Untangling Faith and Knowledge

faithI have been working hard lately to understand what to make of doubt.  To see where it fits into proper religious life. I’m not sure what’s going on, as there seems to be a lot of similar effort going around, including a fabulous post over at RationalFaiths, as well as a not-so-stellar article from the Ensign this month. The latter was sent to me by relative trying to help me with my “issues”.  The former I read because I follow the blog closely.  To simplify things, go and read both first, to get us all on the same page.

There… that’s better.  Overall, i really liked Matthew’s take on faith vs doubt, especially his explanation of how we sometimes talk past each other at church by using different definitions.  I also think it’s important for us less orthodox members to remember that most scriptural uses of the terms are more likely to be used in the more “truth-centered” rather than “objective” sense.

However, I find the objective view much more useful, as I find we are rarely, if ever, actually in a position where the absolute truths can rightly actually be assumed. So here, I’ll try to put down exactly how these terms seem to fit together, in my mind. I’ll try and update the post as my understanding evolves over time.

Given a proposition [A], (e.g. Rome is in Europe), a person can take an infinite number of views on the likely veracity of the statement.  However, for simplicity, I think those positions can be lumped into five categories.

  1. I think there is a 95-100% chance that [A] is true. — This is equivalent to certainty or “knowledge” in the positive sense.
    1. I KNOW that Rome is in Europe.
  2. I think there is a 60-95% chance that [A] is true. — This is equivalent to “belief”, or mental assent.
    1. I BELIEVE that Rome is in Europe.
  3. I think there is a 40-60% chance that [A] is true. — This is complete uncertainty or ambivalence.
    1. I have NO IDEA whether or not Rome is in Europe.
  4. I think there is a 5-40% chance that [A] is true. — This is “doubt“.
    1. I doubt (or think it is unlikely) that Rome is in Europe..
  5. I think there is a 0-5% chance that [A] is true. — This is once again certainty or “knowledge” though now in the negative.
    1. I KNOW that Rome is NOT in Europe.

Again, in this objective view, there is no distinction made as to whether the proposition actually is, in reality, true or not. We are simply talking about how each of us subjectively views the likelihood that it is true. I think everyone will have their own cut-off points for where each category begins or ends. Some will consider certainty to mean >80%, while others would accept nothing less than 99.999999%.  Here, our lumping allows us to use a common framework.

Now, a few other commonly used terms.

  • Questioning: this would, to me at least, include categories 2-4, and essentially exclude positions 1 and 5.
    • I wonder if Rome is really in Europe, or if it might actually be in Africa…
  • Hope – this then refers to our desire that the proposition be true.
    • I really hope/want/wish that Rome is in Europe, because I just won free tickets to Europe, and want to see Rome while I’m there.
  • Faith – This is the most complicated of the bunch.  I think that faith gets often used interchangeably with belief, but erroneously so in my mind.  From all I have learned, faith is not simply a matter of our mental assent to propositions, or to our opinion about the likelihood of such statements.  Rather, faith is a principle of action. It is the driving force which causes us to act  – and this can even be without respect to our beliefs as defined above.  Faith is the decision to act as if a propositional statement were true.
    • For example, take the proposition: Graduating from college will guarantee you a good job.  As a high school senior, I was cynical enough to “know” that this wasn’t true (Position #5) in an absolute sense for everyone. Yet, I hoped it was true, at least in my individual case. Because of that hope, I then acted in faith: I applied to college, took out loans, paid tuition, studied, etc. There is faith. Not in my thinking the outcome was certain, or even necessarily probable.  It was in the actions that followed from hope; in acting as if the statement actually were true.
      • Hope is the desire for fruit that leads you to plant Alma’s seed; faith is the hours spent working – watering, weeding and caring for the tree.
      • Peter hoped to go to his Lord on the water.  Faith was jumping overboard.

With these definitions, I still struggle to know what to make of the scriptural injunctions against doubting.  Similar pronouncements are common among the words of the latter-day Prophets.  I’m still quite troubled by the recent excommunication of Bro. John Dehlin, ostensibly because of his public expression of his doubts, notwithstanding his faith which he has demonstrated by his actions. Bro. Dehlin seems to have been excommunicated for saying, “I think the probability that [A] is true is <50%.” (Where [A]=Jesus was resurrected, or the Book of Mormon was actually written by Ancient Jews living in America, etc).  He seems to have been tried and excommunicated based on his evaluation of the evidences for and against, rather than based on his actions driven by faith. No one said – “Hey, your unorthodox beliefs have caused you to pay inadequate tithes, therfore you’re being excommunicated”; or “because you don’t think it likely that Jesus was resurrected, you have been breaking important commandments”. No, instead, he was attacked because of his beliefs. Because he had come to the “wrong” conclusions. Sounds a lot like trammeling to me.


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