I have always been an admirer of your philosophical writing style--both in your published works and on your blog. Have you ever blogged about which writers and books have most influenced your philosophical writing style?
Yes, I have some posts on or near this topic. What follows is one from 21 September 2009, slightly revised.
From the mail bag:
I've recently discovered your weblog and have enjoyed combing through its archives these past several days. Your writing is remarkably lucid and straightforward — quite a rarity both in philosophy and on the web these days. I was wondering if perhaps you had any advice to share for a young person, such as myself, on the subject of writing well.
To write well, read well. Read good books, which are often, but not always, old books. If you carefully read, say, William James' Varieties of Religious Experience, you will learn something of the expository potential of the English language from a master of thought and expression. If time is short, study one of his popular essays such as "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life." Here is a characteristic paragraph:
But this world of ours is made on an entirely different pattern, and the casuistic question here is most tragically practical. The actually possible in this world is vastly narrower than all that is demanded; and there is always a pinch between the ideal and the actual which can only be got through by leaving part of the ideal behind. There is hardly a good which we can imagine except as competing for the possession of the same bit of space and time with some other imagined good. Every end of desire that presents itself appears exclusive of some other end of desire. Shall a man drink and smoke, or keep his nerves in condition? — he cannot do both. Shall he follow his fancy for Amelia, or for Henrietta? — both cannot be the choice of his heart. Shall he have the dear old Republican party, or a spirit of unsophistication in public affairs? — he cannot have both, etc. So that the ethical philosopher's demand for the right scale of subordination in ideals is the fruit of an altogether practical need. Some part of the ideal must be butchered, and he needs to know which part. It is a tragic situation, and no mere speculative conundrum, with which he has to deal. (The Will to Believe, Dover 1956, pp. 202-203, emphases in original)
One who can appreciate that this is good writing is well on the way to becoming a good writer. The idea is not so much to imitate as to absorb and store away large swaths of such excellent writing. It is bound to have its effect. Immersion in specimens of good writing is perhaps the only way to learn what good style is. It cannot be reduced to rules and maxims. And even if it could, there would remain the problem of the application of the rules. The application of rules requires good judgment, and one can easily appreciate that there cannot be rules of good judgment. This for the reason that the application of said rules would presuppose the very thing — good judgment — that cannot be reduced to rules. Requiring as it does good judgment, good writing cannot be taught, which is why teaching composition is even worse in point of frustration than teaching philosophy. Trying to get a student to appreciate why a certain formulation is awkward is like trying to get a nerd to understand why pocket-protectors are sartorially substandard.
But what makes James' writing good? It has a property I call muscular elegance. The elegance has to do in good measure with the cadence, which rests in part on punctuation and sentence structure. Note the use of the semi-colon and the dash. These punctuation marks are falling into disuse, but I say we should dig in our heels and resist this decadence especially since it is perpetrated by many of the very same politically correct ignoramuses who are mangling the language in other ways I won't bother to list. There is no necessity that linguistic degeneration continue. We make the culture what it is, and we get the culture or unculture we deserve.
As for the muscularity of James' muscular elegance, it comes though in his vivid examples and his use of words like 'pinch' and 'butchered.' His is a magisterial weaving of the abstract and the concrete, the universal and the particular. Bare of flab, this is writing with pith and punch. And James is no slouch on content, either.
C. S. Lewis somewhere says something to the effect that reading one's prose out loud is a way to improve it. I would add to this Nietzsche's observation that
Good prose is written only face to face with poetry. For it is an uninterrupted, well-mannered war with poetry . . . (Gay Science, Book II, Section 92, tr. Kaufmann)
A well-mannered war, a loving polemic. There is a poetic quality to the James passage quoted above, but the lovely goddess of poetry is given to understand that truth trumps beauty and that she is but a handmaiden to the ultimate dominatrix, Philosophia. Or to coin a Latin phrase, ars ancilla philosophiae.
