Religion and science: the issue that won’t go away

Alvin Plantinga’s new book is about religion and science – which (predictably enough) he finds to be perfectly compatible, harmonious, etc., at least if we rely on this piece in the New York Times. Plantinga definitely seems committed to refuting any the idea that science (or perhaps its success, or its specific findings?) supports a naturalistic view of the world.

Another new book is The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society by Brad S. Gregory. If we are to believe the Amazon book description, this argues, among other things, that there is now a false notion abroad “that modern science – as the source of all truth – necessarily undermines religious belief.”

Thus, continued intellectual effort is going in from scholars who oppose the idea that science somehow undermines – or puts pressure on – religion. I expect that we’ll many see more books of this kind over the next few years, and we are certainly seeing plenty of online discussion of the subject. In earlier posts at Talking Philosophy, I referred to recent debates involving, among others, Julian Baggini and Keith Ward. The debates go on.

Ward’s piece on The Guardian‘s “Comment is Free” site, a few ago now, attempts to show that religion answers factual questions that cannot be answered by science. To his credit, Ward does not claim that religion and science never come into conflict. Moreover, he concedes that Stephen Jay Gould’s principle of non-overlapping magisteria is false: as Ward says, it is not correct that religion deals only “with value and meaning”. Rather, religions make factual claims.

Ward does, however, think that religion typically makes factual claims which science cannot dispute. Alas, here is where he gets into trouble. For a start, bear in mind that religious systems tend to be quite tightly integrated, and that many believers are not prepared to abandon doctrines piecemeal. The position could well be that entire systems, including popular ones, will lose their initial plausibility for many believers if certain factual claims came under pressure from contrary scientific findings.

Still, it might be thought that more moderate kinds of Christianity, at least, are pretty much protected from that kind of pressure. These sorts of Christianity may present a small target for science-based criticism. The sorts of factual claims that they do make may be difficult for science to refute. Or so it might be argued.

There is something in this, I think, and in fact I’d actually go further. Even more “fundamentalist” or literal kinds of religion have resources to avoid decisive scientific (or other) refutation. As I argue in my own new book, Freedom of Religion and the Secular State , religious apologists can find many ways to avoid embarrassment if empirical reality doesn’t turn out as they might have expected: “If, for example, a god or spirit fails to answer prayers as advertised, it might be explained that this is a capricious god, a god with mysterious reasons, or a god that refuses to be tested.”

In practice, therefore, even religious claims that seem highly implausible to those of us who contemplate them from the outside may prove very resistant to falsification. Indeed, even if some apparently decisive argument could be brought against a particular religious doctrine of some significance to the religion’s adherents, a percentage of the adherents would probably be unmoved – they would be more committed to their cherished doctrine than to whatever canons of reason the rest of us might rely on.

Accordingly, things can look different to those inside a religion from how they seem to those of us on the outside. A religious adherent can, in the end, bite all bullets and even deny such things as the relevance of evidence, the partial reliability of memory and the senses, and the usefulness of logical rules such as modus ponens.

On an earlier thread, Jim P. Houston asked me for an argument as to why I “think Ward is wrong to think it is reasonable *for him* to believe certain ‘facts’ [about] Jesus (despite biblical errancy), given that those claims are (supposedly) not falsifiable by ’science’.” But there’s a sense, at least, in which I don’t claim to be able to do that. I doubt that there is any claim, let alone any religious claim, that cannot be preserved by someone who is prepared to bite enough bullets. Furthermore, the same applies to claims of the form, “It is reasonable to believe that …” One of the practical lessons from history is that at least some believers will resist any and all arguments by denying canons of reasonableness that might go against their positions. At that point, there’s not much more we can say to them. We can’t show such a person that he is unreasonable by his own lights.

But he might be unreasonable by ours, or by those of third parties taking in the conversation. Surely the sorts of claims that Ward mentions, such as the claim that Jesus rose from the dead and the claim that the universe was created by God, are not totally isolated from empirical investigation.

Recall that the rise of science did not subtract from our pre-existing resources for investigating the world. Rather, it added to them; and the old pragmatic and scholarly methods and the new, distinctively scientific, ones can always be used together in any given case. We need to know whether such claims as that Jesus rose from the dead and that the universe was created by God are plausible when set against what we know overall about how the world works, both through methods that we could have employed anyway and through the distinctive methods developed by science.

When the question is framed like that, surely we don’t think that these claims come under no pressure at all from our best empirical investigations of the world? For a start, doesn’t textual-historical investigation of the New Testament texts make it rather unlikely that they speak reliably on Jesus’ alleged resurrection? If so, what is the motivation for going on believing in the resurrection? And what about the scientific study of life and intelligence on earth? Doesn’t this make the existence, before the universe began, of a disembodied intelligence with no evolutionary history behind it seem like an unsatisfactory explanation for any observable features of the universe?

We could go deeper into these arguments, but for now it’s enough to say that it seems unlikely that religious claims such as those mentiond by Ward are insulated from our empirically-based knowledge.

Ward might be prepared to bite the bullet and reject our standards of what it is reasonable and rational to believe. But even if he does so, will all believers join him? Some might find that their confidence in certain basic epistemic standards is stronger than that in, say, what they were told by authority figues when they children … or in their interpretation of certain emotional and other experiences as the presence of God. In the end, they may find that their initial claims have become unbelievable.

Someone who starts out neutral on the substantive questions (“Did Jesus rise from the dead?” “Was the universe created by God?”) will be in a different situation again, because she will probably not be neutral on what standards to use. Why should she be? If she uses ordinary standards, rather than specifically religious ones – and why wouldn’t she? – she may well find that the empirical findings of scientists, historians and others push her decisively in a sceptical direction.

In theory, there might have been a pre-ordained harmony between religion and science (after all, the claims of some religion or other might have all turned out to be true; science might simply have confirmed them and added detail). In practice, though, pressure on religion does come from empirical inquiry generally. There is no viable way of insulating religion from empirical inquiry to ensure this can’t happen, and religion’s record to date is not good if we were hoping that empirical inquiry would confirm and elaborate its claims.

There is much more to say, but this is not a situation that is well described by talk of religion/science compatibility. That kind of glib language is quite misleading. Empirical inquiry, including whatever components of it you refer to as “science”, really does put pressure on religion to change rather radically, or simply collapse. That’s the situation, and I think we should be open about saying as much.

Leave a comment ?


  1. This article is interesting, but too long to read in a lunchtime.

  2. Russell,

    I must give you credit for having a ‘second go’ at it.

    We are not an inch further forward but clearly you could not have written a better piece.

  3. “Jim P. Houston asked me for an argument as to why I “think Ward is wrong to think it is reasonable *for him* to believe certain ‘facts’ [about] Jesus (despite biblical errancy), given that those claims are (supposedly) not falsifiable by ’science’.””

    I missed the earlier thread. But isn’t the obvious answer just that

    1: “Not falsified by science” isn’t a sufficient condition for a proposition to be reasonable, and
    2: Reasonableness is an affirmative requirement of a position, not a negative one.

    By the second I mean that a position isn’t reasonable until proven otherwise, its unreasonable until demonstrated to be reasonable.

  4. What demonstrates that this is a reasonable belief:

    ‘A belief is unreasonable until its demonstrated to be reasonable.’

  5. There are a couple of ways I could answer that. For one, I could say that its just tautological: if a proposition is “reasonable” if belief in it is supported by good reasons, then unless a proposition has been demonstrated to be reasonable (ie, unless you’ve given good reasons to believe it), by definition it isn’t.

    Or I could go with a pluralism based argument: there are a ton of propositions out there that aren’t supported by good reasons. Choosing between them without a reason to do so is to choose arbitrarily with respect to their truth value. Choosing one’s beliefs arbitrarily with respect to their truth value seems to be the very definition of being unreasonable.

    I suppose you could try to substitute in another definition of reasonable, of course. Unclear words like that are always subject to that sort of answer. Or you could try to impress me with the infinite regress problem of knowledge. But there’s a difference between doing good philosophy and playing games with definitions of informally used words, even if Plato provided a strong precedent for the latter.

  6. Hi Patrick,

    I’ve only just heard about Christopher Hitchens. I don’t want to debate any of this today.

    Here’s a clip of him that I’d like to share:

    Lets all raise a glass.

  7. I’m not sure anything needs to be said about that article on Plantiga, except to quote:

    “I think there is such a thing as a sensus divinitatis, and in some people it doesn’t work properly,” he said, referring to the innate sense of the divine that Calvin believed all human beings possess.

    Or, in other words, Dr. Plantiga believes in a sixth sense.

    Hmm; no.

  8. Actually Patrick.

    I don’t think he’d want the worthwhile conversations to stop.

    I’m not out to ‘impress’ you with the infinite regress problem of knowledge or anything else. I’m not interested in playing games with definitions of informally used words. (Although I’d like to know what you mean by ‘demonstrated’). And I don’t think Plato provides a strong precedent for doing this. Forget the context. I’m not out trying to do some sophistry on behalf of Christian Apologetics. Of course choosing one’s beliefs arbitrarily – if such a thing were even possible – would be far removed from being reasonable. But I don’t think that gets you the claim that:

    ‘A belief is unreasonable until its demonstrated to be reasonable’

    And whilst you can say its ‘just tautological’ – its clearly not a tautology. (And if it were a tautology it wouldn’t be that helpful.)

    Is the followong what you really want to propose?

    ‘A belief is reasonable if, and only, if its has been demonstrated to be reasonable.’

    And do you think proposing this would constitute ‘good philosophy’?

  9. Mike,

    I think that most of us who believe in God, believe that God existed before the creation of our world and universe or even all the universes’, and God also existed before the Bible. Science and the Bible are tools of man used to help explain God and the universe. Whether there are inaccuracies in either the Bible or science is secondary to the existence of God or the universe. Neither the universe or God and belief in God require either our Bible or our science to be true. Aren’t arguments over the comparative accuracies of each merely for the benefit of our own entertainment?

    Maybe A is just A.

  10. Patrick says everything not required is forbidden. Ward says everything not forbidden is optional. Like the old joke. No way to choose, but I see the Higgs Squad wants better than 6 nines of confidence; in my daily life I personally am that sure of very little.

    How about if we say that it’s reasonable to believe whatever helps you live the best life for a human to live, under the circumstances. (That isn’t Ward’s point.) Although I would rather say virtuous rather than reasonable. Still ambiguous and circular, but less hopelessly so: even Sam Harris and William Lane Craig can agree on many things about what makes for a good life.

  11. I feel a bit ill at ease here. I’m rather suspicious that you don’t actually believe that a mere absence of scientific disproof renders a belief reasonable, and I’m pretty sure you don’t believe that beliefs are reasonable in the absence of a demonstration that they’re unreasonable.

    I mean… do you believe these things? Because if you do, then I’d rather discuss that, because that seems kind of crazy.

    But if you DON’T believe that, then I’m not sure what the point is of all your rhetorical questions, as none of them will actually defend the initially quoted material.

  12. Good article, Russell. I think it’s possible go a little further than you do here.

    In practice, therefore, even religious claims that seem highly implausible to those of us who contemplate them from the outside may prove very resistant to falsification.

    It seems you don’t consider this non-falsifiability to be sufficient grounds for judging such claims compatible with science. I think it would be good to spell out why not. I would say that by “compatibility” in this context I don’t just mean the absence of strict contradiction with the observations or published findings of formal science. I mean taking seriously the broader lessons which science has taught us. I would say that to make the sort of excuses you mention is incompatible with a scientific approach to knowledge. More broadly, I would say if we allow ourselves to be guided by the broad lessons of science we will tend to reject supernatural beliefs.

    We can’t show such a person that he is unreasonable by his own lights…But he might be unreasonable by ours, or by those of third parties taking in the conversation.

    This seems to me to be an unfortunate way of putting it, as it makes it sound as if our epistemic standards are arbitrary. I doubt you take that view, and you do go on to say that such claims are “not totally isolated from empirical investigation”, which seems to suggest some non-arbitrary standards for empirical investigation. I think we can say something stronger than this.

    We have grounds for believing that some ways of forming beliefs are more effective at producing knowledge than others, e.g. that scientific thinking is more effective than reading chicken entrails. And we can judge the rationality of a belief by the degree to which it appears to have been reached by the most effective ways of thinking. And the scientific way is the most effective one we know. If someone fails to think in a broadly scientific manner when it is appropriate to do so, I think we can say that the consequent belief is misguided and broadly incompatible with science. Whether we also call the belief “unreasonable” or “irrational” may depend on whether we take those terms to mean something stronger than merely “misguided”, and, if so, on the degree to which we judge the belief misguided.

  13. @Patrick

    Sure, a belief can be reasonable in the absence of a demonstration that it’s reasonable. Indeed, life would be impossible if that were not the case. Let’s say you’re driving and a car pulls out in front of you. Your brain forms the belief that there’s a car in front of you. That’s a reasonable belief, and if you had to stop and give a demonstration before acting on it you’d be in serious trouble!

    The making of arguments constitutes only a part of our rational belief-forming cognitive processes. Most of our belief formation goes on at a subconscious level.

  14. I apologize for your name wrong Russell.

  15. For sure some religions are in conflict with science, and for me that makes those religions unreasonable. The claims of some fundamentalist creationists for example are on the face of it irrational.

    However, some of the mainstream religions make a case that faith and reason (in particular rationality) are compatible (e.g., google “Fides et Ratio”). The thesis of conflict between the two is an exercise is an kind of “intellectual imperialism” from either side of an unnecessary polarisation of the debate. They seek to defeat an intellectual enemy, and the loser is the seeker for truth.

    Consider if a religion recognizes in its conception of God as a source of reason and the creative principle underlying the universe (i.e., the Logos), can this be deemed unreasonable as a hypothesis?

    It seems to me that if a worldview restricts itself to a belief system that is based on inference to the best explanation, based on a rigorous adoption of the scientific method with all phenomena we experience in the physical and natural magesteria, and that issues of faith/belief are applied only to those axioms that can not be rationally resolved, but nevertheless represent key aspects of our subjective experience of life and meaning, then we have a compatible faith and reason worldview.

    It is not that these axioms of belief are irrational, that would result in a logically flawed systematic theology, it is that they are arational (i.e, not addressable by rationality). such a logic of Metaphysics would be sustainable by Sir Michael Dummett’s ideas about realism/anti-realism and rejection of the excluded middle.

    There maybe overlap between some worldview issues (e.g., the nature of morality) that can be addressed by faith and reason, but this need not be a conflict – rather a creative dialectic exploration for the truth.

    It is important for us to recognize the risk of Fudamentalism and also Scientism: the idea that belief is only true or meaningful that can be verified in principle with the methods of Science, is not itself verifiable as a scientific principle, and thus it is false or meaningless.

  16. After all it was Christopher Hitchens who passed away yesterday, and by some accounts an Anti-Theist that said…

    “We do not rely soley upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake.”

    In principle an integrated worldview of faith and reason could meet that requirement as easily as a secular humanist/atheist.

