Defining a Belief System

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One rather interesting problem is determining who or what determines the true tenets of a belief system. While this is an important matter in many fields, it seems especially important in regards to religion. To use a current situation, there is considerable debate over the true nature of Islam.

When Muslims commit acts of terror, moderate Muslims and others often argue that these acts of terror do not represent the true tenets of Islam. However, there are those who refuse to accept this defense and instead claim that such acts are perfectly in accord with the true tenets of Islam.

While some people make this claim without grounding it in reasons, noted atheist Sam Harris makes a case for his view.  As he sees it:

The first thing that all honest students of Islam must admit is that it is not absolutely clear where members of al Qaeda, the Taliban, al-Shabab, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hamas, and other Muslim terrorist groups have misconstrued their religious obligations. If they are “extremists” who have deformed an ancient faith into a death cult, they haven’t deformed it by much. When one reads the Koran and the hadith, and consults the opinions of Muslim jurists over the centuries, one discovers that killing apostates, treating women like livestock, and waging jihad—not merely as an inner, spiritual struggle but as holy war against infidels—are practices that are central to the faith. Granted, one path out of this madness might be for mainstream Muslims to simply pretend that this isn’t so—and by this pretense persuade the next generation that the “true” Islam is peaceful, tolerant of difference, egalitarian, and fully compatible with a global civil society. But the holy books remain forever to be consulted, and no one will dare to edit them. Consequently, the most barbarous and divisive passages in these texts will remain forever open to being given their most plausible interpretations.

While Harris makes a clear case, some analysis of his argument is well worth the effort.  His view is quite clear: the alleged extremists are, in fact, acting in accord with the tenets of Islam. As evidence, Harris notes that the Koran, hadith and Muslim jurists clearly support the “extremist” views.

This seems to be quite correct. However, it is hardly unique to Islam to have wicked tenets. For example, most modern liberal democracies have had rather horrible laws on their books in the past. To use an obvious example, slavery was once legal in the United States and the United Kingdom. Even today there are laws that seem to be morally incorrect.

He does concede that mainstream Muslims could solve this problem by ignoring these true tenets of Islam and then deceiving the next generation into accepting mainstream Islam as the true version.

This certainly seems appealing. After all, one might argue, a system of beliefs need not be eternally fixed in place, unchanging and never evolving. Just as , for example, the United States abandoned its acceptance of slavery and racism, Islam can also change.

Harris, however, sees this as an impossibility. He claims that the holy books will remain forever and forever unedited. Thus, he contends, the passages in question will always be available and the opportunity will always be present to give them “their most plausible interpretations.”

This, then, is presumably the critical distinction between other belief systems (like the legal system of the United States) and Islam. That is, Islam can never change its tenets and the worst practices in these tenets define the faith. To use an analogy, this would be as if a country could never removes evil laws from its books and no matter what was done, those laws could always be interpreted and acted on. Further, those acting on the most plausible interpretations of those laws would be acting in accord with the true tenets of the law.

In regards to the first part of the claim, it is not clear that Islam cannot change. One avenue for change is that, as Harris himself concedes, the passages are interpreted. While he regards the most plausible interpretations to be the ones that are the worst, these are not the only interpretations. In principle, there seems to be no reason why the more moderate interpretations cannot be regarded as the correct ones. Of course, that is a rather critical matter: what is the correct interpretation (and who decides)? In the case of law, the correct interpretation is set by the relevant authorities. If religion functions the same way, then the religious authorities could thus legitimately rule in favor of the more moderate interpretations and could even rule that certain tenets no longer apply. But perhaps religion is more of a democratic system in that its tenets are set by the majority of believers. If so, if the majority of Muslims are moderate and interpret their faith moderately, then this would be the correct interpretation. In any case, one might wonder why an atheist who is clearly hostile to religion has the authority to rule on the true tenets of a faith. A more cynical person than I might suggest that he sees the worst as the most plausible interpretations because of his view of religion and not on the basis, say, of more objective evidence. Since that would be mostly just criticizing the person and not the argument, I would never entertain such a view. That said, a due consideration of bias might be legitimate in this situation.

In regards to the second part of the claim, it is an interesting matter as to whether the worst tenets of a belief system define that belief system or not.  It is also interesting to consider whether or not a member of a belief system must accept all the beliefs of that system.

