There are those who scoff at the school boy, calling him frivolous and shallow. Yet it was the school boy who said, Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.–Mark Twain, Following the Equator, “Pudd’nhead Wilson‘s Calendar”
No faith dies because it is unreasonable, but only because the instincts which it has satisfied find more complete and permanent gratification in other directions. –Amy E. Tanner, Studies in Spiritism(1910)
Faith is a non-rational belief in some proposition. A non-rational belief is one that is contrary to the sum of the evidence for that belief. A belief is contrary to the sum of the evidence if there is overwhelming evidence against the belief, e.g., that the earth is flat, hollow, or is the center of the universe. A belief is also contrary to the sum of the evidence if the evidence seems equal both for and against the belief, yet one commits to one of the two or more equally supported propositions.
A common misconception regarding faith—or perhaps it is an intentional attempt at disinformation and obscurantism—is made by Christian apologists, such as Dr. Richard Spencer, who wrote the following:
A statement like “There is no god, and there can’t be a god; everything evolved from purely natural processes” cannot be supported by the scientific method and is a statement of faith, not science (Richard Spencer, Ph.D., associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at UC Davis and faculty adviser to the Christian Student Union. Quoted in The Davis Enterprise, Jan. 22, 1999).
The error or deception here is to imply that anything that is not a scientific statement, i.e., one supported by evidence marshaled forth the way scientists do in support of their scientific claims, is a matter of faith. To use ‘faith’ in such a broad way is to strip it of any theological significance the term might otherwise have.
Such a conception of faith treats belief in all non-empirical statements as acts of faith. Thus, belief in the external world, belief in the law of causality, or belief in the fundamental principles of logic, such as the principle of contradiction or the law of the excluded middle, would be acts of faith on this view. There seems to be something profoundly deceptive and misleading about lumping together as acts of faith such things as belief in the Virgin birth and belief in the existence of an external world or in the principle of contradiction. Such a view trivializes religious faith by putting all non-empirical claims in the same category as religious faith. In fact, it would be more appropriate to put religious faith in the same category as belief in superstitions, fairy tales, and delusions.
Physicist Bob Park explains this difference in a way even the most devious casuist should understand. The Oxford Concise English Dictionary, he notes, gives two distinct meanings for faith:
“1) complete trust or confidence, and 2) strong belief in a religion based on spiritual conviction rather than proof.” A scientist’s “faith” is built on experimental proof. The two meanings of the word “faith,” therefore, are not only different, they are exact opposites.*
There are reasons for trusting science and there are reasons for religious convictions, but the reasons for our trust in science are called evidence and the reasons for our religious convictions all reduce to hope. William James, a scientist and a man of faith, understood this distinction well. In his essay “The Will to Believe,” James opines that the evidence for a god and an afterlife equals the evidence for non-belief and that his hope is for survival of the soul. In science when the evidence is equal for two opposing propositions, James argued, we should suspend judgment until the scales are tipped to one side or the other. We don’t make a leap of faith in such cases, hoping our favored hypothesis is true. When we do give our assent to one scientific hypothesis over another it is because the evidence compels it, not because we hope it is true.
an erroneous view of faith
If we examine Dr. Spencer’s claims, the error of his conflation of two senses of ‘faith’ should become obvious. He claims that the statement ‘there is no god and there can’t be a god; everything evolved from purely natural processes’ is a statement of faith. There are three distinct statements here. One, ‘there is no god’. Two, ‘there can’t be a god’. And three, ‘everything evolved from purely natural processes’. Dr. Spencer implies that each of these claims is on par with such statements as ‘there is a god’, ‘Jesus is our lord and savior’, ‘Jesus’s mother was a virgin’, ‘a piece of bread may have the substance of Jesus’s physical body and blood’, ‘The God of Abraham is one being but three persons’, and the like.
The statement ‘there cannot be a god’ is not an empirical statement. Anyone who would make such a claim would make it by arguing that a particular concept of god contains contradictions and is, therefore, meaningless. For example, to believe that ‘some squares are circular’ is a logical contradiction. Circles and squares are defined so as to imply that circles can’t be square and squares can’t be circular. James Rachels, for one, has argued that god is impossible, but at best his argument shows that the concepts of an all-powerful god and one who demands worship from his creations are contradictory. The concept of worship, Rachels argues, is inconsistent with the God of Abraham (AG) concept.