  17. Typo in 1st comment: The thesis of conflict between the two is an exercise of a kind of “intellectual imperialism”

  18. Hi Patrick,

    I’ll try and get things across things a bit better.

    You suggested there was an obvious answer that Russell had missed, one that would allow him to do what he concedes he can’t (‘in a certain sense’) i.e. argue successfully that:

    1) Ward IS wrong to think it is reasonable *for him* to believe certain ‘facts’ [about] Jesus … given that those claims are (supposedly) not falsifiable by ’science’.”

    (This was rather the point of Ward’s article – him saying that it is reasonable * for him * to believe some of these religious claims [and others not to] because of his own experiences, philosophical and moral views, and this is why I thought Russell might want to trying arguing against it.)

    And so you say:

    2) “Not falsified by science” isn’t a sufficient condition for a proposition to be reasonable

    Now this is true – indeed its obviously true. But the thing is, nobody else thinks otherwise – not me and certainly not Professor Ward who was lecturing in Logic when Russell was still in short trousers.

    And what you say next is this:

    3) ‘A belief is unreasonable until its demonstrated to be reasonable.’

    Now, really you need to ditch talk of 3) altogether. Its obviously wrong, indeed wrong-headed, for all sorts of reasons. I’m thinking you’ve started to click onto this, and that this is why you feel ‘ill at ease’. But if you genuinely can’t see that there’s anything wrong with it, say so and people will be able to help you see why this is so.

    So, I don’t want to sound unduly harsh about this – and I see how you’ve gone wrong – but really it seems to me that you have done the following. You’ve taken a truism (2) and you’ve used it (not mischievously) to attack a straw man – because nobody denies (2). And you’ve coupled that with an absurdity in (3). And obviously this just is not going to make an argument for (1) or anything else.

  19. Richard, thanks for your comment, as it gives me an opportunity to clarify.

    I certainly didn’t mean to esposue some sort of epistemic relativism. In particular, I was not trying to say that our ordinary canons of rationality and reasonableness – the standards that we apply to everything else – are arbitrary. I’m not sure even how such a claim could be coherent.

    On the contrary, denying them, and insisting on applying some special religious standards when talking about the truth of religious doctrines is arbitrary. (Then again, some people may not even care that they being arbitrary.)

    The point was just about the practical futility of trying to deconvert at least some people from religion, since they are prepared to make this arbitrary move (and other moves that don’t leave us much to talk about with them). That practical futility can have real-world consequences, but it doesn’t mean that we should say that the people concerned are being reasonable.

    What I was trying to say to Jim was that it’s not an embarrassment to me that I eventually run out of things to say to convince this person herself that she is being unreasonable. To concede this kind of practical futility in a class of cases is certainly not to concede that, after all, “religion and science are compatible”. It’s not a matter that there is no problem for religion, caused by science, which is surely the connotation, if not the strict literal meaning, of “religion and science are compatible”. Empirical investigation, including very notably the kind of investigation that we think of under the rubric of science, has actually created big problems for religion and it goes on doing so. Many attempts to deny this or to gloss over it seem to me to be either self-serving and unconvincing or outright politically motivated.

    And of course, some people who are religious really can be brought to think that the only way to go on believing that certain doctrines are true is to make moves that are unreasonable by our ordinary, non-arbitrary standards. I was once one of those people.

    Furthermore, many people who are not already religious (but might want to think about whether they should be) can be brought to understand that buying into those doctrines would be unreasonable.

  20. First, we imagine how something might be. Then we form one or more beliefs that explain how something is. Then we select a likely belief and test it rigorously. Testing produces knowledge. Replication and redesigned tests produce more knowledge. Eventually, the scientific method builds a consensus (positive or negative) that we can present as fact.

    Religion captures imagination to present a belief as fact by skipping the testing. That is how any religion business is established and that is how religion differs from science and that is what makes a religion business vulnerable to science and that is why a religion business would choose to challenge science by stating its own vulnerability to defend itself. Science cannot falsify this belief so you can hold it as fact and this is why you should and this bad thing can happen if you do not.

    That is why we refer to the customers of a religion business as believers.

  21. Most interesting topic!

    Thanks to all contributors.

    I understand that on a personal level Christopher Hitchens sometimes had a very good relationship with religious people. That sets an excellent example.

    best wishes from New Jersey

  22. Christophers’ book talked exclusively about the evil work various worldly institutions have done in the name of Religion. It was a positive progressive work. Whereas calling other people’s behavior “unreasonable”, dogmatic, and downright silly puts a foot on the slippery slope: none of us can afford to go there. Alas Christopher: long may you wave.

    Science is vulnerable to science; it sure has changed itself in the past few hundred years. One could wish that rationality were more vulnerable to morality. Let’s say that all our human institutions are vulnerable to the progress of human thought. Consequently they should not be curated like museum pieces but constantly refurbished and made new. Lots of people don’t get that, to be sure.

  23. ‘It’s not an embarrassment to me that I eventually run out of things to say to convince this person herself that she is being unreasonable.’

    Nor should it be Russell, I can’t imagine anybody suggesting otherwise – that was never in question.

    The question was never whether you could persuade Ward he was being unreasonable, the question was whether you could successfully argue against his claim that

    it is reasonable * for him * to judge there to be some truth to certain biblical claims [and others to doubt them] on account of his own personal experiences (‘of God’), plus his moral and philosophical views.

    I just felt that was the point to address, given the whole discussion about whether it was reasonable for Ward to believe [and others to disbelieve] that his father was a double agent (although it cannot be verified by science or historical studies and may comes across as something of a tall tale to us).

  24. Russell,

    Thanks for your reply, but I’m afraid it left me confused. As Jim says, to the extent that you were only making a point about “the practical futility of trying to deconvert at least some people from religion” you do not seem to have been arguing against Ward’s position. You previously implied that claims like “Jesus rose from the dead” are unreasonable by your lights. Your denial of epistemic relativism suggests that this can be interpreted as a judgement that this claim is unreasonable in an absolute sense. But then your assertion that you were only making a point about “practical futility” undermines this conclusion. That leaves me confused as to your position on the reasonableness of such a belief.


    I don’t think the most relevant question is whether it’s reasonable for Ward to have certain beliefs. As I see it, the central question is whether it is science that makes those beliefs unreasonable. If it is science that makes a belief unreasonable, then it seems fair to say that the belief is incompatible with science.

    Of course it can’t be science that makes a belief unreasonable unless the belief is unreasonable. Nevertheless, I think it’s important to keep these questions separate.

  25. Richard, I’m confused. The way Jim put your original question it sounded as if he was asking me whether it is demonstrable to someone like Ward that he is being unreasonable in believing in the resurrection of Jesus. As I said, it may not be. For example, Ward may, for all I know, be prepared to dismiss ordinary standards of reasonableness. People who are determined to hold onto certain cherished beliefs can find all sorts of resources to do so and to resist the notion that they are being unreasonable – even if their beliefs are actually untenable. (This has various practical consequences in the real world, including political ones – political suppression of cherished beliefs may be as futile, in a large class of cases, as rational interrogation of them.)

    But I thought that Jim had clarified to say that he was only asking whether the belief in the resurrection of Jesus is reasonable. No, it isn’t. And the arguments to demonstrate that it isn’t will come partly from science (everything we know from science suggests that the gospels are, at best, heavily mythologised, and cannot be treated as reliable historical sources) and partly from other forms of investigation of the world that I wouldn’t classify as “science” (though I suspect that Jerry Coyne, for example, would) such as textual-historical study of the New Testament documents.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “unreasonable in an absolute sense”. I’d say simply that the belief is unreasonable. But the original question wasn’t phrased to ask simply whether the belief is reasonable/unreasonable. Jim emphasised *for him* (Jim’s asterisks, not mine), i.e. for Ward. This seemed to be asking me whether I could demonstrate it to Ward against whatever standards of reasonableness Ward himself might subjectively hold.

    Jim has now clarified that that is not what he meant. He meant just “is it reasonable to have the belief?” Or at least that’s what I think he is now saying. Perhaps he has in mind some concept in between that he can further clarify.

  26. Er, that should be, “The way Jim put his original question…”

  27. Hi Richard & Russell,

    What I originally said was this:

    “I look forward to a similarly insightful argument from you [Russell] on why you think Ward is wrong to think it is reasonable *for him* to believe certain ‘facts’ about Jesus (despite biblical errancy), given that those claims are (supposedly) not falsifiable by ’science’. (Philosophically he rejects the physicalist conception of the universe in favour of Idealism.) Obviously at bedrock is Ward’s belief that he personally has ‘experienced God’.”

    Ward talks about judging certain claims that are, supposedly un-falsifiable, by science (and by extension other methods), in light of one’s own personal experiences, moral and philosophical views. And he suggests it might be reasonable * for him * to accept certain claims that others might reasonably reject as fanciful (e.g. his father being a double-agent). And, with reference to his religious views, I was trying to flag up some of the relevant experiences and philosophical views that he holds (and the fact the he is not all unaware of ‘textual-historical study of the New Testament documents’ or indeed the fact that the gospels flatly contradict each other).

    Now I think we 3 would all be inclined to think that Ward’s ‘experience of God’ was falsidical or that he wrongly interpreted whatever psychological experience he had. (And we can point to people having really rather contrary and culturally-relative religious experiences across the globe). But I was trying to be open to the possibility that it might be reasonable * for him * to interpret that experience as an experience of the divine.

    And given his idealism, a position he moved towards before being ‘born-again’, I was trying to be open to the idea that within that philosophical framework it might be more reasonable for him to be open to the idea of certain unlikely-sounding events occurring (though his own idea of the resurrection is not of a bodily resurrection but a spiritual one and he is agnostic about a great many other ‘religious’ claims). I don’t expect anybody here to ‘buy’ idealism of course (although there are problems with physicalism and naturalism – when it is not merely methodological) but I don’t know that idealism is so very silly that it is obviously unreasonable to beleive in it.

    And so I was trying to be initially charitable towards the idea that Ward might judge certain religious claims in light of his personal experiences and philosophical views, and come to a rather different conclusion from the rest of us but still fail to be unreasonable in so doing (even though we think he is wrong).

    An argument that it is unreasonable for him to believe such things can still be made of course. And making that argument would meet his own claims head on.

  28. (None of this is to deny that you made claims that are relevant to this Russell).

  29. @Stephen: You can’t read like 1,400 words over lunch? Do you only get like a 2 minute break?!?

  30. Thanks for the further clarification, Jim.

    I think part of the problem is the somewhat slippery nature of the idea of unreasonableness. I guess this is part of what worries me about talk of “reasonableness an absolute sense”, although we do seem (don’t we?) to a concept of reasonableness simpliciter as opposed to what might be reasonableness in certain circumstances, or within a certain social milieu, or for a certain person.

    Unfortunately, this could almost do with a separate post of 1400 words. 🙂

    But let’s see if we can all thrash some it out.

    One of the things I wanted to do in my recent posts was point out that science does, indeed, have something to say about the alleged resurrection of Jesus. To deny this requires, I think a very narrow view of science and its power to put pressure on what we thought we knew. Even I, who take a narrower view of the nature of science than Jerry does – or than a lot of scientists seem to – can make that claim. I think Jerry nailed that point in one of his posts, when he commented on how science is not all about labs, replicable experiments, etc., but can use converging lines of argument from different data sets, etc.

    So I’d want to argue that a claim such as “Jesus was resurrected” is not insulated from a critique that makes use of science, even if science is understood quite narrowly.

    If science is understood more broadly, the claim is even less insulated from that sort of critique.

    And in any event, we can understand “science” as narrowly as anyone wants while also pointing out that “Jesus was resurrected” is open to a critique that uses data from empirical inquiry more generally.

    So, that’s the gist of what I’m really arguing.

    But I then acknowledge in this post that none of this is to claim that the religious lack resources to evade the critique and go on believing. After all, they may be able to bite some very big bullets. (This was on my mind when writing Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, and I discuss it there in that first chapter.)

    There may be a straightforward sense in which they are being unreasonable when they bite those bullets. Still, given their preparedness to do so it might be futile in a (possibly large) class of cases to try to convince them of this.

    On the other hand, some might, when presented with the arguments, be unwilling to bite large enough bullets after all.

    For example, they may be open to persuasion that what they interpreted as the presence of God was not really. And what persuades them of that might be, for example, evidence that such experiences are not reliable as a “way of knowing” and that a sense of God’s presence is not likely to be veridical.

    Do we all (I mean Jim, Richard, and I, not necessarily everyone else commenting on the thread) think this is about right so far?

    If so, I think I can see how there is still an interesting question as to whether someone might be able to be reasonable in some worthwhile sense of “reasonable” … while going on believing the resurrection. I’m not committed to a negative answer to that question.

    I’ve got quite a bit to say about that, but let’s see if we’re on the same page so far.

  31. Ugh, sorry for some typos above. Hope the gist is clear.

  32. Hi Russell,

    Thank you for your further thoughts.

    I’d say that, broadly speaking, we’re on the same page yes.

    Though it can be defined so widely as to lose any value as a descriptive term, I’m not overly concerned with how ‘science’ is defined. To question the compatibility of science and religion is fine as a sort of shorthand way to point towards the apparent tension between holding certain religious beliefs and taking seriously the results of evidence-led rational enquiry. And so yes, it seems to me, that the claim that “Jesus was resurrected” is indeed very much open to a critique that uses data from empirical inquiry – indeed many critiques from different directions. Some critiques may point to it being an unwarranted belief, others may perhaps point more directly to the claim that is a false one.

    And I’d also agree that some may indeed be open to persuasion that what they interpreted as the presence of God may have been no such thing. A strong point in favour of this, to my mind, is that ‘religious experiences’ with strong content do tend to correlate somewhat with the religious culture surrounding that person, whether she was devout before or not – thus those in Spain may have visions of Mary, whilst those in India may have visions of a god with an elephant’s head. And there are other pertinent arguments in this regard.

    So yes ‘about right’ I can quite happily grant.

    There may be a trivial sense in which it reasonable for x to believe in false claim p. But yes, I think there is still “an interesting question as to whether someone might be able to be reasonable in some worthwhile sense of “reasonable” … while going on believing in the resurrection.”

    If you do have a great deal to say on this, I think a blog post on it could be quite interesting.

  33. Thanks for clarifying, Russell and Jim.

    Russell, I think we agree that there are two senses of “reasonable” in play here. (I’ll drop my terms “relative” and “absolute”.) Perhaps they can be illustrated by this example:

    A: Since he believes (however unreasonably) that the Earth is flat, it’s reasonable for him to believe he will fall off the edge.
    B: But all things considered it’s unreasonable for him to believe the Earth is flat, so it’s unreasonable for him to believe he’ll fall off the edge.

    Speaker A seems to be concerned only with whether the belief is consistent with prior beliefs. He doesn’t take account of whether those prior beliefs themselves were reasonable, or only traces the reasonableness of prior beliefs back over a limited time. He only seems to tell us that the person has been thinking reasonably from some point on. Moreover, it seems he may be taking a narrow view of consistency. Perhaps the person also has a range of other beliefs which, if taken together, point to the Earth being round. It seems that only the beliefs most obviously bearing on the subject are being considered here.

