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.
Greetings from Afghanistan. I’d very much like to hear your response to a sketch of an argument I’m developing. It goes as follows:
1. Suppose an afterlife is obtainable based on one’s performance in this life. If this afterlife is as I understand it, it must have an infinite value while all the goods in this life have only finite values. In fact, the value of afterlife goods (as I clumsily name them) must be infinite on two planes: quantitative and qualitative; quantitative because the duration of the reward is infinite, qualitative because, I assume—and I think, based on some recent blog posts of yours I’ve read, you would agree—no mortal goods, or accumulation of them, can be qualitatively better than the eternal goods to be found in the afterlife, even when we do not consider duration (this not the case with Islamic fundamentalists, who are promised virgins. But let that pass). Perhaps there is even a punitive afterlife with similar disvalue.
I agree with this conception of the afterlife. To put it in a slightly different way, the goods of this life are vanishing quantities axiologically speaking as compared to the goods of the afterlife as portrayed in sophisticated conceptions. (We agree to set aside crude conceptions such as we find in popular Islam: endless disporting with black-eyed virgins, getting to do there all the sensual things that are forbidden here, etc.)
2. If this ranking system is correct, it is hard to see how it could ever be rational for one to pursue any set of mortal goods—no matter how well they rank on the finite scale—when one could spend the same time and resources in the pursuit of the afterlife goods or avoiding afterlife evils, which are both endless in duration and of infinitely great quality. If extreme fasts are pleasing to God, and increase my chances of obtaining salvation by a tiny bit, then the rational thing for me to do is to live in such an ascetic state for as long as possible, unless it prevents me from doing other activities that could do even more to promote my own salvation.
Well, Spencer, you have put your finger on a genuine and serious problem, a problem I will rephrase in my own way. If (i) this world and its finite goods is soon to pass away, and if (ii) one sincerely believes that there is a world to come the value of whose goods infinitely surpasses the values of the goods here below, and if (iii) whether or not one participates in this Higher Life or is excluded from it (either by being sent to the Other Place or by being simply annihilated at death) depends on how one lives in this world, then how can it be rational to pursue mortal goods beyond what is necessary for living in accordance with the precepts of one's religion? The rational course would be to orient all one's activities to the achievement of the afterlife goal.
For example, if a young person is a Roman Catholic and sincerely believes the teachings of his church, especially as regards what are called the Last Things, and this person is free of such encumbrances as children or aged parents to care for, and has the health and other qualifications necessary to join a monastery, then why doesn't the person do so, and join the most rigorous monastery to be found? Wouldn't that be the most rational course of action given (i) the end in view, (ii) one's beliefs about this end, and (iii) one's beliefs about the means for securing this end?
Converts often follow this course. Unlike those who have been brought up in a faith, they are seldom lukewarm. They have found the truth with a majuscule 'T' (they think) and their authenticity demands that they act on it. Thomas Merton, for example, after renouncing his worldly life and joining the RC church was not content to be a good practicing Catholic, or become a parish priest even; no, he had to go all the way and join not just any monastic order but the Trappists! One can appreciate the 'logic' to it. And then there is Edith Stein, the brilliant Jewish assistant of Edmund Husserl. She was not content to convert to Catholicism; she abandoned her academic career and all the usual worldly blandishments (sex, love, children, travel, etc.) to spend the rest of life behind the walls of a strict Carmelite convent until the Nazis murdered her at Auschwitz.
I hope the conversion 'logic' is clear: if in a few short years we will be pitched head first into Kingdom Come, then pursuing and fretting over the baubles of this life is like re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
Let's note en passant that the same 'logic' is found in the thinking of adherents to nonreligious ideologies. Thousands of young people, some of them among the best and the brightest, sacrificed their lives to the Communist illusion in the 20th century. They wasted their lives in pursuit of a fata morgana, while at the same time contributing unintentionally and indirectly to the murder of over 100 million people.
3. Anyone who pursues only afterlife goods in this way is a paradigm case of a religious zealot.
This formulation needs improvement. Merton and Stein did not pursue ONLY afterlife goods. They pursued this-worldly goods too but only insofar as they were instrumental to the achievement of afterlife goods. (I ignore Merton's lapses.) A better formulation is as follows:
3*. Anyone who pursues afterlife goods primarily, and this-worldy goods only insofar as they are instrumental in the achievement of afterlife goods, is a religious zealot.
I can accept (3*), but I would add that being a zealot is not necessarily bad, despite the fact that the word generally carries a pejorative connotation. Aren't we all legitimately zealous when it comes to the preservation of our lives and the lives of those animals and humans in our care? Suppose Al Gore is right, and global warming is about to do us all in, then GW zealotry would be justified would it not?
4. So, accepting these very basic religious propositions makes one rationally committed to religious zealotry and denying our normal reasons for acting.
