much more likely to be true than others, and so on. Honesty then requires a careful assessment, including gathering and analysis of evidence, for all the claims one wants to make or to believe. Honesty requires discounting irrelevant factors and prejudices one has grown up. Honesty does not allow one to believe something simply because one wants to or it makes one feel better. Honesty can be a painful process.

Now let me contrast this with faith. Unfortunately there are many competing definitions for faith, but here I will focus on the following aspect. Faith involves the choice to believe something firmly and without wavering irrespective of potential new evidences or analyses. Faith demands a binary answer: yes I believe with all my heart and I will never swerve, or not I don't. Not all religions are like this, but many are including evangelical Christianity. While these religions may provide some "evidences" in favor of themselves, these evidences are in no way conclusive; at most they show plausibility. But nevertheless the religions encourage and even demand certainty in their veracity. For example, certain religions or "faiths" demand that one accept that "the Bible is the inspired Word of God." Now the evidence for this is very patchy, if it exists at all. With careful consideration of internal and external evidences one might conclude that certain parts are likely to be from God and other parts are very unlikely to be. But religious faith will have no patience with a conclusion like this: it demands all or nothing, faith or disbelief, no conditional beliefs. But this is contrary to an honest assessment which cannot declare certainty when evidence is weak and cannot discount potential new evidences changing one's belief. Thus to accept the demands of certain faith one must eschew uncertainties, discount contrary evidences and discard honesty.

A person of faith might reply: faith claims demand action based on either an acceptance of or rejection of the claim, and so one is forced to make a binary choice of belief or unbelief. Here's the confusion: it is between belief and action. One may well have to make a binary choice of action, but it can be in the face of acknowledged uncertainty in belief. For example: suppose your friend said he would meet you at 5pm at the coffee shop. Your action is binary: you either go there to meet him at 5 or you don't. But your belief need not be binary. You might think there is a good chance he will be delayed due to traffic and so won't be there at 5, but nevertheless you may still go there at 5 just in case he makes it. Honesty in belief takes uncertainties into account rather than deny them.

So why do so many people choose faith over honesty? While faith sometimes results in physical hardships, it more than compensates by giving one a certainty and an inner confidence. It does not need careful analysis and is easily avilable to all. It builds bonds between individuals and fosters a community of likeminded. But what is the cost of all these gains? By closing the door to tentative beliefs conditioned on available evidence, faith devalues truth. What is important is no longer the truth, but rather that one believes unconditionally.

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