    I accept that this sense falls within the bounds of everyday usage. But I think it’s a weak sense which is of little value here, or in philosophy generally. There seems no good reason to restrict the scope of our judgement in the way that A seems to be doing.

    Speaker B seems to be using the word in a more useful sense. As I see it, useful epistemic judgements are essentially judgements of the quality of the cognitive processes leading to the belief. And I don’t put any limit on how far back the processes can be considered. If poor judgement led to an unreasonable belief in the distant past, then subsequent beliefs following from that one will be unreasonable too. If the word “unreasonable” doesn’t seem to fit well here, then let’s drop it and use a different term.

    Personally I prefer the term “misguided” to “unreasonable”. It seems less prone to the ambiguity we’re discussing here. Also, “unreasonable” seems to me to have stronger affective connotations, and I’d prefer to use as neutral language as possible. “Unreasonable” also seems to imply a greater degree of demerit, and I don’t necessarily want to make the stronger claim.

    I still can’t see the relevance of your comments about the futility of trying to persuade some people. But I’ll let that drop. Apart from this I agree with you.

  34. Hi Richard,

    ‘A: Since he believes (however unreasonably) that the Earth is flat, it’s reasonable for him to believe he will fall off the edge.’

    Part of this was on the edge of my mind when I mentioned their being a trivial sense in which it might be ‘reasonable’ for x to believe in false claim p (and it seems worth noting that it might be unreasonable for y to believe in true claim q).

    But your thoughts do bring this out much clearer thank you. The Flat-Earther may have conclusions that follow from his premises, and they may even be part of an internally coherent set of beliefs. But it is natural to assume his flat earth view must be unreasonable to hold in the way B suggests.

    It seems a modern-day Flat-Earther would have to be in a very odd situation indeed for it to be ‘reasonable’ for him to have adopted the flat earth view. He’d have to be living (in a cloudy valley presumably) isolated from pretty much all present knowledge, trusting in the teachings of those who had shown themselves to be (otherwise) reliable sources of knowledge. Some religious believers are, perhaps, sadly in something rather like that scenario I suppose.

    But clearly we have theologians and theistic philosophers, and other very intelligent and well-educated people, who are quite aware of the facts about how the Bible was cobbled together and embellished and of the fact that it flatly contradicts itself, They are also not unaware of science and not in denial about evolution but are still clinging – not only to vague hopes about there possibly being a hereafter and some ‘higher’ purpose or being – but to firm convictions in very odd (and to us hardly intelligible) doctrines.

    Perhaps particular doctrinal religious beliefs amongst such individuals can only be deemed ‘reasonable’ in the trivial A sense? I don’t know. But thank you for your thoughts.

  35. Jim, I won’t have the time to write a post on this, alas, so what I write here will be very much a summary of what was buzzing in my mind yesterday.

    Richard, I like your A and B senses of reasonable. Something like that was in my mind, though I suspect we might also be able to come up with C and D senses, or perhaps sub-categories of sense A. Reasonableness might not be a very straightforward concept at all – it may have a family of related meanings that come across in different contexts. Usually, perhaps, we’re pretty clear on what the meaning is, but when philosophical pressure is put on the idea we (or at least I) may suddenly find ourselves doubting what is really being communicated.

    So, my thought when I wrote yesterday was something along the lines of what you are both discussing. Perhaps given certain of his prior beliefs Ward’s belief in the resurrection makes sense. This is something like Richard’s sense A of “reasonable”.

    It’s even possible that those prior beliefs themselves make sense in the light of certain even more prior beliefs that were instilled in Ward as a child, and now feel intuitively “right” to him. Perhaps he does have the intellectual resources to challenge them (e.g., he may have still other beliefs that sit poorly with them), but even then we know that people make judgments all the time, given their limited time and energy, as to what lines of inquiry they will pursue, take seriously, etc.

    The upshot may be that it is not only futile to try to persuade someone who is being reasonable in something like the sense A – though that may be the case. It might also be that, as Richard says, we don’t want to make too strong a claim of demerit when this happens.

    All this could get quite a bit more complicated, I’m sure, but that’s roughly the sort of thing I had in mind yesterday, and I’m grateful for Richard’s terminology to help me express it.

  36. Thank you pursuing it a bit further Russell, and thanks again to Richard.

    Some food for thought anyway.

  37. Marshall, thanks for those comments. I agree that existing science is vulnerable to science. Indeed, that is one of science’s hallmarks.

    But what many people don’t want to admit is that religious claims are (often and significantly) vulnerable to science. So often we see people – in many cases, scientific organisations – developing philosophical theories that basically deny this.

    Now, I realise that someone could adopt the technique that lawyers call confession and avoidance. I.e. concede that point but find reasons why it is not determinative of some larger issue (such as whether God exists). Fine for the sake of this discussion.

    But many people don’t want to concede the point at all. I do think we have pretty good reason to think that many of the attempts to insulate religion from any vulnerability to science are not only intellectually failures but politically motivated.

    The other thing is – sure, these attempts may destroy some of the motivation for atheism and anti-religiosity if they actually do the intellectual job that they are touted to do. But they also eviscerate religion. E.g. … if Stephen Jay Gould’s NOMA principle correctly described science and religion, it would water down the power of science but it would also drastically diminish religion.

  38. Russell,

    Good points. I agree that usage of “unreasonable” is more complex than my account described. I only scratched the surface. It seems to me that everyday users of the word are typically more concerned with expressing disapproval and blame than communicating information. So the reason why use of the word is so complex may be because we’re making a judgement of blameworthiness, and that judgement may be influenced by multiple factors. For example, we may feel inclined to excuse someone’s mistaken belief on the grounds that it resulted from some prior conditions that we don’t feel he can be blamed for, such as childhood influences.

    Anyway, I shall try to avoid the word in philosophical discussion. If I want to express a negative epistemic judgement about a belief I’ll call it “misguided” or say “there is good reason to reject that belief”.

  39. I agree with you that many people, most people, don’t want to admit to problems in their world-view. (Again also science (vide Kuhn), but focusing on religion here.) Why is it common basic necessary-to-believe that Jesus Christ is the only path to salvation? (And why is individualist heaven-seeking/hell-avoidance the focus of salvation?) I agree that that position is intellectually as well as theologically bankrupt and motivated by institutional will-to-power.

    The other side of the problem is demonstrated by Mike’s recent post about Teachers as just another category of wage slave, valuable to themselves and to others only in a consequentialist way. And a pointer towards a solution is Jeremy’s recent post that (taking all statistical reservations as read) suggests that Christians are more likely to feel obligated to be charitable, and in particular to be charitable even to those who have no chance at all of reciprocating. The very definition of altruistic behavior. That is, on the face of it, Christians have a motivation to behave altruistically that the non-religious lack (or posses more weakly).

    Clearly the world desperately needs better motivation to act altruistically, or to dramatically enlarge the notion of “self”-interest. And valuable social institutions such as the University, now under existential attack, grew up in a religiously motivated moral environment. So I say that it might be well to have a look at whether religion can be refurbished to function in a scientifically informed society. And I don’t see any reason why not if people on all sides can let go of the attitude that there is only one way to make sense of the world, some comprehensible Theory of Everything. Not NOMA; the point is that science and religion do properly overlap: they intersect at the world-as-it-is-in-itself.

    I’m dangerously close to an error theory here … I’m suggesting that religious people aren’t doing the crazy thing they claim to be doing, rather something different. But how can it be an error to behave in a way that produces the results I desire? I’m suggesting that religious language needs to be cleaned up (a task perpetually in progress), but religious thought, in particular an attitude of worship, needs to be preserved and encouraged.

    And that this is not contrary to a notion of a “secular society”, conceived as a multi-ethnic superstructure.

  40. I have behaved altruistically, many times in various circumstances, throughout my life. I did so because it felt good. Period.

    Perhaps I am a hedonist.

    While religion makes ethereal claim to be the source of ethics or justice, some religions claim to be the source of morality. I reject that because morality is knowledge as well as ethics and justice are.

    Religion is founded on imagination and belief. It must limit itself to that realm.

    Science begins with imagination to formulate beliefs. A belief (hypothesis) is selected and tests are designed with power to falsify the selected belief. Testing, at every step and phase, produces knowledge. As knowledge accumulates, some of it can be used to postulate a theory and the testing goes on, all of it producing knowledge. Religion cannot rightly or ethically or morally or justly insert or assert itself anywhere at all within the realm of science.

    Some religions teach inculcates to substitute belief for knowledge and base decisions upon faith in that belief. The only control and guide for decision making is knowledge. I submit that a universe creator demanding that we make a decision regarding it without having knowledge of it would be unethical, immoral and unjust in making that demand. I also submit that telling a person what belief to hold and then teaching that person to substitute that belief for knowledge and base decisions upon faith in that given belief is unethical, immoral and unjust.

    Knowledge, alone, is able to support, control and guide decisions. Ethics, morality and justice are knowledge. Faith is the active substitution of belief for knowledge and teaching a person to make faith based decisions is setting a loose cannon upon us all.

    If a person wants to comfort themselves with a belief; I very much wish they would develop their own instead of buying them.

  41. Hello Steven,

    Your account of how “Science begins… [and ends up] producing knowledge” seems unproblematic. And I agree that religion should not assert itself over science. I too am an atheist with great respect for science.

    I rather doubt you are a native English speaker so, not wanting to be uncharitable towards the rest of what you say, I’ll try and make it make some sense.

    “Knowledge, alone, is able to support, control and guide decisions.” Obviously this is false as a statement of fact –knowledge is neither necessary nor sufficient to control and guide decisions. Presumably you mean knowledge is required if we are to reliably make decisions well. But clearly we frequently lack the requisite knowledge and can navigate very well without it. As far as what is relevant is concerned, warranted belief, intuitions and best guesses seem as much as we can obtain most of the time – if we required knowledge to reliably make decisions well then we simply could not reliably make decisions well.

    “Ethics, morality and justice are knowledge” is rather gnomic but I presume you mean we can know what it is ethical, moral and just – that we can have moral and ethical knowledge. We are all, of course, delighted with this happy outcome. But ‘moral facts’ if there are such a thing are a rather odd type of thing and it is unclear how we obtain knowledge of them. (Moral knowledge seems to imply there is something there to be known). I presume you don’t mean that moral knowledge is had via the scientific method – I grant that science can help inform moral decision making and do so better than religion – but obviously we don’t get (1) “you shouldn’t torture children just for fun” from science, or anything like science. (1) isn’t tested or deduced, there is no experimentation it isn’t argued to and it isn’t open to falsification. So where do we get this moral knowledge from? I don’t think we need to put ‘God’ or anything spooky into such an explanation of course.

    Regarding your conception of morality, you do say you “have behaved altruistically, many times [only] because it felt good”. But saying you did x only because doing x made you feel good seems like a non-explanation as far as why you did x is concerned. You may mean to say that you felt no moral compulsion, and felt you were under no obligation – this might suggest you are socially-beneficial and amoral. But then you do claim to have moral knowledge – and indeed you are happy to employ moral terms to condemn religion. Do you think altruism is morally required, or morally good, and that by happy chance that coincides with your own inclinations?

    I do wonder what you mean to get at by your suggestion that perhaps you are a ‘hedonist’. Do you mean to suggest that an action is morally good iff it makes you feel good? Or do you mean to suggest that psychologically you can only do what makes you feel good?

    I am intrigued to know as your tone of certitude makes for a refreshing change, those with knowledge of philosophy are so often lacking in it.

  42. Hi Jim;

    I see that I should have made clear that my hedonist line was written with a chuckle. Without chuckling, I make decisions based upon what I want. What I want is my prime mover. Sharing this planet with seven billion other decision makers and the agencies we create like local, state and federal governments, I am not able to make every decision based upon what I want but I enjoy that challenge.

    The foregoing applies to altruistic decisions as well. I know, a priori, that I will feel good about providing some benefit to a fellow and that reward is what I want.

    I do not make decisions without sufficient support from knowledge. That knowledge includes the ethical frame upon which I formulate a decision and the morality of its outbound potentials.

    Science applies as decisions are made and executed. Each decision is an experiment. Formulating each decision produces knowledge of ethics. The execution of each decision produces knowledge in the form of feedback from persons affected. Ethics for me. Morality for others. I would have no clue of either without the knowledge gained from the long series of experiments (decisions) I have conducted.

    I want to say that religion is not the source of morality.

    The morality that I cherish has come from the feedback of others when impacted by decisions I made. That feedback impacts my conscience first and my brain second and my memory third. I do not know where my conscience is but it works and sometimes all too well. My conscience gives me feel good chemicals when I decide well and execute well. I get feel bad chemicals when I decide and or execute poorly. Rather simple but useful knowledge.

    I suppose we can debate such things as intuition and best guess and warranted belief to support and control and guide a decision. I might begin by pointing out that they are knowledge not recognized.

    What angers me is a person or religion teaching someone to substitute a given belief for knowledge and base decisions upon faith in that given belief.

    Religion is big business in the United States. Each year the religion businesses spend 400 million dollars on lobbying, not to mention advocacy and advertising. I do, so very much, wish people would build their own beliefs instead of buying them.

    By the way, I am a native english speaker. I do not speak formal philosophy. I understand it. I appreciate it and I appreciate your commentary.

  43. Hi Steven,

    I do feel rather awkward about the ‘native English’ thing now. I felt there was something interesting in there but some of constructions seemed confusing to me. That says more, of course, about my tendency to get confused than your ability to express yourself though. I don’t know that I either speak or understand formal philosophy myself. I’ve studied it a bit, but I’m a gardener not an academic.

    I appreciate that in the US, it is perhaps easier for an atheist to be angered by domestic religion. Here in the UK, Christianity isn’t in anything like the same form and has nothing like the same force. I agree that religion is not the source of morality. In its milder more moderate forms I think it can encourage moral behaviour amongst some of its adherents but clearly the ethical outcomes delivered by people turning to holy books – and the dogmas built around them – are frequently very bad indeed. And I do see your point about religion teaching people to push aside the fruits of knowledge and base decisions upon faith in certain beliefs. I must say that I find the claim that you do not make decisions without sufficient support from knowledge a little odd. But that may be a question of a different vocabulary. And the question about where knowledge ends and rational belief and good guesses take over is probably not worth pursuing. Your own take on morality and what motivates you is more interesting.

    You say that you make decisions based upon what you want, that what you want is your prime mover. This seems a truism, that is to say, I don’t see how anybody could do otherwise, you simpluy can’t be internally motivated to do x because it’s what you don’t want.

    You say you know you will feel good about providing some benefit to a fellow and that is the reward you want. So you help B because you know it will make you feel good. I don’t doubt your sincerity but this does seem, at first glance, to fail as an explanation of your altruistic acts. It seems you must desire something other than the ‘feeling good’. If you derive happiness from helping others, unless you desired to help others for its own sake, you would not derive happiness from doing so.

