What is faith?

Total Posts:  2890
Joined  02-12-2004
11 March 2005 10:57

It seems to me that a central premise in Sam's book is that we can somehow put an end to faith once we realize that it is a dangerous condition for humanity.  I wonder if this is true.

It may be that faith is inherent in our cognitive and pre-cognitive facilities and thus not amenable to irradication through reason and learning.  In other words, what if we're hardwired for faith?  Here is my suspicion.

Human beings are natural explainers.  That is, humans posses the innate need to find explanations for phenomena that have sociological or physiological impact on their existence.  This is neither surprising or new in the evolutionary sense.  I and others have shown that even single neurons are causal relation detectors.  Brains, even the most primitive, encode causal relations and those with cerebral corticies have the capacity to seek backward along a causal chain.  Its simple survival.  The animal that can anticipate a meaningful event by observing precedent events is more likely to survive.  Humans have truly awsome corticies, including a highly developed prefrontal cortex for executive functions.  It is no wonder they have evolved the capacity to actively seek causes further back along a causal chain.

In the best playout of that capacity we have science, a principled search for hidden causes.  But science is conducted by those with reasonably strong intellects (most likely heritable) and higher than average intelligence (memory capacity and recall, and processing capabilities, what we call reasoning ability, also most likely heritable).  Science is conducted by people who notice differences, discrepancies and patterns and ask probing questions.  They look for mechanisms that provide causal links to observed phenomena.

But modern scientist have something else.  They have all the accumulated knowledge of prior observers (through oral and written language) to base their models (from which differences can be noted) on.  Paleolithic humans, even those with the genetics to promote rational exploration of phenomenal causes, had only the knowledge afforded by direct sensory observation.  There were many unseen causes that they simply had no access to.  Yet, they had the need to believe that a cause existed.  Combine the capacity to generate what-if models in the mind, along with a strong need to explain and it is not surprising that metaphysical explanations take on a god-like causal basis.

What are beliefs?  In neurological terms we can say a belief must be an evolvable network of features and microfeatures (represented in cortical neurons) which tend to fire together when the belief construct has been activated.  So there is a network of features (which can also be shared with other belief constructs) say for a horse, in which a population of distributed neurons are firing when you see a horse or think about one.  The origin of this construct (network) is in a series of life experiences wherein the coordinated firing of these features, at a time when the meaning of horse was being established, mutually reinforce one another.  Reinforcement leads to an increased tendancy for this set of neurons to fire together if a sufficient subset of them are activated.

Beliefs are neural constructs that more or less correspond to some reality. Beliefs are associated with a degree-of-truth or confidence weighting (which is actually the strength of the connections between the neurons in the network).  When a belief is strongly held, we assert it strongly corresponds with the "thing-in-the-world".  That is, it represents truth.  The conviction that we know something is associated with this strength of belief.

Generally beliefs are formed from experience.  For example, I believe there is a story called "The Wizard of Oz".  I believe this because I have actually seen the movie, read the book and have gotten confirmation of my direct experiences from others who also saw the movie, etc.  I do not believe there is an actual Wizard of Oz (or an actual Oz for that matter).  Why?  For one thing, I have never seen the Wizard outside the context of the movie.  I know, in advance of reading, that the book is called a fiction. And no one, especially anyone I care about, is telling me there really is a Wizard of Oz.

So I have a construct belief - the Wizard of Oz as a fiction - and I am very confident that this belief is true.

What is faith?  Suppose as a child, someone told me that there actually was a wizard of oz.  Suppose they did this repeatedly and always had some rationale to counter any doubts I might voice, since I never had any direct experience with this wizard.  Now add to that the fact that I am hardwired to trust and even emulate the adults in my life.  They have constructed a reality and my experience is only based on their words.  Of course there may be a community of adults who back my parents up on this, so it seems to me as a child, this must be true.  Why?

I speculate that the brain is between a rock and a hard place when it comes to strength of beliefs.  It has evolved to be a superior ferret of causal relations, and it is capable of strong encoding of constructs that provide it with predictive or anticipatory capabilities.  But it is also susceptible to socialization, the enforcement of a somewhat arbitrary reality in which predecesors have "discovered" the unseen causes and we can trust their word on it!  In other words, we're hardwired to believe what others (of importance) tell us.

All of us believe things.  Belief is the instantiation of knowledge in the brain.  All of us "feel" some level of certainty about what we believe.  Some beliefs, call them facts, are so certain, that is their correspondence with reality is so high, that we do not question their veracity.  Other beliefs are provisional or tentative, based on some experience, but of sufficient complexity or of dubious source that we have lesser degrees of certainty as to correspondence with truth.

And here is were wisdom comes in.  A wise person senses when they do not have sufficient evidence or experience to warrant holding a belief with some degree of certitude.  They understand that they do not know what they might (or should) know.  And they are able to question the veracity of constructs that are not supported to the same degree as repeated and reinforced experiences would support other beliefs.  They do not have faith. Or at least they don't let it take over.

The bad news is that, as I have indicated in another thread, wisdom does not seem to be a hallmark of the average brain.  I suspect that it is easier for the majority of people to accept whatever constructs (no matter how counterintuitive or even counter experiential) are given to them at an early age and encode those with the same degree of certainty that more wise persons rely on experience to produce.

Faith is built into us - all of us.  It is only a brain endowed with greater facility for wisdom that will be able to manage the tendancy to faith.