Proof, Evidence, and Faith

A friend recently wrote an essay discussing faith. In it, he gave one of the standard definitions of faith as “A belief that is not based on proof.” The common understanding is that religious beliefs are examples of this, especially since religions tend to use the same word in related (although not identical) fashions. I think this is a good working definition for discussing matters of science and faith, but want to explore how it may miss some subtleties in how we really approach beliefs.

When applying this definition, I wonder how often we really mean belief without any evidence at all, rather than without an ironclad proof. Proof and evidence are not quite the same thing but, in my experience, they are often confused. To explore this a little, consider the following illustration.

Imagine someone was looking for a way to get rich, and his friend dreamed that chewing willow bark cured her of a bothersome headache. Convinced that the dream represented a deep and unknown truth and that this was the golden opportunity, he started growing, harvesting, and distributing willow bark tablets. Based solely on a the random dream, and fueled by his own desire for wealth, he takes a big gamble.

In a different scenario, imagine that someone hears multiple stories of indigenous people chewing willow tree bark and experiencing varying levels of pain relief. Although the effect is not universal and some accounts clearly seem to be placebo effect, there are enough seemingly clear accounts that he tries it himself and experiences a similar relief. Encouraged by this, he begins to invest in controlled trials and analysis to determine if there’s something really there.

Finally, imagine that a product is about to be released in the US market. The key ingredient has been isolated from willow tree bark. Biochemical analysis revealed the mechanism by which it reduced pain signals, and then clinical trials showed its effectiveness and safety. Once released in the market, years of use further show its effectiveness and safety even with long-term use in large populations. Someone hears about this, and decides to invest in the company’s stock.

In each of these cases, someone acts on a belief that some component of willow tree bark could provide effective pain relief to many people. In the first case, most would agree that there was no reason at all for the belief, and I suppose it could serve as an example faith — belief without proof. In the last case, most people would consider the value of the compound to be well proven.

What about the middle case? It illustrates a type of evidence that, while not iron-clad proof, would be reasonable to investigate further if one were so inclined. Most people would not consider that acting in blind faith.

I think we often categorize beliefs as either proof-based or totally unfounded, which misses the subtleties of beliefs based on some evidence. In fact, very few things, in either science or religion, are completely proven.

As long as we operate in the realm of evidence, we can have discussions regarding different types  of evidence, and different models proposed to fit the evidence we have. But when we speak of proof, we narrow the range of phenomena we can talk about, and also limit the range of discussions we can have.

It seems common to treat purely natural perspectives as well-supported by proof (although my previous post explored how that may be an oversimplification). It turns out that there are deep uncertainties regarding a complete description of reality. By itself, this doesn’t prove anything, but it does suggest there are limits to the unequivocal statements we can make about the existence, or lack thereof, of any sort of transcendent realm. Despite this, it’s very common for demands of unequivocal proof to be made upon any claim of transcendent or spiritual nature.

Similarly, many people treat religious matters as elements of faith in which evidence plays no role at all. They assert that truth can be known only through some sort of mystical experience (ie, revelation), and demand adherence to a religious formulation based on some such experience. Or they point to some evidence, declare it to be proof, and demand that it be accepted as such. Either way, they insist that conclusions based on these lines are more correct than any purely natural argument.

In both these cases, people are very certain of their beliefs and assume that’s an indication of a well-reasoned, and hence correct, perspective. This is due to the popular but mistaken idea that convictions are primarily the result of rational processes. However, as Robert Burton said in “On Being Certain“, it’s probably better to consider feelings of certainty as “mental sensations that happen to us”, rather than the output of a rational process. Reasoning may play a role, but so may such things as aesthetics, the weather, and the physical appearance of our favorite philosopher. Our brains actually seem to be wired to make us feel much more confident about our beliefs than we should, and we assert proof when there is at best some contestable evidence.

The result of this is that dialog either shuts down or becomes vitriolic as everyone slips into dogmatism. Since the focus is often placed on proof, discussions of mere evidence are rare.

Personally, I think both science and spiritual beliefs should be developed as carefully-reasoned perspectives of available evidence, and not matters of proof or certainty. Approaching them this way, it’s really a discussion of what we choose to believe, about choice between multiple reasonable possibilities. This allows discussions to move from “Show me your proof!” versus “You must simply believe!”, to “What evidence do you consider important, and how do you think about it?” — an approach that any perspective can use with respect.

There is no black or white, but only gray zones in which we can have reasoned discussions, share experiences and insights, and look at both history and physics. It becomes more about exploration, discussion, and choice, than certainty, proof, and dogmatism.

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