    I appreciate keenly what it is like to have a conscience that sometimes ‘works too well’. I could say my ‘conscience’ is in my brain but a conscience just does not seem the type of thing there is any room for in science-based talk. That’s not to say that I don’t think we can usefully talk about it. Talk of the ‘conscience’ points towards some neurological ‘stuff’. IAnd I ‘get’ how you get ‘feel bad’ chemicals when you don’t help and ‘feel good’ chemicals when you do and this is related to the feedback of others. Your conscience seems to serve you well.

    But it seems oddly backwards to think this ‘moral knowledge’ has come from the positive feedback. It seems to me what you value is the happiness or well-being of others. Because you value that you get the positive feedback. You don’t value helping others because it makes you happy – you are made happy by helping others because you value helping others. It seems to me that positive feedback has come from you having, and abiding by, a keen sense of morality.

    And that morality is not, at root, a form of knowledge.

    Or so it seems to me.

  44. Marshall,

    “But how can it be an error to behave in a way that produces the results I desire?”

    The discussion here has been about the rationality of belief, not behaviour. (Though we might consider believing to be a form of behaviour.) So let me instead address the question, “How can it be an error to hold a belief that produces the results I desire?” The answer is that even false beliefs can produce results we desire. So you may be in error in holding a belief, even though it is conducive to producing the results you desire. Furthermore, if you have a desire to know the truth, then holding a false belief conflicts with one of your desires.

    Philosophers sometimes distinguish between “theoretical rationality” (which is concerned with the truth of beliefs) and “practical rationality” (which is concerned with the usefulness of actions). If we extend the idea of practical rationality to include the usefulness of beliefs, then we might say that your belief can be practically rational but theoretically irrational.

    “…religious thought, in particular an attitude of worship, needs to be preserved and encouraged.”

    I’m quite friendly to the idea that moderate religion can be beneficial to society, all things considered, and I’m not out to actively discourage it. On the other hand, I can’t help arguing for the truth as I see it. I have conflicting motivations when I think a belief is useful but untrue.

  45. G’day Jim;

    That salutation brings back memories of working with aussie troops.

    To sum up my own conduct, I rely on internal guidance and self authority.

    I am amazed that UK EU correspondents are so relaxed about religions. Over here, the christian religion businesses are working themselves into government, trying to override the constitution, foisting dogma upon our population. Along with the commercial corporations (all of which are now persons with political rights), corporate religion is wielding a major force which I do not want my grandchildren to face.

    Add to that, a majority of our population relies upon external guidance and authority. They are easily frightened, easily manipulated and they vote.

    I do not attack persons but I do want to work against the business of religion and accomplish something before I graduate from “earth school”. In doing that work, I must hone my language to a fine edge and you are helping me do that; and I get to enjoy a chat at the same time.

    I must go out and get some chores done. I hope we can talk more later.

  46. I know that we are talking about science versus religion here so what is the definition of religion?

    I think that there is Christianity and the belief in God, then there is the religion or what man does or makes of his belief in God. It seems to me as a Christian that man with his “religion” has sometimes gone beyond Christianity itself and made up a bunch of religious “stuff or politics” that is really just for his own benefit. I don’t like that and I wonder if that is most of what atheists and/or scientists also dislike of religion.

    I also wonder if atheism and/or science could be considered religions since they also sometimes seem to have their own man made “stuff or politics?”

    Please don’t ask me to define “stuff or politics” I’m not sure that I could.

  47. To ask if it is reasonable for Ward to believe in what is not falsifiable is to get caught up in the trappings of rationalism and individualism. What matters is if it is useful to us if Ward believes X, Y or Z. Very few beliefs, reasonable or otherwise, have zero consequence. People who believe their parents were secret agents despite any lack of evidence don’t usually go about their life in a carefree jolly manner benign to the rest of society. Some will even end up consuming our precious resources in psychiatric wards. My point can be restated as that what ultimately matters is not beliefs but actions, but beliefs affect our daily actions.

    In fact, one of the main criticisms by the religious is that idea atheism is corrosive to the very fabric of society (for example “Atheistic existentialism leads to Stalinism”). And similarly, atheists accuse religions of being socially destabilizing and inhibiting progress (for example, “Religion is the opium of the people”). I’m sure that if one group or the other were confined to a distant reservation, the ostracizing would have no problem tolerating the ostracized. Indeed, what a brave new world it would be!

    I realize that “us” is a complicated term. My approach to us is a sense of unity based on both biological and sociological, as well as psychological foundations. Therefore what is meant by us is strongly influenced by our beliefs. The unity depends not on the reasonableness of any unfalsifiable (or difficult to confirm) beliefs from which the unity emerges, but the consistency of such beliefs and how strongly they are reciprocated and reinforced by the members of the alleged group.

    As long as individual unfalsifiable claims do not interfere with the curiosity of science and engineering, it’s claims are of no import to the greatest of us, society at large, i.e sapience as such. But no claim, however esoteric and isolated, is without effect. And the religious cannot contain themselves to some separate magistrate because of the very nature of their endeavor: to create a just and righteous society. The religious must at times interfere to save humanity against it’s incorrigible curiosity known as science. But such interference is almost always predicated on unsubstantiated claims since science always finds itself at the brink of the unknown. We simply must have faith in the enlightened and intuited admonishments of our spiritual guides.

    But science, by it’s very nature, seeks to confirm the unsubstantiated. Scientists cannot contain their inquisitiveness to some separate magistrate. Almost any falsifiable claim will immediately be in the radar of someone plagued by curiosity. But to think that science can only address the falsifiable is to banish archeologists and paleontologists (and hence also any claims about long term evolution) to the pure realm of speculation. If science is seen as but a methodology for testing the falsifiable, much of what is today considered “science” would be be on par with religion.

    In the end, I think science is more than a mere methodology of empirical affirmation. The term science seems to me to refer to a system of logically consistent statements, even speculations, rooted in evidence. If this is the case, then religion is at the complete mercy of science except for any claims religion may make about what is to be desired. But then how does religion differ from any other group advocating for a desirable state of affairs? Does this mean Greenpeace is a religion?

    Religion and science will continue to be at odds unless religion is reduced to a set of unsubstantiated moral claims and science to a methodology for testing the falsifiable. But such reductions would make nonsense of our daily use of the terms.
    I think there can be no truce, only at best a civil and cordial competition for the minds of our youth and their future.

  48. The theory of Non-Overlapping Magesteria (NOMA) was put forward as a model of how Religion and Science could co-exist. As domains of relevance, where: one Domain answers questions of the “How?” type regarding the means/objective of Natural/Physical/Real events; and the other Domain answers questions of the “Why?” type regarding the motive/subjective of Supernatural/Metaphysical/Anti-Real events.

    The theory of incommensurability of Thomas Kuhn explains why those invested into the disciplines of each Domain have difficulty in understanding the other, they have paradigms of understanding based on different underpinning axioms (neither more or less reasonable than the other, e.g., the axioms of realism and idealism underpinning different worldviews). One sees Rubin’s faces, the other his Vase.

    However this state of affairs does not satisfy me. As per the Rubin’s Figure-Ground Vase illusion, it is only possible to see the one because there exists the other. My preferred worldview is neither the face or the vase, it’s both. I think it is possible to develop an integrated worldview (a kind of dual-aspect monism familiar to physicists that understand the term complementarity) that accommodates both – where one has faith in reason and a reasonable faith.

    However, I have found that asserting this gets you into trouble from those Culture Warriors fighting for the hegemony of one Domain worldview at the expense of the other. The first casualty of a Culture War is the truth, closely followed by all those warriors that choose to fight for it against others who think differently.

  49. Bill;

    Perhaps the stuff and politics could be assigned to the business of religion as opposed to the religious person.

    I work against the business of religion but never against a person.

    Actually, I have put my own life at risk to defend each person who wants to hold a religious belief. I have no concern for what belief; it is the right to choose or build a belief that I will defend.

    What I do wish from a person is that each one would build their own belief instead of buying one from a religion business.

    All said, no person, group, organization, corporation, government or world holds certifiable authority to speak for a universe creator. Belief is not knowledge so any belief is equally valid with any other (so long as that belief cannot be falsified by science).

    Most belief holders have no desire to impose their belief upon another person. It is far more the business of religion than works to impose their dogma upon as many as they can because it is part of the business plan. Foisting and forcing dogma upon others will not save souls bit it does bring in money and increase power.

    I am glad for your comment. Your words make clear that you have no interest in proselytizing. I have no interest in your belief but your right to hold that belief is of interest to us all.

  50. Steven,

    Thanks for your answer. We seem to be of the same mind on this.

    You said, “It is far more the business of religion than works to impose their dogma upon as many as they can because it is part of the business plan.Foisting and forcing dogma upon others will not save souls bit it does bring in money and increase power.”.

    I would extend that to the “religions” or “Dogmas” of science and non-belief as well. Perhaps you would also?

    Thanks to you and all the other fine folks that have put their lives on the line for our religious freedoms.

  51. Most belief holders have no desire to impose their belief upon another person. It is far more the business of religion than works to impose their dogma upon as many as they can because it is part of the business plan.

    Really, Steven? So what is the strange animus that renders the Corporation so vile and the individual so saintly?

  52. Andreas,

    Many religious people are very private about their faith and are not trying to ‘sell’ it to others or impose it upon them. Not all churches, priests or ministers are into proselytizing. And neither are some religions as a whole – Judaism, Sikhism, Hinduism and Buddhism.

  53. Richard, thanks for your comment. We are about to start chopping logic here, but: In grade-school arithmetic, an error is a mistake that leads to an incorrect result. There are many perfectly acceptable occasions to throw a counterfactual assumption into a scientific calculation: eg, that hoary old chestnut Newtonian Gravitation, which is theoretically absurd (no action at a distance) and domain-limited compared with General Relativity, but nobody would say it is an error to try to use it. There’s i (sqrt(-1)) which is numerically absurd but computationally useful because by the time you get to a real-world result, it has been boiled away.

    “The discussion here has been about the rationality of belief, not behaviour.” Gnus, and you above, generally argue that the problem with religion is that people’s beliefs have real-world consequences. Why else would you care at all?
    “I have conflicting motivations when I think a belief is useful but untrue.” The discussion here has been about whether “untrue” means “not justified” or “strictly falsified”.

    Jim, the question for the moment is not where morality comes from, but how it is instantiated in the world. Given that morality can’t be “justified true belief” as required by rationality, how shall people be motivated to behave morally? What brings someone to say “I could get away with X, but I am obligated to do Y”? The very point that gnus object to is that religion is a powerful motivator to act according to a moral framework (… and those moral frameworks are often unsatisfactory from a secular humanist point of view). Something that has been central to the development of human civilization has been at work, and is available to be harnessed to do good work in the future. I don’t say that every moral motivator will be “religious”: I merely challenge you to show me one that is not, that will work for populations and not just saintly individuals, that can resist the pressures Mike talked about on the other thread. (If you show me one, tell me how I can sign up.) Secular democratic states – the global world order – has been putting up a poor showing lately (after some initial progress).

  54. 3) ‘A belief is unreasonable until its demonstrated to be reasonable.’

    Now, really you need to ditch talk of 3) altogether. Its obviously wrong, indeed wrong-headed, for all sorts of reasons. I’m thinking you’ve started to click onto this, and that this is why you feel ‘ill at ease’. But if you genuinely can’t see that there’s anything wrong with it, say so and people will be able to help you see why this is so.

    Mr. Houston, I don’t think this is the least bit fair. If you’re going to insist a proposition is “obviously wrong” I think you need to at least sketch the case out for why. If it’s as obvious as you say then it shouldn’t be any problem to concisely hint at why. (Not to mention the rather condescending manner in which you responded. Not terribly surprising that Patrick might flounce given the attitude in some of your replies.)

    Your “if and only if” reformulation is nitpicking, pretty obviously, and I think it actually misses an important aspect of beliefs being reasonable or unreasonable. Until Galileo’s observations it was reasonable to believe the sun revolved around the earth. Until Darwin’s theory it was reasonable to assume all living things were created by a deity. Reasonable/unreasonable status of beliefs is temporal, and an “if and only if” implies a relationship that is not temporal.

    I think I can formulate the beginning of an argument for why one should hold a belief to be unreasonable unless it’s shown to be reasonable. Take as an example Russell’s Teapot. Is it unreasonable for me to believe in such a teapot? If I insist that such a belief is not unreasonable how would you respond? One might even make this into a probabilistic argument: there are far more unreasonable beliefs than reasonable beliefs (for any reasonable belief we can substitute different subjects, objects, and verbs and the vast majority of any such conjunctions will be unreasonable and often even nonsensical). Therefore, the probability is that if there are reasons to think that a belief is either reasonable or unreasonable the probability that it is unreasonable is quite high.

    I don’t think Patrick’s necessarily hit the nail on the head but I think your dismissals are unnecessarily condescending, myopic, and perhaps even unreasonable.

  55. Dear Mr Dan,

    If you do think there’s somewhere worthwile to go with

    (1) ‘A belief is unreasonable until its demonstrated to be reasonable.’

    please feel free to sketch away.

    I asked what demonstrates that (1) is reasonable.

    Patrick responded:

    “you could try to impress me with the infinite regress problem of knowledge. But there’s a difference between doing good philosophy and playing games with definitions of informally used words, even if Plato provided a strong precedent for the latter.”

    That rather set the tone.

  56. Therefore, the probability is that if there are reasons to think that a belief is either reasonable or unreasonable the probability that it is unreasonable is quite high.

    Sorry, should have previewed more closely. Try:

    If there are NO reasons to think that a belief is either reasonable or unreasonable then it is highly probable that the belief is unreasonable.

  57. Jim (since you seem to have a problem with the more formal salutation), I did sketch a reason why a similar argument might be defensible. And I have no desire to argue with you about “who started it.” I realize it’s standard to include personal attacks and attacks on a rival’s philosophical acumen in any given argument but I find this one of the more distasteful aspects of contemporary philosophy.

    Why do you think there’s no way to make such a “presumption of unreasonableness” principle work? If it’s so obviously wrong a simple example should suffice to show why.

  58. Well why don’t you start with offering me a demonstration of why it is reasonable to think that:

    (1) ‘A belief is unreasonable until its demonstrated to be reasonable.’

    A sketch isn’t enough, you need a demonstration otherwise (1) is an unreasonable belief for you to hold.

  59. Jim, you want me to make a formal, full-length, professional-quality argument and only then will you concede that it’s not “obviously wrong”? I think that’s rather at odds with the notion that the notion is “obviously wrong.”

    But here’s the best I can slam into a comment box on such short notice. First I’ll note that you already offered to “help” Patrick understand your problem with his assertion and that I’m merely asking what you would have said if he asked for your “help.”

    A belief is “reasonable” iff the truth of the content of the belief is implied either directly by sense experience or by other reasonable beliefs.
    (So although beliefs based on sense experience can be wrong, one can maintain that they’re “reasonable” if there aren’t other reasons do doubt them. Then we can build up composite beliefs upon the foundation of beliefs inferred from sense experience. We do need some kind of positive definition of “reasonable” to make Patrick’s notion work.)

