I was flabbergasted by one passage in Tyler Cowen’s 2018 book, Stubborn Attachments. A top economist, Cowen basically argues the moral case for economic growth, as key to improving quality of human existence. All good. Until this:

“There are, of course, many forms of bad faith in politics, and we should not encourage political (or other) beliefs in willful disregard of reason. But we cannot kick away faith itself as a motivational tool, as politics is of necessity built on some kind of faith. The lack — and, indeed, the sometimes conscious rejection — of the notion of faith, as is common in secular rationalism, is one of the most troubling features of the contemporary world.” (My emphasis)

This is in the context of his arguing that our decision-making tends to give insufficient weight to future impacts. Cowen casts concern about the future as a kind of faith. But what does that word really mean?

Mark Twain said “faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

Actually, we use the word in two really different ways. One is a synonym for religious belief — with the connotation of Twain’s quip — belief without evidence or even in defiance of evidence. In this sense faith does contrast against reason.

But the word’s other sense, contrariwise, has a strong rational element. As in faith that the Sun will rise tomorrow. Or an airplane will (with a high probability) land safely. Such faith is predicated on factual reality and reason.

There’s much confusion between these two distinct meanings. As when religionists assert that secular humanism, or atheism, is just another “faith,” standing no differently from their own. This is Cowen’s mistake too.

I think what he really wants is to distinguish cynicism and pessimism — nihilism even — from optimism and a positive outlook. In my own book, The Case for Rational Optimism, I explained that the title meant not a “Pollyanna” hope that all will be well, but rather a belief that we have the capability to shape outcomes. Such belief being based on using our reason, supported by all the ways it’s been shown to actually work.

Labeling this a “faith in reason” is another similar confusion. Reason itself, too, is often called just another thing people believe in, again no different really from religious faith. We even hear the words “irrational faith in reason.” But (as Steven Pinker points out in Enlightenment Now) any such arguments actually validate the concept of reason, because all arguments are appeals to reason. That’s how reason differs from faith. Reason is subject to argument; faith is not. (I’ve also heard Pinker remark, “I don’t believe in anything you have to believe in.”)

People will say they have religious faith, because they just do, with reason being inapplicable. Yet actually there are always reasons for a person holding any belief. It may be simply that’s what they were taught. But there are always reasons, that came first, causing the faith. And the question must be whether those reasons are good or bad, rationally valid or specious.

Getting back to Cowen, he’s wrong to deem secular rationalism’s rejection of “faith” a bad thing. The faith it rejects is Twainian faith that sets itself apart from reason, if not in opposition to it. Whereas it’s our use of reason that has produced all the progress humanity has ever achieved. Indulgence in “faith” outside of reason has only ever held us back. Insofar as secular rationalism can defeat that kind of faith, it’s all to our good.

I have faith in our progressively achieving that. It’s a faith of the rational kind. And that, I think, is indeed exactly the kind of faith that Cowen really means to encourage.