CEPA eprint 2610

Faith plays different roles

Gash H. (2010) Faith plays different roles. In: G. E. Lasker & K. Hiwaki (eds.) Personal and Spiritual Development in the World of Cultural Diversity. Vol VII. IIAS, Tecumseh Ontario: 15–20.. Available at http://cepa.info/2610
Table of Contents
Faith and religion
Faith is a concept that straddles both spiritual and practical domains. We learn to expect things on the basis of experience. Learning involves moving from the known towards the unknown. Faith is always about something we have learned and it is like probability in that we may feel certain about some things and less sure of other things. However, current models of learning show how some of the things we learn may only have quite temporary viability: some of what we learn can be false. In addition, people differ manifestly in terms of both their personal confidence and their comfort with uncertainty concerning events. Further, faith differs in the roles it plays in science and in religion. This paper concurs with the view that some highly publicised attacks on religious faith are based on mistaken views of religion and faith.
Key words: uncertainty, science, religion, learning, constructivism.
In a series of papers at this conference during the past decade I have explored issues in the religious domain from a psychological perspective. A repeated theme in those papers was to see to what extent psychological reasons or explanations could be provided for phenomena that normally appear to have strictly religious or spiritual meanings. My concern was that in a world with declining interest in organised religion, it is important to explore the appeal of ideas that have traditionally been located in the religious domain and to understand their value in psychological terms. Previously I looked at concepts like wonder and grace. In this paper the focus is on faith.
Mystery is one central element in our understanding of the spiritual. Religious and spiritual matters are sometimes not quite logical, not quite rational. I have approached this mystery in different ways during this series of conference papers. One approach depends on forms of associationist learning that facilitate superstitious or magical thinking. Another approach is the recognition that novel ideas appear unaccountably out of the unconscious: systemic properties of mind entail an imbalance between what is accessible versus inaccessible to consciousness. Indeed, I must not pretend that the approaches are independent of each other as they are linked by Gregory Bateson s wonderful phrase  epistemological panic a neurosis that allowed religion free reign to fill certain gaps between what is known and what is not known. Though not signalled by Bateson in this way, magical thinking covers gaps in knowledge via forms of thought that arise on account of our capacity to allow correlation to pose as causation.
Gaps in our ability to understand our experience are often highly significant personally and the moments of resolution of this uncertainty provide surprises that are often enriching and satisfying. Not that all novel solutions to epistemological uncertainty provide spiritual nourishment, but some do and the literature on creativity and on epiphanies offers evidence to the power of some of these experiences.
This mystery often has to do with the non-ontological status of representational thought in a constructivist epistemology. Thinking is about viability not about truth. This consequence of constructivism is notoriously hard to live with. In the heat of the moment people often forget and become irate realists! And for a simple psychological reason: one needs to hold assumptions steady in order to think rationally. One can t look at something in two ways at the same time. Figure and ground shift but do not merge in e.g., Escher Drawings. Holding the assumptions steady means holding onto one possible reality. Indeed, this invites constructivist mindfulness: that is, enabling awareness of other possibilities, rather than settling for one reality. However, it s the corollary I want to emphasise here. The resolution of moments of uncertainty offers new vistas, shows how our experiences of our worlds can be different. So when this means offering solutions to problems, hope is rewarded, appearing unexpectedly and crucially by means not in our control and so mysterious.
Mystery and unsubstantiated expectation signal the unknown. Recent accounts of constructivist approaches to cognition give prominence to probabilistic learning models (Johnson, 2010). At the heart of the constructivist account of knowing is an expectation that we can understand regularities in experience and that these regularities grow over time taking account of increasingly complex experiences. However, the assigning of probability levels to events is a consequence of learning and necessarily invokes faith. Piaget s (1970) account of learning is a process model known as equilibration. Misgivings had been expressed about the explanation of equilibration (Johnson, 2010). In part this criticism is associated with the arrival of complex mathematical models of cognitive process requiring precision about how the process works. For example, how are particular aspects of experience selected? In the burgeoning research activity on cognition and cognitive development at present there are a variety of competing theoretical models. However, a consensus is growing about modelling the emergence of representations of the world in a variety of domains (Johnson, 2010). This approach, called  neoconstructivist , emphasises a general statistical learning model that recognises the adaptive and anticipatory nature of thought and the central role of action in learning and development. I take these new developments to be broadly within the same paradigm but with considerable development in the detail in relation to the earlier model cognitive development proposed by Piaget.