I don't think your conclusion follows in quite the way you intend it. For one thing, you seem to be assuming that zealotry as such is bad. But surely not all zealotry is bad. To modify a saying of Barry Goldwater: Zealotry in the defense of liberty is no vice! (He had 'extremism' where I have 'zealotry.') You may also be assuming that the religious claims are false. Suppose they are true. Then one would have a good reason for denying/modifying our normal reasons for acting. (The same would hold in the case of nonreligious ideologies.) A 'normal' person, if if he is a practicing adherent of a religion, pursues all sorts of pleasures and diversions which do not advance him toward his spiritual goal, but rather, in many cases, impede his realization of it. The 'normal' Buddhist, for example, does not carry the precept "Conquer desire and aversion!" to the point where he eats whatever is put on his plate. (If a fly lands in his soup he does not practice nondiscrimination and eat the fly with the same relish or lack thereof with which he eats the rest of the soup.) But if our Buddhist really believed Buddhist teachings would it not be rational for him to modify 'normal' behavior and bend every effort towards achieving enlightenment?
What I hope this shows is that religious belief (at least in the religions you and I are most likely to debate about) disallows moderation, which I take it, is a bad thing. What I especially like about this argument is it seems to be an argument that appeals to conservatives, because conservatives are most likely to have strong intuitions against ideologies that tell us to ignore our ordinary reasons for acting.
I think you are right that religious belief, if sincerely professed and lived, disallows moderation of the sort that the average worldly person displays. But it is not just religious belief that has this property. So do many ideologies or action-guiding worldviews. I gave the example of Communism above. Other examples readily come to mind.
You are assuming that moderation of the sort displayed by 'normal' worldly people is a good thing. But if Communism or Catholicism were true, then moderation of that sort would not be good! True-blue reds devoted all their energies to their chimerical Revolution just as true Christians consecrate their lives, without reservation, to Christ. They don't 'hedge their bets' they way most people do. Whether that singlemindedness is good or bad depends on whether the underlying beliefs are true or false. Of course we now know that Communism is a god that failed, but the religious God is safely insulated in a Beyond beyond our ken.
So if your thesis is that sincere belief in an afterlife entails (or maybe only leads to) religious zealotry, and is for that reason objectionable, then I don't think you have made your case. Genuine belief in an afterlife will lead to behavior that is 'abnormal' and 'immoderate' as measured by the standards of the worldly. But this won''t cut any ice unless worldly standards can be shown to be correct and truly normative, not just statistically 'normal.'
Of course, as you’ve no doubt noticed, this argument does not take into account epistemic uncertainty. Uncertainty about the existence of the afterlife might make it more rational for us to go ahead and pursue other goods. I haven’t yet done the research in probability theory, but I’d be willing to guess our levels of epistemic confidence in religious propositions would have to be very low in order for it to be rational to pursue anything else.
This is another important side to the problem of balancing the claims of this world with the claims of the next. People fool themselves into thinking they KNOW all sorts of thinks they merely BELIEVE. Now it seems to me that no imtellectually honest person can claim to KNOW (using this word strictly) that there is an afterlife: the evidence from parapsychology, though abundant, is not conclusive, and the philosophical arguments, though some of them impressive, are not compelling. But I do KNOW the pleasures of good food, and strong coffee, and fine cigars, and chess, and good conversation, and scribbling away as I am now doing, all of them activities which are not necessary for my salvation, and perhaps stand in the way of it. (Not to mention disporting with ladies of the evening, etc.)
So what is the rational thing to do given my epistemic predicament in which what I KNOW is confined to this ephemeral world which cannot be worth much, and my access to the other is via mere belief and the occasional religious/mystical experience whose veridicality is easily called into question?
A difficult question. I don't know that there is an afterlife, and I don't know that there isn't. It strikes me as highly irrational to live for this life alone since it is nasty, brutish, short, miserable, full of natural and moral evil, and of scant value if it doesn't lead to anything beyond it. It also seems irrational to forego every positive value in this world which is not conducive to otherworldly salvation on the strength of mere belief in that otherworldly possibility.
So my tentative answer is that the rational course is to inquire ceaselessly into the matter in a critical, exploratory and tentative spirit; avoid being bamboozled by the dogmas of churches and sects which claim to have the Truth; enjoy the limited goods of this life in a measured way while realizing that, in and of themselves, they are of no ultimate value.
In short, be neither a worldling nor a monk. Be a philosopher! (Not to be confused with being a paid professor of it.)
I think your latest post (Mature Religion: More Quest than Conclusions) misses the mark. For the believer of a revealed religion (I'm a Christian) the issue is not so much quest or conclusions as commitment. It's true we can't know God in the sense you're speaking of but we can have faith that the biblical revelations are true as far as they go, which is to say in defining our relations to God and the terms of our reconciliation with Him. The faith that's required here is not tentative but committed, because it will require action and probably sacrifice. In this arena quest is put behind although theology may remain a kind of quest, for elucidation if not for the meaning supplied by faith.
Thanks for all your thought-provoking posts.
Thank you for writing, Mr. Farrell. You too have a very interesting website.
You are right to point out the important role of faith. I agree that faith, if it is genuine, must manifest itself in action and sacrifice. Faith is not merely a verbal assent to certain propositions but a commitment to live in a certain way. Where we seem to disagree is on the question whether a commitment can be tentative. You write as if commitment excludes tentativeness, whereas I tend to think that a faith-commitment can and indeed must be tentative. A living faith, one that is not a mere convenience, or merely a source of comfort or psychological security, is one that regularly examines itself and is open to question. A living faith is one that needs ongoing examination and renewal, with the possibility left open that the faith-commitment be modified or even abandoned. But that does not imply that one does not act on one's commitments while they are in place.
