virus: Church of Virus/Memetics/Faith

J. Houston Williams (
Wed, 21 May 1997 18:55:57 -0600

[John said it would be OK if I forwarded this private e-mail to the
list and responded to it there -- dbm]

David --

I'm assuming some of this is yorn, since you're the only name claiming
ownership on the Church of Virus page that I've seen so far. Hmm...
'Course, it doesn't say it's you specifically, so my assumption may,
indeed, be incorrect.

I'm very impressed by the rational way that you order your material
on-line, and I applaud your efforts to develop a meaningful interpretation
of life. It's something I've been very concerned with, and have enjoyed
poking around in. Although my direction has been a little different, I
think the goal is somewhat the same... :-)

I'm not nearly half-through with the material on-line yet, but I do want to
reference something you've said and give you something to consider... at
[] you say the following under "3
Senseless Sins:"

>Through some twist of fate western society has come to regard faith as a
>virtue. To hold an idea as true despite all evidence to the contrary is an
>abdication of reason. Convictions are the end of knowledge, not the
>beginning; they are the enemy of truth more than lies.

As you've defined faith here, I can see "faith" as being irrational.
However, I'd argue that your definition of faith is rather unfair. I think
it's more appropriate to define "faith" as "holding an idea as true,
despite the absence of sufficient proof." This is a better definition, in
my opinion, for two basic reasons:

1) It broadens the meaning of the word. As defined in your text, if a
Unitarian and a Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ (a small ultra-Pentecostal
faction) adherent both use the term "faith," both seem to claim that they
believe in something despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This,
of course, is not the case. Many Unitarians have "faith," but it is not a
prereq of this faith to abandon logic -- as, indeed, it is with COLJC. This
unfairly shorts the Unitarians, and those like them, from claiming to have
"faith," and poisons discourse between those who define as you do, and
those who define as I do (as, in many cases, neither of us will be aware of
a radical difference in definition). My experience with many religious
people is not that they see "faith" as existing apart from, and contrary
to, rationalism -- but something that fills in the gaps Science and
rationality have not yet managed to fill. Many of us who have "faith"
modify our beliefs constantly to mesh with what we learn every day. Often,
to distinguish between rational faith & anti-rational faith, the term
"blind faith" is used for the later.

2) It strengthens the position, and purpose, of the Church of Virus. First
of all, *faith* is what allows us to make claims that are not completely
proven. We "believe," or "have faith," that something is true. Example: I
have faith that you are the author of this statement. Therefore, I act to
send you this message. I may be incorrect; in which case I'll modify my
behavior accordingly. This, you'll note, is similar to the Church of Virus
position on the role of philosophy/religion:

>The core ideas are based on evolution and memetics because one of
>the primary design goals was survivability through >adaptation
>(religions die, not because they grow old, but because they
>become obsolete).

However, to first act on an assumption, we must first have faith that our
assumption is reasonable; if we wait until it's proven, we may already be
too far gone. Yes, to hold an idea as true despite all evidence to the
contrary *is* an abdication of reason, but to hold an idea as true when
there is little evidence for or against (at the moment) is a thesis.

On that basis,

>Convictions are the end of knowledge, not the
>beginning; they are the enemy of truth more than lies.

I'd argue that this statement is incorrect; knowledge is the end of
conviction. Conviction, IE, "belief" or "faith" (as I've termed it) offers
us a starting point from which to consider and test other ideas. Knowledge
comes from this. Knowledge itself, then, is an end. (I'm baised towards
this since I am quite fond of knowledge...) It is, indeed, faith that
drives rational thought. Faith that there is reason, faith that there is
purpose, faith that you are correct. It's faith that drives Science -- on a
broad scope, the faith that "everything" can eventually be explained[1],
and on smaller scales, the basic faith that lies at the expectance of the
most mundane of theories (IE, gravity). These working beliefs -- this
"faith" -- allows the building of something much greater.

The sin lies not in the faith, then, but in putting the faith in the "end"
position, not the "means" position. That is why religions die; they hold on
to their "faith" bits, forgetting that faith is only a vehicle to real
knowledge, and therefore refusing to change them later. And, this is the
cause of Nihilism -- a recognition that "faith" is *not* a suitable end or
form of actual knowledge, and therefore the belief that belief and faith
themselves are worthless. It's only after we learn the proper place for
faith (at the beginning, not the end) that we can progress beyond, say,
Trent Reznor.

Anyhoo, that's my thumbnail defense of the sadly, and unjustly, maligned
word "faith." Much abuse has been heaped upon it by believers and
non-believers alike. :-)

Thanks for your time and effort -- I'll be sure to sign on to the mailing
-- John

[1] That would make scientific nihilists out of chaos-theory-types, I suppose.
John Williams
Various Artists: Raising the Tide of Mediocrity for Two Years