What do you believe? Do you have faith in a deity or religion, a philosophy, a system of core principles, or perhaps in certain people: your partner, your children, your role models? We all believe in something, whether we recognize it or not, and our beliefs are foundational to our lives. Sometimes, we believe in other people, putting our trust in them to love us, to look out for our best interests, and to stay with us through the hard times. Sometimes, we believe in political ideas or scientific principles, such as democracy, or the scientific method, or the rules of mathematics. We believe that the light will turn on when we flip the switch, the chair will hold our weight when we sit down, and the plane will safely land at the end of our flight. Beliefs are not things we can prove, but we believe them to be true, and so we build our lives around them.
The goal of this book is to help the reader to think deeply about his or her beliefs and to explore how we develop and use our system of beliefs as we make decisions in our lives. It is about moral growth and development and about the importance of faith for each of us, regardless of what the specifics of that faith might be. Faith is not used here in a purely religious sense, but instead refers to the development and use of a system of values we choose to trust in making both momentous and ordinary life decisions. Faith can be organized or disorganized. It can be weak or strong. Our decisions can be consistent or inconsistent. We start by making no presumptions about the importance of any particular belief system. The book is not about why one faith system might be better than others. We will, however, address how we develop beliefs and how we learn over time about which to retain and which to reject or modify. Today, people sometimes equate belief with superstition as though faith was a phase we move through as we acquire knowledge about the world, eventually replacing our beliefs with this knowledge. But this book instead takes the position that acquiring knowledge is not really possible if we believe in nothing. After all, why acquire knowledge is we do not believe that knowledge makes life better?
Most books about religious faith start with the question of God. Is there a God? What is God’s nature? This book eventually gets to these questions but instead starts with what it means to believe anything and why believing matters. Once we can agree that belief is important, we can begin to explore what to believe.
For this book to make sense, we will need to agree on some basic definitions. Which of the following statements does not belong with the other three?
- In my opinion, Mary is a smart person.
- I think that Mary is a smart person.
- I know Mary is a smart person.
- I believe Mary is a smart person.
In the everyday use of language, we might consider these statements to mean pretty much the same thing. All of them are clear first-person statements indicating the writer’s assessment about whether or not a specific person, Mary, is smart. But if we read the statements carefully, it is clear they do not say exactly the same thing. The first statement does not actually make a claim about Mary at all. It simply states an opinion. Nothing is required to prove this statement. Since we cannot read the writer’s mind, there is no way to know if the statement is true or false. The second statement makes a claim about Mary. If someone makes this statement to us, we are inclined to ask why he or she thinks so, but the second statement is still a lot like the first. We do not necessarily require the reasons to be convincing. The writer is expressing a thought, and this is not very different from expressing an opinion. If a writer makes the third statement, he or she is making the point more forcefully. To say that you know something to be true means more than to say you think it is true. Knowing implies that convincing reasons exist. What about the fourth statement? In everyday use, people might consider the fourth statement to be pretty much the same as the first two. For the purposes of this book, statement four is different.
Knowing something means being certain it is true based on observation, experience, reliable information sources, or logical deduction. There is an entire field of study in philosophy, epistemology, which is devoted to the study of knowledge and how it is acquired. Some of the great minds in history have struggled with questions related to knowledge and their lack of consensus suggests this is a very complex subject indeed. Belief also eludes easy definition. Some people define a belief as something we think is true but cannot demonstrate or prove. In essence, they consider thinking something to be the same thing as believing it and they consider both thinking and believing to imply a lesser degree of certainty than knowing. Others would consider a belief to be something we do not know but assume to be true. For them, thinking and believing are different.
If you consult a dictionary, you will find belief defined as a firmly held opinion. You might also find a definition that a belief is something we accept to be true without proof. In general, most definitions make two distinctions between belief and opinion. The first is a difference in conviction. Stating we believe something carries more weight than simply stating that we have an opinion about it. The second difference is in importance. A belief in something implies that the matter is more important in some way than just having an opinion. Missing from these definitions of belief is a connection between what we believe and what we decide to do. If the connection between belief and action is not made explicit, then it would seem we can do whatever we want regardless of our beliefs.
