I also note a confusion that has been running through this discussion, about the meaning of ‘contradiction’. I do not mean to appeal to etymology or authority, but it’s important we agree on what we mean by it. On my understanding, a contradiction is not ‘the tallest girl in the class is 18’ and ‘the cleverest girl in the class is not 18’, even when the tallest girl is also the cleverest. Someone could easily believe both, without being irrational. The point of the Kripke puzzle is that Pierre seems to end up with an irrational belief. So it’s essential, as Kripke specifies, that he must correctly understand all the terms in both utterances, and that both utterances are logically contradictory, as in ‘Susan is 18’ and ‘Susan is not 18’.
Do we agree?
Well, let's see. The Maverick method enjoins the exposure of any inconsistent polyads that may be lurking in the vicinity. Sure enough, there is one:
An Inconsistent Triad
a. The tallest girl in the class is the cleverest girl in the class. b. The tallest girl in the class is 18. c. The cleverest girl in the class is not 18.
This trio is logically inconsistent in the sense that it is not logically possible that all three propositions be true. But if we consider only the second two limbs, there is no logical inconsistency: it is possible that (b) and (c) both be true. And so someone, Tom for example, who believes that (b) and also believes that (c) cannot be convicted of irrationality, at least not on this score. For all Tom knows -- assuming that he does not know that (a) -- they could both be true: it is epistemically possible that both be true. This is the case even if in fact (a) is true. But we can say more: it is metaphysically possible that both be true. For (a), if true, is contingently true, which implies that it is is possible that it be false.
By contrast, if Tom entertains together, in the synthetic unity of one consciousness, the propositions expressed by 'Susan is 18 years old' and 'Susan is not 18 years old,' and if Tom is rational, then he will see that the two propositions are logical contradictories of each other, and it will not be epistemically possible for him that both be true. If he nonetheless accepts both, then we have a good reason to convict him of being irrational, in this instance at least.
Given the truth of (a), (b) and (c) cannot both be true and cannot both be false. This suggests that the pair consisting of (b) and (c) is a pair of logical contradictories. But then we would have to say that the contradictoriness of the pair rests on a contingent presupposition, namely, the truth of (a). London Ed will presumably reject this. I expect he would say that the logical contradictoriness of a pair of propositions cannot rest on any contingent presupposition, or on any presupposition at all. Thus
d. Susan is 18
e. Susan is not 18
form a contradictory pair the contradictoriness of which rests on their internal logical form -- Fa, ~Fa -- and not on anything external to the propositions in question.
So what should we say? If Tom believes both (b) and (c), does he have contradictory beliefs? Or not?
The London answer is No! The belief-contents are not formally contradictory even though, given the truth of (a), the contents are such that they cannot both be true and cannot both be false. And because the belief-contents are not formally contradictory, the beliefs themselves -- where a belief involves both an occurrent or dispositional state of a person and a belief-content towards which the person takes up a propositional attitude -- are in no theoretically useful sense logically contradictory.
The Phoenix answer suggestion is that, because we are dealing with the beliefs of a concrete believer embedded in the actual world, there is sense to the notion that Tom's beliefs are contradictory in the sense that their contents are logically contradictory given the actual-world truth of (a). After all, if Susan is the tallest and cleverest girl, and the beliefs in question are irreducibly de re, then Tom believes, of Susan, that she is both 18 and not 18, even if Tom can gain epistemic access to her only via definition descriptions. That belief is de re, irreducibly, is entailed by (SUB), to which Kripke apparently subscribes:
SUB: Proper names are everywhere intersubstitutable salva veritate.
A Second Question
If, at the same time, Peter believes that Paderewski is musical and Peter believes that Paderewski is not musical, does it follow that Peter believes that (Paderewski is musical and Paderewski is not musical)? Could this conceivably be a non sequitur? Compare the following modal principle:
MP: If possibly p and possibly ~p, it does not follow that possibly (p & ~p).
For example, I am now seated, so it is possible that I now be seated; but it is also possible that I now not be seated, where all three occurrences/tokens of 'now' rigidly designate the same time. But surely it doesn't follow that it is possible that (I am now seated and I am now not seated). Is it perhaps conceivable that
BP: If it is believed by S that p and it is believed by S that ~p, it does not follow that it is believed by S that (p & ~p)?
Has anybody ever discussed this suggestion, even if only to dismiss it?
I will try to explain it as clearly and succinctly as I can. I will explain the simplest version of the puzzle, the 'monoglot' version. We shall cleave to English as to our dear mother.
The puzzle is generated by the collision of two principles, one concerning reference, the other concerning disquotation. Call them MILL and DISQ.
MILL: The reference of a proper name is direct: not routed through sense as in Frege. The meaning of a name is exhausted by its reference. The semantic value of a name is just the object to which it refers. (Gareth Evans plausibly recommends 'semantic value' as the best translation of Frege's Bedeutung.)
DISQ: If a normal English speaker S sincerely assents, upon reflection, to 'p,' and 'p' is a sentence in English free of indexical elements, pronominal devices, and ambiguities, then S believes that p.
The puzzle is interesting, and not easily solved, because there are good reasons for accepting both principles. The puzzle is puzzling because the collision of the two principles takes the form of a flat-out logical contradiction.
And as we all know, philosophers, while they love paradoxes, hate contradictions.
(DISQ) strikes this philosopher as a principle than which no more luminous can be conceived. How could one who is competent in English and familiar with current events sincerely and reflectively assent to 'Hillary is a liar' and not believe that Hillary is a liar? The intellectual luminosity of (MILL), however, leaves something to be desired. And yet it is plausible, and to many experts, extremely plausible. Brevity being the soul of blog, I cannot now trot out the arguments in support of (MILL).
The collision of (MILL) and (DISQ) occurs at the intersection of Mind and World. It comes about like this. S may assent to
a. Cicero was a Roman
while failing to assent to
b. Tully was a Roman
c. Cicero = Tully.
Given (DISQ), S believes that Cicero was a Roman, but may or may not believe that Tully was a Roman. But how is this possible given the truth of (c)? Given (c), there is no semantic difference between (a) and (b): the predicates are the same, and the names are semantically the same under (MILL). For on the latter principle, the meaning of a name is its referent. So sameness of referent entails sameness of meaning, which is to say: the semantic content of (a) and (b) is the same given the truth of (c).
How can S believe that Cicero was a Roman while neither believing nor disbelieving that Tully was a Roman when the sentences express the very same proposition? This is (an instance of) the puzzle. Here is another form of it. Suppose S assents to (a) but also assents to
d. Tully was not a Roman.
On (DISQ), S believes that Tully is not a Roman. So S believes both that Cicero was a Roman and that Tully was not a Roman. But Cicero = Tully. Therefore, S believes that Cicero was a Roman and S believes that Cicero was not a Roman. This certainly looks like a contradiction.
It seems that our governing principles, (MILL) and (DISQ), when applied to an ordinary example, generate a contradiction, the worst sort of intellectual collision one can have.
The Paderewski case is similar. On different occasions, Peter assents to 'Paderewski is musical' and 'Paderewski is not musical.' He has no qualms about assenting to both since he supposes that this is a case of two men with the same name. But in reality he is referring to one and the same man. By (DISQ), Peter believes both that Paderewski is musical and that Paderewski is not musical. Given (MILL), Peter believes contradictory propositions. How is this possible given that Peter is rational?
Given the luminosity of (DISQ), one might think the solution to Kripke's puzzle about belief is simply to jettison (MILL).
Not so fast. There are powerful arguments for (MILL).
London Ed wants to discuss the Paderewski example in Saul Kripke's "A Puzzle About Belief." But before doing so we should see if we agree on some preliminary points. Knowing Ed, he will probably find a way to disagree with a good chunk what I am about to say. So I expect we will get bogged down in preliminaries and never proceed to Paderewski. We shall see. Kripke references are to Philosophical Troubles, Oxford 2011.
Belief de re and belief de dicto
Kripke makes it clear that he is concerned only with belief de dicto in the paper in question (128). So we need to understand the restriction. The following I take to be constructions expressive of belief de re.
Cicero is believed by Tom to be a Roman Cicero is believed to be a Roman by Tom Cicero is such that Tom believes him to be a Roman Tom believes, of Cicero, that he is a Roman
De re means: of or pertaining to the res, the thing, where 'of' is an objective genitive. De dicto means: of or pertaining to the dictum, that which is said (dico, dicere, dixi, dictum), where the 'of' is again an objective genitive. A dictum is the content of an assertive utterance. It is a proposition, what Frege called a thought (ein Gedanke), not a thinking, but the accusative of a thinking. I am not assuming a Fregean as opposed to a Russellian theory of propositions. But we do need to speak of propositions. And Kripke does. For the time being we can say that propositions are the objects/accusatives/contents of such propositional attitudes as belief. Of course they have other roles to play as well.
What makes the above sentences de re is that they ascribe a property to Cicero as he is in himself, and not as he appears before the mind of Tom. Or at least that is the way I would put it. Because of this the following argument is valid:
Cicero is believed by Tom to be a Roman Cicero = Tully Ergo Tully is believed by Tom to be a Roman.
The presiding principle is the Indiscernibility of Identicals: if x = y, then whatever is true of x is true of y and vice versa. So if Cicero = Tully, and the former is believed by Tom to be a Roman, then Tully is also believed by Tom to be a Roman. This is so even if Tom has never heard of Tully, or has heard of him but has no opinion as to his identity or non-identity with Cicero. But the following argument, whose initial premise is expressive of belief de dicto, is invalid:
Tom believes that: Cicero is a Roman. Cicero = Tully Ergo Tom believes that: Tully is a Roman.
The conclusion does not follow in the de dicto case because (i) Tom may never have heard of Tully and neither believes nor disbelieves anything about him, (ii) or Tom has heard of Tully but has no opinion about his identity or non-identity with Cicero. What this example suggests is that codesignative singular terms are not everywhere intersubstitutable salva veritate. The Latin phrase means: in a truth-preserving manner. De dicto belief contexts are thus contexts in which intersubstitutability of coreferential names appears to fail. Thus if we substitute 'Tully' for 'Cicero' in the initial premise, we turn a truth into a falsehood despite the fact that the two names refer to the same man.
What this suggests, in turn, is that there is more to the semantics of a proper name than its reference. It suggests that names have both sense and reference. It suggests that what Tom has before his mind, the proposition toward which he takes up the propositional attitude of belief, does not have as subject-constituent Cicero himself, warts and all, but a mode of presentation (Frege: Darstellungsweise) of the man himself, a sense (Sinn) that determines the reference to the man himself.
Before proceeding, we note the difference between the de re
There is someone Tom believes to be a faithful husband
and the de dicto
Tom believes that: there are faithful husbands.
The first entails the second, but the second does not entail the first. For if one believes that there are faithful husbands, one needn't believe, of any particular man, that he is a faithful husband. What one believes is that some man or other is a faithful husband. Tom: "I'm sure there are faithful husbands; I just can't name one."
A problem for a Millian theory of proper names
Kripke tells us that on a "strict Millian view . . . the linguistic function of a proper name is completely exhausted by the fact that it names its bearer . . . ." (127) Whether or not this is the view of the historical J. S. Mill is of no present concern. The Millian view contrasts with the Fregean view according to which names have reference-determining senses. The problem posed for Millian names by de dicto belief may be set forth as an aporetic tetrad:
a. There is no semantic difference between codesignative Millian proper names. b. If (a), then 'a is F' and 'b is F' express the same proposition where 'a' and 'b' are both Millian and codesignative. c. A person who believes a proposition cannot doubt or disbelieve that same proposition. d. There are countless cases in which a person believes a proposition of the form a is F while doubting or disbelieving a proposition of the form b is F even when a = b.
This foursome is clearly inconsistent. But each of the limbs, with the exception of the first, is extremely plausible if not undeniable. So the natural solution is to jettison (a) and with it Millian semantics for proper names. But this is what the Millian Kripke is loath to do. He has already convinced himself that ordinary proper names are rigid designators whose designation does not depend on reference-determining senses.
Francis Beckwith mentions the Kalam Cosmological Argument in his latest The Catholic Thing article (7 January 2106):
1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause. 2. The universe began to exist. 3. Therefore, the universe has a cause of its existence.
Suppose that a Muslim and Christian come to believe that God exists on the basis of this Kalam argument and such ancillary philosophical arguments and considerations as are necessary to establish that the cause of the universe is uncreated, transcendent of the universe, unchanging, etc. The result is a conception of God achieved by reason without the aid of divine revelation. It is a conception common to the normative Muslim and the normative Christian. Crucial differences emerge when the core conception is fleshed out in competing ways by the competing (putative) revelations. But if we stick with the core philosophical conception, then all should agree that there is important overlap as between the Christian and Muslim God conceptions. The overlap is achieved by abstraction from the differences.
So far so good.
Beckwith then asks whether the Muslim and the Christian "believe in the same God" and he concludes that they do.
Permit me a quibble. 'Believe in' connotes 'trust in, have faith in, rely upon the utterances of,' and so on. I believe in my wife: I trust her, I am convinced of her fidelity. That goes well beyond believing that she exists. If I believe in a person, it follows that I believe that the person exists. But if I believe that a person exists, it does not follow that I believe in the person. Professor Beckwith is of course aware of this distinction.
At best, then, what the Christian and the Muslim are brought to by the Kalam argument and supplementary considerations is not belief in God, but belief that God exists. To be even more precise, the Kalam argument, at best, brings us to the belief that there exists a unique, transcendent, uncreated (etc.) cause of the beginning of the universe. In other words, both Christian and Muslim are brought to the belief and perhaps even the knowledge that a certain definite description is satisfied. The properties mentioned in this description are what constitute the shared philosophical understanding of 'God' by the Muslim and the Christian. At best, philosophy brings us to knowledge of God by description, not a knowledge by acquaintance. The common description is usefully thought of as a 'job description' inasmuch as God in brought in to do a certain explanatory job, that of explaining the beginning of the universe. As my teacher J. N. Findlay once said, "God has his uses."
But note that this common Christian-Muslim description leaves undetermined many properties an existent God must possess. (And it must be so given the finitude of our discursive, ectypal, intellects.) But in reality, outside the mind and outside language, God, like everything else, is completely determinate, or complete, for short. I am assuming the following existence entails completeness principle of general metaphysics (metaphysica generalis).
EX -->COMP: Necessarily, for any existent x, and for any non-intentional property P, either x instantiates P or x instantiates the complement of P.
What the principle states is that every real item, everything that exists, satisfies the property version of the Law of Excluded Middle. It rules out of reality incomplete objects. For example, God in reality is either triune or non-triune. He cannot be neither, any more than I can be neither a blogger nor not a blogger. The definite description(s) by means of which we have knowledge by description of God, however, are NECESSARILY (due to the finitude of our intellects) such that there are properties of God in reality that these descriptions do not mention. This is of course true of knowledge by description of everything. Everything is such that no description manageable by a finite mind makes mention of all of the thing's properties, intrinsic and relational.
Now suppose that Christianity is true and that God in reality is triune. Then the above common definite description is satisfied. The common Muslim-Christian conception is instantiated -- but it is instantiated by the Christian God which of course must exist to instantiate it.
The Christian and the Muslim both believe that God (understood as the unique uncreated creator of the universe) exists. That is: they believe that the common conception of God is instantiated, that the common definite description is satisfied. They furthermore believe that the common conception is uniquely instantiated and that the common description is uniquely satisfied. But they differ as to whether the instantiator/satisfier is the triune God or the non-triune God.
So we can answer our question as follows. The question, recall, is: Do Christians and Muslims believe in the same God?
