Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Philosophy of (Non-)Belief: Part A


Imagine you have lived in a small village on a remote island in Micronesia all your life, with absolutely no contact with Western culture or media. You move to the U.S and at the airport a reporter asks you through a translator to take a poll:

1. Do you believe: 'Other minds and other subjects of experience besides yourself exist in the Universe.'
2. Do you believe: 'Santa Claus exists.'
3. Do you believe: 'California is to the west of New York.'
4. Do you believe: 'The total number of jelly-beans in the airport candy-store is even.'
5. Do you believe: 'Biological life exists on the moon.'
6. Do you believe: 'If you do good to others you will be rewarded.'

The answers to the poll questions are

A) Yes

B) No

C) I don't know

D) No because I have seen no evidence it is true.

E) Yes because I have seen no evidence it is false.

What would be the most accurate description of your mental attitude towards propositions 1-6?

Most likely you would say you believe 1, though you may have never considered the question consciously or thought of yourself as giving conscious assent to it. The way you behave or the way you react to your sense experience is in accordance with 1 being true. And unless you study philosophy or a related field it is highly unlikely you would ever be acquainted with the arguments and evidence that could be utilized for supporting the truth or falsity of this proposition. Only the insane and philosophers have ever posited good reasons for humans to doubt 1 (I will assume for the rest of this essay that one can unambiguously distinguish between these two classes.) In this case A would be reasonable, but perhaps E would be a more accurate response. But the hypothesis 1 is true would require considerable evidence for you to consider rejecting it, though you may not have any actual evidence to support it being true.

It could be said you lack a belief or don't believe in the truth of propositions 2-4. It could be said you don't think they are true as you have never in fact seen any evidence or reason to think they are true.

But it could also be said you do not believe that propositions 2-4 are false. And similarly, that you have never seen any reason to think they are false.

In these cases it seems reasonable that an actual lack of knowledge about the state-of-affairs described by propositions would express an attitude of neutrality, not rejection, to these propositions. It seems unusual that only a lack of knowledge regarding the truth-value of a proposition would entail one truth-value for a proposition should be privileged over another. If we imagine that there are two possible worlds where a proposition is true in one and false in the other, then it seems unlikely we would be able to say which possible world more closely resembles the one we believe we inhabit currently, unless we had some knowledge that would be relevant to this judgement.

In a case like this you might have considered the matter and formed an attitude and might reasonably answer B) or D). But would D) be an accurate description of your attitude to life on the moon?

Surely if you have knowledge of biology or physics then you might think such a scenario unlikely, without having to review every alleged discovery of life on the moon. You attitude towards life on the  moon is not incorrigible, surely anything is possible, but your knowledge of the necessary conditions under which this proposition would be true might lead you to privilege it being false over being true. Perhaps you think that 'There is no biological life on the moon.' should be considered the null hypothesis that must be rejected but can also fail to be rejected.

But it seems only your knowledge of the relevant conditions under which 5 would be likely or unlikely could justify you privileging one hypothesis over another. Which means a response of D) would not be accurate. Assigning the truth value 'false' to 5 need not be a conscious decision, indeed your mental representation of the world as you understand it would in fact reflect this judgement and this representation would be used whenever you read things like 'Michael Jackson found living on the moon.' to determine your attitude towards these findings. Just as the case in 1 you would in fact privilege one hypothesis over another but in this case it is the denial of a proposition that is to be rejected.
With proposition 6 you might in fact have considered this question consciously. You perhaps can recall an abundance of cases where it did not hold vs. a tiny number of cases where it did. Yet your answer to this question might still be A). Even if in your map of the world you think that it is unlikely a good deed will merit some reward, you still think that it is in some sense desirable or even necessary to assent to the proposition that it would. You might believe that our current world is much closer to a possible world where it is not true doing good will be rewarded, yet you still feel some prudential or pragmatic desire to assent to this proposition, in the face of (possibly overwhelming) evidence to the contrary.


If we accept this analysis of our likely attitudes towards these propositions then it would seem to illustrate some interesting properties of beliefs (and non-beliefs.)

