Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Precursive Faith: Belief That Runs Ahead of the Evidence

Should our beliefs ever run ahead of the evidence? Or, does empiricism -- believing only what actual evidence supports -- rule the day?

Please consider this before reading the rest of the post -- I want you to know what you think before continuing to see if James' views influence you in any way.

William James argued for  "precursive faith".

Tom Morris (Philosophy for Dummies [i.e., "me"]) characterizes James' view: "We need to move forward with an openness of mind, and even the first glimmerings of a positive conviction, in order to discover some truths.... Sometimes something like the positive state of belief, however tentative, helps to create a situation in which evidence is more likely to be forthcoming."

I agree with this; and something like this was at work when I first tentatively dared to postulate God might in fact exist. It was more an intuition, a hunch based on my aspirations as a human being for meaning, purpose, and immortality (as well as a hunch of moral accountability) -- maybe these longings of a young heart had been put there for a reason!

James' view countered the strict empiricism of W.K. Clifford, who had insisted it was wrong ever to allow our beliefs to go beyond what evidence could demonstrate.  Something like this is clearly at work in the Darwin vs. Jesus wars. Atheists say that natural laws, etc. stop well short of "proving" (in some kind of mathematical/empirical way) that God exists; therefore there is no rational basis for believing he does.

James used the example of sports endeavor. How do you know before you are the first person to climb Mount Everest, that a) it is climbable, and b) you are able to do it?  You don't. Past accomplishments will never be sufficient for you to form the belief that it is climbable and you're the man to do it.  You don't know it's possible. Is it nevertheless rational, then, to believe that it is?

"James came to realize that what sets champions apart is their ability to engage in precursive faith and launch out with belief that runs ahead of the available evidence, believing in themselves up front."

In the case of the existence of God, sometimes you have to hypothesize that he does exist, and see where that leads. In my case, it lead to the feet of Christ and my confession of him as Lord.

I've never looked back.


P@J said...

James’ Everest analogy can also be seen as strong rebuke to faith, and a strong argument for scientific thought. It is not rational for you to think you can do it based on personal faith. It is rational to do a series of tests (aerobic threshold, temperature tolerance, studies at lower altitude, experiments with balloons or high-altitude aircraft on the physiology of low air pressure, etc) to assess if it is possible. This is the rational way to go about climbing Everest, also applicable to flying faster then sound, or splitting the nucleus of the atom: before we do it: we evaluate it in a controlled scientific way.

Despite the propaganda at the time, it was well known in 1947 that objects could fly, in a controlled state, at faster than sound. The science of ballistics had established that, the V2 had proved it. The only question was whether we have the engineering wherewithal to build the device to do it. They didn’t try until they were confident that they did have the engineering answers raised by the scientific models. There is a reason they didn’t just take a sopwith camel and stick bigger engines on it: we knew that wouldn’t work. Not because of faith or belief, but because of scientific knowledge.

RkBall said...

Many of the greatest scientific advances occurred when someone postulated something, on a hunch or intuition, that ran well ahead of the facts.

According to a strict empiricist you would never sit in a chair until you watched someone else sit in it successfully - what evidence do you have that this particular chair will hold you? (In my case, you might want to ask the person his weight, too.)

Another example is social engagements. How do you know these people are going to be friendly, and will like you? You don't.

When you stop for directions, what empirical evidence do you have on hand that the person giving you directions is a truth-teller?

We use a form of precursive faith all the time in daily life.

P@J said...

If I had never sat in a chair before, or indeed never seen a chair used, then yes, I would be dubious of its merits before trusting my butt to it. However, by the time I was old enough to walk. I hade seen thousands of chairs successfully used, and have personally experienced many. Now, if someone had presented me a circular contraption I did not recognize, made of bundled scotch tape and thumb tacks, and told me it was a “chair”, I would probably be reluctant to jump on it until its utility had been demonstrated to me, or I had personally done a few tests (perhaps pressing on it with my hand, gradually pressing with more force to estimate the yield strength, etc.)