Muslims and Christians believe in the same God, as Beckwith claims, in the following precise sense: they believe that the same God exists, which is to say: they believe that the common philosophical God concept is uniquely instantiated, instantiated by exactly one being. Call this the anemic sense of believing in the same God.
But this is consistent with saying that Muslim and Christian do not believe in the same God in the following precise sense: they don't believe that the wholly determinate being in reality that instantiates the common philosophical God concept is the triune God who sent his only begotten Son, etc. Call this the robust sense of believing in the same God.
Now we robustos will naturally go with the robust sense. So, to give a plain answer: Christians and Muslims do not believe in the same God. If Christianity is true, the Muslim God simply does not exist, and Muslims believe in an idol.
The mistake that some are making here is to suppose that the shared Muslim-Christian philosophical understanding enscapsulated in the common concept suffices to show that in reality one and the same God is believed in, and successfully referred to, and non-idolatrously worshipped by both Muslims and Christians. Not so!
The real (extramental, extralinguistic) existence of God cannot be identified with or reduced to the being instantiated of a concept that includes only some of the divine determinations (properties). 'Is instantiated' is a second-level predicate, but God exists in the first-level way. Equivalently, God is not identical to an instance of one of our concepts. God is transcendent of all our concepts. So if we know by revelation that God is a Trinity, then we know that the Muslim God, the non-triune God, does not exist.
W. K. Clifford is often quoted for his asseveration that "it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence." Now one of my firmest beliefs is that I am an actual individual, not a merely possible individual. A second is my belief that while there is an infinity of possible worlds, there is exactly one actual world and that this world of me and my world mates is the world that happens to be actual. (Think of the actual world as the total way things are, and of a merely possible world as a total way things might have been. For a quick and dirty primer, see Some Theses on Possible Worlds.)
But not only do I have insufficient evidence for these two beliefs, it looks as if I have no evidence at all. And yet I feel wholly entitled to my acceptance of them and in breach of no plausible ethics of belief, assuming there is such a subject as the ethics of belief.
Consider the following argument that I adapt from D. M. Armstrong, who borrowed it from Donald C. Williams:
1. Exactly one of the infinity of possible worlds is actual.
2. This world of me and my mates is a possible world.
Therefore, very probably,
3. This world of me and my mates is merely possible.
This is an inductive argument, but a very strong one. While it does not necessitate its conclusion, it renders the conclusion exceedingly likely. For if there is an infinity of worlds, how likely is it that mine is the lucky one?
And yet the conclusion is absurd, or to be precise: manifestly false. Is it not perfectly obvious that this world of ours and everything in it is actual? I am convinced that I am actual, and that all this stuff I am interacting with is actual. I am sitting in an actual chair in an actual room which is lit by an actual sun, etc.
But how do I know this? What is my evidence? There are no facts known to me that are better known than the fact that I am actual (that I actually exist). So my evidence cannot consist of other facts. Is it self-evident that I am actual? You could say this, but how do I know, given the above argument, that my actuality is objectively self-evident as opposed to merely subjectively self-evident? Subjective self-evidence is epistemically worthless, while objective self-evidence is not to be had in the teeth of the above argument. No doubt I seem to myself to be actual. But that subjective seeming does not get the length of objective self-evidence. I now argue as follows:
4. If it is wrong to believe anything on insufficient evidence, then it is wrong to believe anything on no evidence.
5. I have no evidence that me and my world are actual.
6. It is not wrong to believe what is obviously true.
7. It is obviously true that I am actual.
Therefore, contra Clifford,
8. There are some things it is not wrong to believe on insufficient evidence.
This is not a compelling argument, but it is a very powerful one. Not compelling because the Cliffordian extremist could bite the bullet by denying (7). He might say that the ethics of belief enjoins us to suspend belief on the question whether one is actual.
Now this is psychologically impossible, for me anyway. But apart from this impossibility, it is surely better known that I am actual than that Clifford's extreme thesis is true.
There are other obvious problems with the thesis. Any tyro in philosophy should see right away that it is self-vitiating. If it is wrong to believe anything on insufficient evidence, then it is wrong to believe Clifford's thesis on insufficient evidence. But what conceivable evidence could one have for it? None that I can see. It is not only a normative claim, but one stuffed with universal quantifiers. Good luck! If you say that the thesis needn't be taken as applying to itself, then other problems will arise that you can work out for yourself. Why do I have to do all the thinking?
Note also that if you take Clifford's thesis to heart you will have to suspend belief on all sorts of questions outside of religion, questions in ethics, politics, economics, climatology, etc., questions you have extremely firm opinions about. The practical upshot, if one were consistent, would probably be a full retreat into Skeptic ataraxia. At least until the political authorities came to put you in prison. Then you would begin believing that some things are just and some are not, etc., and damn the insufficiency or nonexistence of the evidence for the contentious beliefs.
Our doxastic predicament is a bitch, ain't she? Well, what do you want for a Cave?
Presumably, to indoctrinate is to teach one doctrine as if it is true, as opposed to presenting a variety of different doctrines on the same topic without endorsing any one of them. In general, indoctrination ought not be done at the college level: Competing positions should be presented fairly and objectively and students should be encouraged to think matters through themselves and form their own opinions. But this point demands careful qualification.
For surely indoctrination is legitimate in some subjects such as mathematics and the hard sciences. No one could fault a math or science teacher for failing to give equal time to the views of numerologists, alchemists, astrologists, flat earthers and geocentrists. And in political science classes short shrift should be given to 9-11 'truthers' and other conspiracy enthusiasts. Their views may be discussed in passing, but to present them as if such theories are serious contenders in the arena of ideas makes a mockery of the search for truth, which presumably is what universities ought to be about. Certain views are beyond the pale and ought not be dignified by being taken seriously, e.g., Holocaust denial, the allegations made in the protocols of the Elders of Zion, the views of NAMBLA members, and so on.
But even in philosophy some indoctrination could well be justified, in logic, for example. One is justified in teaching introductory standard logic dogmatically without bringing in Hegelian and Marxist and dialetheist critiques of the law of non-contradiction, say. But not only in logic. To borrow an epithet from Arthur Collins, eliminative materialism is a 'lunatic" philosophy of mind. I would cover it in a philosophy of mind course, but I would not present it as a possible view that one might justifiably hold; I would present it as not merely false but as incoherent. And I would take myself to be justified in doing so. Of course, I would present the doctrine and the arguments thought to support it accurately; but I would not present it as if it were one epistemically possible view among others. So in that sense I would be engaged in legitimate indoctrination: if not by the promotion of the true view, at least by the rejection of false or incoherent ones.
If one were to oppose all indoctrination, then one would have to present every extant view on every issue as if it had a legitimate claim on our attention. But this would encourage the view in students that all views are equally good, which is obviously not the case. For example, in the philosophy of mind, eliminative materialism, behaviorism, and type-type identity theory are all very bad theories with eliminativism being the worst and the identity theory being the best of the three. But nothing hinges on this example. I could give many from different areas of philosophy. The point is that a pedagogic posture of studied neutrality with respect to every view is as bad as an extreme doctrinalism in which contentious positions are tendentiously promoted.
One can see from these sketchy remarks that the issue is not easily sorted out. Teaching that promotes relativism and skepticism, that leaves the student with the notion that all views are equally good or that nothing can be known is bad teaching. Equally bad is teaching that merely foists opinions on students without inculcating habits of critical thought or without fairly presenting the debates surrounding reasonably debatable issues. (Not all issues, however, are reasonably debatable.) Navigating between the Scylla of of the one and the Charybdis of the other is no easy task.
I hadn't heard of the Dolezal case until reading your blog post. It occurred to me that this case might serve as a counterexample to the standard epistemological position that belief is necessary for knowledge.
I don't know Dolezal's psychological/epistemic state. But suppose she knows that she isn't African-American by race, but she has convinced herself to believe she is so. Would she have knowledge without belief?
Perhaps yes. Or perhaps she doesn't really believe she is African-American by race. Or, perhaps she is double minded: one mind knows and thus believes she isn't, and the other lacks knowledge on the matter but believes she is.
Anyway, I'd be interested in your take.
As I construe his example, the loyal reader is offering a case in which a subject knows that p without believing that p. Thus he is supposing that Dolezal knows that she is Caucasian, but does not believe that she is. If so, we have a counterexample to the standard view that, necessarily, if S knows that p, then S believes that p. On the standard analysis, believing that p is necessary for knowing that p. What the example suggests is that believing that p is not necessary for knowing that p.
We should distinguish between a weaker and a stronger thesis:
1. It is not the case that knowledge entails belief. (Some cases of knowledge are not cases of belief.)
2. Knowledge entails disbelief. (No cases of knowledge are cases of belief.)
Belief I understand to be some degree of readiness to act as if such and such (the content believed) were the case. Everyone concedes that one can believe where one does not know. But it is now widely assumed that you cannot know what you do not believe. Hence the well known analysis of knowledge as "justified, true belief." But this seems to me, as it has to numerous others, to be a mistake. Belief is, as Hume correctly held, a passion. It is something that happens to us. Thought, observation and testing, even knowledge itself, can be sources of belief, and indeed should be. But one may actually know (dispositionally, occurrently) without believing what one knows.
Whether or not one believes what one represents truly and has an appropriate basis for so representing, depends on factors that are irrelevant to truth, understanding and evidence. It depends, one might simply say, on how rational one is. Now I do not think that this point about belief in relation to knowledge is essential to the rest of this paper, but I mention it to indicate that the absence of any reference to belief in my general description of knowledge is not an oversight. Belief is not, I think, a necessary component of knowledge, though one would like to believe that knowledge would have some influence upon belief, and no doubt it often does.
Now we can't get into Dolezal's (crazy) head, but the following is plausibly ascribed to her. She knows who her biological parents are; she knows that they are both Caucasian; she knows that Caucasian parents have Caucasian children; hence she knows that she is biologically Caucasian. Could she nonetheless really believe that she is not Caucasian?
Perhaps. Belief is tied to action. It is tied to what one does and leaves undone and what one is disposed to do and leave undone. Dolezal's NAACP activities and her verbal avowals among other behaviors suggest that she really believes that she is racially black.
But if Dolezal really believes that she is racially black, when she knows that she is racially white, then she is irrational. Why not say the following by way of breaking the link between belief and knowledge:
D1. S knows that p =df S justifiably accepts that p, and p is true.
D2. S believes that p =df S accepts that p and S either acts as if p is true or is prepared to act as if p is true.
These definitions allow that there are cases of knowledge that are not cases of belief without excluding cases of knowledge that are cases of belief. What is common to knowledge and belief is not belief, but acceptance.
The question was put to atheist A. C. Grayling. His response:
No, my views will not change; I am confident in the rationalist tradition which has evaluated the metaphysical and ethical claims of non-naturalistic theories, and definitively shown them to be vacuous in all respects other than the psychological effect they have on those credulous enough to accept them.
The wild diversity of religious doctrines suggests to Kitcher that they are all almost certainly false. Plantinga makes an interesting response:
But even for whole systems: there is certainly wide variety here, but how does it follow that they are all almost certainly false? Or even that any particular one is almost false? Kitcher's book is an exercise in philosophy. The variety of philosophical belief rivals that of religion: there are Platonists, nominalists, Aristotelians, Thomists, pragmatists, naturalists, theists, continental philosophers, existentialists, analytic philosophers (who also come in many varieties), and many other philosophical positions. Should we conclude that philosophical positions, including Kitcher's low opinion of religious belief, are all almost certainly false? I should think not. But then wouldn't the same be true for religious beliefs? The fact that others hold religious opinions incompatible with mine is not a good reason, just in itself, for supposing my beliefs false. After all, if I were to suppose my views false, I would once more be in the very same position: there would be very many others who held views incompatible with mine.
To put it my own way: a philosopher discrediting religion on the ground of doctrinal diversity is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Philosophers notoriously contradict one another on anything and everything. Everything is up for grabs. What then gives philosophy the right to judge religion?
Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno is exasperating but exciting. Although as sloppy as one expects Continental thinkers to be, he is nonetheless a force to be reckoned with, a serious man who is seriously grappling with ultimates at the outer limits of intelligibility. Derrida I dismiss as a bullshitter; indeed, to cop a line from John Searle, he is someone who "gives bullshit a bad name." But I can't dismiss Adorno. I confess to being partial to the Germans. They are nothing if not serious, and I'm a serious man. Among the French there is an excess of façade and frippery. But now let's get to work — like good Germans.
Suppose we focus on just part of one of Adorno's serpentine sentences. This is from Negative Dialektik (Suhrkamp, p. 354):
Dass das Unveraenderliche Wahrheit sei und das Bewegte, Vergaengliche Schein, die Gleichgueltigkeit von Zeitlichem und ewigen Ideen gegeneinander, ist nicht laenger zu behaupten . . . .
Adorno is telling us that
It can no longer be asserted that the true is the unchangeable while the mobile and mutable is mere appearance, or that eternal Ideas and the temporal realm are indifferent to each other . . . .
So what is our man saying? He is saying that after Auschwitz — where 'Auschwitz' collects all the genocidal and totalitarian horrors of the Third Reich — one can no longer take Platonism seriously, or the people's Platonism either, Christianity. And indeed most traditional philosophy, consisting as it does, in Whitehead's phrase, of a series of footnotes to Plato. The old metaphysics is dead, the metaphysics according to which Being itself has a positive and hence affirmable character. An experience has refuted the old metaphysics, the experience of Auschwitz.
But if it can no longer be asserted that that the true is the immutable, then it once could be asserted. And indeed, by 'assert' is intended assert with truth or at least justification. Note the ambiguity of 'assertible' as between capable of being asserted and worth of being asserted. And make a meta-note of how a broadly analytic thinker like me pedantically points out something like this whereas your typical Continental head would find my procedure boorish or somehow gauche. "How low class of you to be so careful and precise!"
But I digress. My point, again, is that if a proposition can no longer be asserted and believed, then it once could be asserted and believed. But if a metaphysical proposition was once true or believed with justification, then it is now true or believable with justification. For a metaphysical assertion is necessarily true if true at all. The structure of being cannot be contingent upon our contingent experiences, even experiences as shattering as that of the Nazi horror. (It is telling of course that Adorno, good man of the Left that he is, does not mention the Stalinist horrors which were known since 1956 — but that is a separate post.)
What I am objecting to is Adorno's apparent historical relativism. By this I mean the view that truth itself is historically conditioned and thus capable of being different in different historical epochs. Metaphysical conceptions are of course historically variable, but not their objects, the structures of being. Adorno is doing the the Continental Shuffle, sliding from the epistemic/doxastic to the ontic and back again. That views of truth are historically conditioned is trivial and scarcely in need of being pointed out; but that truth itself is historically conditioned is incoherent.
More fundamentally, what I am objecting to is Adorno's lack of any argument for his view that historical experience can refute a metaphysical thesis and his lack of consideration of the sort of (obvious) objection I am now raising.
The Continental 'trope' or 'move' — such-and-such can no longer be believed --ought to be defended or dropped. Why, for example, should it no longer be possible to believe in God after the horrendous events of the 20th century when people believed in God at the time of the Lisbon earthquake and the time of the Bubonic plague? What is so special about these 20th century horrors? The fact of evil may well rule out the existence of God, or more generally, the affirmability of Being. But if it does, this is surely no recent development.
Doubt is to be deployed against the complacency of unbelief as much as against the complacency of belief.
A vital faith is never entirely free of purifying doubt which in some persons, at some times, extends to the brink of despair. Christ on the cross experienced the deepest depth of Incarnation in the feeling of being forsaken and abandoned by God. Can a Christian then expect his faith to be free of doubt?