For in the case of 1 we believe things without consciously assenting to them. It is not necessary for anyone to introduce or ask us to consider something in order for us to believe it. And it seems when such a question is asked or a skeptical challenge made, it is also rational to believe a proposition though we may not have any propositional evidence for it. And even though some powerful skeptical arguments exist that we may not have the capacity to rebut, we would still think it rational and necessary to believe a proposition like 1, as the alternative seems unacceptable to us. Skepticism or a lack of propositional evidence on its own is not sufficient for us to reject believing in a proposition, though we may not actually have propositional evidence to privilege supporting it. Some beliefs appear to play a foundational role in a superstructure of mental representation of the world.

In the case of 2-4 it seems we should be neutral about the truth and falsity of propositions if we truly lack knowledge to evaluate or make judgements about them. To assign a truth-value of T or F to a proposition or to privilege a positive or negative hypothesis over its negation based solely on our lack of knowledge about the state-of-affairs described by the proposition does not seem possible.

In the case of 5 it seems we can be non-neutral about the truth or falsity of a proposition though we do not in fact claim that a judgement of 'false' is incorrigible. But this non-neutrality is not due to a lack of relevant knowledge, rather it is the presence of relevant knowledge that justifies our non-neutrality and diverging from the neutrality of cases 2-4. Our skepticism of the existence of biological life on the moon occurs in the context of propositions we are not skeptical about

It is also true that our relevant knowledge actually affects our attitudes towards propositions that we may consider as evidence for 5. This is another feature of (non)beliefs: we cannot be neutral in evaluating evidence for a proposition that contradicts our present attitude towards a proposition.

In the case of 6 considerable evidence may exist against a proposition being true, our own evidence could be seen as selective or biased towards our presumption, yet it would still be rational to make a positive judgement or assent to a proposition. We can simultaneously believe ~A while consciously assenting to A. There is nothing irrational about this. A scientist will accept a theory and use it in their own work while still privately believing such a theory to be false.  

Does it matter?

There's a lot of discussion these days about definitions and what labels like agnostic or atheist mean or what attitudes like 'lack-of-belief' entail and how concepts like 'burden-of-proof' should be used.  A lot of people might think, justifiably, that these discussions are pointless or distractions from the issue of theists defending their beliefs. But I don't think this criticism is sound.

There is nothing wrong or pointless in analyzing the epistemology of others or how others define words or the reasoning they use to arrive at their conclusion. Consider Carl Sagan's Baloney Detection Kit.
In addition to teaching us what to do when evaluating a claim to knowledge, any good baloney detection kit must also teach us what not to do. It helps us recognize the most common and perilous fallacies of logic and rhetoric. Many good examples can be found in religion and politics, because their practitioners are so often obliged to justify two contradictory propositions.
Atheists criticize the epistemology of theists all the time and how they incorrectly use words like faith when debating ('You have faith in science.' or 'You have faith the sun will rise tomorrow.' or 'You need faith to be an atheist.') They criticize how we incorrectly use skepticism such as 'Were you there?' as a rejoinder to scientific theories about the history of the physical Earth or the origin of life. Atheists have always asserted that the epistemology of theism is flawed in innumerable ways and the arguments and strategies theists use in debate to be severely detrimental towards rational discourse. Most atheists would agree 'You can't prove God doesn't exist.' is not a rational employment of a skeptical attitude. Bertrand Russell famously argued that 'You can't prove I'm wrong.' is not a rational employment of the concept of burden-of-proof to make an argument against naturalism.

So if atheists think that contradictory propositions, illogical definitions, fallacious reasoning and incorrect use of skepticism is harmful to a discussion, then atheists of all people should be willing to have their use of words like 'lack-of-belief' and 'burden-of-poof' and 'agnostic' analyzed, and their employment of skepticism to justify their position scrutinized. It is not possible that only theists can be vulnerable to 'common and perilous fallacies of logic and rhetoric.'

In Part B of this series I'll talk about what the philosophical constructions of belief are and the consequences of such constructions for positions like 'agnostic atheism.'

1 comment:

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