Faith and Authority

I’ve been curious, lately, about the religious notion of faith. So I took a look at the Catholic Encyclopedia, and I was somewhat surprised (though I shouldn’t have been) to find that according to them, faith is knowledge that is justified by authority:

[T]he intellect may be induced to assent to a truth . . . solely because, though not evident in itself, this truth rests on grave authority — for example, we accept the statement that the sun is 90,000,000 miles distant from the earth because competent, veracious authorities vouch for the fact. This last kind of knowledge is termed faith.

So the distance between the sun and the earth is a matter of faith (at least for the non-astronomer); this is their own paradigmatic example.

OK, I like this. It’s a good clear notion. Although I do wonder whether it fits well with the notion that the common believer has in mind. After, all, on this account everyone would be a “person of faith”; we all obviously accept certain claims based on authority. (Not sure what makes the authority “grave.”)

Also, it’s noteworthy that (according to the encyclopedia, at least), “faith” is a success term. Just as you can’t know something that’s false, you can’t have faith that something is true if it’s not, since faith is a subset of knowledge on this definition.

So on this account it would make sense to contradict someone who claims that he has faith that Jesus rose from the dead. “No you don’t,” we should say, “because as a matter of fact resurrection is impossible. You just believe it’s so and trust your belief, but you don’t have real faith because it isn’t true.” Again, I suspicious that this runs against the common understanding of the term.

But, moving on, where do we go from here?

If the authority upon which we base our assent is human and therefore fallible, we have human and fallible faith; if the authority is Divine, we have Divine and infallible faith. If to this be added the medium by which the Divine authority for certain statements is put before us, viz. the Catholic Church, we have Divine-Catholic Faith.

Uh oh. Red flag.

Now, on the one hand, this passage is just stipulating some terms, so the Catholics get to use words however they want to. But on the other hand, it looks like there’s some slight-of-hand going on with the placement of adjectives.

If we accept the authority of of someone who might be wrong, then obviously our knowledge cannot be certain — it is fallible. But what should we say if we’re talking about someone who thinks she’s accepting some claim on the authority of an infallible divine being? Clearly this process isn’t going to produce certain knowledge, and the (supposed) infallibility of the authority is unlikely to make much of a difference in just how well-justified the belief is.

Look at it this way: Justification generally proceeds in stages, and each stage introduces new opportunities for error. When I justify some belief by appealing to authority, there are two sources of error: (1) I might be wrong about what the authority believes; (2) The authority might be wrong.

(I’d guess that if the likelihoods of error at these two stages are independent, then we should multiply them together to get the total likelihood of the article of faith being mistaken.)

In most arguments from authority, step (1) is pretty unproblematic — it can be assigned a likelihood close to zero — and the real action takes place at step (2): How likely is it that the authority is wrong?

But when we’re talking about omniscient gods, step (2) obviously gets a zero value; there’s no chance that the authority (if it exists) is wrong. So all the action is going to be in step (1), do we know what the gods (if they exist) believe?

Notice too that, in the case of fallible authorities, the probability that they’re wrong about their beliefs will often be quite close to zero. How likely is it that the American Astronomical Society (or whoever) is off by a substantial amount about the distance between the sun and the earth? So here the difference between zero and almost-zero in stage (2) won’t amount for much — having a god tell us how far away the sun is isn’t going to boost our certainty much.

But the difference at stage (1) is likely to be pretty huge. We can be quite confident about what the astronomers believe. How confident can we be about what the gods believe?

So what the Catholics are calling “infallible faith” is actually highly fallible belief resting on a trust in a (supposed) infallible being.

But wait! It looks like the Catholics aren’t going to be happy calling mere true belief “knowledge” (and so mere true belief based on authority isn’t “faith”):

[T]he arguments on one side may predominate; though not to the exclusion of those on the other side; in this case we have not complete adhesion of the intellect to the truth in question but only opinion. Lastly, the arguments or authorities brought forward may be so convincing that the mind gives its unqualified assent to the statement proposed and has no fear whatever lest it should not be true; this state of mind is termed certitude, and is the perfection of knowledge. Divine faith, then, is that form of knowledge which is derived from Divine authority, and which consequently begets absolute certitude in the mind of the recipient.

Uh oh!

OK, so “certitude” is just a psychological state meaning that I give my assent to a proposition without qualification. So on this usage, I can be “certain” of something that nevertheless turns out to be false. And I only “know” something — according to the Catholics — if I am certain of it.

So the skeptic is actually correct when she says she knows nothing. Her very act of questioning her beliefs (on this account) disqualifies them as knowledge. Again, this seems like a strange way to use terms, but let’s accept it and see where we end up.

Now part of what’s strange (and worrisome) with this way of setting things up, is that it doesn’t make much room for the possibility of someone being psychologically certain of something (i.e., not harboring any doubts about it) and yet being wrong. I’m confident the Catholics wouldn’t want to say that such a belief counts as “knowledge,” but it wouldn’t seem to count as “opinion” either, since the psychological conviction is there.

Surely Catholics haven’t simply neglected the possibility of error in their metaphysics of knowledge (yes, I’m too lazy to go read Thomas Aquinas on this — which is, I’m sure, where they’re cribbing it from), but it sure seems like they’re setting themselves up to think that a lack of doubt provides a guarantee of the truth of one’s beliefs. (And isn’t this how critics think of faith?)

But the real problem comes in with the last sentence above:

Divine faith, then, is that form of knowledge which is derived from Divine authority, and which consequently begets absolute certitude in the mind of the recipient.

Where the heck did that “consequently” come from?

First, you just said that all knowledge requires psychological certitude (or else it’s mere “opinion”). So all that matters about the authority is that I do, as a matter of fact trust it.

Second, there’s no reason to suppose that this psychological certitude is going to result from my relying on the (supposed) beliefs of an infallible god. After all, I might have very substantial doubts at stage (1), that is I might be questioning whether I’ve gotten the beliefs of the supposed god correct.

So it seems that the supposed infallibility of the authority should be mostly irrelevant. And “infallible divine faith” might well lead to less certitude than “fallible faith.”

But the term “infallible faith” is doubling misleading here. First, as noted above, people are likely to equate “faith” with belief, rather than knowledge. Second, they’re likely to attach the “infallible” to that belief, rather than to the supposed authority that’s supposed to be relied on.

But, of course, there’s actually no guarantee of truth in sight. We’re just talking about arguments from authority, and then we’re slapping a special label on justification (if there is any) that comes from an infallible god.

But, for all that’s been said, it might well be that such justification is completely non-existent. If there are no gods, then there is no “faith” under this definition. (Why does the word “sophistry” come to mind?)

Part of the problem here seems to be that they’re thinking of Truth (my capitalization) as something that causes knowledge, or as they put it, that Truth is the “object” of knowledge, what knowledge is about. But knowledge is about reality. Truth is an attribute of beliefs, or propositions, or what have you. The beliefs and propositions are about states of affairs, or facts, or what have you.

To a degree, this is just a difference in vocabulary (we can substitute the word “truths” for “states of affairs”), but there is a difference in that the word “Truth” carries with it a notion of success, that isn’t there in the mind-independent world.

The cheat (at least in part) is that they’re smuggling in success without acknowledging it.


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