The point of my post was that religion needs to be rescued from both the despisers and the dogmatists. I expect that you'll agree that the nincompoops of the New Atheism with their flying spaghetti monsters and celestial teapots have no understanding of religion. But neither can religion be reduced to doctrinal formulae that finitize the Infinite. The spirit of my post is adumbrated in these sentences from Simone Weil's Gravity and Grace in the chapter, "Atheism as a Purification": "Of two men who have no experience of God, he who denies him is perhaps nearer to him than the others." (103) "Religion in so far as it is a source of consolation is a hindrance to true faith: in this sense atheism is a purification."
The last days of Lev Davidovich Bronstein, better known as Leon Trotsky, prime mover of the October 1917 Russian Revolution, are the subject of Bertrand M. Patenaude's Trotsky: The Downfall of a Revolutionary (HarperCollins, 2009). It held my interest from the first page to the last, skillfully telling the story of Trotsky's Mexican exile, those who guarded him, and their failure ultimately to protect him from an agent of the GPU/NKVD sent by Stalin to murder him. Contrary to some accounts, it was not an ice pick that Ramon Mercader drove into Trotsky's skull, but an ice axe. Here is how Trotsky ends his last testament, written in 1940, the year of his death:
For forty-three years of my conscious life I have been a revolutionary; and for forty-two I have fought under the banner of Marxism . . . I will die a proletarian revolutionary, a Marxist, a dialectical materialist and, consequently, an irreconcilable atheist. My faith in the communist future of mankind is no less ardent, indeed it is even stronger now than it was in the days of my youth. [. . .] Natasha has just come up to the window from the courtyard and opened it wider so that the air might enter more freely into my room. I can see the bright green strip of grass beneath the wall, and the clear blue sky above the wall, and sunlight is everywhere. Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of evil, oppression, and violence, and enjoy it to the full. (Patenaude, pp. 234-235)
No pie-in-the-sky for old Trotsky, but pie-in-the-future. Those of us who take religion seriously needn't deny that it can serve as opium for some. But if one can see that, then one should also be able to see that secular substitutes for religion can be just as narcotic. Why is utopian opium less narcotic than the religious variety? Why is a faith in Man and his future more worthy of credence than faith in God?
I should think that it is less credible. Note first that there is no Man, only men. And we human beings are a cussedly diverse and polyglot lot, a motley assortment of ornery sons-of-bitches riven by tribalisms and untold other factors of division. The notion that we are all going to work together to create a workers' paradise or any sort of earthly paradise is a notion too absurd to swallow given what we know about human nature, and in particular, what we know of the crimes of communism. In the 20th century, communists murdered 100 million to achieve their utopia without achieving it.
We know Man does not exist, but we do not know that God does not exist. Religious faith, therefore, has a bit more to recommend it than secular faith. You say God does not exist? That may be so. But the present question is not whether God exists or not, but whether belief in Man makes any sense and can substitute for belief in God. I say it doesn't and can’t, that it is a sorry substitute if not outright delusional. We need help that we cannot provide for ourselves, either individually or collectively. The failure to grasp this is of the essence of the delusional Left, which, refusing the tutelage of tradition and experience, and having thrown overboard every moral standard, is ever ready to spill oceans of blood in pursuit of their utopian fantasies.
There may be no source of the help we need. Then the conclusion to draw is that we should get by as best we can until Night falls, rather than making things worse by drinking the Left's utopian Kool-Aid.
Trotsky, as you can see from the quotation, believed in a redemptive future. Life in this world is beautiful and will be cleansed by future generations of evil, oppression, and violence. But even if this fantasy future were achieved, it could not possibly redeem the countless millions who have suffered and died in the most horrible ways since time beyond memory. Marxist redemption-in-the-future would be a pseudo-redemption even if it were possible, which it isn't.
There is also the moral and practical absurdity of a social programme that employs present evil, oppression, and violence in order to extirpate future evil, oppression, and violence. Once the totalitarian State is empowered to do absolutely anything in furtherance of its means-justifying ends it will turn on its own creators as it did on Trotsky. Because there is no such thing as The People, 'power to the people' is an empty and dangerous phrase and a cover for the tyranny of the vanguard or the dictator. The same goes for 'dictatorship of the proletariat.' What it comes to in practice is the dictatorship of the dictator.
The tragedy of Trotsky is that of a man of great theoretical and practical gifts who squandered his life pursuing a fata morgana.
It is interesting to compare Edith Stein and Lev Davidovich Bronstein. Each renounced the present world and both set out in quest of a Not-Yet, one via contemplation, the other via revolution. Which chose the path of truth, which that of illusion? it is of course possible that both quests were illusory.
How strange the stage of this life and the characters that pass upon it, their words and gestures resounding for a time before fading away.
You asked if there were any other options besides:
A. Rationalism: Put your trust in reason to deliver truths about ultimates and ignore the considerations of Sextus Empiricus, Nagarjuna, Bayle, Kant, and a host of others that point to the infirmity of reason.
B. Fideism: Put your trust in blind faith. Submit, obey, enslave your reason to what purports to be revealed truth while ignoring the fact that what counts as revealed truth varies from religion to religion, and within a religion from sect to sect.