Suppose that the worst beliefs define  belief system, that believers must accept all the tenets of their belief system and the the laws (and interpretations of them) of a nation define the belief system of the citizens (just as the religious tenets are supposed to define the belief system of a religion). This would seem to entail that the belief system of Americans is a rather evil one. After all, there are laws on the books that seem to be rather immoral and there are many that seem unjust and unfair. No matter that some people oppose these laws and associated practices-by being Americans they must accept that they are defined by the very worst aspects of their system of belief. Even if an American claims to oppose a specific law she regards as wicked, by Harris’ logic  it would seem that she cannot. As an American, she must accept it as a true tenet. This seems rather absurd. The same seems true of the claims that a member of a religious faith must accept all the tenets of the faith and that the faith is defined by its worst elements.

Naturally, this does not just apply to Islam, but other belief systems as well.

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  1. The United Kingdom was formed in 1707. Prior to that, there was no concept of slavery in English law. Consequently, when put before the courts in the 18th century, it was rejected. What was legal, until 1807, was enslaving people outside the the UK.

  2. The Old Testament (Leviticus 20:10 and 20:13) decrees the death penalty for adultery and homosexuality.

    So if we define a belief system by its worst elements, Orthodox Jews are in the same league as the fearsome Muslims.

    Lenin writes in favor of all forms of struggle, including violent ones, so if we define communism by its worst elements, we should fear its proponents, by Harris’s criteria.

    On the other hand, there is as much reason to define a belief system by its best elements as by its worst elements.

    When one wants to trash a belief system, as Harris does Islam, one tends to seek out the worst elements to define it, and when one wants to laud a belief system, one tends to seek out the best elements.

  3. well it apparently seems to me that articles written by ;
    -either illiterate people
    – people who talk about certain issues that donot fit with in their field of expertise

    should not be displayed.

    so mr mike either way you study islam as the religion it is, its criticism ,its beliefs n how it evolved and then write an article about it rather than posting your naive views.

  4. To say that the beliefs of a religion are set by the majority of its believers seems about as plausible as to say that the decisions of a corporation are made by its employees. Even if it’s true, it’s epiphenomenal.

  5. “This, then, is presumably the critical distinction between other belief systems (like the legal system of the United States) and Islam.”

    This sums up where your thinking is simply warped. The legal system of the United States and the constitution upon which it is based is NOT a system of belief.

    Our legal system is one based on rationality, thought, and reason. It was not formed on the basis of belief, on the acceptance of a morality passed down through the ages. No, it was formed by men who used their minds to determine a course that would maintain our right to individual freedom while being flexible enough to last through the evolution of America.

    It is this error in thought that will drive the well meaning tea-party into becoming a strong arm of the conservative movement. Once people think that our way of life is built around a ‘sacred belief system’ that is right because -the founding fathers said it should be so- they will be led into thinking that simply by their own subjective belief they are right. It takes an objective mind, that is willing to use the knowledge available to itself to make judgements based on educated reasoning.

    Every man has the responsibility to understand WHY it is right.

    Maybe you should do some research on HOW we formulated our constitution and legal system. It certainly was not by belief. Next time try comparing an orange to an orange.

  6. Ryan, the Constitution and the U.S. legal system is most definitively a belief system. Formally seen, a coherent system of thought that has any axiomatic units is a system of belief. So strictly speaking, all human thought (even mathematics) occurs within some given belief system. If I ignore this formal error and paraphrase, what you are stating is that the U.S. system is the CORRECT system, since it is an adaptive system based on some ABSOLUTE truths extracted form pure reason. No “morality passed down through the ages” as you state.

    As a world federalist, I’m convinced the U.S. system does indeed represent a stepping stone to a better future. But I’m also aware that this conviction is based on certain beliefs that can be questioned, just like we can question the hadith as given by the Quran. I think I’m thoughtful in my approach and have come to be a world federalist for good reasons. But I can almost certainly guarantee you that there are Imams that have come to believe what they believe for what they see to be good reasons as well. Obviously I think I’m right and that they are wrong. Otherwise I wouldn’t believe what I believe! But I have at least sufficient humility to realize I could (at least in some respects) be wrong.

