The mad scientist carefully loaded his pet hamster into the rocket’s nose compartment.
“Master!” hissed his Igor. “Are you not afraid that this, too, will break up on liftoff? If Fluffywuff were to die in vain–”
The mad scientist polished his fingernails on the lapel of his lab coat. “Hush, Igor. I have complete faith in my calculations, and so should you.”
Andy waved goodbye to Betty. She flapped the envelope as a return wave and mouthed “Thank you!” one more time before rounding the corner.
Carol asked him, “Are you sure it was okay to loan her that much money?”
“She’s been a good friend as long as we’ve known her,” he replied. “I have faith in her.”
Guru Dwayne watched the approaching missiles with unexpected calm. From behind him, someone shouted “We’re doomed! We don’t have any fuel left, and we’re still inside the blast radius!”
“Nonsense!” admonished Dwayne, not even turning to see who had spoken. “My horoscope says I will find love and/or a new hobby next week, so we will surely survive. I have complete faith in the benevolence of the stars.”
Occasionally, I stick my neck out into the Science/Religion debate on behalf of Science. A common line of attack brought to the fore at some point during the exchange is to the effect that believing in the results of science is itself a kind of faith, and therefore no superior to the faith, the belief in specific doctrine X, of the religiously pious.
I can see the logic of the argument. I’ve never personally performed the Michelson-Morley experiment, for example. How can I be sure that it is accurate without being a firsthand witness? Is my acceptance of its accuracy therefore not a kind of faith? And if so, how can my “faith” be different from any other “faith”? And ultimately, how is science different from any superstition?
Let’s set that aside for a moment and look at a different example. How can a “day” not be the same as a “day”? Well, a day in summer is longer than a day in winter, right? That depends on whether by “day” you mean a 24-hour span of time, or a period during which the sun’s light is directly visible. …In short, yes: it is possible for a single word to have multiple uses, related in meaning but distinct enough to make a difference. In fact, it’s not just possible; it’s commonplace.
And it turns out that the “faith” equivalence argument outlined above is nothing more than a semantic ploy to muddy the waters. I can think, off the top of my head, of three meaningfully distinct uses of “faith,” as illustrated in the vignettes that open this essay.
1. The “faith” of the mad scientist might be better termed confidence. He’s not foolish enough to claim perfect infallibility, but the thorough exercise of reason based on all available facts forces him to draw a particular conclusion. In this case, that his rocket design will work correctly. Similarly, most of us have “faith” that the moon’s orbit of the earth will cause the tide to go in and back out, and that in Euclidean space the angles of a triangle add up to 180º. But these beliefs aren’t based on a politically successful historical authority; we believe them because reason indicates that it can’t be any other way. This is the “faith” of science, which I plan to explore more thoroughly in a later essay.
2. In contrast, Andy’s “faith” in Betty stands on shakier ground. While there is a solid body of evidence in their shared history to support his belief that she can and will pay him back, something unexpected could still happen to change that situation or reveal that he had been mistaken from the start. He is not so foolish as to deny that possibility, but after weighing the facts at his disposal, he decided to err on the side of trust. This kind of “faith” affords less certainty than the scientific kind, but in most daily situations it’s the kind we must depend on to avoid indecisive paralysis. We generally trust that our cars will run properly, for example, and that fellow drivers will obey the rules of traffic, and we only stop making this kind of assumption when faced with evidence otherwise.
3. But Dwayne’s “faith” is clearly far removed from both the scientist’s confidence and Andy’s trust, despite all three having used the same word to describe their feelings. Instead of calculating or weighing the evidence at his disposal, Dwayne specifically excludes a set of relevant and highly significant evidence because it conflicts with the pronouncement of an authority that he cannot bring himself to question – and this despite the fact that his authority is vague and self-contradictory.
Why would Dwayne refuse to accept evidence of his own senses, refuse to draw his own conclusions using his own capacity for reason? Does he suffer from crippling self-doubt, or is he simply disconnected from reality? Can this species of self-negation even truly take the name “faith”? If you must use the term, at least render it accurately: Dwayne’s kind of “faith” is blind faith – for who are so blind, as they say.
So the next time a religious fundamentalist accuses you of having “faith” in data and reason (or the next time you, as a religious fundamentalist, feel the urge to make such an accusation), the response is that no – scientists have confidence, and normal people have trust, and both of these are qualities that the blindly faithful surrendered into the void long ago.