Faith is an emotion chris Tweedt, 12/19/12

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Chris Tweedt, 12/19/12
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I’ll argue that faith is an emotion. To do this, I’ll rely on works by Robert Roberts to give and briefly argue for a view of emotions according to which concern-based construals are emotions. (Section 1) I’ll then argue that faith, as it is conceived in the Christian tradition, is a concern-based construal. (Section 2) Faith, then, is an emotion. I’ll then (Section 3) address three objections: that faith is a virtue rather than an emotion, that we can’t have one emotion based on another but we have emotions based on faith, and that emotions are fleeting but faith is not.
1 Concern-based construals are emotions

Robert Roberts has developed and defended an account of emotions according to which emotions are concern-based construals.1 Construals are a kind of non-sensory perceptual state that involves interpreting or organizing the data of experience in a certain kind of way. They are the sort of perceptual states we are in when we see gestalt figures such as Wittgenstein’s duck rabbit. In those circumstances, the same raw experiential data presents itself to us, but I may perceive a rabbit in the picture when you don’t. This difference in perception is not a difference in sense perception, because you and I receive (roughly) the same sensory inputs. The difference in perception is also not a difference in beliefs, because we both may believe there is a rabbit in the picture—you may believe that there is a rabbit in the picture based, say, on my reliable testimony. Further, although the perception is not propositional, it does have propositional content. When I see the duck, I am not presented with a proposition; rather, I take the data and arrange it in certain ways to see the rabbit. This seeing is partially constituted by some propositions, such as the proposition that that (referring to the rabbit) is a picture of a rabbit, or perhaps: that (referring to the ear) is an ear, that (referring to the eye) is an eye, and so on, but possibly someone still doesn’t see the rabbit even if she were to know all of the propositions that would constitute the perception.

Not just any construal is an emotion. Emotions are motivating, and emotions are things we feel, but we don’t feel based merely on construals, and we aren’t motivated by construals alone. When we have an emotion, we care about some aspect of the situation as we construe it. Such care is a kind of concern. Emotions, then, are based on concerns. Since emotions are construals that are based on concerns, emotions are concern-based construals.

Emotions are construals of situations. The description of the situation according to the construal is expressed in a propositional form that defines the emotion type. For example, here is the defining proposition for fear:

Fear of X for Y: X presents a threat to Y of a significant degree of probability; may X or its threatened consequences for Y be avoided.2

The above definition is given in the formal mode. In concrete situations, we could describe someone’s fear more concretely, in the material mode. For example,

A theft presents a threat to me of a significant degree of probability; may the theft or its consequences for me be avoided.

In short, then, concern-based construals are emotions. Emotions are individuated by a defining proposition given in the formal mode. Emotion episodes are individuated by a material proposition.

Robert Roberts argues that emotions are concern-based construals in his (2003). The argument begins by listing a dozen features that any theory of emotion needs to accommodate. For some examples, emotions are felt, they have accompanying physiological changes, they take objects that are situations or composites, their subject believes the propositional content of the emotion, they’re usually motivational, they’re sometimes under the subject’s voluntary control, they come in degrees of intensity, and they’re subject to moral praise and blame. (60-64) Roberts then offers an account of emotions—that emotions are concern-based construals—that both satisfies those features and matches what most English speakers would count as emotions in a vast majority of cases. (64) He then argues against the leading alternative views of emotions, e.g. views according to which emotions are judgments (89-102) or bodily states (152-155). These arguments are too long and complicated to be rehearsed here. I refer the reader to Roberts (2003) for these arguments. Throughout the rest of this paper, I’ll assume this account is correct.

According to the account of emotions I’ve sketched so far, not only are emotions concern-based construals, but concern-based construals are emotions. But perhaps there are some concern-based construals that are not emotions. (Perhaps faith is one of these.) Here’s an example. A boy who cares about making a slingshot construes a tree branch as the fork of a future slingshot. This construal is concern-based, but it is not an emotion.3 In reply, the construal is given in the concrete mode, but it needs to be given formally. If it were made more formal, we would say that the boy construed something as fulfilling a goal he had. This is an emotion of relief or joy or gladness, depending on the boy’s preceding state. I think that once purported counterexamples are described in terms of their formal properties, we will find that they are instances of emotions. These concern-based construals may not all have names, and as a consequence we haven’t thought about them enough to identify them as emotions yet, but that doesn’t entail that they’re not emotions.

I don’t think this will be an issue in this paper, though. I think the concern-based construal I will describe below is much like other emotions, and the differences between them seem to be non-substantive. So even if there are some concern-based construals that aren’t emotions, faith as I will describe it below seems sufficiently similar to paradigm emotions that it doesn’t seem to be a concern-based construal that is not an emotion.
2 Faith is a concern-based construal

To argue that faith is a concern-based construal, I’ll first argue that it is a construal, then I’ll argue that that construal is based on a concern.