    To pop the bubble that the U.S. system is NOT a system of belief, consider the famous phrase from the Declaration of Independence:

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

    You can’t argue that declaration of independence is not the U.S. Constitution and therefore not part the rationale behind the U.S. legal system. The ideas set forth in the Declaration of Independence form the axiomatic framework for what our system looks like. And these statements can be picked apart one by one by applying the most rudimentary reasoning. All men are created equal? This can be dismissed prima facie. Sclerosis, intelligence quotient, propensity to violence, blah, blah, blah. Pure nonsense, men are certainly not created equal. Unalienable Rights? What does that even mean? As far as I can see I was thrown into this world with little else than my wits and a pair of hands to fend for myself as best as I could. Just powers? Now there is a moral tenet if there ever was one. Search not your mind but your heart!

    The U.S. legal system is based on a long Western evolution of what is believed to be best for society given what we have come to believe society should be like. It did not pop into the heads of the Founding Fathers through the purest of detached contemplation. They came to believe what they believed based on the thoughts and experiences of generations before them. John Locke, Rousseau, the authors of the Magna Carta, and so forth and so on. And what is right and wrong according to the U.S. system certainly has deep roots in biblical morality. It’s ideas about egalitarianism have origins in judaic and christian beliefs, the same origins from which Islam emerged.

    Comparing sharia to American jurisprudence is NOT comparing pears to oranges. It is a completely legitimate comparison. Sorry to say this, Ryan, but you are dismissing Islam by denigrating it through a purely rhetorical device cloaking itself in the Enlightenment.

    Maybe, by a stretch of the imagination, you could argue that the ability to change the U.S. Constitution, an option not offered by the Quran, fundamentally distinguishes our society from the ummah, making the two system uncomparable. But I somehow sense that that is indeed a stretch of an argument. The difficulty of changing the U.S. Constitution is so great that the framers must have been quite convinced that with this document they set us off on the right course towards a worthwhile future. A few bumps of differing opinions about the meaning and moral imperatives of the document on the way valued at, oh… roughly 1,000,000 lost lives give or take a few 100,000. But what the heck!

  7. Benjamin said:

    To say that the beliefs of a religion are set by the majority of its believers seems about as plausible as to say that the decisions of a corporation are made by its employees. Even if it’s true, it’s epiphenomenal.

    Epiphenomenal? How is it epiphenomenal to say that the decisions of an organization are made by its employees? I’m trying to wrap my head around this statement. But I can’t even conceive how you could come to the conclusion that it’s epiphenomenal. If it is, then what is the primary force that makes the actual decisions in a corporation? I understand that the decisions of the employees are informed by the Articles of Organization, historicity of the company and so on. But these defining aspects (and their interpretation) are in turn constantly altered by the decisions of the employees. If a majority in a non-profit keeps ignoring Article XYZ of the bylaws, then it’s tantamount to Article XYZ presently not having any import. The nature of the organization is a constant interplay between past actions and the current actions of its employees. I can’t see anything epiphenomenal here. Perhaps I simply don’t understand the term epiphenomenal.

  8. Jennifer,

    Illiterate people cannot write, so there would be no need to assert that such non-existent writings should not be displayed.

    While I am not a religious scholar, I have studied Islam to a small degree. However, the blog is not intended as a scholarly piece on the nature of Islam. Rather, it is an examination of what defines a belief system using Islam as one example. This is well within my field of expertise.

    If you have criticisms of my arguments, I would be interested in seeing them. Calling me naive and simple asserting that I am illiterate or outside my field are not legitimate criticisms.

  9. Benjamin,

    But perhaps religions are sometimes more like democracies than corporations. I mean, of course, a real democracy.

  10. Andreas, epiphenomenal just means a secondary phenomenon; it depends entirely on something else in order to exist, and doesn’t in turn have an affect on that other thing. The idea is that the power brokers of the corporation (upper management and the shareholders) are the ones who make the policy decisions. In most corporations (excepting very special cases with a unique corporate structure), the degree of employee flexibility is minute. The behavior of the employees just ends up being a function of the real powers.

    My point had to do with the abstract institution of a corporation, an ideal type that I used in order to make a broader point. It’s probably an unrealistic way of talking about actual corporations, since in the real world workers have some kinds of effects on their bosses. It’s just not clear to me what those effects are. Similarly, it’s not clear to me what the effects of parisheners are on the powers that be.

    Mike… but perhaps not!

    Right. So we competing analogies. Here’s a pressing question: how do we find out which of us has the right answer?

