Knowing Faith A common language analysis of faith 1. IntroductionIt might seem that there areintractable issues with which the subject demands vehement disagreement. Indeed,I can think of few areas that are more passionately debated than those thatconcern religious beliefs. There is a great deal of disagreement between notonly those who are of a religious mindset and those who aren’t, but betweendifferent religious traditions, and even those of the same religious tradition.
In attempting to understand these kinds of problems rationally there is aconcept that is often used that may signal a greater disparity between theparties than just their position overall, this is faith. Interestingly faith isinvoked frequently in our daily language, it might seem trivial to ask by whatdo we mean when we invoke faith, but once asked the answer becomes much lessclear than our intuitions might lead us to believe. Then what is the functionof faith and how, if at all, is it connected to knowing a proposition?2. Beginning AssumptionsAn uncontroversial startingposition from which I would like to move forward is this, there are occasionsin which two people use the same word but have different conceptions ormeanings of that word. J.L. Austin addresses this point that the “usages ofwords vary” (Austin, 1956).
There are differentways that this can happen, it may be that the context of the word is different.When I am talking on the phone with a friend from Canada it would be a mistakefor us to conflate what we mean by the word here is contradictory, even if wecan make contradictory claims about what we are experiencing here. I can claimit is sunny, he can claim it is snowing, and there is no contradiction, eventhough we both are describing ‘here’ (Watson, 2017). This is because the context of theword ‘here’ is such that it is relative to the usage.
What Austin seems to be addressingis the fluidity, or ambiguity, of language, that words meanings are not fixed ornecessarily prescriptive. Indeed, an important function of language, is to conveymeaning. When I claim that the usage of words vary what I aim at is that therecan often be ambiguity in meaning. Suppose Smith and Jones are standing infront of a sports store, Smith, in reference to his recent purchase, tellsJones, “This is a racket.” Jones then looks at the store, knowing theirproclivity for absurdly high pricing, says, “It is a racket.
” Both Smith andJones are using the same word in different senses. Smith means the physicalobject, a tennis racket, where Jones is using the word racket to mean abusiness who charges unreasonably high prices. It is easy to see how, withoutfurther explication, the two might believe they are speaking of the same thingbut are actually using the word ‘racket’ to communicate different meanings.The second uncontroversialassumption is that what we say may be different than what we mean (Austin, 1956). Especially in ourless reflective times, whether it is an intuitive response or a pressure oftimeliness, we may choose words that don’t represent the specificity we wouldlike.
This presents a unique challenge in the analysis of language, both thatit introduces uncertainty in any conclusions drawn, as well as the perceivedchallenge to essentialism. My attempt is to specifically understand what ismeant, in ordinary speech, by the word faith, it is an attempt at a descriptiveaccount. I have no intention of arguing for a prescriptive use, nor of eitherreaffirming or challenging any essentialist properties of faith, rather I wouldlike to provide a qualitative analysis of what function faith serves inlanguage and whether it says anything about knowledge.It would be a mistake to dismissthings said that differ from the intended meaning, as the underlying functionof the usage gives crucial insight into the word or phrase in question. Itwould be a similar mistake to take these instances as definitive examples ofwhat we mean by faith, these instances are instead transitory states, as moreexplication is provided, or mistakes that can demonstrate a largermisunderstanding. In all the cases we may glean information that presses theboundaries of our understanding.This inquiry is bifurcated intomundane uses of the word faith, that is uses that are a part of language ofeveryday speech, and religious faith, that is “the kind of faith exemplified inreligious faith” (Bishop, 2016). The second use, that of religiousfaith, is the kind of faith that I am seeking to understand.
Though I havedelineated between the two, this is not a clean split, usage of religious faithseems to wrap several of its concepts into daily use. The distinction rather ishelpful in understanding how religious faith is more complex than just definingit in a vacuum. I want to avoid what Peter Strawson calls, “seeking to findan adequate basis for certain social practices in calculated consequences” soas to not “loses sight of the human attitude of which these practices are, inpart, the expression.” (Strawson, 1963)3. Faith as ConfidenceWhat then are the mundane uses offaith? A common use of faith is exemplified in the statement: F1. I have faith that John willfinish the job on time. In this case it seems by using theword faith one is expressing confidence, replacing faith with confidence maintainsthe same meaning. This is a common use of the word faith and it seemsconsistent with our daily experiences.
