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A Definition of Faith

We all have a worldview—a collection of beliefs that direct our actions. Our worldview may be ill-defined, poorly considered, or even inconsistent. Still, if we have ever reasoned about how to act, we have a worldview.

Conceptually we can divide our beliefs into two groups:

  1. Irreducible, unprovable axioms
  2. Beliefs deduced from these axioms

Although enumerating our beliefs, let alone categorizing them so cleanly, would be difficult in practice.

I define “faith” as our willingness to act and possibly think consistently with our axioms, despite them being uncertain and unprovable.

Most humans believe that the laws of nature will continue acting as they have in the past, although we can not prove this belief. Many of us adopt this belief unconsciously. I call this implicit faith—faith which is seen only in a person’s actions, but not in their thoughts.

Beliefs require different amounts of faith, proportional to how drastically they require the believer to alter their actions from their current beliefs.

For most of us, believing in the consistency of nature requires very little faith relative to believing that they may change—we would not drastically alter our thoughts or actions, since, although we admit they may change, we have no way of knowing how or when they would change, if ever. On the other hand, believing that the laws of physics will change drastically tomorrow would require a lot of faith. The believer would likely not go to work; they would gather their loved ones for what they believe could be their final moments.

If we believe we may go to hell if we have sex outside of marriage, then we have a degree of faith depending on how much we want to have sex outside of marriage. If this isn’t a temptation for us, then perhaps it requires very little faith, since our faith is never tested.

If we believe we should donate 10% of our money to the church, then we have a significant degree of faith, since this is quite a sacrifice for most people who are not very wealthy.

If we believe we should fly a plane into a building, then we have an extreme level of faith—without this much faith we are very unlikely to act in this way.

By this definition, believers that don’t act consistently with their religion have very little faith.

There are multiple sets of beliefs that could result in the same action. Thus our definition is not purely behavioral—the mental act of thinking plays its part, but it is also not entirely mental.

Is thought a willed act? We will to spend to time thinking about things, but we can not control our thoughts either. If a beautiful woman walks past a man, the man can not usually avoid noticing (a thought) that the women is beautiful. Likewise, we can not will ourselves into believing things we think are obviously false. In the extreme case, we can not will ourselves to believe 2 + 2 = 5. There is a gradation of certainty that we move down, and eventually we can will ourselves to think one way or another.

Thus only some beliefs can be willed, depending on how likely a person finds a belief.