Reflections on the F Word

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Something wrong with faith?

We hear a lot about 'faith' these days, especially from the USA, and the general implication of what is said is that faith is a good thing. Prime Minister Blair is in favour of faith schools, which are intended to inculcate religious beliefs of various kinds in the young; something that fervent atheists such as Richard Dawkins regard as little better than child abuse. Adherents of many religions take the view that faith, or at least their particular faith, should be a no-go area for criticism or mockery.

For the strongly anti-religious, on the other hand, faith is often a dirty word. The cynic's definition of faith is believing what you know to be untrue. But the counter-argument quite often advanced by the religious is that atheism and materialism are faith-based views, albeit of a negative kind. To say that there is nothing beyond the physical, it is claimed, is as much a metaphysical position as is the belief in the spiritual.

A case in point was a BBC programme in the Beyond Belief series, on the subject of Intelligent Design. All three speakers were described as Christian but only one was an advocate of anti-Darwinian views; the others held that Darwinism is compatible with theism. All three were keen on faith, although they held different opinions about what it meant to them.

A recurrent theme in the discussion was the assertion that faith is inescapable for everyone. Even scientists who were hostile to religion and regarded themselves as materialists, it was claimed, would still need to have faith that the world is orderly and capable of being understood. This cannot be proved; it has to be assumed. So materialism is a metaphysical position in the same way that theism is metaphysical.

Can we avoid faith?

I think that the speakers had a valid point here. As it happens, I've recently been reading Galen Strawson, who comes to a rather similar position from a different starting point in his book Mental Reality (MIT Press, 1994). He describes himself as an agnostic materialist. He does so, he says, because "our conception of the physical is fundamentally incomplete in its own terms." And a little further on he amplifies this: "My faith, like that of many other materialists, consists in a bundle of connected and unverifiable beliefs."

Note that he cannot avoid using the F word here. Like the speakers in the radio programme he holds that "one cannot get out of metaphysics." But this does not prevent people from trying to do so. "And yet the illusion persists—the illusion that one can be free of metaphysics."

Among the things that Strawson believes in are the existence of the physical world, the fact that experience is not all that there is to reality, and the theory of evolution. These beliefs, he acknowledges, are unverifiable and therefore are matters of faith.

This is an uncomfortable conclusion for materialists, among whom I would include myself. I suppose the best we can do is to apply a version of Ockham's razor and limit the number of metaphysical beliefs we hold to the minimum possible. But we need to be continually self-critical, for, as Strawson tells us, "one may be favouring a particular metaphysical option, explicitly or implicitly, without really possessing any good grounds for preferring it to the other possibilities with which it is in competition in the rich regions of metaphysical space."

See also Thomal Nagel and the Fear of Religion