“Faith,” Equivocation, Interpretation Neglect, and Attribute Substitution

Here’s a cognitive error that I see frequently in some believers.  It goes like this:

I’ll choose my faith over human logic any day!

What’s the person claiming here?  What are its implications?  Here are some:

  • I have faith.
  • Faith is better than logic.
  • I’m choosing faith.
  • You can take your logic and go home.

Message received, loud and clear!  But what’s the problem with this?  Well, there are two.  The first problem is what logicians call equivocation.  Here’s a definition:

In logic, equivocation (‘calling two different things by the same name’) is an informal fallacy resulting from the use of a particular word/expression in multiple senses throughout an argument leading to a false conclusion. Abbott and Costello‘s “Who’s on first?” routine is a well known example of equivocation.  (From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equivocation.)

More specifically, when the person says “my faith”, there’s a difference between what they are suggesting and what they’re actually saying.  What they are suggesting is “the faith that God himself gave me,” as if it were infallible, flawless, and unassailable.  But what’s really going on is that they’re protecting some idea or other, where that idea is the result of their own interpretation of things.  Not only is this equivocation, but it is an instance of Interpretation Neglect.

This position also assumes that the Bible is not supposed to make good logical sense, and that the believer is better off dogmatically believing what he or she believes than to try to interpret the Bible in such a way that takes a responsible view of all the evidence, and that looks for an understanding that logically fits it all.

This type of error is also called by another name in cognitive science circles:  Attribute Substitution.

Attribute substitution is a psychological process thought to underlie a number of cognitive biases and perceptual illusions. It occurs when an individual has to make a judgment (of a target attribute) that is computationally complex, and instead substitutes a more easily calculated heuristic attribute.  (From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attribute_substitution.)

The person saying, “I’ll choose my faith over logic any day!” is substituting his or her own set of beliefs, which are probably few in number, and relatively uncomplicated, for the harder-to-grasp set of all information in the Bible–which may well disagree with the person’s own particular interpretations of the Bible in some cases.  But if you ask them, as in Interpretation Neglect, they’re going to tell you that they’re getting their “faith” (or the understanding of on which they are relying) “straight from the Bible.”  There’s the substitution; they’ll say one thing, but will really be referring to another.

If a person thinks that his “faith” is the sum of all his beliefs regarding God and the Bible, and if he or she will hold to that “faith,” even in the presence of contradictory evidence from the Bible, then he or she is basically assuming a position of infallibility, whether he or she realizes it or not.  Two such people as this, upon recognizing that some difference of belief exists between them, will then be in a state of conflict, where one person’s “faith” is seen to contradict the other person’s “faith”.  And this gives us a really good opportunity to deduce that at least one of them must be wrong in the matter (if not both of them!).

What shall they do in this situation?  If they want to defend their alternate positions, don’t they then have to attack the validity of each other’s “faith”?  Why, yes, they do.  And this is what we frequently see in Christianity.  And so we see that a defense that one claims for him- or herself (“This is my faith, and I’m sticking with it!”) is one they will not allow to their brothers and sisters who disagree with them.  And that’s a serious problem, because it is hypocritical.

Such matters must rightly come down to sound reasoning eventually, which is what I think we should all be doing from the very beginning, before we decide on what to believe about a certain matter in the Bible.  But many will never figure this out, and will continue to dogmatically defend their “faith”, with nothing more than their “faith” as a defense for what they believe.

And on that note, one’s belief in a matter is simply not valid evidence for the truth or validity of the thing being believed.  Even so, I observe a lot of people who seem to take the emotional force of their adamancy as some manner of proof that they must be right in the matter.  This is a huge error, and it tends to be made even worse if they believer also decides to assign his adamancy, not as the result of his own interpretive work, but as the result of convictions created in his heart and mind by none other than the indwelling Holy Spirit himself.

I am frequently amazed at how many people, believing some scheme like this, seem complete unfazed by my observation that two or more Christians, each claiming that their convictions are from the Holy Spirit, cannot rightly be in disagreement with one another.  If they were both really getting their convictions from God himself, then it would mean that something is terribly wrong—something like:

  1. The Holy Spirit is not careful as he gives each the answers.
  2. The Holy Spirit is playing games, or is cruel.
  3. The Holy Spirit is not a reliable source of information.

None of those scenarios would be any less than tragic.  If the Holy Spirit were indeed the source of misinformation or disinformation, we would have a major spiritual crisis on our hands.

What cause of the error, then, is more likely?  Isn’t it that the believer has made an error in his or her thinking?  Of course it is!  Why, then, do so few believers seem to check that possibility first when a conflict of facts seems to arise?  That is, the possibility that they themselves might have got something wrong?