Finally, a corollary to the point that one must read good books to become a good writer: watch your consumption of media dreck. Avoid bad writing, and when you cannot, imbibe it critically.
The suggestion was made that I give a little talk to the monks of Christ in the Desert, a Benedictine monastery outside of Abiqui, New Mexico. I thought I would offer a few words in defense of the monastic life, not that such an ancient and venerable tradition needs any defense from me, but just to clarify my own thoughts and perhaps help others clarify theirs either by way of agreement or disagreement with mine. I will attempt three things. I will first list some convictions I hold to be of the essence of religion. Then I will suggest that the monastic path is an excellent way to implement these convictions. Finally I will ask myself why I am not a monk.
The Essence of Religion
There is much more to a religion than its beliefs and doctrines; there are also its practices. The practices, however, are informed and guided by certain central convictions whose importance cannot be denied. Religion is not practice alone. Now it is not easy to define religion, and it may be impossible. (Religion may be a family-resemblance concept in Wittgenstein's sense.) In any case I will not attempt to define religion by specifying necessary and sufficient conditions of the concept's application. But as I see it, most of the following are essential (necessary) to anything that deserves to be called a religion, and all of them are essential to Christianity. What I offer is a characterization, not a definition.
1. In first place, and not just in the order of exposition, is the belief that there is what William James calls an "unseen order." (Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 53) This is a realm of absolute reality that lies beyond the perception of the five outer senses and their instrumental extensions. It is also inaccessible to inner sense or introspection. It is also not a realm of mere abstracta or thought-contents. So it lies beyond the discursive intellect, as it does beyond the senses. One can reason about it, and reason to it, but one cannot access it directly via the discursive intellect. It is accessible from our side via mystical and religious experience. An initiative from its side is not to be ruled out in the form of revelation.
Compare the first item in Simone Weil's Profession of Faith: "There is a reality outside the world, that is to say, outside space and time, outside man's mental universe, outside any sphere whatsoever that is accessible to human faculties."
2. The belief that there is a supreme good for humans and that "our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves" to the "unseen order." (Varieties, p. 53) The Unseen Order is thus not merely a realm of absolute reality, but also one of absolute value and an object of our highest and purest desire.
Compare the second item in Weil's profession: "Corresponding to this reality, at the centre of the human heart, is the longing for an absolute good, a longing which is always there and is never appeased by any object in this world."
3. The conviction that we are morally deficient, and that this deficiency impedes our adjustment to the Unseen Order. Man is in some some sense fallen from the moral height at which he would have ready access to the Order which alone is the source of his ultimate happiness and final good. His moral corruption, however it came about, has noetic consequences. That is, our ability to know the saving truth has been impaired by our moral deficiency.
4. The conviction that our moral deficiency cannot be made sufficiently good by our own efforts to afford us ready, or perhaps any, access to the Unseen Order. Proximately, we need the help of others; ultimately, we need help from the Unseen Order.
5. The conviction that adjustment to the Unseen Order requires moral purification/transformation.
6. The conviction that help from the side of the Unseen Order is available to bring about this purification and adjustment.
7. The conviction that the sensible order, while not unreal, is not plenary in point of reality or value, that it is ontologically and axiologically derivative, and as derivative defective. It is a manifestation or emanation or creation of the Unseen Order.
Each of these seven convictions is an element in my personal credo. Can I prove them? Of course not. But then nothing of a substantive nature in philosophy, theology, or any controversial field, can be proven. But each of the above convictions is rationally defensible. So while not provable, they are not matters of mere faith either. They can be argued for, their negations are rationally rejectable, and there are experiences that vouch for them. (See Religious Belief and What Inclines Me to It.)
The Monastic Path
I will now suggest that the monastic life is perhaps the best way to realize existentially the above convictions, but also to have the sorts of experiences that tend to provide evidence for the convictions. One lives the convictions, and by living them is granted experiences and intimations that validate the convictions.
