The Socratic Method Applied to Faith

What does it mean to seek the truth with an open mind?


In this document, I hope to engage you in a calm and rational discussion of what faith is and what kind of beliefs it fosters. Absolutely nothing in this text should be taken threateningly or dogmatically. It’s an invitation for us to bring an open mind to some of the most intimate and influential ideas in the world.

Many may feel uncomfortable discussing the validity of faith, but if we all agree that we value truth and that we are interested in finding it and dispelling misunderstandings, then discussion is our primary tool. The idealogical gridlock endemic in even the best governments is an example of how potential progress is halted because possibilities won’t be discussed openly with fair consideration given to each view. That doesn’t mean we should have equal confidence in every voice once they have spoken their case. But it does mean that we shouldn’t be afraid of exploring and scrutinizing any of the variety of claims that people make.

Let’s do our best to put caustic emotions aside and to approach discussions with an open mind. The Enlightenment, which begat the proliferation of the scientific method, has taught us that being honest and open with our neighbors and supporting our claims with evidence is the route to progress. The correct ideas should be demonstrable and will withstand scrutiny. Shouldn’t we be able to explore thoroughly the implications of our ideas, especially those that are most dear to us?

First, what do we mean by faith? Before getting bogged-down in a long, semantic but worthy discussion of the differences between belief / faith / trust / confidence / knowledge, let us briefly acknowledge that a belief is roughly just something you would affirm, for whatever reasons. “Belief” is an umbrella term for the words above. Different beliefs come with different kinds of support and merit different degrees of confidence. There are well-justified beliefs, poorly justified, strongly held, weakly held, beliefs that are important, and beliefs that are inconsequential. Beliefs that are called “faith” are typically of great importance but only have very weak or absent evidence.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

– Hebrews 11:1 (RSV)

I want to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible.

– Matt Dillahunty

Truth springs from arguments amongst friends.

– David Hume (misattributed, but still beautiful)

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

– Carl Sagan

A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence.

– David Hume

What follows is meant to be a set of questions in the Socratic method. The reader is invited to ponder them and seek their own answers.




The soul

Not knowing

We wish to pursue the truth no matter where it leads. But to find the truth, we need imagination and skepticism both. We will not be afraid to speculate, but we will be careful to distinguish speculation from fact.

– Carl Sagan

First draft: Dec 28, 2014