Paul describes faith1 in the Letters to the Hebrews as follows:
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1. (NRSV and many other versions)
Of course, Paul was not a philosopher of science, he was lining in the ancient ages, so, it is not surprisingly not a precise definition in modern, technical terms. One may say, who cares about Paul, his/her concept of faith is different. I use to quote this verse of the Bible to describe how I define the concept of “faith” and knowledge and to demonstrate, this is not just an atheistic way of thinking, but also accepted in religion.
Now, if we try to interpret the definition of Paul, we have to make the ancient, somewhat elliptic description because with “faith” Paul probably would not mean the Wilson chamber that makes otherwise invisible particles visible. We are more just to Paul and we get a better definition, if we define it as the opposite of empirical knowledge. Because the “things not seen” is meant to include all empirical knowledge, only Paul formulated it in an elliptic, inaccurate way. He must have known there are other empirical sources of knowledge, and he surely did not mean, if we that hearing a whistle of a train is faith. In our modern days, empirical knowledge extends further with all the experimental devices we have. Paul would probably agree, that faith is not the conviction in something that can be experienced directly trough any conventional sense organ, or measured by any device we can construct. I think, most of the believers would agree with me on this too.
Faith and knowledge refers at Paul to the reality. This is important from the aspect of modern philosophy, because according to many philosophers, and according to my opinion too, mathematical knowledge is not empirical, but does not refer directly to reality. The technical term is, that mathematics is analytic, a posteriori knowledge. I dot want to elaborate more on this, because it is not our topic. I define faith and knowledge as follows:
Faith: To accept something to be true without (empirical) confirmation.
Knowledge: To accept something to be true because of (empirical) confirmation.
It is necessary to note here several things. First, I have put the word “empirical” in brackets, because I do not accept other confirmation for statements about reality. In technical terms, I accept the thesis of logical positivism: there is no synthetic a priori. It is neither a confirmation that someone strongly believes or hopes for something. We all have experiences in life, when we hoped for something, and we got disappointed. There is in fact no basis for faith. To believe something because of strong hopes is wishful thinking (as the name says) that is a logical fallacy. It is an gross mistake of philosophy that while wishful thinking has long been recognised as a logical fallacy in general, faith, as a special case of wishful thinking has not been doomed unanimously. For some reason religion was hold as an exception, because a lot of philosophers were religious and therefore biased.
I also have to precise, that knowledge, as it is known from the so called Gettier-problem, has to have a third condition. But because the third condition is not useful to demarcate faith and knowledge, and it is difficult to formulate it, therefore I do not go into details about that here. The first 2 condition Gettier listed referring to Plato was (i) true and (ii) confirmed opinion. My problem with the first condition is that the truth of the opinion I would not add to the concept of “knowledge”, because I cannot interpret it as a condition. A meaningful condition has to be possibly checked, and we cannot check truth more, than by confirmation, that is condition (ii). So (i) is redundant to (ii). The third condition – the necessity of which the Gettier problem unfold – that the confirmation has to be connected to the truth of the opinion in some relevant way. It says that the confirmation has to work out because of the truth and not because of other reasons. But this is not important concerning religion, that is anyway not confirmed.
The demarcation of faith and knowledge is nowadays not an “in” view. There are several books arguing why they are connected, and cannot be separated. One example for this is “Science and Religion: An Introduction” by Alister Mc Grath2 .
As it can be seen above, I however, emphasize the distinction of religion and knowledge. This distinction is a conceptual, methodological one. Besides of this, of course it happened in history that some church was contributing to science. As they are even more cases, when a church hindered science. All these are historical, contingent cases, and they do not concern the conceptual difference in religion and science. Although of course the many opposition of scientists and churches are because of the conceptual difference. But I do not want to discuss this endlessly in details, because the conceptual difference serves us with a much stronger argument for atheism.
Those, who argue for the compatibility of faith and knowledge, quite often claim that the basis of knowledge is faith. There are several lines of arguments here. The first one is that the principle of confirmation (evidentialism) is itself based on faith, since how would we know that the principle is truth?
