Beyond a shadow . . .

If there’s nothing wrong with me…maybe there’s something wrong with the universe!

-Beverly Crusher, Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Remember Me”


I heard this the other day: “Scientists have faith in their assumptions.” Not. To get at understanding science and faith I think we need to do some house cleaning. What is faith? To explore this question our first order of business will be to throw out the Lectures on Faith. They weren’t written by Joseph Smith, they aren’t part of the scriptural cannon, and they’ve done a lot of damage. So with a bit of impish delight I give them the old heave-ho. Yet, so much of our discourse with each other in the church seems informed by this work’s misconceptions & digressions. It makes us say things like: “The farmer has faith that if he plants his wheat seeds in the Spring, it will turn into a fruitful harvest in the Fall.” or “Because I have faith in the laws of electricity and wiring, I am motivated to go through the actions of flipping on the light.” Thus faith of this sort provides motivations to act in a world of uncertainty. This is dangerous and silly.


When I was on my mission, we were encouraged to read the harmful works of Grant von Harrison to learn how faith works. Faith was kind of a positive mental attitude that disavows any doubts and which combined with exacting obedience constrains God to do your bidding. If we had faith we would baptize, have good mission stats, and in general be highly successful missionaries. Eventually, after our missions, the application of these principles would make us rich. We all were going to be millionaires just like our mission president. So they would say ‘have faith’ and I would squint my eyes and try really really really hard to do it. Do what? Yes, exactly. That was the problem.


Here’s my take. We know everything has its opposite, light/darkness, open/closed, elves/orcs, etc. What is the opposite of faith? The temptation is to say, ‘doubt.’ This is the way we talk, “Overcome your doubts”, “Don’t doubt, have faith”, “I know beyond a shadow of a doubt.” This is unfortunate because doubts are the very structure of faith. As Paul Tillich has noted, faith is not really found except in the presence of doubt. Faith always stands vis-à-vis doubt. Doubt provides the contours and negative space in which faith is found. Faith is always embedded in doubt. How can we make a leap of faith if there is no chasm?


The 911 twin-tower highjackers didn’t have any doubts. They did not have faith either.


The trouble is that Lectures on Faith perspective sees faith as a kind of inference. That if I see the sun rise everyday in the past, I can have faith that it will rise tomorrow. That’s not faith that’s induction. There is a difference. Faith can’t mean to line up the reasons to believe something, notice you are a little short on reasons but believe anyway. Accepting Pascal’s Wager is not faith (if you haven’t heard this wager check out wikipedia).


This is what I think. Faith is never a “I have faith that . . .” it is always a “I have faith in . . .” Faith by my lights is a relationship–with someone. I have faith in my wife’s love for me. I can have faith in God. I can never know that my wife is not a CIA agent on long-term assignment and been assigned to me by the government to pretend to love me (it is possible, just unlikely—or is it?). But my faith in her allows me to believe that isn’t the case. Faith ‘in’ allows me to make such inferences, but they are not the inferences themselves. The inference to a ‘that’ are not the same as faith ‘in’. Faith then, along with those things which make up a cluster of family resemblances like, hope, trust, courage, love all involve relationships with others. We can have faith in God, but not faith “that God will . . .”


Faith ‘that something is the case’ is just a confusion with probability and inference. Inference is a good way to make bets. It’s not faith. Faith is a relationship.


Obviously this needs a little development. But it gets me started on some views of science and faith. Because science is all about doubts.


One night about a year ago I could hear my nine-year-old daughter crying upstairs. I asked what was wrong. She burst into a flood of more tears and said that in primary they had said you should never doubt that Jesus was real and that he loved you. She said in a heart breaking voice, “But sometimes I do doubt it. I do and can’t help it. Is he mad at me?” The question captures what I mean by faith. She doubted, but she was worried about her relationship with who it was she was doubting. I told her to hang on to her doubts. “They are what make your faith real.” Without doubts, I told her it’s not faith. In the morning she looked up from her cereal and said, “I’m hanging onto my doubts!” I told her good job. Keep it up.

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7 Responses to Beyond a shadow . . .

