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Faith: What Is It And Who Has It?

Toward a practical definition of an often slippery power word

The philosopher Richard Rorty talks about people’s “final vocabulary” words and phrases we use when we’re done wondering about something, like when you say, “it just is” or “because I said so.”

Think of that pesky kid who discovers that he can tie you in knots by asking “but why?” after everything you say. When you’re at the end of your exploratory rope, you’ll employ final vocabulary to get him to stop. “Look,” you’ll say, “I don’t have all day.”

In fact, you do have all day, but that’s all you have. Only 24 hours in a day, distributed over many questions and decisions. You have to prioritize, not just dismissing pesky kids and their endless questions but dismissing all sorts of questions, wonderings and doubts.

The biggest social science trend of the last 50 years is toward acknowledgment of “bounded rationality.” We can’t reason our way through to perfect decisions about everything, so we reason a bit, and then draw conclusions. We might leap to conclusions (a leap of faith) or creep slowly to them, but one way or another, we round up or down from the evidence to a conclusion, so we can get on with whatever else makes demands on our our day.

Social scientists interpret these leaps of faith either as escape from rationality or simply a different level of rationality. I think it’s the latter. There’s no escaping rationality, which at core, is comparison (as in ratios--is this a better decision than that?).

Bounded rationality is therefore really rationality about where to allocate your rationality, in other words, reasoning about whether more reasoning about something is worth the effort. So little time for reasoning; so much to reason about—we have to reason about whether more reasoning about a question is a reasonable use of our attention.

And when you decide that it isn’t a reasonable use, you have lots of final vocabulary at your disposal, ways of saying “I’m done thinking about this.” For example, you can say:

We’re done here.
Don’t go there.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Get over it.
That’s not interesting.
That’s irrelevant.
Why are you picking on me?
Thank you for sharing.
Nice weather we’re having.
It is what it is.
I just have faith.

The word “Faith” is Grade-A final vocabulary, the ultimate way to stop wondering. Faith is considered a virtue, perhaps the highest virtue of all, and as such “I just have faith” is a proudly virtuous way of saying you’re done wondering. We don’t feel or experience faith, we have it, as though it’s a permanent possession. Your faith is with you always, not in waves of certainty amidst your doubts, but a conviction made and held once and for all.

As final vocabulary, faith is perhaps most useful when it’s left vague and ill-defined. People often simply say, “I have faith” without specifying what they have faith in. Positive, Ill-defined and without specifics it can be used to stop wondering about anything.

We all have faith in faith. We respect it and defer to it. When friends say, “I have faith,” all but the peskiest among us are likely to stop questioning them, or at least lighten up.

According to Wikipedia, “Faith is confidence or trust in a person, thing, deity, or in the doctrines or teachings of a religion or view (e.g. having strong political faith). It can also be belief that is not based on proof. The word faith is often used as a substitute for hope, trust or belief. In religion, faith often involves accepting claims about the character of a deity, nature, or the universe. While some have argued that faith is opposed to reason, proponents of faith argue that the proper domain of faith concerns questions that cannot be settled by evidence.”

The italics are mine to highlight a problem. See, I’m a bit of an outlier here, but from what I can tell, no questions can be settled by evidence. Evidence doesn’t speak for itself. It must be interpreted, people deciding what it’s evidence for and how far to extrapolate from the evidence to a general certainty. Even if all of us agree that the evidence points a certain way, we may later come to a different conclusion. Even science, that most stubbornly persistent form of wondering, never proves anything. It only comes to today’s best guesses, to be beaten tomorrow perhaps, by better guesses.

To me then, bounded rationality isn’t just a function of our limited time to wonder about things, but uncertainties inherent in the universe. For example, no matter how much research you do today, you can’t know with absolute certainty what year someone will die, or what music will be at the top of the pop charts in 30 years. The answer isn’t just blowing in the wind for you to chase down if you had the time. It’s unknowable today by any evidence. Life is not a crossword puzzle with the answer sitting there at the back of the book. It’s not like movies in which you can fast forward to see how it ends.

When people say “nobody’s perfect” they often mean that given our bounded rationality we make mistakes, but if we were smarter or had more time, or tried harder perfection would be possible. It’s not like that. Nobody could be perfect. Even if we gathered all the available evidence, we couldn’t settle decisions by means of it and always be right.

To me there’s a leap of faith in every decision we make and “Leap of faith” is actually redundant, since faith, whether moved toward swiftly or slowly is ultimately a leap, a rounding up or down from evidence, a leap from wondering still, to not wondering anymore. We work from the evidence at hand to confidence in a bet we think will work.

And work is the point of faith: Only so many hours in the day and we don’t use them just for wondering, but for doing focused work. Since most things take concerted effort and time, we need to focus. Focused work is concentrated work, work based on consistent bets on what will work.

Without our leaps of faith, we’re unfocused, un-reliable, our effort too diffuse to yield anything of lasting value. Without faith, we would expend our energy every which way and never get anything done.

Faith constrains the directions our energy goes. It’s like an engine cylinder’s hardened walls, which focus the otherwise omnidirectional gas combustion so the piston moves straight out in one direction. Faith is like the insulation on circuits that keeps electrons from sparking every which way, forcing them instead down particular channels. Faith is the river bank that keeps water flowing in only one direction, a force that can be used to generate electricity.

We all have faith, bets we live and work by. We should celebrate faith as means to our ends, but not as an end in itself. And we should wonder more about faith, how it works, how much to have, where to direct it and what happens when our faiths conflict, as they often do. In my next article I’ll discuss the tradeoffs implied by a common faith, a faith that things will work out even if they don’t work out as we expected, in other words faith that “not OK” will be OK.