An interesting feature of this usage isthat it conveys some level of uncertainty, or conversely an acknowledgementthat there is not perfect certainty. I might have faith confidence that mycar will make it to work today, even though it is old and has 200,000 miles onit. It is perfectly conceivable that my car will break down, I cannotrationally assume that there is no possibility of that scenario, however I havereasons (which may be of varying quality) to assume that it will run adequately.There is an implied endorsement inF1, by conveying my confidence that John will finish the job on time I amimplicitly supporting the proposition. It would not make sense for me to saythat I am confident John will finish the job on time but don’t believe itmyself. It more likely is the case that my confidence stems from a supportiveattitude toward John (or maybe just his work) and that I am attempting toconvey that message forward.The sentence F1 contains twopropositions, one about my internal state “I have faith confidence” and asecond “John will finish the job on time”. Faith is the conjunctive betweenthese two propositions, without the second proposition it isn’t clear what Imean by faith.
Faith serves as both a statement of my position and implies somekind of justification, these are the reasons for my faith that John will finishthe job on time. It is not, in this case, justification itself, rather alinguistic substitute for my justifications. If I were to be asked, “By whatreasons do you have faith that John will finish the job on time?” I mightrespond then with the justifications that convey my confidence in John.Momentarily I need to digress on apoint that seems to be eagerly debated on internet forums.
Websites such asReddit (MrPeligro, 2016) or the Christian Debate Forum (Zzyxx, 2010) have spilled muchdigital ink drawing a distinction between confidence and faith in reference toreligious faith, if not explicitly. I am not interested in this exercise, I amattempting to charitably understand the word faith and assume that in most cases,exempted in those that one says something but means another thing, that thespeaker means what they are saying in the context. Saying about F1 that it isabsurd to use faith when what “I reallymean” is confidence is to distract from understanding the common languageuse. This kind of debate seems more an “expression of moral attitudes and notmerely devices we calculatingly employ”. (Strawson, 1963)4. Faith as TrustA second mundane use then is:F2.
I have faith in John’s work.In F2 faith is expressing trust inJohn’s work, the meaning of ‘I have trust in John’s work’ is identical. F2shares many of the same features of F1, trust is uncertain even if theconnotation is a positive one, trust is again a conjunctive providing greaterspecificity to the sentence, trust is an implicit endorsement, and trust isanother linguistic placeholder for justification.
I might even, if asked,provide the same sorts of justifications for F1 as I do for F2, they seem tosupport the propositions in both instances. A significant difference separatesthe F1 and F2, and foreshadows the explication of religious faith, where F1uses ‘that’ and F2 uses ‘in’. Trust and confidence are verysimilar in meaning, but qualitative differences do exist.
Though this isanother entire topic which deserves its own paper, I’d like to quickly offerdifferentiation. There are cases where one can have confidence, but not trust,or have trust but not confidence. Thus, it seems they are of different kinds,though similar in their use. Trust seems to be more of an expression of ourattitudes than confidence, as I might trust in someone who I am not confidentin. In this context I am conveying an optimistic attitude toward the personwhich is contrasted by my belief in them. Conversely, I might be confident onecan complete a job even if I don’t trust them to do it.
Here I am saying myattitude is that I don’t believe they will complete the job, even if I knowthey are capable.F1 can easily be broken down intotwo propositions, two true or false statements, that are easily understandable.I can know that it is true that I have confidence in John and time will confirmor deny the second proposition that John will finish the job on time. F2 cannot be understood in the same context, if it is disassembled we end up with ‘Ihave faith trust’ and ‘John’s work’.
It is clear the first statement is aproposition, like F1’s, and that the second is not. Thus, it would not makesense to evaluate F1 and F2 identically as F2 seems to be saying something morecomplicated than F1. F2 has much more implied, and less explicit, meaning thanF1.
