Alan Watts on the difference between Belief and Faith

The quote singled out in this blog post is from one of my favorite books, The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts. I expect eyebrows to go up at the mention of his name and I admit being pretty dismissive of a lot of his eastern vs western philosophy/religion. But that book meant an enormous amount to me when I read it in my mid-twenties and has influenced me greatly, for the better I hope.

I post it here because I see your mission here and the attitudes of the great majority of you as exhibiting faith in the best sense that Watts articulates here:

Belief, as I use the word here, is the insistence that the truth is what one would “lief” or wish it to be. The believer will open his mind to the truth on the condition that it fits in with his preconceived ideas and wishes. Faith, on the other hand, is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown. Belief clings, but faith lets go. In this sense of the word, faith is the essential virtue of science, and likewise of any religion that is not self-deception.

As further incentive to give it a look I can tell you there are only two more paragraphs from the book quoted, as well as a little more at the beginning of the paragraph I’ve drawn from. I encourage you to skip over the blogger’s own introduction since you’ve already had to get through my own. Oh, and here is part of the last sentence from the last paragraph included which may help you see why I so much appreciate this website of yours:

… it seems, after all, surprising that learned theologians should adopt anything but a cooperative attitude towards the critical philosophy of science.


This fits well with my claim that it is in science that we see the greatest example of faith in modern times. But to tell the truth I personally don’t put so many fancy restrictions on what is faith. For me it is quite simple. Logic and reason goes nowhere without starting premises and so it all rests on the premises we choose to start with. Of course it is not all quite so linear. Often we decide on our conclusions first and then dig backwards to the premises upon which we can justify them. What I will do is make a distinction between rational faith which seeks an accommodation with the objective evidence and blind faith which willfully ignores it. But in this I think there is something which resonates with what you say and also agrees with what scientists do. There is indeed an obstinate clinging in blind faith which is unreasonable, while there is a letting go and an opening to the unknown in rational faith by comparison.

Contrary to the rhetoric of many anti-religious, science does require faith. There is a faith in the scientific methodology and there is the premise that there are no demons out their arranging the evidence to deceive us. Starting with this basic faith, the scientist does indeed open his mind to what the evidence can tell us. I don’t think I would go so far as saying the scientist (or anybody else) has no preconceptions but there is a readiness to shake off and discard preconceptions when they don’t fit the evidence.

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Well, that all sounds very nice, and Watts can appropriate words as he chooses and decide what he wants them to mean, but that isn’t what belief and faith mean to the rest of the English speaking community, as far as I can tell.

A belief is just a description of reality accepted as valid from one person’s perspective. It can be based on empirical evidence, logic, experience, speculation, intuition, imagination, consensus, community values-- whatever. You can believe facts and you can believe fiction, you can believe objective statements and you can believe subjective opinions. You can believe things in a very conscious way and you can internalize beliefs at a very subconscious level. Beliefs can be warranted or unwarranted, strongly or loosely held, ignorant or informed. Nothing I notice about the way the word is used implies the dogmatism, closed-mindedness, or wishful thinking that Watts decided is inherent in the word. That seems to spring from his own bias against people he has categorized “believers.”

In my mind, faith is acting on a belief. You can believe your doctor is competent and knowledgeable and modern medicine is effective, but you have faith in your doctor and medicine when you submit to a treatment or undergo a surgery. You can believe planes are safe and pilots know how to fly them, but you have faith in planes and pilots when you board one. You can believe someone will be a great employee or a wonderful life partner, but you have faith in that person when you give them the job or propose marriage.

So in that respect, I agree with the idea that “faith is a plunge into the unknown” and involves risk, but I think what you are risking is your trust in your belief. There is no faith without belief first; they aren’t somehow in opposition to one another, where belief is what the closed-minded religious fools have and faith is what the open truth-seekers of science have. We can all believe things that aren’t true and put our faith in lies. We can all believe things we are never actually called on to demonstrate faith in, because we never risk anything to act on the belief.


Well I don’t think an open faith stance privileges no-God over God-is. But when I think about what could have made god belief so pervasive, I don’t immediately think what people have believed about God is correct. I just look at why it is important to people and what makes the idea so appealing. So I think God can account for the something more we think there may be without assuming what God is is a settled thing. If anyone has ever known God or believed they did, I just think about what it could have been that confirmed that to them?