  11. The idea is that the power brokers of the corporation (upper management and the shareholders) are the ones who make the policy decisions.

    Now I see what you mean. In my mind the CEO, COO and other top-level managers are employees of the corporation! Which would mean the effects of the employees are not epiphenomenal. In my experience it’s at this management level that the real defining decisions happen. And in my further experience, though it maybe shouldn’t be so, the board of directors and shareholders don’t usually much affect the nature of a (for-profit) corporation. They just ascertain that it’s profitable. Not so dissimilar to an apathetic electorate that couldn’t quite care as long as you don’t tax and demand sacrifice from them. Did you mean to say “a majority of the employees”? If so I should have extracted it from the previous part of your sentence.

  12. Yes, of course. I should’ve been clearer in that way.

  13. It isn’t a “belief system” you are talking about, it is a “religion”.

    A belief is a decision to “act” on one of two or more unprovable propositions. The “act” doesn’t bear upon the nature of the propositions, which are public in any case. And the fact that some groups, like Islamists, restrict themselves to certain propositions, also has no bearing on the nature of those propositions.

  14. This is an interesting post loaded with problems; right at the top “… what determines the true tenets of a belief system.” When did truth become tightly-bound to belief, eh?

    For any belief system, the best we can hope is consistency with some modicum of a peaceful mind and a hopeful heart.

    SPEAKING OF ACTS OF TERROR, how about the Christian Crusaders who made blood run in the streets of a medieval and Muslim-controlled Jerusalem?? Lest we forget, eh?

    Or how about the acts of economic terrorism committed by the British in the Middle East in the “modern era”??? Lest we forget, eh?

    There is this: consistency of word and belief is piffle; what is needed is consistency of word, belief and behaviour, and those who have alleged themselves to be believers of the one God have a long gawd-awful track record. Lest we forget, indeed.

  15. “what determines the true tenets of a belief system.” When did truth become tightly-bound to belief, eh?

    You can have a true tenet without the tenet representing some ultimate truth. Mike’s statement must be interpreted to mean a tenet which is appropriately attributed to some given -ism or religion. To say that Catholics believe Jesus is NOT the son of God is not true, regardless of whether Jesus is or is not the the son of God in “reality”. To be a Catholic means by definition to be someone who believes Jesus is the son of God!

    The question Mike raises is who determines which beliefs are appropriately attributed to which distinct systems. For Catholicism, a very centralized religion, the answer might be more obvious than for a less centralized belief system like islam. But despite the decentralized nature of some belief systems, these systems are still experienced as being quite distinct. So the question is what leads to this distinctness and who can determine what beliefs about belief systems are valid. For example, take the statement “socialists believe in dictatorship”. Is this true or not?

  16. Andreas,
    May I assume that we agree that truth involves coherence — i.e. true things hang together and false things are inconsistent in some way with the true things?

    Good; I’m glad we agree. So the insider question is ‘What makes for the core of our belief system?’ And the outsider question must be ‘Are these people coherent — do they do what they say, and do they say what they have done or will do?’

  17. Good to see that I don’t have to add anything, so to say 🙂
    But as a former religious person, may I add that some religions weren’t meant to be “democratic”, nor are changes usually perceived as good (“moral decline”). There’s a reason for holy books being written only once (most beievers have got little or none knowledge about the historic origins and controversies of their books and beliefs).
    And of course, other questions about cherry picking and authority arise if there is democracy in a belief. But still: δημοκρατία – (dēmokratía) “rule of the people” – in a belief system, at least the Abrahamic ones, a deity, and not the people should be in control.

  18. As someone who has been intimately involved in trying to establish a political system (world federalism), this discussion peeks my interest. Thank you, Mike, for raising such as important a question as how belief systems are shaped.

    As I see it, the issue at hand has little to do with the overall coherence or existential import of a belief system in itself. The system itself can be partially incoherent and we can still discuss what tenets are correctly associated with the system. Of course the system needs to be somewhat coherent, otherwise it would simply be noise, incomprehensible gibberish. Any belief system needs comprehensible (but not necessarily valid) claims to be a proper belief system. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the system can be widely inconsistent and irrational. The issue at hand does not concern itself with the truth value or rationality of the claims themselves. The issue at hand is who and what processes decide what claims are properly associated with a specific belief system. And how do and can we influence it as outsiders?

