How to Respond to this Argument about Faith?


I've seen the following situation come up several times, and wanted to know what a common response was.

Suppose Fred and George are arguing about a proposition X. Fred takes a faith based position on X. George tries several arguments diffusing any support for proposition X using a reasoning process. Fred attempts to show that their two positions are actually symmetrical, no one better than the other, asserting that George has faith in the reasoning process. According to Fred, whatever argument that George makes, he must have faith in his reasoning itself to ultimately support his conclusion about proposition X. Fred concludes that George's position on X has no superiority to his own.

The question is, how should George respond?

A second question: does Fred's argument show that all positions on all propositions are no better than faith based positions?

Dean Young

Posted 2017-08-20T16:12:17.250

Reputation: 417

Is George's reasoning process supposed to be a special train of thought, or is it just that George is thinking normally, and Fred says that George has faith in his own ability to think? – Canyon – 2017-08-21T02:11:15.593

If you like postmodernism, than both are right. If you like to think, then you have to analyze their point of views one by one. And no, "belief" in reason is not the same as belief in authority, if this is your question. – Rodrigo – 2017-08-21T05:36:22.923

In the examples I've seen George was reasoning normally, and indeed Fred thinks George has faith in his ability to think. Thank you both for your responses! – Dean Young – 2017-08-21T08:28:51.553

You posed a much harder question than I thought at first and my thinking changed half way through it. – Gordon – 2017-08-21T09:11:28.847

George should agree that he has faith in his thinking. I see the idea behind the question but there doesn't seem to be a problem. . – None – 2017-08-21T09:48:42.453



Well the whole struggle of the renaissance and the Enlightenment was really over the issue of faith and reason. So your question has a lot of history behind it. The "modern" struggle for reason probably began with the rediscovery of (really transportation of) Aristotle from east to west in the 12th or 13th century. And overall this would be characterized as looking to the world for answers, and not just for empirical answers but for ideas that might spur developments in mathematics also.

At the end of the day Fred has faith in a book or a tradition, the words and promises of the book or tradition, or he might just have faith in himself. The book, tradition or Fred is set up as the authority. George challenges Fred's faith-based arguments using reason and Fred says, well you just have faith in reason and you are the same as me.

I would not call what George has faith, I would call it a justified belief based upon the principles of reason, which combines both the empirical and the rational.

Now looking at this problem from where we stand in 2017, and making the assumption that Kant's transcendental aesthetic failed, which I think it did, then I think George's real justication will rest in pragmatism. To (boldly) paraphrase William James, George's way of thinking pays better than Fred's does, and by this he means pays in a broad way. Crude, but it gets the point across. (Certainly not all pragmatists are as crude as this, personally I'm not entirely sold on pragmatism, I rather agree with some of the remarks B. Russell made about Dewey. Nevertheless pragmatism is strong today).

The problem we have is that reason today does not rest on a good foundation (to the extent that matters anymore). But the age-old fight is against bare authority and superstition, and I believe that still stands. The definition of reason in the dictionary is good enough for me. I still think a historically informed reason is the way to go. I think a narrow, historically uninformed reason is deadly. Sadly, most of what we have today falls into the latter category.


Posted 2017-08-20T16:12:17.250

Reputation: 1 555

Thanks this helps. Especially the insight about faith being a belief in authority. Also I am a fan of your other answers on this site... hope to read more! – Dean Young – 2017-08-21T08:44:13.843

I don't know of that one, Gordon, sorry. Was it pantonal? – Dean Young – 2017-08-21T10:08:12.493

Starts, builds to a screech and cymbal, but it's lyrical at the end. Small orchestra? I first found out about it from a library book and I was able to get the cd at the same library. The library is in town but inconvenient. But I'm going to get by there and I will let you know. I saw that you liked Schoenberg and went through your selection, but not there! – Gordon – 2017-08-21T10:19:44.420

@DeanYoung the library book I had was on Berg, Webern & Schoenberg, so I could have the composer confused. I will get over to that library. Sorry I forgot to @ x the one above. – Gordon – 2017-08-21T10:56:56.063

@DeanYoung sorry I was so out of it that I forgot to upvote your question last night! I upvoted it today. – Gordon – 2017-08-21T19:06:29.980

Thanks Gordon! Keep me updated on the Schönberg. You can message me at – Dean Young – 2017-08-22T19:45:17.080

Say George didn't use reason because it is pragmatic, but because it is correct, how should he respond then? – Chris Wohlert – 2017-08-23T10:24:44.810

I am not well read on pragmatic philosophy myself. I'd have to go back and at least read John Dewey carefully. I am sure there are more modern books on pragmatism and philosophy too. – Gordon – 2017-08-23T17:40:57.063

@ChrisWohlert I was just saying that George could answer Fred and say that taking the approach of e.g. W. James or J. Dewey (you may call this a pragmatic method of reasoning) pays off better for him than Fred's approach. Now for me, I am not too worried about whether I study pragmatism or not. I am satisfied with the definition of reason in a good dictionary, as long as I have a good education in history too. Now with deductive reasoning we reach truth, but it may be trivial like a math proof. Most of our truths are only "true" empirically. – Gordon – 2017-08-23T17:52:16.160