A fruitful doubt is not a sterile skepticism but a questioning attitude that holds open the possibility that its questions be answered. If you cannot believe, then you cannot. The matter can't be forced. But the unbeliever oughtn't rest in the complacency of unbelief any more than the believer in the complacency of belief. Seek, and you may or may not find. But seek.
The onus probandi is on the extremist in matters of belief. Extreme beliefs bear the burden of proof. There is a defeasible presumption in favor of moderate views just as there is a defeasible presumption in favor of traditional ways of doing things. Note the qualifier, 'defeasible.'
"Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence!" (Bertrand Russell)
It may well be that our predicament is such as to disallow conclusive or even sufficient evidence of the truth about it. If Plato's Cave Allegory is apt, if it lays bare the truth of the human predicament, then it must be that the evidence that the cave is a cave and that there is an outer world, whether it be the evidence of someone's testimony or the evidence of one's own rare and fleeting experiences, is scant and flimsy and easily doubted and denied. What I merely glimpse on rare occasions I can easily doubt. One can also doubt what any church teaches for the simple reason that there are many churches and they contradict each other on many points of doctrine and practice. And the same goes for what I believe on the testimony of others.
We don't know that the human condition is a cave-like predicament along Platonic lines, but if it is then we have an explanation of the paucity of sufficient evidence of its being what it is. (By sufficient evidence for a proposition p I mean evidence that renders p more likely than its negation.)
It is vitally important to us whether God or some form of Transcendence exists, and whether a higher life is possible for us beyond the miserably short and indigent predicament in which we presently find ourselves. But it may be that the truth in this matter cannot be known here below, but only believed on evidence that does not make it more likely than not. It may be that our predicament is such as to make impossible sufficient evidence of the truth about it.
Do I violate an ethics of belief if I believe on insufficient evidence? But don't I also have a duty to myself to pursue what is best for myself? And seek my ultimate happiness? Why should the legitimate concern to not be wrong trump the concern to find what is salvifically right? Is it not foolish to allow fear of error to block my path to needed truth?
Lately I've heard bandied about the idea that to have faith is to pretend to know what one does not know. Now that takes the cake for dumbassery. One can of course pretend to know things one does not know, and pretend to know more about a subject than one does know. The pretence might be part of a strategy of deception in the case of a swindler or it might be a kind of acting as in the case of an actor playing a mathematician.
But in faith one does not pretend to know; one honestly faces the fact that one does not know and ventures beyond what one knows so as to gain access to a needed truth that by its very nature cannot satisfy the strictures that we moderns and post-moderns tend to build into 'know.'
Cognitive Dissonance Theory, developed by Leon Festinger (1957), is concerned with the relationships among cognitions. A cognition, for the purpose of this theory, may be thought of as a ³piece of knowledge.² The knowledge may be about an attitude, an emotion, a behavior, a value, and so on. For example, the knowledge that you like the color red is a cognition; the knowledge that you caught a touchdown pass is a cognition; the knowledge that the Supreme Court outlawed school segregation is a cognition. People hold a multitude of cognitions simultaneously, and these cognitions form irrelevant, consonant or dissonant relationships with one another.
[. . .]
Two cognitions are said to be dissonant if one cognition follows from the opposite of another. What happens to people when they discover dissonant cognitions? The answer to this question forms the basic postulate of Festinger¹s theory. A person who has dissonant or discrepant cognitions is said to be in a state of psychological dissonance, which is experienced as unpleasant psychological tension. This tension state has drivelike properties that are much like those of hunger and thirst. When a person has been deprived of food for several hours, he/she experiences unpleasant tension and is driven to reduce the unpleasant tension state that results. Reducing the psychological sate of dissonance is not as simple as eating or drinking however.
The above, taken strictly and literally, is incoherent. We are first told that a cognition is a bit of knowledge, and then in the second quoted paragraph that (in effect) some cognitions are dissonant, and that if one cognition follows from the opposite of another, then the two are dissonant. But surely it is logically impossible that any two bits of knowledge, K1 and K2, be such that K1 entails the negation of K2, or vice versa. Why? Because every cognition is true -- there cannot be false knowledge -- and no two truths are such that one follows from the opposite of the other.
The author is embracing an inconsistent pentad:
1. Every cognition is a bit of knowledge.
2. Every bit of knowledge is true.
3. Some, at least two, cognitions are dissonant.
4. If one cognition follows from the opposite (the negation) of another, then the two are dissonant.
5. It is logically impossible that two truths be such that one follows from the negation of the other: if a cognition is true, then its negation is false, and no falsehood follows from a truth.
The point, obviously, is that while beliefs can be dissonant, cognitions cannot be. There simply is no such thing as cognitive dissonance. What there is is doxastic dissonance.
"What a pedant you are! Surely what the psychologists mean is what you call doxastic dissonance."
Then they should say what they mean. Language matters. Confusing belief and knowledge and truth and related notions can lead to serious and indeed pernicious errors. A good deal of contemporary relativism is sired by a failure to make such distinctions.
I hope you don’t mind my seeking your help on an issue related to the history of philosophy. I and a few friends are have a disagreement re: the origin of belief in divine apatheia.
In Manana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective, Justo Gonzalez discusses the political motivations behind the origin and development of the concept. His claim is that belief in divine impassibility merely reflects the desire for permanence (of power) on the part of the ruling class so that Athenian politics is responsible for the philosophical development of the belief, a projection onto God of the political aspirations of the elite.
The question of how apatheia got adopted/revised by Christians isn’t so much my concern at this point (as legitimate a question as it is). I’m interested in Gonzalez’s history and whether and to what extent he’s right in supposing apatheia was a projection onto the divine being of the political aspirations for the permanence of the city and its ruling class.
Does that ring true with your understanding? Thoughts?
Well, if it serves my political interests to believe that p, that leaves open the question whether p is true or false. Suppose I am a member of the royal court. Then it would serve my earthly interests if the masses were to believe that the king rules by divine right. But one cannot show that the king does not rule by divine right by showing that the interests of the ruling class are served by that belief's being widespread.
So there are two logically independent questions. Does the holding of a belief serve interests? Is the belief true? To say that the questions are logically independent is to say that both an affirmative and a negative answer to the first is consistent with both an affrmative and a negative answer to the second.
If God exists, then he is either impassible or not. This question cannot be decided by showing, assuming that it could be shown, that widespread belief that God is impassible would help legitimate the dominance of the ruling class. (I am having a hard time imagining how such an abstruse doctrine could get a grip on the popular mind. Does Joe Sixpack think about such things?)
The bolded thesis supra is a 'weasel' thesis. Gonzalez does not state unambiguously that the impassibility doctrine is nothing other than an expression of class interests, and therefore either false or unsupportable by reasons. But that is probably what he means.
If that is what he means, then he is guilty of the logical/epistemological error of confusing the holding of a belief with the propositional content of a belief. It is a concern of the sociology of knowledge to study the incidence of beliefs as states of people, their causes and effects and modes of transmission. But the evaluation of belief contents as to truth, falsehood, consistency, inconsistency, rationality, etc., does not belong to the sociology of knowledge.
There is nothing new about the move Gonzalez appears to be making. It's old hat. It is the standard Marxist rubbish of reducing belief systems to systems of ideology in the service of class interests. But if all is ideology in the service of class interests, then so is the system of Marxist beliefs. In which case it is a self-vitiating system of beliefs if not outright self-refuting.
According to Bryan Magee ("What I Believe," Philosophy 77 (2002), 407- 419), nobody knows the answers to such questions as whether we survive our bodily deaths or whether God exists. Citing Xenophanes and Kant, Magee further suggests that the answers to these questions are not only unknown but impossible for us to know. Assuming that Magee is right on both counts, what follows?
One inference one might draw from our state of irremediable ignorance about ultimates is that it provides us with 'doxastic wiggle-room' (my expression): if one cannot know one way or the other, then one is permitted either to believe or not believe that we survive and that God exists. After all, if it cannot be proven that ~p, then it is epistemically possible that p, and this epistemic possibility might be taken to allow as reasonable our believing that p. Invoking the Kantian distinction between thinking and knowing (Critique of Pure Reason, B 146 et passim) one could maintain that although we have and can have no knowledge of God and the soul, we can think them without contradiction, and without contradicting anything we know. Does not the denial of knowledge make room for faith, as Kant himself famously remarks? CPR B xxx: Ich musste also das Wissen aufheben, um zum Glauben Platz zu bekommen... "I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith...." (And given that contact with reality is a great good, would it not be better to venture contact with the unknowable portion of it via faith rather than have no contact with it at all by insisting that only knowable truth is admissible truth?)
This inference, however, the inference from our irremediable ignorance to the rational allowability of belief in the epistemically possible, is one that Magee resolutely refuses to draw, seeing it as a shabby evasion and an "illegitimate slide."(408) Thus he holds it to be illegitimate to move from the epistemic possibility of post-mortem survival to belief in it. As he puts it, "What I find myself wantingto drive home is not merely that we do not know but that the only honest way to live and think is in the fullest possible acknowledgment of that fact and its consequences, without ducking out into a faith of some kind, and without evasion or self-indulgence of any other sort." (417) Near the beginning of his essay, Magee cites Freud to the effect that no right to believe anything can be derived from ignorance. (408)
The relevance of the Freudian point, however, is unclear. First of all, no one would maintain that ignorance about a matter such as post-mortem survival justifies, in the sense of provides evidence for, the belief that one survives. And a person who thinks it rationally allowable to believe where we cannot know will presumably not take a deontological approach to belief in terms of epistemic rights and duties. In any case, the issue is this: Is it ever rationally permissible to believe where knowledge is unavailable? Magee answers this question in the negative. But I cannot see that he makes anythingclose to a convincing case for this answer. I will simply run through some questions/objections the cumulative force of which will be to neutralize, though perhaps not refute, Magee's view. Thus I play for a draw, not a win. I doubt that one can expect more from philosophy. This post presents just one of my questions/objections.
One problem with Magee's argument is that it seems to prove too much. If we have no knowledge about such metaphysical/religious matters as God and the soul, and so must suspend belief in them lest we violate the putative epistemic duty to believe only on sufficient evidence, then we must also suspend belief on a host of other issues in respect of which we certainly cannot claim knowledge. Surely, the very same reasons that lead Magee to say that no one knows anything about God and the soul must also lead us to say that no one knows whether or not there are cases in which justice demands capital punishment, or whether or not a just society is one which provides for redistribution of wealth, or whether or not animals have rights, etc. Indeed, we must say that no one knows what justice is or what rights are. And of course it is not merely about normative issues that we are ignorant.
Do we know what motion, or causation, or time are? Do we know what properties are, or what is is for a thing to have a property, or to exist, or to change, or to be the same thing over time? Note that these questions, unlike the God and soul questions, do not pertain to what is transcendent of experience. I see the tomato; I see that it is red; I see or think I see that it is the same tomato that I bought from the grocer an hour ago; applying a knife to it, I see or think I see that slicing it causes it to split apart.
For that matter, Does Magee know that his preferred ethics of belief is correct? How does he know that? How could he know it? Does he have sufficient evidence? If he knows it, why do philosophers better than him take a different view? Does he merely believe it? Does he believe it because his fear of being wrong trumps his desire for the truth? Does he want truth, but only on his terms? Does he want only that truth that can satisfy the criteria that he imposes? Would it not be more self-consistent for Magee to suspend belief as to his preferred ethics of belief? Why is it better to have no contact with reality than such contact via faith? Isn't it better to have a true belief that I cannot justify about a life and death matter than no belief about that matter? Does the man of faith self-indulgently evade reality, or does the philosopher of Magee's stripe self-indulgently and pridefully refuse such reality as he cannot certify by his methods?
No one knows how economies really work; if we had knowledge in this area we would not have wildly divergent paradigms of economic explanation. But this pervasive ignorance does not prevent people from holding very firm beliefs about these non-religious issues, beliefsthat translate into action in a variety of ways, both peaceful and violent. It is furthermore clear that people feel quite justified in holding, and acting upon, these beliefs that go beyond what they can claim to know. What is more, I suspect Magee would agree that people are often justified in holding such beliefs.
So if Magee is right that we ought to suspend belief about religious matters, then he must also maintain that we ought to suspend belief about the social and political matters that scarcely anyone ever suspends belief about. That is, unless he can point to a relevant difference between the religious questions and the social-political ones. But it is difficult to discern any relevant difference. In both cases we are dealing with knowledge-transcendent beliefs for which elaborate rational defenses can be constructed, and elaborate rational refutations of competing positions.
In both cases we are dealing with very abstruse and 'metaphysical' issues such as the belief in equal rights, a belief which manifestly has no empirical justification. And in both cases we are dealing with issues of great importance to our welfare and happiness. On the other hand, if Magee thinks that we are justified in holding beliefs about social and political matters, something he does of course hold, then he should also maintain that we are justified in holding beliefs about religious matters. There is no justification for a double standard. In this connection, one should read Peter van Inwagen's Quam Dilecta, in God and the Philosophers, ed. T. V. Morris (Oxford University Press, 1994), 31-60. See especially 41-46 for a penetrating discussion of the double standard.
Why is religious belief so hard to accept? Herewith, some notes toward a list of the impedimenta, the stumbling blocks, that litter and lie in the path of the would-be believer. Whether the following ought to be impediments is a further question, a normative question. The following taxonomy is merely descriptive. And not in order of stopping power. And perhaps incomplete. This is a blog. This is only a blog.
1. The obtrusiveness and constancy and coherence of the deliverances of the senses, outer and inner. The "unseen order" (William James), if such there be, is no match for the 'seen order.' The massive assault upon the sense organs has never been greater than at the present time given the high technology of distraction: radio, TV, portable telephony, the Internet . . . and Twitter, the ultimate weapon of mass distraction. Here is some advice on how to avoid God from C. S. Lewis, "The Seeing Eye" in Christian Reflections (Eeerdmans, 1967), pp. 168-167:
Avoid silence, avoid solitude, avoid any train of thought that leads off the beaten track. Concentrate on money, sex, status, health and (above all) on your own grievances. Keep the radio on. Live in a crowd. Use plenty of sedation. If you must read books, select them very carefully. But you'd be safer to stick to the papers. You'll find the advertisements helpful; especially those with a sexy or a snobbish appeal.
If Lewis could only see us now.
2. The fact that there are many competing systems of religious belief and practice. They overlap, but they also contradict. The extant contradictory systems cannot all be true, though they could all be false. The fact that one's own system is contradicted by others doesn't make it false, but it does raise reasonable doubts as to whether it is true. For a thinking person, this is a stumbling block to the naive and unthinking acceptance of the religion in which one has been brought up.
3. The specificity of religious belief systems and their excessively detailed dogmatic contents. One is put off by the presumptuousness of those who claim to know what they cannot, or are not likely, to know. For example, overconfident assurances as to the natures of heaven, hell, and purgatory together with asseverations as to who went where. Stalin in hell? How do you know? How do you even know that there is a place of everlasting punishment as opposed to such other options as simple annihilation of unrepentant miscreants?
The presumptuousness of those who fancy that they understand the economics of salvation to such a degree that they can condifently assert that so many Hail Mary's will remove so many years in purgatory. For many, such presumptuousness is an abomination, though not as bad as the sale of indulgences.
4. The fact that the religions of the world, over millenia, haven't done much to improve us individually or collectively. Even if one sets aside the intemperate fulminations of the New Atheists, that benighted crew uniquely blind to the good religion has done, there is the fact that religious belief and practice, even if protracted and sincere, do little toward the moral improvement of people. To some this is an impediment to acceptance of a religion.
