Reason, Faith, Belief, and Certainty

The following is an edited version of an email I wrote to someone in an effort to clarify the relationship between some of these commonly used terms – terms which, when used loosely or without very clear delineation among concepts, can muddle very important issues being discussed. I have posted it elsewhere, but I want it here in order to preserve continuity between other posts I intend to write and to make it more accessible.

It is an explanation of why I advocate the use of reason, and only the use of reason, as a tool of cognition and the basis for what I believe and what propositions I reject.

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A proposition is a statement about reality.

Propositions can fall into two broad categories: Those that have truth value, and those that don’t. A proposition that is verifiable and/or falsifiable has truth value. A proposition that is neither verifiable or falsifiable has no truth value. We call those propositions “arbitrary”, and statements arbitrarily made may be arbitrarily discarded.

Propositions that have truth value ultimately fall into one of two categories: True or false.The placement of propositions into those categories is done by each individual, to varying degrees based on ones degree of “certainty” that the proposition is true.

“Certainty” is a word that describes how fully one accepts the truth of a particular proposition. It is up to each person to judge for themselves how certain they are of any given proposition. No one can decide this for someone else – the degree of certainty is always up to each persons individual judgment.

Certainty always falls on a spectrum from 0% (not at all accepting) to 100% (accepting completely).

On this spectrum, we have certain broad “zones” where we classify the certainty of our acceptance of a proposition. For example…

If a person feels 0% certain of the truth of a proposition, they may say they “do not believe”.

If a person feels 1-20% certain, they might call themselves “doubtful”

If a person feels 21-40% certain, they might consider themselves open to the possibility that it’s true, while not yet accepting it.

If a person feels 41-60% certain, they might consider themselves “on the fence”

If a person feels 61-80% certain, they might say “it’s probably true”

If a person feels 81-100% certain, they might call themselves a believer.

Note: These percentages are rough estimates and only used as an example. The true degrees of certainty, and the thresholds they trigger, are different for each person and must be decided on by each person. There are no real numbers… but there are real degrees, and each person much decide what the thresholds are for each degree of certainty.

There is no law that determines what degree of certainty any person must have about the truth of any proposition. We are all free to be as certain or as uncertain as we want about any given proposition whatsoever.

There is no law that demands what we base our degree of certainty upon. We can base our certainty on whatever we choose, or we can arbitrarily choose to be certain.

So on exactly what should be base our degree of certainty?

The philosophical branch of epistemology concerns itself with exactly this question. Among other things, it endeavors to identify and justify what certainty ought to be based on. (It also speaks about what certainty means, whether it’s possible, etc… but that is outside the province of this discussion).

When we debate faith versus reason, we are specifically debating what the basis of certainty (and thus belief) ought to be.

Reason is a process by which one uses empirically observed fact in order to ascertain facts which are not empirically observed. Reason relies of the law of non-contradiction (A=A), in concert with sensory evidence, in order to gain knowledge and understanding of what we do not observe, based on what we do observe.

Faith is not a process. It is a direct cognitive leap from “not accepting” straight to “accepting”. Do not pass go. Do not bother with scaling belief against evidence.

So how does this apply to certainty? Is it possible to believe a proposition on faith and on reason?

The answer is yes.

In the context of epistemology, reason demands that the degree of certainty with which one accepts a proposition is congruous with the amount of evidence that supports the truth of that proposition. In other words, if you are presented with a proposition, backed up with evidence that supports it to a degree of 50% (for example), then reason demands that your certainty that the preposition is true should be roughly 50%.

If the proposition is backed up with evidence that supports it to a degree of 80%, then your degree of certainty should be 80%

(It is important to point out here that supporting evidence of 100% is not possible. Since all evidence is subject to further discovery, 100% is never possible. We cannot ever know everything – the potential for future discoveries are an inherent aspect of objective, contextual knowledge.)

So, if one is committed to reason, one will always strive to ensure that ones degree of certainty is scaled – to the best degree that one is capable – to the degree of evidence that supports that proposition.

What about faith?

In the context of epistemology, faith is the act of *assigning certainty disproportionately* from the amount of evidence supporting a particular proposition.

In other words, if a certain proposition is supported only with 25% evidence, yet one accepts the proposition with a a 99% degree of certainty – one has “bridged the gap” with faith.

So, to be clear… a person who does this would believe the proposition based on “evidence” (to the degree of 25%), and “faith” (bridging the cognitive gap). In this way, most faith-based beliefs do have supporting, albeit insufficient, evidence.

(This “bridging of the gap” is what is commonly referred to as a “leap of faith” – it’s a cognitive leap from certainty that is supported by evidence to certainty that is not supported by evidence).

It is important to remember… just because one accepts a proposition based on evidence and faith does not mean that faith and reason are compatible. They are two separate and mutually exclusive concepts. Evidence generates a specific degree of certainty…. and you are free at that point to stop there, or you are free to exercise faith and assign more certainty to the proposition than justified by the available evidence.

To say that faith can be based on evidence is nonsensical. Faith always begins where evidence ends – literally by definition.

My position is that such a cognitive bridge is always wrong. It is always wrong to assign a degree of certainty that is disproportionate to the amount of evidence available. Our degree of certainty ought to always be scaled to what we ascertain via empirical evidence, coupled with reason, any degree of certainty above and beyond that – or even below that – is cognitively unjustified. This is the definitive statement of my position.

So, if you really want to discuss epistemology… this is the place to start.

Reason demands that certainty is scaled to evidence.

Faith is the act of subverting the scaling process and assigning a degree of certainty that is incongruous with the amount of evidence available.

I advocate a policy of strict adherence to the demands of reason. I reject any suggestion that my degree of certainty of any proposition ought to be scaled above (or below) the degree of evidence available.

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