Broken Analogy: Flapping Arms and Sincere Belief

Just thinking out loud here about an analogy I read which sort of worked, but not quite. An exercise in clarity. I felt that something was missing and I had to think about what exactly the writer was attempting to compare in a one-liner that went something like this:

That a believer is willing to die for his faith no more validates his beliefs than a man claiming that flapping his hands, [sic] makes him a bird!

It’s not that difficult to understand the intention of the comparison, but the analogy makes a few unspoken assumptions. It’s meant to illustrate a common fallacy regarding proof of fact, having information unrelated to the facts in question, that is, using information about sincerity and “a willingness to die”. Some confusion, too, is injected along with the passive tense grammar. Who is assessing what? What of the the multiple meanings of the word “faith”?

Brief Aside: Two Different Faiths

I would try to get to the center of confusion right away by discussing the word about which most assumptions are made. The word ‘faith’ gets thrown around, doing double duty in expressions where it may not belong. At least two completely different meanings are indicated by this word: One usage refers to the way in which experience gives reason to think that something will continue in the future as in the past. The other usage refers to a kind of technical expression used in religious circles in which, just to make matters worse, additional contradictory senses are folded in, depending upon various slippery interpretations of sectarian doctrine.

Faith number one

When I say that I have ‘faith in my friends’, I simply mean that I expect the future actions and responses from my friends to match the recollections of my experiences from the past. My ‘faith’ that the sun will rise tomorrow morning never motivates anyone to debate my interpretations of facts regarding when one usually sees the sun: You would take the meaning, without argument, that I have no reason to wonder about the 24 hour cycle I and you have experienced and no reason to think will ever stop in the future.

I might have some beliefs less grounded upon solid fact. I could choose to have faith that a drug-addicted friend will break the habit, based solely on some difficult-to-discern sense only I experience. I many never have seen him succeed for long in the past, but this is still the same faith, based on direct experience. This is the most generic meaning of the word ‘faith’, one which includes ideas about shared experience and facts that people would normally take as granted. This faith is belief about future actions based upon particular experiences.

Faith number two

Confusion arises, I think, from the use of the word in a religious context. This kind of ‘Faith’ means “assent” or “acknowledgement” in the absence of direct experience or evidence. It is sometimes conflated with substance in that it said to be ‘given’, ‘taken away’, ‘apprehended’, or ‘discarded’ in something more than a metaphorical way. Professing such Faith without evidence is taken as a virtue according to some cult ideologies. This Faith is not the same as the generic ‘faith of continuity’, of experience and memory, despite some superficial similarities. All ideas involve an experience of some kind, after all! But it makes sense to refer to religious faith_, instead, as confession or desire. A person who professes such a ‘faith’ is, in fact, assenting and acknowledging a purported fact not otherwise backed by any experience other than a desire for the purported fact to be true.

Disassembling the Analogy

Paying attention to these differences in in construal helps us figure out the comparison being made in the cited analogy in which one man uses (a professed) willingness to die as a proof of fact while the other man assumes that his hand motions are sufficient for flight.

Reading such a comparison and accepting (or rejecting) the comparison without thinking shows that we too make assumptions about wishful thinking, attainment of real knowledge, the limits of proof, and what constitutes an ability to fly. I think the intent of the analogy is to address the problems common to two different kinds of faith and it is of some benefit to break out some of these assumptions.

1. Both people have a kind of faith:

One person has religious Faith which is wishful, hopeful despite verification; he thinks a benefit comes from assertion.

The other person has generic faith gotten from a (mistaken) correlation between the flapping of birds’s wings and the flapping of his own arms.

2. Both people have knowledge not based on experience:

One person regards a lack of experience and missing empirical verification as a point of virtue.

The other person may value experience, but used insufficient experience towards an unreliable expectation of future performance; to the outside observer, this is self-evidently and falsely correlative faith.

3. A comparison between the two people involves an idea about “death”:

One person expresses a willingness to die as a self-imposed requirement related to the quality of his assertiveness.

While not indicated overtly, but implied, the hand-flapping man will most certainly die if he tries to act on his inadequately substantiated belief from, say, a rooftop! I assume he would prefer to demonstrate successful flight over dying in the effort, but death would be a material failure.

The last comparison shows the way in which the analogy breaks when comparing self-assessment, since only one of them is said to be willing to die as a result of his sincere desire; only one uses experience (if insufficiently) to judge future performance.

Changed Perspective Fixes the Analogy

What do these two have in common? What would someone think about either of these two, their goals and their intentions?

Of the bird man I might say, “He believes so sincerely in his ability to fly that he is willing to jump from a high cliff. His goal is to successfully fly though he isn’t fully aware of the true nature of the risk involved.” I might be impressed by his goals and by his sincerity, though he has clearly ignored a technical problem in which arms are not wings. In this case, my admiration might be for his dedication and single-mindedness while assessing the quality of his belief (and perhaps the factualness of his claim) solely on his sincerity.

Of the believer I might say that he sincerely expresses a belief in factual knowledge, whether or not he actually does have it. He indicates sincerely that he would not change his mind even if threatened or offended.

Again, I might ignore the fact that believing something to be a fact does not make it a fact and choose instead to be impressed by the goals and sincerity while assessing the quality of his belief (and perhaps the factualness of his claim) solely on his sincerity.

Here, we have a match and a good analogous construction. In this way, the comparison makes sense and carries tighter meaning. Rather than assuming (or denying) that willingness to die is the same as a claim and the desire to validate that claim, we would do ourselves a favour to observe that such a willingness to die is, in fact, the very validated substance of the belief itself! A willingness exists separately from the desire to validate external facts. That is hard to admit, but, we and the allegorical believer merely assume that such a willingness to die — or even just a desire to assent to particular assertions, perhaps as a sacrament — is somehow the same as validation. The hand-flapping man may really believe that he is a bird and he may be enthusiastic about attempting to validate his supposed identity as a bird, his ability to fly. He doesn’t know he will die. He doesn’t assume that death will be the actual outcome.

A religious adherent (a “believer”) is defined by the very willingness to die for assent to a particular list of assertions in a way that a deluded man is not defined by his claim that hands are wings. The outsider in both cases sees the same level of delusion, but cannot say that the religious adherent has fully validated his own willingness and assent. However, one can say that the believers, in both cases, have not validated the facticity of the objects or focus of belief: Neither have examined the facts themselves.

A believer may be willing to die for his faith in order to validates his beliefs, since his beliefs are fully encompassed by willingness to die for his faith. The one is the practical equivalent to the other. A man may claim that flapping his hands makes him a bird, and may likely continue to believe that after failing to demonstrate flight and being informed by outsiders that he does not have feathers. The only thing these two have in common are that the willingness to die for one’s faith no more validates the external facts a believer sincerely expresses than does a man’s belief that leaping from a cliff and flapping his arms makes him a bird.

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