Our typical experience would be positive implications for John’s work, whenI trust John’s work I am endorsing it. The difference between ‘in’ and ‘that’require different analysis, as ‘in’ expresses a commitment to John, not just atrue or false proposition. Suppose I say, “I believe in recycling.” I mightmean that I believe it is good to recycle, but if I don’t recycle myself onewould be justified in claiming that I don’t reallybelieve in recycling (Ganssle, 2014). In requires a commitment to certainpractices, beliefs, schemas, or any combination of those, and is much morecomplicated than a proposition. Some of this can be broken down intopropositions, but as F2 illustrates this isn’t always clear or precise.
F2clearly illustrates our starting assumption, what it actually means isimprecise, but the meaning is clear. I can easily understand the positiveattitude and belief in John without understanding the reasons or specific waysthat constitute how or why John is to be trusted.5. Faith as Trusting In AuthorityF1 and F2 then provide proof of thestarting assumption, and seem to be the common uses of faith in mundane situations.While the following religious cases can also be used in mundane contexts, Ibelieve they are best understood under the context of religious faith. Todivorce these uses from their religious contexts robs them of their voracityand makes them less credible.
The charitable understanding of faith inreligious context then is as follows.F3. I have faith that the Pope speakstruth.Faith in F3 is of a different kindthan in F1 and F2, though there are still many similarities.
F3 still expressesa matter of certainty, offers a conjunctive relationship between the twopropositions, is a linguistic substitute for justification, and implicitlyendorses the second proposition. It is easy here to think that F1 and F2 offercompelling explanations for F3, substituting either trust or confidence in F3makes sense, and both seem to be components of what F3 is conveying. F3 seemsto go farther than the previous statements explored, faith is conveying a trustor confidence, but specifically in the testimony of a particular authority (Watson, 2017).
Which particularauthority isn’t important, but in religious contexts it is explicitly religiousin nature. One can easily say that the faith in the Pope is due to his stationor due to his conveyance of matters of the Bible, but the meaning of F3 doesnot change with either of those definitions. The important consideration isthat faith rests on the authority’s truth.
While this understanding is notexclusive to religious use, and one can appeal to trust in the testimony of aparticular authority in mundane terms, the expression seems to rely ondifferent forms of justification to support it. Consider modifying F3 to ‘Ihave faith that the CEO speaks truth’. Here we might ask what reasons does theCEO have, reasonably we might assume the decision has some level oftransparency and can ask about and understand those reasons. When asking thesame question about F3 the reasons will terminate in an appeal to religiousauthority, which has metaphysical connotations. The mundane explanation mightalso be related to metaphysical, but it is not necessarily so where in thereligious context it seems to be.6. Faith as JustificationIt is tempting to think that faiththen offers a justification for one’s beliefs. In F1, F2, and F3 we see this asat least a component of the meaning in its everyday use.
We might formulate aconcept then like:F4. I don’t need reasons, I havefaith.In F4 I am making a statement thatfaith is a replacement for reasons as justification, and I am changing the typeof response that might be asked of me. This still maintains the elements fromthe previous permutations of faith, there is some level of certainty involved,though it does not imply perfect certainty, and there is an explicitendorsement. Faith here diverges from the previous statements, in F4 as it isno longer conjunctive nor is it about the same kind of thing that F1, F2, andF3 are about. F4 is the first instance that is about faith, and not aboutsomething else, and the proposition is true or false on the basis of faithalone.
Refer back to F1, I can still have faith that John will finish the jobon time even if it turns out that he doesn’t. In F4 if faith turns out to beinsufficient for justification then it no longer makes sense for me to havefaith.F4 is clearly a case of religioususe, I am hard pressed to find an example of when faith in this context wouldbe used in a mundane situation.
When one is pressed for justification, forreasons, I find it hard to think that anyone would say, for example, “I don’tneed reasons for why my car was stolen, I have faith.” What F4 seems to beconveying is an appeal to religious faith as justification, in and of itself.That is to say that faith is the reason for belief. Here the problems with F4begin to be exposed further, as it seems to be a self-refuting supposition tosay that I don’t need reasons because I have a reason (Putnam, 2002). However, my explanation of F4 thus faris incomplete.While this may be used commonly F4seems to be an example of the second assumption, that sometimes we don’t reallysay what we mean, and not a self-refuting supposition.