C. Skepticism: Suspend belief on all issues that transcend the mundane if not on all beliefs, period. Don't trouble your head over whether God is or is not tripersonal. Stick to what appears. And don't say, 'The tea is sweet'; say, 'The tea appears sweet.' (If you say that the tea is sweet, you invite contradiction by an irascible table-mate.)
D. Reasoned Faith: Avoiding each of the foregoing options, one formulates one's beliefs carefully and holds them tentatively. One does not abandon them lightly, but neither does one fail to revisit and revise them. Doxastic examination is ongoing at least for the length of one's tenure here below. One exploits the fruitful tension of Athens and Jerusalem, philosophy and religion, reason and faith, playing them off against each other and using each to chasten the other.
I recommend (D). Or are there other options?
John Bishop (University of Auckland) has a book , Believing by Faith: An Essay in the Epistemology and Ethics of Religious Faith (OUP, 2007) which is perhaps the best book that I have read on the subject. He argues for what he calls a ‘supra-evidential fideism’ in which one is ‘morally entitled’ to “take as true in one’s practical and theoretical deliberations” a claim that lacks evidence sufficient for epistemically-justified acceptance or rejection.
It is a developed Jamesian’ approach to the right to believe. He does not allow for beliefs that go contrary to the weight of evidence, thus he rejects Wittgensteinian fideism. One may believe beyond the evidence, but not against the evidence. He holds that one must always respect the canons of rational inquiry and not dismiss them, even in matters of faith. Yet, by the very nature of the faith-issue, they can be transcended with moral entitlement.
Nor does he allow for ‘induced willings-to believe.’ He holds that one who already has an inclination / disposition to believe is morally entitled to do so if the issue is important, forced, and by the nature of the issue cannot be decided upon the basis of ‘rationalist empiricist’ evidential practice.I came across the book on a list of important books in philosophy of religion on Prosblogion.
I think that it is a type of fideism that combines your categories B and D – fideism and reasoned faith.
Reason is infirm in that it cannot establish anything definitively. It cannot even prove that doubting is the way to truth, "that it is certain that we ought to be in doubt." (Pyrrho entry, Bayle's Dictionary, tr. Popkin, p. 205) But, pace Pierre Bayle, the merely subjective certitude of faith is no solution either! Recoiling from the labyrinth into which unaided human reason loses itself, Bayle writes:
It seems therefore that this unfortunate state [the one brought about by the infirmity of reason] is the most proper one of all for convincing us that our reason is a path that leads us astray since, when it displays itself with the greatest subtlety, it plunges us into such an abyss. The natural conclusion of this ought to be to renounce this guide and to implore the cause of all things to give us a better one. This is a great step toward the Christian religion; for it requires that we look to God for knowledge of what we ought to believe and what we ought to do, and that we enslave our understanding to the obeisance of faith. If a man is convinced that nothing good is to be expected from his philosophical inquiries, he will be more disposed to pray to God to persuade him of the truths that ought to be believed than if he flatters himself that he might succeed by reasoning and disputing. A man is therefore happily disposed toward faith when he knows how defective reason is. (206, emphasis added)
Now how is this a solution to the alleged infirmity of reason? A Christian fideist, acquiescing in pure blind (purblind?) faith, accepts the Trinity while a Muslim fideist, equally subjectively certain of his faith, rejects the Trinity while intoning that God is one. Blind conviction butts up against blind conviction of the opposite kind and all too often strife and bloodshed is the upshot.
Theism in its various forms faces numerous threats to its truth and coherence. Christianity, for example, is committed to doctrines such as the Trinity whose very coherence is in doubt. And all classical theists face the problem of evil, the problem of reconciling the fact of evil with the existence of a God who is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. Faced with an objection like the one from evil, theists typically don’t give up their belief; keeping the faith, they seek an understanding both of it and its compatibility with the facts and considerations alleged to be inconsistent with it.
What I want to argue is that naturalists employ the principle of Faith Seeking Understanding no less than theists. Naturalism faces numerous threats to its truth and coherence. Let’s start with what philosophers call the phenomenon of intentionality, the peculiar directedness to an object that characterizes (some) mental states. It is very difficult to understand how a purely physical state, a state of the brain for example, could be of, or about, something distinct from it, something that need not exist to be the object of the state in question. How could a physical state have semantic properties, or be true or false? How could a piece of meat be in states that MEAN anything? How do you get meaning out of meat? By squeezing hard? By injecting it with steroids? Does a sufficiently complex hunk of meat suddenly become a semantic engine? How could a brain state, for example, be either true or false? This suggests an argument:
I found the discussion in the thread appended to Is There a 'No God' Delusion? very stimulating and useful. My man Peter is the 'rock' upon which good discussions are built. (I shall expatiate later on the sense in which Lupu is also a 'wolf.') The thread got me thinking about what exactly a delusion is. It is important that I have an explicit theory of this inasmuch as I routinely tag leftist beliefs as delusional.
If belief is our genus, the task is to demarcate the delusional from the illusory species and both species from beliefs in general. In this context, and as a matter of terminology, a delusion is a delusional belief, and an illusion is an illusory belief. (I won't consider the questions whether there are illusions or delusions that do not belong to the genus belief.) Let us push forward by way of commentary on some claims in Sigmund Freud's The Future of an Illusion (tr. Strachey, Norton, 1961).