I think that is a nice summary of what I take from that passage in the book. The upshot for me has been to place my trust in my intent to understand this life rather than in any particular explanation. They mostly all contain some truth but they’re all provisional. While I don’t feel entitled to the answers, I know for sure the questions belong to me. And I always trust the answers more that come when I keep the questions in mind.

That’s pretty true but I see you guys here as wanting more than to retain the answers you start with at any cost. You’re not willing to subvert science and anything else that stands in the way in order to hold on to a narrow, literal view. I think that is the sort of thing he meant to disparage. You are more willing to put your trust to the test and risk having to revise your answers. And if he meant something less charitable, he was an alcoholic after all. He has to be taken with a grain of salt.

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Well, yes, in that we want to believe what is true. No point having faith in wrong beliefs.

Belief has, as its basis, communicating concepts between two or more human beings. Faith as discussed here, has to do with God as the basis of our belief, and is thus based on scripture, and Jesus Christ. We believe the testimony of the apostles and disciples, because we have faith that Christ is the Son of God. We are then taught by this faith to value what is true, and avoid what if false, because God is Truth (and thus we act in good faith), and Satan is the source of all false belief (and thus we speak of bad faith) - however, this false belief is communicated amongst us, just as truth and belief that it is true is communicated amongst us.

Well I think propositions are the basic units of communication between people. “Belief” carries also the sense of endorsement or of standing behind what the proposition asserts.

Christian faith does seem to revolve around God. Are you speaking figuratively when you say Satan is the source of false belief while God is the is Truth? Is Satan the personification of evil or a literal agent?

My response was in the context of a Christian and how he/her communicates belief as faith based. Satan is understood as a spiritual being who acts contrary to God’s will, and falsehoods are a basic component of his actions.

The point that I am making is that Christian faith is dogmatically linked to God through Christ, and that faith teaches us to value truth, and to reject falsehood in any guise, be it spiritual, communicated concepts, or any act that requires intent. Within this framework, a Christian can recognise any error within himself and take measures to correct it.

Thank you for the clarification as I have thought there was a range of ways Christians regard Satan, ranging from the mere absence of God to a spiritual being as you describe to pure allegory. Do you feel certain that the vast majority of Christian denominations would agree with you?

Well that explains a lot, thank you. So I think you are telling me that truth and God as revealed by the bible are inseparable in the mind of a Christian.

I am saying the Christian faith teaches us to place a very high value to the truth, and the basis for this is our belief that God is the source of all truth. The bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit and as Christians we ask for a similar inspiration to understand the revealed truth therein.

May you find what you seek.

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Allow me to add to your thoughts. From an epistemological view, belief is the probability you place on the veracity of a cognition, concept, claim, etc. Think of belief as a line with 0 (representing falsehood) at the left end and 1 representing truth at the other end. Your confidence in the veracity of the item in question is somewhere on this line and indicates your degree of belief. If you have no idea, it is at the center of 0.5. As noted, your belief level normally depends on logic, expert advice, experience and your various available sources of knowledge. But what if your belief is greater than that justified by these factor’s? It may be due to a gut feel, an inner voice, intuition, or some other hard-to-define source. This additional amount of belief is the faith portion. Faith in this view is thus the portion of belief which is unjustified by ordinary sources of knowledge. The usefulness of this view is enhanced by the fact that additional information can quantitatively change the belief level and the amount can be predicted by Bayes Theorem. This was used, for instance, in the book entitled “The Probability of God.” I find this concept of faith as a subset of belief particularly useful.

Belief CAN produce fear; i.,e., I believe in Hell, for example.

Faith PRODUCES HOPE; i.,e., I have faith in the resurrection, for example.

Not addressed to me but this seems a useful way to look at it. While having overwhelming empirical justification for a belief is desirable, a life lived with faith in only such beliefs would be stunted.

When it comes to faith in God, I see Christianity as offering a package deal concerning three separate questions. The first is cosmological concerning origins: where do we come from and how did we get here? The second concerns mortality: what if anything are we after we die? The last is existential: who/what am I, how shall I live and why? For Christians the answers would seem to be God’s creation, God decides/judges, and we are children of God who exist to know, love and follow God.

My own answers are pretty distinct from each other. Concerning origins I follow the science as far as it goes and trust my gut when it tells me the cosmos is not the creation of a greater being’s intention. Concerning mortality my gut tells me to expect no personal continuation beyond death beyond the participation of my substance in the web of life. Concerning why we’re here and how to live, I look to my conscience, intuition and feeling more than I do reason: the right/best answer is something recognized more than it is deduced. It is only in answer to this question that I see a role for God.

