‘What is a belief?’

So asks Don of Ed. It’s sufficiently off-topic to warrant its own thread. Here’s my own first stab at the question, but it’s doubtless very unsophisticated, and sure to be substantially revised after a robust discussion.

Belief has a wide variety of meanings connected by family resemblance.

1. A deeply held conviction, such that finding the contrary to be true would be a disturbing experience — like finding out that your father isn’t your real father. Or it might be something quite trivial — I remember discovering that a fellow student at uni, who had told me she was 26, was really 22, and it quite shook me. Children’s belief in Santa is in this category.

2. A hunch we hold on a factual question that we know is not settled one way or the other. I might claim to ‘believe’ that there is life on Mars or that the Hindenburg was sabotaged, but I wouldn’t be unsettled if the balance of evidence tipped the other way.

3. A hunch on a question that is unsettled and we know is unlikely to be settled in our lifetime, such as whether there is extraterrestrial life, or whether God or gods exist.

4. An official position we declare on some issue — factual or metaphysical — that we don’t have a firm conviction or opinion about, but on which an opinion is expected. Don’s opinion poll responses are in this category, but some people enjoy expressing such ‘beliefs’, like fashion statements.

5. A cultural identity statement: If someone raised as a Catholic says ‘We believe that in the Eucharist bread is transformed into the body of Christ’, they may be combining two factual statements — (i) here is a piece of Catholic doctrine and (ii) I am, due to circumstances of history, identified as a Catholic. The speaker’s personal convctions may remain uninterrogated and are irrelevant to the point being made.

Religious belief could be any of these. For children and extremely naive adults it most closely resembles (1). People who have deconversion experiences when they are very young usually find them very truamatic. In modern societies reflective people who remain religious progesss from (1) to (3), which is essentially optimistic agnosticism. Less reflective people progress to (4), and non-reflective people stay at (5).

There are intermediate cases between the above, but have I missed any important forms of believing, at least insofar as they relate to the question of religiosity?

This entry was posted in Religion. Bookmark the permalink.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
43 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Edward Mariyani-Squire
Edward Mariyani-Squire
11 years ago

To very quickly answer Don’s questions from the other thread:

[1] Could I intentionally decieve myself about the truth of a proposition in order to console myself or relieve anxiety?
[2] Could this be a utility maximising strategy?
[3] And if so, could self deception be a rational choice?
[4] Might it be irrational to insist on holding only true proposition to be true?

1. Not easily. I imagine one could intentionally put oneself into a set of circumstances knowing that this is likely to change your beliefs to ones that you currently know are both consoling and false. John Stuart (Mill) talks about something like this (not in the context of religion however) when he was chewing the old Free Will vs Determinism chestnut. One might imagine that one would struggle with one’s conviction in the new beliefs given that one knows how it all started, but that, of course, need not occur. After the change in beliefs, one may well look back on one’s “old self” and think that person was a fool to hold those old beliefs.
2. Yes.
3. Yes – providing ‘rational’ here means ‘utility maximising’.
4. Yes – providing you mean here only ‘irrational to insist on only believing true propositions’ and ‘irrational’ means ‘utility non-maximising’. Actually, this last one, taken strictly, is the simplest one for neoclassicism (leaving aside the special case of self-deception). Given that one could always have some doubt about whether a proposition is true, to insist on believing only true propositions could entail extremely high costs associated with investigations to guarantee that a proposition is indeed true. At some point one has to make a decision about whether to continue with an investigation: despite not yet achieiving a guarantee of the truth of a proposition, if the estimated costs of the next increment of investigation outweigh the estimated benefits, one stops investigating. To keep going with the investigation until one has guaranteed truth “and hang the cost” would indeed be irrational.
(Aside: I regard it to be a contradiction in terms to say “I believe X and I also believe X to be false” because I think that the phrase “I believe X” has an implicit clause: “I believe X to be true“. Since “to be true” always applies to our belief-claims, it is usually redundant in speech. When we add “to be true”, it is to express some other point.)

Edward Mariyani-Squire
Edward Mariyani-Squire
11 years ago

Don: in response to my

if the estimated costs of the next increment of investigation outweigh the estimated benefits, one stops investigating

you should now come back with:
But if the costs and benefits are only estimated, doesn’t that mean you have to have investigated those estimates? And doesn’t that mean you will have conducted a cost-benefit analysis of those investigations? But they will involve their own estimates of when to stop those investigations. And doesn’t that mean you have to have investigated those estimates? And doesn’t that mean you will have conducted a cost-benefit analysis of those investigations? Ad infinitum.

Edward Mariyani-Squire
Edward Mariyani-Squire
11 years ago

James:

This looks like a good list. My only quibble is that although (5) involves using the word ‘belief’, I’m not sure I would classify it as a belief per se. Maybe I’m misunderstand the point, but I would have thought that to say “I believe X” would involve some kind or degree of personal conviction on the part of the speaker. Do you mean something like this?

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
11 years ago

James,

interesting. I would add to your list implicit beliefs, i.e. necessary beliefs of which we are not even aware that nevertheless guide our choices. Examples could include doing what we’re told because of an implicit belief in the goodness of authority, or refusing gifts of strangers in the implicit belief that they want something back.
The question about implicit beliefs is how these are actually coded into our brain. Is there a true belief in that there is some subconscious area that tests the outside world to a causal model, alerting the consciousness to do something; or are we talking more about automated reactions that lack any test and hence might more properly be described as appearing like implicit beliefs (such as a habit of obedience that leads to choices that appear to be based on implicit beliefs in the goodness of authority)?

Don Arthur
11 years ago

Edward – Here’s a quick reply until I’ve had a chance to think about it more.

You suggest that the same belief might have different functions for different people.

Might it be reasonable for a person to form and use beliefs with different functions in different ways?

Maybe it doesn’t make sense to think ‘beliefs’ form a single category defined by a necessary and sufficient set of conditions.

James Farrell
James Farrell
11 years ago

Edward

Perhaps (5) is a case of people misusing the word belief, but they do indeed use it in that way, which makes it eligible under my Wittgensteinian approach. You must have had the experience of somebody saying ‘We [Muslims, Hindus, Catholics] believe [X,Y,Z], and you know that the person in question has never thought deeply about their alleged beliefs, and would switch religion at the drop of a hat if it was necessary, say, to avoid persecution or get married. They are describing cultural phenemena, almost in the manner in which one might say ‘we [Australians] play cricket and eat prawns’.

Your discussion with Don raises similar issues to those raised by Pascal’s Wager. Those who advocate accepting the Wager presumably don’t mean I should pretend to believe something I don’t, but that I should lower my resistance, ‘open my heart’, and make God welcome to speak to me.

Paul

Yes, implicit beliefs might be a separate category. Or perhaps there’s a continuum from explicit to completely implicit. Some inplicit beliefs are only made explicit when they’re unexpectedly contradicted — such as, my favorite shirt is wating for me in the wardrobe.

