Monthly Archives: June 2010

Some Remarks about the Concept of ‘Belief’

The Spanish Philosopher Miguel de Unamuno once described his approach to philosophy as trying on a glove in different ways, even inside-out, to see how many different ways the glove could be worn. It is in this spirit that I offer my somewhat disconnected thoughts on the concept of ‘belief’: I trying out different perspectives to see how they fit.

William James wrote a well-known essay “The Will to Believe,” in which he defended certain religious belief as compelling even if not rationally grounded beliefs; for example, the decision to belief in God as a vital choice that many persons make, despite lacking good rational grounds to support that belief. We will to believe in God.

In one sense of the term “belief,” what James contends may strike us as being absurd. For in ordinary circumstances our belief that something is such & such (e.g., that it will rain today, or that my car has enough gasoline to get me home) is not a matter of choice or of our willing it, but rather a case in which we base the belief on supporting evidence. Here making a decision to believe irrespective of the evidence could get us in trouble. To the degree that we operate intelligently in the world, we believe that it will rain today based on relevant evidence (heavy storm clouds moving in, or a reliable weather forecast). We believe that the car has enough gasoline to make it home because the fuel tank gauge indicates the tank is half full, and we know that home is only twenty miles away; and half a tank of gasoline is good enough for 150 miles travel. The notion of “will to believe” or freedom of choice with regard to what I believe does not apply here. To operate well in the world, we strive for beliefs that conform to reality. (There is not much room here for “will to believe” or choosing to believe.)

However, Mr. James probably had in mind another sense of the term “belief” when he wrote his famous essay. This is ‘belief’ in the sense of faith or conviction, in which notions of “the will to believe” or “deciding to believe” do apply. The area of religious faith is an obvious case; but first let us try to approach the subject indirectly.

No one has knowledge of what will happen in the future, although sometimes we have some basis for highly probable inferences. Yet we never know for sure, and sometimes don’t even have a clue as to how things will turn out in the future. But we often need to assume a belief (or beliefs) as to what will happen, or at least assume beliefs as to the general pattern of future events. Sometimes we must make a choice as to how we “see” the future. If we tend to be optimists, we choose optimistic beliefs concerning the future; if we tend to be pessimists, we choose less positive beliefs.

In our daily routine, we may come in contact with hundreds of people. We don’t know most of them and really have no evidence for thinking that they are decent, law-abiding people. But in order to carry on with our daily routines and not become paranoid, we work with the belief that, like ourselves, they are decent, law-abiding people.

Sometimes opting to believe one way or another comes by way of a “working hypothesis”; at this time we have no evidence to support any belief, but we must make a choice in order to get on with what we’re doing.

Suppose we use the terms “faith” and “objective belief” to distinguish between these two kinds of belief. Faith involves the will-to-believe; objective belief does not.

This may help some in our effort to sort through the concept of ‘belief’ in its various uses; but let’s not jump to the conclusion that this distinction tells the whole story. For we must allow that emotion, the desire or will to believe that something is true, sometimes occur with regard to our “objective beliefs”; on the other hand, some people of strong religious faith will find the notion of ‘will to believe’ foreign to their experience of faith, holding instead that they have no choice in matters of religious faith.

In religion, opting to believe [in God, for example] may or may not be analogous to adopting a working hypothesis. Blaise Pascal may conceive of belief in God as taking the “rational” option; but many other theists will argue that their experience (religious and existential experience) is such that they have no choice on the question of God’s reality.

However, this gives us pause: most people did not originally make a conscious choice to adopt the religious belief they hold. They were born into a “world” of people holding, teaching, and imparting such religious beliefs, and never examined or questioned those beliefs. The religious beliefs just became part of their view of reality.

Nevertheless, for many people religious belief does seem to be in a different category from belief in other contexts. In a religious context, the term “belief” is used more like the term “conviction” or the related term “faith.”

