Definitions of “Belief,” “Evidence,” and “Faith”

Definitions of “Belief,” “Evidence,” and “Faith”

Albert E+

Some Ground Rules About My Future Use of These Words

Hi.  While preparing this blog entry on the above topic, I recently became aware of the new book written by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, called The Grand Design.  This book essentially makes the claim that modern theoretical physics can dispel with the necessity of God in describing the creation of the Universe and all objects contained within.

Of course, given my own professional background and research interests, I definitely have a comment or two about their wide-reaching and—in my opinion—highly erroneous claims.  Since I don’t have access to a copy of the book myself, I cannot really make any detailed comments until I’ve had a chance to read it myself.  However, there is at least one comment attributed to Hawking that is worth noting for deep consideration.  This is his claim that: “Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing.” (?????)

Without further substantiation from Drs. Hawking and Mlodinow in their book, I’m at a total loss to understand what justifications can be made to link “gravity” (best described to date in terms of Einstein’s theory of general relativity) with some form of spontaneous creation from nothing.  By itself, this statement is logically incoherent in the absence of more commentary to come from this book.  Furthermore, as the formidable Christian philosopher Dr. William Lane Craig quite rightly makes clear in a comment found on YouTube here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=55UgLEKbz2s

The word “nothing” in Dr. Hawking’s above comment needs to be clarified, since a philosopher’s understanding of  “nothing” is literally “non-being.”  It then becomes difficult without further argumentation to explain what it means for “being” to come out of “non-being,” and to do so “spontaneously.”

In fairness, Drs. Hawking and Mlodinow may have some very substantive arguments to better justify this claim, though preliminary reviews and articles indicating their appeal to so-called “M-Theory” in string theory leave me completely unimpressed.  It so happens that I’m very critical of string theory, both on scientific and metaphysical grounds;  to me, any invocation of “string-inspired” ideas is more of a dodge than an explanation of anything.  In fact, I believe it’s no accident that many atheistic scientists are also big supporters of string theory.  This may be a topic for a future blog entry.

Having now finished with this brief diversion, let me go back to my original motivation for this post.  Its purpose is to establish some ground rules for my future usage of the words “belief,” “evidence,” and “faith” in any dialogue about the existence of God, science and religion, and other related topics.

Before expounding on such subtle and controversial topics as the existence of God, it should be obvious why some common understanding of basic vocabulary is absolutely necessary.  When people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and other “New Atheists” make repeated claims that there’s “no evidence” for the existence of God, one should immediately ask them what exactly they mean by “evidence.”  I’m careful about how I try to communicate my ideas to others, and I get very annoyed when otherwise intelligent people like these fail to provide the most basic courtesy of defining their terms of discourse before they proceed to discuss religion using their selective vocabulary.  In my opinion, this is a disappointing and distasteful tactic, and I think they should be called out every time they publicly claim “no evidence” for the existence of God.

To this end, I wish to offer you the range of possible meanings that are casually used for describing concepts like “belief,” “evidence,” and “faith”—three examples from the entire vocabulary used in addressing atheism, science and religion, and the existence of God.  Now instead of creating my own definitions for these words or using potential definitions derived from the Bahá’í Writings—which you can rightly claim to be an improper move—I want to use a reasonable set of standard definitions from acceptable sources. Therefore, I’ve copied not one, but two sets of definitions for “belief,” “evidence,” and “faith” from respectable online dictionaries.  These definitions, and their sources, are as follows:

From the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary: http://dictionary.cambridge.org/

belief:  n. the feeling of being certain that something exists or is true

– All non-violent religious and political beliefs should be respected equally.- [+ that ] It is my (firm) belief that nuclear weapons are immoral.- His belief in God gave him hope during difficult times.- Recent revelations about corruption have shaken many people’s belief in (= caused people to have doubts about) the police.- He called at her house in the belief that (= confident that) she would lend him the money.

evidence:  n.    one or more reasons for believing that something is or is not true:

– The police have found no evidence of a terrorist link with the murder.- Is there any scientific evidence that a person’s character is reflected in their handwriting?- There is no scientific evidence to suggest that underwater births are dangerous.

faith:  n. great trust or confidence in something or someone

– She has no faith in modern medicine.- You’ll cope – I have great faith in you.- After the trial, his family said they had lost all faith in the judicial system.-  Ministers must start keeping their promises if they want to restore faith in the government.

