The Middle Way and faith

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A faith can be understood as a world-view that leads one to interpret one's experience in a particular way. It does this not at the very basic level of conceptual schemes that we all share, like those of time and space, but at the more culturally specific level of founding scientific or moral assumptions. Such assumptions are believed in, but cannot be proved or disproved in terms of experience, because they contribute towards the basic interpretation of that experience. Whether or not we have ever had any "pure" experience which is not formed by prior assumptions, we certainly cannot explain our experience or form beliefs about it without making prior assumptions that are not justified by the experience itself.

In that sense every person necessarily has faith. One could have faith in God, one could have faith that there is a material universe without God, one could have faith in the truth of any theory for which one is seeking evidence, or one could have faith in the Middle Way. Each of these different kinds of faith could lead us into different kinds of moral or scientific assumptions. Believers in God often report that their faith leads them to see the world anew, as ordered and purposeful, so that, for example, they are likely to interpret evidence of interdependence between animals and plants as a sign of God's design. One cannot prove or disprove that such interdependence amounts to such design (evidence of evolution, for example, would not disprove it): it is simply a way of interpreting one's experience.

If one disavows one type of faith, another will necessarily take its place, as we need to interpret our experience with some kind of moral and scientific framework. There is no such thing as faith-neutrality. Faith in a certain factual way of understanding the world will also have moral implications, and vice-versa. To assume, for example, that scientific consensus offers the best factual explanation of the world, but that morality is an individual matter not subject to evidence (the position I call scientism), is to have faith that this is the best way of understanding and responding to the world.

On the face of it this then leaves us with a relativism of faiths: you believe one thing and I another, and we have no grounds on which to convince one another. However, my argument is that there is a way of judging between faith-based world views, and this way is both moral and pragmatic. Some (in fact, most) objects of faith are metaphysical, and for this reason close the doors to investigation based on experience. Metaphysical objects of faith are distinguished by the fact that they give rise to beliefs that are incapable of revision in the light of experience, whereas the Middle Way, although it can be an object of faith, allows ongoing provisionality of belief. Faith, in other words, can be dogmatic or provisional, and provisional faith is distinguished by its fruitfulness in implying beliefs that are subject to confirmation or disconfirmation in experience.

The Middle Way, as an avoidance of metaphysical beliefs, requires provisional faith to be practised. If followed it will only give rise to provisional beliefs which can be tested and revised in the light of experience. If it gave rise to dogmatic beliefs this would be a good reason for rejecting it, as would a substantial (though self-defined) period of time in which the beliefs it implies were tested and did not pass the tests we subjected them to that would show that they were addressing conditions. Faith in the Middle Way is faith of a kind, perhaps, but not as we usually know it.

Faith of the more usual kind, in which a dogmatic set of assumptions is adhered to and used as a basis for interpreting our experience, is best avoided. It is best avoided because it inhibits us from questioning those assumptions, and is associated with a tendency towards psychological states of over-attachment to particular beliefs. Over-attachment to particular beliefs stops us adapting to the changing states of our environment, causes conflict, and leads to less integrated psychological states.

So, I cannot agree with Sam Harris, who sees faith itself as morally negative. Nevertheless, the strength of his case in The End of Faith is derived from the wide range of actual cases where faith is more or less morally negative. Faith defined in a slightly wider sense is inescapable, and can also be directed in a morally positive way. However, faith is also tarnished by a long association with metaphysics, which it is understandably difficult for it to live down.

Faith should not be confused with trust. Trust is an optimistic interpretation of our experience, that allows us to rely upon someone we have so far found reliable, but to push that reliance a little bit further. Trust is not completely justifiable through experience, but in a wider sense experience can justify trust, as we can conclude on the basis of experience that life is more rewarding if we take the risk of trusting people to a reasonable degree than it is if we mistrust them. Believers in God often talk of their faith in terms of a personal trust of God, but this is misleading. God cannot be trusted in the same way as another person because we cannot experience him. By definition, we finite beings cannot directly experience an infinite being, so if we claim to "trust" God what we are actually trusting is certain finite experiences we have come to associate with God. This does not have the same basis of justification as trusting an ordinary person whom one knows through experience, but whose trust we are pushing just a little bit beyond experience. "Trust" in God is not trust in the normal sense but faith, and metaphysical faith at that.

Faith should also not be confused with religion. The common practice of describing religions as "faiths" and thus reducing them to faith is unhelpful. Religions are social and practical traditions which are associated with faith, but have no essential relationship with it. A religion is no more irredeemably dogmatic than is an ethnic group, or even an individual. We cannot justifiably say, for example, that Islam is irredeemably dogmatic, because Islam is an evolving tradition containing a wide variety of groups and voices calling themselves Muslim. As a matter of contingent fact, much of the faith of most Muslims is dogmatic, but there are exceptions, and even the mainstream can change. Though Islamic faith is bound up with dogmatic commitment to the literal truth of the Qur'an and to the status of Muhammad as a revealer of God's will, Islamic religion as a tradition associated with this faith has changed enormously in the past, and will undoubtedly change more in the future. Muslims will vary in their capacity to address conditions depending on the degree to which they are inhibited from doing so by their metaphysical commitment to Islamic faith.

Nor does the avoidance of religion necessarily mean the avoidance of dogmatic faith. Given their propensity for faith, people who reject religious faith are very likely to be swept up instead into a scientific, philosophical, artistic, political or romantic faith. An unconditional faith in your partner, in freedom, in self-expression, or in homeopathy, to select some random examples, is not necessarily better than religious faith. To summarise, then, it is not what you have faith in, but how far your object of faith is subject to experience, that matters. Faith is not necessarily bad, and should not be linked only to religion. Nevertheless, faith is often the source of our most dogmatic attitudes; and far from being the basis of morality, metaphysical faith is its antithesis.

Links to related discussion

The Middle Way and God

The Middle Way and religion


The Way of Trust (talk on trust and faith, in a Buddhist context, given to members of the Western Buddhist Order - external link to FWBO discussion site)

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