    To illustrate: there is a belief system called cracpotism. Cracpotists believe there are invisible colorons surrounding the earth. At dusk, lights can be seen dancing over grassy areas in woods and parks. Cracpotists believe these are incarnations of dead souls. By catching them in a jar, they think you can heal your psyche. They also believe this healing process is why colorons are invisible. Crapotists warn people not to think of the lights in the jar as bugs, since such thoughts might cause you to die before your time.

    Anyone who does not believe colorons are invisible because of the healing process when you catch dancing lights in jars, is not a proper cracpotist. It’s a core tenet of cracpotism! But if it were only so easy… you see, there is a branch of avowed cracpotists who believe colorons are not quite invisible and that the healing process does not in any way affect colorons. They even believe they can see colorons sometimes, especially at latitudes close to either pole. Traditional cracpotists have ridiculed this claim, saying it’s completely irrational and foolish to think that the aurora borealis and australis have anything to do with colorons!

    So who are the proper cracoptists? The invisibilists or the aurorists? Some outsiders have claimed that cracpotists are really devil worshipers since the colorons are clearly demonic spirits that cause human suffering, compounding the problem of understanding what cracpotism is. But, on a happier note, there’s been some promising ecumenical developments as of late between the invisibilists and aurorists. A digital archeologist has uncovered fragments of a video posting by the deceased Johan Schmaut, one of the original cracpotists. These fragments seem to indicate that colorons are what causes ionized nitrogen in the ionosphere to regain electrons, and thereby to emit the photons that cause the polar lights. So though the lights are not the colorons themselves (which are truly invisible), the colorons are the real cause of the lights. All good? Not quite. The fragments uncovered also suggest that though it’s absolutely unacceptable to harm another cracpotist (which will cause your soul to be encased in solid iron for all eternity after death), harming someone to defend the cracpotist faith is legitimate, perhaps even to be encouraged.

    We could metaphorically sit here for hours picking apart cracpotism, ridiculing it for its non-sequiturs and preposterous claims of little existential import. Colorons? Ridiculous, right? Well… the Earth is surrounded by invisible forces, no? So perhaps it’s not so ridiculous after all. Regardless, these claims really don’t matter to most of us. Except those of us who find it annoying when a bunch of cracpotist run around hunting fire flies while chanting “um um um um um um” and then “ah” when they catch one. Over and over and over again. Enoying, yes, but pretty harmless in the scheme of things. Fortunately there are currently only about 25,000 cracpotist worldwide. But there is evidence that the number of followers is growing.

    The problem for us comes from the spreading morality expressed in the uncovered digital fragments. More and more cracpotists believe the faith must be violently defended at any cost. Married with an increased proselytizing fervor, there have been incident of critics being hospitalized for serious injuries after altercations with cracpotists. Trying to peacefully convince a carcpotist that their faith in itself is irrational and of no existential import is useless. Have you ever argued with one? If you haven’t, I suggest not discussing colorons in their presence. It’s a futile discussion. The best you can do is convince them that their efforts in converting you are wasted since you have spent a very long time thinking hard about colorons. But something has to be done since cracpotism is now endangering people’s lives. Since we can’t convince them to abandon their faith, we have to explore other options.

    We can try to encourage moderate cracpotism by showing tolerance towards peaceful forms of the belief system. Or we can directly confront cracpotism, accepting that there will be casualties, even deaths resulting from the confrontation. A full scale war with the intent of establishing a peaceful future is a possibility. Some say that since the words of Johan Schmaut are inviolable to most cracpotists, this is the only option. Cracpotism must, according to them, simply be eradicated forever from human society. There have been people who criticize laws like the First Amendment because it allows people like the cracpotists to freely spread what these critics consider venomous beliefs.

    So what? All this would be no big deal if it only applied to cracpotists of which there are only an estimated 25,000. I just picked the cracpotist because, unlike say Catholicism, Islam or humanism, cracpotism is of no existential import. Therefore its beliefs will probably not cause any digression about the validity of the claims themselves. Numerous belief systems have caused untold suffering through out history not because they are internally inconsistent and irrational to an outside observer, but simply because they condone physical violence against those that do not accept and live by the tenets of the belief system. If a belief system states YOU CANNOT DO HARM TO ANYONE regardless of the circumstance, by all likelihood that belief system will do little harm. Some tenets may cause indirect harm, but usually such harm is constrained to the body of believers. For example, if you believe blood transfusions are bad, you could cause your own death or that of a child in your care. What is indirectly harmful and what is not is a very complicated issue that often even modern science can’t answer (as for blood transfusions, note transfusion related acute lung injury).

