Forrest Cameranesi, Geek of All Trades

Against Fideism

I am against fideism. "Fide" is the Latin word for "faith", so "fideism" means literally "faith-ism", and by saying I am against it, I mean I am against faith. But by "faith" I don't mean any particular religious beliefs, such as belief in gods, souls, or afterlives, but rather a more abstract methodology that could underlie any particular belief in any particular thing. I am against appeals to faith, by which I really mean I am against assertions made not for any reason, not "because of..." anything, but "just because"; bare, unsupported assertions that some claim is true because it just is, with no further justification to back that claim up; assertions put forth as beyond question, for if they needed no justification to stand then there could be no room to doubt them.

The archetypical examples of such appeals to faith are essentially appeals to authority. Some trusted religious figure or holy book says that something is true, and that assertion is taken as not needing any support: the assertion itself is taken as self-sufficient. But such appeals to authority are not the exclusive domain of religions, as that term is traditionally understood. Political authorities, states, also make assertions and expect them to be accepted for no reason other than that the state said so: we call them laws. Laws are not descriptive assertions, but rather prescriptive ones, which is to say that laws do not proclaim that something is, but that it is to be. But religions also make plenty of prescriptive claims of their own, and I am as against such prescriptive appeals to authority as I am against descriptive ones; and I am as against them coming from secular authorities, like the state, as I am ones coming from religious authorities. I would be equally against descriptive appeals to secular authorities as well, as if the mere word of a teacher or researcher or textbook was held up as sufficient support for the claims they made. I hold that faith is the defining characteristic of religion (for no particular beliefs are held universally across all religions, but all religions make claims they hold as without need of support), so as appeals to authority reduce to appeals to faith in said authority, nominally secular appeals to authority, like the state's assertion of laws, are functionally indistinguishable from religion, and still fall under the umbrella of fideism. They are all cases of someone justifying a claim with "because I said so", and I maintain universally that "because I said so" is never a good justification for anything, no matter who it is that said it, or what it is that they said.

But this is not just an anti-elitist stance I am taking here. I am not saying to distrust the things that supposed authority figures proclaim and instead to trust in common folk knowledge. Appeals to popularity are themselves essentially appeals to the authority of the masses, and as such, still ultimately appeals to faith: faith in the authority of the masses. I maintain that not only does it not matter who any individual or institution is that says something, but it also doesn't matter how many different people say it. Some philosophers, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, have put forth arguments that popular opinion rationally should be trusted more than any individual's opinion, on the grounds that if the average individual is even slightly more likely to be right than wrong on any random question, then the more individuals you poll for an answer, the more statistically likely you are to get the right answer, and the collective opinion of the masses is more likely to be right than the opinion of any single random individual. But I counter that if instead the average individual is even slightly less likely to be right than wrong on any random question, then the more individuals you poll for an answer, the less statistically likely you are to get the right answer, and the opinion of any single random individual is more likely to be right than the collective opinion of the masses. Which of those antecedent assumptions you start from (is the average person more likely to be right or to be wrong on any random question?) will depend on your prior assessment of popular opinions: if you find yourself frequently disagreeing with the masses, you will assume that average people are more likely to wrong, while if you find yourself frequently agreeing with them, you will assume that average people are more likely to be right, and then either way you go, statistical reasoning like Rousseau's will lead you to conclude from that assumption that your prior assessment of popular opinions was right. But only circularly: anyone starting from the opposite assessment of popular opinion will find their view equally vindicated by such reasoning.

So I say not to take any elite authority's word as infallible, and also not to take popular opinion as infallible, from which you might be tempted to conclude that I am saying to stick to your own opinion, to follow your own heart. But while I am very much saying that everyone needs to make up their own mind, I am even more so saying that you must not take your own opinions as infallible either. Even more so than appeals to authority or appeals to popularity, appeals to your own gut feelings are the essential core of appeals to faith, which I am against. "Because I said so" is no more justification when you say something to yourself than it is when someone else says something to you. I maintain that not only should other people's assertions be open to question, by you or anybody else, no matter who they are or how many of them there are, but also your own assertions should be open to question, not only by other people, but by yourself. Not only should you question whether and why you should accept what someone else, or everyone else, thinks is true, but you should also question whether and why you should accept what you yourself think is true. The mere fact that you hold an opinion doesn't constitute a good reason for holding that opinion, any more than the mere fact that someone else makes some claim constitutes a good reason for accepting that claim.

