In part one I introduced the problem I see with our current understanding of faith, introduced some basic statistics, and weakly drew a comparison to faith. In part two I introduced deductive and inductive reasoning, and showed how Bayesian inference leads to good inductive reasoning. I also gave a brief example of how this might work in real life. In this post I would like to put all these concepts together into at least one way of viewing faith, knowledge, and belief. I will do this by examining the plausible reasoning of three individuals: a stereotypical believing Mormon, a Mormon convert, and a disaffected Mormon. As a disclaimer my intent is not to say this is how all such individuals think or act, only how they might think or act. I also want to clearly state that I do not think one is better than the others – rather, I think they all follow the same model.
John is a member of another Christian denomination and he was raised as a believer. He has had one discussion with the LDS missionaries and plans to continue these discussions. In the first discussion the missionaries built on common beliefs with John and challenged him to read a few verses in The Book of Mormon and to pray over them. They read Moroni 10:3-5 in which the Lord, through his prophet, provides a recipe for confirmation of the truthfulness of the message taught. John takes this seriously and reads the verses and prays over them. He also has a strong spiritual manifestation. He feels peace, warmth, and what he interprets as an assurance from the Holy Spirit that the message is true.
For John, he has had a number of spiritual manifestations and hence accepts this form of gaining knowledge. He has not had one quite this powerful before so he takes this manifestation as evidence that the LDS church is true. In Bayesian terms, we might claim that John had a confidence distribution with a mean of “my Christian denomination is true” with a fairly large standard deviation (since he was open to other religious possibilities). When he received this new piece of information (a spiritual manifestation of the truthfulness of the LDS message) he incorporated it into his confidence distribution. This, along with further discussions from the missionaries is enough to shift his distribution to one with a mean of “the LDS church is the true church” with a fairly small standard deviation.
In this scenario there are some interesting things going on with regard to faith, knowledge, and belief. John had “belief” enough to take a leap of “faith.” In essence, he was testing the “tail ends” of his confidence distribution by examining a foreign concept. In a Monte Carlo sense, his random walk was probing “less probable” areas of his distribution. For John, he found some valuable information that he then used to modify that distribution. It is easy to characterize his actions as “faith” as he probed heretofore untested waters. His experience exemplifies the allegory of faith given in Alma 32.
The Stereotypical Mormon
Bill is a lifelong member of the LDS church. He was raised in Salt Lake City and has been an obedient member of the church for all of his 39 years. Bill has a strong testimony of the truthfulness of the Gospel and all of its core principles and doctrines.
Bill has had many experiences which he interprets as support for his view of the Gospel. He has a successful career, a great family, good health, and an abundance of opportunities to serve which he attributes to his adherence to tithing, prayer, fasting, righteous living, and heeding the counsel of prophets. Bill has so much confirming evidence of his life choices and beliefs that his confidence distribution has a mean of “the LDS church is the true church” with a very small standard deviation. Bill acknowledges that others have some pieces of truth, but is grateful that he has the blessing of knowing the fulness. Indeed, Bill claims he “knows” the Gospel is true. He would live and die by this, and admits that nothing could persuade him otherwise.
In this scenario, faith, belief, and knowledge take on a bit different meaning. Bill hasn’t really taken the same kind of “leap of faith” that John did. He has put his beliefs to the test and received verification that they were correct. While he has somewhat probed the less probable regions of his confidence (the tails of his distribution) he interprets the information as confirming his beliefs. His confidence in his mean is so great it would be easy to classify Bill’s “faith” or “belief” as “knowledge” (which of course he does regularly at testimony meetings). Each successive spiritual experience or life event, properly interpreted, only adds more information which confirms Bill’s knowledge.
The Disaffected Mormon
Fred is in the same boat as Bill. He is a lifelong member of the LDS church, grew up in Salt Lake City, and did all he was asked to do. However, about a year ago he encountered some individuals that posed challenging questions to his worldview. Initially, Fred’s response was much like Bill’s, that is, he interpreted information to confirm his knowledge. But eventually the information became so overwhelming that Fred had to concede he might not have it quite right.
Fred has also had many spiritual manifestations, but his probing into psychology convinces him that much of it can be explained by regular, well understood psychological phenomena. Fred has also been richly “blessed” with a good career, great family, etc. but has to acknowledge that many non-Mormons have also been similarly blessed. For Fred, his confidence distribution is beginning to change. Each new piece of information, incorporated loosely via a built-in Bayesian inference calculator, shifts the distribution away from his mean of “the LDS church is the true church.” Initially, the information only increases his standard deviation as he acknowledges truth in other places, but eventually his mean starts to shift as well when he examines what he considers to be the lack of evidence for the historicity of The Book of Mormon, the myriad conundrums in Church history, etc. Most alarming for Fred is the feeling of betrayal by not realizing these things earlier in life which he attributes to white-washing by the LDS church.
In this scenario it would be easy to claim that “faith” is being destroyed. I think this is erroneous. Rather, I would say that “faith” is shifting. Fred now has faith in other things, though admittedly less faith in the LDS church being the true church. After a year of struggling, Fred admits he no longer has any confidence that the LDS church is the true church.
Contrasting the Scenarios
The commonalities between the scenarios are interesting. Each individual is doing what he thinks is most probable. John and Fred actually took a “leap of faith” to probe the less probable regions of their confidence distribution which turned up valuable information. Additionally, since some previous experiences had modified their distribution, their built-in Bayesian inference calculator was perhaps more able to objectively incorporate the new information. While Bill did occassionally probe the less probable regions of his distribution, the new information was interpreted to add more evidence to his beliefs.
This leads me to conclude that the biggest argument over “faith,” “belief,” and “knowledge,” actually has nothing to do with one’s “faithfulness” and everything to do with the quantity, types of, and weighting given to different types of evidence. For John and Bill, spiritual manifestations are a perfectly valid form of evidence, perhaps even the most important kind, which they weight appropriately. For Fred, this used to be the case, but as he discovered new information he had to modify his weightings, and began to reject some forms of evidence (spiritual manifestations) previously acceptable to him.
I subscribe to the “confidence distribution” model for understanding people’s beliefs, motivations, actions etc. because I believe it drives to the real issues which is what types of evidence are accepted by people, and what importance they place on that evidence.
This kind of reasoning also brings a different perspective to the word “doubt.” We could say that Fred is “doubting” and couch this in negative terms, but I think a more appropriate characterization would be to admit that Fred now accepts other forms of evidence and hence his faith has shifted. For Fred, he is being intellectually honest, as is Bill and John. This doesn’t make one more faithful, or more spiritual than the others, just different!