First, plausibly, faith is a construal. The author of Hebrews defines faith as “what underlies (hupostasis) things hoped for and the evidence (elegchos) of unseen things.” (Heb. 11:1) This description seems to be describing a construal. For example, suppose again that I can see the rabbit in the duck rabbit drawing, and you can’t. What underlies my belief that this drawing is a drawing of a rabbit is my construal of the drawing as a rabbit. Further, my evidence—or at least my best evidence—that this drawing is the drawing of a rabbit is that I now see it as a rabbit. Similarly, suppose that there are some things that are unseen and which we hope for, e.g. that God rewards those who seek him. (This example is given in Heb. 11:6.) What underlies (and is evidence for) our belief that God rewards those who seek him is that we construe the world according to our faith. On the view I’m giving here, we see (by virtue of some non-sensory perception) the world differently when we have faith, and this difference in construal of the world is our basis for—what underlies—certain beliefs, and it is evidence for those beliefs,4 where these beliefs are about things we both 1) don’t see and 2) hope for. Though there aren’t more explicit examples of construals in Hebrews, it seems plausible that it is also by faith that believers see their actions as directed toward God, the world as created by God, and people as images of God.5 What exactly the things are that are being construed or the way they are construed by a person who has faith is open for discussion, but nevertheless, plausibly, faith is a construal.6

What is the defining proposition for this construal? A person of faith construes everything in light of the truths of the gospel (and wants it to be so). More specifically, she construes the world as made by God, people as made in the image of God and capable of being redeemed by God, actions as either according to God’s will or transgressions of God’s will and thus praised or forgivable by God, respectively (and she is favorable to it being so). The specifics that make up the particulars may change as more background information is revealed. For example, Abraham did not have the same understanding as first-century Christians, and the apostle Paul seems to require more of his audience than Jesus did of his.7 This is compatible with saying that faith is a construal of everything in light of the truths of the gospel, which, according to Paul, even Abraham knew (Gal. 3:8).

Second, faith is based on a concern. The concern-based part of emotions explains why believers are averse to or attracted to the thing they’ve construed. We are averse to what we fear, and this is explained by our concern for the thing we’ve construed as threatening. People who have faith are attracted to (and not averse to) God and the things of God (including the truths of the gospel). I’ll give three reasons for thinking that faith is based on a concern. First, in Scripture, James contrasts believers’ faith with the belief the demons have. “Even the demons believe—and shutter.” (Jas. 1:19) Although demons have, say, construed humans as images of God, demons are not attracted to humans’ being images of God. Rather, they are averse to humans’ being images of God.8 Since they hate God, they hate humans, too. Second, faith and conversion occur together. When people are converted, they change not only their focus but what they care about, what they’re attracted to. Their will is oriented differently. When their wills are oriented differently, they see things in a different light. They construe things differently, viz. as related to the God they are attracted to. Plausibly, this way of construing situations that is based on the attraction to things of God is faith. Third, there is a broad tradition that takes faith to be a gift from God. (See Eph. 2:8-9) This gift does something to the will of the new believer that the believer can’t do on her own; it changes her affections. As a result, when the virtue of faith is given, it disposes the redeemed person to see things differently. The person with the virtue of faith doesn’t always construe everything this way, but she is disposed to.

So there is a virtue of faith and something that it disposes us to do. It disposes us to see things differently. Believers and unbelievers are presented with the same raw experiential data, but believers and unbelievers construe the data differently. This construal isn’t entirely cognitive. Believers care about the things they construe this way. Believers’ wills are attracted toward things construed in that way. So, faith is a concern-based construal.9

3 Objections and replies

The first objection is that faith is a virtue, and if something is a virtue, it can’t also be an emotion. In reply, there is faith and there is faith. There is faith as an emotion, and there is faith as a virtue—an emotion disposition. An emotion disposition is the disposition to feel an emotion in the right circumstances, to the right degree, etc. Faith as a virtue is a substantive or motivational virtue—a disposition to have the emotion that is faith. The virtue and the emotion have the same name, because faith as a disposition is named after what it is a disposition for—having the emotion that is faith. Motivational virtues are characteristically named after either its characteristic emotion or the appropriate having of a certain emotion (what Aristotle calls a mean between two extremes). For example, compassion is a virtue, and compassion is the emotion that the virtue of compassion is the disposition to display. For another example, courage is a virtue, and courage is the appropriate having of the emotion fear, according to Aristotle. Similarly, faith as a motivational virtue is named after the emotion it is the disposition to display: faith. Or perhaps faith as a motivational virtue is named after the appropriate having of the emotion of faith. In this case, however, we can drop the “appropriate”, because unlike most other emotions, having the emotion that is faith is always appropriate. In either case, faith is an emotion, because faith is primarily an emotion and secondarily a virtue. Faith is primarily an emotion because faith the virtue is defined in terms of faith the emotion, and faith the virtue is directed toward having faith the emotion.