We would expect one, ifpressed, to then cite reasons for faith. Instead of a linguistic justificationF4 is more an example of shifting justification from one kind, to a religiouskind. I spoke with Pastor Rik Hilborn about this kind of claim that is made inreligious contexts. His understanding of F4 is that the statement is used whenthe person really means, “I have more than just mundane reasons, I havereligious truths that convince me of the proposition.” (Hilborn, 2017) If this is true, and it seems to be so,then our second assumption most certainly offers the best explanation for F4.As it can’t be about knowing, and about justification, because when presseddifferent reasons will emerge.
7. Religious FaithThe previous understandings offaith will help in thinking about the final propositions I want to consider:F5. I have faith that god existsF6. I have faith in godAs I explored previously weencounter the that/in distinction, and realize that both F5 and F6 have differentcontent. F5 is of a similar kind to F1 and F3, there are two distinctpropositions, faith is a conjunctive between them that provides the context ofunderstanding, some certainty is conveyed, there is an endorsement of the idea,and faith serves as a linguistic substitute for justification. F5 could beconsidered a mundane use of the word faith except it seems to rely on F3 insome regards, especially if we examine the Abrahamic traditions and their useof the word faith. It may be that other religious contexts will not appeal toan authority, though Buddhism appeals to the teachings of a buddha who is areligious authority, Hindus might appeal to the Vedic texts, it would seem thatmost religious claims for a god, or gods, need the context of F3 to make sense.
If F5 is simply understood then F6 isthe opposite, a complex sentence that does not offer a great understanding. F5is implied in F6, as it does not make sense to have faith in something thatdoes not exist, however it also implies many of the concepts we have treadpreviously. F6 seems to be a commitment to god, and like the recycling examplein F2, relies on more than just that proposition. If I were to ask why inresponse to F6 we might get examples like F1 – F5, that is confidence, trust,trust in the testimony of a particular authority, justification, or an appealto the ‘fact’ of the matter (I am not saying that F5 is a fact of the matter,rather that one who believes F6 will likely claim F5 as such). I can alsorightly challenge F6 on very different grounds than F5, like recycling, if youclaim to have faith in god but behave in a way that contradicts that thereexists a very reasonable argument against your claim.
F6 also expresses apersonal commitment to the proposition that god exists, beyond justacknowledging the true false relationship of the proposition.8. Faith and KnowledgeWhat then does faith say aboutknowledge? It seems there are a few things I can confidently conclude. Faithseems to operate as a conjunctive measure, even though it can be usedotherwise. I have neglected the adjective use of faith until now, as one mayclaim to be a ‘person of faith’ or in a ‘tradition of faith’. These ratherplain uses mean religious or spiritual and often imply a Christian background.
The uses of faith related to knowing, or claiming to know, a propositionoperate as a conjunctive measure between the agent and the claim and describe acomplex set of concepts.Faith conveys some measure ofcertainty. There is ambiguity however in the amount, it is consistent to usefaith in the context of little or complete certainty, as illustrated in thediscussion of F2 regarding the difference between trust and confidence. Thelack of specificity arises from our starting assumption, that the usage ofwords vary, this seems to be consistent with our conclusion. There is support for faith asjustification in the conjunctive claims, but isn’t justification in and ofitself. In F4 I explored the idea that it is, however this was the weakestclaim of the six considered. Pressing on F4 further reasons emerge and validatethe second assumption that we don’t always say what we mean. Therefore, itseems wrong to conclude that faith is justification from its common use.
9. ConclusionsReligious faith is a justificationbut not necessary justification, rather it seems to be complimentary to otherreasons. This might have consequences for Evidentialists who have religiousfaith. Faith seems to be used as the complimentary justification to believebeyond the evidence which is incompatible with the Evidentialist maxim “believeonly in so far as the evidence allows” (Feldman, 2003). This might require modification or the rejection of the maxim entirelyfor consistency.
The final conclusion of the commonuse of faith is that it’s varied, rich in content and vague in specificity. Themundane cases F1 and F2 are interchangeable in meaning with other, also vague,terms and are equivalent in conversation between the religious andnon-religious. The religious cases F3 – F6 offer little in the pursuit ofknowledge beyond being offered as support for believing in something beyondwhat the evidence might support. Works Cited Austin, J. L. (1956, October 29th).
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