    Those who think these problems relate only to religions and that religions are the root of all problems should be reminded of socialism. Socialism seems like a really rational and coherent belief system. If anyone can be considered open to reason then it aught to be socialists. And so the problems begins. Was Stalin a socialist? Is communism socialism? Are American liberals socialists? Of course we can just cop out and say that, well, there are many branches of socialism. But once a person begins to feel like they are a socialist or any other type of person, they open themselves up to the influence of others who feel the same way. Rationality begins to give way to a human need to belong. It happens to most of us to some degree. We are all vulnerable to peer pressure. We all want to be part of something important and being an outsider is hard work and very demanding on the human psyche. We find ourselves accepting axioms that, if we were truly reasonable, we might reject. “All men are created equal” is a clear example of such an axiom.

    As Mike points out, once a belief system records a claim, it becomes much harder to alter the belief system. The imperfections of oral transmission and human memory allow for more fluidity. Once the proponents of a belief system inscribe the axioms of their system on a stone tablet (or, as Johan Schmaut did, record videos), the system can only change by abrogating the recorded axioms, reinterpreting them or introducing entirely new ones. And here comes a very important aspect that Mike has also hinted at: meta axioms that address the nature of the axioms themselves. How can axioms be abrogated? Must we always follow the dictums and implications of the axioms? And so on. The founders of most successful belief systems have made it hard to alter the core tenets. Many religions have stated that their axioms were given directly by God. How can you argue with God and divine inspiration? The Founding Fathers of the United States of America made constitutional amendments an arduous process, thereby guaranteeing the tenacity of their system.

    Modern socialism, however, stands out. Its goal is to create a rational, more efficient world through empirical study of society and history. No God, no “unalienable rights”. Pure and undiluted science and reason. Anything can be put into question if it does not produce greater efficiency where people can enjoy the fruits of their labor. I would claim that the previous is the only core tenet of socialism that cannot be questioned. We must simply accept that it is self-evident that people should enjoy the fruits of their own labor. This means an avowed socialist (at least a scientific socialist) must accept a market economy if it can be empirically proven that a market economy leads to greater prosperity among its denizens. Socialism sows the seeds of the dismissal of what we experience as being socialism! But we are again back at: what is socialism? Socialism has endured the collapse of a super power supposed to embody its tenets. My view of socialism must be wrong. Or rather, it may be only marginally relevant since I do not consider myself a socialist. My conclusion, given the development of what we consider “socialism”, is that people keep underestimating the power of tribalism in themselves. If socialism cannot open itself up to reason, what system can?

    Please don’t let my mention of socialism devolve into a discussion about the nature of socialism, I only used it to illustrate that all belief systems are vulnerable to irrationality, and not just religions. The more pressing issue is: what about cracpotism? What does the future hold for it? What internal forces will define what it will look like in 10 years? As outsiders how should we respond? Can we influence it to become more peaceful? Or, as Harris might suspect, is it a hopeless endeavor?

  19. Andreas

    No beliefs or “belief systems” are subject to irrationality.

    By definition, the propositions that make up a belief (e.g. ‘”there is a god” and “there is not a god”‘)are unprovable or unproved. It follows, logically I hope, that any decision to act on any one of the propositions of the belief cannot be faulted or declared to be “irrational”. In any case, the decision to act on a proposition, whether of a belief or not, does not forge any logical, rational, or irrational, link to the proposition.

    I think the problem with these discussions about belief, here and everywhere else it seems, is that the writers are immersed in the scepticism of trancendental realism which states that we can never be sure of how things really are, in themselves. While we may think we have to be rational in choosing the facts in a world where facts are necessarilly unprovable, the propositions of a belief are not subject to this demand for rationality, by definition. This is because by definition they are unprovable empirically, and not conceptually.

    This is where the discourse of belief has gone astray. The propositions of a belief are simply not of the same sort as the propositions of the sceptical (“transcendentally real”) world view which we currently take for granted, and which has held sway for centuries, since Plato and after Kant. This world view conflates empirical facts with the the nature of facts.