1. Freud distinguishes between illusions and errors. (p.30) Eine Illusion ist nicht dasselbe wie ein Irrtum . . . . There are errors that are not illusions and there are illusions that are not errors. Given that our genus is belief, an error is an erroneous or mistaken belief. So now we have three species of belief to contend with: the erroneous, the illusory, and the delusional. "Aristotle's belief that vermin are developed out of dung . . . was an error." (30) But "it was an illusion of Columbus's that he had discovered a new sea-route to the Indies." (30) What's the difference? The difference is that illusions are wish-driven while errors are not. "What is characteristic of illusions is that they are derived from human wishes." (31) Für die Illusion bleibt charakteristisch die Ableitung aus menschlichen Wünschen . . .
2. Every erroneous belief is false, but no erroneous belief is derived from human wishes. Every illusory belief is derived from human wishes, and may be either true or false. So if a belief is illusory one cannot infer that it is false. It may be false or it may be true. By 'false' Freud means "in contradiction to reality." (31) Suppose that a middle-class girl cherishes the belief that a prince will come and marry her. And suppose the unlikely occurs: a prince does come and marry her. The belief is an illusion despite the fact that it is true, i.e., in agreement with reality. The belief is illusory because its formation and maintenance have their origin in her intense wish. The example is Freud's.
3. The difference between an illusory belief and a delusional belief is that, while both are wish-driven, every delusional belief is false whereas some illusory beliefs are true and others false. "In the case of delusions we emphasize as essential their being in contradiction with reality." (31) An der Wahnidee heben wir als wesentlich den Widerspruch gegen die Wirklichkeit hervor, die Illusion muß nicht notwendig falsch, d. h. unrealisierbar oder im Widerspruch mit der Realität sein. To sum up:
Errors: All of them false, none of them wish-driven.
Delusions: All of them false, all of them wish-driven.
Illusions: Some of them false, some of them true, all of them wish-driven.
4. Now that we understand what an illusion is, we are in a position to understand Freud's central claim about religious ideas and doctrines: "they are illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind." (30) ". . . all of them are illusions and insusceptible of proof." (31) Sie sind sämtlich Illusionen, unbeweisbar, . . ..
To say of a belief that it is an illusion is to say something about its psychological genesis or origin: it arises as the fulfillment of a wish. It is not to say anything about the belief's truth-value (Wahrheitswert). So even if some religious doctrines were susceptible of proof, they would still be illusions. For again, what makes a belief an illusion is its stemming from a wish. Since Freud admits that there are true illusions, he must also admit at least the possibility of there being some provably true illusions. It could therefore turn out that the belief that God exists is both demonstrably true and an illusion.
But although this follows from what Freud says, he does not explicitly say it. Indeed, he says something that seems inconsistent with it. After telling us that "the truth-value of religious doctrines does not lie within the scope of the present inquiry," he goes on to say that "It is enough for us that we have recognized them as being, in their psychological nature, illusions. But we do not have to conceal the fact that this discovery also strongly influences our attitude to the question which must appear to many to be the most important of all." (33) That question, of course, is the question of truth or falsity.
So the good Doktor appears to be waffling and perhaps teetering on the brink of the genetic fallacy. On the one hand he tells us that a belief's being an illusion does not entail that it is false. He himself gives an example of a true illusion. On the other hand, from what I have just quoted him as saying it follows that showing that a belief arose in a certain way, in satisfaction of certain psychological needs or wishes, can be used to cast doubt on its truth. But the latter is the genetic fallacy. If a third-grader comes to believe the truths of the multiplication table solely on the strength of her teacher's say-so, this fact has no tendency to show that the beliefs formed in this way are false.
Is William G. Lycan rational? I would say so. And yet, by his own admission, he does not apportion his (materialist) belief to the evidence. This is an interesting illustration of what I have suggested (with no particular originality) on various occasions, namely, that it is rational in some cases for agents like us to believe beyond the evidence. (Note the two qualifications: 'in some cases' and 'for agents like us.' If and only if we were disembodied theoretical spectators whose sole concern was to 'get things right,' then an ethics of belief premised upon austere Cliffordian evidentialism might well be mandatory. But we aren't and it isn't.)
Being a philosopher, of course I would like to think that my [materialist]stance is rational, held not just instinctively and scientistically and in the mainstream but because the arguments do indeed favor materialism over dualism. But I do not think that, though I used to. My position may be rational, broadly speaking, but not because the arguments favor it: Though the arguments for dualism do (indeed) fail, so do the arguments for materialism. And the standard objections to dualism are not very convincing; if one really manages to be a dualist in the first place, one should not be much impressed by them. My purpose in this paper is to hold my own feet to the fire and admit that I do not proportion my belief to the evidence.
1. The arguments for dualism and the arguments for materialism both fail. 2. The standard objections to dualism are not very convincing. 3. It is rational to be a materialist.