A category that I omitted altogether was normative beliefs. These range from opinions on matters that are generally accepted as contested — ‘I believe in the right to free legal advice” — to what feel more like hard facts — ‘I believe that raping children is wrong’.

Don Arthur
11 years ago

James’ #1 meaning of belief gives me an idea.

Unless you know the conditions under which a person would be disturbed, you don’t know what they believe.

Which makes me wonder about John Shelby Spong‘s belief in God.

Edward Mariyani-Squire
Edward Mariyani-Squire
11 years ago

Don

Might it be reasonable for a person to form and use beliefs with different functions in different ways?

Yes. My thought about different functions arises out of anecdotal experience rather than serious study. I find that most ‘believers’ (in monotheism) hold the same basic metaphysical beliefs for sometimes quite different reasons, and those reasons seem to correspond to different functions. E.g. (a) Some believe in a God because it serves an explanatory function which satisfies them. And there are sub-divisions within this. Some because it answers for them the cosmological question “why is there something rather than nothing”; some because it answers for them a more earthly question “why this rather than that”; some because it answers for them the question of why unusual or highly unlikely events happen. The reasoning seems to be of the abductive inferential kind (although I personally doubt that they actually reason to the existence of a God). (b) Some believe in a God because it serves as a consolation. Again, there are sub-divisions: for some it offers the hope of cosmic justice ‘in the end’ where virtuous and unjust acts are finally taken into account; it consoles some that their loved ones have not been utterly obliterated and in some sense are still present; for others it does both – it consoles some who feel that a virtuous loved one who suffered horribly in life will ‘in the end’ experience happiness as they deserve; for some it serves as a kind of consolation in times of psychological desperation, loneliness or hopelessness, as per an old ‘definition’ of God: ‘God is the one upon whom one calls when there is no-one left to call upon’. (c) Still others seem to see God as the necessary basis for an objective conception of normative ethics.

None of these reasons that serve functions are what one could call rock-solid – and from an atheistic perspective, for the most part, they are all pretty poor reasons – but from the perspective of the believer that is usually neither here nor there as long as it is personally satisfying. That these reasons are satisfying to them is something else to think about.

This all leaves aside the issue of other beliefs that are religious in nature, but are not about the metaphysical realm – e.g. some people hold to certain religious practices because they believe they are ‘good for them’ in some sense. In this respect one sometimes hears it said that, say, Richard Dawkins would benefit from certain religious practices because they would teach him the virtues of humility and thereby make him a more pleasant human being (although one could always counter, Schopenhauer-style, that justified arrogance is a genuine virtue).

James:

Those who advocate accepting the Wager presumably don’t mean I should pretend to believe something I don’t, but that I should lower my resistance

Yes, I think that is what Pascal was getting at. If I recall correctly, the purpose of the Wager Argument – directed at the atheist – was not to prove that disbelief in a God was irrational, but rather more modestly, (1) to show that on expected utility grounds it was not complete lunacy to believe in a (pleasure/pain dispensing) God; thus (2) it would not be complete lunacy to at least give ‘living the religious life’ a burl … (3) the end-point of which may be a genuine change of belief to theism. The difference between John Stuart and Pascal in this respect was that the former was mostly interested in a person changing his or her character or disposition whereas the latter was focused on belief (although one assumes character would come into it somewhere).

A category that I omitted altogether was normative beliefs.

Would you say that normative beliefs have truth-values? E.g. ‘I believe that raping children is wrong is true’.

Don Arthur
11 years ago

My thought about different functions arises out of anecdotal experience rather than serious study

Edward – There is a body of theory about the functions of attitudes (for example the work of Daniel Katz).

I’m still wondering what a belief is.

If we say that a belief is a propositional attitude does this commit us to the idea that people carry propositions around in their heads?

I’m inclined to say that animals can have beliefs. But I’m not convinced that cognitive scientists will one day discover propositions stored in the heads of cats, dogs and wombats.

I’d be happier with an account of belief that didn’t presuppose that people have ready formed sentences stored in their brains.

I also share Quine’s worries about reference and translation — but that’s another issue.

James Farrell
James Farrell
11 years ago

Maybe it doesn’t make sense to think ‘beliefs’ form a single category defined by a necessary and sufficient set of conditions.

Well, that was meant to be my whole point, Don!

I guess we can probably scratch up some necessary conditions. A belief is some kind of proposition that some person thinks to be the case, and I’ll leave it to more expert philosophers to define all the bits and pieces ibvolved there. But not all such thought propostions are beliefs. We speak of them as beliefs only in situations when they are called, or might potentially be called, into question, either because of disagreement or because the holder of the thought later doubts or even repuduiates. If you’re completely sure that something is the case, and don’t need even mometarily to double check in some way, it doesn’t make sense to call it a belief, although you might later discover you were wrong and then it becomes something you previously believed.

It;s probably also a necessary condition for a belief that the proposition matters for some reason, that it has some consequences. But I’ll have to think more about that.

Edward: that’s a whole nother debate, isn’t it? The point here is merely that that’s one of the ways belief is used — which you wouldn’t dispute, would you? Even avowed nihilist might use the word belief in that way.

Edward Mariyani-Squire
Edward Mariyani-Squire
11 years ago

James:

that’s a whole nother debate, isn’t it? The point here is merely that that’s one of the ways belief is used — which you wouldn’t dispute, would you? Even avowed nihilist might use the word belief in that way.

I was thinking about it in terms of the original general definition that I offered to Don and then followed up on (aside in #1) – viz. that a belief is a state of mind in which a proposition is consciously held to be true. The kinds of belief in your above list deals with the ‘strength’ of belief or the degree to which one feels it is warranted (and so what would be involved in changing it, and the psychological effect of a change).

Implicit beliefs (#4) and normative beliefs (#6) are interesting to me because the former brings into question the “consciously held” element in my general definition, and the latter brings into question the “to be true” element. It would be interesting if there were beliefs that had no truth-values at all, and yet were still meaningful. Normative statements are certainly good candidates – “shut the door” doesn’t seem to be either true or false. It’s only a short hop then to a category of beliefs that are neither true nor false.

Don Arthur
11 years ago

James – Let’s see if I understand this.

You’re suggesting three conditions:

1. Belief implies the conscious awareness of a proposition. A belief is a particular kind of attitude towards a proposition. For example, Gordon Brown might have a number of attitudes towards the proposition “David Cameron is the Prime Minister of the UK” — he BELIEVES that this is true and DESIRES that it is false.

2. Belief implies doubt. Unless a person consciously considers the truth value of a proposition (ie the possibility that it might be false) we would not call it a belief.

3. Belief implies consequences for action. If the truth or falsity of a proposition has no consequences for action, we shouldn’t call it a belief. Or perhaps you mean that a proposition whose truth or falsity has no consequences is a meaningless proposition?