Related point: the corruption of the churches.
Again, my task here is merely descriptive. I am not claiming that one ought to be dissuaded from religion by its failure to improve people much or to maintain itself in institutional form without corruption.
5. The putative conflict between science and religion. Competing magisteria each with a loud claim to be the proper guide to life. Thinking people are bothered by this.
6. The tension between Athens (philosophy) and Jerusalem (religion).
7. The weight of concupiscence. We are sexual beings naturally, and oversexualized beings socially, and so largely unable to control our drives. The thrust of desire makes most real the sensuous while occluding one's spiritual sight. Is it any surprise that the atheist Russell, even in old age, refused to be faithful to his wife? It is reasonable to conjecture that his lust and his pride -- intellectuals tend to be very proud with outsized egos-- blinded him to spirtual realities.
8. Suggestibility. We are highly sensitive and responsive to social suggestions as to what is real and important and what is not. In a society awash with secular suggestions, people find it hard to take religion seriously.
I met with S. N. in Tempe yesterday for philosophy and chess. While we were talking about overbelief, it occurred to me that Romans 1: 18-20 is another good example of overbelief. Now there is an issue that the budding theologian S. N. made me aware of, an issue that the philosopher in me desires to set aside, namely, the question whether St. Paul is speaking in his own voice in the passage in question. That is indeed an interesting question, but my concern is with the argment that the passage embodies, regardless of who is making it. I will write as if Paul is speaking in his own voice. If you disagree, substitute 'pseudo-Paul' for 'Paul.'
I will first give my reading of the passage, and then explain how it connects with William James' notion of overbelief. (I understand that the term 'overbelief' surfaces first in Matthew Arnold who supposedly derives it from Goethe's use of Aberglaube. My concern is solely with James' use of the word.)
The Pauline Passage
Rather than quote the whole of the Pauline passage at Romans 1: 18-20, I'll summarize it. Men are godless and wicked and suppress the truth. What may be known about God is plain to them because God has made it plain to them. Human beings have no excuse for their unbelief. "For since the creation of the world, God's invisible qualities -- his eternal power and divine nature -- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made . . . ."
Paul's claim here is that the existence and nature of God are evident from creation and that unbelief is a result of a willful turning away from the truth. There is no excuse for unbelief because it is a plain fact that the natural world is divine handiwork. Now I am a theist and I am sympathetic to Christianity. But although I have one foot in Jerusalem, the other is planted firmly in Athens. And so I must point out that to characterize the natural world as 'made' or 'created' begs the question in favor of theism. As begging the question, the Pauline claim about the evidentness of the world's being created offers no support for theism. It is an analytic proposition that there is no creation without a creator. So if the heavens and the earth are a creation, then it follows straightaway that a creator exists.
But is the world a divine creation? This is the question, and the answer is not obvious. That the natural world is a divine artifact is not evident to the senses, or to the heart, or to reason. Of course, one can argue for the existence of God from the existence and order of the natural world. I have done it myself. But those who reject theistic arguments, and construct anti-theistic arguments, have their reasons too, and it cannot fairly be said that what animates the best of them is a stubborn and prideful refusal to submit to a truth that is evident. It is simply not evident to the senses that the natural world is a divine artifact.
I may be moved to marvel at "the starry skies above me." This was one of two things that filled Kant with wonder, the other being "the moral law within me." But seeing is not seeing as. If you see the starry skies as divine handiwork, then this is an interpretation from within a theistic framework. But the datum seen can just as easily be given a nontheistic interpretation.
If the atheism of some has its origin in pride, stubborness and a willful refusal to recognize any power or authority beyond oneself, or beyond the human, as is plainly the case with many, it does not follow that the atheism of all has this origin.
It is all-too-human to suspect in our opponents moral depravity when we cannot convince them. The Pauline passage smacks of that all-too-humanity. There are sincere and decent atheists, and they have plenty of excuse for their unbelief. The best of them, if wrong in the end, are excusably wrong.
Overbelief in the Pauline Passage
Here is my working definition of 'overbelief' based on my reading of William James: an overbelief is a belief arrived at by reading out of an experience more than is contained within it.
We experience the world as existent, as beautiful, and as orderly. But we don't experience the world as divine handiwork any more than we experience it as the work of Satan contrived to fool us into taking it to be real when it is not, and seduce us with its beauty and order. That the world is divine handiwork is therefore, by the above definition, an overbelief.
That is not to say that it is false. It is to say, as S. N. pointed out yesterday, that the belief is undetermined by the experience. Overbeliefs are undetermined by what we actually and literally experience. (Admittedly, it is a tricky question what exactly we literally experience: do I see my car, or only the front of my car? Do I touch my cat, or only the fur of my cat? I see a green tree, but do I see that a tree is green? Do I even see a green tree? I see an instance of greenness and an instance of treeness, but do I see that the two property-instances are compresent?)
That the world is divine handiwork is an overbelief. That doesn't make it false or even unreasonable. Indeed, overbeliefs are unavoidable. As James writes,
These ideas [overbeliefs] will thus be essential to that individual's religion; -- which is as much as to say that over-beliefs in various directions are absolutely indispensable, and that we should treat them with tenderness and tolerance so long as they are not intolerant themselves. As I have elsewhere written, the most interesting and valuable things about a man are usually his over-beliefs. (The Varieties of Religious Experience, Penguin 1982, p. 515, orig. publ. 1902)
One day, well over 30 years ago, I was deeply tormented by a swarm of negative thoughts and feelings that had arisen because of a dispute with a certain person. Pacing around my apartment, I suddenly, without any forethought, raised my hands toward the ceiling and said, "Release me!" It was a wholly spontaneous cri du coeur, a prayer if you will, but not intended as such. I emphasize that it was wholly unpremeditated. As soon as I had said the words and made the gesture, a wonderful peace descended upon my mind and the flood of negativity vanished. I became as calm as a Stoic sage.
That is an example of what I am calling an unusual experience. Only some of us have such experiences, and those who do, only rarely. I never had such an experience before or since, though I have had a wide variety of other types of unusual experiences of a religious, mystical and paranormal nature.
A second very memorable experience occurred while in deep formal meditation. I had the strong sense that I was the object of a very powerful love. I suddenly had the feeling that I was being loved by someone. Unfortunately, my analytic mind went to work on the experience and it soon subsided. This is why, when the gifts of meditation arrive, one must surrender to them in utter passivity, something that intellectual types will find it very hard to do.
The typical intellectual suffers from hypertrophy of the critical faculty, and in consequence, he suffers the blockage of the channels of intuition. He hones his intellect on the whetstone of discursivity, and if he is not careful, he may hone it away to nothing, or else perfect the power of slicing while losing the power of splicing.
Now suppose one were to interpret an experience such as the first one described as a reception of divine grace or as the answering of a prayer by a divine or angelic agent. Such an interpretation would involve what William James calls overbelief. Although the genial James uses the term several times in Varieties of Religious Experience and elsewhere, I don't believe he ever defines the term. But I think it is is keeping with his use of the term to say that an overbelief is a belief arrived at by reading out of an experience more than is contained within it.
Similarly, if I came to believe that what I experienced in the second experience was the love of Christ (subjective genitive), that would be an overbelief. The experience could not be doubted while I was having it, and now, a few years after having the experience, I have no practical doubts about it either: I have the testimony of my journal account which was written right after the experience, testimony that is corroborated by my present memories.
Unfortunately, experiences do not bear within themselves certificates of veridicality. There are two questions that an experience qua experience leaves open. First, is it of something real? Second, even if it is of something real, is it of the particular thing the overbelief says it is of?
Suppose a skeptic pipes up: "What you experienced was not the love of Christ, you gullible fool, but a random electro-chemical discharge in your brain." But of course, that would be wrong, indeed absurd. The experience was certainly not of that. The experience had a definite and describable phenomenological content, a content not describable in electro-chemical or neural terms.
Indeed, it is arguable that the skeptic is trading in underbelief, a word I just now coined. [Correction, 11 July: James uses 'under-belief' on p. 515 of The Varieties of Religious Experience.] If an overbelief is a belief arrived at by reading out of an experience more than is contained within it, then an underbelief is a belief arrived at by reading out of an experience less than is contained within it, or reading into it what manifestly is not contained within it.
Pounding on such a boneheaded skeptic, however, does not get the length of a proof of the veridicality of my experience.
We are on the point of becoming entangled in a thicket of thorny questions. Are there perceptual beliefs? If yes, are they not overbeliefs? I see a bobcat sitting outside my study and I form the belief that there is a bobcat five feet from me. But surely that existential claim goes beyond what the experience vouchsafes. The existence of the cat cannot be read off from the experience . . . .
Or is it rather underbelief if I refuse to grant that seeing a bobcat in normal conditions (good light, etc.) is proof that it exists in reality beyond my visual perception?
Should we perhaps define 'overbelief' and 'underbelief' in such a way that they pertain only to non-empirical matters?
Furthermore, is an overbelief a belief? Might 'over' function here as an alienans adjective? Beliefs are either true or false. Perhaps overbeliefs are neither, being merely matters of attitude, merely subjective additions to experiences. I think James would reject this. For him, overbeliefs are genuine beliefs. I'll dig up some passages later.
Sam Harris, you may remember, holds that the nonexistence of the self is something that one can learn from meditation. But he too, I should think, is involved in overbelief. One cannot observe the nonexistence of the self. Harris' belief goes well beyond anything that meditation discloses. The self does not turn up among the objects of experience as a separate object. Granted. It doesn't follow, however, that there is no self. To get to that conclusion overbelief is necessary, along the lines of: Only that which can be singled out as an object of experience exists or is real. How justify that on the basis of a close inspection of experience? It is sometimes called the Principle of Acquaintance. Are we acquainted with it?
The irony shouldn't be missed. Harris, the febrile religion-basher, embraces a religious overbelief in his Buddhist rejection of the self. Buddhism is a religion.
3. There are items of knowledge that are not essentially tied to action.
Daniel K comments and I respond in blue:
First, as to your aporetic triad: I would like to reject (3) in one sense that I describe below, and reject (1) absolutely. Not sure where that leaves the triad. But I'd be interested in whether you think I've clarified or merely muddied the waters.
In one sense I think all knowledge is action guiding. In another sense I think it is not essentially action guiding. All pure water is drinkable (at the right temperature etc.), but drinkability is not an essential feature of water (I wonder if this works).
BV: I don't think it works. I should think that in every possible world in which there is water, it is potable by humans. Therefore, drinkability is an essential feature of water. (An essential property of x is a property x has in every possible world in which x exists.) Of course, there are worlds in which there is water but no human beings. In those worlds, none of the water is drunk by humans. But in those worlds too water is drinkable. Compare the temporal case. Before humans evolved, there was water on earth. That water, some of it anyway, was potable by humans even though there were no humans. Water did not become potable when the first humans arose.
Rejecting (3): The having of knowledge always contributes to how one acts. You give examples of a priori knowledge as counterexamples. My response: it seems to me a priori knowledge is "hinge" knowledge that opens the door for action and cannot possibly not inform action. In other words we won't find circumstances where such knowledge is not action guiding in the presuppositional sense. So, I disagree that we will find knowledge that doesn't inform action. A priori knowledge is presuppositionally necessary and occasionally practically useful (math for engineering). Empirical knowledge will be used when it is available. So, I don't think defending (3) is necessary to defend (2).
BV: Willard maintains that one can have propositional knowledge without belief, and that belief is essentially tied to action. The conjunction of these two claims suggests to me that there can be knowledge that is not essentially tied to action. And so I looked for examples of items of knowledge that are not essentially tied to action, either by not being tied to action at all, or by not being essentially tied to action. If there are such items, then we can say that the difference between belief and knowledge is that every belief, by its very nature, can be acted upon, while it is not the case that every item of knowledge can be acted upon.
Much depends on what exactly is meant by 'acting upon a proposition,' and I confess to not having a really clear notion of this.
While I grant that much a priori knowledge is 'hinge' knowledge in your sense, consider the proposition that there is no transfinite cardinal lying between aleph-nought and 2 raised to the power, alepth-nought. Does that have any engineering application? (This is not a rhetorical question.)
Now consider philosophical knowledge (assuming there is some). If I know that there are no bare particulars (in Gustav Bergmann's sense), this is a piece of knowledge that would seem to have no behavioral consequences. The overt, nonlinguistic, behavior of a man who maintains a bundle-theoretic position with respect to ordinary partiulars will be no different from that of a man who maintains that ordinary particulars have bare particulars at their ontological cores. They could grow, handle, slice, and eat tomatoes in the very same way.
(Anecdote that I am pretty sure is not apocryphal: when Rudolf Carnap heard that fellow Vienna Circle member Gustav Bergmann had published a book under the title, The Metaphysics of Logical Positivism, he refused to speak to Bergmann ever again.)
It seems we should say that some, though not all, philosophical knowledge (assuming there is philosophical knowledge) consists of propositions upon which we cannot act. Here is another example. Suppose I know that the properties of ordinary particulars are tropes. Thus I know that the redness of a tomato is not a universal but a particular. Is that knowledge action-guiding? How would it guide action differently than the knowledge that properties are universals? Is the difference in ontological views a difference that could show up at the level of overt, nonlinguistic, behavior?
Admittedly, some philosophical knowledge is action-guiding. If I know that the soul is immortal, then I will behave differently than one who lacks this knowledge.
Now consider the knowledge of insignificant contingent facts. I know from my journal that on 27 April 1977 I ate hummus. Is that item of knowledge action-guiding? I think not. Suppose you learn the boring fact and infer that I like hummus. You might then make me a present of some. But if I am the only one privy to the information, it is difficult to see how that item of knowledge could be action-guiding for me. Recall that by action I mean overt, nonlinguistic behavior.
There is also modal knowledge to consider. I might have been sleeping now. I might not have been alive now. I might never have existed at all. These are modal truths that, arguably, I know. Suppose I know them. How could I act upon them? I am not sleeping now, and nothing I do could bring it about that I am sleeping now. Some modal knowledge would seem to without behavioral consequences. Of course, some modal knowledge does have such consequences, e.g. the knowledge that it is possible to grow tomatoes in Arizona.
It seemed to me in your post that you took the truth of (2) as giving support to (3). If belief is essentially action guiding and knowledge is not essentially believing, then there should be knowledge that is not action guiding.
But again, I would like to affirm that in the sense you mean it in the post all knowledge is action guiding: either presuppositionally or consciously/empirically. For instance, the law of noncontradiction is action guiding in the sense that I cannot act if essential to that action is that the object has characteristic X, but I affirm that the object is both X and not-X. [. . .]
BV: Consider an example. I cannot eat a bananna unless it is peeled. My affirming that it is both peeled and unpeeled (at the same time, all over, and in the same sense of 'peeled') would not, however, seem to stand in the way of my performing the action. Clearly, I know that nothing is both peeled and unpeeled. It is not clear to me how one could act upon that proposition. If I want to eat the bananna, I can act upon the proposition that it is unpeeled by peeling the bananna. But how do I act upon the proposition that the bananna is either peeled or unpeeled? What do I do?
Rejecting (1): So, what if both knowledge and belief are in one sense "action guiding" (rejecting 3)? Does it imply that we have no reason to think that belief is not an essential component of knowledge (accepting 2 and rejecting 1)? I think we still do have a good reason for thinking belief is not essentially a component of knowledge. When Willard says that belief is not essential to knowledge I take him to be distinguishing between the irrelevance of being concerned with action in the act of knowing and the universal appeal of knowledge for action.