  20. John,
    I think your definition of belief system is too limited. The way I understand and used the term was as a set of claims, how these claims are interrelated and the correlates thereof. You seem to consider it as merely a collection of basic assertions that cannot be tested for logical coherency. In this case, I agree. If we simply have orthogonal claims, we cannot characterize them as “rational” versus “irrational”. The best we can do is state whether these claims phenomenologically coincide with the experiences within our own lifeworld. But, in my view, a belief system is far more than a bag of disassociated unprovable tenets. It usually includes wider conclusions drawn from the system’s “basic assertions”. These wider conclusions can be tested for logical consistency.

    For example, most modern people believe parliamentary / congressional systems are fair because:

    -Every person has one vote
    -If a majority wants it, so it should be (or how else should we fairly decide)

    Some people do recognize that there is something called “tyranny of the majority” as de Tocqueville termed it. The founding fathers sensed it and took (imperfect) measures against it by creating a bicameral system. But many modern people, such as say many Swedes (where there’s historically no concept of federalism), are still quite convinced they govern in accordance with their sense of what is fair. This can be proven by mere logic to be false. How? By realizing that when a party votes as a block and control 51% of the assembly, they make 100% of the decisions. But most people do not fit into a neat block. If the assembly where to behave more according to the leanings of the population, a party block with 51% would make the decisions in roughly 50% of the cases. Ergo, the system they believe reflects the basic values of what is fair does not in fact live up to their own criteria. But, believe me, if you ask most people they will be quite certain that it does.

    You could say, well, this is just as fair as can be given that we want to balance effectiveness (governance through representation) with our democratic values. But their must be a reason we had these “democratic” values to begin with. Or did they just evolve in a hey, this sort of works kind of way? But, the fact is, there is an electoral methodology that better lives up to these democratic ideals. If parties in a parliamentary system with proportional representation are given a square root proportion of the number of people that voted for them, they would have to govern through coalitions. And a party with 51% would with higher probability end up being in a decisive coalition about 50% of the time. This is not an off the cuff “I think this is true” statement by me. It can be mathematically proven.

    And yet, mention this to most people and you get a curious doubtful stare. They cannot believe it. It just sounds totally odd to them. The square root? But that means if 50% vote for a party, they won’t have 50% in the assembly. How can that be fair? They simply will not believe it. I have tried it on very clever people. And unless they are mathematically very acute (the type of person that in my anecdotal experience unfortunately tends to be rather apolitical), they can’t accept it. So a claim (the square root rule) that is more fair according to their basic tenets does not fit (according to them) into their belief system. Clearly, they have built up a system of beliefs that forms an irrational whole! And, by the way, many americans abhorrence of the electoral system is indicative that their beliefs about federalism are, at best, somewhat inconsistent as well. It’s not just those crazies from the Nordic welfare states. We all hold some contradictory beliefs.

    I gave you one example of how what I consider a “belief system” can be irrational. And it happens to be a system of belief that is very wide spread today (and not very religious at all). It’s one that I know rather well since I’ve spent a lot of time discussing and attempting to engineer new global systems within the word federalist movement. I’m sure that if I were to analyze beliefs of the well-meaning nomenklatura of the now fortunately defunct USSR, I’d find a very flawed system fraught with even more non-sequiturs (despite the supposed “scientific” nature of socialism).

  21. It seems like the blurriness of lines that occurs when trying to decide what exactly defines any given belief system is inescapable. Much like figuring out which genre some new band belongs to (is it Rock, Metal, Pop). If we wanted to narrow down specifically what each belief system maintained, we would have to have a title for as many people are out there, because you can be sure they each vary somewhat. No two people understand any given thing exactly the same.

    And I don’t think Sam Harris defined Islam strictly by it’s worst tenants. I think he’s simply saying that as long as it’s texts endorse all manner of horrible things, it does make sense for an outsider to be wary of the people who consider that text sacred (that is, until the text is altered). Yes, I’m wary of modern Christians and Jews, as well. I know that most of them don’t act out the Bible’s worst precepts most of the time, and for that I’m thankful, but I’m not going to be comfortable until both groups decide to take those verses out of the Bible. Why haven’t they done this yet, if they’re truly past it.

    So, I understand, I think, the source of confusion regarding defining belief systems, but I think Sam Harris has been misrepresented here.

