Faith and Belief (1)

Two of the most fundamental questions with which human beings must grapple are as follows: “How should I live?” and “How do I know?”

The first question is obviously more urgent than the second, for we cannot put the business of living on hold while we try to figure out what is the best way of living. However, the urgency of the ethical question does not diminish the importance of the epistemological question. While doing what we believe is the right thing, lurking in the background is the constant challenge of justifying our actions, primarily to ourselves. That means being conscious and critical about how we know what we know.

In effect, since we tend to live in accordance with what we know and use what we know to justify how we live, the question of ethics (“How should I live?”) is inseparable from the question of knowledge (“How do I know?”).

Notice that there is an important presupposition underlying each of these questions. The first question assumes that there are good and bad ways of living; the second assumes that what we know can be true or false. When we ask the practical question — “How should I live?” — we are hoping to find an answer that will help us choose what is good and avoid what is bad. Similarly, when we ask the epistemological question — “How do I know?” — we are hoping to find an answer that will help us choose what is true and avoid what is false.

But thinking in terms of good/bad and true/false also points to a deeper presupposition, i.e., that there exists an objective standard that makes such judgments possible in the first place.

Today, some people argue that no objective standard exists that can ground our judgments of good/bad and true/false. I don’t think that they actually believe this; I think what they are really concerned about is that a great deal of exploitation and oppression in history has been legitimized by appeals to some objective standard, and that this has made them suspicious of all such claims. I share their concern and suspicion, but I don’t think that we can so easily dispense with the very concept of an objective standard. We do, however, need to proceed with great caution.

At the risk of making a circular argument, I would like to suggest that an objective standard does exist, and that it is known as “reality.” Following Charles Peirce, I would define “reality” as that which is what it is regardless of what anyone thinks or feels or believes about it. In other words, reality is what is independent of all its actual or possible representations. It is the ultimate referent of “objective.”

In principle, then, the objective standard that helps ground our judgments — both ethical and epistemological — is reality. Thus, something is good or true insofar as it is in harmony with reality; it is bad or false insofar as it conflicts with reality. This implies that the value of our judgments depend on the degree of our acquaintance with reality. In other words, both the ethical question (“How should I live?”) and the epistemological question (“How do I know?”) presuppose that the nature of reality is either known or is knowable, at least to the degree that allows us to make some tentative judgments. In effect, our ethics and epistemology are inevitably grounded in the way we answer the ontological question, i.e., “What is real?”

It is at the intersection of these three fundamental human concerns — ethics, epistemology, and ontology — that the concepts of faith and belief acquire their full significance.

6 Comments on “Faith and Belief (1)

  1. Thanks a lot, very nicely explained. Eagarly waiting for some light to be shed upon “It is at the intersection of these three fundamental human concerns — ethics, epistemology, and ontology — that the concepts of faith and belief acquire their full significance.” i-e how exactly?

  2. You write,
    “a great deal of exploitation and oppression in history has been legitimized by appeals to some objective standard”.

    I disagree because I believe this sort of oppression comes about from compliance to “tradition”. “Tradition”, like Kant’s version of knowledge, is a combination of subjective and objective elements. The problem arises when the older objective elements of tradition are no longer are in compliance with the ‘reality’/objective elements of the current society.

    It would probably also be useful to give your readers your definition of the difference between “opinion” and “belief”.

  3. Thank you for your comments 🙂

    Regarding your first comment, my reference was to the postmodern suspicion of all metanarratives. As you know, this suspicion results not only from an epistemological relativism but also from an awareness that such metannaratives have served to justify various forms of exploitation and oppression. My point was not about the “cause” of exploitation and oppression but about their “legitimation.”

    As for your second comment/question, I will have a lot to say about the concept of “belief” in subsequent posts. Generally speaking, I do not intend to make a sharp distinction between “opinion” and “belief,” except, perhaps, that in ordinary usage the word “opinion” often refers to a weaker form of “belief” (though the word “opinionated” clearly suggests otherwise). The main issue before me, however, is the distinction between “faith” and “belief.”

  4. I ran across this today and it reminded me of your series, so I wanted to share it with you:

    “You get to decide what to worship. Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship- be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles- is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.”
    -David Foster Wallace, commencement speech at Kenyon College.

  5. Salam alaikum

    …Following Charles Peirce, I would define “reality” as that which is what it is regardless of what anyone thinks or feels or believes about it. In other words, reality is what is independent of all its actual or possible representations. It is the ultimate referent of “objective.”

    Please explain this excerpt in the context of Pierce’s theory of semiotics.

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