From the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary: http://www.merriam-webster.com/

belief:  n. 1) a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing; 2) something believed; especially : a tenet or body of tenets held by a group; 3) conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon especially when based on examination of evidence

– There is growing belief that these policies will not succeed.- He gets angry if anyone challenges his religious beliefs.- We challenged his beliefs about religion.

evidence:  n. 1.a) an outward sign: indication   b) something that furnishes proof: testimony: specifically : something legally submitted to a tribunal to ascertain the truth of a matter;  2.  one who bears witness; especially : one who voluntarily confesses acrime and testifies for the prosecution against his accomplices

– There is no evidence that these devices actually work.- He has been unable to find evidence to support his theory.- Investigators could find no evidence linking him to the crime.- The jury had a great deal of evidence to sort through before reachinga verdict.- There is not a scrap of evidence in her favor.- Anything you say may be used as evidence against you.

faith:  n. 1. a) allegiance to duty or a person: loyalty    b) (1) : fidelity to one’s promises (2) : sincerity of intentions; 2. a) (1) : belief and trust in and loyalty to God (2) : belief in thetraditional doctrines of a religion    b) (1) : firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2) :complete trust; 3.  : something that is believed especially with strong conviction;especially    : a system of religious beliefs <the Protestant faith>

– on faith : without question <took everything he said on faith> – His supporters have accepted his claims with blind faith.- Our faith in the government has been badly shaken by the recent scandals.- Lending him the money to start his own business was an act of faith.- It requires a giant leap of faith for us to believe that she is telling the truth.- Nothing is more important to her than her faith in God.- She says that her faith has given her the courage to deal with this tragedy.

It should become immediately obvious to you that these definitions allow for considerable overlap of concepts that lack the precision of mathematically motivated definitions.  This is an unfortunate consequence of having to use words instead of mathematical equations to communicate.  My point with this analysis is to illustrate that both atheists and religious people can legitimately use words like “belief,” “evidence,” and “faith” within their own internal vocabularies and oftentimes talk past each other, sometimes not even recognizing points of agreement simply because they have never bothered to define their terms at the beginning!  I think a lot of needless conflict can be avoided by taking this simple measure from the start.

Now, having provided some definitions of these words, what are the ones that I will use?  In fairness to myself, it would be very difficult to arbitrarily use a specific set and stay with it, although I do like the conciseness of the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary definitions.  At the same time, there is a certain richness found in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary definitions that provide a greater level of nuance when employed for specific situations.  So my best answer to this question is to refer back periodically to this blog entry to reverse-engineer the type of definition I used within a given context.

There is, however, one definition that I will definitely NEVER use within this list, and that is the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary 2. b)(1) definition of “faith,” namely: “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.”

The reason why I will never use this definition is because it automatically denies me the opportunity to talk about “religious faith” without implying a claim in belief without “proof” or“evidence.”  This is a central claim made by atheists like Richard Dawkins et al. that I will always reject without some qualifier.  In other words, I firmly believe in a concept of“faith” in both scientific and religious contexts that doesn’t necessarily imply a lack of “proof,” “evidence,” “reason,” etc. for a given claim.  Therefore, for future consideration, whenever I want to use the word “faith” within the context of “firm belief in something for which there is no proof,” I will always add the qualifier “blind” to clearly make reference to “blind faith.”  Similarly, I may make reference to “faith with reason” or something to that effect, but my use of “faith” by itself will never mean the 2. b) (1) definition given by the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.

I’ll conclude by admitting what seems like a pedantic approach in explaining the meanings of “belief,” “evidence,” and “faith” to be adopted in future blog entries.  Nevertheless, when understanding the truth-claims found in books like The Grand Design, all concerned will be on better ground knowing what the other person means.

Signed, Albert E+

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2 thoughts on “Definitions of “Belief,” “Evidence,” and “Faith”

  1. I don’t think it’s at all pedantic to insist that we have defined terms and aren’t talking past each other. I completely agree that we sometimes miscommunicate because when we see the word “religion” in one context, we apply to it our own.

    A further problem I’ve encountered in some conversations about faith and reason is that occasionally correspondents are so attached to their definitions that they feel they must adhere to them at any cost. I am reminded of an article in Skeptical Inquirer in which the essayist wrote: “I’m not allowed to have psychic experiences—I’m a skeptic.”

    This actually led to me writing a story (“Content with the Mysterious”) that was published in Analog SF magazine. What happens, I wondered, if a self-proclaimed skeptic actually does have some sort of inexplicable experience?

    At what point does the way we define ourselves, our beliefs and our terminology become an impediment to investigating reality?

  2. Conception is partly the result of perception – and perception is partly the result of conception. If something happens for which we have almost no experience we do not process it with meaning and it can be ignored or barely recognized and make us uncomfortable or prone to mis-understanding. There are several cases from psychology that point out the problem. But the problem becomes an opportunity to witness that there are things that do not fit in our experience and call us to a wider experience, a more sustainable basis for perception and conception. Diligence is still required to overcome simple mistakes but it’s worthwhile to consider things we may not be used to.

    I think that our definitions have to be open ended enough to allow for unexpected forms to fit. Einstein’s thought experiments – cross checking facts from one aspect to another until a result is achieved – are great for this broadening of perception and conception. Definitions, even whole paradigms, which are unsound tend to cause blind spots by the same mechanism.

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