In my opinion (1)-(3) is a consistent triad. If so, what does 'rational' mean? It cannot have the Cliffordian meaning according to which one apportions one's belief to the evidence. For that would require suspension of belief on the issues that divide dualists and materialists given the truth of (1) and (2). But Lycan does not suspend belief; he remains a committed materialist. He believes beyond the evidence in that he believes on insufficient evidence. The evidence is insufficient because it is counterbalanced by the evidence for the position he disbelieves. However we define 'insufficient evidence,' it seems clear that if the evidence for p and the evidence for ~p are equal, then the evidence for either is insufficient.
Lycan's is an interesting case because it doesn't display all of the Jamesian marks. The issue is live for Lycan and for the people here present, but is it forced and momentous? An issue is forced in the sense of William James if it is such that one's remaining theoretically agnostic about it is tantamount to deciding it in a particular way. James gives the example of a man who hesitates to get married. "It is as if a man should hesitate indefinitely to ask a certain woman to marry him because he was not perfectly sure that she would prove an angel after he brought her home. Would he not cut himself off from that particular angel-possibility as decisively as if he went and married someone else?" (Will to Believe, p. 26) The man who refuses to commit himself to marriage commits himself to bachelorhood nolens volens.
But surely dualism versus materialism is not a forced option in the Jamesian sense. For one thing, one might reject both in the manner of the idealist. The positions are not logical contradictories of each other but logical contraries: they can't both be true, but they can both be false. Second, it is not the case that a suspension of judgment is tantamount to an opting for one side. If you take no position on dualism versus materialism, how does that commit you to one side or the other? On the God question, if one takes no position on whether or not God exists, then it it strongly arguable that one is a practical atheist: the agnostic lives as if God does not exist. And similarly for the immortality of the soul: to take no position is to live as if the soul is mortal. Or at least this is plausibly arguable. But the dualist need not be a substance dualist, and if he is not a substance dualist, then it is very difficult to see how the dualism versus materialism option is forced. And even if the dualist is a substance dualist, one might be a substance dualist without being committed to the immortality of the soul or mind.
A momentous option is one in which "We are supposed to gain, even now, by our belief, and lose by our nonbelief a certain vital good." (WB, 26) But I think it would be a stretch to think that the rather technical and abstruse issues that divide materialists and dualists are momentous in James' sense.
All this notwithstanding, the Lycan quotation above illustrates how rationality needn't require apportioning one's belief to the evidence. Or will you argue that Lycan is irrational in remaining a materialist despite his newfound insight that the arguments for it are not compelling?
A certain popular writer speaks of a God delusion. This prompts the query whether there might be a 'No God' delusion. Is it perhaps the case that atheism is a delusion? Bruce Charlton, M. D. , returns an affirmative answer in Is Atheism Literally a Delusion? In this post I will try to understand his basic argument and see if I should accept it. The following is my reconstruction of the core of Charlton's argument:
If you believe in an afterlife, one in which things are presumably a lot better than here, why not be eager to "move on"? I can understand the wicked fearing judgment, but why are the righteous not eager to shuffle off?
To put the challenge in a sharper form: "You say you believe you will survive your bodily death, and that death will be a liberation from the woes of this world. And yet you behave like everyone else: you fret over threats large and small and do all in your power to prolong your bodily life. I have to wonder whether you really believe what you profess to believe."
I'll try to give an honest answer.
1. Belief in an afterlife is not like the belief that I am sitting in a chair. The latter belief is either knowledge or very close to it. The will does not come into the formation or maintenance of this belief. With respect to massive perceptual beliefs we are all doxastic involuntarists. But no one this side of the Great Divide knows whether we survive our bodily deaths. The considerations, both empirical and dialectical, in favor of survival are not conclusive, but neither are the considerations against it. (Which is not to deny that the world is filled with dogmatists who think they know what they do not know.) One must therefore decide what one will believe in this matter all the while knowing that one could be 'dead' wrong. In this predicament, it is perfectly understandable why one would not be eager to hurry off into what is presently unknown.
To this I would add that, unless one is in the grip of childish conceptions, of the sort rampant among militant atheists, the encounter with the Lord of the universe can be expected to be terrifying. Fear and trembling, Timor domini initium sapientiae, etc. The exact opposite of a comforting illusion. You might get more than you bargained for. It is easily understandable that the believer, though at one level wanting to enter the divine presence, may prefer to put it off a while, especially if things are going well here below. Do babies want to leave the womb?
2. Another aspect of the above challenge is the veiled accusation that one is professing what one does not really believe. People on opposite sides of ideological divides are wont to taunt one another with You can't really believe that! or You don't really believe what you ar saying! Well, how do we know whether or not a person really believes something? From behavior. Applied to the case before us: does he pursue the afterlife question, think about it, research it, talk about it, write about it? If he does, then it is a Jamesian live option for him. Does he live in any way differently than those who do not hold the belief? Does his belief that he will be judged for his actions and omissions (a belief that Wittgenstein apparently could not shake) hold him back from any morally reprehensible actions? If the answers to these questions are in the affirmative, then the person does really believe what he professes to believe.
