After my previous post about faith, which led to a fruitful discussion, I’ve been thinking more about the importance of faith to humans and how it might be framed in a more useful way. A couple summers ago I presented a series of posts about 8 virtues or qualities that make a good human, and faith was the last one I discussed. I think that if I were to do that series again today I might change the word faith to “prediction”.
In the discussion we had on my most recent post about faith, we talked about the difference between religious faith, and the sort of everyday way we might use the word faith. One of the things that I talked about as a difference between how a scientist might use faith, and what a religious person might call faith are two different things. The most important difference being that a scientist would be willing to change what he has faith in, based on evidence. I have always argue that while faith is important we should be willing to change what we have faith as we learn. The other thing that I argued was that faith is built on evidence and there is a very big difference in having faith that the sun will rise tomorrow, and faith that there is a supernatural divine being. The difference there being the weight of evidence, and the quality of evidence used in building those two types of“faith”.
But I started to think about it at a deeper level and it seems to me that at the heart of faith is really something else when I started to ask, “Why do we have faith at all?” Faith is a representation of our desire to predict an uncertain future. When I had my son, I wrote a post called Love and the Future, about how when we love we start painting pictures of the future in our mind. It happens in romantic relationships too. According to a friend of mine who is a counselor, one of the hardest parts of counseling someone after a difficult breakup is for them to let go of those “future plans”. I have also written a post before about “expectations”. In the post, I talked about the benefits of expectations in that we rise to meet them. By having a future goal in mind, we make better progress than none at all. Of course, there are many who would say you shouldn’t have expectations, because they will only lead to disappointment, but I am not sure it’s possible to live a life without any expectations. It’s natural that we’d have some, but I think that it’s true we might have limits into how many failed expectations we can shoulder. Either way it seems to me that expectations are also a type of “faith”. A desire to place some certainty in the future based on our desires and wants. It is something we expect to come true, even if it doesn’t.
For the past few months I have been practicing mindfulness meditation, and it has been an enjoyable experience. I’ve been using an app called Headspace. It avoids a lot of the new age type stuff and really focuses on the philosophy of meditation and I highly recommend it to anybody who is interested in getting into it. The goal is to be more focused on the present, to be mindful of what we are doing in the moment. A thought struck me yesterday when I was practicing it, as that one of the things they tell you in the guided meditation is that you want to think about “what are your goals with the meditation” and after it’s over they suggest you think about what is going to the very next thing you do. So even in something that is supposed to be about the present, we cannot help but look forward at least a little bit in our thinking.
I have come to the conclusion that it is natural in humans to be forward thinkers. I have had the thought before that one of the things that makes humans more intelligent is our ability to project further into the future than other species. Now one could argue that we are also still pretty awful at it, but the fact that we try is actually impressive. We look for patterns in the universe and we try to project those patterns into the future so that we can be less uncertain and fearful about it. While Farmer’s almanacs would like us to believe that squirrels can predict months in advance about the severity of the winter, it is clear in an evolutionary sense life on average are poor forward thinkers. If they were good at it, I’m not sure extinctions would happen as often as they do. For instance, an animal can only assume a winter will lie between certain climatic norms. Some portion of the population will develop mutations better equipped for let’s say surviving a larger range of conditions, but when change becomes to extreme large proportions of a population if not all, cannot adapt and die out. Humans are better at it, unfortunately we are also deeply conceited and that leads to problems. So given this human propensity to want to predict, the best thing we can do is to build value systems that allow us to be successful more often.
When we say we have faith in our partner, our ourselves, we are making a statement that there is an expectation that based on existing evidence that we will continue to handle some future situation in the same way we have before. Making a statement like, “I have faith I will do well on my exams”. Presumably you have taken enough exams to presume a similar outcome. More than that, to make sure it isn’t blind faith, you have examined the patterns to your success through various study methods, getting a certain amount sleep, etc to make sure your faith is not misplaced. Your faith is a type of prediction. A value system that aids in this faith is your ability to be introspective and also perhaps learn from others as to how they study and learn what are good and bad practices.
So where does religious faith fit into all of this? Hopefully by now it is pretty clear, but let’s look a little closer. I have read several atheist and agnostic scholars speak about religion as a type of model. This is how religion has always made the most sense to me. What is the purpose of models? In science models are things that model scientific processes that give us more predictive capabilities. The better we understand a process, on average, the more predictive we will be. This is why a scientist’s ‘faith’ might be quite different than a religious person’s faith because the success of a scientific theory is its predictive capability. The poorer it is at prediction the less certain we are about our understanding. In my field of meteorology one of the main reasons we try to model atmospheric processes is to become better at prediction. It is helpful to be more aware of what weather and climatic patterns are coming in the future.
Religious faith, at its root, is a kind model. One constructed a long time ago, built largely on false patternicity errors, but given how little we understood about the universe its weak predictive capabilities (in line with empirical evidence) is hardly surprising. Nevertheless it is an attempt to know the future. It’s full of prophet predictions, it speaks of what happens to you when you die, how the world will end, what consequences your actions might have. People pray or plead for diving intervention for their future endeavors. ‘Please get me this job, please make it rain so our crops come in, please don’t let my mother die of cancer.’ These are all attempts to give us certainty in an ever changing universe in which are predictive capabilities, especially at an individual level, are extremely limited. The statement “God has a plan for you” is a prime example of how religion has the course of your life worked out already. There is no need to worry about it. Just have faith. People find it soothing to pray, people find it peaceful to know the purpose of the universe, to know what will happen to them when they die. In fact, on the whole, religion gives far more certainty than science, which is why I expect it is much more popular. Science rarely claims 100% predictive capability, but religion does, and to this end religion can be easily used to exploit people. It is a panacea to all the uncertainty in the world. Religion pushes people to have more and more faith in times of doubt and confusion. What they are really saying is “Be more and more certain that (religious claim x) is the truth.” And if you’re successful, not surprisingly, you feel better. With mental effort we can convince ourselves to be more certain of things whose outcome is uncertain. Human history is rife with such examples. There is no doubt in my mind that we have better models for how humans can live their lives now. Nevertheless, we have maintained these old models, trying to ignore the worst bits of them, and developed an entire field of apologetics whose main purpose is to try to convince people that these old models still not only have value, but that they are actually superior to other models out there.
Now just because prediction is something humans do, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a virtue. I guess I see it as a raw instinct that needs to be tamed, which is how I have approached all beneficial human qualities. I think it’s clear that while much happiness can be found in getting lost in the moment, we need some sort of value system that gives us a direction. We might get there and find we have to go somewhere else, but it seems beneficial to always have some sort of idea of where we might go next. In my life it seems that the people I have admired most are the ones who can take pleasure in the moment, but also keep their eyes ahead of them as well. It’s dangerous to get lost in times that have not occurred, just as it is unhealthy to dwell in the past. So if I were to choose this 8th value that makes a good human, perhaps the word “prediction” doesn’t quite do it justice, but until I come up with a better word it will have to do. There is, however, no question in my mind that a defining quality for our species is our ability think about the future. It encapsulates our dreams for a better future and if there is any escape from the fate of extinction that most life on this planet has faced, it will be through our ability to predict, if we can remember to be humble enough to remember we aren’t perfect.