Here the “belief that X” may express a strong conviction (or as some people put it: “a rock-solid conviction.” My belief that X here is not understood as a peripheral claim (tentative, subject to reexamination). It is certainly not a weak epistemic claim, made in place of a stronger claim to know that X. Here my claim that “X is true” functions much like a basic principle that defines and controls my existence. (Let “X” stand for “Jesus is the divine redeemer.”)

Here we might think of an analogy with Thomas Reid’s Principles of Common Sense. Our very existence as social beings demands the reality of the external, material world, even if the skeptic (D. Hume) demonstrates that from a subjective perspective we cannot prove that this belief is true.

Another way of stating it: In the religious context, belief functions at a primary level —much like a principle or rule of action. It does not function like a weak epistemic claim that needs supporting evidence. The call for supporting evidence is seen as irrelevant.

It is in this context that a proponent of religious faith will say that rational skepticism is “out of order.”

Here one is more likely to “believe in something or someone” as opposed to “believing that such and such.” An example could be “belief in the goodness of human beings.”

Much of what I believe comes from other people. People whom I admire or whom I recognize as knowledgeable authorities advance arguments and establish certain conclusions, which I accept as my beliefs. (“The belief strikes me as a reasonable one, so I adopt as my belief”).

Much of what we believe comes from familial and cultural conditioning. There is a vast body of beliefs (presuppositions) that forms the basis for our outlook on the world and our acting in the world. Most of us have never examined or evaluated these beliefs. (In what sense are these beliefs subject to choice?)

Intellectual growth and development toward some psychological maturity requires that we rationally evaluate these beliefs that we have inherited. Have we educated ourselves sufficiently to recognize the different features of our body of beliefs?

“I’ll believe what I please!” makes sense in some contexts, but not in others. And here too there will be a matter of degrees.

In some cases, beliefs are much like preferences, as in “I prefer coffee to tea.”

On the other hand, when we remark that “Based on the evidence, I think he did it,” or “I have good reasons for thinking he did it” we are in the realm of rational belief: I believe it because I have evidence or good reasons for the belief.

By “objective belief” I mean that type of belief that a person holds because evidence or rational considerations, such as perception, factual evidence, logical inference, compel him to hold the belief. Consider, for example, the case of my belief that it will rain because heavy storm clouds are moving this way and reliable meteorological forecasts have predicted rain for today. There’s a sense in which we don’t have a choice in what we belief.

The ideal here is that our beliefs all be well-grounded (rationally well-grounded, that is). The person consciously working to realize this ideal would try to limit his beliefs to those beliefs that are supported by the facts, rational inference or immediate experience. And in those areas where such beliefs are not found, he proceeds hypothetically and experimentally.

In this context, belief that such & such is a weaker epistemic claim than knowledge that such & such. For example, I don’t know that O.J. Simpson killed his wife (in the sense that I would know if I had seen him do it), but I believe he did it (in the sense, I have some evidence that points to his doing it, although it does not prove that he did it). And I believe this only because there is much evidence that points to this as highly probable.

Here we could set up a scale of epistemic weight:

1) I know that X. (We have full, undeniable knowledge)
2) I am sure that X. (I have every reason to believe X and nothing that stands against it.)
3) Probably X. (There is a strong case to be made of X.)
4) I believe that X. (I have some reason for thinking that X. I lean this way.)
5) Possibly X. (X may be true, but we have to look more.)
6) I doubt that X. (There are good reasons against X being true.)
7) I know that not-X. (We have knowledge that X is not the case.)

Only #1 and #7 represent knowledge. The other marks on the scale represent varying degrees of belief, all weaker epistemic claims. We fall back on some form of belief when we lack knowledge or objective certainty.

In this context, my desire or need to believe are irrelevant; the strength of my faith or conviction are irrelevant.

One attempt to define “knowledge”:
Knowledge obtains when one affirms P (some proposition, e.g., the U.S. is a democracy); and
a) the proposition affirmed (P) is true;
b) there is a rationally relevant basis for affirming ‘P’.

Of course, this applies to propositional knowledge; here we tend to analyze knowledge in terms of belief. However, this is not so obvious the way to break down ‘knowledge’ in cases of knowing by direct acquaintance (as in case of knowing that you’re here because I see you and touch you) or in the case of knowledge that applies when we ‘know how’ to do something. (I know how to ride a bicycle.)