The word faith has several meanings and interpretations. I would think that open minded faith and blind faith are the same thing. Opening up your mind and just accepting what happens is just as blind as picking your own belief and trusting it without reservation. The personal belief choice may be wrong and only get you so far. The open minded faith may still lead you to falsehood. I do not think that falsehood is rooted in Satan as an agent. Falsehood may not be deliberate, but unconscious. The issue lies in human fallibility, not God or Satan. It is based in the inherent nature of free will and the consequences of free choices. Almost to the point where free will seems non-existent. The need to be able to rule out falsehood is a basic part of the scientific method.

To the Hebrews, Faith was the firm ability to believe something was true. It was used in the sense that God would speak the truth and you knew you could trust it and obey it, even without knowing what would happen. God was the guarantee you were trusting what was unknown to be true. Belief is leaning on human understanding and human knowledge.

Now we have evolved to the point Faith is just belief in God and the afterlife and is no longer relevant in daily choices, except for those emersed in religion who hope they are still in tune with an unknown God.

Why would you assume that the reason they believe in God is independent of what they believe about God. Certainly in my case, the latter is directly derived from the former. I will explain my case as a particular example.

I was not raised to believe in God or by believers in God. It was typical for me to respond to questions about whether I believed in God by saying, “The real question is what is God?” For how can you decide whether to believe something exists unless you are clear about what the thing is in first place. I compared many religions while at university trying to understand what the word “God” could possibly mean. My personal philosophical orientation at this time was existentialism largely from reading the books of Albert Camus in high school, and that is where I found a connection which gave the word some meaning for me. I believed that the most fundamental existentialist faith was that life was worth living and I came to the conclusion that the theist’s faith in God was somehow equivalent. From there it was a matter of determining what sort of God best served this faith that life was worth living.

So my point here is that God usually cannot “account for the something more” without some decisions about what God is. It is pretty obvious to me that the answers many give concerning God’s nature and personality can conflict pretty badly with the reason others believe in God in the first place and that is certainly the case with me. Thus when someone insists that their view of God is correct when it is incompatible with my reasons for believing, my response is a reference to Camus’ essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” and how I can quite happily oppose such a God even if it hopeless.

Well that is a matter of the same perceptual process by which we know anything – such as the existence of any other persons in the universe.

With a concept such as God there is generally something we first become aware of which at first is unknown but then becomes fleshed out, usually by looking to meanings passed down in ones culture. In our culture it almost seems to me that those cultural meanings are passed along even before anyone has had that initial apprehension of whatever it was that gave rise to the concept to begin with. I guess my postmodern sensibility leads me to want to get in touch with what it is that gives rise to the concept so that I can assess the adequacy of those passed down meanings. Otherwise I have to wonder whether the local conventions are just an accident of when and where I happen to be born. I do believe there is something in our human experience which gives rise to the concept, but I’m suspicious of excessive certainty regarding the way it gets defined.

All I’m sure of is that, whatever else it may be, God seems wiser in some regards about what really matters in human affairs, and, God is attuned to what goes on in me and can give insight if I’m open to it. Everything regarding creation and eternity that gets associated with God seems like hyperbole to me. But I find the relationship of value regardless.

I am suspicious of this idea which equates or connects the random or accidental with meaningless or lacking in value. Perhaps many of the religious do this, and think that everything has to be the product of design or intention for it be valuable, but I am not one of them. I think that is only applicable to tools – things created for a function to be used. But things can also be created as an end in themselves. I look at the random procedurally generated environments in games and find beauty in them, and thus imagining that nature can come about by similar processes without a designer does not subtract from its beauty in my eyes either. This is perhaps a way of thinking I share with many atheists.

Likewise I do not find the idea that much of what went into make us who we are was random or accidental to subtract from my own meaning and value. That fact that they are what went into making me who I am makes these random/accidental factors meaningful and valuable – significance being more a matter of connection than coming from being controlled by something.

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It isn’t that I would think a conception of God which was an accident of where and when I was born could have no meaning. It isn’t meant as a criticism of the standard others choose for themselves. It is simply my preference to be able to experience more directly what it is to which the concept is supposed to correspond.

I appreciate many of your views and beliefs, this one included. It seems you have a lot of flexibility and openness along with your faith.

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“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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