Monday, March 21, 2016

The certainty of faith

There is a strong Christian tradition of seeing faith as involving certainty. Now, perhaps this certainty is just something like moral certainty (for a sophisticated account, see this) or what I call "security" or "sureness". But it is worth interesting to explore the possibility that faith involves certainty in the full sense of the word, requiring a probability equal to one to be assigned to those propositions that come under faith (this does not imply that faith is exhausted by believing propositions).

There are at least two problems with a certainty reading of faith. The first is with justification: How could someone be justified in assigning a probability of one to propositions as controversial as those of the Christian faith? The second starts with an empirical claim: Typical Christians do not have certainty. Given this, it follows that if faith requires certainty, then typical Christians do not have faith, which is definitely depressing and perhaps not so plausible.

But I think there is a way around both difficulties. The Christian tradition sees faith as a gift of the Holy Spirit. It does not seem problematic that the Holy Spirit would infuse someone with a certainty about a truth that the Holy Spirit himself knows with certainty. There are at least two possibilities here. First, it could be that the right kind of externalism (e.g., reliabilism or reformed epistemology) holds so that the certainty of the beliefs that come from such an infusion is epistemically justified. Second, it could be that there is nothing bad about having epistemically unjustified beliefs when they are in fact true and when the agent is not at fault for their formation and maintenance. It would be better to have justification as well, but it's better to have the true beliefs than to suspend judgment. And, plausibly, the story of the infusion of belief could be spelled out in a way that does not make the agent be at fault.

Regarding the empirical problem, here I am less confident. But here is a suggestion. What makes us think that typical Christians do not have certainty? Presumably that they so report it. Or so I'll assume for the sake of the argument, without spending time checking if there are any worldwide studies that check whether typical Christians report not having certainty.

Presumably, introspection is the primary reason why Christians report not having certainty. But I suspect that introspection is not a very reliable guide in a case like this. It seems to me that there are two primary ways by which we introspect the credence we have in a belief. The first is that we introspect to the evidence we take ourselves to have and assume that our credence matches the evidence. But when our certainty goes beyond the evidence, or at least goes beyond the evidence that we are aware of, this isn't going to be a reliable guide to the credence. The second is direct awareness (often comparative) of our credences. Often this is based on feelings of confidence. But such feelings are, I think, not all that reliable. They provide evidence as to actual confidence, but that evidence is not all that strong. While we should try to avoid error theories all other things being equal, it does not seem so bad to say that Christians tend to be wrong when they ascribe to themselves a credence lower than one.

I am inclined to take the best reading of the Christian tradition to be that faith comes with certainty. I also think that I have faith, but I do not in fact feel certain (at least not in the probability one sense). Given that my best reading of the Christian tradition is that faith comes with certainty, I conclude that probably I am certain, notwithstanding my feelings.


Anonymous said...

I have many criticisms of this, but the most basic are that you cannot assign a probability of one to the proposition that you have faith (since this very thing is not part of the faith; you could be e.g. a formal heretic), nor to the proposition that "particular doctrine x is a doctrine of Christianity," since your knowledge of the latter depends on the knowledge of various contingents which do not have a probability of one.

The result is that even if you could have a credence of one in some sense, your effective credence after reflection will be less than one. And although that doesn't mean that all of your actions will be "as if this had a probability less than one," some of them will be.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I agree one doesn't need to assign probability one to the proposition that one has faith. I don't see how that's an objection to the view.

As for historical contingencies, it may be that in central cases, one also receives the supernatural grace of being certain of the doctrine when one believes by trusting the Church. In other words, I could have been given a certainty that the Son is one substance with the Father that goes beyond the evidence for historical claims about Ecumenical Councils.

Heath White said...

I think you are ambiguous between "certainty" as (a) objective probability one, complete justification, the proposition is entailed by my grounds for believing it; and (b) subjective probability one, complete psychological confidence.

Your first objection about justification is an objection to (a) and is ably rebutted by appealing to externalism. I'm not sure (genuinely) that this does what the "certainty" doctrine is supposed to do, though.

Your second objection, about how Christians actually feel, is an objection to (b). It seems to me that we know people are not 100% confident by both introspection and behavior, and there is no reason to doubt this.

Note that if you were an internalist about justification, you would be in a position to say that the fact of (a) gives one rational grounds for (b), although for various irrational reasons Christians may not achieve (b). This might be the traditional position.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I was thinking of something closer to (b), except that it's not so much a feeling or something introspectible.

My crude picture is that our mind has a list of propositions, and besides each one there is a probability written. This list functions in our reasoning, but it's not directly visible to us.

Jakub Moravčík said...

I am sorry but this is maybe the weakest text I´ve read in this blog so far ...

Anonymous said...

My objection here was to the utility of the view, not to the idea that your account could be true in some sense.

Personally I think that credence is an idealization related to the evidence we have for something, and this is why people assume that their credence is proportionate to the evidence they have for it: because in the end saying that something has a probability of 90% means, "In 90% of cases, given evidence this strong, the thing would turn out to be true." If you understand credence in this way, it is evident that you cannot have a probability of one for Christianity.

So you must be understanding it in some other sense. Given some other sense, it is possible that your view could be true. But I was objecting that it is not a useful view: it will not prevent some of your actions from looking like "acting like the probability of Christianity is less than one," nor should it prevent your actions from being that way. Nor can it or should it prevent you from changing your mind about Christianity based on evidence against it, supposing you come to see sufficiently strong evidence to that effect.

The probability that I have faith is relevant to this kind of objection because if I had a probability of one that I had faith, a probability of one about the contents of faith, and a probability of one that faith cannot be false, that situation should indeed prevent my actions from betraying any kind of uncertainty, ever, and likewise it should prevent my changing my mind even about the content of faith, no matter how much evidence is brought against my idea of the contents (this last fact itself shows the falsehood of this particular view.)

Alexander R Pruss said...

"If you understand credence in this way, it is evident that you cannot have a probability of one for Christianity": It depends on what counts as evidence, and in particular whether the evidence needs to be available to consciousness. For in 100% of the cases where a person holds a belief infused by the Holy Spirit, the thing is true. :-)

I am not sure that, except for (very common) cases which they themselves would admit to be cases of akrasia, typical Christians act as if the probability of Christianity were less than one. People are in fact willing to die for Christianity, etc.

Nor does certainty prevent changing one's mind. At most, it prevents *rationally* changing one's mind.

Anonymous said...

I don't count something not available to consciousness as evidence; otherwise I could say that the evidence that my views are true, is the objective fact that they are true. But I agree that if you are speaking of objective properties of faith (as opposed to subjective perceptions), it is reasonable to say that "faith as a supernatural entity has a 100% chance of being related to something true." And in fact I think this is what is meant by the tradition that faith is certain. I just don't think it's very reasonable to identify that with a credence, especially since you don't know whether you have such a supernatural entity or not.

I am pretty sure that people do in fact, in many or most cases, even apart from akrasia, act as though the probability of Christianity is less than one. I may not know how I would behave before it happens, but there are many cases where I am sure that the probability of something is less than one, but where I hope I would be willing to die for the claim. But for a more typical example of what I am talking about, I think that Pope Francis is more interested in benefiting the world and less interested in benefiting Catholicism, compared to Pope Benedict, because he is subjectively less certain of his faith than Pope Benedict. I think something similar was true of Pope John Paul II -- he wanted to be sure he was doing good overall, even if Christianity turned out to be false.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I've been feeling dizzy all day. I may be coming down with something minor. So perhaps my thinking is dizzy, too. :-)