The constraints to the cognitive models described in Johnson (2010) seem associated with the levels of learning described in Bateson (1979). First for example, there are those due to human biology (senses and neurones). Bateson referred to these as level zero or hard wired features of the nervous system. Second, there are the constraints depending on internal consistency (the coherence of what is known) and third external consistency (the coherence between what an individual knows and the common knowledge of the individual s group). Internal consistency constraints appear to be like Bateson s level one learning and external consistency constraints may be either level two or level three forms of learning. Leave two was defined as learning context as an intra-individual phenomenon. Level three was about the personal presentation of sets of contexts that define a person s self, that is, defining self alternatively depending on social context, and so about inter-individual context learning.
I suspect a case can be made that Bateson s levels zero and one inspire high confidence, whereas level two and three learning are more open to contextual influence. Level zero being hard-wired and level one being defined as learning that something is the case are conceived as rigid. In the recent past forms of probabilistic learning have been proposed. Even more recently Bayesian statistics have been invoked in models of early causal reasoning in very young children. My interest here is to propose Bateson s levels as a hypothetical way of looking at expectations that may be useful if we want to explain conditions in which faith may increase or decrease. How do these probabilistic models fit with Bateson s levels?
All the forms of learning mentioned define learning in terms of making an association between items that were not associated before the learning occurred. The theories differ in terms of the explanation provided for making the connection. Other differences arise on account of the complexity of the phenomena explained: simple phenomena, the self, other persons and so on. In some recent papers I have focused on ways some learning theories give rise to magical thinking, particularly through the natural tendency for the human mind to use heuristics or learning shortcuts. While heuristics provide ways of organising experience, they may not stand up to critical examination. In our experience of practical living expectancies are adjusted according to their viability. However, some types of learning escape such adjustments. Level-one magical learning may be highly resistant to change through its support via testimony. I wonder if this is a function of the testimony or the level of the learning? Bateson discussed how higher level learning was resistant to disconfirmation. In the next phase of the paper I want to examine how faith becomes enmeshed in unexamined assumptions. These considerations are part of broader question about our faith and when it s secure and when it s insecure.
Faith and religion
Faith is always about an expectation in relation to something, maybe an action, an event or a phenomenon. For the present, we can estimate the degree of faith that we have for something: faith is like probability and ranges from high to low. A good tennis player expects to get a high percentage of first serves  in . We expect that the academic year will begin on (more or less) the same date as it did last year. We may say that we anticipate spring to occur in conjunction with St Patrick s Day (March 17th) and use the word anticipate because signs of spring are less certain than the predictability of the academic calendar.
There is a tendency for the concept of faith to be strongly associated with religious beliefs and practices. A dictionary definition defines faith as belief  especially in religious doctrines . Dissent is to be avoided in religions. Religious texts possess Truth. Heresy arises when central beliefs are given alternative interpretations. This is usually absolutely unacceptable within the faith domain. Faith is a requirement for religious principles whether they are established by being  written down in the scriptures, or arrived at by discussion and decision as in the case of Papal Infallibility. So faith in these prescripts is required for adherents to the religion. ”Islam is based on five  pillars of faith: 1. To bear witness that there is none worthy of worship save Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah 2. To pray daily. 3. To give alms. 4. To fast in the month of Holy Ramadan. 5. To perform the Pilgrimage to Mecca. (Religion of Islam, web reference). In the Protestant church many of the articles of faith are placed in the creed in the context of what it is necessary to believe.
Faith plays a particular role in religions and a different role in science explained neatly using Maturana s (1988) phrasing the  criterion of validation depends on the domain of knowing . We could put it otherwise: religions deal with substantial amounts of epistemologically unverifiable information. The role faith plays here is to bolster important principles within a faith community. However, faith is not just an attitude towards religious principles. Faith implies a personal attitude or relationship of trust or unconditional acceptance to an object, person, or a process or the result of a process. The tradition of contrasting religion and science on account of the way they juxtapose reason and faith only applies to some expressions of faith and is an oversimplification of the roles faith may play in reason and human activity (Eagleton, 2009). Religious practitioners have faith in their rituals and in their ethical ways of being with their world. The rituals often are designed to remind them to be mindful of their ways of relating with each other. However, scientists also have faith in their procedures, and perhaps it is because different ways of being are involved that the scope for misunderstanding and distrust sharpens. Different ways of being arise sharply when the processes implicit in our realities have different criteria of validation. Isn t it rather like the different realities embedded in different languages?