Perhaps an ‘implicit belief’ is when a person behaves as if they think a proposition is true (or false) but:

a) has no conscious awareness of the proposition; or
b) would never think to doubt it.

An example might be some proposition about gravity.

Implications for polling etc

Returning to an issue we discussed earlier, perhaps you could explain response instability in surveys using the idea that many people are being asked to take an attitude towards a proposition that they have never considered before.

When polled, they become aware of the proposition and form an attitude towards it on the spot. To do this, they quickly try to call to mind considerations that might be relevant to the attitude they take (or, at least, report).

It may be that people can hold propositions in memory (ie they can at least recognise that they’ve heard a statement before) but not have taken an attitude towards the proposition. I think this is what Zaller is suggesting.

Part of what worries me about this account is the assumption that propositions have the same meaning to different people.

It seems to me that something like ‘global warming is real and is man made’ has quite a different meaning to a scientist trained in a relevant field than it does to a lay person with little or no scientific educuation (who might not make a distinction between ‘global warming’ and ‘hole in the ozone layer’).

It’s not clear to me that surveys always present people with the same proposition.

Don Arthur
11 years ago

I hope you’re wrong about AGW v. ozone

James – There’s evidence from a number of surveys that respondents are unable to distinquish between ozone depletion and global warming.

For example, in a 1998 paper Richard J. Bord, Ann Fisher and Robert E. O’Connor reported:

… majorities in 6 countries (Canada, U.S., Mexico, Brazil, Portugal, and Russia) recognized the contribution of auto exhaust emissions, rainforest depletion, and coal and oil emissions to global warming. Majorities, however, also inaccurately targeted aerosol sprays while some majorities and substantial minorities picked nuclear power plants and refrigerators and air conditioners.

This authors comment that: “Apparently many people view the ozone hole and global warming as part of the same process.”

This is a reasonable interpretation. Aerosol sprays, refrigerators and air conditioners are among the best known sources of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). CFCs contribute to ozone depletion and governments have taken action to reduce their use.

A 2003 survey asked Americans about the problems carbon capture and storage could address. Most responded that they were not sure. However almost as many respondents said that carbon capture and storage could reduce ozone depletion (21%) as global warming (23%). The responses for acid rain (21%) and smog (29%) were similar.

It looks as if many respondents are using much simpler and broader concepts than people in the scientific and policy communities.

The concepts may be something like “harm to the atmospheric environment”, “things that harm the atmospheric environment” and “things that prevent harm to the atmospheric environment”. Respondents translate questions about specific kinds of harm (eg ozone depletion) or policies to alleviate harm (eg reduce CO2 emissions) into these more general concepts.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
11 years ago

James,

I’ve not read carefully through the comments, so someone else may have said this, but I think there is an additional meaning – in a religious context anyway. You might like to read Terry Eagleton asserting that the question ‘does God exist’ is not the same kind of question as ‘does Santa exist’.

One might have made a decision to live as if something were the case without really concerning oneself with its ‘truth value’ whatever that means in this context (I too think that the question ‘does God exist’ is not like the question ‘does Santa exist’ though I did when I was a kid – I was never encouraged to think that either Santa or God existed, but that is by the by).

Thus I think there would be plenty of people who have grown up in a religion who do not want to consider whether God exists as if it were a scientific proposition. They wish to exist as if the question of good and evil and other values they have made their own are not cosmically arbitrary and the only way they know how to do this is to go on practising their religion. In this sense they can be said to be ‘believers’ but they’re actually uninterested in the scientific truth or falsity of their orientation to the world. I actually think this is a pretty common form of ‘belief’ – by which I mean a pretty common orientation of modern ‘believers’.

Practising Anglicans come to mind, but that’s being a bit smartarsed. I think many modern people of many faiths, are like this. It’s a kid of willed decision. You can say they are willing ‘belief’ in God as a scientific proposition if you like, but I don’t think that describes what is happening very well. It’s a willed decision to live within a particular orientation to the world and to a religion and culture (usually but not necessarily) the one in which one was brought up. It does not entail ‘belief’ in any of the senses you’ve listed above.

James Farrell
James Farrell
11 years ago

Nicholas,

As it happens, I mentioned Eagleton in my very last comment. When you blogged in praise of his anti-Dawkins article, I took Dawkins’ side, and I’m still on Dawkins’ side. I think that transcendent conscious beings either exist or they don’t. If theologically sophisticated people like Eagleton can conceive of a third category, good luck to them, but I can’t help noticing that most Christian apologists talk about evidence for His existence all the time, whether it’s the cosmological argument, the fine-tuning argument, the iron-clad historical evidence for the empty tomb, or whatever. It must be great comfort to these experts to know that Eagleton will be there to trump the Dawkinses with his ‘existence is a red herring’ thesis if all their crude arguments fail.

Having said that, I have no problem with the rest of your comment. Religious belief for a lot of people is in large part wishful thinking, whether it’s a wish for moral certainty, a wish to be rewarded or vindicated for their moral choices, a wish for justice, a wish for protection, or a wish for an afterlife. When the wishful thinking runs up against the patent lack of evidence, this kind of believer seeks reassurance from priests and theologians, whom they trust to have looked into the matter more deeply. This kind of belief doesn’t fit easily fit into any of my categories, so it probably deserves its own.

Just on a minor point: Are you necessarily the best judge of whether belief in God and belief in Santa are similar? Isn’t it a bit like someone who hasn’t tasted Coke or Pepsi declaring them to be quite different? Having believed firmly in both God and Santa myself, I’m ready to attest to the remarkable similarity of the two propositional attitudes!

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
11 years ago

Hi James,

If you were in a debate and you had to argue that the question ‘does God exist?’ was different to the question ‘does Santa exist?’ or ‘does the Great Wall of China exist?’ how would you go about it?

What do you think he means?

James Farrell
James Farrell
11 years ago

You want me to play devil’s advocate?

What you’re asking is a job for a trained philsopher. But if it was left to me I’d start by noticing that there are certain objects of which it doesn’t make sense to ask whether they exist, like triangles. Then I’d assert that God is something like that, and I’d offer a version of the ontological argument or the argument from contingency. The thing is, though, it doesn’t make sense to believe or not believe in triangles either, so if you want to drop existence from the equation, you have to drop belief as well. In any case, did any living person ever embrace an actual religion as a result of being persuaded by one of those abstract arguments?

Also, if you agree that it makes sense to ask whether Santa exists, does this apply to unicorns too? Witches? Quetzlcoatl? Zeus? Yahweh? The being the Archbishiop of Canterbury prays to? At which item did you switch from ‘yes, it makes sense to ask’ to ‘no, it doesn’t make sense’?

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
11 years ago

I think I wanted you to play God’s advocate! But you’re still playing devil’s advocate.