Don’t let our ‘belief’ expressions mislead you to think that beliefs are independent entities, existing separately from all believers. We might say that a belief is something held by some person; but should not think this implies a special entity ‘belief.’ Beliefs don’t have existence. People exist who think this or that, and hold beliefs.

Thus, one way of dealing with beliefs leads us toward psychology: an examination of the believer.

We’re probably dealing with different personality types:

1) The rational/scientific type who feels that, as much as possible, our beliefs should be rational, well-grounded beliefs. The important things are acquiring knowledge, understanding, eventually gaining some truth about ourselves and our world, and operating intelligently in this world.

2) The religious type, who feels that the over-riding importance is that our basic beliefs reflect the highest values and convictions that we hold, and that we hold beliefs that will promote the spiritual, moral aspects of our existence. (The over-riding concerns are the kinds of lives we live and, in case of Christians, our personal salvation.)

What I directly experience compels me to assent. In other cases, an obvious rational inference from the factual evidence compels me to believe. Objective conditions push me one way or the other. In so far as we are conscious, intelligent beings, we are pushed (by objective conditions) to believe one way or another.

When these compelling objective conditions are absent, people respond in different ways, depending on their inclinations:
The rationalist, given to logical/scientific habits of thought, will suspend belief, at most allow himself very tentative hypothesis.
The religious type will adopt some kind of “religious belief,” belief in or faith that works despite the push/pull of objective conditions, or even works in opposition to the “force” of objective conditions.

It is in this context that some people say such things as “Science and rational inquiry do not give us complete knowledge; they leave many gaps. Therefore, we must turn to religious faith to get a complete picture of reality.” Or “Science and rational inquiry takes us only part of the way; to complete the trip, we need to turn to religion.”

It is likely true that everyone has some degree of faith, including the hardest scientists and the strongest skeptic. It is also true that some people use the term “faith” to cover the most irrational fanaticism or the most absurd fantasies. And we have many degrees and gradations in between.

But having faith need not imply that the person of faith embraces irrational fanaticism or childish fantasies.

Is our world a virtual reality?

Do we inhabit a virtual world, a world which our brains create? Many of us would reply in the negative: “No; our world is real and not our invention.” Are the things which we perceive (see, hear, touch) virtual objects? Again, many of us would reply that we perceive real things like trees, dogs, and apples, not virtual objects.

Why bring up such questions? Why should anyone think that we live in a virtual world and perceive virtual objects? Surprisingly a number of people have affirmed such a philosophy and continue to do so. In the world of philosophy nothing should surprise us; but the world of biology should be different, we think. However, the famous evolutionary biologists, Richard Dawkins, in chapter 11 of his book Unweaving the Rainbow, (Houghton Mifflin Co., New York, 1998) seems to adopt this view of things when he claims that we experience a virtual world. When we take what he says seriously, and not as mere metaphors or figurative language, we find that his philosophy presents significant conceptual problems. Consider the following argument:

1) Virtual models constructed by the brain’s simulation software exist in the brain; sometimes Dawkins states this as “in the head.”

“…every species that has a nervous system uses it to construct a model of its own particular world, constrained by continuous updating through the sense organs …. “Our brain constructs a three-dimensional model. It is virtual reality in the head.”

(Unweaving the Rainbow, pages 274, 276)

2) The world that we inhabit and perceptually experience is a virtual world, viz., a world comprised of virtual models constructed by the brain’s simulation software.

“..we humans, we mammals, we animals, inhabit a virtual world, constructed from elements that are, at successively higher levels, useful for representing the real world. Of course, we feel as if we are firmly placed in the real world — which is exactly as it should be if our constrained virtual reality software is any good.

. “ (Ibid.,275)

“We are so used to living in our simulated world and it is kept so beautifully in synchrony with the real world that we don’t realize it is a simulated world.”