Faith itself may play a major role as a criterion of validation in questions of evidence. Fundamentalists use faith in this way, and it is a major source of irritation for Dawkins (web reference). Here faith blocks off inquiry. However, this is not the only role for faith. Scientists have faith in their procedures and in the possibilities of providing viable models through scientific procedures. In this sense faith is a guiding principle and an aspiration rather than  an article of (unyielding) faith . I have the impression that the main difficulty with faith is when it is taken as conveying certainty! Yet there must also be other rigidities in non-religious thinking, as Eagleton puts it aptly (2009, p 127):  It is simply a liberal paradox that there must be something closed-minded about open-mindedness and something inflexible about tolerance. Or is this the inevitable consequence of mental activity being systemic in nature?
In previous papers I presented epiphanies as special spiritual moments where new insights were understood. Eagleton (2009) explains that such moments provide opportunities for people to become authentic human beings  adding that the French philosopher Alain Badiou calls them  events . Passionate commitment to ideals follows from such understandings. It is as though for Badiou a new person emerges by achieving this new understanding.
People clearly differ in the degree to which faith is part of their personality. Centrally faith is about a degree of certainty in relation to the object of faith. Not everyone has the commitment that arises from Badiou type events, or spiritual moments as I described them at this conference previously. In psychological terms it seems some forms of faith may be related to self esteem. At present a study is being undertaken on  risk intelligence in Ireland. It can be found at http://www.projectionpoint.com/ and is being directed by Evans and Jacobus (2010).
Faith in one s capacity to deal with new situations seems to be associated with the ability to judge when one is right or wrong. It s an intriguing insight into one s capacity to judge statements. It works like this. The test contains about 50 statements many of which one could not be expected to know. One judges each statement in terms of its likelihood. A calibration curve is calculated for which the x-axis represents the probability estimates that an individual assigns (0%, 10%, 20% and so on) and the y-axis represents the proportion of statements in each of these categories which were true. With high risk intelligence you get a good correlation between the two axes. Over-confident people tend to be below the line after the 50% estimate. That is, they estimate their confidence in more statements at 60%, 70% etc than is warranted by the data. The test is about gauging your own level of uncertainty, so it is about self knowledge rather than knowledge of the facts presented on the test. So rather than being about knowledge of the items, the test is about the participants level of comfort with their own uncertainty.
Returning to our everyday living. We expect things to happen in certain ways. Faith is the glue holding such expectancies in place. What can challenge such faith, and what can enhance it? Normally it s the ongoing experience of living. This week I watched a small boy loose his composure in a big Museum, he was lost! Faith evaporated. Also recently I watched a rugby match and watched the faith ebb and flow from one team to another. The team with faith played as a coherent system, and this flowed from one to the other during the game. Faith plays different roles and maybe it s the process of putting the glue in place that is critical in understanding the role faith plays.
Bateson, G. (1979). Mind and Nature. New York: Dutton.
Dawkins, R. [Retreived 6.4.2010] http://thinkexist.com/quotation/faithisthegreatcop-out-thegreatexcuse_to/224384.html
Eagleton, T. (2009) Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. London: Yale University Press.
Evans, D., & Jacobus, B. (2010) Projection Point. Retrieved [6.4.10] http://www.projectionpoint.com/calibration_curve.php
Johnson, S. (2010) Neoconstructivism: The new science of cognitive development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Maturana, H. (1988) Reality: The search for objectivity or the quest for a compelling argument. Irish Journal of Psychology, 9, 25-82. (Special issue: Radical constructivism, autopoiesis and psychotherapy. Ed. Vincent Kenny.)
Piaget, J. (1970) Piaget’s theory. In Carmichael’s Manual of Child Psychology. Third Edition. (ed.) Paul Mussen. New York: Wiley.
Religion of Islam. Retrieved [6.4.10] http://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/cultural/religion/islam/beliefs.html
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