In my previous post on Sobel’s treatment of Pascalian wagers, I indicated that, although I accept a strong thesis about the autonomy of theoretical reason, I believe that religious faith has more to do with practical than with theoretical reason. Now, faith can have as its object either a person or a proposition. (There are also other uses, like having faith in a theory, but I take these two to be the central ones.) Call the former faith-in (as in, ‘I have faith in you’) and the latter faith-that (as in, ‘I have faith that everything will turn out alright’). I take it that religious faith involves both of these. (I have faith-in Jesus and faith-that he rose from the dead.) I believe that the central concept in both cases is that of an attitude of practical reliance. Or, to put it in a plain English slogan, faith means not hedging your bets. If you tell me that you have complete faith in me, but keep looking over my shoulder to make sure I’m not screwing things up, I won’t believe you. Similarly, if you purport to have faith that everything will turn out alright, but spend a lot of time and energy fretting about it (whatever ‘it’ might be), I won’t believe you. These actions are not constitutive of a lack of faith; they are evidence of a lack of faith. The faith itself is a certain practical attitude which is exhibited by relying on the person, or on the truth of the proposition. I’ll be focused here mostly on faith-that, because I think faith-in might be reducible to faith-that the person one has faith-in is reliable, or some such.
The interesting cases of faith are those in which the degree of practical reliance on the person or proposition is much greater than one’s theoretical credence in the person’s reliability or the proposition’s truth. This, I think, is what gives rise to the misconception that faith is belief on insufficient evidence, or belief contrary to the evidence. However, it can be perfectly rational for one’s practical reliance to outstrip one’s theoretical credences in this way. This happens, for instance, when I put my very life into the hands of a physician I know very little about. If I am in immediate danger of dying, I may even entrust myself to a physician whose competence or good-will I have positive reason to doubt, if another is unavailable. What is important here, is that I don’t give practical consideration to the possibility that the physician will fail (or worse), despite the fact that I know (theoretically) that this is a very real possibility. Why? Well, if I don’t trust the physician and follow his directions, I’ll die for sure. It would be practically irrational to start second-guessing him.
I believe that, in the very same way Christian faith can be rational even for someone whose theoretical credence in the propositions of Christian theology is much less than 1. Specifically, according to Christianity, I have a very serious problem: sin. Christianity purports to offer a solution to this problem, a solution that will work only if I exercise faith, that is, if I practically rely on this solution without hedging my bets. Now, suppose I positively believe: (1) that I have this problem and, (2) that Christianity is more credible than any other purported solution of which I am aware. I submit that, in this case, Christian faith is rational for me, even if my credence in the truth of Christianity is not as great as my credence in the disjunction of all the alternative purported solutions, and even if I do not take Christianity to be very credible at all on an absolute scale. As long as it’s my best shot, I’m rational to take it, and I would be irrational to try to hedge my bets. This, however, is all a matter of practical reason, and ought not to interfere with my continued theoretical inquiry.
My conclusion, then, is that faith is a matter primarily of practical reason. Whether faith is rational for a particular individual depends on her theoretical credences, but rational faith does not require having anything like credence 1 in the propositions in which one has faith.
(cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net)