(Ibid., pages 279-280)

From (1) and (2) we draw the fantastic inferences:

A) We perceive a “world” that is really only in the brain; and

B) We inhabit a “world” that is really only in the brain.

This, in turn, implies that
we exist only in the brain.

Surely Dawkins does not embrace that proposition. He seems to distance himself from such thinking when he qualifies this ‘thesis,’ which he does by acknowledging the misleading aspect of his talk of virtual reality:

“The metaphor of virtual reality [misleads] us into thinking that there is a “little man’ or ‘homunculus’ in the brain watching the virtual reality show.”

(Ibid., page 283)

This is the misconception that Daniel Dennett warns against and which Dawkins acknowledges as a misconception on page 283.

“The problem arises [when] we take the virtual reality metaphor literally and imagine that some agent locked inside the head is ‘experiencing’ the virtual reality performance.”

(Ibid., page 283)

Dawkins explains that his thesis is a more modest one:

“…that each species, in each situation, needs to deploy its information about the world in whatever way is most useful for taking action. ‘Constructing a model in the head’ is a helpful way to express how it is done, and comparing it to virtual reality is especially helpful in the case of humans.”

(Ibid., 283)

Although this qualification might help somewhat, the problem seems to remain; for Dawkins does not appear to completely disengage from those propositions that imply absurd conclusions. If his reference to “constructing a model in the head” is just a helpful way of explaining human experience, he should have qualified his earlier statements. Instead of the flat statement that “we inhabit and perceive a virtual world” he should have written that it is as if we experienced a virtual reality, given the extent to which our nervous system shapes the reality we experience.

As long as Dawkins holds on to the earlier statement he seems to remain in the grip of a ‘model’ which implies a “homunculus inhabiting the brain and perceiving a virtual world only,” despite his recognition of the conceptual problem that all this involves.

Moreover, all this talk about virtual or simulated worlds in the brain (or in the head) suggests that that we don’t experience a public world, a common framework that human beings share. Virtual world talk implies that I don’t share the simulated world in your head, nor do you share the simulated world in my head. Isn’t it a mystery how these separate worlds seem to intersect? Of course we don’t need to introduce such a mystery. The obvious and reasonable assumption is that we share a common framework, i.e., the real world, a public world as opposed to a private, simulated world constructed by the brain inside the brain. As the English philosopher D.W. Hamlyn tells us in his book, A Theory of Knowledge (1970), a common, public framework must be our starting point, if there’s to be any intelligible discourse at all. Simulated, virtual worlds existing inside individual’s skulls do not give us such common framework, although reference to such a ‘model’ might help to highlight how much brain contributes to ‘color’ the world that we perceive. Surely Dawkins does not mean to deny all this. Most likely he just got carried away with his metaphors, analogies, and “poetic science.”

His qualification of his “model” (see Unweaving the Rainbow, page 283) suggests that by referring to the workings of the nervous system (sense organ, brain, simulation software, virtual models), Dawkins is simply explaining how it is possible that animals (including humans) acquire (through perception) enough information about the world in order to negotiate successfully through that world. The world here is the objective, public world, the real world that we all share despite the earlier statements by Dawkins to the contrary.

D.W. Hamlyn, The Theory of Knowledge, (1970, Doubleday)
George Pitcher, A theory of perception, (1971, Princeton Univ. Press)
Perceive, Sensing, and Knowing, (1965, Doubleday) edited by Robert J. Swartz

Are moderates the real obstacles to social justice and religious freedom?

“A man on a mission has no time for moderation or for moderates.”

Regardless of the cause (political, religious, anti-religious, racial justice), people dedicated to the fight and willing to put themselves on the line tend to be critical of the moderates, who often advise patience, compromise, and negotiation. I was reminded of this when my study group chose to read and discuss Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” (This was an open letter written on April 16, 1963.) In that letter, while defending the acts of civil disobedience by himself and his organization, King expresses some surprisingly harsh criticism of religious and political moderates. His criticism of moderates reminded me of a similar type of strong criticism of the moderates by the so-called neo-atheistic writers, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett. In their recent best-sellers, Harris, Dawkins, and Dennett call on atheists and non-religious folk to show courage in asserting their atheism in the face of the strong theistic, religious culture in the US.