    Consider the set of all possible beliefs. For each member of the subset of “reasonable” beliefs R, create the class of beliefs D formed by substituting different subjects, objects, and verbs. Here I’m going to need to do a little hand-waving, but since I’m just trying to make a case that the argument isn’t obviously wrong I think this is OK — I’m not trying to make a strong argument in the first place (but you are). For any given belief, the majority of members of D will be outside R. But since this is true for all members of R, the exclusion of R must be larger than R. Thus, the majority of beliefs are not in R.

    Then it’s simply an exercise in probability. If one cannot demonstrate that a belief X is reasonable (because it is implied by other reasonable beliefs) then it’s improbable that the belief is reasonable (because R is smaller than the exclusion of R).

    But I’m not asking you to argue against this formulation. I’m asking you to explain what you already offered to explain: why the notion is “obviously wrong.”

  60. Hello Andreas;

    I think it is vile of a corporation to sell an imagined eternal life which they cannot deliver and speak for an imagined creator while having no certifiable authority to speak. It is vile of a corporation to so inculcate its customers and so direct their lives that they make no effort to accept the level of responsibility required to developed fully as the unique person that only they can become. I think it vile of a corporation to divide people into customers and non customers, to devalue and even dehumanize non customers. I will say a great deal more elsewhere.

    To the individual, no sainthood but the appreciable relief that this one person will not be working to put my grandchildren under a christian theocracy.

    I do accept your point. Some individuals, having their own motives, inculcate their children, thusly depriving them, even barring them from knowing, of the right to build or choose a belief or no belief of their own. Such individuals seem moved to push outward and lay their beliefs, heavily, upon extended family, friends, neighbors, anyone they capture in a conversation.

    It is the business of religion that disturbs me. I return that favor.

  61. Jim, I did not mean to imply that ALL people are evangelists à la Jerry Falwell. Obviously not. Most people do, though, spend their day convincing someone or other, through some mean or other, to do something that they need or desire. Some are more convincing than the Average Joe or Aam Admi and they are usually the one’s towards which resources naturally flow. The point was to question that institutionalization is the cause of ill behavior. The formation of corporations is no more the cause of “evil” than once birth and body is the cause of liver disease.

    Just like organs sustain what is Jim P. Houston, individuals sustain what is organized religion. If the organs fail, the body fails. If the individuals behave badly, the organization behaves badly. I do realize that the aggregate whole affects the parts (this is something I myself have argued at length in the past). But the ability of a group to behave badly is rooted in people’s ability to behave badly, and not vice versa. The “animus” from which the corporation emerges is the individual and her ability to freely associate and to act according to dictums of other individuals.

    Note also that most people don’t start corporations. Does that mean entrepreneurs are bad people? Those entrepreneurs, they’re pretty pushy people, you know. Perhaps it’s just a case of the Pareto Principle and the meek masses?

    P.S. I would be careful in singling out any religion as more or less proselytising. I think you experience modern Judaism as less pushy and insisting because you do not live in Brooklyn or Israel. Modern Judaism is tricky because it has gotten itself entangled with the thorny issue of “ethnicity”. You could argue that American Evangelism is more “open” as opposed to “intolerant”. And though I know little about Indian politics, I would venture to say that the success in the last decades of the BJP aught to also give you pause in making such statements.

  62. @Jim and @Dan

    Excuse me interjecting on the issue of “A belief is unreasonable until its demonstrated to be reasonable.”

    It is often argued in Bertrand Russell’s argument of the Celestial Teapot that it is unreasonable to pose belief in it’s existence unless there is reasonable physical evidence of its existence. This might support Dan’s position as I understand it.

    However Black Swans existed prior to physical evidence that they did, so a belief in their possible existence would not be unreasonable. This would support Jim’s position as I understand it.

    What is different in the two cases? I think it is the “reasonableness” of the proposition. Celestial Teapots are human constructs and the probability of them orbiting Saturn is a silly conjecture. Whereas the probability of finding an as yet unobserved variety of a species, in a world not yet thoroughly explored, is not silly.

    However in the specific regards to a religious faith proposition, shall we consider these silly or not? In the final analysis it depends on the assumptions underpinning your worldview. If you believe there is meaning/purpose in the world (say because of personal experiences of synchronicity), and you sense what Levinas called the “Other” in your conscience, then it is not unreasonable to think religiously. If, however you think all such talk is silly you will think religiosity to be pishposh.

  63. @Martin:

    I think I agree with what you’re saying. My argument certainly is based on Russell’s and your black swan objection is a good one. (One might defend against it in a number of ways. One could point out that “it is unreasonable to believe in black swans” isn’t the same as saying there ARE no black swans (so it’s not necessarily false even on the existence of black swans). Or one might point out that “different species of the same genus frequently differ in color” is a reasonable belief that implies the possibility of black swans; this defense would require a more rigorous and detailed version of the argument than I’ve provided so far, however.)

    I also agree that my argument (assuming it could be made more rigorous without completely falling apart) does nothing to demonstrate that any particular religious belief or religious belief in general is unreasonable. I can see how one might think that I WAS driving at this conclusion but I personally think that would be a rather cheap and ultimately ineffective way to try to undercut religious arguments. My argument is really a defense of the notion that for a belief to be reasonable it must be justified somehow. I’m not making a claim either way regarding the “justifiability” of religious beliefs.

  64. Marshall;

    I submit conscience and desire to succeed as two motivators toward moral behavior.

    For some, a desire to be accepted by others is a strong motivator.

    I also submit that external sourced motivators are more vulnerable than internal motivators.

    I also acknowledge that no motivator toward moral behavior is assurance of moral behavior; only the likelihood is increased.

    No person, group, or organization is ethical, moral or just. Decisions, alone, can receive those attributes.

  65. Dan,

    I would agree with you that “personal attacks and attacks on a rival’s philosophical acumen” are one “of the more distasteful aspects of contemporary philosophy”. I don’t know that I’m guilty of that much.

    My initial reply to Patrick was not written in the best of tempers, I was rather put on the defensive about the suggestion that I was trying to ‘impress’ or ‘play games’ (and that this was what Plato did).

    My further reply might well have been better out. My dismissal of the claim that (1) ‘A belief is unreasonable until its demonstrated to be reasonable’ as obviously wrong, indeed wrong-headed was based on the fact that I thought it was indeed obviously wrong and wrong-headed. And I genuinely thought Patrick had started to click on to that. I didn’t consciously set out to be condescending. Perhaps by saying “obviously” I came across in a unfortunate manner, but I saw, and still see, no way of saving (1) and no good motivation for trying to do so.

    Richard Wein had already given a measured argument for why (1) ‘A belief is unreasonable until its demonstrated to be reasonable’ is wrong and how life would be impossible were that not the case. You will find it above as presumably Patrick did. I thought that did a great deal of the work needed to show (1) is wrong.

    My own arguments were of a more formal sort. Thinking he had got the gist, I didn’t want to labour the point in my last communication with Patrick that, in the absence of a demonstration of (1) it is, by its own lights, an unreasonable belief to hold. I thought he had clicked on to that. But that would have been the first thing I would have said to Patrick had he asked or chosen to argue, as I am quite sure he is able to. And Patrick didn’t have a demonstration for (1). So it was wrong-headed for him to assert (1). And you don’t have a demonstration for (1) so its wrong-headed for you to assert (1) – because what you are asserting, is by its own lights, an unreasonable belief.

    You would need a demonstration to show that (1) is reasonable for it stop being obviously wrong-headed for you to assert it. Neither of you have one. And there’s none to be had.

    I didn’t think my “if and only if” reformulation was “nit-picking”. To use this phrase seems to suggest that you think I was, strictly speaking, correct but that it was a minor point I should not have brought up or somehow an unfair criticism (as if I was bringing up a spelling mistake).

    A ‘A belief is reasonable if, and only, if its has been demonstrated to be reasonable.’

    seemed to be what Patrick had committed himself to. Certainly he never argued against it. And I thought it highlighted how wrong he was going. But however bad A might be as a proposal, I don’t know why you think it is bad of me to forumalte it this way because it “implies a relationship that is not temporal”.

    I do get your point about how it may be reasonable to believe something and then stop being so, or unreasonable to believe something and then become so. But it is on account of the claim that ‘A belief is unreasonable until it is demonstrated to be reasonable’ that it was never reasonable to believe B “the sun revolves around the earth” (something Gallileo denied but did not actually disprove). When was it ever demonstrated that it was reasonable to believe (2)? It may have been reasonable to believe it, but when was it ever demonstrated to be a reasonable belief? I don’t think A misrepresents what Patrick asserted, certainly I didn’t intend it to. I felt it only made clearer part of what was wrong with the ‘obvious’ answer Patrick thought Russell Blackford should have seen.

    If I’ve offended Patrick, or misrepresented him then I’m sorry about that. I think its right of you to stand up and say if you think I have slighted him. All that said, I’m sure he has the wit to argue for himself. And if he thought there was something wortt saving he’d be arguing for it.

  66. Hello Marshall,

    The question for the moment is whatever people wish to discuss I suppose. Where morality comes from is an interesting question and one not necessarily unrelated to that of how it is instantiated in the world. But I didn’t mean to make that the subject of the wider debate as such, I was merely intrigued by some of the things Steven said.

    The first thing to note is that even if morality were ‘justified true belief’ we’d still have the problem of motivation.

    Religion is a powerful motivator to act according to a moral framework yes. Sometimes it motivates people to be more humble, generous, forgiving and charitable. Moderate less dogmatic forms of religion can do great moral good, and I think you will still find that the people giving out soup to the homeless tend to be associated with church groups. There is something about the shared community of a congregation that can foster good behaviour and indeed organized efforts to do good. I don’t think that should be completely overshadowed.

    But sometimes religion sanctions suicide bombings, slavery, discrimination against homosexuals, the killing of non-believers and stops contraception from lifting masses of the world’s population out of disease and poverty. And I can’t blame “Gnus” for focusing on that and the many other evils done in the name of religion, even if I feel I have more in common with moderate religious believers than those who are just plain nasty and dismissive about the religious beliefs that bring comfort and hope to many.

    “I don’t say that every moral motivator will be “religious”: I merely challenge you to show me one that is not”

    Sorry if I appear to be putting on a gnu hat, but if you mean ‘carrot and stick’ religious motivation –and we can’t discount that even if it is not the whole story – we have secular dis-incentives to commit murder and theft too. Unlike the commandments, the criminal statues also mention rape and child abuse. In secular terms we cannot match eternal damnation as a ‘punishment motivation’ against say, suicide but we do rather count that in our favour.

    True, we also don’t have comparable carrots to eternal bliss, but altruistic behaviour and acts of kindness often are rewarded. There are other inducements to do good things than the promise of eternal communion with the Divine. Unlike in Christianity, long-term self-interest does not always match up with doing the right thing and yet non-religious people sacrifice their lives for others, thinking there will be no hereafter or reward. Something must be motivating them – and it’s not religion. Maybe its compassion, maybe it is a sense of secular duty? A conscience?

    I don’t know that religion is about bringing someone to say “I could get away with X, but I am obligated to do Y”?

    In Christianity there just is no ‘getting away with it’. And thats part of what makes it a strong movitationary force.

  67. @Jim:

    Not really sure how to respond. First of all, I do apologize for whatever amount of hostility I’ve displayed in the thread to this point and perhaps I shouldn’t have read as much into some of what you’ve written.

    But besides that, I’m not really sure you’re addressing the case I’ve already made. First, let’s deal with Richard’s argument:

    Let’s say you’re driving and a car pulls out in front of you. Your brain forms the belief that there’s a car in front of you. That’s a reasonable belief, and if you had to stop and give a demonstration before acting on it you’d be in serious trouble!

    The problem with it is that it doesn’t show that “a belief can be reasonable in the absence of a demonstration that it’s reasonable.” On the definition of “reasonable” I gave the very sight of the car pulling out in front of him constitutes a demonstration that the corresponding belief is reasonable so there is no trouble. Braking can proceed as expected.

    You’ve completely ignored the argument I put forward. I’m not entirely sure why; maybe you think the argument was so wretched that you are sparing my feelings by not bothering to eviscerate it. However, I think that under my…may I say reasonable definition of “reasonable” and some other fairly reasonable beliefs about probabilities and subject/predicate matching one can actually make a pretty good defense of the assertion: “a proposition that cannot be shown to be reasonable should be presumed to be unreasonable” or something similar. I should admit that the definition of “reasonable” is rather inclusive as it is stated — I haven’t made clear why sometimes it might be unreasonable to believe your senses. Obviously the argument needs tightening; here I’d propose that when a “reasonable belief” is demonstrated to be false (or wildly implausible) that it is no longer “reasonable”. If one has no reason to disbelieve in ghosts then it is reasonable to believe in ghosts upon seeing one. If one has various reasons not to believe in ghosts then one might, upon seeing a ghost, reasonably doubt one’s own senses.

    You’ve conceded the use of the word “obviously” but apparently from the point of view of etiquette. That’s not really what my problem is. When someone describes a statement as “obviously wrong” I infer that the person has a simple, clear argument that any reasonable person upon hearing or reading it would say “Oh, yes, the original assertion quite obviously can’t be true.” But Richard’s argument is not quite so knock-down as that since I think most people will agree that it is reasonable under most circumstances to believe what your senses tell you. I’m certainly not saying Patrick’s assertion is definitely right or even probably right, but on the other hand I’m not nearly so certain as you are that it’s obviously wrong.

  68. @Jim @Marshall

    Hello to both;

    Forgive me for butting in. I want to inject some thoughts about morality. I question whether carrots and sticks produce morality. I see their ability to increase the likelihood of prescribed behavior and decrease the likelihood of proscribed behavior. But carrots and sticks rely upon external authorities.

    As a side note: I mention motive to be accepted by others; specific others, groups of others. If those others behave in prescribed ways, the person moved toward them will adopt those behaviors (at least in pretense). This is an internal motive moving a person toward an external source of gratification. The result will vary with the person or group of attraction.

    I want to inject internal authority. Since my conscience is the only one I can speak for, I must use a severely limited anecdote to state my view.

    When formulating a decision which will impact one or more persons, my conscience gives me excellent information about the ethics of that decision and the outbound potentials I expect from optional ways to execute that decision. I want to be successful so I use my conscience along with all other sources of information. Upon executing that decision, when I err or succeed, my conscience, again, issues excellent information which I can use to correct any error, perfect future decisions or just wallow in a wholly successful decision.

    Two factors: I want to succeed. I rely upon my conscience and all other information available; all of which I test for validity and applicability.

    Internal motive. Internal guidance. Ethical decision. Execution produces moral outcomes.

    I will suppose that what matters is what I want; what I value, what I want to accomplish. I can use decision skills to formulate unethical decisions and execute them to produce immoral outcomes and be successful if what I want, what I value, what I want to accomplish differs.

    Thank you for letting me think out loud. Your thoughts will be appreciated.