Let us suppose that you accept all or most of the above seven propositions, in their spirit if not in their letter, and that you also share with me the meta-conviction that these first-order convictions are to be lived (existentially realized, realized in one's Existenz) and not merely thought about or talked about or argued over.
Then it makes sense to go into the desert. The negative reason is to escape the manifold distractions of the world which keep one scattered and enslaved to the ephemeral, while the positive reason is to live a life focused on the the absolute and unchanging Source of all reality and value. The entrance into the monastery signals that one is truly convinced of the reality of the unseen (#1), it supreme value for us and our happiness (#2) and the relative unreality and insignificance of this world of time and change and vain ambition (#7).
To live such a focused existence, however, requires discipline. We have a fallen nature in at least two senses. First, we are as if fallen from a higher state. Second, we are ever falling against the objects of our world and losing ourselves in them, becoming absorbed in them. (Compare Heidegger's Verfallenheit, fallingness.) Here we find the ontological root of such sins of the flesh as avarice, gluttony, and lust. Given our fallen and falling nature, a monastic institution can provide the moral discipline and guidance that might be difficult if not impossible to secure on the outside, especially in a secularized and sex-saturated society such as ours has become. The weight of concupiscence is heavy and it drags us down. We are sexual beings naturally, and oversexualized beings socially, and so we are largely unable to control our drives to the extent necessary to develop spiritual sight. The thrust of desire confers final reality upon the sensuous while occluding one's spiritual sight. Sensuous desire, especially inordinate sensuous desire, realizes the things of the senses while de-realizing the things of the spirit.
Here, as I see it, is the main reason for sexual continence. We are not continent because we are undersexed, or prudes, or anti-natalists, or despisers of matter. (Certainly no Christian could despise the material world, and a Christian such as Kierkegaard who at the end of his life waxed anti-natalist veered off into a personal idiosyncrasy.) The continence of the loins subserves the continence of the mind and heart which in turn are probably necessary, though certainly not sufficient, for a Glimpse of spiritual realities. (I say 'probably necessary' because divine grace may grant sight to the committed worldling nolens volens.)
And then there is the great problem of 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. Here is another reason why a community of the like-minded may be necessary for most spiritual seekers. They provide reinforcement and the requisite counter-suggestions. (It is worth noting that if cults can 'brainwash' their members, whole societies can go off the rails and brainwash their members.)
Why Am I not a Monk?
"If you think so highly of the monastic life, what are you doing on the outside?"
A fair question deserving a straight answer. I didn't come to religion; I was brought up Roman Catholic by a pious Italian mother and pre-Vatican II nuns and priests. But I had a religious nature, so the training 'took.' But I also had a strong intellectual bent and was inclined philosophically from an early age. So I couldn't avoid asking, and not just intellectually, but existentially as well: how much of this is true and how do I know? The ferment of the 1960s only intensified my cognitive dissonance as the religious upbringing clashed on the one side with my philosophical questioning, and on the other with the secular and counter-cultural suggestions of the 'sixties. I remember in 1965 listening intently to the words of Bob Dylan's Gates of Eden and trying to discern its compatibility, if any, with Catholic teaching. (By the way, attending a Dylan concert in those days was like going to church: the audience remained dead quiet, hanging on every word.)
So philosophy took over the role in the pious youth's life that religion had played. That kept me away from any conventional religious vocation. And so it kept me out of the monastery. For one cannot join a monastery in general; it must be either Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox or Buddhist or whatever, and to do that in good faith and with a clear intellectual conscience one must accept the central doctrinal content of those religions. But that content was exactly what to my mind needed examination. Athens at that point got the upper hand over Jerusalem. So why am I not a monk? Because of Athens.