Why do these activists and “crusaders” direct so much criticism against the person of moderation, since many of us hold that moderation is a virtue. Recall Aristotle’s ethics and the ethics of the Stoics which advocate a life of balance and moderation in all things. Isn’t moderation usually a good thing?

Of course it stands to reason that activists, missionaries, and crusaders-for-a-cause tend to dismiss the moderate as little more than an obstacle in their struggle. However, most people will admit that in some situations moderation is a good thing, as when passion and greed dispose people to do stupid and destructive things. However, when the context is one of fighting for social justice or religious freedom for secular-minded people, calls for moderation are heard as obstacles rather than assets to the cause. At least, this is what Martin Luther King held with regard to the struggle for civil rights and what the neo-atheistic activists seem to believe in their effort to bring about equal rights of secular-minded people.

Let’s consider some specific points of this rejection of moderation. First, consider some of what Martin Luther King wrote:

….over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice

King’s problem with the moderates is that they counsel patience and advise the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season,” when in fact the time of waiting has ended and action is demanded. As he saw things, the moderate may say that he agrees with the goal of racial justice, but he “paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.” In other words, moderates are quite willing to counsel patience when it is another people’s freedom that is at stake. King expresses his growing frustration with the moderates:

“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

He was so frustrated and bewildered by the moderates’ failure to understand the gravity of the situation for the Negro that he was tempted to express preference for the outright rejection and opposition from the segregationists. Furthermore, King implied that white moderates do not understand that

“law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.”

In other words, the white moderates did not understand that the movement for social justice requires that those tensions that lie hidden in respectable society be exposed, and that this cannot be done without the pressure and tension created by active defiance of unjust laws.

King implied that the moderate preferred that everything be done quietly and peacefully; but years of trying to do things quietly and peacefully had produced nothing but a continuation of segregation and racial injustice. Because the moderate did not understand this or lacked the courage to acknowledge this, he was as great an obstacle to the fight for justice and civil rights as the racists and segregationists. We can almost imagine Dr. King asserting that moderates lacked the understanding and courage required for reliable allies in the fight for justice. Either they should recognize the urgency of the situation and join in the fight, or get out of the way; because, as moderates they were not helping at all.

Now let us look at what neo-atheistic authors have to say about moderates. Generally, the argument is that that people of moderate religious faith, by their acceptance of a scripture containing barbaric ‘morality’ (which endorses all kinds of violence and injustice), enable the fanatics of that faith to carry out their violence and extremism. To my knowledge it was Sam Harris, writing in his book, The End of Faith (W W Norton & Co. – New York, NY, 2004, “Religion, Terror, and The Future of Reason” who initiated the current discussion of the ‘responsibility’ that moderates bear for the actions of the extremists. On page 45 of that book Harris writes as follows:

“We will see that the greatest problem confronting civilization is not merely religious extremism; rather, it is the larger set of cultural and intellectual accommodations we have made to faith itself. Religious moderates are, in large part, responsible for the religious conflicts in our world, because their beliefs provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed.”

(Ibid., page 45)

It is Harris’s style in this book to exaggerate things. Moderates may share responsibility for the actions of their more extreme brethren, but it surely overstates things to refer to this as the / greatest problem confronting civilization.” It doesn’t take much imagination to find much greater problems that confront civilization. But first let’s look at what the others have to say.

The evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins in his book, The God Delusion, includes a section with the heading: “How moderation in faith fosters extremism.” (Houghton Mifflin Co., New York, 2006, page 301) In this section, Dawkins does not offer any argument for the claim that moderation fosters extremism. He seems to assume that any kind of religious faith, because it does not require rational justification, encourages fanaticism. As he states it,

“.. even mild and moderate religion helps to provide the climate of faith in which extremism naturally flourishes.”