  69. Hi Dan,

    No need to apologise. I think it is right for us to ‘stick up’ for people we think have been slighted. I could have dealt with the business better and I could also have responded to your initial criticisms a great deal more constructively. I think you’re also right about me being too free and easy with my usage of ‘obviously wrong’.

    I haven’t been able to give your positive argument the attention I should have liked. I didn’t think it ‘wretched’ or mean to ignore it as such. You did say you weren’t asking me to argue against your formulation, and that you wanted an idea of what I’d have said to Patrick. So I tried to concentrate on that. I have had trouble ‘keeping up’ with various things that all deserved a response. And yes your positive argument trying to flesh out what Patrick might have said merits a response that I have not as yet given to it. I’ll make some quick remarks now, I’m sorry they don’t amount to the full treatment deserved.

    Your formulation is that:

    A belief is “reasonable” iff the truth of the content of the belief is implied either directly by sense experience or by other reasonable beliefs.

    And this does sound, well, reasonable (although I’m not obliged to accept it and I’ve no reason to think this is what Patrick meant). In truth though, I’ve been rather swayed by Richard’s arguments that it just isn’t profitable to talk in philosophical circles about other people’s beliefs being reasonable or unreasonable.

    As for Richard’s case, what we have is a basic belief. You don’t infer that there is a car from the ‘sense data’. You simply see a car and have the belief that there is one. There are no further beliefs justifying the belief that there is a car. But it is natural, of course, to say it is a reasonable belief. And I think it does show that “a belief can be reasonable in the absence of a demonstration that it’s reasonable.” (And I fail to grasp why you think the fact that most people will agree that it is reasonable under most circumstances to believe what your senses tell you is any argument against Richard’s claims).

    You say that ‘on the definition of “reasonable” you gave “the very sight of the car pulling out in front of him constitutes a demonstration that the corresponding belief is reasonable’. But there is nothing in your formulation that makes reference to what a ‘demonstration’ is – you only define ‘reasonable’. Patrick had seemed to think I wanted to make an issue out of ‘reasonable’ but as I tried to indicate to him at the time I was more intrigued by what he meant by ‘demonstration’ (he did say “a position isn’t reasonable until proven otherwise, it’s unreasonable until demonstrated to be reasonable” so we are thinking of something being proven but that hardly tells us much).
    I’m inclined to agree with Richard that if, for your belief to be reasonable, you had to give a demonstration – a valid argument or a showing of conclusive evidence – that said belief was reasonable there’d be difficulties. Being a basic belief you couldn’t do these things even in principle. And presumably in any situation a reasonable belief is reasonable before you demonstrate that it is reasonable. (Even the general form of the idea that “no putative x is an x until it is demonstrated to be an x” seems cause for suspicion – though I don’t claim it is invalid.) You want to say that you can demonstrate to yourself that your belief is reasonable. I don’t know that this is what Patrick had in mind but okay.

    I still don’t think we should make the cause of the car belief numerically identical with a demonstration of the fact that the car belief is a reasonable belief. You think the sight of the car is a ‘demonstration’ of the fact that the ‘there-is-a-car’ belief is reasonable. But nothing was demonstrated to the driver – she was not shown evidence that added credence to her belief, or demonstrated to her that it was indeed a reasonable belief. We have the belief that there is a car and we have the cause of that belief. A demonstration that the car belief is indeed reasonable would have to be something else again if it is to be anything useful. As it stands talking of a demonstration in this instance is not saying anything useful as far as I can see.

    Such at least are my initial thoughts.

    I’ll settle with saying that the claim that “‘A belief is unreasonable until its demonstrated to be reasonable.’ has not been demonstrated to be useful and that I see no profit in trying to build further arguments intended to fit it or refute it.

  70. I think I can help with your discussion, Jim and Dan, by pointing out that you seem to be talking at cross-purposes, because you are putting different interpetations on the original proposition.

    (1) A belief is unreasonable until it’s demonstrated to be reasonable.

    I’ve realised now that this proposition is ambiguous, and my earlier interpretation of it is not the only one possible. I interpreted “it’s demonstrated” to mean “someone has given a demonstration”, i.e. made an argument. I rejected this proposition on the grounds that we can reasonably believe things on the evidence of our senses without needing to make an argument. I see a car coming towards me and I reasonably believe that it’s coming towards me, without having to give myself a demonstration or argument.

    It’s clear now that Dan is interpeting “it’s demonstrated” to mean “it has been demonstrated by the evidence.” I think for a while he substituted “shown” for “demonstrated”, and that word more strongly suggests the alternative interpretation.

    I don’t think anyone is at fault here. These sorts of misunderstandings can arise very easily.

    If we want to consider the second interpretation, then I think the proposition could be more clearly stated as follows:

    (1a) A belief is unreasonable unless evidence shows it be reasonable.

    I think this proposition is more plausible than the original one (as I interpreted it). But I can’t accept or reject it, as I find its meaning still too open to interpretation. The main problem, as I see it, is the question of what stance is appropriate when there is no evidence for or against a belief, or when the evidence is evenly balanced. But I don’t think there’s ever no relevant evidence at all. And it seems pointless to posit a perfectly even balance. It seems more reasonable to think of a gray zone where the evidence for and against is roughly balanced. And in that zone it may be reasonable either to believe or disbelieve. Or it may be neither reasonable nor unreasonable to believe. It depends very much on how you interpet the words “reasonable” and “unreasonable”.

    One thing I would say, however, is that in a broad sense I think all knowledge is ultimately rooted in evidence, and I’m very skeptical about the idea of “a priori knowledge”.

  71. P.S. To clarify, let me say that in the teapot case I think there is sufficient evidence against the existence of the teapot to justify rejecting that proposition. The evidence includes our knowledge about where teapots usually come from, human motivations and capabilities, and the background evidence of our experience and science, which leads us to prefer parsimonious explanations.

  72. @Jim, @Richard:

    I think you guys may have gotten to the bottom of it. First of all, Jim, I completely agree that you have no obligation to assent to my definition of “reasonable.” I’m not sure I’d assent to it myself, I offered it and the corresponding argument simply to demonstrate that there might be a plausible defense of a sentiment that is, if not identical to Patrick’s, then certainly similar in form and intent.

    This in turn speaks to Richard’s analysis in terms of the fact that I was using “demonstration” rather more loosely than you guys were interpreting it. Patrick implied that he was speaking informally when he initially offered the assertion so I thought it would be OK to rework the details so long as I preserved the basic intent of the argument.

    I agree with you, Jim, that the sight of the car is a basic belief but I’m not convinced that a basic belief can’t serve as a provisional sort of “demonstration.” More specifically, the belief that I see a car is the basic belief but the fact that the car is actually there is not. I infer the existence of the car from the basic belief that I see a car — I think, in the absence of any reason to doubt my senses, that this constitutes a pretty darned good demonstration that there is a car in front of me. It all comes down, as Richard points out, to what you require in terms of a “demonstration.” Though I agree with you both that it’s probably not worth any of our time trying to make the argument more rigorous. I think Richard’s position, that he would neither deny or assent to the argument as stated, is a sensible one. (I also agree with him on the status of a priori knowledge but that’s a different matter.)

    Finally, I agree that we don’t need to go into this kind of detail about what it means to be “reasonable” to talk about issues like the celestial teapot and epistemic warrant for religious belief. Anyway you slice it you get back around to Russell’s (Blackford, not Bertrand) point that whether a belief is “reasonable” depends on a huge network of other beliefs that won’t necessarily be shared between individuals implying that there will probably always be honest disagreements about which beliefs are reasonable or not.

  73. Thank you for your help with this Richard. And thank you for your comments Dan.

    It seems I have rather read too much into informal speech and focused too much on form rather than intended substance.


    I’m not immediately persuaded that it is most useful to say you infer “there is a car” from the belief “I see a car” or better put (?) – “I see what looks like a car”. Certainly seeing what looks like a car sounds like a good reason to infer that there is indeed a car there. But I don’t know that the way you put it captures best what normally goes on in such an immediate scenario (where obviously we are not deliberating about whether there is indeed a car there or not). I’m still more inclined to say the ‘car appearance’ causes the basic belief “there is a car”. Saying the ‘car appearance’ causes the belief “I see what looks like a car” and that this in turn leads one to reasonably infer “there is a car” doesn’t strike me as quite right. But we are in the realms of what goes on subconsciously and I do see there is room for discussion here. Perhaps I am wrong, or indeed wrong-headed, in trying to describe immediate neurological reactions in terms that may be better suited to describe arguments or conscious deliberation. I don’t see it as an interesting question in terms of trying to refute you on anything. But, as well as being an interesting concept in themselves, basic beliefs are, I think, quite often referred to by those who argue for the rationality or truth of religious belief. So some may think them pertinent to the wider discussion as some claim that some religious beliefs are basic beliefs (though basic beliefs can still be defeated).

    Food for thought for me anyway, thanks Dan.

  74. Sorry for expressing myself a little more forcefully than Jim, but this *CAR BELIEF* is just rationalist dualistic nonsense. When I drive I do not believe there are cars around me worth breaking for. There are cars around me that I might crash into unless I break at the right time. A belief is a postmortem assumption about the nature of our experiences. Experiences are not beliefs seeking to be attached to some X, Y or Z, i.e. that which is. Those supposed “X, Y or Z things” are infinitely distant, mere limiting concepts existing only on reflection. Experiences are what is. Point final. Or perhaps more accurately, point d’origine.

    Let me illustrate this with a question: when someone pricks your finger with a needle, do you feel it in your finger or in your brain? Or put more extremely, does an amputee feel “phantom” pain, or does an amputee believe she feels pain in the space once occupied by her now missing extremity?

    Somewhere – I can’t remember where – I heard a story about a neurologist (or perhaps it was a neuroscientist) who suddenly saw little people drifting up along the periphery of his vision. He went to the hospital (or perhaps it was a colleague) and said he thought he was having a stroke. Now, did this person believe he saw angelic figures, or did he see them? And, conversely, did he believe he had a stroke, or did he have a stroke? If the latter, why was he uncertain about whether it was a stroke or not?

    It turns out the evidence pointed to that he did indeed have a stroke. But had he not been a specialist in the field of neurology, he might have based an entire religion on his quite real experience.

  75. The first thing to note is that even if morality were ‘justified true belief’ we’d still have the problem of motivation.

    I agree with you, but Stephen with his idea that “ethics is knowledge” (similar to Sam Harris) seems to believe that he is motivated by JTB directly, by using his rationality.

    I don’t mean carrot-and-stick because I don’t think ethical choices are made by thinking them through. What seeks after carrots is self-interest; ethics is when you choose the stick over the carrot because, as Stephen says, it makes you feel good, or at least better.

    I don’t know that religion is about bringing someone to say “I could get away with X, but I am obligated to do Y”?

    I meant that as a generic ethical position; isn’t that a secularist formulation? The Christian way to say this is “I am tempted to do X, but my faith requires Y.”

    Moderate less dogmatic forms of religion can do great moral good, and I think you will still find that the people giving out soup to the homeless tend to be associated with church groups. There is something about the shared community of a congregation that can foster good behaviour and indeed organized efforts to do good. I don’t think that should be completely overshadowed.

    Real hungry people really being fed * and I don’t see why we should rush to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The position I’m arguing against says that “we should desire a secular society wherein the influence of religion on the public sphere dwindles to vanishing.” (Which I believe is essential Russell … I’ve got his book in my queue but they’re not shipping yet.) If it happens that way, we loose some soup kitchens, a loss with “cash value”.

    I don’t know what you mean by “moderate”, but I suppose it includes an idea of not being too coercive. But just because you think you’re right doesn’t mean you necessarily expect everyone else to agree. The Jews were or are “Chosen People”; other people are Not Chosen and there you are, no problem. The Dispensationalists say “only a remnant will be saved”, too bad for the rest of you that had your chance. If you’re betting on horses, you hope people won’t agree.

    There’s nothing wrong with strong opinions. “Dogma” just means if you don’t agree, you’re not doing what the group does. The “scientific method” is a dogma; if you don’t conform, whatever you’re up to you’re not doing science.

    Dogma is orthogonal to choice of social program. Dominionism is a highly problematic social program; like clerical child abuse it’s an evil to be resisted and bad theology (gnosticism). It’s just another hegemonistic tyranny, such as the bankster oligarchy which is the real threat these days.


The kids are coming, so apologies to all for this trash can of a comment. Merry Christmas to all and to all a Good Night. See you on the other side (…after New Year).


    * Just by the way, our church supports a kitchen providing daily lunches for seniors where I have volunteered. And sometimes have lunch.

  76. @All who have been think about … “A belief is unreasonable until it’s demonstrated to be reasonable”

    My twopenny’s worth is that we all need to reflect on the law of the excluded middle – since I think polarized thinking is is leading to a muddle. We need to transcend that in a discussion of religion & science, or more precisely rationality and faith.

    You can have a rational argument, an irrational argument, and a non-rational argument (that is not irrational, just not based on rationality). A key thought is can you have a reasonable argument that is not rational? I think you can.

    I believe we have: rational reasonable arguments; irrational unreasonable arguments; and either arational reasonable or arational unreasonable arguments.

    The key is the philosophical recognition of real/anti-real propositions. Some propositions of belief are able to be rationally and physically/objectively determined true/false, others simply aren’t. That they cannot does not make them default to irrationality, as Aristotle might have thought with a dogmatic bivalence of logic.

    I recommend a Christmas read of Sir Michalel Dummett’s evergreen classic, “The Logic of Metaphysics” – it’s well worth it.

    With that said please enjoy the holiday season with your loved ones and accept my best wishes!!

  77. *Sir Michael Dummett*

  78. I apologize that apart from a couple of typos in my last post, I’ve noticed an error in the reference to Dummett’s book, it should be…

    The Logical Basis of Metaphysics, Publisher: Harvard University Press; Reprint edition (18 Mar 2008)ISBN-10: 0674537866

  79. NOTE: I tried to post this comment once already, but the comment never appeared. Trying to post it again unaltered results in a “duplicate” error. If this comment ends up being posted twice, my apologies.


    Sorry for expressing myself a little more forcefully than Jim, but this CAR BELIEF is just rationalist dualistic nonsense. When I drive I do not believe there are cars around me worth breaking for. There are cars around me that I might crash into unless I break at the right time. A belief is a postmortem assumption about the nature of our experiences. Experiences are not beliefs seeking to be attached to some X, Y or Z, i.e. that which is. Those “X, Y and Z things” are infinitely distant, a mere limiting concept existing only on reflection. Experiences are what is. Point final. Or perhaps more accurately, point d’origine.

    Let me illustrate this with a question: when someone pricks your finger with a needle, do you feel it in your finger or in your brain? Or put more extremely, does an amputee feel “phantom” pain, or does an amputee believe she feels pain in the space once occupied by her now missing extremity?

    Somewhere – I can’t remember where – I heard a story about a neurologist (or perhaps it was a neuroscientist) who suddenly saw little people drifting up along the periphery of his vision. He went to the hospital (or perhaps it was a colleague) and said he thought he was having a stroke. Now, did this person believe he saw angelic figures, or did he see them? And, conversely, did he believe he had a stroke, or did he have a stroke?

