How can Faith be a WoK?

When the IB introduced Faith as one of its new Ways of Knowing, a few eyebrows will have been raised in surprise if not bewilderment. For many the idea of Faith as a path to Knowledge was simply a contradiction in terms. For these individuals, Faith could only been seen as an obstacle to or a contradiction of true knowledge. Whether this is necessarily so shall be seen in what follows.

To understand many people’s scepticism of Faith as a WoK one only need look at the many dismissive and pejorative definitions put forward by some of the most influential thinkers in the West. Nietzsche for example described Faith as “not wanting to know what is true.” The writer Mark Twain claimed Faith is “believing something when you know it ain’t so.” The eminent British philosopher Bertrand Russell also suggested that Faith “is a firm belief in something for which there is no evidence.” For a typical sample of atheistic definitions of Faith you can go to www.thegoodatheist.net/2010/12/20/faith-defined/.

These definitions reduce Faith to an extremely narrow and extreme version of the concept. This is best understood as blind faith or unquestioning faith. To claim that they represent the best way of understanding the idea of Faith is simply misguided or dishonest. Furthermore, this type of Faith is by no means unique to the religious. If one is going to engage in a fruitful and constructive dialogue about the nature of Faith and its relationship to Knowledge one will have to begin from somewhere else.

Any comprehensive definition of Faith will make reference to a range of possible uses. It should include references to trust, loyalty, conviction, allegiance, hope, certainty, acceptance of assumptions and justification by means other than logic or evidence. Like many words, Faith has a legitimate range of meanings which will be determined by the precise context in which it is used. That some of these meanings are intimately related to the nature of knowledge, few should seriously contest. I will focus on two of them.

Firstly, it should be pretty obvious to everyone that Faith has an essential role to play in relation to the acquisition of knowledge. Without Faith in the means of achieving knowledge the latter is not possible. Taking the view that sense-perception, reason, scientific experiments, data-analysis… are legitimate and reliable sources of knowledge is an act of Faith. One has to accept that all sources of knowledge are based on unprovable assumptions and therefore that one has to choose to believe in them or not. We simply cannot know that we know, we have to believe that we know.

Secondly, one understanding of Faith as WoK assumes that the two dominant routes to knowledge in the history of Western Philosophy, namely Rationalism (logic) and Empiricism (sense-perception) are not the only means by which truth is reached. It is telling that Western philosophers continue to debate the nature of facts and truth, and that we are nowhere near a consensus than we were one hundred years ago or more. If anything, theories of knowledge and truth have multiplied and pity the poor students who have to distinguish between them all. Rationalism and Empiricism remain dominant because they seem to work, although the ‘knowledge’ they produce has to be constantly refined, added-to, updated or even abandoned – and that’s as it should be.

Finally, one could further suggest that Belief would have been a wiser term to use as it does not necessarily entail any reference to religious beliefs but it by no means excludes them either. This concept can therefore by applied to many different knowledge claims without suffering from the negative connotations which the word Faith seems to carry for at least some. At the very least Belief entails a degree of neutrality and flexibility which may be related to issues of religious Faith without presuming their irrelevance to knowledge issues or questions.

Faith is a leap, but at least it knows and accepts it is.

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