Huemer on Faith
October 13, 2008 — 11:25

Author: Andrew Moon  Category: Religious Belief  Comments: 4

In Skepticism and the Veil of Perception (2001), Michael Huemer defends:
(PC) If it seems to S as if P, then S thereby has at least prima facie justification for believing that P (p. 99)
What’s an example of somebody who doesn’t have such prima facie justification? Huemer gives the example of a religious believer. He writes,

Compare the case of religious faith. Suppose a person has been presented with a certain wafer, which for all the world appears to be an ordinary piece of bread. Nevertheless, he believes it is a part of the body of Christ. Why? Because he has been told very solemnly, by an authority he respects, that this belief is essential to his religion. But why does he accept that religion, when it contradicts the evidence of his senses? I am not speaking here of those Catholics who have sophisticated philosophical arguments to defend their religion, but of the average Catholic, who takes his beliefs on faith.

To take a “leap of faith” is precisely to choose to believe something that does not appear to be the case, or even appears false. If I believe that there is a cup on my desk because I am seeing it, that is not called “faith.” If I choose to believe that there is a cup on my desk, even though I can’t see anything there, that is a leap of faith. Faith is typically associated with authority–for example, someone else tells me that there is a cup here even though I don’t see anything, and I decide to take their word for it. (No one would just decide on their own that the communion wafer turns into the body of Christ.) This decision could be prompted by a feeling of respect for the authority figure, a desire to remain part of the community he represents, and even moral beliefs about the virtue of holding certain beliefs and/or the vice of questioning them. (pp. 109-110)

This example is the first of three ways that a belief counts as unjustified according to (PC). Huemer writes, “a belief may be unjustified if (a) one forms it for reasons other than how things seem (e.g., self-deception), (b) one has evidence against it that one chooses to ignore, or (c) one has reasons for thinking one’s belief-forming method was unreliable.”
I’ll make two preliminary points, and then I’ll present an argument. First, Huemer intends for this case to be a case of (a), but it seems to be more like an example of (b), where the believer has evidence against his belief. (Huemer seems to stress this when he speaks of the wafer, “which for all the world appears to be an ordinary piece of bread.”) I’ll put this point aside.
Secondly, I’ll note that Huemer seems to be attempting to capture a sense of the word “faith” according to which the faith of many believers (specifically, “the average Catholic”) turns out to be unjustified.
Now I will argue that the religious believer’s belief is justified. Compare the science student who believes that his pencil is composed of atoms which are composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons, and there is a lot of space within each atom. The science student looks carefully at his pencil, and it for all the world seems to him that the pencil is not composed in such a way. Basically, he takes it on the authority of his science teacher. This belief seems to me to be as much based “on faith” as the religious believer’s belief. Furthermore, the science student’s belief not only seems to me to be justified, but it also seems to be a case of knowledge! Once the student comes to accept and believe his science teacher, he knows that his pencil is composed of atoms. I’d venture to say that most adults today (and even some readers of this blog) formed their beliefs about atoms in this way. And if the student’s belief is justified, it seems that the religious believer’s belief is as well.

Comments:
  • Mike Almeida

    The principle (PC) is essentially the same as Swinburne’s Principle of Credulity (maybe he cites Swinburne somewhere?). What strikes me as obvious is that, assuming PC is true, we do not have any evidence that the wafer is not substantially the body of Christ. It’s being so is not something that would be observable, so failing to observe that it is does not constitute evidence that it is not. I’m not suggesting that PC is false, but only that it’s been misapplied in this case. Alston notes another case (so does Wykstra). If you look across a room and it appears to you that there is no letter addressed to you on the desk, that is not (even prima facie) evidence that there is no such letter on the desk. Even if the letter were there, you would not observe it from across the room.
    On smaller points, I’m not sure your student knows that the pencil is composed of atoms. Maybe the atoms themselves–and all the way down–are divisible. Or maybe it’s all waves. But I’m also not sure that Huemer’s observer who “sees the cup” does not need faith to believe there’s a cup. Maybe there are no cups at all.

    October 14, 2008 — 7:36
  • But recall the kinds of motives Huemer gives for accepting the authority’s claims.
    Suppose that the science student accepts her teacher’s testimony from “a feeling of respect for the authority figure”, rather than because she has reason to think the teacher knows what she (the teacher) is talking about. In that, it’s not clear the student has knowledge.
    On the other hand, if we’re dealing with a science student who has reason to believe that the teacher knows what she (the teacher) is talking about, this is more like the case of “those Catholics who have sophisticated philosophical arguments to defend their religion”. After all, these arguments tend to be precisely arguments to the effect that Jesus, when he told us that this was his body, told us something that he knew to be the case.
    That said, I think Huemer is wrong to the extent that the arguments need not be sophisticated or philosophical. Just as the science student doesn’t have sophisticated philosophical arguments for the reliability of her teacher, but merely some intuitive judgment, so too the Catholic need not have sophisticated philosophical arguments but a simple intuitive assessment that Jesus is speaking of what he knows.

    October 14, 2008 — 9:23
  • Raymond W. Aldred

    A few things could be said about PC and Andrew’s case with the student.
    First I think the religious believer case could be an example of (a) and (b) in PC, but that’s entirely allowable because the definition given is a disjunction. I can see how Huemer thinks his case might be (a), it seems that the wafer is a wafer and not the body of Christ but the subject believes it to be the body of Christ once consumed because somebody told him it was. He forms his belief not based on what it seems to be the case, but on somebody’s word. A clear example of (a).
    Second I’m not sure your case with the student works. How would it seem if the pencil was not composed of atoms or it is not the case that the pencil seems not to made of atoms? The difficulty I’m having is that it seems the pencil is made with atoms, and the pencil being composed of atoms makes it the case that the pencil seems the way it does. I’m not sure it’s ever the case in the example that the pencil does not seem to be made of atoms.
    It seems one can still develop a case where (a) is not sufficient for being unjustified though. For those of us who have ever seen the movie “A beautiful mind”. John Nash, knowing that he has schizophrenia decides to carry on his life by being very suspicious of newly introduced people to avoid deceiving himself that there is someone there when there is not. He even ignores the characters that seem to be there; suppose he even believes they are not there based on what his wife tell him. I think he does have a rational belief, but he forms a belief other than how things seem to him. Perhaps Nash even has reasons for thinking his belief forming method was unreliable, he does after all know he has schizophrenia, but he adapts to work around that so ( c) might also turn out to be insufficient for being unjustified.

    October 15, 2008 — 21:26
  • The reason I think that Huemer’s case is more like a case of (b) is because of the language he uses. He writes, “But why does he accept that religion, when it contradicts the evidence of his senses?” (my emphasis) and he says that the wafer “for all the world appears to be an ordinary piece of bread.” These count as negative evidence on Huemer’s own epistemology.
    Now in my science case, I said, “Compare the science student who believes that his pencil is composed of atoms which are composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons, and there is a lot of space within each atom. The science student looks carefully at his pencil, and it for all the world seems to him that the pencil is not composed in such a way.” (my emphasis). So the science student not only believes that the pencil is composed of atoms, but also that the pencil is composed of objects with scattered parts with mostly space in between those parts. And this does not seem to him to be true (in the same way that it does not seem that the wafer is Jesus). And I think that the student can have justified belief in both the pencil belief (that it is composed of atoms in that way) and the wafer belief (that it is Jesus). Insofar as Huemer wants to talk about the faith of “the average Catholic” (as I mentioned above), I don’t see any epistemically significant difference between such a Catholic and a science student.

    October 15, 2008 — 23:30