But the principle of confirmation is not a true or false statement about reality or about logic, so it cannot be faith. The principle of evidentialism does not state that confirmed statements are true, and only confirmed statements can be true. The principle of evidentialism is a proposal: let us chose the confirmed statements! One does not have to confirm such a proposal, but maybe one can argue for it. To argue for such a principle one could bring up some logical context. Like for example that there is an infinite set of unconfirmed statements, while only a few of confirmed. Or practical arguments, like science works as a tool of knowing the world, while religion does not. They use to argue in similar ways for a similar principle, which is the razor of Occam. These all are good reasons to choose this principle, which is -as I already showed – not a true or false proposition, so it cannot be faith.
Another, often stressed “argument” is that science is based on faith, because a scientist cannot work with his/her theories, without hoping their truth. Religious devotees quite often confuse hope and faith. Since by “hope”, we generally mean something that is weaker than “faith”. But the important difference is not that it is weaker, but that hope does not necessarily include the conviction of the truth of the hoped thing. Likewise, a scientist does not have to be convicted by the truth of his/her theory. In fact a scientist designs experiments to confirm his/her theory. Sometimes (s)he might be convicted about its truth and only wants to demonstrate this others, but quite often the scientist genuinely wants to test what is the truth, because even (s)he does not know it.
In any case a scientist, if (s)he really behaves like a scientist should, would not state the truth of his/her theory until it is only a mere hope, and until it is not confirmed for himself/herself and for the scientific community. A scientists follows par excellence the scientific method, if (s)he publishes his/her theory along with the empirical confirmation and not before. Before that sometimes a hypothesis might be published, if it is really interesting, without stating its truth. In most of the cases his/her hypothesis3, is not even interesting without empirical confirmation, and journals would not even publish it. But if they would, the scientist may not claim the truth, because the principle of confirmation is indispensable in the methodology of science.
Faith is totally in opposition with experimenting at all. If the hope of the scientist would be a conviction about the truth of his/her hypothesis, I would see much less motivation to experiment about it. If (s)he would be sure about the truth of the hypothesis, then there would be no question about the outcome of the experiment for him/her. So why would (s)he carry it out? Why spend time and money on it? An experiment is only meaningful for himself/herself, if there is at least two different outcome possible. So this means that the scientist indeed cannot be convicted about the truth of his/her hypothesis before the experiment.
And about convincing other scientist, if science was faith, and the scientist itself was not convinced by experiment or other empirical evidence, then there is maybe a way also to convince others about its truth without the need of an experiment. Moreover, of the scientist was not convinced by experiment, then why would (s)he think that others would be convinced by it? Maybe they would, but there is no justification to think so. So there is no good reason for the experiment.
A very convincing demonstration that a scientist does not have to have faith about the truth of his/her theory is that especially in modern times a scientist may work on several research programmes, about competing theories. This may especially happen in modern physics, where there are several quite complicated theories and a physicist may work with more of them for decades until one of them will be confirmed so strongly that the other is abandoned. Se also the ideas of Lakatos about progressive and degenerative research programmes.
Finally, there is of course a phenomenon, often called scientism, when people really have faith in science. This may happen with scientists themselves, when they do not strictly follow the methods of science, but more often this happen with laymen. I have to admit that some atheists are adherents of such scientism. They may for sure have faith that science will achieve this or that in the unforeseeable future. This phenomena however is an excetion against the scientific method, and does not refute that according to the scientific method faith and knowledge are opposites. May claim is a methodolical one, and not a descriptive one.
1 I am using the word “faith” to describe the opinion of religious persons that is described in this text. I avoid to use the term “belief”, because this word is sometimes used in the neutral sense of “opinion”, but quite often it is used as religious faith. To demarcate faith and knowledge I do not use such a word that can be used in a neutral sense, but is not completely neutral. As a completely neutral word I use “opinion” for the mental state, when someone hold a statement to be true.
2 Alister Mc Grath: “Science and Religion: An Introduction” , Wiley, 1999.
3 Quite often people distinguish “hypothesis” and “theory” in the way that “theory” is for them a confirmed “hypothesis”. I do not follow that. For me theory is a set of hypothesis. In many cases, if a theory may consist mainly only of one hypothesis, I often mix these two words, as I find it more suitable. If I want to emphasize if a theory is confirmed or not, I do it explicitly by writing “confirmed hypothesis”, or “confirmed theory”.