Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Reasons to Believe.

I apologise for the number of big words in this post — I had a post planned that would be much more accessible, on the subject of communication, but I've spent the last few days mostly taking care of Quincy following her surgery and I kind of developed blogger's block partway through writing it. So I've fallen back on this one, which I've adapted from a bunch of notes and which probably contains enough conceptual material for three or four simpler posts (which will probably still happen down the track). Hopefully it's not too dense, and I expect I'll explain my points here much better down the track. In the meantime, the communication post is on track for Thursday.

There is all the difference in the world between a good reason and a true explanation, or a cause, especially when it comes to epistemology. We can come to believe things any number of ways. Most of the things we believe we believe for reasons which are not epistemically good, but which are generally acceptable — it is unreasonable to demand that we refuse to believe anything whose truth we cannot directly demonstrate right now; this is the origin of solipsism. Yet it is reasonable to demand we withhold judgement on things which we suspect there are not sufficient epistemically good reasons for believing. That an intellectual peer disagrees with us is a good enough reason to investigate the issue, but when we do so and come out with good reason to believe our original thesis and (this is equally important) good reason to believe our disagreeing peer is simply mistaken or misled, we are justified in reaffirming our original thesis.

Religious believers (and followers of certain other non-reality-based doctrines) don’t, of course, want to question their beliefs, but epistemology is a field where desires don’t (or oughtn’t) enter into it. If you really care about the issue, the correct course is to withdraw judgement while investigating the issue and hopefully discovering the truth. If one follows this attitude with intellectual honesty as regards religion, for example, one will wind up withdrawing judgement perpetually, becoming an intellectual agnostic and a practical atheist (which are, by their most common definitions, near-synonymous, or at least nearly exactly correlated), until and unless such time as actual, concrete evidence such that a scientific journal or a court of law would accept comes to light.

When it comes to religious revelation, it is always more likely that the recipient of the revelation is simply mistaken — the very nature of such a miracle includes such improbability, which is why it is never rational to believe in them unless it is even more improbable (and therefore miraculous) that the miracle did not occur. When it comes to other ideas, Edgar Allan Poe writes: “For my own part, I have never had a thought which I could not set down in words, with even more distinctness than that with which I conceived it: — as I have before observed, the thought is logicalized by the effort at (written) expression.” He goes on to discuss “a class of fancies...which are not thoughts, and to which, as yet, I have found it absolutely impossible to adapt language” — but these are feelings, not thoughts, and it is certainly not possible to speak of them in logical terms or use them as premises on which to base rational conclusions. A revelation that is a feeling is inadmissible as evidence of anything other than an electrochemical event in your brain and an emotional one in your mind; one that is not a feeling ought to either be objectively convincing or, as mentioned, so improbable that it is more likely that the subject is merely mistaken. Logically, a feeling can only be equatable to the belief that one is experiencing that feeling. If one is sad, one simply believes it; if one does not believe that one is sad, one is simply not; and vice versa. It is certainly possible to share this fact with others, but the experiential component — how it actually subjectively feels — is impossible to share. But this does not mean one is unable to share any meaningful evidence.


  1. Thanks for changing your comment thing :) heres what I wrote before:
    Hello :) I clicked over from Miriam's blog and this post caught my attention. Firstly before I attempt to disagree with you I want to say; so far I like you, your ideas on things and your writing voice reminds me of a dear friend of mine (so just because I disagree doesn't mean I wont come back to read more). Anyway as I've said I disagree but as an aspiring anthropologist and an arts student who took far too much philosophy I get your argument. Its sound and very logical but I think that there are some things that just can't be explained or put onto paper; for example I'm pretty sure it would be hard for you to quantify your love for Quincy, as I can't adequately write down how I feel for my boyfriend. Therefore although I have faith in God (not a specific religious one but just 'God') I would argue that despite the fact that there is no scientific or concrete evidence for the existence of the divine it is no less 'wrong' to believe in it, or for a better word 'feel' it. Because as humans there are always 'extra' things that we might feel but be unable to put into logical arguments.I hope that makes sense? Also I'm not telling you to believe in God (to believe or not to believe is everyones prerogative) just trying to stick up for faith really...

  2. Yes, you can't quantify love, but you can observe that it refers to a real thing. Being in love is in a sense equivalent to believing that one is in love, because you can't have either without the other. But this doesn't carry over to believing on God. Believing in God is not equivalent to God existing, any more than loving someone makes them exist. Religious belief may be harmless, and in that sense not "wrong", but it's definitely intellectually wrong.

    The point I was making was precisely that these "feelings" aren't reasons to believe in anything over and above the feelings themselves. If you're unable to put something into a rational argument, either it's irrational in the first place or you simply need to be more closely acquainted with reason itself. Since probably millions have tried to find faith a place in reason and none have succeeded, the balance of probability suggests that the first is the case.

  3. Ok I'm probably not the best person to argue about this because I fell out with philosophy a few years ago and also fell out with my religion. If you were talking to me before I would vehemently argue for a specific 'God' and use my knowledge of philosophical arguments to formulate an answer back. But now although I have various shades of faith (I believe in something higher than humans) I can't argue for or against them because my own faith is shaky, I don't have a religious framework to work from... So at the moment I'll let your logic win but you never know I might have an argument later on. Well I DO have an anthropological argument but I'm not sure if I believe in it so it would be dishonest of me to fight using something I question...hmmm (will think on it at least and get back to you)

  4. You might not be sure about it, but I'd be very interested to hear it if you're willing to share.

    I think the most important thing is that you're still questioning and thinking about it.

  5. Haha I can’t help questioning everything. Firstly I have to admit that I haven’t read the whole book that the argument comes from so there might be a revelation that I haven’t got to yet. So as far as I understand the argument is that language and religion evolved at the same time and that language facilitated religion. But religion or rather ‘ritual’ keeps language in check (there is a specific purpose for it) because language has two ‘vices’. These being ‘The Lie’ and ‘Alternative’. The lie is pretty easy to understand because we are able to deceive one another by manipulating language as we see fit. Its not that deception in itself is bad, we still have ‘white lies’ but its just the distance from the truth which is bad. The Alternative is to do with grammar and how for instance the changing of one verb can drastically change the meaning of a whole sentence (eg. should, could, would). We also have tenses for past, present and future showing that we do not exclusively live in the ‘here and now’. And perhaps most problematically having alternatives means we can question our society and our leaders eg. “Capitalism is better than socialism” or “socialism is better than capitalism” (Roy A. Rappaport- Ritual and Religion in the making of Humanity, intro). So believing in something higher than us gives way to ritual which (and I’m really oversimplifying his argument because it’s a whole books worth) through devices such as: the fact that participants in rituals didn’t make up the ritual itself and therefore cannot encode upon it, and also that in rituals very little ‘actual’ language is used, it is instead physically performed means that it is closer to being honest. There is so much more I want to write about but I think I’ll leave it there…(actually I might write my own post on this tomorrow)

  6. Sorry I meant ...through devices such as blah blah blah ritual keeps language in check and helps us to get closer to the truth of things.

  7. It's definitely true that language facilitated religion, as until language there was no way to communicate things that were precise or abstract. This is actually very similar to what my original post was going to be on, so do drop by again on Thursday. On the other hand, anthropological arguments can at best say that religion is useful, that it lends stability, while conceding that its factual claims are false and its moral claims hit-and-miss. Personally I'm a big fan of culture, but of self-aware, secular culture, that has the benefits of religion without the inevitable drawbacks.