Forget the terms "knowledge" and "belief" for a moment. Distinguish between the following states:
One is in a state (intentional?) (Y) to object (X) iff one has a true representation of X that was achieved in an appropriate way (Willard's account of knowledge). Notice that there is nothing in the description that essentially involves a readiness to act. That is not a part of its intentional character or directedness of state (Y). It is directed purely at unity, period.
Alternatively, one is in an intentional state (Z) to object (X) iff one has a representation of reality that is essentially identified by its being a ground for action. Here, essential to (Z) is its providing a ground for action.
(Y) is not a state that essentially involves action guidance but (Z) is. So, the achievement of (Y) does not involve essentially the achievement of (Z). That is, the achievement of (Y) is the achievement of a kind of theoretical unity with (X) while the achievement of (Z) is the achievement of a motivator for acting in certain ways regarding (X). Response: but Daniel, you've already said that all knowledge is action guiding! Yes, but it is not an essential feature of the state of knowing. Analogy: all water is drinkable. But drinkability is not an essential feature of water.
I'm going to stop there. I'd appreciate any comments you have. That is my effort, thus far, to make sense of both Willard's suggestion and your aporetic triad.
BV: I do appreciate the comments and discussion. Let's see if I understand you. You reject (1), the orthodox view that knowledge entails belief. Your reason seems to be that, while belief is essentially action-guiding, knowledge is not essentially action-guiding, but only accidentally action-guiding. You deny what I maintain, namely, that some items of knowledge (some known propositions qua known) are not action-guiding. You maintain that all such items are action-guiding, but only accidentally so. Perhaps your argument is this:
4. Every believing-that-p is essentially action-guiding.
5. No knowing-that-p is essentially action-guiding.
6. It is not the case that, necessarily, every knowing-that-p is a believing-that-p.
But (6) -- the negation of (1) -- doesn't follow from (4) and (5). (6) is equivalent to
6*. Possibly, some knowings-that-p are not believings-that-p.
What follows from (4) and (5) is
7. No knowing-that-p is a believing-that-p.
(7) is the thesis I am tentatively proposing.
This is a very difficult topic and we may be falling into de dicto/de re confusion.
Well, at least I am in the state that Plato says is characteristic of the philosopher: perplexity!
Here is a trio of propositions that are jointly inconsistent but individually plausible:
1. Knowledge entails belief.
2. Belief is essentially tied to action.
3. There are items of knowledge that are not essentially tied to action.
Clearly, any two of these propositions is logically inconsistent with the remaining one. Thus the conjunction of (1) and (2) entails the negation of (3).
And yet each limb of the triad is very plausible, though perhaps not equally plausible.
(1) is part of the classical definition of knowledge as justified true belief, an analysis traceable to Plato's Theaetetus. (1) says that, necessarily, if a person S knows that p, then S believes that p. Knowledge logically includes belief. What one knows one believes, though not conversely. For example, if I know that my wife is sitting across from me, then I believe that she is sitting across from me. (At issue here is propositional knowledge, not know-how, or carnal knowledge, or knowledge by acquaintance.)
(2) is perhaps the least plausible of the three, but it is still plausible and accepted by (a minority of) distinguished thinkers. According to Dallas Willard,
Belief I understand to be some degree of readiness to act as if such and such (the content believed) were the case. Everyone concedes that one can believe where one does not know. But it is now widely assumed that you cannot know what you do not believe. Hence the well known analysis of knowledge as "justified, true belief." But this seems to me, as it has to numerous others, to be a mistake. Belief is, as Hume correctly held, a passion. It is something that happens to us. Thought, observation and testing, even knowledge itself, can be sources of belief, and indeed should be. But one may actually know (dispositionally, occurrently) without believing what one knows.
[. . .] belief has an essential tie to action . . . .
Although I am not exactly sure what Willard's thesis is, he seems to be maintaining that the propositions one believes are precisely those one is prepared to act upon. S believes that p iff S is prepared to act upon p. Beliefs are manifested in actions, and actions are evidence of beliefs. To determine what a person really believes, we look to his actions, not to his words, although the words provide context for understanding the actions. If I want to get to the roof, and tell you that the ladder is stable, but refuse to ascend it, then that is very good evidence that I don't really believe that the ladder is stable. I don't believe it because I am not prepared to act upon it. So far, so good.
But if belief is essentially tied to action, as Willard maintains, then it is not possible that one believe a proposition one cannot act upon. Is this right? Consider the proposition *Everything is self-identical.* This is an item of knowledge. But is it also an item of belief? We can show that this item of knowledge is not an item of belief if we can show that one cannot act upon it. But what is it to act upon a proposition? I don't know precisely, but here's an idea:
A proposition p is such that it can be acted upon iff there is some subject S and some circumstances C such that S's acceptance of p in C makes a difference to S's overt, nonlinguistic behavior.
For example, *It is raining* can be acted upon because there are circumstances in which my acceptance of it versus my nonacceptance of it (either by rejecting it or just entertaining it) makes a difference to what I do such as going for a run. Accepting the proposition, and not wanting to get wet, I postpone the run. Rjecting the proposition, I go for the run as planned.
In the case of *Everything is self-identical,* is there any behavior that could count as a manifestation of an agent's acceptance/nonacceptance of the proposition in question? Suppose I come to know (occurrently) for the first time that everything is self-identical. Suppose I had never thought of this before, never 'realized it.' Would the realization or 'epiphany' make a difference to my overt, nonlingusitic behavior? It seems not. Would I do anything differently?
Consider characteristic truths of transfinite set theory. They are items of knowledge that have no bearing on any actual or possible action. For example, I know that, while the natural numbers and the reals are both infinite sets, the cardinality of the latter is strictly greater than that of the former. Can I take that to the streets?
(3) therefore seems true: there are items of knowledge that are not items of belief because not essentially tied to action.
I have shown that each limb of our inconsistent triad has some plausibility. So it is an interesting problem. How solve it? Reject one of the limbs! But which one? And how do you show that the rejection of one is more reasonable than the rejection of one of the other two? And why is it more reasonable to hold that the problem has a solution than to hold that it is insoluble and thus a genuine aporia?
According to Atran, people who decapitate journalists, filmmakers, and aid workers to cries of “Alahu akbar!” or blow themselves up in crowds of innocents are led to misbehave this way not because of their deeply held beliefs about jihad and martyrdom but because of their experience of male bonding in soccer clubs and barbershops. (Really.) So I asked Atran directly:
“Are you saying that no Muslim suicide bomber has ever blown himself up with the expectation of getting into Paradise?”
“Yes,” he said, “that’s what I’m saying. No one believes in Paradise.”
This post assumes that Harris has fairly and accurately reported Atran's view. If you think he hasn't then substitute 'Atran*' for 'Atran' below. Atran* holds by definition the view I will be criticizing.
If we are to be as charitable to Atran as possible, we would have to say that he holds his strange view because he himself does not believe in the Muslim paradise and he cannot imagine anyone else really believing in it either. So Muslims who profess to believe in Paradise with its black-eyed virgins, etc. are merely mouthing phrases. What makes this preposterous is that Atran ignores the best evidence one could have as to what a person believes, namely, the person's overt behavior taken in the context of his verbal avowals. Belief is linked to action. If I believe I have a flat tire, I will pull over and investigate. If I say 'We have a flat tire" but keep on driving, then you know that I don't really believe that we have a flat tire.
Same with the Muslim terrorist. If he invokes the greatness of his god while decapitating someone, then that is the best possible evidence that he believes in the existence of his god and what that god guarantees to the faithful, namely, an endless supply of post-mortem carnal delights. This is particularly clear in the case of jihadis such as suicide bombers. The verbal avowals indicate the content of the belief while the action indicates that the content is believed.
Now compare this very strong evidence with the evidence Atran has for the proposition that "No one believes in Paradise." His only evidence is astonishingly flimsy: that he and his ilk cannot imagine anyone believing what Muslims believe. But that involves both a failure of imagination and a projection into the Other of one's own attitudes.
The problem here is a general one.
"I don't believe that, and you don't either!"
"But I do!"
"No you don't, you merely think you believe it or are feigning belief."
"Look at what I do, and how I live. The evidence of my actions, which costs me something, in the context of what I say, is solid evidence that I do believe what I claim to believe."
Example. Years ago I heard Mario Cuomo say at a Democratic National Convention that the life of the politician was the noblest and best life. I was incredulous and thought to myself: Cuomo cannot possibly believe what he just said! But then I realized that he most likely does believe it and that I was making the mistake of assuming that others share my values and assumptions and attitudes.
It is a bad mistake to project one's own values, beliefs, attitudes , assumptions and whatnot into others.
Most of the definitions of psychological projection I have read imply that it is only undesirable attitudes, beliefs and the like that are the contents of acts of projection. But it seems to me that the notion of projection should be widened to include desirable ones as well. The desire for peace and social harmony, for example, is obviously good. But it too can be the content of an act of psychological projection. A pacifist, for example, may assume that others deep down are really like he is: peace-loving to such an extent as to avoid war at all costs. A pacifist might reason as follows: since everyone deep down wants peace, and abhors war, if I throw down my weapon, my adversary will do likewise. By unilaterally disarming, I show my good will, and he will reciprocate. But if you throw down your weapon before Hitler, he will take that precisely as justification for killing you: since might makes right on his neo-Thrasymachian scheme, you have shown by your pacific deed that you are unfit for the struggle for existence and therefore deserve to die, and indeed must die to keep from polluting the gene pool.
Projection in cases like these can be dangerous. One oftens hears the sentiment expressed that we human beings are at bottom all the same and all want the same things. Not so! You and I may want "harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust abounding" but others have belligerence and bellicosity as it were hard-wired into them. They like fighting and dominating and they only come alive when they are bashing your skull in either literally or figuratively. People are not the same and it is a big mistake to think otherwise and project your decency into them.
I said that the psychologists classify projection as a defense mechanism. But how could the projection of good traits count as a defense mechanism? Well, I suppose that by engaging in such projections one defends oneself against the painful realization that the people in the world are much worse than one would have liked to believe. Many of us have a strong psychological need to see good in other people, and that can give rise to illusions. There is good and evil in each person, and one must train oneself to accurately discern how much of each is present in each person one encounters.
The notion that we should always and everywhere apportion belief to evidence in such a way that we affirm only that for which we have sufficient evidence ignores the fact that belief for beings like us subserves action. If one acted only on those beliefs for which one had sufficient evidence one would not act as one must to live well.
When a young person believes that he or she can do such-and-such, it is almost always on the basis of insufficient evidence. And yet such belief beyond the evidence is a sine qua non of success. There are two necessary conditions of success in life: one must believe that what one proposes to do is worth doing, and one must believe that one is capable of doing it. In both cases one believes and acts on evidence that could hardly be called sufficient.
This strikes me as a good maxim: Don't let insufficient evidence prevent you from believing what you are better off believing than not believing.
The related article below provides a more rigorous treatment.
There are courageous souls who will say publically what others think but are afraid to say. True. But the courageousness of the saying does not underwrite the truth of what is said. Courage does not validate content.
Muhammad Atta and the 9/11 terrorists had the courage of their false and murderous convictions.
As a corollary, passion is not probative. The passion with which a proposition is propounded is no proof of it. It is scant praise of a person, and perhaps no praise at all, to say, as is often nowadays said, that so-and-so is passionate about his beliefs. So what? Hitler was passionate.
We have need of dispassion these days, not passion. William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming, first stanza:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the
falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.
Apparently, there are some atheists who are adopting Lenten-type practices without abandoning their atheist beliefs. This ought to be cautiously applauded: we all can profit morally from a bit of voluntary abstinence. One cannot live well without (moderate) asceticism. (See William James on Self-Denial.) Better self-controlled atheists than atheists 'gone wild.'
But I would urge these atheists to go further and practice doxastic abstinence. Without rejecting your atheist beliefs, put them within brackets for the Lenten period. Practice epoché with respect to them, that is, withhold intellectual assent. That is not to doubt them or disbelieve them, but simply to make no use of them. Leave them alone for a time. In the strict sense epoché goes beyond even suspension of judgment. If I suspend judgment with respect to a propositional content, I neither affirm it, deny it, doubt it, nor even just entertain it. For if I do any of those things I admit that it has a coherent sense. In epoché, however, I leave it open whether the content has a coherent sense. Epoché is the ultimate in doxastic disengagement. Practicing total doxastic abstinence, I totally disengage from those propositions that ignite often acrimonious disagreement.
You can always go back to your atheist beliefs. Another excellent form of self-denial for atheists and religionists alike is to abstain from all theological controversies and polemics from time to time. One could call it a 'belief fast.' I hope we can all agree that being just is better than developing a theory of justice. And if discussing the Trinity only makes you angry and combative, then it might be best to drop theology and cultivate piety.
But while atheists can profit from voluntary self-denial, bringing such practices under the Lent umbrella makes little sense. Will the period of self-denial go from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday? Why tie it to these dates freighted as they are with Christian metaphysics? When a Christian reminds himself on Ash Wednesday that he is dust and shall return to dust, the whole point of that memento mori is situated within the context of the hope for and promise of eternal life. Christian mortalism is toto caelo different from atheist mortalism. And what the Christian celebrates on Easter Sunday is precisely the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ by the power of God and the hope that death will be conquered eventually for all. No atheist believes that.
In the final analysis, Lent secularized is no longer Lent. Atheists ought to exercise their imaginations and come up with a secular analog free of Chistian trappings.
Atheists ought also to worry that if they take up Christian practices, the beliefs may follow . . . .
The following is from an interview with A. C. Grayling who is speaking of the open mind and open inquiry:
It’s a mindset, he reveals, that “loves the open-endedness and the continuing character of the conversation that humankind has with itself about all these things that really matter.”
It’s also a way of thinking that marks a line in the sand between religion and science. The temptation to fall for the former—hook, line, and sinker—is plain to see: “People like narratives, they like to have an explanation, they like to know where they are going.” Weaving another string of thought into his tapestry of human psychology, Grayling laments that his fellow human beings “don’t want to have to think these things out for themselves. They like the nice, pre-packaged answer that’s just handed to them by somebody authoritative with a big beard.”
A. C. Grayling, like many if not most militant atheists, sees the difference between religion and science in the difference between pre-packaged dogmas thoughtlessly and uncritically accepted from some authority and open-ended free inquiry.
That is not the way I see it. For me, mature religion is more quest than conclusions. It too is open-ended and ongoing, subject to revision and correction. It benefits from abrasion with such competing sectors of culture as philosophy and science. By abrasion the pearl is formed.
All genuine religion involves a quest since God must remain largely unknown, and this by his very nature. He must remain latens Deitas in Aquinas' phrase:
Adoro te devote, latens Deitas, Quæ sub his figuris vere latitas; Tibi se cor meum totum subjicit, Quia te contemplans totum deficit.
Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore, Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more, See, Lord, at Thy service low lies here a heart Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.
But as religion becomes established in the world in the form of churches, sects, and denominations with worldly interests, it becomes less of a quest and more of a worldly hustle. Dogmatics displaces inquiry, and fund-raising faith. The once alive becomes ossified. All human institutions are corruptible, and are eventually corrupted.
Mature religion must be more quest than conclusions. It is vastly more a seeking than a finding. More a cleansing of windows and a polishing of mirrors than a glimpsing. And certainly more a glimpsing than a comfortable resting upon dogmas. When philosophy and religion and mysticism and science are viewed as quests they complement one another. And this despite the tensions among Athens, Jerusalem, Benares, and Alexandria.