3. On many religious conceptions, this world is, in the words of John Keats, a vale of soul-making. That is "the use of the world" as Keats says. As one of my aphorisms has it, we are not here to improve the world, but to be improved by it. It is by our sojourn through it, by our experience of its trials and tribulations, agonies and ecstasies, that we develop an identity, actualize ourselves, become full-fledged persons. Identity is not a given but a task. Nicht gegeben sondern aufgegeben. We are all sparks of the divine intelligence, but only some of us becomes souls because only some of us acquire an identity. The rest fall back into the divine fire. Embodiment, on this scheme, is thus a necessary condition of coming to acquire an identity, an haecceity and ipseity. We come from God and we return to God. But the trick is to return to God as individuals capable of enjoying the Beatific Vision. If we merely return to God by a sort of Hindu reabsorption of the soul into the ocean of Brahman, then we will not be able to enjoy God. As Ramanuja puts it contra the Advaitins, "I Iwant to taste sugar, not become sugar!" If the use of the world is to be a vale of soul-making, then the return to God is not a loss of identity in God but a fellowship with God.
Now if the use of this world is to be a vale of soul-making, then one would have a good reason to not want to "shuffle off" (in the words of my correspondent) too soon. The reason is that there is work to be done in the development of one's personhood, and this work needs to be done in a place and predicament such as the one we are in.
I lately endorsed William Lycan's Moorean refutation of eliminative materialism (EM). But I disagreed with Lycan on one point. Lycan thinks that Moorean arguments refute Bradley and McTaggart and that there is no essential difference between the characteristic claims of the British Idealists and the characteristic claims of eliminativists in the philosophy of mind: both deny what common sense must affirm. I believe he is wrong about this, and I will now try to show why. It seems that there are three main positions on this issue. To have some handy labels, I will call them R, L, and V.
R. Just as Berkeley cannot be refuted by kicking a stone, the eliminativist cannot be refuted in any simple Moorean manner. Idealist and eliminativist claims are in the same logical boat, a boat that cannot be sunk by Moorean torpedoes.
L. British and other idealists can be refuted in Moorean ways, and so can eliminativists in the philosophy of mind. Idealist and eliminativist claims are in the same logical boat, a boat that is exposed to Moorean attack.
V. The 'same logical boat' assumption made by R and V must be rejected. There is a crucial difference between what eliminativists are doing and what idealists are doing. The idealist does not deny the existence of physical objects, or time, or relations. Berkeley, for example, does not deny the existence of stones and other meso-particulars. He offers a theory of their ontological constitution. His question is not whether they are, but what they are. His answer, roughly, is that stones and trees and the like are bundles or collections of ideas. Thus he gives an immaterialist account of ordinary particulars. They exist all right, but their status is mind-dependent, the ultimate mind in question being God's.
The eliminativist, however, flatly denies the existence of mental items such as pains, desires, and beliefs. It should be obvious, then, that there is an important difference between what idealists do and what eliminativists do. Idealist accounts are not existence-denying, but they do have an ontologically demoting upshot. If physical object are mind-dependent in the Berkeleyan manner, then they cannot exist in themselves, but only in relation to another, God, who exists in himself. Idealism thus reduces the being-status of physical objects from what it would be on a realist approach. The eliminativist, by contrast, is not engaged in ontological demotion, but in flat-out denial. He does not say of beliefs that they are mind-dependent, or mere appearances, or less than ultimately real; what he says is that they don't exist at all. If the eliminativist said that mental items exist as appearances he would be giving up the game. A pain, e.g., is such that to be = to appear. If you admit the appearance of a mental event such as a pain, you admit its reality.
Whatever the objections that can be lodged against Berkeleyan idealism, it cannot be refuted by kicking a stone. But eliminative materialism can be refuted by simply noting that one desires a beer. Moorean arguments are worthless when deployed against the positions of the great idealists, and this for the reason that the prosaic Moore simply did not understand what they were arguing. But when someone denies a plain datum, then he does run up against common sense in an objectionable way.
I've made it clear that I think eliminative materialism (EM) is a "lunatic philosophy of mind" to borrow a phrase from A. W. Collins. Peter Lupu basically agrees though he may not care to put the point in such an intemperate way. What follows is an excerpt from a recent e-mail of his. Since I want to be fair to EM-ists, I want to suggest a way they may be able to counter the following objection Peter raises.
A comment to mull over regarding your premise (A) in your recent post about Eliminative Materialism.
A. If a proposition is true, then it is possibly such that it is believed by someone.
Premise (A) says that in order for a proposition to be true, it is a necessary condition that it can be the content of someone's belief. But there may be true propositions that cannot be for one reason or another the content of our beliefs. For instance, perhaps there are true mathematical propositions that are so complicated or so long or require such a complicated proof that it would be simply impossible for the human mind to believe. Perhaps some other mind, for instance God's mind, can comprehend them, know them, and hence believe them: but no mortal mind can do so. Thus, it seems that premise (A) requires the existence of a deity in order to make it work.
Good point. (A) is subject to scope ambiguity as between:
A*. If a proposition p is true, then there exists a subject S such that, possibly, S believes that p.
A**. If a proposition p is true, then, possibly there exists a subject S and S believes that p.
Given Peter's point above, (A*) would seem to require for its truth that there be a divine mind. But all I need for my argument against eliminative materialism is (A**), which does not require for its truth that there exist any mind, let alone a divine mind. What (A**) says is that a necessary condition of a proposition's being true as that it be possible that there exist a believer of it.