But that was a flip response (of mine) because I didn’t want you to play advocate. I wanted you to try to figure out what Eagleton might have meant, to put it in it’s most sympathetic light. Actually I’m not after sympathy, just understanding. I wonder if you can put the argument you take Eagleton to be making in a way that he’d recognise as the point he’s making. If you can’t, I guess you don’t understand the point he’s making.

As for being a trained philosopher, I’m no trained philosopher myself. I think it does call for some effort to make sense of what the other person is saying.

Btw, I haven’t gone back over Eagleton, so I may need to be corrected, but I don’t think he says that it doesn’t make sense to ask whether God exists. I think he is saying that the question ‘does God exist’ is a very different one to the question ‘does the Great Wall of China exist?”

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
11 years ago

Nick, James,

sounds like a fun challenge. Mind if I take it up?

I would interpret Eagleton to say that god is the pre-condition for all existence, the source of all love, all senses, and all creation. God is neither a he, a she, a force, an entity, a thing-in-the-sky, a basic geometric figure, or even a mental trait like pride, meaning that in a corporeal sense god does not exist. Rather, nothing else would exist without god, and all verbal categorisations are inadequate to describe god with, making it a gross perversion of the god-concept to apply a ‘where is he and how could he have done what others credit him with?’ type of reasoning on god. Perhaps the closest a modern rationalist could come to understanding the absurdity of asking whether god exists is to ask whether two plus two is four in the situation that four is defined as two plus two. Like there are mathematical equations that are absurdities, Dawkins’ existence argument raises an absurd question.

Within the idea that god is the source of all beginning and that god is loving, the many representations of him, both in the bible and in other writings and imagery, are but aids to convey some of the aspects of god’s meaning to onlookers who do not have the time or inclination to get to understand god. This means that Dawkins, and other so-called valliant defenders of rational doctrine are attacking the symbols used to explain god, and do not address god itself. Hence their critiques of the actions of the supposedly faithful miss the point of god and of god’s role in society. They ascribe things done by fanatics as somehow showing the evil of the god concept, which is the exact opposite of the actual church doctrine that is equally appalled by fanaticism.

True followers of church doctrine know that the reality of human history is that our basic innocence gets perverted, distorted, raped and mutilated by our own desires and the actions of other humans. For want of a clearer imagery, we battle our private demons and the manifestations of the demons of others. We are our own undoing and our own source of misery, not god’s. It is the internal battle for acceptance of our own flaws, learning to live with them and overcoming those flaws that makes a true Christian and that constitutes the living meaning of purgatory and resurrection. It is not a mindless ‘killing of the heathens’, or the belief that ‘He created the animals before humans’ that characterises a real Christian, but the ever-present awareness of god’s love and our own flawed nature that we must strive at great pain to accept and overcome that makes a good Christian. Dawkins and his rational brethren inappropriately blame all those who call themselves Christians for the actions of a subset who call themselves Christian, which is as absurd as blaming Dawkins for Nazi eugenics or for the horrors of laser-guided bombardments.

James Farrell
James Farrell
11 years ago

That’s inspiring stuff Paul, but I think it boils down to two propositions, not mutually exclusive, but separate.

First, God is beyond human comprehension and investigation, just as a chemical equation is out of reach for my cat. If that’s right, I don’t know how we can infer anything meaningful or practical about His properties at all. How would we conclude that he’s loving, for example?

Second, He is some kind of metaphor for the ideal of human goodness: faith in God, on that interpreation, means a faith in the possibility of human improvement and commitment to overcome the inner obstacles (pride, anger, prejudice) to peace, justice, equity and so on. But if we interpret God as a doctrine that’s indistinguishable from secular humanism, where does that leave most of mainstream apologetics?

Nicholas, Eagleton is saying that God makes it His business to be invisible, so we might as well give up on emprical evidence and also, presumably, evidence based on a priori reasoning (cosmological arguemnts and the like). They (Christians and Jews) ‘had faith in God in the sense that I have faith in you.’ Well, I do have faith in you, and it’s based on my experience of your consistent kindness and intellectual prowess, and the admiration you inspire in other people whose opinion I respect. Alll of that is empirically falsifiable (so stay on your toes), which makes it a scientific theory of sorts.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
11 years ago

Thanks Paul, As James said – it’s inspiring stuff to read. I think most Christians would think you’d done a great job. Almost good enough to make me a believer – but still no cigar – tragically ;(

There’s only one thing, as far as I read him Eagleton is not making his point as a believer! I think he’s making his points as someone who has some familiarity with theology and philosophy, but as one who could not be called a believer.

I don’t think this matters for your paragraphs because they’re at least capturing something of the theology that Eagleton is referring to. But it’s a pointer to something more serious with James’ follow up IMHO. With James’ response we’re back in a simple world in which God is a bit complex, a bit unknown, but the kind of incomprehension involved is of the same kind as the cat’s ignorance about a chemical equation.

James, I wonder if you are trying to make Eagleton seem silly – rather than straining to take in what he’s getting at. Does Eagleton really say that God makes it his business to be invisible? I’m not quibbling here, I’m trying to point to the way in which I think you are not cottoning onto what Eagleton is trying to get at.

Above, Paul says this “Perhaps the closest a modern rationalist could come to understanding the absurdity of asking whether god exists is to ask whether two plus two is four in the situation that four is defined as two plus two. Like there are mathematical equations that are absurdities, Dawkins’ existence argument raises an absurd question.”

My way of putting it would be to say that for someone who is a serious and theologically aware Christian (and therefore for someone who is a serious and theologically aware non-believer) the question ‘does God exist?’ is more like ‘does the universe exist?’ or ‘does consciousness exist?’, ‘does matter exist?’ (what the hell is ‘matter’?) than it is like ‘does the Great Wall of China or bunyips exist?

Don Arthur
11 years ago

James – Part of the problem here is that there’s no universally shared understanding of what ‘God’ refers to.

Dan Dennett and Linda LaScola set out to find and interview clergy who did not believe in God. And they immediately ran into a problem.’God’ means different things to different people, and religious leaders have deliberately tolerated ambiguity. Dennett and LaScola write that there is:

a gentle fog that shrouds the question of belief in God in so much indeterminacy that if asked whether they believed in God, many people could sincerely say that they don’t know what they are being asked.

They go on to say:

A spectrum of available conceptions of God can be put in rough order, with frank anthropomorphism at one extreme—a God existing in time and space with eyes and hands and love and anger—through deism, a somehow still personal God who cares but is nevertheless outside time and space and does not intervene, and the still more abstract Ground of all Being, from which (almost?) all anthropomorphic features have been removed, all the way to frank atheism: nothing at all is aptly called God. To some people, deism is already atheism in disguise, but others are more flexible. Karen Armstrong, for instance, in her most recent book, The Case for God, dismisses both the anthropomorphic visions (“idolatry”) and the various brands of atheism, while claiming, as she recently put it while speaking with Terri Gross on Fresh Air, that “God is not a being at all.” Assuming that she meant what she said, she claims, by simple logical transposition, that no being at all is God. That would seem to be about as clear a statement of atheism as one could ask for, but not in her eyes.