The critic of religion wants to pin it down, reducing it to dogmatic contents, so as to attack it where it is weakest. Paradoxically, the atheist 'knows' more about God than the sophisticated theist -- he knows so much that he knows no such thing could exist. He 'knows' the divine nature and knows that it is incompatible with the existence of evil -- to mention one line of attack. What he 'knows,' of course, is only the concept he himself has fabricated and projected. Aquinas, by contrast, held that the existence of God is far better known than God's nature -- which remains shrouded in a cloud of unknowing.
The (immature) religionist also wants religion pinned down and dogmatically spelled out for purposes of self-definition, doxastic security, other-exclusion, worldly promotion, and political leverage. This is a reason why reformers like Jesus are met with a cold shoulder -- or worse.
How is it that someone as intelligent as Grayling could have such a cartoonish understanding of religion? The answer is that he and his brethren utterly lack the religious sensibility. They lack it in the same way many scientists lack the philosophical sensibility, many prosaic folk the poetic sensibility, and so on.
This is why debates with militant atheists are a waste of time. To get a taste of the febrile militancy of Grayling's atheism, see here.
I am at the moment listening to Dennis Prager interview Dr. Eben Alexander. Prager asked him whether he now maintains, after his paranormal experiences, that consciousness is independent of the brain. Alexander made a striking reply: "We are conscious in spite of our brains." And then he made some remarks to the effect that the brain is a "reducing filter" or something like that.
That is to say much more than that consciousness can exist independently of the brain. For the latter would be true if consciousness existed in an attenuated form after the dissolution of the body and brain. Alexander is saying that embodiment severely limits our awareness.
Well, why couldn't that be true? Why is it less plausible than a form of materialism that views consciousness as somehow dependent on brain functioning and impossible without it?
Let us assume you are not a dogmatist: you don't uncritically adhere to the unprovable materialist framework assumption according to which consciousness just has to be brain-based. And let us assume that you don't have a quasi-religious faith that future science has wonderful revelations in store that will vindicate materialism/physicalism once and for all. By the way, I have always found it passing strange that people would "pin their hopes on future science." You mean to tell me that you hope you can be shown to be nothing more than a complex physical system slated for utter extinction!? That's what you hope for? It may in the end be true, but I for one cannot relate to the mentality of someone who would hope for such a thing. "I hope I am just a bag of chemicals to be punctured in a few years. Wouldn't it be awful if I had an higher destiny and that life actually had a meaning?"
But I digress. Let's assume you are not a dogmatist and not a quasi-religious believer in future science. Let's assume you are an open-minded inquirer like me. You are skeptical in the best sense: inquisitive but critical. Then I put the question to you: Can you show that the Alexander claim is less plausible that the materialist one?
I don't believe that there can be talk of proof either way, assuming you use 'proof' strictly. You have to decide what you will believe and how you will live. In the shadowlands of this life there is light enough and darkness enough to lend support to either answer, that of the mortalist and that of his opposite number.
So I advance to the consideration that for me clinches the matter. Bring the theoretical question back down to your Existenz. How will you live, starting right now and for the rest of your days? Will you live as if you will be utterly extinguished in a few years or will you live as if what you do and leave undone right now matters, really matters? Will you live as if life is serious, or will you live as if it is some sort of cosmic joke? Will you live as if something is at stake in this life, however dimly descried, or will you live as if nothing is ultimately at stake? It is your life. You decide.
Now suppose that when Drs. Mary Neal and Eben Alexander die the body's death, they become nothing. Suppose that their phenomenologically vivid paranormal experiences were revelatory of nothing real, that their experiences were just the imaginings of malfunctioning brains at the outer limits of biological life. What will they have lost by believing as they did?
Nothing! Nothing at all. You could of course say that they were wrong and were living in illusion. But no one will ever know one way or the other. And if the body's death is the last word then nothing ultimately matters, and so it can't matter that they were wrong if turns out that they were.
If they were right, however, then the moral transformation that their taking seriously of their experiences has wrought in them can be expected to redound to their benefit when they pass from this sphere.
I've continued to think on one of our old disagreements, the one about religion and zealotry, and I'd like to continue the discussion. Previously, I'd put forward the argument attempting to show that religious belief is rationally unacceptable. Now, I'm thinking it might be profitable to repackage the argument for a more modest conclusion. I want to say something like, "Given other epistemic commitments that I have and, on reflection, find myself unable to give up, I find that I am rationally unable to accept religious belief of the sort in question." Since I take these commitments to be closely related to the conservative disposition which you and I share, perhaps you will find that you, too are committed to abandoning religious belief." This is, to use a phrase from Robert Nozick, non-coercive philosophy, and I am growing increasingly inclined to think that herein all real persuasion lies.
BV: I suggest we divide persuasion into nonrational and rational, and then subdivide rational persuasion into coercive and noncoercive. Noncoercive rational persuasion, I take it, would be rational persuasion that makes use only of propositions already accepted by the person to be persuaded in an attempt to get him to accept a proposition to which he is logically committed by what he already accepts but does not yet accept. I agree that in the vast majority of cases only noncoercive rational persuasion has a chance at success.
Let me now re-frame the argument that I have presented earlier, with the hope that I can improve on my earlier formulations. When I was a soldier in Afghanistan, I attended a ceremony for a fallen comrade. Nobody I knew. In main sermon, the chaplain said, "Sgt. So-and-so got a big promotion that day," referring to the day an IED [improvised explosive device] ended the life of this unfortunate soldier. His reasoning is that now this soldier was enjoying the loving embrace of Jesus. Whatever suffering this caused him or his family is comparatively small.
I found the chaplain's speech off-putting because his account robbed this soldier's death of its tragedy. He went well beyond consoling the survivors to telling us that we should be positively happy that this event occurred. What disturbed me more, though, is that the chaplain arrived at this conclusion very reasonably from very widely held set of religious beliefs. If one believes, as a majority of the people of the world do, that an eternity of happiness of a much higher grade than any that exists on earth awaits the righteous after death, then one is left to draw this, and other unpalatable conclusions. For instance, if you could inflict a great amount of suffering on an innocent person, and by so doing, influence that person's choice, or someone else's choice, to turn to religion, then it would seem one should do it.
I too am put off by the chaplain's speech but for a different reason. What I find offensive is his presumption to know that the unfortunate soldier is now in a far better state. No one can legitimately claim to know that God exists, or that we survive our bodily deaths as individuals, or that Jesus is the son of God, or that a given person is in heaven as opposed to the other place, etc. (Nor can one legitimately claim to know the negations of any of these propositions.) People can and do believe these things, and some have good reasons for (some of) their beliefs. Since no one can know about these things, the chaplain had no right to offer the kind of ringing assurance he offered or to make the claim that one should be positively happy that the soldier was blown to bits.
So I would say that the chaplain was doubly presumptuous. He presumed to know what no one can know, and he presumed to make a comforting assurance that he was not entitled to make. But had he said something tentative and in keeping with our actual doxastic predicament, then I wouldn't have been offended. Suppose he had said this: "Our faith teaches us that death is not the end and that this life is but a prelude to a better life to come. We hope and pray that Sgt So-and-So is now sharing in that higher life." I would not be put off by such a speech. Consolation without presumption.
What you are offended by is something different, the very content of the Christian message. But suppose it is true. Then there is nothing ultimately "tragic" about the soldier's death. (I also think you are misusing 'tragic.' Was hubris displayed by the soldier prior to his death?) He has left this vale of tears and has gone to a better 'place.' You see, if Christianity is true, then death does not have the 'sting' that it has for an atheist (assuming the atheist values life in this world). Are you then just assuming that Christianity is false? If it is false, then Nietzsche is right and it is a slander upon this life, the only life there is. But is it false? You can't just assume that it is.
Distinguish the question whether Christianity is true from the question whether it can be known to be true (by anyone here below). I claim that it cannot be known to be true, using 'know' in a strict and intellectually responsible way.
Now one of the "unpalatable consequences" you mention is this: "if you could inflict a great amount of suffering on an innocent person, and by so doing, influence that person's choice, or someone else's choice, to turn to religion, then it would seem one should do it." But this is not a consequence of Christian belief, but at best a consequence of the fanatical and dogmatic belief that one knows that Christianity is true. Suppose I did know that Christianity -- or rather some fire-and- brimstone variant of Christianity-- is true, then why wouldn't I be justified in torturing someone until he accepts the saving truth, the truth without which he will spend all eternity in hell? What's worse, a day of torture or an eternity of it? Besides, if I really care about you, wouldn't I want you to have an eternity of bliss?
What you are giving us, I think, is an argument against religious fanaticism, not an argument against religion. Religion is a matter of faith, not knowledge. More precisely, genuine religion is a matter of a faith that understands that it is faith and not knowledge. Once that is understood your "unpalatable consequences" do not ensue. For if I understand that my faith transcends what I can legitimately claim to know, then this understanding will prevent me from torturing someone into acceptance of my creed. For surely it is clearer that one ought not torture people into the acceptance of metaphysical propositions than that said propositions are true.
Now, as our previous discussions have shown, one is not compelled to adopt a non-religious outlook, as I have done, because of these considerations. One is only compelled to adopt a non-religious outlook if one also accepts the idea that earthly goods are not negligible in terms of the reasons they provide. To be clear, I mean things like: the pleasures of laughter, friendship, sex, families, etc., as well as achieving important life goals (including the goal of living a philosophical life in a tumultuous world.) I accept that these things are non-negligible and I feel confident that any theory of the Good Life must afford them a central place. I don't think I can provide a further justification for why I believe this, other than I find the thought compelling. If an interlocutor is happy to accept that these are all axiological ciphers because they are nothing when compared with the goodness of God in the next world, then I must part ways with him. I would, however, be surprised for a conservative to take that view, since conservatives, more than progressives, tend to value the familiar.
I am not sure I follow this last paragraph, but I take you to be saying that there are certain non-negligible goods that this life provides (friendship, etc.) and that anyone who accepts that there are must adopt a non-religious outlook. Your argument can perhaps be put as follows:
1. If a religion such as Christianity is true, then the good things of this world are relatively unimportant as compared with the good things of the world to come.
2. But it is not the case that the good things of this world are relatively unimportant: they are absolutely important.
3. Someone of conservative bent, someone who is capable of appreciating what actually and presently exists, ought to reject a religion such as Christianity.
I would respond to this by saying that the goods of this world are certainly not absolutely important, but they are not "axiological ciphers" either. A theist will say that what exists in this world is good because it comes from the source of all goodness, God. So the conservative theist has plenty of reason to appreciate what actually and presently exists, but he is also in a position to evaluate the goodness of finite goods properly and without idolatry because he appreciates that they are other than that which is wholly good. The goods of this world are neither negligible nor absolute, neither illusory nor absolutely real.
I would further argue that atheists typically succumb to axiological illusion: they take what is relatively valuable for absolutely valuable.
As you may recall, I'm a persistent reader of your blog - even when the 'topic of the day' goes right over my head.
On the minimalist version of Pascal's wager, you summarize: "So how can I lose? Even if they are illusions, believing in God and the soul incurs no costs and disbelieving brings no benefits."
I've mulled over this rational incentive to believe in God many and many a time. But belief doesn't come. If faith is a 'gift from God' or depends on the possession of a religious disposition, then for some unfathomable reason I've missed out. I guess there are many people like myself who are 'trying to believe' but don't and perhaps never will succeed. (And it's not from the want of pressure and sometimes disinterested tuition, when I was a lad, from my Jesuit teachers.)
I think the sorts of pragmatic considerations I adduced the other day in support of the rationality of religious belief will leave unmoved someone lacking the religious disposition. (I'll leave aside the question whether the religious disposition is a divine gift.) Without the disposition the issue cannot be a "live option" in William James' sense. You have to be antecedently inclined to take seriously the possibility that some form of religion is true. This has nothing to do with intelligence or knowledge or upbringing. Not intelligence: there are both intelligent and unintelligent theists and atheists. Not knowledge: there is no empirical knowledge that rules out theism or rules in atheism. Not upbringing: some are raised atheists and becomes theists, and vice versa. What you need is a certain sort of spiritual depth that is present in, say, Ludwig Wittgenstein, but absent in, say, Daniel Dennett. If you are 'surface all the way down' religion won't get a grip on you.
In the reader's case religious belief seems to be a live option in the way in which it is not for most atheists. (For most atheists, and for all of the militant atheists, the truth of some religion is no more a live existential option than numerology or Marxism is for me.) But for the reader, apparently, the disposition is not enough. I wish I could help him.
Let me just state what, in my own case, are the additional factors, factors beyond the religious disposition, that move me to accept religious belief.
1. The Manifold Failures of Naturalism. There are four questions that need answering.
The first is why there is anything (or at least anything concrete and contingent) at all. This is an intelligible question but there is no good naturalist answer to it. The physicist Lawrence Krauss recently made a fool of himself over this question as I demonstrated in earlier posts. The second question is how life arose from inanimate matter. Life has to have arisen before natural selection can go to work upon random mutations. The third is how consciousness arose in some living organisms, and the fourth is how self-consciousness, conscience, reason and all related phenomena arose. There are many, many questions here, but it is widely accepted that naturalism has failed to give adequate answers to them. Naturalists give answers all right, but they are no good. For the gory details, see my Naturalism category.
Now of course nothing I said will convince any naturalist, but that's not my purpose. My purpose is to explain how one can reasonably take religion seriously. I could not take it seriously if naturalism were true. The refutation of naturalism therefore removes an obstacle to religious belief. If, on the other hand, you are convinced that naturalism is true, then you cannot, consistently with that conviction, accept theism -- whether or not you have a religious disposition.
It is also important to realize that if naturalism as we currently know it is false, it doesn't follow that some form of theism is true. It doesn't even follow that no form of naturalism is true. It could be that there is a version of naturalism, over the horizon, which will adequately answer the questions I mentioned. If I have understood the thrust of Thomas Nagel's latest book, Mind and Cosmos (Oxford 2012), that is what he is aiming at. He is trying to find a way between naturalism in its current onfiguration and theism. He wants to be able to see mind as somehow essential to the fabric of nature and not, as it must appear on evolutionary naturalism, as an accidental byproduct of purely physical processes.
It is also worth noting that not all of the critics of contemporary evolutionary naturalism are theists. If they were, then one might suspect that their criticisms were ideologically motivated. Not so. Nagel is both an atheist and an opponent of contemporary naturalism. Given that Nagel's 'middle path' is merely a gesture in the direction of a possible distination, as opposed to a concrete alternative, I think it is resonable to accept theism given the hopelessness of naturalism.
2. Mystical, Religious, and Paranormal Experiences and Intuitions
Suppose that someone (i) has the religious disposition and (ii) agrees that theism is superior to naturalism. That still might not do it. Abstract reasoning, even to intellectual types who flourish in its element, is no substitute for experiences. In fact, I doubt that anyone could really take religion seriously (in a way that would make a concrete difference in how one lives one's life) who lacked the sensus divinitatis, or the feeling that the deliverances of conscience emanate from a sphere beyond the human, or who never had a mystical glimpse or a religious experience, or who never lived through anything paranormal such as an out-of-body experience or an experience of pre-cognition.
This is not the place to try to explain the differences among mystical, religious, and paranormal experience and other senses, intuitions, intimations, visitations and vouchsafings that religious types speak of. But let me give a couple of examples of religious experiences, which I distinguish on the one hand from mystical experiences and on the other from paranormal experiences.
