There is a remarkable amount of interpretation in how we experience the world. Imagine that my German shepherd is sprinting towards us at full speed. The visual image before us may be virtually identical. Still, it may seem to me that my dog is running to greet us, while it seems to you that a bloodthirsty beast is attacking. It is not that we have drawn different conclusions from the same experience; our experiences themselves are different. The world is presented to me in one way, to you in another.
The way things appear to us is the result of subconscious processing, which is influenced by numerous factors including our background beliefs, personal histories, and biological makeups. These factors work together to form an interpretive lens through which we experience the world. For instance, I perceive my dog as friendly because I have repeatedly witnessed his affability. Maybe you perceive him as threatening because you were once chased by a dog. I call this lens a “perspective.”
We cannot help but experience the world from our own perspectives. Our perceptions, memories, and intuitions are all affected. This is an unavoidable human predicament.
Some have used this predicament to draw the fantastic conclusion that there is no world independent of our experiences! Obviously, nothing of the sort follows. You might as well tell a man that, because he cannot see without using his eyes, there can be no world beyond his eyes. Others have argued from this predicament that we cannot know anything about what the world is really like. However, the fact that a man must use his own eyes to see does not prevent him from perceiving real rocks or trees—the same ones that others can see with their eyes—or from learning objective truths about them. Our perspectives can, of course, mislead us, just as our eyes can sometimes distort the objects of sight, but our perspectives can also provide us with an accurate picture of the world and, in turn, knowledge of what that world is really like.
What this human predicament actually teaches us is this: what is rational for us to believe about the world is determined by our perspectives. The argument for this conclusion is simple. Our perspectives determine how things appear to us. How things appear to us is our only ultimate source of information about how things actually are. What is rational for us to believe is that which, given all of the available information, is indicated to be true.
These observations can help us appreciate an important way in which faith features in the life of a Christian. Part of having faith in God involves taking on a certain perspective towards him and his activity in the world. Specifically, you become disposed to construe things as though God is trustworthy, dependable, and benevolent. To see what I mean, observe how faith in my dog affects my experiences of him. He can be snarling and growling as I try to tug a rope from his mouth, yet I feel no fear. My faith in him makes it seems that he is just expressing playful excitement. For someone without faith, such circumstances can appear incriminating. He is, after all, baring his teeth at me and making vicious noises. Yet if someone cautioned that my dog’s growling might signify a willingness to attack, the proposal would strike me as ridiculous. Such is the effect of faith.
In the same way, faith in God changes how you perceive him and his actions. If God tells you that he will resurrect you on the last day and invite you into the loving fellowship of the Trinity, it seems to you that he is trustworthy, his testimony reliable, and his word true. Moreover, he continues to seem trustworthy and benevolent even in incriminating circumstances. You may lose your job and have a difficult time finding another. Still, it seems to you that God cares for you and is keeping his promise to work all things for the good of those who love him. In the most incriminating of circumstances, such as the loss of a child, even the strongest faith can be strained to the breaking point. In such conditions, it might surpass the faith of most people to continue to see God as good (even if they still believe it). Still, their faith might at least keep them from seeing God as cruel or indifferent or unreliable.
Now if I’m right about how we go about rationally forming beliefs, then systematically altering how one experiences the world is going to affect what’s rational for one to believe about it. In particular, having faith in God could bolster one’s rational support for believing in his benevolence and dependability, either increasing it or protecting it from diminishment.
Consider the problem of evil. Take two people—one an atheist and the other a Christian—who observe the same instances and patterns of suffering in the world. To the atheist, it seems obvious that there are gratuitous evils. He reads the paper each morning and finds himself thinking, “There’s just no way a loving God could allow this.” It seems completely implausible to him that there be reasons for God to create a world with such suffering. In contrast, to the theist, it does not seem that there are gratuitous evils. She reads the same stories and finds herself thinking, “God will find a way to redeem all of this.” It seems plausible to her that God has reasons for allowing such suffering, perhaps because it is necessary to bring people closer to him. Given how the atheist experiences suffering, it may not be rational for him to continue to believe in a good and loving God. But if you see the world through the eyes of faith, as the Christian does, then it may be rational to hold onto belief in the goodness of God. Thus, we see that the best defense against the problem of evil is faith.
Is this just confirmation bias? The person of faith just seeing the world as she already believes it to be? If so, the atheist is just as guilty as the theist. For both people are disposed to experience the world through their own perspectives, either in light of their faith or their lack of it. Indeed, we have seen that this is true of everyone all of the time. So it cannot be that you are guilty of confirmation bias simply because you are operating from within a particular perspective.
The way to combat bias, then, is not to try to rid ourselves of any perspective but to ensure, to the best of our abilities, that our perspectives are properly attuned to reality—that the way things seem correspond as closely as possible to the way things actually are.
We must be willing, then, to diligently evaluate the reliability of faith and the perspective it engenders. Of course, if God exists, faith does not bias us but, to the contrary, helps us perceive God and his actions more accurately. Thus, if sincere reflection only confirms the existence of God and the reliability of faith, it seems perfectly reasonable for us to continue to trust it.
Admittedly, there may be some degree of circularity in such evaluations. For as we have seen, how we assess things like the problem of evil can itself be influenced by faith. But such circularity is unavoidable. We cannot, for instance, confirm the reliability of our rational faculties without relying on those very rational faculties. It turns out that if we are going to believe anything at all, we must be willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the way things seem. And this applies to the perspective of faith as much as anything else.
Our discussion offers insight into the complicated relationship between faith and evidence. For instance, it explains why those with faith can appear to be going beyond the evidence or ignoring purported counterevidence. People of faith may be going beyond the evidence available to outsiders, but not beyond the evidence available to them. Things appear different to those with faith. Similarly, people of faith may not be ignoring counterevidence, rather what is decisive counterevidence for those without faith might not be for those with faith, as already seen with the problem of evil.
In fact, from the perspective of faith, it may seem that those without faith are the ones ignoring evidence for God or giving too much weight to purported counterevidence. Thus, we see how the wisdom of God can look like foolishness to the world, and vice versa. Which direction the evidence points depends on which perspective you’re working from.
I’ll end on this. Believing on the basis of faith does not require believing without evidence, but it may involve believing on the basis of evidence only available to those with faith.
About the Author: Dr. Blake McAllister is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Hillsdale College. He researches primarily in epistemology and the philosophy of religion. He really does have a German Shepherd, who is named “Reid” after the Scottish philosopher. Some of his ideas about faith are expanded on in “The Perspective of Faith: Its Nature and Epistemic Implications” in American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly. You can find many of his papers at his website, blakemcallister.com.