Rachels makes an argument. Some find it convincing; others don’t. But it seems that his belief is not an act of faith in the same sense that it is an act of faith to belief in the Incarnation, the trinity,transubstantiation, or the virgin birth. The first three articles of faith are on par with believing in round squares. They require belief in logical contradictions. Virgin births, we now know, are possible, but the technology for the implantation of fertilized eggs did not exist two thousand years ago. The belief in the Virgin birth entails the belief that AG miraculously impregnated Mary with himself. Such a belief defies experience but not logic. The Virgin birth is conceivable (to make a bad pun), unlike the Trinity.
All arguments regarding these articles of faith are quite distinct from Rachel’s argument. To defend these articles of faith, the best one can hope for is to show that they cannot be shown to be false. However, the consequence of arguing that logical contradictions may nevertheless be true, seems undesirable. Such a defense requires the abandonment of the very logical principles required to make any argument and is therefore self-annihilating. The fact that arguments such as Rachel’s and those defending articles of religious faith are not empirical or resolvable by scientific methods hardly makes them equally matters of faith.
The statement ‘there is no god’ is quite different from the claim that there can’t be a god. The latter makes a claim regarding possibility; the former is an actuality or existential claim. I doubt that there are many theologians or Christian apologists who would claim that all their faith amounts to is a belief in the possibility of this or that. One can believe there is no god because there can’t be a god, but one might also disbelieve–i.e., reject as untrue—the existense of any god while admitting the possibility of AG or any other god. Disbelief in gods is analogous to disbelief in Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, Santa Claus, or the Easter Bunny. Yet, those who believe in Bigfoot and Nessie, for example, aren’t known for claiming they believe out of faith. To say you have faith in Bigfoot or faith in Nessie sounds ludicrous. Believers in Bigfoot think there is good evidence for their belief. Disbelievers argue that the evidence is not strong at all and does not deserve assent to the proposition that Bigfoot exists. Disbelievers in Bigfoot do not disbelieve as an act of faith; they disbelieve because the evidence is not persuasive. Belief in a god, on the other hand, could be either an act of faith or a belief based on conclusions from evidence and argument. If the theistic belief is an act of faith then the one holding the belief either thinks the evidence against belief outweighs or equals the evidence for belief, or the belief is held without regard for evidence at all. Otherwise, the belief is not an act of faith but of belief that the evidence is stronger forbelief than against.
Another scientist, physicist Paul Davies, represents another kind of deceptive misconception of faith: that science and religion are equally grounded in ‘faith’. Here is how he puts it:
…science has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed. When physicists probe to a deeper level of subatomic structure, or astronomers extend the reach of their instruments, they expect to encounter additional elegant mathematical order. And so far this faith has been justified. (“Taking Science on Faith,”New York Times, Nov. 24, 2007)
The claim that the assumptions of science are of the same kind as the belief in the trinity, the virgin birth, or the existence of God is as wrong as Dr. Spencer’s belief that the claim that ‘everything evolved from natural processes’ is an act of faith. Davies uses ‘faith’ to refer to beliefs that are uncertain or can’t be proved to be necessarily true, but that is not the essential characteristic of religious faith. We can’t prove that it is necessarily true that the laws of nature won’t change drastically tomorrow, but that doesn’t make the countless instances of experienced order and pattern by countless individuals of no evidential importance. Assuming that invisible green angels move objects to appear as if gravity were real is not on par with assuming there are laws of nature. Neither can be proved to be necessarily true but the latter is backed by evidence in support of it. To lump evidence-based belief with beliefs not based on any evidence as both being faith-based is absurd.
If the only alternatives are that everything evolved from either supernatural or natural forces, and one is unconvinced by the arguments and evidence presented by those who believe in supernatural forces, then logically the only reasonable belief is that everything evolved from natural forces. Only if the evidence supporting a supernatural being were superior or equal to the evidence and arguments against such a belief, would belief that everything evolved from natural forces be a matter of faith.