(Ibid. page 302)

The third neo-atheistic writer, the philosopher Daniel Dennett, tends to be more careful in his remarks; but even Dennett, in his book, Breaking the Spell, states the case against religious moderates:

“Every religion … has a healthy population of ecumenical-minded people who are eager to reach out to people of other faiths, or no faith at all, and consider the moral quandaries of the world on a rational basis. . . . …but these well-intentioned and energetic people are singularly ineffective in dealing with the more radical members of their own faiths. In many instances, they are, rightly, terrified of them. Moderate Muslims have so far been utterly unable to turn the tide of Islamic opinion against Wahhabists and other extremists, but moderate Christians and Jews and Hindus have been equally feckless in countering the outrageous demands and acts of their own radical elements.”

(Breaking the Spell, Viking Penguin, 2006, New York, NY, page 297-298)

Dennett tells us that moderates are not only ineffective in shutting down the extremist elements in their religion, but that “the moderates in all religions are being used by the fanatics and should not only resent this; they should take whatever steps they can find to curtail it in their own tradition.” (Ibid. page 300)

So we see, Harris, Dawkins, and Dennett claim that moderate people of faith (Christians, Jews, and especially Muslims) do not do enough (even do not do anything) to shut down the fanatics in their ranks. Those fanatics are pretty much unopposed when they resort to violence in the name of religion. Our neo-atheists even claim that because moderates fail to condemn and rein in the extremists, they (the moderates) are complicit in the violence carried out by the fanatics.

In my view, this is too harsh a criticism of the moderates of the Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Many of them in their own way criticize and work against excesses of the extremists among them. Among these we could include such people as Barry Lynn (Americans United for Separation of Church and State), Cesar Chavez, Bill Moyers, President Jimmy Carter, Albert Schweitzer, Martin Buber, some of the Hebrew Prophets, and Jewish Talmudic scholars. We can even include Martin Luther King in this grouping. These people have actively opposed the advocates of scriptural literalism that justifies violence against those of other faiths or no religious faith at all; these people have actively fought for social justice and against all forms of chauvinism, including religious chauvinism. They are representative of many religious moderates and do not at all resemble the “allies of fanatics” that Harris, Dawkins, and Dennett describe.

But my main point was to compare the frustration with moderates expressed by Dr. Martin Luther King and by the neo-atheists. King held that religious moderates, presumably white moderates but probably black moderates as well, were obstacles to the mission of the civil rights movement. He went as far as to express a preference for the outright opposition of the segregationist to the lukewarm, ineffective ‘support’ of the moderates. Likewise, the frustration of the neo-atheists with religious moderates often was expressed in exaggerated terms: religious moderates do not just tolerate the violent religious extremists but often are so ineffective and cowardly that they’re seen as giving moral support to extremist acts.

Since I see King’s mission as a clear case of a fight for social and racial justice, I’m more inclined to sympathize with his criticism of the moderates. Clearly black people had waited long enough for racial justice and were more than justified in acting, even if that action was disobedience of law and resulted in violence.

The case of the atheists, while being a fight for religious freedom, is not so clearly a mission for social justice. Atheists surely do not enjoy political equality with believers in our society; the media and the general public hold false and very distorted notions about atheists. In the past this has resulted in a lay-low attitude by many atheists; they don’t go around touting their atheism. Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris are correct in calling for a better deal for atheists; but the plight of atheists does not at all compare with the plight of black people leading up to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Atheists do not suffer anything close to the social and political injustice imposed on black people.

On the issue of the role of moderates, we can easily understand Dr King’s frustration with moderates who urged that blacks show more patience and wait for society to change and accept them as full-fledged citizens. They had waited long enough and segregated society in the South showed few signs of any progress toward racial equality. But the claim that religious moderates are similar obstacles to the rights of atheists is not at all a clear one and convincing one. As anyone who has followed the debate in the secular community can attest, many atheists, agnostics, humanists, and assorted non-believers do not agree with the claims of Harris, Dawkins, and Dennett on this specific issue. For many of us, religious moderates are effective allies in the fight for religious freedom, not ‘obstacles’ in any sense of the term.