    It turns out evidence indicates he probably did have a stroke, but had he not been a specialist in the field of neurology he might have based an entire religion on his quite real experience.

  80. Steven,

    There’s no ‘butting in’ to forgive and no ‘letting you’ thinking out loud to thank me for though, of course, I appreciate your courtesy. I’d meant to reply to you earlier but I did end up in several conversations and it has been hard to keep up. Some of your thoughts have been addressed indirectly already, by comments between myself and Marshall. I’m happy to add a few comments prompted by your post but (knowing me) they probably won’t help.

    To question whether carrots and sticks can produce morality would seem to make sense. I’m initially inclined to say that the carrots and sticks can only cause you to act *in accordance* with what is moral. Incentives can’t make you do the right thing *because *it is the right thing – they only cause (or encourage) you to do what happens to be right out of self-interest. Some have tried to equate pursuing one’s [rational] self-interest with being moral – as per ethical egoism – but I don’t myself think there is anything productive down that line of thinking. I also think it would be a terrible caricature of religious people to say they only do x or refrain from doing x because of divine carrots and sticks (I just think we have to admit that is part of the equation before we move on to better conversations).

    I don’t think there are ‘moral truths’ out there for us to discover in anything like the same way as there may be mathematical truths or scientific facts. I don’t think the conscience is best thought of as a special faculty that allows us to determine objective moral truths. And granting that morality were a simply a matter of knowing certain ‘truths’ – it leaves the question of moral motivation untouched. You know ‘moral fact’ x, but why would you care or be moved to act in a certain way? So, I don’t think the ‘conscience’ delivers any information other than how you feel about certain things when you reflect on them. There is something quite distinctive about these ‘moral feelings’ and they are associated with certain areas in the brain – neurological damage can cause them to work very differently or perhaps not at all.

    ‘Genetic psychopaths’ seem genuinely to lack any ‘moral sense’. They just don’t seem to feel guilt or a sense of moral duty. You might say such individuals are amoral – they just do not have moral feelings or at least not of the ‘right’ strength. When it comes to morality they just don’t ‘get it’. I don’t think this is best thought of as a matter of them lacking access to a certain type of knowledge as such. We do tend to associate being ‘amoral’ in this with acting externally in a immoral way but in principle that need not be the case – psychopaths are not all inclined to murder or torture – and one could lack any sense of moral duty but happen to be so inclined as to act in a way that happens to coincide with being ‘socially co-operative’ and extrinsically moral. Interestingly psychopaths seem unable to think in terms of their own long-term self-interests – they are very self-destructive and take wildly irrational risks – so one might wonder again about the connections between self-interest and morality.

    There are evolutionary explanations for why we might feel inclined to act in an ‘altruistic’ way. In small hunter-gatherer societies, if you are naturally inclined to act that way it will tend to work to your advantage (though it is not the conscious intent). And we see such proto-moral behaviour in chimps and the like. So Dawkins et al can give you a naturalistic explanation for why we act in an altruistic manner – it was to our evolutionary advantage to be inclined to do so. It is not unrelated to self-interest but it is really tied to what will cause you to pass on your genes. So just as the persistence of the urge to have can sex can be explained, so can the urge to help others. This is not at all to suggest that we are thinking consciously thinking about passing on our genes when we have sex (often we very much do not want to) or indeed when we do something altruistic. There is a generally advantageous urge that can ‘misfire’ in purely evolutionary terms. So one can give a naturalistic explanation for why one might sacrifice one’s life without saving one’s children or help a complete stranger in a city for which you will never be rewarded.

    This ‘naturalistic’ talk may seem to make what it good and noble sound like it amounts to little of meaning. But though one can explain the biological and evolutionary reasons for your urge to have sex with your partner, and indeed your feelings for them, this does not make it the case that the experiences of making love or loving someone ‘means’ any less . Similarly, just because altruistic behaviour may have neurological and evolutionary explanations this does not rob it of all ‘deeper’ value. The value or meaning of an act or experience should not be conflated with its causes or origins.

    I suspect this is of little help to you (the things I say generally aren’t very helpful)but such are the thoughts that occur to me and I hope you find some interest in them. And I wish you well in your own efforts to make sense of morality and the conscience. The attempt to do so seems part of the conversations that are most worth having.

    And indeed ‘season’s greetings’.

  81. @Jim – Morality may not exist as something out there in the world to be discovered exactly like a Higgs boson. But I think morality is inferentially discoverable just like we can discover the behavior of a single particle at the point where a particle beam strikes a double slit. And perhaps morality isn’t as seemingly eternally fixed as the ratio of a circle’s diameter to circumference in a Euclidean space (i.e. PI). But it seems to me that it’s as theoretically knowable as the most likely sum of two six-sided dice (i.e. 7).

    Based on what I have read to date, I suspect you seek individual justification for morality. This is akin to Dawkin’s error of viewing evolution only from the perspective of genetic propagation. Morality is an optimal solution between the need for individual freedom and social cohesion. Whereas individual freedom is the means by which the group experimentally transforms itself into something new, morality is what preserves the group against decay (and eventual death). Social evolution is impossible without one or the other.

    We’re social creatures, not disconnected gas particles floating in Brownian space. Some order has already established itself. And ethics is the glue by which such order is maintained. To think that any social order is as good as the next (and just a matter of personal preference) is to think that the dire wolf is as successful a creature as homo sapiens. Or that evolution can go in just about any direction. There may be several successful adaptational strategies in a given habitat, but there are not an infinite amount. The same applies to morality. The morality on human sacrifice is not a matter of preference, and hence it’s discoverable. Society may be able to exist with such sacrifice under certain circumstances. But ultimately society is more optimal without killing humans in the hope for divine recompense. It’s plain and simply immoral however much it may be permissible within a given ethical framework.

    A culture that sacrifices its young to improve the corn harvest may persist for thousands of years. But as soon as some enlightened individual comes along and convinces a sufficient number of followers that it’s wrong – and that killing children has no influence on corn production – the culture (as it exists) starts its likely path to extinction. Is its extinction certain? No, not in the short term. But over the millennia, as pesky non-sacrificing proselytizers keep cropping up and challenging the old dogma, the culture is pretty much doomed to transform itself. Sufficient people with the resources necessary to overthrow the old guard are bound to eventually discover the truth of their immorality.

    Completely unfalsifiable claims – such as “Taking the Lord’s name in vain is wrong, and will doom you in the Afterlife” – are more tricky. I conjecture that wasting our intellectual resources on policing such profanity in the here-and-now leads to a less efficient society. Perhaps what society at-large still needs to discover is that it’s not the Lord’s name that we shouldn’t take in vain, but our neighbor’s name. Policing the corrosiveness of interpersonal insults, i.e some degree of tone trolling, would seem worthwhile. We would not waste our precious resources on useless emotional responses irrelevant to the substance that is being discussed. Albeit with difficulty, such a thing could maybe be measured. Is the Insult-prone Group more or less productive than the Civil Group? I think falsifiability is important. And that, ultimately, all unfalsifiable claims are wasteful, and therefore more likely to be shed with the passage of time. But sometimes the vermiform appendix just hangs around with a hard to discern function.

    Morality – the optimal rules for the continued existence of life – are knowable and can be discovered with time.

    @Martin – The point is that I believe Mr. Gould was wrong with his so-called NOMA. Perhaps this is what you are stating as well since you say you are unsatisfied with this “state of affairs”. To clarify my own sense of things: just like the clearcut distinction between body and soul is misleading, the idea of two Magisteria is very misleading. Science (in its more general body-of-knowledge term) and religion deal with exactly the same world. There is no such thing as that which the religious can see but that the scientific-minded can’t see. I think that the Figure-Ground Vase is a poor analogy.

    On the HOW vs. WHY, I see evolution (the “how”) as the process of figuring out the meaning (the “why”) of all this. In some sense the HOW is the WHY. We do what we do because, hey, if we didn’t do what we did, nothing would be done. And with infinite time on our hands, why shouldn’t we start doing something? Could we even entertain such a paradoxical option as doing nothing?

  82. Andreas,

    I know you’d like to equate ‘moral’ with ‘most optimal for the survival of the human species (or its descendants)’.

    The ‘continued existence of [human] life’ seems a ‘reasonable’ thing to value. Science doesn’t tell you to value it – it is is not an ‘objective truth’ you discovered. It is just that you personally value the survival of the species (and its bloodline descendants) above all else.

    I wouldn’t grant your ‘first principle’. But sure it may well be the case that what is optimal for the survival of the human bloodline is, in principle, open to discovery and that you may indeed be able to discover what to you are (instrumental) ‘moral’ truths via science and experience.

    Hello Marshall,

    I’m not very familiar with the work of Sam Harris. From what I can tell there is, or has been, some philosophical confusion in his work. His talk of ‘objective morality’ seems as confused as that uttered by many Christian Apologists. You don’t really cross Hume’s ‘is/ought’ gap by inserting an ‘ought’ premise – however “obvious” it may be – and science won’t deliver any such premise.

    Russell (Bertrand) seemed well aware of this: science tells you about what can be known, and has nothing to say about what to value for itself – this is not a matter of justified truth belief at all.

  83. I find the idea that when I drive in traffic I don’t believe there are cars around me rather strange. Of course I do. If someone asks me at the time whether there are cars around me I’ll say, “Yes.” At least I will if I take the question seriously. There’s nothing odd about this, or anything especially metaphysical or dualistic or whatever about it. I think we can get too hung-up about ordinary words like “believe” and “belief”.

  84. I suspect some people here are restricting the word “belief” to conscious verbal thoughts. In that sense I don’t “believe” that there’s a car coming towards me unless I have the thought “there’s a car coming towards me”, or something similar. Others of us are using the word “belief” in a wider sense.

    I would say that a belief is a mental state, or more specifically an information-bearing arrangement of brain matter. I think it’s important to distinguish between the mental state itself and thoughts that are caused by that mental state. To call thoughts “beliefs” would be misguided in my view.

    Still, one might reasonably restrict “beliefs” to those mental states which tend to get consciously expressed. But I think such a restriction causes problems. Surely we have mental states of the relevant sort that rarely or never get consciously expressed, and it seems unhelpful to deny the word “belief” to such states. I have a long-term belief that the Earth is round, and this belief affects my cognitive processes even when I’m not thinking or saying “the Earth is round”. I might, for example, plan a round-the-world trip without ever thinking, “the Earth is round”. And it’s possible in principle that I could do so without ever in my life having thought, “the Earth is round”. But even in that case I would say it’s reasonable to describe me as having a belief that the Earth is round.

    Perhaps the issue is clearer if we think about animals who don’t have the necessary language to express beliefs. Those who restrict the word “belief” to the narrow sense would probably say that animals don’t have beliefs, because they don’t have verbal thoughts. At least that statement would seem to be consistent with the statement that I don’t have a belief that a car is coming towards me. But I think it’s useful to use the word “belief” in the context of animals, and I see no good reason not to do so. For example, I think it’s useful to say that a dog went to its bowl because it believed it would find food there. More specifically, the dog went to the bowl because its past experience of finding food there had led it to develop a mental state which caused it to go to the bowl at meal times. I think it’s reasonable to call that mental state a “belief”.

    I think this is a case where both senses of the word are consistent with ordinary usage, but the wider sense seems more useful for philosophical discussions.

  85. P.S. To quote a sentence of Wittgenstein’s which I only came across recently, and wish I’d written myself: “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language.”

  86. Russell,
    I think analyzing the (mis)usage and intentionality of everyday words is more important than you make it out to be. Is it a matter of utmost daily importance, a life or death issue? No. Very seldomly do we have a nuance of meaning that jeopardizes our humdrum activities, let alone our existence. Is philosophy, especially ontology, as such of any daily importance? Hardly. Most people get by perfectly fine without thinking about the meaning and nature of belief or (with perhaps the exception of Bill Clinton) getting entangled with what is is.

    I agree that sometimes we can get into ridiculous word quibbling. However, I don’t think this is the case here. Our modern view of the brain has lead to a strange kind of dualism that I suspect influences this discussion. The book “Neuroscience & Philosophy, Brain, Mind and Language” (ISBN-13: 978-0231140447) is a good introduction to the issue I’m referring to, which I believe is informing several commentators’ view here of driving in traffic. It’s what Peter Hacker has called the merelogical fallacy: attributing awareness and consciousness solely to the brain.

    In the dualist approach that I suggest some commentators have taken, there are CARS, a DRIVER and a BRAIN. The DRIVER processes data about the CARS and sends the information along to the BRAIN . The BRAIN then forms opinions about what is “out there” (claims about the world at-large) and makes decisions accordingly for the DRIVER. I think this is a somewhat misleading view, a view that affects how we treat everything from neuroscience to my own area of ontology engineering.

    When we drive in traffic, we don’t make unsubstantiated claims about what surrounds us. We don’t form any beliefs. We, well, just drive and apprehend our surrounding as we weave our way through traffic. It’s not our BRAIN that drives. We drive. We use every functioning bodily part in a synchronized dance through the immediate. We are here. We are not next to the world. We are in the world, we are of the world.

    I’m not denying that there is apart of us that analyzes from a “distance” (and forms proper or improper claims even about what we call ourselves). But to think we do everything that way (including the act of weaving through traffic) is an incorrect model. The brain is no doubt crucial to human awareness and consciousness. And without it much of what we consider to be ourselves is over and out. But our brain isn’t us, it’s a part of us. And, yes, a crucial part, but nonetheless a part. The same can be expressed in terms of beliefs. We are not our beliefs. Beliefs are a part of what we are, which is why we can say such a thing as I believe (I being that which makes a given claim).

    The car example makes it sound as if we can’t do anything without forming beliefs, including driving in traffic. It’s just nonsense. Beliefs form on reflection. When asked “Are there cars around you”, you can say “Yes, I believe there are cars around me” because a part of you is compelled to analyze your experiences and affirm your readiness to act on them. This readiness is expressed as a claim, a claim that can be scientifically investigated as long as the claim isn’t referring to something inside The Iron Box.

  87. Sorry Andreas, but I find no dualism or confusion between parts and wholes present, just you insisting upon a particular usage of the term ‘belief’.

  88. Jim, isn’t much of philosophy about improving our understanding through the good use of language?

    The reason I insist on narrowing the use of the word belief is that I think it will lead to less confusion and a better understanding of the underlying processes. If you use belief to mean any aware act/entity in the brain, of what use is the word? Our whole world is then a set of beliefs. And beliefs must be said to have mass, color and an uncountable number of other properties. Some of these “beliefs” can be apprehended by others, and some not. So clearly we must distinguish between “beliefs” and “quasi-beliefs”, the latter being a subset of the former. All “beliefs” are then potentially tangible and can hurt us, even cause death. “Quasi-beliefs” are those shown to be harmless in the physical sense. Though they could lead to wrong behavior, therefore indirectly also causing us harm.