Those of us who are atheists and believe that everything evolved from natural forces nearly universally maintain that theists and supernaturalists have a very weak case for their belief, weaker even than the case for Bigfoot, Nessie, the Tooth Fairy, or Santa Claus. But, more important, we are convinced by the overwhelming nature of the evidence that natural forces have brought about the universe as we know it. Thus, our disbelief in a supernatural creator is not an act of faith, and therefore, not non-rational as are those of theists and Christian apologists. However, if Christian apologists insist on claiming that science is faith-based or that their version of Christianity and the rejections of their views are equally acts of faith, I will insist that the apologists have a non-rational faith, while their opponents have a rational faith. Though I think it would be less dishonest and less misleading to admit that atheists and naturalists do not base their beliefs on faith in any sense close to that ofreligious faith.
It’s amazing just how many medical myths there are to choose from, but one part of the body seems to attract more than its fair share, and that’s the brain. One of my favourite brain myths is the idea that we only use 10% of it. It’s an appealing idea because it suggests the possibility that we could become so much more intelligent, successful or creative, if only you could harness that wasted 90%. This might inspire us to try harder, but unfortunately that doesn’t mean there’s any truth in it.
First of all, it’s important to ask the question – 10% of what? If it is 10% of the regions of the brain to which people are referring, this is the easiest idea to quash. Using a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging, neuroscientists can place a person inside a scanner and see which parts of the brain are activated when they do or think about something. A simple action like clenching and unclenching your hand or saying a few words requires activity in far more than a tenth of the brain. Even when you think you are doing nothing your brain is doing rather a lot – whether it’s controlling functions like breathing and heart rate, or recalling the items on your to-do list.
But maybe the 10% refers to number of brain cells. Again this doesn’t work. When any nerve cells are going spare they either degenerate and die off or they are colonised by other areas nearby. We simply don’t let our brain cells hang around idly. They’re too valuable for that. In fact our brains are a huge drain on our resources. Keeping brain tissue alive consumes 20% of the oxygen we breathe, according to cognitive neuroscientist Sergio Della Sala
It is true that nature can sometimes involve some strange designs, but to evolve to have a brain ten times the size we needed would seem very odd, when its large dimensions are so costly to our survival, leading on occasion to obstructed labour and the death of a mother during childbirth if no help is available.
Yet many people do cling on to the idea that we only use 10% of our brains. The idea is so prevalent that when the University College London neuroscientist Sophie Scott was on a first aid course the tutor assured the class that head injuries are not very serious because of the 10% “fact”. He was not only wrong about the 10%, but he was also wrong about the impact of brain damage. Even a small injury can have huge effects on a person’s capabilities. The first aid tutor probably wasn’t bargaining on instructing a professor of neuroscience on the course, but Scott put him right.
So how can an idea with so little biological or physiological basis have spread so widely? It is hard to track down an original source. The American psychologist and philosopher William James mentioned in The Energies of Men in 1908 that we “are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources”. He was optimistic that people could achieve more, but he does not refer to brain volume or quantity of cells, nor does he give a specific percentage. The 10% figure is mentioned in the preface to the 1936 edition of Dale Carnegie’s best-selling book How to Win Friends and Influence People, and sometimes people say that Albert Einstein was the source. But Professor Della Sala has tried to find the quote, and even those who work at the Albert Einstein archives can find no record of it. So it seems this might be a myth too.
There are two other phenomena that might account for the misunderstanding. Nine-tenths of the cells in the brain are so-called glial cells. These are the support cells, the white matter, which provide physical and nutritional help for the other 10% of cells, the neurons, which make up the grey matter than does the thinking. So perhaps people heard that only 10% of the cells do the hard graft and assumed that we could harness the glial cells too. But these are different kind of cells entirely. There is no way that they could suddenly transform themselves into neurons, giving us extra brain power.
There is a very rare group of patients whose brain scans reveal something extraordinary, though. In 1980, a British paediatrician called John Lorber mentioned in the journal Science that he had patients with hydrocephalus who had hardly any brain tissue, yet could function. This doesn’t of course show us that the rest of us could make extra use of our brains, just that these people have adapted to extraordinary circumstances.
It is, of course, true that if we put our minds to it we can learn new things, and there is increasing evidence in the area of neuroplasticity showing that this changes our brains. But we are not tapping into a new area of the brain. We create new connections between nerve cells or lose old connections that we no longer need.
What I find most intriguing about this myth is how disappointed people are when you tell them it’s not true. Maybe it’s the figure of 10% that is so appealing because it is so low that it offers massive potential for improvement. We’d all like to be better. And we can be better if we try. But, sadly, finding an unused portion of our brains isn’t the way it’s going to happen.