Faith: the First Way of Knowing

In my ‘Theory of Knowledge’ course the last week, we have been discussing how faith functions as way, or means, of knowing.  As a starting point, we examined a biblical definition of faith from Hebrews 11:1 (what I think is the only explicit definition of faith in the Bible):  “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”  Though people differ over what they put faith in, the presence of faith in the heart and the way faith functions in our knowing are universal.

Everyone, even non-religious people, trusts in aspects of reality that they cannot perceive with their senses.  Those who believe we should not look to religion for understanding, but to reason or science, fundamentally rely on what they do not see to make sense of the world.   Consider the the simple claim, “If something is an apple, it is an apple.  It is not not an apple.”  This is a specific application of the most basic law of logic:  the law of identity.  I asked my students to think of concrete evidence to support this claim (and simple mathematical claims like 2 + 2 = 4).  Can you?  They naturally struggled to, yet would not deny the the truth of these claims, because they are intuitive:  we don’t believe them because we perceive evidence for them, yet believe them nonetheless.  Why?  Because they are undeniable, and other things we know depend on them in a fundamental way.  Indeed all laws of logic have this quality.  One cannot prove the laws of logic by appealing to sensory evidence or even by appealing to logic (for to do so would be to use them).  We cannot see them but we have confidence in them.

Such beliefs (called ‘properly basic beliefs’ by philosopher Alvin Plantinga) comprise our ‘core intuitions.’  Beliefs that must be true if we are to understand anything else.  One such core intuition that we rely on in the domain of science is the belief that the future will be like the past, sometimes called belief in the “uniformity of nature.”  Science progresses by making generalizations about the way nature behaves on the basis of careful observations that are repeatable.  Most of the science knowledge you’ve learned in school is based on investigations done hundreds of years ago.  We believe that was true then, is  true now, and will continue to be in the future.  The uniformity of nature, though, is not based on scientific discoveries.  Rather, without it, science could not function.  Science depends on this truth, not the other way around.  Only in human societies that have assurance of the uniformity of nature, something that cannot be seen, does science take root and flourish (for example, primitive societies that practice animistic religions do not engage in science because they believe the natural world is under the control of arbitrary and capricious spirits, and thus cannot be understood and controlled).

These are the kinds of truths we know by faith.  Other examples include truths about what is right and wrong and even that what we perceive with our senses actually exists (and is not just imagined in our minds).  I call faith the first way of knowing because by it we ascertain the truths we need to know anything else.  Perhaps this is in part why St. Anselm of Canterbury famously said “Credo ut intelligam” (I believe in order to understand).

2 comments on “Faith: the First Way of Knowing

  1. This is an excellent summary, which could also serve as a springboard into a discussion on the dilemma that the naturalist, who unreservedly clings to the “uniformity of nature”, has with The Bible’s supernatural claims

  2. Indeed. I just discussed with my students today how a Christian worldview has provided the foundation for modern science in part by giving warrant to the uniformity of nature principle. I also told them a bit about our friendship in college to illustrate how one can have intense disagreements over fundamental questions and still cultivate a friendship. We’ve been discussing the question “How to evaluate worldviews?”

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