In my own experience, I’ve encountered communities of people whose identity is anchored in certain key texts. Everyone says that they accept the content of the texts, but the interpretive gymnastics can be spectacular.

I think it’s important to ask whether what someone is attached to is the rituals, traditions and community, or whether it’s a particular philosophical idea.

James Farrell
James Farrell
11 years ago

Nicholas, Paul’s ‘two plus two’ is the same as my triangle, isn’t it? The universe is the same sort of thing — the sum of everything that exists must itself exist. In asserting that ‘theologically aware Christians’ think about God along those lines, you must have in mind arguments of the contingent and ontological variety. These are standard arguments, and exactly the ones I referred to at #18, where I offered two objections to that approach.

Ironically, when I got down to the Championesque assignment you set me, I discovered that Eagleton’s line wasn’t of that variety at all, but one about emotions, and summed up by the quote about ‘faith in you’.

I promise I’m not trying to make anyone sound silly, although that’s clearly Eagleton’s intention vis a vis Dawkins. I’ve outgrown such impulses.

Don Arthur
11 years ago

James – At #7 I wondered whether your definition 1 implies that: “Unless you know the conditions under which a person would be disturbed, you don’t know what they believe.”

It seems to me that if you can’t always isolate individual religious beliefs and make a judgement about whether they are “a menace” or not.

The question to ask is how the belief fits into a person’s worldview and what consequences it has for their behaviour.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
11 years ago

I agree about Eagleton’s tone – entirely as up himself as Dawkins. A little more humorous in some ways, but only if you can get through the unctuous superiority and the odd attempted joke that isn’t funny at all.

To change the subject from where we are slightly (but to return to my original comment which tried to add a category of belief, I tried to outline a type of ‘belief’ that was ultimately an ‘orientation to the world’ rather than something about whose literal truth the believer was particularly concerned. You don’t seem to have thought much of that and described this type of belief as ‘wishful thinking’. That’s certainly not what I thought I was saying. In any event you referred to what ‘Christian apologists’ said (presumably in debating the likes of Dawkins).

What I was thinking about was the way in which faith is experienced. I would have thought that from sometime after the catastrophes of the reformation and counter-reformation there arose in modern religion some implicit sense that as strange as it may sound, one’s own religion’s specific stories – for instance that Christ was God’s only son crucified and rose again – were not disproofs of others’ equally fantastic stories (that the Jews are God’s chosen people – the source of most Jewish humour right there!)

I think the majority of modern Christians in most countries would think this. You could say that this just demonstrates internal inconsistencies. But I think most Christians might refer to something like Corinthians 13 “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” If that is true then these stories are hints of something, hints of the ground of being.

According to Christian apologetics this ground of being is love. God is love. Or so we are told, though this makes things like cystic fibrosis a bit tricky to explain. But I do think that the fact that there are oodles of believers who do not think their belief is to be preferred on any objective grounds to a range of beliefs that are literally different to their own is one that speaks at least as clearly to what modern Religion is as any doctrinal propositions.

I don’t think this is ‘wishful thinking’ though perhaps I’m splitting hairs. Since we are unlikely to get at the ‘ground of being’ in any scientific way any time soon, since the ground of being is within us – as various religions (Buddhism? – my spellchecker suggested ‘nudism’) and mystical traditions within other religions teach – then it might be said that modern Christianity takes on its doctrine as an act of will, rather than one of belief.

Edward Mariyani-Squire
Edward Mariyani-Squire
11 years ago

Leaving aside the Eagleton v. Dawkins debate for a moment and returning to “the list” of beliefs, I have come across a seemingly paradoxical case involving beliefs.

(1) The propositions that one believes are those for which there is satisfactory evidence for them. One should believe those propositions.
(2) The propositions that one disbelieves are those for which there is satisfactory evidence against them. One should disbelieve those propositions.

These are standard cases of ‘being rational’ (in the everyday sense of the word).

It would seem to be absurd to say it is ever rational to disbelieve a proposition for which there is satisfactory evidence. What of the case where a person has good reason to believe a proposition, but in so believing it, this would prevent them from acquiring further knowledge?

E.g. a scientist has good evidence that she will probably die of cancer in the next 12 months, but by disbelieving it she may boost her immune system, live a bit longer, and thereby acquire some additional quantum of knowledge that she would not otherwise acquire.

E.g. a tennis player has good reason to believe he will win is match, but by believing that he will become complacent and thereby substantially decrease his chances of actually winning. It is only by disbelieving the proposition that he will actually win the match.

E.g. an academic has good reason to believe that his seminar presentation will be poorly received, but by disbelieving this, his delivery will be more confident and self-assured and so will be more likely to win over his audience on the day.

In these cases, would it not be rational to disbelieve the proposition for which there is good evidence – that is, the proposition that one should ordinarily believe?

See E. Conee, ‘Evident, but Rationally Unacceptable’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 65, (1987) pp.316-326.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
11 years ago

Edward,

Your examples are not entirely dissimilar or unrelated to my own elaboration of the idea of belief as an orientation to the world.

Nicholas Gruen
11 years ago

James,

I’m trying to open up a space in which there is a different kind of belief, which I’ve called ‘orientation to the world’. You have described this (I’m trying to be descriptive here, not rude) as a ‘type 5’ belief, which figures as either wishful thinking or a cultural identity badge. As you can imagine I find this belittling – not of me but of the concept I’m trying to suggest.

Consider the question “are you the person you were 30 years ago?” The answer is clearly “yes and no”. Yes in some ways and according to some meanings, and no in others. Now consider the question “are you the same person you were yesterday?”. Now you can slide the scale towards more ‘yes’ than the previous example, but the fact is that it’s deeply mysterious. Perhaps you don’t find it mysterious in a practical sense – and in a practical sense it’s not. But in a philosophical or metaphysical sense it’s got all the same troubling elements as the question “are you the same person you were 30 years ago, or as a kid?”

So what is your ‘belief’ about this question. Is it ‘yes’ or ‘no’? I think the answer is that you’re not after a belief in the sense that you want to know the answer to whether the Great Wall of China exists. You’re after something that doesn’t offend your idea of the theoretical (philosophical/metaphysical) logic of things too much, but basically you need some practical answer to this question. You assume you are the same person. This is not wishful thinking or a fashion statement so you be chums with all those others who think the same way. It’s what I’ve called an ‘orientation to the world’, a way you’ve decided to answer the question – you’ve decided you are the same person that you were yesterday and indeed thirty years ago, that there is a continuity there that you wish to acknowledge, and you proceed to live your life on that basis.