So, for the purposes of this book, a belief is something we cannot prove, but choose to accept as true when making decisions and choices in our lives. We might say that we think something when we are not sure enough to say we know it. We would say we believe something when we assume its truth and make decisions accordingly. As you consider this definition, you might choose to focus on the lack of proof as evidence that believing is somehow less significant than knowing. Alternatively, because our beliefs form a foundation for our decisions, perhaps believing in things is more important than knowing them. Viewing these concepts in scientific terms, thinking something is true is like having a hypothesis. It is plausible but not yet proven. Knowing requires proof. Believing, then, is like a postulate. Euclid created the field of geometry by starting with five postulates. While these postulates cannot be proven, they form the foundation for everything else in the field. Changing one of the postulates changes all of the rest of geometry. In fact, Euclid’s fifth postulate, the so-called parallel postulate, can be changed to create entirely new mathematical systems, often called non-Euclidean geometries. So a postulate cannot be proven; it is assumed as a starting point for understanding what truth is. Scientists might have a hypothesis that the orbits of planets are elliptical. They might then conduct observations or experiments to prove this hypothesis, afterward concluding that they know this to be true. But the scientist believes in the scientific method as a way of carrying out that proof. Their belief is based on a trust that systematic observation and experimentation will reveal truth. Is there a difference between believing something and believing in it? Perhaps this is just a matter of semantics. In common use we tend to reserve “believe in” for situations when we are talking about trust in people or important principles while we use “believe” when referring to simpler matters. In this book, the terms will be used interchangeably.
Individual beliefs do not exist in a vacuum. Belief in the scientific method fits into a larger system of beliefs related to the capacity of human beings to understand the universe in rational terms. Faith is a system of related beliefs that form a foundation for making life decisions. This would certainly include religious faith, but would also include other systems of belief such as believing in democracy or the principles of human rights outlined in the United States Constitution. Considered in this way, beliefs are about our values while knowledge is about factual or theoretical information.
A belief may not be provable, but beliefs cannot be based on information that is provably false. This raises the question of how we “know” when a belief is false and what evidence should be considered when determining what is provably false. Thus, some people would distinguish between a true belief and a false belief in this way. One might also argue that a false belief is really just an error or delusion and not a belief at all. Thus, we will avoid using the term “false belief.” Beliefs are not worth much if we give up on them easily, but retaining false beliefs in the face of contradictory evidence causes faulty decision making, sometimes with catastrophic results. So beliefs might not be permanent. They should be reexamined over time and this process is healthy and essential.
A belief cannot be proven true or false while genuine knowledge must be based on convincing evidence. What sort of evidence are we talking about? What do we mean by convincing? Most people would agree that we can know things if we have direct personal experience that they are true. A rose smells fragrant and a skunk smells acrid. Sugar tastes sweet and a lemon tastes sour. We know these things because we can directly experience them by observation through our senses. And we tend to believe that our five senses give us an accurate picture of reality, even though they can sometimes be fooled. We can also know things when we can derive them by the use of logic. We know that two plus three is five and not four by using the commonly accepted rules of arithmetic. We believe in the rules of logic and use them as tests for mathematical proofs. We can know things because we learned them from a source of information we trust. We know that Abraham Lincoln was president during the Civil War because we can find this information in dependable history textbooks. We believe that textbooks are accurate and trust them to be true. Finally, we can know something if a trustworthy person tells us it is so. It is this last form of knowing that is the basis for both the knowledge and the beliefs of children. We learn that things are true when our parents or other adults tell us so. It is only later that we learn that they might not actually be true at all.
Praise for Choosing Faith
“Dr. Saultz has taken his ability as a big thinker and visionary and focused on the infrastructure of our decision-making process—our individual belief system, and the process we each used to develop it during our life. By shining a light on this process, we can consciously review why we react and behave the way that we do, and he provides us the opportunity to reassess our own belief system.”
—Scott Fields, Emeritus Professor of Family Medicine, School of Medicine, Oregon Health & Science University
“As a scientist and a practicing physician, Dr. John Saultz sets his voice to something more profound than the practice of knowing. In this precise and highly personal book he defines something more consequential to human purpose. He sets his life and his vocation within the greater context of faith and its consequence toward a moral world.”
—James Doherty, Senior Pastor, St. Matthew Lutheran Church, Beaverton, Oregon
“Bookended between a brief preface and a closing chapter based on personal experience is an analysis of belief and faith that is like the author: intensely-focused, logical, helpful. Choosing Faith is about living with integrity—when actions match belief. This book helps us to understand beliefs—what they are, how they arise, and why they are important to life’s small and foremost decisions.”
—Kurt Stange, Family Physician
About the Author
John W. Saultz, MD, is a family physician and medical school professor and lives in Portland, Oregon. He grew up in a small town in Ohio and graduated from the Ohio State University with degrees in mathematics and medicine. Dr. Saultz is the author of three previous medical books, a collection of essays, and over 150 scientific articles in a career spanning over forty years. This is his first book for a general audience.