One day many years ago I was pacing around in an extremely agitated frame of mind over a matter that I won't go into. But suffice it to say that my mind and heart were filled with extremely negative thoughts and desires. Suddenly, without any forethought, I raised my arms to the ceiling and exclaimed, "Release me from this!" In an instant I was as calm as a Stoic sage, as quiescent as a Quietist. The roiling burden was lifted. I was at peace. I want to stress that that I had had no intention to pray. The whole episode transpired spontaneously. Now what happened? Phenomenologically, my unintended, spontaneous prayer was answered. Does that unforgettable experience prove that a Higher Power hears and grants some of our heart-felt requests? No, for the simple reason that no (outer) experience proves anything. My current visual experiences of this computer do not prove its existence. But the religious experience is evidence of something Transcendent and if you have had such experiences you may be inclined to think that they carry a lot more weight than abstract reasoning from questionable premises.
On another occasion, while deep in meditation, I had an experience of -- or an experience as of, to put the point with pedantic epistemological caution -- being the object of Someone's love. "I am being loved by some unknown person" was my thought during the experience. That's what it felt like. I was alone sitting in the dark on the black mat. It was an unmistakeable experience, but still only an experience. A brain fart you say? A random neuronal swerve? Could be, but then our ordinary mundane experience could be a brain fart too -- only more coherent and protracted.
There are those who simply dismiss experiences like these. That is a strange attitude, at once unempirical and dogmatically rationalistic. See Intimations of Elsewhere Ignored.
It's a bit of evidence that I add to the other bits of experiential evidence such as a deep sense of the superficiality of ordinary human relations, and of the relative unreality and unimportance of the impermanent world. Without experiences like these Plato, Augustine, Pascal, and Simone Weil could not have written what they wrote.
3. The Arguments for Theism
And then there are the dozens of arguments for theism which, taken together, make a strong cumulative case for theism's truth especially in tandem with the refutation of the atheistic arguments.
Now add it all together: the manifold inadequacies and outright absurdities of the naturalist/materialist/reductionist Weltanschauung, the wide variety of mystical glimpses, religious vouchsafings, paranormal experiences, the deliverances of conscience, the testimony of beauty and order and purposivesness, and the rest of the intuitions, intimations and senses, the refutations of atheism and the arguments for theism -- add this all together, take it as a big cumulative case, and its just might take someone who has the religious disposition over the line into a living belief.
And THEN, and only then, comes the capstone that clinches it for someone like me: "So how can I lose? Even if they are illusions, believing in God and the soul incurs no costs and disbelieving brings no benefits."
Is it ever rational to believe something for which one has insufficient evidence? If it is never rational to believe something for which one has insufficient evidence, then presumably it is also never rational to act upon such a belief. For example, if it irrational to believe in God and post-mortem survival, then presumably it is also irrational to act upon those beliefs, by entering a monastery, say. Or is it?
W. K. Clifford is famous for his evidentialist thesis that "It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything on insufficient evidence." On this way of thinking, someone who fails to apportion belief to evidence violates the ethics of belief, and thereby does something morally wrong. This has been called ethical evidentialism since that claim is that it is morally impermissible to believe on insufficient evidence. Sufficient evidence is where there is preponderance of evidence. On ethical evidentialism, then, it is morally permissible for a person to believe that p if and only p is more likely than not on the evidence the person has.
A cognitive evidentialist, by contrast, maintains that one is merely unreasonable to believe beyond a preponderance of evidence. One then flouts a norm of rationality rather than a norm of morality.
Jeffrey Jordan, who has done good work on this topic, makes a further distinction between absolute and defeasible evidentialism. The absolute evidentialist holds that the evidentialist imperative applies to every proposition, while the defeasible evidentialist allows exceptions. Although Clifford had religious beliefs in his sights, his thesis, by its very wording, applies to every sort of belief, including political beliefs and the belief expressed in the Clifford sentence quoted above! I take this as a refutation of Clifford's evidentialist stringency. For if one makes no exceptions concerning the application of the evidentialist imperative, then it applies also to "It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything on insufficient evidence." And then the embarrassing question arises as to what evidence once could have for the draconian Cliffordian stricture which is not only a morally normative claim but is also crammed with universal quantifiers.
If I took Clifford seriously I would have to give up most of my beliefs about politics, health, nutrition, economics, history and plenty of other things. For example, I believe it is a wise course to restrict my eating of eggs to three per week due to their high cholesterol content. And that's what I do. Do I have sufficent evidence for this belief? Not at all. I certainly don't have evidence that entails the belief in question. What evidence I have makes it somewhat probable. But more probable than not? Not clear! But to be on the safe side I restrict my intake of high-cholesterol foods. What I give up, namely, the pleasures of bacon and eggs for breakfast every morning, etc. is paltry in comparison to the possible pay-off, namely living and blogging to a ripe old age. Surely there is nothing immoral or irrational in my behavior even though I am flouting Clifford's rule. And similarly in hundreds of cases.
The Desert Rat
Consider now the case of a man dying of thirst in a desert. He comes upon two water sources. He knows (never mind how) that one is potable while the other is poisonous. But he does not know which is which, and he has no way of finding out. Should the man suspend belief, even unto death, since he has insufficient evidence for deciding between the two water sources? Let us suppose that our man is a philosopher and thus committed to a life of the highest rationality.
Absolute evidentialism implies that the desert wanderer should suspend judgment and withhold assent: he may neither believe nor disbelieve of either source that it is potable or poisonous on pain of either irrationality or an offence against the ethics of belief.
On one way of looking at the matter, suspension of belief -- and doing nothing in consequence -- would clearly be the height of irrationality in a case like this. The desert wanderer must simply drink from one of the sources and hope for the best. Clearly, by drinking from one (but not both) of the sources, his chances of survival are one half, while his chances of survival from drinking from neither are precisely zero. By simply opting for one, he maximizes his chances of reality-contact, and thereby his chances of survival. Surely a man who wants to live is irrational if he fails to perform a simple action that will give him a 50-50 chance of living when the alternative is certain death.
He may be epistemically irrational, but he is prudentially rational. And in a case like this prudential rationality trumps the other kind.
Cases like this are clear counterexamples to evidentialist theories of rationality according to which rationality requires always apportioning belief to evidence and never believing on insufficient evidence. In the above case the evidence is the same for either belief and yet it would be irrational to suspend belief. Therefore, rationality for an embodied human agent (as opposed to rationality for a disembodied transcendental spectator) cannot require the apportioning of belief to evidence in all cases, as Clifford demands. There are situations in which one must decide what to believe on grounds other than the evidential. Will I believe that source A is potable? Or will I believe that source B is potable? In Jamesian terms the option is live, forced, and momentous. (It is not like the question whether the number of ultimate particles in the universe is odd or even, which is neither live, forced, nor momentous.) An adequate theory of rationality, it would seem, must allow for believing beyond the evidence. It must return the verdict that in some cases, to refuse to believe beyond the evidence is positively irrational.
But then absolute evidentialism is untenable and we must retreat to defeasible evidentialism.
The New Neighbors
Let us consider another such case. What evidence do I have that my new neighbors are decent people? Since they have just moved in, my evidence base is exiguous indeed and far from sufficient to establish that they are decent people. (Assume that some precisifying definition of 'decent' is on the table.) Should I suspend judgment and behave in a cold, skeptical, stand-offish way toward them? ("Prove that you are not a scumbag, and then I'll talk to you.") Should I demand of them 'credentials' and letters of recommendation before having anything to do with them? Either of these approaches would be irrational. A rational being wants good relations with those with whom he must live in close proximity. Wanting good relations, he must choose means that are conducive to that end. Knowing something about human nature, he knows that 'giving the benefit of the doubt' is the wise course when it comes to establishing relations with other people. If you begin by impugning the integrity of the other guy, he won't like you. One must assume the best about others at the outset and adjust downwards only later and on the basis of evidence to the contrary. But note that my initial belief that my neighbors are decent people -- a belief that I must have if I am to act neighborly toward them -- is not warranted by anything that could be called sufficient evidence. Holding that belief, I believe way beyond the evidence. And yet that is the rational course.
So again we see that in some cases, to refuse to believe beyond the evidence is positively irrational. A theory of rationality adequate for the kind of beings we are cannot require that belief be always and everywhere apportioned to evidence.
In the cases just mentioned, one is waranted in believing beyond the evidence, but there are also cases in which one is warranted in believing against the evidence. In most cases, if the available evidence supports that p, then one ought to believe that p. But consider Jeff Jordan's case of
The Alpine Hiker
An avalanche has him stranded on a mountainside facing a chasm. He cannot return the way he came, but if he stays where he is he dies of exposure. His only hope is to jump the chasm. The preponderance of evidence is that this is impossible: he has no epistemic reason to think that he can make the jump. But our hiker knows that what one can do is in part determined by what one believes one can do, that "exertion generally follows belief," as Jordan puts it. If the hiker can bring himself to believe that he can make the jump, then he increases his chances of making it. "The point of the Alpine hiker case is that pragmatic belief-formation is sometimes both morally and intellectually permissible."
We should therefore reject absolute evidentialism, both ethical and cognitive. We should admit that there are cases in which epistemic considerations are reasonably defeated by prudential considerations.
And now we come to the Big Questions. Should I believe that I am libertarianly free? That it matters how I live? That something is at stake in life? That I will in some way or other be held accountable after death for what I do and leave undone here below? That God exists? That I am more than a transient bag of chemical reactions? That a Higher Life is possible?
Not only do I not have evidence that entails answers to any of these questions, I probably do not have evidence that makes a given answer more probable than not. Let us assume that it is not more probable than not that God exists and that I (in consequence) have a higher destiny in communion with God.
But here's the thing. I have to believe that I have a higher destiny if I am to act so as to attain it. It is like the situation with the new neighbors. I have to believe that they are decent people if I am to act in such a way as to establish good relations with them. Believing the best of them, even on little or no evidence, is pragmatically useful and prudentially rational. I have to believe beyond the evidence. Similarly in the Alpine Hiker case. He has to believe that he can make the jump if he is to have any chance of making it. So even though it is epistemically irrational for him to believe he can make it on the basis of the available evidence, it is prudentially rational for him to bring himself to believe. You could say that the leap of faith raises the probability of the leap of chasm.
And what if he is wrong? Then he dies. But if he sits down in the snow in despair he also dies, and more slowly. By believing beyond the evidence he lives better his last moments than he would have by giving up.
Here we have a pragmatic argument that is not truth-sensitive: it doesn't matter whether he will fail or succeed in the jump. Either way, he lives better here and now if he believes he can cross the chasm to safety. And this, even though the belief is not supported by the evidence.
It is the same with God and the soul. The pragmatic argument in favor of them is truth-insensitive: whether or not it is a good argument is independent of whether or not God and the soul are real. For suppose I'm wrong. I live my life under the aegis of God, freedom, and immortality, but then one day I die and become nothing. I was just a bag of chemicals after all. It was all just a big joke. Electrochemistry played me for a fool. So what? What did I lose by being a believer? Nothing of any value. Indeed, I have gained value since studies show that believers tend to be happier people. But if I am right, then I have done what is necessary to enter into my higher destiny. Either way I am better off than without the belief in God and the soul. If I am not better off in this life and the next, then I am better off in this life alone.
I am either right or wrong about God and the soul. If I am right, and I live my beliefs, then then I have lived in a way that not only makes me happier here and now, but also fits me for my higher destiny. If I am wrong, then I am simply happier here and now.
So how can I lose? Even if they are illusions, believing in God and the soul incurs no costs and disbelieving brings no benefits.
. . . a good theistic argument doesn’t have to be irrefutable, but surely we should expect the conclusions of our arguments to rise above the level of mere plausibility. If indeed the heavens declare the glory of God (Ps. 19:1), and God’s existence can be “clearly perceived” from the creation (Rom. 1:20), it would appear that God has given humans something stronger than “clues” about his existence.
I tend to differ with Professor Anderson on this point. I don't believe theistic arguments can deliver more than plausibility. Here below we are pretty much in the dark. Just as our wills are weak and our hearts divided by disordered and inordinate loves, our minds are clouded. The existence of God is not a plain fact, but the infirmity of reason is. The believer hopes that light will dawn, fitfully and partially in this life, and more fully if not completely in the next. But he doesn't know this, nor can he prove it. That there is Divine Light remains a matter of faith, hope, and yearning. There is light enough in this life to render rational our faith, hope, and yearning. But there is also darkness enough to render rational doubt and perhaps despair. The individual must decide what he will believe and how he will live. He remains free and at risk of being wrong. There are no compelling arguments one way or the other when it comes to God and the soul.
If a black cat jumps on my lap in a well-lit room, I have no doxastic 'wiggle room' as to whether a cat is on my lap. It's not the same with God. I don't believe God's existence can be "clearly perceived" from the existence or order of the natural world. What is "clearly perceived" leaves me quite a lot of doxastic wiggle room.
The indefatigable Dave Lull, argonaut nonpareil of cyberspace, friend and facilitator of many a blogger, pointed me this morning to Triablogue where there is some commentary here and here of a mainly churlish sort on the recent conversion of Michael Sudduth. Comments like those encountered there reinforce me in my view that comboxes are often better kept closed, except that our old friend Tony Flood did surface there and made a decent comment. (I wouldn't be surprised if it was the industrious Lull who hipped Flood to the Triablogue posts.)
In any case, reading Flood's comment put me in mind of his main site and I wondered what was happening over there. Well, it looks like old Tony himself has made a doxastic shift too, one back to his origins:
I have returned to the Christian orthodoxy from which (this may come as a surprise to some of you) my thinking strayed. Those fields did not yield what they seemed to promise. The harvest of my intellectual discontent is still on display here, but henceforth new content will reflect my new-old interests.
My current priority is situate myself mentally within Christian orthodoxy, a matter that I do not think has been settled for me. I believe myself to be a member in good standing of the Roman Catholic communion within the Catholic Church, from whose fold I do not exclude Eastern Orthodox and Reformed Christians.
The distinguished members of Tony's Gallery of Heroes are now under quarantine.
Inasmuch as mature religion is more quest than conclusions, a truth lost on the New Atheists and their cyberpunk auxiliary legions, belief change is to be expected and is often a sign of a vital and sincere seeking for a truth which is hard for us in our present predicament to discern. So my hat is off to Mike and Tony as the one swims the Ganges while the other refreshes himself in the Tiber.
Addendum 1/23: Logging on this morning, I found three messages from Dave Lull and one from Tony Flood. Lull apprises me of a second comment by Flood at Triablogue, a comment even better than the first, one that I have just now read, and mostly agree with.
Suppose an author exercises due diligence in the researching and writing of a nonfiction book. He has good reason to believe that all of the statements he makes in the book are true. But he is also well aware of human fallibility and that he is no exception to the rule. And so, aware of his fallibility, he has good reason to believe that it is not the case that all of the statements he makes in the book are true. He makes mention of this in the book's preface. Hence 'paradox of the preface.' Thus:
1. It is rational for the author to believe that each statement in his book is true. (Because he has exercised due diligence.) 2. It is rational for the author to believe that some statement in his book is not true. (Because to err is human.) Therefore 3. It is rational for the author to believe that (each statement in his book is true & some statement in his book is not true.) Therefore 4. There are cases in which it is rational for a person to believe statements of the form (p & ~p).
"What the paradox shows is that we need to give up the claim that it is always irrational to believe statements that are mutually inconsistent." (Michael Clark, Paradoxes From A to Z, Routledge 2002, p. 144) Is that what the paradox shows? I doubt it. The paradox cannot arise unless the following schema is valid:
a. It is rational for S to believe that p. b. It is rational for S to believe that ~p. Ergo c. It is rational for S to believe that (p & ~p).