But now, as I approach the end of the trail, I see ever more clearly the vanity of any philosophy that does not complete itself in something beyond it. But what? The empty discursivity of reason needs to be filled and completed by a direct spiritual seeing. Concepts without intuitions are empty. (Kant) So philosophy needs completion by mystical intuition, but this is rare and sporadic and fragmentary here below, mere Glimpses; to sustain us in the between times we need faith grounded in revelation.
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.
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.
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), The Future of an Illusion:
It would indeed be very nice if there were a God, who was both creator of the world and a benevolent providence, if there were a moral world order and a future life. But at the same time it is very odd that this is all just as we should wish it for ourselves.
William James (1842-1910), "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life":
The capacity of the strenuous mood lies so deep down among our natural human possibilities that even if there were no metaphysical or traditional grounds for believing in a God, men would postulate one simply as a pretext for living hard, and getting out of the game of existence its keenest possibilities of zest.
Both of these passages support the view that God is a posit, a postulate, a projection. But there is a striking difference. Freud, seeing the origin of the God-projection in weakness, takes this as discrediting the God-idea. Having its genesis in our neediness, the God-idea is false or at least unworthy of belief. James, however, viewing the God-idea as an expression of our robustness, takes this fact as a verification of the idea of God.
Of course, there are two different notions of truth in play. I don't know whether Freud ever discussed theories of truth, but I'd guess he is a correspondence-theorist: an idea is true if it corresponds to reality. But James is a pragmatist: an idea is true if it works, if it is something good for us to believe in the long run. For James, we get more out of the game of existence when we believe in God and all that entails: a moral world order that places an ethical demand on us; an ultimate explanation of why anything exists and why we exist; a final guarantor of the veridicality of our ideas; a provider of sense and purpose; a repository of hope; a securer of immortality and adjustor of happiness and virtue. Believing in God, we live better, richer, fuller lives; we wring from existence its "keenest possibilities of zest."
To resolve the debate between Freud and James one would have to get clear about the nature of truth and its connection to human flourishing. The problems are deep and perhaps insoluble. But that doesn't stop them from being fascinating and worth pursuing. And we don't know they are insoluble. If we believe that they are soluble, that truth about ultimates is attainable, and we strive for it, then too we will wring from "the game of existence its keenest possibilities of zest."
No one preaches self-denial anymore. We have become a nation of moral wimps. We need a taste of the strenuosity of yesteryear, and who better to serve it up than our very own William James, he of the Golden Age of American philosophy:
Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day. That is, be systematically heroic in little unnecessary points, do every day or two something for no other reason than its difficulty, so that, when the hour of dire need draws nigh, it may find you not unnerved and untrained to stand the test. Asceticism of this sort is like the insurance which a man pays on his house and goods. The tax does him no good at the time, and possibly may never bring him a return. But, if the fire does come, his having paid it will be his salvation from ruin. So with the man who has daily inured himself to habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, and self-denial in unnecessary things. He will stand like a tower when everything rocks around him, and his softer fellow-mortals are winnowed like chaff in the blast.
We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone. Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its never-so-little scar. The drunken Rip Van Winkle, in Jefferson's play, excuses himself for every fresh dereliction by saying, "I won't count this time!" Well, he may not count it, and a kind Heaven may not count it; but it is being counted none the less. Down among his nerve-cells and fibres the molecules are counting it, registering and storing it up to be used against him when the next temptation comes.
At James' door we receive bread. At Quine's a stone. How American philosophy has fallen off since the Golden Age of James, Royce, and Peirce.
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?
Let us begin today's meditation with a passage from John Locke's A Letter Concerning Toleration:
The articles of religion are some of them practical and some speculative. Now, though both sorts consist in the knowledge of truth, yet these terminate simply in the understanding, those influence will and manners. Speculative opinions, therefore, and articles of faith (as they are called) which are required only to be believed, cannot be imposed on any Church by the law of the land. For it is absurd that things should be enjoined by laws which are not in men's power to perform. And to believe this or that to be true does not depend on our will. (Treatise of Civil Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration, ed. Sherman, p. 204, emphasis added.)