With that question out of the way, you need (rather less urgently, but you need it nevertheless) to know what kind of world (cosmos) you’re living in. I think you would decide (believe) that you are in a world of matter, space and forces. No problem really, except that ultimately, this is a fictive statement (I think ‘fictive’ is the right word). We don’t really know what ‘matter’ is and it’s hard to see how we ever will. Or forces, or anything else much. We know some of the commonsensical properties of matter – extension in space being the main one – but we also know enough to know that as we’ve gone into these things they’ve got weirder and weirder. (In the 19th century Comte and plenty of others expected that the universe would turn out to be billiard balls all the way down, but it wasn’t (and a bit more thought from Comte would have suggested that this calming vision had as many logical holes in it as any other simple answer).

So it turns out that questions like ‘what makes up the universe?’ are, for those of us who can do no better than look through the glass darkly, questions about which we’re deeply ignorant, but which we need to know the answer to in order to get on with our lives (we don’t usually deliberate about the question explicitly, but we must act, and so we make assumptions.) So our response to that question, our orientation to it, is similar to our response to the question of identity. Am I the same person I was yesterday? I’ll think and act as if I am.

I see modern religion – or what remains of religion after its bruising (cleansing?) encounter with modern science – as a creative response to these basic fictive tasks of life. It’s one of the reasons I am a huge admirer of Hegel, whose response to this was hugely creative without being delusional, which is to say that the fictive concepts that he worked with created insights about life and the world we live in. By conceiving of the history of the cosmos as the life of ‘spirit’ he built his thought on the strangeness of it all – because spirit isn’t really something that you can put your finger on (rather like the makeup of the universe!). I think that’s healthier than the alternative which is to simply make one’s metaphysics just a kind of unthinking extension of commonplace intuitions arising from our living our practical lives (bumping into tables and whatever).

Similarly Christian religion teaches that the cosmos is love (whatever that means). I don’t believe that (whatever that means), but I respect it deeply as an orientation to the world.

Edward Mariyani-Squire
Edward Mariyani-Squire
11 years ago

Nic,

I’m not sure that an ‘orientation to the world’ is a belief at all unless one is willing to stretch the word ‘belief’ beyond what English speakers mean. One could say that an ‘orientation’ causes beliefs and is based on beliefs, but is not a belief per se.

Your case of ‘are you the same person you were in the past?’ illustrates this point. One’s answer would constitute a belief in the standard propositional sense (a la ‘I believe [that it is true that] I am the same person’). The reasons would be also composed of beliefs about, e.g., what you take ‘same’ and ‘person’ to mean.

The ‘orientation’ one has is likely to influence what these latter terms are taken to mean – e.g. one might have had experiences in one’s life which inclined one to attend to the feature of consciousness & memory of family members as being important such that this feature is picked out as being essential to the meaning of a ‘person’. In that case, one may be ‘oriented’ to answer the question in accordance with that meaning and knowledge of one’s consciousness & memory of family members.

Mutatis mutandis religious beliefs. An ‘orientation’ may cause ir/religious beliefs, but would not be a belief itself. So, to say ‘God is love’ takes the propositional form and presuming it has substantive content (be it true or false) could be a belief but could hardly be called an ‘orientation to the world’.

The only way out of this that I can see (for now) is to say that the apparent proposition ‘G is L’ is not in fact a proposition at all. It has the form of a proposition, but this is a matter of linguistic convention. On the ‘orientation’ view (or something like it), it would be an de dicto propositional expression of something de re non-propositional, such as an emotion, or a desire, or a need – that is, some kind of felt imperative.

The only fly in the ointment is that many (most?) religiously orientated people think that statements such as ‘God is Love’ or ‘Jesus Christ is the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in Being with the Father’, are indeed literally propositional and are thus properly objects of belief.

It seems that if one wishes to hold to the ‘orientation’ view one simply has to bite the bullet and say that religious people are simply deluded about this – that these statements, despite what people sincerely think, are not really propositions at all and so are not really beliefs at all. This gives us a curious result: people believe they deeply and sincerely believe something when in fact they don’t.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
11 years ago

Hi Edward,

Thanks for your comment. I must say I find this interesting. What do you do if none of the words we’ve been using really fit? We’re using words which take their meaning from commonplace life “I believe there’s a chair in the loungeroom through that closed door”. Yet we’re talking metaphysics. It’s a tricky business. I’m sure that in contrast to me, many philosophers would argue the way you are arguing, that something either is a belief or not and if not, why am I using the word.

I believe I am the person I was many years ago, and I also believe I am not. So that doesn’t get me very far. When I use the word ‘orientation’ I mean more than some inclination. I am trying to convey the idea that a decision has been made that I will view the world and respond to the world in a certain way and that corresponds to the way I would if this thing were true.

So if I were a Christian my orientation to the world would be that God (who is the author of the world) is love and that the world is also (therefore) in some sense love, or infused with love (I know it’s not easy to think this if for instance you are about to be eaten by a white pointer, but we’ll leave that to one side.)

You can say this is not a belief. Well, no it’s not a belief like the chair in the room. But I think the belief in this description of Christian belief or faith is true to the way in which Christian faith is discussed. The idea of challenges to one’s faith, to having one’s faith tested is central to faith itself. That seems to me to be threats to one’s orientation to the world. Lots of Christians report doubt and testing of their faith. Many would regard it as inseparable from the experience of faith.

On your last two paras, this was something I was going to say further up the thread in response to James. What you report as being typical of Christians – namely that they are believers in Christian dogma in some exclusive way as if it is synonymous with commonplace propositions like there being a chair in the room – may be typical of Christian apologists, and those who teach in the church. I can only say that it doesn’t seem to be mainstream Christian practice if you look closely.

Take my very traditional Greek Orthodox parents-in-law. They are believers in every sense. Papou (Granddad) has told me in his very broken English, of the miracles he has experienced. Yet they would not think that the truth of their Christianity demonstrates the falsity of other faiths (though it would if their belief were like the belief in a chair). I doubt the Greek Orthodox Church quite thinks that, but not only do my parents in law think that, but I think that is normal, modern Christian practice and faith, as experienced by the faithful. I mention my parents in law to make the point that I’m not just talking about some wishy-washy goody-goody Anglicans here (apologies to Anglicans, there are plenty who are not wishy washy). I think this is mainstream Christian practice. It doesn’t much matter what you call it, but the traditional word we use is that such people are ‘believers’.

James Farrell
James Farrell
11 years ago

I’d intended to answer Nicholas at least once more, but didn’t get around to it until it seemed too late. But since Ed has ressurrected the conversation, here’s what I might have said.

The issue that Nicholas raised by way of analogy is of course a fascinatiing one — in what sense am I the same person as ten years ago? It raises all sorts of questions about how we construct personhood, how we interpret a life as a unified project, the role of memory, the meaning of pride and shame, and so on. I think it’s fine to describe our sense of continuous self as an ‘orientation to the world’, but I don’t agree that this is a type of belief (although I acknowledge that it operates at a deeper cognitive lavel than the ‘attitudes’ I referred to at #30). For it to be a belief, it would need to be possible to imagine someone saying ‘I’ve ceased to believe I’m the same person I was ten years ago’, or ‘Please believe me that I’m the same person I was ten years ago’. Actually, someone might say those things — but only as a figure of speech. On the other hand, they would only be said literally in science fiction movies like Total Recall or fantasies like Freaky Friday.