  22. Andreas,
    I think you have mistook, or equivocated, rationality as logic.

    Rationality doesn’t mean both making a logical point AND mean a decison to act on a logical point for the better. That act cannot be tested for logical coherency.

    It seems that the “limitation” you claim that I am working to is my reluctance to fail to discriminate between these two positions. It doesn’t enrich the field to muddy the two.

    For example, you take your definition of “conclusions” of basic assertions to be a “logical” point or conclusion when in fact it is only a decision to act on that logical point.

    The propositions or ideas of “belief” systems are common to all. They are shared public property. They cannot be irrational. “Irrationality” isn’t anything to do with these propositions of belief but are a decision to act on a proposition.

    You are not acknowledging the nature of rationality when you take it to mean that it is both a logical proposition and the decision to act on it.

  23. Michael F

    You have been told what a belief is. I said it. There is nothing blurry about it. A belief is the decision to act on one of two or more unprovable or unproved propositions. That’s it.

  24. John

    I think I understand your definition of belief, and it is probably correct. It is also my understanding that a “belief” is not exactly a “belief system.” Defining individual beliefs might not often get too blurry, but drawing definite lines around belief systems, in my understanding, can, in fact, be more difficult.

  25. Rational, as I use the term, is the adjective used to describe the sound use of reason. Reasoning is the process of drawing conclusions from premises. Therefore something rational is a conclusion that is valid because you applied correct (i.e. logical) reasoning. A rational act is an act based on sound logic given the information at hand. A rational belief is a belief you have come to hold because of sound application of logic on top of available information. Logic is inherently related to reason and rationality.

    All beliefs are not foundational and untestable. I understand a belief to be a mental state where someone holds something to be true. You can have a set of beliefs that lead to further beliefs through sound reasoning. Take the example of asteroids. There are untold asteroids out there being tugged and pulled by uncountable forces. An astronomer may follow an asteroids and try to predict if and when it will hit Earth. There is no way the astronomer can know all the forces at hand. What she observes acting on the stellar object can be termed as information. From this information she tries to glean through scientific and rational means the course the asteroids will take. At some point she might state, based on sound reasoning “It’s going to hit us!!!”. What is this statement? I would call it a belief. We would say the astronomer believes the asteroid will hit earth in 10 days. Until the asteroid hits, its just a claim. It’s only on impact that her belief tragically becomes fact.

    Human society is replete with claims, statements about this or that. Beliefs are those claims people internally hold to be true. They can be distinguished from lies, which are claims people make that they do not actually hold to be true. People don’t necessarily act on their beliefs. I may believe, even fear, all my life that I’m going to die from a heart attack and still smoke, drink and live as if I’m completely immune to arteriosclerosis. If a say to someone “I want to live until I’m at least 100 years old”, “my father died from a heart attack at the age of 53”, “heart disease is genetic”, “smoking increases your risk of a heart attack” and then I light a cigarette, what would you call that act? I would call it irrational. Why? Because my actions do not follow from what I have stated that I believe and what I have said I want. Note that even “my father died from a heart attack” is a belief. In truth he may have died because he was poisoned by the KGB.

    John, you seem to have reduced beliefs to statements like “I believe in God” and “there’s a guy named Quaxlatan on planet Oxliboxli”. I don’t think I’m muddying the waters by claiming that human discourse is 99% belief and 1% fact. 99% of the 99% may be sound, but again until the asteroid hits it’s all just conjecture. Facts are what happens to us in our immediate lifeworld, which is a pretty miniscule portion of the space we inhabit thanks to our ability to model inside our heads the wider universe. The untestable beliefs are only interesting to me in terms of what they say about how we think. Structurally, I find beliefs like “Israel is about to bomb Iran” or “the societal cost of cigarettes is $250 / pack” more interesting.

    I own a company that makes an “intelligent” database called MIX2. The database analyses, consolidates and correlates information from other sources. I’m faced with hundred of thousands of claims every day. These nuggets of information represent beliefs derived from algorithms other people believe will accurately describe an environment. Of course MIX2 is essentially generating another set of beliefs on top of these claims, albeit a very sound set generated by reviewing and through critical thinking further refining expert opinions. Human life is beliefs all the way down…until the asteroid hits.

  26. Andreas,

    “the sound use of reason”?

    If rationality is the sound use of reason then we must still wonder what, apart from being rational, being sound is.

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