Our contributor, Alan, has asked: “…what limitation is there on faith or any faith based claim?”. Let me give you some thoughts.
I start with the (philosopher) Hume’s dictum: “If we take in our hand any Volume; of Divinity or School Metaphysics, for Instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract Reasoning concerning Quantity or Number? No. Does it contain any experimental Reasoning concerning Matter of Fact and Existence? No. Commit it then to the Flames: For it can contain nothing but Sophistry and Illusion. “
Hume clarifies here that experimental reasoning (the deductions of science), unlike metaphysics, can be falsified by empirical evidence. By definition the truth of religious faith cannot be so falsified, so we shall find none of Alan’s limitations here. Of course we can identify evidence which points that way – properly investigated miracles for instance – but the theist is hard put to show what empirical evidence would prove or falsify this belief.
The difficulty arises, I suggest, because we are faced by a category error. No comparison can be made between belief and empirical evidence. I proceed by analogy. Our relationships with others require a level of trust. Were we so cynical that we refused to trust anyone under any circumstances, social life would become impossible. Indeed we would regard some levels of cynicism as pathological. However, trust requires us to go one stage beyond the evidence. We have to choose, or decide, to trust – even if that decision is unconscious.
Imagine that you let a room to a new lodger. Initially the evidence for trust is quite small – a judgment of first impressions backed up by more formal references. And we have to choose whether we trust that evidence enough to conclude the arrangement. But, in the early days, we keep a weather eye open for evidence which supports or questions trustworthiness. With the passage of time we get to a stage where we feel that we can trust completely. But, even then, there will be a tiny reservation. Were we to be asked to give the evidence for that trust it would be based on the assumption that what happened in the past will continue into the future. And that remains a leap in the dark. Ironically, it was Hume who said that we cannot know that the sun will rise tomorrow morning, but we act as though it will, merely on the grounds that it always has.
Is this a good analogy for our trust (or faith) in God? Yes, I think so. The evidence may be various. For example, we may have inherited it early from our parents: we trust them, and, in turn, trust their beliefs. Or we may have been impressed by the virtues of others – we admire their virtues and look to the beliefs which underpin them. At a more intellectual level, we may ask questions like why does anything exist?, or is there any meaning in life?, or a need to explain the obligations of morality? We may find that the only satisfactory answers require an ultimate source in a personal God. But we may, in all such cases, end up with strong evidence but no conclusion. Finally, we must, as in all matters of trust, leap of over the divide by an act of our will. Our faith is not the necessary QED of an argument, it is a choice we make.