I’m inclined to stick with the definition of belief that I worked out earlier with some help from Don, according to which a belief has to be capable of being shaken, at least or disavowed. Therefore it must be capable in principle of being challenged — that is, maintained to be wrong. (I think this is at least consistent with Ed’s comments above.) Nicholas seems to be positing a kind of belief that by definition can’t be challenged on either empirical or rational grounds.

Not only does this seem to be an untenable concept of belief in principle, it’s an incorrect description in practice of the convictions that the vast majority of religious people actually hold. Religious believers, when asked why they think God exists, do not say: ‘That’s a misplaced question: God does not “exist” in the same way as Ayers Rock’. Rather, they accept the question on its own terms, and they answer that the universe must have a creator, that complex life forms must have a dsigner, that historians have authenticated the Gospel accounts of Jesus, or what have you. Accordingly, these believers are capable of being made uncomfortable when confronted with counter-arguments, even if they reject them (normally, in the case of the non-theologically-trained, by clinging to authority). That wouldn’t be the case if the beliefs were merely an ‘orientation to the world’.

I have to confess that I don’t really understand Nicholas’s point about his in-laws. As far as I know, Orthodox Christians recite the Nicene Creed — one God, three persons, etc. At the same time the in-laws think Hindu gods are equally valid. In whatever sense they believe in their religion, this belief must exclude the tenets of the Creed. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have genuine religious beliefs, or that they see religion a mere symbolic ritual. In fact, they believe in miracles — that is, that supernatural beings, whether in Christian or Hindu guise, intervene in the world, pass judgement, reward and punish. But why not just call these notions what they are — superstitious vestiges of a time when rational explanations for unexpected phenomena were much harder to come by.

For what it’s worth, my in-laws are creationists. I don’t ridicule them for it, but I don’t mind telling them that they’re wrong, and, yes, we are descended from apes. Creationism is merely a belief in one particular miracle, and my in-laws subscribe to it because, although intelligent people, they haven’t learned enough about biology and palaeontology. It doesn’t help me to understand why they are creationists if I tell myself that have a different ‘orientation to the world’.

Rafe
11 years ago

“I’m inclined to stick with the definition of belief that I worked out earlier with some help from Don, according to which a belief has to be capable of being shaken, at least or disavowed.”

That was the point of Popper’s falsifiability criterion of scientific theories. It has to be IN PRINCIPLE capable of conflicting with some kind of evidence.

Of course there are all kinds of problems with this in practical application, as Popper realised from the start, but at least it means that you can ask a person in a debate whether there is any kind of evidence that would shake their belief and if they say no, then you may as well change the subject.

Edward Mariyani-Squire
Edward Mariyani-Squire
11 years ago

Nic,

[1]

We’re using words which take their meaning from commonplace life … Yet we’re talking metaphysics.

Well, perhaps we can use at least two quite different Wittgensteinian ways of thinking about this.

Taking the perspective of the Tractatus, we could say we are ‘talking’ about transcendental metaphysics (in the broadest sense) and so about entities not of our ordinary experience for which we have no literalistic language (of the propositional form). Yet we wish to speak of them so we use what we have, which is the propositional form of ordinary language. This is inevitably inadequate and so gives us the strange, nebulous statements that so infuriate some atheists. The early Wittgenstein’s recommendation was to simply not talk about such things because we just can’t do so ‘properly’ – so it is that we have the last points of the Tractatus:

6.44 It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists.
6.45 To view the world sub specie aeterni is to view it as a whole–a limited whole. Feeling the world as a limited whole–it is this that is mystical.
6.5 When the answer cannot be put into words, neither can the question be put into words. The riddle does not exist. If a question can be framed at all, it is also possible to answer it.
6.51 Scepticism is not irrefutable, but obviously nonsensical, when it tries to raise doubts where no questions can be asked. For doubt can exist only where a question exists, a question only where an answer exists, and an answer only where something can be said.
6.52 We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched. Of course there are then no questions left, and this itself is the answer.
6.521 The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem. (Is not this the reason why those who have found after a long period of doubt that the sense of life became clear to them have then been unable to say what constituted that sense?)
6.522 There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.
6.53 The correct method in philosophy would really be the following: to say nothing except what can be said, i.e. propositions of natural science–i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy — and then, whenever someone else wanted to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had failed to give a meaning to certain signs in his propositions. Although it would not be satisfying to the other person–he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy–this method would be the only strictly correct one.
6.54 My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)
7 What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.

On the other hand, taking the perspective of the Investigations, there is nothing hidden, nothing mysteriously transcendental that our words are attempting and inevitably failing to grasp. We must not assume the only talk that exists is the simple and sparse language of objects and their relations; we must to pay close attention to the nuances of how words are used, who is using them and for what purpose. We need to see that sentences such as religious ones cannot and so should not be taken <prima facie, that is, literally. They are too bizarre and even nonsensical if we do so take them. Instead, they must be taken figuratively – they stand for various kinds of non-propositional states of the human being. For example, when Blaise Pascal says,

When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity that lies before and after it, when I consider the little space I fill and I see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I rest frightened, and astonished, for there is no reason why I should be here rather than there. Why now rather than then? Who has put me here? By whose order and direction have this place and time have been ascribed to me?

these questions are not literal questions; they are figurative questions; they are expressions of fear, uncertainty, a realised dread of the ‘being unto death’. The religious answers given are similarly not literal answers, but figurative: consolation, reassurance, the generation of calm, or submission to fate. This is why some kinds of atheist answers to these (in reality) figurative questions are so utterly pathetic; they are taken to be literal questions and so literal answers given – answers that completely miss the point of the questioner’s utterances. (It is also, I think, why some kinds of atheist answers can be good – in such cases, the atheist respondent understands what is yearned for by the questioner. Cf. Neil Tyson)

When we come to a Doctor of the Church such as Aquinas, one finds, I think, an attempt to weave together elements of each of the above perspectives. On the one hand, for him, much religious discourse is about metaphysical truths (or falsehoods) that do transcend our ordinary language. Take “God created the cosmos”, for example. To create something, we take raw materials and combine them by some technique in order to create that which previously do not exist. This is how we talk and think about creating. But in talking about the act of creating the cosmos ex nihilo, we cannot be talking about creation in that ordinary sense – it is instead a strange sense, a sense which we cannot really imagine or fully understand. On the other hand, Aquinas does not say, with the Tractatus, that we must therefore be silent. We can and do speak of such things with our ordinary language, despite the fact that we cannot fully comprehend everything about what we are saying.