The second objection is that you cannot have multiple emotions at the same time, and we have many different kinds of emotions based on faith. We are sometimes joyful, sometimes sorrowful, sometimes remorseful, etc., and all these are based on faith. In reply, we often have some emotions on the basis of others. For example, I feel relieved that I’ve had a goal fulfilled, and I also feel joyful that I’ve had a goal fulfilled. Further, my joy is based on my relief: I am joyful because I’m relieved.10 A sign of this is that if I were in a similar circumstances but I were not relieved, I wouldn’t feel joyful. In the case in which I’m joyful because I’m relieved, I construe something in a certain way (in the way that defines joyfulness) because I have first construed it in the first way (in the way that defines relief). Given this example, it seems plausible that we are able to have more than one emotion at the same time toward the same object, where one emotion is based on the other emotion. For example, suppose I have faith and so construe some of my actions as being transgressions of God’s will. On that basis, I can have fear. In particular, I can construe God’s wrath as a threat and so want to avoid the consequences of that wrath.

The third objection is that emotions are momentary or fleeting, but faith is supposed to be something that is enduring, so not momentary or fleeting. I have two responses. First, there are some emotions that are long-lasting, like being in love. This emotion happens when you see everything (or many things) as somehow related to someone, e.g. a spouse (or something, e.g. a pet) that you really care about. This emotion can last for a long time. This emotion is similar to how I’ve described faith. Just as being in love is based on a concern for someone you care about and things related to that person, faith is based on a concern for God and things of God. Second, perhaps the objection conflates faith as an emotion and faith as a disposition. Even if the emotion of faith isn’t long-lasting, it is the virtue of faith that seems to be the thing that is enduring. Someone can have the enduring disposition to have a momentary or fleeting emotion of faith.

de Sousa, Ronald (2011). “Emotion.” In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward Zalta, ed.
Edwards, Jonathan (2011). A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections. Ulan Press. Originally published in 1923.
Plantinga, Alvin (2000). Warranted Christian Belief. Oxford University Press.
Roberts, Robert (1988). “What an Emotion is—a Sketch.” Philosophical Review 97: 183-209.
Roberts, Robert (2003). Emotions: An Essay in Aid of Moral Psychology. Cambridge University Press.
Roberts, Robert (2007). Spiritual Emotions: A Psychology of Christian Virtues. Eerdman’s.
Roberts, Robert (2011). “Emotions in the Christian Tradition.” In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward Zalta, ed.
Roberts, Robert (2013). “Justice as an Emotion Disposition” in John Deigh, ed., On the Emotions: Philosophical Essays. Oxford University Press, 14–28.
Roberts, Robert (ms1). Emotions in the Moral Life.
Roberts, Robert (ms2). “Justice”.
Stocker, Michael and Elizabeth Hegeman (1992). Valuing Emotions. Cambridge University Press.
Williams, Clifford (2011). Existential Reasons for Belief in God: A Defense of Desires and Emotions for Faith. InterVarsity Press.

1See Roberts (2003), Roberts (2007), Roberts (1988), Roberts (ms1) 44-48, and Roberts (ms2) 290 for a fuller exposition and defense of this view.

2Roberts (ms1) 52, Roberts (2003) 195.

3This example was given to me in conversation with Robert Roberts.

4In Roberts’ (2011), 18, Roberts says that one epistemic value of emotions is “bringing the subject into perceptual acquaintance with truths as the religious tradition conceives them. Another potential epistemic value is that of providing evidence for those purported truths.”

5Likewise, Jonathan Edwards takes saints (who have faith) to have acquired a new spiritual sense that “natural men” don’t have. See Edwards (2011) 271, and Plantinga (2000) 298.

6I’ve only used the passage in Hebrews, but more can be said about passages about faith in the gospels and epistles.

7Jesus seemed to require less content when he said to those he healed, “Your faith has made you well,” than did Paul when he associates faith with Jesus’ death, resurrection, and atoning work.

8Similarly, demons could have all the same beliefs as believers but still not have faith. Faith, then, is not a set of beliefs. Faith is not even love of God plus a set of beliefs, because, plausibly, a person could have faith and disbelieve some propositions that would otherwise follow from having faith, much like the person who is afraid of flying but knows she will not crash. See Stocker and Hegeman (1992), de Sousa (2011), 37-38, and Roberts (2013), 14-15. For other examples, see Roberts (2007), 24.

9Williams (2011) argues that faith is partly an emotion. I have argued, more strongly, that faith is an emotion. Williams’ argument is much different than mine, and it is invalid. See pp. 168-169 for the argument. Further, Kierkegaard calls faith a “passion,” but he means something different than I mean when I call faith an emotion.

10In this case, my joy is not about my relief. They are about the same thing, but my joy is based on my relief. That is, because I am relieved, I am joyful.

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