@ChrisWolhert I consider both deductive and empirical knowledge to fall under the category of reason. Reason as defined in a good dictionary is not a precise definition, but I think it gets the point across that we are not relying on superstition, or authority. We put our ideas to some test or process to try to make our conclusions better. – Gordon – 2017-08-23T18:26:13.143

I think I get your point. But the argument of, I think this, because it pays off, feels similar to, I believe 'x' because it makes me feel good. How can I convey that reasoning is the correct way of thinking, even if it didn't pay off. – Chris Wohlert – 2017-08-24T07:36:10.167

@ChrisWohlert Thank you. Maybe I didn't make it clear enough. I am not a pragmatist. I believe that history plus reason will at times command me to do things I don't like to do, and which are very unlikely to ever help me. – Gordon – 2017-08-24T17:32:25.663

@ChrisWohlert. Let me give you an example. There is an environmental law that prohibits use of X that was based on good science when it was passed. This science has been updated and X is no longer considered dangerous, but the law is still in force. Do I follow the law, or do I decide to use X because after all, it is safe? I follow the law. Reason plus history tells me too. I do not like it, it costs me money to follow an unnecessary law, but I follow it anyway, even though there is a very, very small chance of my being caught. – Gordon – 2017-08-24T18:39:39.623

@Gordon, Nice example, though I might've acted differently. ;) Just to keep beating the horse; it is not so much a matter of whether you are a pragmatist, or not. For your argument to work, Fred needs to be a pragmatist. If you argued to me, that faith works for you or pays off, a pragmatic person would agree that you should keep that faith, where a non-pragmatist as myself would not. – Chris Wohlert – 2017-08-25T07:44:44.840

@ChrisWohlert It seems so, but I have never studied pragmatism. Especially when you say, "it works for you" that would seem to fit what little I've read about the philosophy. Bertrand Russell criticized Dewey in his book "Truth and Meaning" but it was on scientific grounds. I suspect Dewey may be more subtle than he's made out to be, and my curiosity is piqued now. – Gordon – 2017-08-25T12:16:31.263

@Gordon, As is mine ;) – Chris Wohlert – 2017-08-25T12:30:15.317


The idea that all positions are ultimately faith-based does not in any way suggest that they are equally valid or meaningful.

There are many kinds of faith that we all share much more broadly than others -- that what we observe carefully should be repeatable, that arithmetic works, that words are usefully (though not perfectly) well-defined, etc. And we have come to social compromises on relatively faith-neutral structures, like our systems of law and our sciences, on those bases.

To claim those shared positions are only as acceptable as any one particular religion is to ignore that many people across many traditions come to them independently. One is free to reject them, but only if one really rejects them, and is not being opportunistic and hypocritical.

If you want to claim the world is only 8000 years old, you cannot concurrently use in carbon-dating. If you think there was a first rainbow, you cannot accept particle physics, because it is observed using optics based on the stability of refraction. If you think dinosaurs and humans lived on earth together, you cannot accept plate tectonics as a way of describing mountain formation... You can throw whatever you want out the window, but when the baby goes out with the bathwater, then no more baby.


Posted 2017-08-20T16:12:17.250



It seems as though Fred is arguing that all methods of reasoning lead to equally justified conclusions. If this is true, when he uses his own method reasoning to come to conclusion X, it follows that this conclusion is just as justified as one made using another method of reasoning that arrives at ~X. Seems like a position of pure skepticism to me, which is fine, but then you can't go around claiming X's.

Allen More

Posted 2017-08-20T16:12:17.250

Reputation: 256


The question seems to be regarding faith as a concept. Both parties must believe in their respective arguments in order to state an argument. Here is the catch: Faith is generally understood as believing in something in the absence of tangible evidence. In your scenario, one side of the argument has faith based on what is presumably scientifically derived evidence, hence the conflict of what is faith arises. It would appear evident that both parties have faith in their arguments, what is not clear is if both are capable of recognizing that fact without religious or scientific overtones.

For example, one could logically argue, "If God created the Earth five thousand years ago, it stands to reason that such an ability could easily include a fossil record." and still not believe the argument to be a reality. The same could be said about evolution, that it functions as part of a greater plan without being mutually exclusive to the concept of Creation.


Posted 2017-08-20T16:12:17.250

Reputation: 29

Hey there, welcome to Philosophy SE! – Joseph Weissman – 2017-08-27T17:12:20.230


Faith is typically a subconscious process, that works through emotion. It is typically driven by processes at the instinctive or intuitive level that one is not consciously aware of.

Reason is a conscious process, that may or may not take emotions into account (albeit at a conscious level).

While some argue that faith and reason are complementary, they are nevertheless very distinct phenomena and they should not be confused. Either way, the (correct & consistent) application of reason does not require any faith whatsoever and has consistently been proven to be far more reliable than any degree of faith!

Some, including myself, would go as far as arguing that reason eliminates the need for faith :

The way to see by Faith is to shut the Eye of Reason.

— Benjamin Franklin

Faith: not wanting to know what is true.

— Friedrich Nietzsche

We may define ‘faith’ as the firm belief in something for which there is no evidence. Where there is evidence, no one speaks of "faith." We do not speak of faith that two and two are four or that the earth is round. We only speak of faith when we wish to substitute emotion for evidence.

— Bertrand Russell

All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason.

— Immanuel Kant

John Slegers

Posted 2017-08-20T16:12:17.250

Reputation: 944