Interestingly, one finds parallels with this in Islamic theology. For example, there is general agreement that “God created everything out of nothing” is true, however, how this occurs is not comprehensible. From there, one finds theological divisions: one school holds that despite the “how” being incomprehensible, the words are perfectly comprehensible when taken literally (in a quasi-anthropomorphic way); another school holds that because the “how” is not comprehensible, the words are not perfectly comprehensible when taken literally (anthropomorphically), but one can gain a “taste” of the meaning by means of analogy with some created phenomena (such as the act of creative imagination); another school holds that since the “how” is not comprehensible, the true meaning of the formulation is not rationally accessible at all – although authorised, inherently fallible speculation about its meaning is acceptable.

[2]

I am trying to convey the idea that a decision has been made that I will view the world and respond to the world in a certain way and that corresponds to the way I would if this thing were true.

This is an interesting idea which I didn’t see in your earlier posts. The formulation “if this thing were true” is a curious one. I would have thought that one doesn’t just have to make a decision about viewing/responding to the world in a certain way corresponding to X, but one should also somehow make a determination that X is [probably] true. Surely it’s not enough to say, for example, “I have decided to look for the good in my enemies because that corresponds to how I would [should?] be if it were true that Jesus is the Risen Christ.” Surely one couldn’t leave it as a mere conditional because the question immediately arises: but is Jesus is the Risen Christ or not? If not, what reason is there for holding to the consequent (looking for the good in one’s enemies)?

[3]

What you report as being typical of Christians – namely that they are believers in Christian dogma in some exclusive way as if it is synonymous with commonplace propositions like there being a chair in the room – may be typical of Christian apologists, and those who teach in the church. I can only say that it doesn’t seem to be mainstream Christian practice if you look closely. … Take my very traditional Greek Orthodox parents-in-law … they would not think that the truth of their Christianity demonstrates the falsity of other faiths (though it would if their belief were like the belief in a chair).

Obviously it is difficult for me to comment on such an individual case, but I suspect one has to look at specifics. (I think this is implicitly acknowledged in your phrase “their Christianity”.)

In my experience, it is difficult to generalise about Christian practice (let alone religious practice beyond Christianity). Certainly some people treat dogmatic formulations in a straightforward literal way. Others do not – and there is a great deal of variation within this category. However, among almost all of them, as far as I can tell, there are some basic metaphysical propositions they regard as [probably] true (whether consciously justified or consciously not, whether fully comprehended or not) which function as a partial basis for certain practices.

Now as to specification, to take the most obvious case, there are particularities that make a faith ‘Christian’ or ‘Islamic’ or ‘Judaic’ or ‘Buddhist’, etc. To take Christianity, it must involve more than just vague statements about Jesus Christ. There would have to be something believed about Jesus Christ that denotes a specifically ‘Christian’ outlook. For example, it would not be enough to say, “I take inspiration from the life of Jesus” because that is indistinguishable from Islam, or “Jesus was an interesting teacher from whom we can learn” because that would be indistinguishable from Reform Judaism. If, however, one were to say “I love Jesus because he died for the sins of humanity” then one would be talking about something distinctively Christian because no other religion doctrinally claims that and no other people of faith believe that. (As far as practice goes, for it to be Christian one would expect it to be in some way related to beliefs – however strongly held, however central or not, however justified or not – that are distinctly Christian in the above sense. Otherwise, one might say that although the practices might be good, or curious, or habitual or whatever, they would not be Christian per se.)

That said, it is easy to see that a Christian could accept that other religions have much truth in them and so are not wholly false. For example, Catholicism and most informed Catholics recognise the possibility of Muslims and Jews being ‘saved’ due to their monotheism despite the fact they haven’t been sacramentally baptised. With respect to the kind of distinctiveness noted above however, as far as I can see, it is difficult for an informed Catholic to say that faiths which explicitly deny that Jesus died for the sins of humanity are correct on this point.

Now, none of this implies that the belief that, say, ‘Jesus is the Only Begotten Son of God’ or that ‘Jesus died for our sins’ is of the same type as a belief that ‘this chair is brown’. One can still, for example, give the Aquinas-like interpretation to these religious statements – basically, it signifies something true and implies an ‘orientation to the world’, but because it transcends ordinary, everyday categories, it is not the same as talk of tables and chairs (which does not imply said ‘orientation’).

James & Rafe,

For the most part, I agree with the idea that beliefs are propositions held to be true by a person and those propositions are capable of being challenged (in principle) – that is, somehow tested, where there is at least the logical possibility of them being found to be false. However, as per my mate Rene, I also believe that I exist and cannot for the life of me think of a way of challenging that belief. Help?

Rafe
11 years ago

Edward, outside philosophy schools very few people spend a lot of time debating whether they or other people exist.

You don’t need help, you just need to ask more interesting questions.

This thread demonstrates how a lot can be said without making progress in dicussing beliefs. What if you focus on theories and policies instead?

That is the problem with traditional epistemology which is overwhelmingly concerned with the justification of beliefs. It often looks as though it has hit a wall.

Edward Mariyani-Squire
Edward Mariyani-Squire
11 years ago

Rafe said:

Edward, outside philosophy schools very few people spend a lot of time debating whether they or other people exist.

Non-philosophers may not spend any time thinking about whether they exist or not. I suspect all of them believe that they exist however. My question was: how would one go about testing whether that belief is false?

you just need to ask more interesting questions.

That, it seems to me, has the tinge of a quite un-Popperian dogmatic dismissal.

This thread demonstrates how a lot can be said without making progress in dicussing beliefs.

For me, “a lot” would be, say, something book-length.

And I don’t think no progress whatsoever has been made. There has been clarification, categorisation and even innovation through Socratic discussion (all very Popperian). A little tenacity – especially in discussion – is usually a good thing lest no porgress be made in the future.

Rafe
11 years ago

Edward, your existence is a pre-condition or an essentail requirement for asking the question. You need to specify a context or a problem of some kind to make the question meaningful. In some contexts like court cases and contesting wills it can be an issue whether an alleged person is in fact the person they or someone else claims them to be.

What is the context that makes the question “do I exist?” worth asking, or the proposition “I exist!” worth questioning?

Tenacity is fine!

trackback

[…] the efforts of James Farrell as to the many different things meant by lay folk and professionals by the word ‘belief’, I […]

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
11 years ago

Edward,

I left off reading your comment for some time owing to being busy. Now I find I have to think about it some more.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
10 years ago

Hi Edward,

Well it’s been a long time. Anyway, on coming back to this, something told me that I’d already linked this post of mine by way of explanation in this thread. But I hadn’t. Now I have. It’s the best I can manage in response to your more expert comments (alas).

trackback

[…] own personal conclusion from this is, as I’ve suggested on this blog before, is that if we go looking for foundations for our thought, we end up in fictions. It’s best […]