One of the interesting changes in the English languages over the past century has been the emergence of a taboo connotation to the word ‘faith’. Sacrilege requires sanctity for its meaning, and the sacred value in this case is ‘truth’. This is something valued by many people with many different views of the world, but it is the highest value of many Positivists, as I discussed previously. ‘Faith’ and ‘truth’ are now positioned by some as opposites, a narrative rooted in a certain negative view of religion. Yet this conjunction erroneously implies there can be no faith in science – and this is clearly an error.
A flash of negative affect just went through some readers, quite beyond their conscious control. Make a mental note of this experience, if you had it, as we will return to this shortly.
The concept of ‘faith’ generally refers to near-complete trust or confidence, and it is difficult to live a happy life without some kind of faith. We need faith in ourselves, for instance, else we slip into depression. Marriage is an act of faith – as emphasized by saying someone has been ‘unfaithful’ when they violate that deep trust that sustains married couples. Faith in science can be most clearly seen in situations where people have hope that apparently insurmountable problems have an imminent technological solution. When no cure currently exists, what does the terminally ill patient pin their hopes on if not science? Vanishingly few people have their lives saved by medical techniques devised after their diagnosis, but the fear of death is salved by hoping.
The knee-jerk reaction to the flash of negativity felt by those for whom “faith in science” is a forbidden conjunction rests precisely on the belief that faith involves, as Kierkegaard shrewdly saw of his own religious faith, taking something on the strength of the absurd. I believe that what makes a marriage work is exactly this kind of faith, and this is very different from the stock Positivists place in empirical testing. Positivism, which is based upon a view of the world that is curtailed at the boundaries of the testable, attempts to minimise faith. Trusting the testable over the untestable does not require faith as such, it is simply the best bet – and Positivists, generally speaking, are always trying to place the best bets, at least when they cannot avoid making bets altogether.
Faith in science, then, is not the pure, cold rationalism of the Positivist. They may love science (if that is not too emotive a term!) but theirs is not usually the faith of marriage or religion. However, faith in science manifests when technology is seen as a source of salvation – often with an accompanying downplaying of the risks. This kind of bias is very human, and does not seem to the individuals concerned to qualify as trusting in absurdity. Nonetheless, issues such as techno-immortality – which from a rational standpoint would be catastrophic for our planet – reveal a genuinely absurd faith in science.
In fact, it may be clearer to call this “faith in science fiction”, since this is a fairer assessment of what is entailed. A fantasy is projected in which miraculous outcomes are attained by the application of science to some problem, without any consideration of likelihood or the plausible negative consequences. The cost of faith is always a certain blindness – although as marriage demonstrates, sometimes holding true to the fiction is what is required to make it fact. Despite the bad reputation, faith is something we all need, and the challenge is not dismantling faith (which might also mean voiding hope) but believing wisely.
Unfortunately, the taboo against faith can make vital political dialogue very difficult to pursue because it all too often results in a demonization of the religious faithful (the married faithful, thankfully, are not embroiled in this problem). The same is true in mirror image: people of faith sometimes demonize the “godless”, which also makes political dialogue challenging. These us-and-them divisions are not as disastrous as liberally minded people tend to assert – which is just as well, really, since the liberal community is almost as bad as their counterparts at hating and persecuting those who hold different community values (see, for instance, my discussion of unmarriage).
These taboos are problematic precisely because they are unconsciously held – our inner animal is well-trained to defend our beliefs, like the guard dog that barks because its owner is afraid. “Faith in science” is as offensive to some as Nietzsche’s “God is dead” is to many theists, and there are innumerable other live wires in our the depth of our feelings. We all have these sudden emotionally-charged intuitions, which are learned responses by some of the older aspects of our biology. Our emotions are more ancient than our species and they have a great claim on how we react to the world, and thus think about it.
However, it would be wrong to believe (as Haidt suggests) that these reactions preclude rational thought from a role in moral judgement – the negative emotional response to “faith in science”, for instance, was learned in response to judgements that might originally have been perfectly reasonable. Often, however, these intuitions are archaeological relics of our emotional past – rebellion against a domineering father, horror at some emotive news story, or cognitive dissonance in the face of apparently inexplicable nonsense. Our default reaction once these intuitions have fired (as Haidt correctly reports) is to muster ad hoc justifications to support our initial response. We are primed for defence – wild animals often need to protect themselves – but when the threat is in our imaginations the grip of the response is no less intense.
Alas, productive democracy is impossible when a sharing of perspectives is precluded. Faith in truth (which is common to both Positivists and most religious people) becomes especially problematic: when someone is obviously wrong on some supposedly key point (such as God, whether pro or anti), all their other claims are automatically suspect. Our inner guard dog won’t let their views into our imagination. In overcoming this limitation, it is helpful to distinguish between what people seem to say, and what people actually want. We are all committed (at least in principle) to freedom of belief, but extending this right to people we disagree with can be insurmountably hard when we insist on understanding their world via the caricature of it that appears when it is translated into our own minds.
If faith were, as some attest, necessarily bad, faith in science (as I have sketched it here) would also be subject to this same criticism. That it generally is not reflects the role of subconscious bias in shaping our moral judgements. We would always prefer to find fault in other people than in ourselves (thus bolstering our faith in our own judgement). If, as Positivists hope and claim, their view of the world is more rational, perhaps a way forward on this impasse is to acknowledge that not all faith is bad faith (an idea explored by Sartre and Merleau-Ponty). This will not be easy for those whose inner animal leaps for the jugular whenever ‘faith’ is mentioned – but this could be our best bet for the cultural disarmament now desperately required to allow new dialogues to be forged.