It is not clear that the schema is valid. Rational believability, unlike truth, is a relative property. What it is rational to believe is relative to background knowledge among other things. Relative to the author's knowledge that he exercised due diligence in the researching and writing of his book, it is rational for him to believe that every statement in the book is true. But relative to considerations of human fallibility, it is rational for him to believe that it is not the case that every statement in his book is true. So what (a) and (b) above really amount to is the following where 'BK' abbreviates 'background knowledge':
a*. It is rational for S to believe relative to BK1 that p. b*. It is rational for S to believe relative to BK2 that ~p.
From these two premises one cannot arrive at the desired conclusion. So my solution to the paradox is to reject the inference from (1) and (2) to (3).
"But doesn't the author's background knowledge (BK) include both the truth that he exercised due diligence and the truth that human beings are fallible?" Well suppose it does. Then how could it be rational for him to believe that every statement in the book is true? It is rational for him to believe that every statement is true only if he leaves out of consideration that people are fallible. Relative to his total background knowledge, it is not rational for him to believe that every statement in his book is true.
In this way I avoid Clark's draconian conclusion that it is sometimes rational to believe statements that are mutually inconsistent.
Dale Tuggy was kind enough yesterday to drive all the way from Tucson to my place in the foothills of the Superstition Mountains. He came on short notice and late in the day but we managed to pack in more than six hours of nonstop conversation on a wide range of philosophical and theological topics. He was still going strong when, two hours after my bedtime, I had to send him on his way.
Talk got on to mysterianism, of course, and his ongoing debate with James Anderson. Dale made a distinction that I hadn't considered, namely, one between belief and acceptance. My tendency up to now has been to identify believing that p with accepting that p. Up to now I thought I should make a four-fold distinction: Accept, Reject, Suspend, Withhold.
I repaid Dale for his gift of the belief vs. acceptance distinction by pointing out the distinction (or putative distinction) between supension and withholding which I borrow from Benson Mates:
Benson Mates, The Skeptic Way, Oxford UP, 1996, p. 5: ". . . the characteristic attitude of the Pyrrhonists is one of aporia, of being at a a loss, puzzled, stumped, stymied." Aporia is not doubt. Doubt implies understanding, but aporia is a lack of understanding. The modern skeptic may doubt, but not the ancient skeptic.
Connected with this is a distinction between epoché as the withholding of assent and suspension of judgment. One can withhold assent from an assertion without granting that it makes sense; but if one suspends judgment then one has a clear propositional sense before one's mind which one neither affirms nor denies. See Mates, p. 32. A good distinction! Add it to the list.
So, strictly speaking, aporia is not doubt and epoché is not suspension of judgment. Close but not the same.
A reader who says he is drawn to the view that knowledge excludes belief comments:
I am taking a philosophy class now that takes for granted that knowledge entails belief. My sense is that most philosophers now think that that condition is obvious and settled. They tend to dispute what "justification" means, or add more conditions to the Justified True Belief formula.
That knowledge is justified true belief is a piece of epistemological boilerplate that has its origin in Plato's Theaetetus. The JTB analysis is extremely plausible. It is first of all self-evident that there is no false knowledge. So, necessarily, if S knows that p, then 'p' is true. It also seems obvious that one can have a true belief without having knowledge. Suppose I believe that at this very moment Peter (who is 60 miles away) is teaching a class on the philosophy of science, and suppose it is true that at this very moment he is teaching such a class; it doesn't follow that I know that he is teaching such a class. Knowledge requires justification, whatever exactly that is. Finally, if S knows that p, how can it fail to be the case that S believes that p? It may seem obvious that knowledge entails belief. Necessarily, whatever I know I believe, though not conversely.
So I agree with my reader that most philosophers now think that the belief condition is "obvious and settled." But most academic philosophers are fashionistas: they follow the trends, stick to what's 'cool,' and turn up their noses at what they deem politically incorrect. And they read only the 'approved' journals and books. I pronounce my 'anathema' upon them. In any case it is not obvious that knowledge entails belief.
The Case for Saying that Knowledge Excludes Belief
Why not say this: Necessarily, if S knows that p, then it is not the case that S believes that p?
One cannot understand belief except in relation to other mental states. So let's consider how believing and knowing are related, taking both as propositional attitudes. They are obviously different, and yet they share a common element. Suppose we say that what is common to S's knowing that p and S's believing that p is S's acceptance of p. I cannot (occurrently) believe that Oswald acted alone unless I accept the proposition that Oswald acted alone, and I cannot (occurrently) know that he acted alone with accepting the very same proposition. To accept, of course, is to accept-as-true. It is equally obvious that what is accepted-as-true might not be true. Those who accept that the earth is flat accept-as-true what is false. Now one could analyze 'S knows that p' as follows:
a) S unconditionally accepts-as-true p b) p is true c) S is justified in accepting-as-true p.
This is modeled on, but diverges from, the standard justified-true-belief (JTB) analysis of 'know' the locus classicus of which is Plato's Theaetetus.
And one could perhaps analyze 'S believes that p' as follows:
a) S unconditionally accepts-as-true p d) S does not know that p.
These analyses accommodate the fact that there is something common to believing and knowing, but without identifying this common factor as belief. The common factor is acceptance. A reason for not identifying the common element as belief is that, in ordinary language, knowledge excludes belief. Thus if I ask you whether you believe that p, you might respond, 'I don't believe it, I know it!' Do I believe the sun is shining? No, I know the sun is shining. Do I know that I will be alive tomorrow? No, but I believe it. That is, I give my firm intellectual assent to the proposition despite its not being evident to me. Roughly, belief is firm intellectual assent in the absence of compelling evidence.
Surely this is what we mean by belief in those cases that clearly count as belief. Lenny the liberal, for example, believes that anthropogenic global warming is taking place and is a dire environmental threat. Lenny doesn't know these two putative facts; he believes them: he unconditionally accepts, he firmly assents to, the two propositions in the absence of compelling evidence. And it seems clear that an element of will is involved in our boy's belief since the evidence does not compel his intellectual assent. He decides to believe what he believes. His believing is in the control of his will. This does not mean that he can believe anything he wants to believe. It means that a 'voluntative surplus' must be superadded to his evidence to bring about the formation of his belief. Without the voluntative superaddition, he would simply sit staring at his evidence, so to speak. There would be no belief and no impetus to action. Beliefs typically spill over into actions. But there would not be even a potential 'spill over' unless there were a decision on Lenny's part to go beyond his evidence by superadding to it his firm intellectual assent.
"But aren't you just using 'believes' in an idiosyncratic way?"
It is arguably the other way around. Someone who says he believes that the sun is shining when he sees that it is shining is using 'believes' in an idiosyncratic way. He is using 'believes' in a theory-laden way, the theory being the JTB analysis of 'knows.'
"But then isn't this just a terminological quibble? You want to substitute 'accepts' or 'accepts-as-true' for 'believes' in the standard JTB analysis of 'knows' and you want to reserve 'believes' for those cases in which there is unconditional acceptance but not knowledge."
The question is not merely terminological. There is an occurrent mental state in which one accepts unconditionally propositions that are not evident. It doesn't matter whether we call this 'belief' or something else. But calling it 'belief' comports well with ordinary language.
Let me now elaborate upon this account of belief, or, if you insist, of Aquinian-Pieperian belief.
1. Belief is a form of acceptance or intellectual assent. To believe that p is to accept *p*, and to disbelieve that p is to reject *p*. One may also do neither by abstaining from both acceptance and rejection. (Asterisks around a sentence make of the sentence a name of the Fregean proposition expressed by the sentence.)
2. If acceptance is the genus, then knowing, believing, and supposing are species thereof. In knowing and believing the acceptance is unconditional whereas in supposing it is conditional. It follows that believing is not common to believing and knowing as on the JTB analysis. To think otherwise is to confuse the genus (acceptance) with one of its species (belief).
[Species 1: Knowledge Species 2: Belief] [Species 3: Supposal]
Unconditional Acceptance Conditional Acceptance
3. What distinguishes believing and knowing is that the believer qua believer does not know, and the knower qua knower does not believe. Both, however, accept. What I just wrote appears objectionably circular. It may seem to boil down to this: what distinguishes believing and knowing is that they are distinct! We can lay the specter of the circle by specifying the specific difference.
If believing and knowing are species of the genus acceptance, what is the specific difference whereby the one is distinguished from the other? Believing that p and knowing that p are not distinguished by the common propositional content, p. Nor are they distinguished by their both being modes of unconditional acceptance. Can we say that they differ in that the evidence is compelling in the case of knowing but less than compelling in the case of believing? That is true, but then the difference would seem to be one of degree and not of kind. But if knowing and believing are two species of the same genus, then we have a difference in kind. Perhaps we can say that knowledge is evident acceptance while belief is non-evident acceptance. Or perhaps the difference is that belief is based on another's testimony whereas knowledge is not. Let's explore the latter suggestion.
4. It is essential to belief that it involve both a proposition (the content believed) and a person, the one whose testimony one trusts when one gains access to the truth via belief. To believe is to unconditionally accept a proposition on the basis of testimony. If so, then there are two reasons why it makes no sense to speak of perceptual beliefs. First, what I sense-perceive to be the case, I know to be the case, and therefore, by #3 above, I do not believe to be the case. Second, what I sense-perceive to be the case I know directly without need of testimony.
On this approach, the difference between believing and knowing is that believing is based on testimony whereas knowing is not. Suppose that p is true and that my access to *p*'s truth is via the testimony of a credible witness W. Then I have belief but not knowledge. W, we may assume, knows whereof he speaks. For example, he saw Jones stab Smith. W has knowledge but not belief.
One person fears loss of contact with reality and is willing to take doxastic risks and believe beyond what he can claim strictly to know. The other, standing firm on the autonomy of human reason, refuses to accept anything that cannot be justified from within his own subjectivity. He fears error, and finds the first person uncritical, gullible, credulous, tender-minded in James' sense. The first is cautious lest he miss out on the real. The second is cautious lest he make a mistake.
The second, brandishing W. K. Clifford, criticizes the first for believing on insufficient evidence, for self-indulgently believing what he wants to believe, for believing what he has no right to believe. The second wants reality-contact only on his own terms: only if he can assure himself of it, perhaps by ‘constituting’ the object via ‘apodictic’ processes within his own consciousness. (Husserl) The first person, however, is willing to accept uncertainty for the sake of a reality-contact otherwise inaccessible.
What should we fear more, loss of contact with objective reality, or being wrong?
Analogy. Some are gastronomically timorous: they refuse to eat in restaurants for fear of food poisoning. Their critical abstention does indeed achieve its prophylactic end -- but only at the expense of the foregoing of a world of prandial delights.
Now suppose a man believes in God and afterlife but is mistaken. He lives his life in the grip of what are in reality, but unbeknownst to him, life-enhancing illusions. And of course, since he is ex hypothesi wrong, death cannot set him straight: he is after dying nothing and so cannot learn that he lived his life in illusion. But then why is his being wrong such a big deal? Wouldn't it be a much bigger deal if his fear of being wrong prevented his participation in an unsurpassably great good?
"But he lived his life in the grip of illusions!"
To this I would respond, first: how do you know that he lived his life in untruth? You are always demanding evidence, so what is your evidence for this? Second, in a godless universe could there even be truth? (No truth without mind; no objective truth without objective mind.) Third, even if there is truth in a godless universe, why would it be a value? Why care about truth if it has no bearing on human flourishing? Doesn't your concern for evidence only make sense in the context of a quest for truth?
A serious faith, a vital faith, is one that battles with doubt. Otherwise the believer sinks into complacency and his faith becomes a convenience. Doubt is a good thing. For doubt is the engine of inquiry, the motor of Athens. Jerusalem needs Athens to keep her honest, to chasten her excesses, to round her out, to humanize her. There is not much Athens in the Muslim world, which helps explains why Islam breeds fanaticism, murder, and anti-Enlightenment.
I say that there are beliefs. An eliminativist contradicts me, insisting that there are no beliefs. He cannot, consistently with what he maintains, hold that I have a false belief. For if there are no beliefs, then there are no false beliefs. But he must hold that I am wrong. For if there are no beliefs, as he maintains, and I maintain that there are, then I am wrong.
But if my being wrong does not consist in my holding a false belief, what does it consist in? The eliminativist might say that my being wrong in this instance is my uttering or otherwise tokening of the sentence type 'There are beliefs' or being disposed to utter or otherwise token the sentence-type 'There are beliefs.' But a parrot could do that and you wouldn't say that a parrot is wrong about the philosophy of mind.
Isaiah Berlin's great essay "Two Concepts of Liberty" concludes as follows:
'To realise the relative validity of one's convictions', said an admirable writer of our time, ' and yet stand for them unflinchingly, is what distinguishes a civilised man from a barbarian.' To demand more than this is perhaps a deep and incurable metaphysical need; but to allow it to determine one's practice is a symptom of an equally deep, and more dangerous, moral and political immaturity. (Isaiah Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford 1969, p. 172.)
A marginalium of mine from 1994 reads, "If I think my convictions merely relatively valid, how can I stand for them unflinchingly? Even if this is psychologically possible, it seems to be something we ought not do."
To expand upon my 1994 thought. The liberty of the individual to be free from coercion and obstruction -- "negative liberty (freedom)" in Berlin's terminology -- obviously comes into conflict with other things we deem valuable such as equality, security, and public order.
Consider how liberty and security are related. Liberty worth having is liberty within a context of security, and security is security worth having only if it makes possible a robust exercise of liberty. For example, my liberty to leave my house at any time of the day or night is worth very little if the probability is high that I will be accosted by muggers and other unsavory types when I step out my door. The security of a police state would prevent that but at a cost too high to pay.
So liberty and security, though both values, are competing values. Does one rank higher than the other such that we ought to prefer one to the other? In a concrete situation in which they come into conflict, one must choose. Consider for example a sobriety checkpoint on New Year's Eve when by custom booze intake is high. Such checkpoints involve a clear violation of the (negative) liberty of the individual, and yet they are arguably justifiable in the interests of security and public order.
Now suppose you have a conservative and a libertarian. In conflict situations, the conservative tends to rank security over liberty, while the libertarian does the opposite. They both agree that the values in play are indeed values, but they differ as to their prioritization. Suppose further something that seems obviously true, namely, that this value difference that divides them cannot be objectively resolved to the satisfaction of both parties by appeal to any empirical fact or by any reasoning or by any combination of the two.
Now here's the question. Given that the two maintain contradictory value-prioritization theses, how can either "stand unflinchingly" for his thesis given that each recognizes that each thesis is true only from his orientation, an orientation which rests crucially on his value-prioritization, a value-prioritization that he has no objective reason to prefer over that of his opponent?
I am suggesting that a truly civilized man, one who fully appreciates this predicament he is in, must give up his unflinchingness. He ought to flinch! After all, his opponent has all the same intellectual and moral virtues as he has --let us assume -- is equally capable of reasoning cogently above whatever are the facts, and is equally well apprised of all empirical facts that bear on the issue. Isn't there something "barbaric" about insisting on one's own position assuming that all of these conditions have been met?
I agree with Berlin that it would be "dangerous and immature" to claim absolute truth for convictions that rest on value judgments that cannot be objectvely established. But once we get this far, then unflinchingness must also go by the board: what I recognize as true only from my point of view, I cannot hold in an unflinching manner.
And yet I must act, hold opinions, vote, take a stand, smite my enemies. Suspension of judgment and retreat from the political sphere does not seem to be a viable option -- especially not in the face of a bunch of leftist totalitarians who want to so extend the public /political sphere so as to destroy the private. A hell of a bind we are in: we are essentially agents, hence must act, hence must stand fast, be resolute and smite our dangblasted political opponents -- all the while realizing that we have no justification for our unflinchingness.