Faith and Epistemology

Out of the blue my friend asked me “What do you think of faith and epistemology?” He was an old friend who I hadn’t seen in a few years and we were having a pleasant lunch together. In his youth he had earned a master’s degree in philosophy before turning to a 35 year career as a middle and high school teacher. We were both seeking to exercise our intellectual chops as we hadn’t done so for a while. By faith he meant belief system and by epistemology he meant an investigation of our knowledge of what is true or false. A few months back I had written in this blog about the connection between belief systems and ethics or morality. I had said at that time that our belief system corresponds with our sense of right and wrong. We either choose a belief system based on our sense of right and wrong or a sense of right or wrong based on our belief system. He was asking a different question. How does our belief system relate to our sense of true and false not right and wrong?

I recently read a science fiction novel called The Three Body Problem which is very good and the beginning of a trilogy. The first couple of chapters are set during China’s cultural revolution in which ideology was used to determine whether one accepted the laws of physics or not. The effect is terrifying. Uneducated people were deciding that this or that law of physics should be rejected because it had been discovered by a capitalist or that physics teachers should be disbelieved, rejected, humiliated or literally killed because they were “too bourgeois.” In this instance the ideology was communism but it could have been any ideology. It could have been a religion like Christianity or Islam or a different political ideology like liberalism, conservatism, or libertarianism. Some of the characters in the novel and some of the events in the novel are set in motion by this beginning. Even as the novel careens in a very different direction it is that early picture of ideology (faith) determining what you believe to be true or false (epistemology) that haunts me.

There has been much talk lately about how facts and science are only accepted if they support our ideology. Political positions have become more dogged and harder to change if they can be changed at all. People are talking past each other so that no real “discussion” takes place. All of these are symptoms of faith (belief system) determining what we accept as true knowledge (epistemology.) Some have attributed this human nature, to a primitive tribalism, and how humans have always interacted with the world around them. That is nonsense. I have spent most of my adult life either lessening the hold that my belief systems have on my evaluation of knowledge or teaching others to do so.  I have seen others do so albeit in the specialized environment of the classroom and the college setting, but they have been able to do it nonetheless. Such hardening of the brain paths is not an inherent human trait. It is a choice.

Not to get all Marxian on your ass, but it is the current economic position of people, the growing inequality of late stage capitalism, and the power relationships that result from them that has led to what seems like a tighter relationship between faith and epistemology. As the survival stakes have gotten higher the relationship between what people believe and what they accept as “fact” has gotten stronger. This obscures the relationships between economics, politics, and real life. It is only by realizing that what is true is not only what our belief systems tell us is true, that there is any hope of getting to this underlying relationship.

Take for example the Republican faith that tax cuts for the wealthy are the key to unleashing funds that business will use to expand. Nowhere in our history has this proven to be the case. By any measure you want to use, number of jobs, income of the middle class, total funds invested, this tactic has proven untrue time and time again. Yet it is such an article of faith in their belief system that they are willing to deprive 22 million people of health insurance to achieve it. It is true that many of them have a vested interest in these cuts (e.g. campaign contributions, personal investments, etc.) but they rationalize it to themselves with their belief system. That belief system enables them to ignore inconvenient facts like it doesn’t work and find “facts” that say it does.

Let me be clear about what I am saying here. Having faith is not the problem. The problem is allowing that faith to blind you to facts. Open your mind to a realistic view of what’s around you. You might be surprised at what you find.

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