My point was that the concept of truth is the concept of something that cannot be coherently conceived except in relation to the epistemic concepts of belief and knowledge. Now there needn't be any beliefs for there to be true (or false) propositions. But if beliefs are not possible, then neither are true propositions. Now eliminative materialism implies not only that there are no beliefs, but that there cannot be any. But then there cannot be any true propositions either.
Recall the argument against beliefs. It went like this: (1) If beliefs are anything, then they are brain states; (2) beliefs exhibit original intentionality; (3) no physical state, and thus no brain state, exhibits original intentionality; therefore (4) there are no beliefs. Since each of the premises is a necessary truth if it is a truth, the conclusion, which validly follows, is a necessary truth if it is a truth.
Thus the EM-er does not merely claim that, as a matter of fact, there are no beliefs; his claim is that there cannot be any. Of course, that renders his position even more absurd. But that's not my problem!
CORRECTION (12/18): Peter rightly points out that (A**) needs tweaking. Consider its contrapositive which is logically equivalent: If it is not possible that there exist a subject S such that S believes that p, then it is not the case that p is true. Unfortunately, the consequent of the contrapositive conditional could be taken to mean that p is not true, and thus (assuming Bivalence) false, when the idea is rather that p lacks a truth-value. So (A**) ought to be replaced by
A***. If a proposition p has a truth-value, then, possibly there exists a subject S such that S believes (disbelieves, entertains, etc.) that p.
In an earlier post, I provided a rough characterization of eliminative materialism (EM). Here is a more technical exposition for the stout of heart. If EM is true, then there are no beliefs. But what about the belief that EM is true, a belief that one would expect eliminative materialists to hold? If we exfoliate this question will we find an objection to EM? Let's see.
1. 'Every generalization is false' is self-referential: because it itself is a generalization, it refers to itself or comes under its own scope. Hence it refutes itself. If true, then false; if false, then false; so, necessarily false. But 'There are no beliefs' is not self-referential. Neither this sentence, nor the proposition it expresses is a belief. So we must abandon hope of a quick knock-out along self-referential lines.
Section VII of Book I of David Hume's A Treatise of Human Nature is relevant to recent investigations of ours into belief, existence, assertion, and the unity of the proposition. In this section of the Treatise, Hume anticipates Kant's thesis that 'exists' is not a real predicate, and Brentano's claim that the essence of judgment cannot consist in the combining of distinct concepts.
I have been thinking about belief and whether it is under the control of the will. This question is important since it lies at the foundation of the very possibility of an 'ethics of belief.' People believe all sorts of things, and it is quite natural to suppose that some of the things they believe they are not entitled to believe, they have no right to believe, they are not justified in believing, they ought not believe. The characteristic beliefs of Holocaust deniers, for example, are not only demonstrably false, but also such that their holding by these nimrods is morally censurable. One has the strong sense that these people are flouting their epistemic duties.
A commenter on the Pieper post notes that Dallas Willard has a understanding of the belief-knowledge relation (or lack of relation) similar to that of Pieper. A little searching brought me to the following passage in Willard's Knowledge and Naturalism which substantiates the commenter's suggestion (I have bolded the parts relevant to my current concerns):
Josef Pieper (1904-1997) is a 20th century German Thomist. I read his Belief and Faith as an undergraduate and am now [December 2007] re-reading it very carefully. It is an excellent counterbalance to a lot of the current analytic stuff on belief and doxastic voluntarism. What follows is my reconstruction of Pieper's argument for doxastic voluntarism in Belief and Faith. His thesis, to be found in Augustine and Aquinas, is that "Belief rests upon volition." (p. 27. Augustine, De praedestinatione Sanctorum, cap. 5, 10: [Fides] quae in voluntate est . . . .) I shall first present the argument in outline, and then comment on the premises and inferences.
1. It makes sense to apply deontological predicates to actions. Thus it makes sense to say of a voluntary action that it is obligatory or permissible or impermissible. But does it make sense to apply such predicates to beliefs and related propositional attitudes? If I withhold my assent to proposition p, does it make sense to say that the withholding is obligatory or permissible or impermissible? Suppose someone passes on a nasty unsubstantiated rumor concerning a mutual acquaintance. Is believing it blameworthy? Is suspending judgment required? Or is deontological evaluation simply out of place in a case like this?
I suppose I am a limited doxastic voluntarist: though I haven't thought about this question in much depth my tendency is to say that there are some beliefs over the formation of which I have direct voluntary control. That is, there are some believable contents — call them propositions — that I can bring myself to believe at will, others that I can bring myself to disbelieve at will, and still others about which I can suspend judgment, thereby enacting something like the epoché (ἐποχή) of such ancient skeptics as Sextus Empiricus.
William P. Alston boldly maintains that "no one ever acquires a belief at will." (Beyond Justification, Cornell 2005, 67) This blanket rejection of doxastic voluntarism -- the view that some belief-formation is under the control of the will -- sounds extreme. What about beliefs that one acquires as a result of reasoning? Are not some of the beliefs acquired in this manner acquired at will? And if so, then is it not right to talk deontically of the permissibility and impermissibility of some beliefs?
Note that there are two connected questions. One concerns whether or not any beliefs are under the control of the will. The other concerns the legitimacy of deontic talk in respect of beliefs. A negative answer to the first question removes the second question, while an affirmative answer to the first question leaves the second question open. Let's think about this.