  1. E. Richards says:

    So…I hadn’t realized that L on F was not actually written by Joseph Smith. So, naturally, I went to the fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia (just kidding), and read this:

    “Despite the Lectures’ removal from the volume of scripture, the Lectures remain an important doctrinal work in most Latter Day Saint denominations. One theologian in the LDS Church has praised the Lectures as follows:

    ‘In my judgment, it is the most comprehensive, inspired utterance that now exists in the English language – that exists in one place defining, interpreting, expounding, announcing, and testifying what kind of being God is. It was written by the power of the Holy Ghost, by the spirit of inspiration. It is, in effect, eternal scripture; it is true.’ ”

    Guess who said that? I laughed out loud…Oh Bruce, Bruce. (Not to be a Bruce hater, but if LoF caused “a lot of damage” then Mormon Doctrine was postively catastrophic.)

    Love the blog.

  2. While I agree (strongly) that doubt is valuable, I disagree with your assessment of “faith”. As I understand and use it, faith is simply trust, of varying degrees (marked by corresponding action or a lack thereof), and with varying rational consistency, whether in a person, an object, an action or any idea — including inference and probability. Certainly not all faiths are equally valuable, but particularly from an engineering perspective, I agree with the idea that scientists have faith in assumptions, such as uniformity and causality, without which one does not engage in the scientific method.

    As you might imagine from the thoughts above, I agree with many ideas expressed in the Lectures on Faith, but those ideas are not unique to the Lectures. They can be found in the Bible and other Mormon scripture, too, which clearly (in my estimation) reference and encourage faith in various ideas — in addition to faith advocated in persons.

    If your interest in narrowing the definition of “faith” is because of your observation that many of us (Mormons) somehow think that we have a moral duty not to doubt then I sympathize. Doubt is an essential tool, too.

  3. CEF says:

    Hello Steven,

    I have taken an instant liking to you. I can not spell kat, and I have watched Star Trek from the very start in the sixties. But I do have a comment/question.

    I have always thought that the antithesis of faith is fear, not doubt. We all have doubt, but we should not all have fear.

    I have come to believe there must be some kind of metaphysical properties to faith. How else could a woman touch the hem of Christ’s garment and be healed by her faith?

  4. Allen says:

    Hi Steve,

    “The farmer has faith that if he plants his wheat seeds in the Spring, it will turn into a fruitful harvest in the Fall.”

    “That if I see the sun rise everyday in the past, I can have faith that it will rise tomorrow.”

    I agree with you that both of those examples are not faith but are induction. We understand this, because we understand that the laws of nature are consistent. We have seen in the past that seeds sprout and that the sun rises, so we know those events will continue to occur, because the laws of nature are proven. Faith is not involved. However, consider a person who does not have that understanding of nature. That person has seen seeds sprout and the sun rise but has no reason to believe that those events will happen again. That person does, I believe, operate on faith in believing that seeds will continue to sprout and the sun will continue to rise. This example fits a person living in the middle ages, but does it fit people living today? It shouldn’t, but I’m afraid it probably does.

    To me, faith is a belief in things that are unknown, things that can’t be proven by testing and by logic. Since something that is unknown to one person might be something that is known to another person, the set of concepts that comprises faith varies from person to person.

  5. Allen, even those of us who know the value of induction cannot escape faith in our application of it. Scientists commonly overlook some complex philosophical issues underlying the scientific method, and by so doing are quite certainly operating by faith.

  6. I’m with Lincoln on this. Steve, just because you are choosing to define faith more narrowly doesn’t mean that the LoF definition isn’t useful or valid. I agree that Lectures on Faith may be flawed in some ways but I still find its discussion of faith very valuable. I do agree that doubt is a critical part of the learning process.

  7. This is getting a little more subjective, but I much prefer the Zune Marketplace. The user interface is multi-colored, has much more pizzazz, and some cool features such as ‘Mixview’ that let you rapidly see associated cds, songs, or other users related to what you might be hearing. Clicking on 1 of them will center on that item, and an additional set of “friends” will come into view, permitting you to navigate around exploring by similar artists, tunes, or users. Speaking of users, the Zune “Social” can also be good fun, letting you come across other people with shared tastes and becoming friends with them. You then can listen to a playlist developed depending on an combinations of what all your friends are listening to, which can be enjoyable. Individuals concerned with privacy will probably be relieved to learn you’ll be able to stop the public from seeing your personal listening habits if you so choose.

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