But, very importantly, I am not saying to automatically reject all opinions that you cannot ground with a chain of solid reasons, for as I will elaborate in my later essay Against Cynicism, I hold that it is impossible in principle to ever do so for any opinion, so to insist that you reject everything until you achieve that impossibility would be to insist that you reject everything, completely, forever. I am as against that as I am against fideism. I think it is fine, and necessary, to hold some opinions that you cannot justify from the ground up, just because they seem to be true to you. All I am against is holding those opinions to be beyond question. I maintain only that we must remain open to the possibility that those opinions that we hold without full justification might someday be shown false, and that if we are presented with reasons to reject them, then we must do so. But until we find reasons not to hold an opinion, it is fine to hold it, even if we also lack any particular reasons to hold it. It is only unwarranted to assert an opinion thus tentatively held, to push it on other people as a truth that they must accept over the alternatives. If you are to assert an opinion like that, then you need a reason; you need to be able to show the alternatives to be false, and your opinion the only remaining option. To do otherwise would be to demand that they accept your claims on faith. And to be extra clear: their lack of a reason to hold their opinions does not by itself constitute a reason not to hold their opinions (as down that road lies cynicism, which I am also against). If they have no reason to hold their opinion, then they have no grounds on which to assert it to you as an opinion you must hold as well; but unless you have reasons not to hold their opinion, beyond pointing out their lack of reasons to hold it, then you likewise have no grounds on which to assert that their opinion is wrong and they must abandon it. Until either of you has reason to show the other is wrong, you both remain free to hold your different opinions, in disagreement with each other, neither of you wrong for doing so.

I am also not saying to automatically distrust the opinions of other people; only to not consider their opinions beyond question. If you are unsure of the answer to a question yourself, and many other people seem to agree on an answer, I think it's fine to tentatively roll with that popular opinion, for lack of any better reason to think one way or another. I only maintain that you should remain open to the possibility that maybe that popular opinion is wrong, and if and when you can, you should look into the reasons that people commonly think what they do, and look to see if there are any reasons to think otherwise instead. And that if you do find good reasons to think otherwise, or if the reasons that other people think as they do seem weak and you're just inclined to disagree, then it's fine to go against the popular opinion. Although it is important to distinguish here between going against the common opinion, and disregarding the common experience: as I will elaborate in later essays, I hold that all claims are ultimately to be grounded in the experiences (by which I mean things like the sights they see and the pains they suffer) held in common between the person making the claim and the person they are making it to, and that objectivity lies in commonality to all experiences. So while it is possible that most people misinterpret the things that they experience, and so the popular opinion about what is or what ought to be might turn out to be false, nevertheless, whatever the true opinion is, it will have to account for those things that other people experience, and while you are free to disregard the conclusions that the masses come to from their experiences if you find their reasoning from those experiences to be weak, you are not thereby free to disregard their experiences themselves.

Lastly, I am also not saying to automatically reject all claims made by all authorities. I am not saying that everything every religion claims is wrong, be they claims about reality or ones about morality; nor that everything teachers teach in schools is wrong, or that you should disregard all laws put forth by all governments. I am actually very much in favor of defering to expert opinion on matters about which you have little information with which to form your own opinion. By rejecting appeals to authority, just like with appeals to popularity, and raw appeals to your own faith, I am only saying to hold all such opinions merely tentatively, remaining open to question and doubt. If you are unsure of the answer to a question yourself, and some particular individual or institution claims to have looked into it extensively and become very confident in the truth of some answer, I think it's fine to tentatively accept their opinion as probably the right one, for lack of any better reason to think one way or another. I only maintain that you should remain open to the possibility that maybe they are wrong, and if and when you can, you should look into their reasons for holding their opinion, and look to see if there are any reasons to think otherwise instead. And that if you do find good reasons to think otherwise, or if the reasons they give for thinking as they do seem weak and you're just inclined to disagree, then it's fine to go against the expert opinion, no matter how prestigious, powerful, or otherwise authoritative that expert is supposed to be. And even if you do decide to defer to the opinion of some authority, that never obliges anyone else to do the same. If someone else just doesn't trust them like you do, or even more so if they've looked into the reasons behind the possibilities themselves and found those reasons support a different opinion than the authority you've trusted, then they are free to disagree, and the authoritativeness of whoever you've deferred to doesn't matter. They might still be wrong. Anybody might still be wrong. Everybody might be wrong. You might be wrong as well. It doesn't matter who or how many people assert some claim. All that matters is the strength of the reasons given to support the claim.

And my reason for claiming that fideism is wrong is as follows. If we pick our initial opinions for no solid reason, we are in a sense picking our opinions at random (at least inasmuch as "random" can mean "for no reason" and not just "by no cause"). As I have said, I think that that much is fine, and as I will argue in my later essay Against Cynicism, even unavoidable. But we then have a very good chance of those initial opinions randomly being wrong. If we go on to hold those random opinions that we just happened into for no solid reason to be above question, which is the defining characteristic of fideism as I have elaborated it here, then we will never change away from those wrong opinions, and will remain wrong forever. Only by rejecting fideism, and remaining always open to the possibility that there may be reasons to reject our current opinions, do we open up the possibility of our opinions becoming more correct over time. So if we ever want to have more than a random chance of our opinions being right, we must always acknowledge that there is a chance that our opinions are wrong.


Continue to the next essay, Against Transcendentalism.