Faith and reason

A friend of mine posted the following question as a note on Facebook: “Are faith and reason completely unrelated?” I felt I needed to let off a bit of steam regarding this topic, but rather than start a Facebook flame war, I decided to post my response here. So here’s my view on the whole faith vs. reason misunderstanding.

First, my working definitions of “faith” and “reason” (based on merriam-webster.com):

faith: firm belief in something for which there is no proof
reason: inferring or thinking in orderly ways; ie. logical proofs

I think the real problem here is that most people don’t use the word “reason” to mean “proof,” they use it to mean “thinking about something.” At that point, yes, faith and reason are completely intertwined because you can think all day about something for which you have no proof, but that doesn’t change the status of affairs. To my view, there is not really much point in using this definition of “reason” because everyone must “think” to some extent in order to accept something, even by faith.

So I will use the above definitions. If you disagree with them, feel free to disregard the rest of this post. There is no point in continuing if the same words mean different things to you.

“Faith” and “reason” both describe methods for arriving at belief or conviction, and the difference is simple and clear: reason is the presence of a proof, and faith is the absence of proof. I’m not sure they are not in and of themselves methods–rather, they are disjoint sets of methods.

Basically, I mean this: if I have verified a proof of a conjecture by accepting certain axioms and checking the logic, then by definition I cannot believe that conjecture “by faith,” because I have a proof. Once something is truly proved, believing it no longer requires faith.

Anything I cannot accept by proof (by reason), I accept by other means (by faith). Here’s the interesting point: I might have a multitude of evidence for the conjecture, but unless I have a proof, faith MUST be involved, by definition. I suppose one could argue that the mere presence of axioms in a proof is faith, since one has to accept them without proof. At that point they must concede that faith is both ubiquitous and necessary.

Faith and reason are by strict definition disjoint, although I would probably agree that in practice they are often muddled and confused. I feel that such confusion contributes to personal offense, as various parties accuse each other of being irrational. If we all accepted that most practical belief (basically, anything outside mathematics or formal logic) requires faith, we could minimize the accusations and bad feeling.

Or we could just spend all day blindly and ironically bashing each other for being “irrational.” That works, too. 🙂

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