By your model (if I understand it), if any device is mentioned in an old book (you spelled it’s name a few posts ago), and during translation into King James English, was interpreted to be a “chair”, you would gladly commit your full weight to it, sight unseen, and if it did not support you, you would continue to assert that this was your failing, not the “chair”s.

Let us explore the outputs of these two thought systems. If it indeed is a chair capable of supporting our weight, then we have both won. If it is not a chair capable of supporting my weight, I have saved myself from a pratfall at the cost of a small amount of skepticism; however you saved yourself the hassle of thought, and suffered the pratfall. Maybe that it telling of our difference in philosophy right there: what are we both willing to risk?

xn--hrfn-woa said...

The problem with relying on "the first glimmerings of a positive conviction" in matters of religious belief is that there are many, generally mutually exclusive, potential 'convictions'.

Is it any more inherently plausible to "postulate [the orthodox trinitarian Christian conception of] God" than the Judaic conception of Yahweh, the Islamic conception of Allah, the Hindu conception of Brahman, the Nordic conception of Odin or the Taoist conception of the Tao?

Which convictions you are 'open' to would appear to be a product of (in rapidly decreasing order of average importance): culture, chance and personal mindset.

RkBall said...

My "path" was

1. Probably a God.

2. Hebraic conception -- just, eternal, etc. resonates

3. Which religion or which religious figure (if any) -- "roll your own" was a definite option in the early 70s.

4. Buddhism -- life and reality negating, plus, where is the power to change?

5. Hinduism -- pretty much the same conclusion

6. Islam -- Mohammed appears to have been influenced by a misunderstanding of Judaism and Christianity, e.g., thought both Christians and Arabs were tribes each with a Book -- thought the Arabs should have a Book, too

7. Attracted to the person of Jesus Christ. His words reeled me in. I had no thought about the Trinity at the time of my conversion.

Trinitarian belief, and, indeed, Christian orthodoxy, came later. I was the most surprised guy on the planet. I had expected a "roll your own" spirituality.

Unknown said...

It is quite clear that RkBall does not understand Buddhism, or any other religions. The Buddhism that I learn is about living a life with love and working for the benefits of all sentient beings. The primary source of the misunderstanding the Buddhism philosophy is that ancient Indian languages tended to express things in a negative way. Not the philosophy is negative, it was the style of the languages were expressed in that way. One needs to study the commentaries carefully in order to capture the essence of the Buddhism philosophy.

Unknown said...

On "Precursive Faith" Consider this metaphor. A investment adviser tells me that he works for Warren Buffet and if I invest my life-saving 100,000 dollars with him, I will earn 10 trillion dollars in forty years. My instinct would be walking in another direction as far as I can. The investment is too good to be true. Now, a preacher tells me that if I behave myself for 75 years, I will have eternal life; i.e. more than 75 trillion years. Even I sign the contract, I will spend the next 75 years looking over the fine prints to see what is the catch. The highest ideal in Buddhism is to be a Bodhisattva, working for the benefits for others until the job is done. Their lives are dedicated to benefits of others, not for personal attainment of eternal life.

Anonymous said...

When we talk to each other in online discussions we believe people will be civil and speak their minds. That is faith in our fellow human beings. When we disagree we look for the evidence in what people are saying wrong. That is democratic and scientific. Both precursive faith and pragmatic skepticism are wonderful traits of human beings. I'm glad we all have both.

BallBounces said...

Very good comment.

Another thought:

Babies enter the world with a kind of precursive faith that the world is designed and purposeful.

Anonymous said...

Faith is needed in everything. Only a fool believes all of the "facts." It is ignorant to believe nothing ever changes, thereby negating previous proof. Even in science, research particularly, there is a large element of precursive faith. To say that there is sufficient evidence for everything people, including scientist, do is just not being honest.

"... nothing intellectually compelling or challenging.. bald assertions coupled to superstition... woefully pathetic"