Post Author: Bill Pratt
If you claim to know anything that you haven’t personally experienced or seen with your own eyes, then you exercise faith. Faith, a concept badly misunderstood by so many people, is the primary way that we know most things about the world. If you were to say, “I will stop claiming to know anything by faith,” then you would, in effect, know very little.
Thomistic philosopher Joseph Owens, in his book An Elementary Christian Metaphysics, explains how faith actually works:
If the mechanic who services your car tells you the valves need grinding, you assent to that judgment even though you yourself know nothing about the needs of valves. In this case there is nothing in the object to move you to assent, even to the probable assent of opinion. The assent is all the more caused by your will.
When you agree with the mechanic that your valves need grinding, what is going on? Why would you assent to something that you personally have not observed?
You give the assent, because you have concluded that the mechanic understands valves and wants you to know the truth about the ones in your car and that it is to your own advantage to accept his information. Assenting to a judgment on the word of another is called faith or belief. It requires acquaintance with the reliability of your informant, that is, that he has the requisite knowledge and that he is not intending to deceive you. Both these points are conclusions of your own. In accepting his capacity to give the information reliably, you accept his authority.
Is it crazy to trust the authority of another person?
In human authority there is always the possibility that your informant is mistaken or that he is deceiving you. Faith in human authority, therefore, can never be absolute. There is always the possibility that a judgment accepted solely on human authority may be wrong. In events immediately perceived by the informants, the reliability can be very high. It is on such testimony of witnesses that the gravest issues are decided in the lawcourts.
Again we ask, “Can we live without faith?” No. Living without faith would make life unlivable. We rely on other people’s authority all the time. It is the truly naive and foolish person who claims that everything they know they have experienced themselves or reasoned to themselves. Owens reminds us:
In everyday life, however, much of one’s information comes from authority. The news that you get from the daily telecast and daily paper, your knowledge of countries and cities that you have not visited, your knowledge of history, all that you know from reading of books, constitute a sizable portion of your cognition. Yet it is all accepted on faith. Faith, accordingly, is an important means of widening human cognition.