    I hope the above paragraph demonstrates that a too liberal use of the word belief leads to confusion and bad philosophy. It paints a world of two options. Either there’s nothing outside our beliefs. Or, we are locked in a shadowy make-believe cave where truth is infinitely distant and probably only attainable on death. As our existence is annihilated in traffic by oncoming “beliefs”, we gain an infinitely short moment of knowledge about the real.

    Let’s say you’re driving and a car pulls out in front of you. Your brain forms the belief that there’s a car in front of you. That’s a reasonable belief, and if you had to stop and give a demonstration before acting on it you’d be in serious trouble!

    The making of arguments constitutes only a part of our rational belief-forming cognitive processes. Most of our belief formation goes on at a subconscious level.


    Richard’s use of the word belief leads to great confusion. He is right in pointing out that feeling a need to constantly prove that our experiences are “real” is a dangerous affair indeed! But he is wrong in that “rational belief-forming” has anything to do with daily driving. Or most of the other stuff that constitute our humdrum lives. And his misuse of the word belief is what leads us into a rather pointless discussion on the ontology of cars.

    In Richards world (as extrapolated from the above quote), everything is a belief. Some are subconscious and others are experienced on a conscious level. Strictly speaking there are no direct experiences. In between us and the world is a machine: a belief forming brain. His description can be transliterated as:

    belief = brain.formulateBelief( experience )
    brain.passToSelf( belief )
    self.actSubconsciously( belief )

    Such a description seems to imply we live in a brain inside a vat. Using the word belief for autonomic reactions (actions we can still experience in a very real way) muddles the whole discussion. When my finger burns, it burns. No beliefs are involved. It doesn’t matter whether it’s “phantom” pain. “Phantom” pain is as real as if I placed my finger over a lit candle.

    Experiences, experiences…and more experiences. This is the essence of our lifeworld. Beliefs are just the speculative statements made about the future state of our experiences. Beliefs do not really alter our experiences per se. They only influence the experiences we end up exposing ourselves to in the future. Experiences, on the other hand, really do alter our beliefs. Or at least they should. If they don’t, we might end up very dead. This process of alteration is the nature of a scientific posture.

  89. I don’t think it helpful to say that cats and infants don’t have beliefs. In that respect I agree with Richard that a broader usage of the term ‘belief’ is more helpful.

    I know that I don’t eat with my stomach.

  90. Andreas,

    You referred to me in your last comment, but your description of my position is very different from my actual position. I recommend you read (or re-read) my comment of December 29, 2011 at 7:08 am. Let me also add a couple of clarifications.

    “In between us and the world is a machine: a belief forming brain.”

    I don’t think my brain is between me and the world. I think it is me (or part of me, along with my body).

    We can think about the same entity in a variety of ways, and at various levels of abstraction. For example, we can think about a table, or we can think about the molecules that constitute the table. The table and the molecules which constitute it are the same entity, regarded at different levels of abstraction. If the table is moved, so are the molecules. In a somewhat similar way, states of my mind (including beliefs) are also states of my brain, regarded at different levels of abstraction. So, when my brain forms a belief, my mind (and I) are also forming a belief. These are not two separate processes, but the same process regarded at different levels of abstraction.

    You seem not to be a dualist, so presumably you would agree that when I form a belief some process is going on in my brain. That’s the process I’m referring to when I talk about my brain forming a belief.

    That said, it’s not clear to me whether you see beliefs as states. Sometimes it sounds as if you see beliefs as events, as occurrences of verbal thoughts like “the Earth is round”. As I see it, my belief that the Earth is round (a state) may sometimes cause me to have the thought “the Earth is round” (an event). The belief and the thought are not the same thing.

  91. Hi Andreas,

    ‘I know that I don’t eat with my stomach.’

    I don’t quite what know what I might have meant when I wrote the above (it was late and I’d taken a sleeping draught).

    Perhaps I meant to say that I know it is not my stomach that eats but me? To say otherwise would seem to be a mereological mistake, to be in confusion about parts and wholes (and functions). That would then tie in with your earlier talk about ‘the mereological fallacy’ – which I couldn’t see that anybody was committing. I suppose one would commit that fallacy by saying that brains are the types of things that have beliefs (as opposed to persons and, I think, sentient non-persons).

    We’re all – I think – quite clear on the idea that minds, beliefs and thoughts don’t exist in the absence of brains. But brains/neurological events and minds/beliefs seem to work in quite different types of explanations. By this I don’t just mean that they are working at different levels – like the explanations of chemistry and those of physics. I mean they just can’t mesh into each other because of the ‘aboutness’ that beliefs and other intentional states such as desires have.

    I can explain you waving your arm ‘scientifically’ by talking about your brain, neurological events and signals and muscles and so on. Or I can explain it, in a ‘folk psychology’ way, by saying you believed you saw your friend and desired to ‘say’ hello. Either would be ‘complete’ and useful in its own way. But this ‘folk psychology’ talk is not – it seems to me – even in principle, reducible to the former type of ‘scientific’ talk and it seems we can’t mix them in together. (Even though we know all this believing and desiring only comes about due to neurological events and brains – I can’t translate ‘talk’ of things with ‘aboutness’ into talk about neurological events.)

    These two types of explanation – those of folk psychology and those of neurological and biological science – just don’t ‘mesh’ like talk about medium sized physical objects and talk of the ‘things’ that compose them (atoms, molecules or what have you).

    So, continuing to speak off the cuff, in a pondering and not very considered way, I wonder if we might want to keep talk of brains and talk of beliefs separate?

  92. Jim and Andreas,

    So, continuing to speak off the cuff, in a pondering and not very considered way, I wonder if we might want to keep talk of brains and talk of beliefs separate?

    That’s probably a good idea, at least for the present. My mention of the brain (I was the first one to use the word here) has proven counter-productive to the present discussion, as it seems to have misled Andreas as to what point I was making.

    Philosophers generally see beliefs as “mental states”. I for one find it useful to see them also as brain states. But the main point I’m trying to establish is that they are states, something which I’m not sure Andreas accepts.

    I’d be very interested in discussing the relationship between mind and brain at a later date, but for now let’s see how far we can get without any further mention of the brain.

  93. Richard, I agree that a belief seems like more than a formal linguistic statement. So I rephrase myself: a belief is an assumption about the inexperienced. And this allows (without too much controversy) beings that have no easily recognizable formal language to have beliefs as well. A cat assumes the mouse may pop it’s head out of the mouse hole again, even if the immediate experience of the mouse is gone. It believes there is a mouse behind the wall. It sits there staring, waiting, believing the mouse may return.

    But, this is not where we live a good portion of our lives. In front of the mouse hole. Much of our life is lived in a sequence of experienced autonomic states. Again, I don’t believe that turning the staring wheel will save me unless I reflect on the experience of having turned, or planning to turn, the staring wheel. Ask a professional golf player how they swing so well, and they will most likely be stumped. The best most pros can do is show you how so you can experience it for yourself.

    Here is a question for you: does a nematode have beliefs? Is it really philosophically or scientifically helpful to speak about a nematode’s belief system? And honestly, Jim, is it even useful to speak of a newborn’s beliefs? Give an infant a knuckle and it will suckle. Beliefs require a higher level of awareness than those states produced by a few activated neurons. If you have raised children I’m sure you have seen their beliefs emerge in gradual aha moments, eventually culminating in a highly opinionated adolescent.

    But, as you point out Richard, its too narrow to think cats, crows or wolves cannot be assumed to have beliefs. Viewing most animals as Pavlovian automatons distant from us humans is as wrong as thinking awareness and actions necessarily require the production of beliefs.

    I did reread your December 29 comment, Richard. But I’m still left with the impression you think beliefs are equatable with all quantized phenomena (such as CAR).

    You say:

    Those who restrict the word “belief” to the narrow sense would probably say that animals don’t have beliefs, because they don’t have verbal thoughts. At least that statement would seem to be consistent with the statement that I don’t have a belief that a car is coming towards me

    Therefore, you imply that unless you restrict belief to “verbalized thoughts”, it’s unreasonable to think a belief is not involved in experiencing and reacting to cars in traffic. We are quite capable of experiencing a spherical field of grey shades as a single unit without formulating beliefs. And if that spherical grey shaded field comes flying towards us, we just duck. And then, post-mortem, we think “Baseball!”. But are you not aware of the thing before you believe it was a BASEBALL? It may turn out it was actually a softball. Most importantly, it was undeniably going to hit you, whatever it was.

    I would say that a belief is a mental state, or more specifically an information-bearing arrangement of brain matter. I think it’s important to distinguish between the mental state itself and thoughts that are caused by that mental state. To call thoughts “beliefs” would be misguided in my view.

    So are you saying that thoughts supervene on mental states? That a mental state – which you call a belief – is not a thought but that which thoughts emerge from? I find this paragraph confusing, mainly because of your use of the word belief. It seems to me that you use belief as the “atoms” of being present here-and-now. Your usage of the term again seems to indicate that a belief is the most basic unit. There are mental states (beliefs) like CAR that produce thoughts of a car. I was always under the impression that it was those moving fields of color and noise that caused the thought of a car. If I overlook what I consider a misuse of the word belief, I still again have to conclude that your model is as follows:

    phenomenon => mental state => thought

    This is just paraphrasing what I have claimed you said in an earlier post. It’s of course possible that I’m completely misunderstanding you. But if I’m not, then you must see that mental state is just a synonymy for “brain”. So your brain, or mental state, separates you from the phenomenon! You can never experience the CAR per se. It is as distant as anything in the Iron Box. The CAR is as far away and real as the angles that dance on a pin.

  94. I don’t know to what extent beliefs are ‘real’ – they are not, I think, as robustly real as brains and neurological events and are perhaps more useful inventions. Belief ascriptions seem capable of being true however (if not always determinately true) and they seem essential for our prediction of behaviour and so on. I think what is of concern is utility of talk not what beliefs ‘really’ are (they seem to me to have no place in a developed neuroscience and can’t mesh it with it or biological science).

    Having a belief can be thought of as being in the state of being primed to in act in a certain way if the appropriate situation arises. So yes it makes sense to me to say that an infant has desires and beliefs and other intentional states – these states have content that can be expressed in propositional form hence they are called propositional attitudes but there is no need for language or for them ever to be thought of propositionally. This can be cashed out in terms of a representational or dispositional view of beliefs.

    One might also still see profit in adopting an intentional stance towards things with no sentience. The robot desires to kill us and believes we are in the cellar etc.

    As I say I think really it’s really a matter of how it is useful to talk, not about what beliefs really are. And how it is useful to talk will pay reference to actual practice in philosophy.

  95. These two types of explanation – those of folk psychology and those of neurological and biological science – just don’t ‘mesh’ like talk about medium sized physical objects and talk of the ‘things’ that compose them (atoms, molecules or what have you).


    Jim, though I don’t like the term folk psychology, your observation is very astute. Talking about the forest in terms of trees is insufficient. Without tress, there is no forest. But the forest is a whole living ecosystem, far more complex than the individual trees. The forest exists in the relationship between its parts. The same goes for a computer. A CPU is not a computer. A computer requires 4 parts:

    An input
    A processor
    A memory
    An output

    Take away any one of these parts and you no longer have a functioning computer. Something similar applies to a person. We are living things, far more malleable than an electronic device. But if you remove one of our bodily parts, we begin to feel different. An amputee may have “phantom” sensations of the missing part. But the way we feel as a whole will without doubt be affected by our bodily loss. We are our bodies and all the things that stream into that body. This is where we reside, fused into the world-at-large. To illustrate this in another way, consider the alteration of some hormone (i.e. a part of our endocrine and not nervous system). How do we feel when this happens? I can certainly tell something has changed in my wife, oh, about every 28’th day. She is not quite the same person she was just days before.

    In the extreme, hormone therapy is a salvation to those men and women who have that disturbing sensation that their body is alien. If mental health therapy was enough to help transexuals, I’d give some credence to the idea that we reside in some specific part of our body like a little homunculus. As it stands, I reject this. The mind extends into every part of us. Our body is our mind, and our mind is our body. If we ever achieve the capacity of uploading ourselves to another entity, and conclude that we are still quite the same despite our new body (and its different way of functioning), I will stand corrected. Neurology is certainly insufficient in explaining who we are. We are not little squibbles on an EEG, or colors lighting up on an MRI monitor. This doesn’t mean we can’t infer what someone is experiencing by looking at these outputs, just like we can infer someone’s intentions by looking at their face. The capacity to mirror someone else’s experiences is crucial to our social existence. But such mirroring equals the persons themselves as much as we are our reflection on the surface of a lake.

    Having a belief can be thought of as being in the state of being primed to in act in a certain way if the appropriate situation arises. So yes it makes sense to me to say that an infant has desires and beliefs […]

    Beliefs, as I use the word, are indeed something that a sapient being has. As you say, Jim, beliefs prime us to act a given way. But I would be careful in using the word so that it becomes equatable with instincts. An infant is evolutionarily primed to breast feed. And I know that in common parlance we might say, “The baby believes the knuckle is a nipple”. But I think this is where we must part ways with common speech and say that the intentionality of the word has changed from, say, “John believes Jane is jealous”. The baby does not stop suckling. It’s a reflex. Does it really have a concept of a nipple? A belief is something that the believer must be capable of determining is TRUE or FALSE (even if such determination is not by empirical means, as is the case in much of religion). We recognize that animals probably have beliefs when we observe aha moments. Interestingly, we hold the capacity to cheat as one of the most strong signs of intelligence. Corvids, like ravens and crows, can do it. They try to fool each other when caching food supplies. And we consider them one of the creatures most like us in their intelligence. They can make something false seem true to the other corvids. They clearly understand the difference between IS and IS NOT. They can trick their fellow corvids into becoming believers, until the scam is exposed.

    What troubles many scientific-minded people about religion is that it makes many claims that cannot be empirically determined. These claims, because of their unfalsifiability, are forever looked in a state of pure abstraction. Many religious persons ignore such problems by appealing to what they call pure faith. But even theologians like Alvin Platinga acknowledge the need to somehow bust open what I have called the Iron Box. Platinga tries to do this by reviving and refining old theological arguments, such as the ontological argument. He attempts to prove the truth of religious claims logically. This is as valid as an empirical approach. If it were not, then mathematics and theoretical physics ought to be as troubling to the scientific-minded as religion is. But, on the contrary, the scientific-minded love math. If something is mathematically sound, it’s held to be as “real” as that which can be directly observed. Take the 11’th dimension of M-theory. If predictions made by the equations of M-theory hold true, many of us will except the 11-dimensional structure of the quantum world as fact. 11 dimensions?? I can’t even conceptualize what a 3-sphere is like beyond the added scribbles u^2 of its defining equation.

    I don’t think many of Platinga’s arguments hold up to scrutiny. I have address some of his ideas here: God’s (In)Excellence? But despite the fact that I reject his arguments because of their ultimate absurdity, they are a valid attempts to convince us of the necessity to accept some religious claims that cannot be empirically tested. They must be scrutinized and taken seriously. If logic were to demonstrate to us that there is necessarily an afterlife, why would we reject its existence despite never having died or met any ghosts? Rational knowledge about the afterlife (for such knowledge provided by Platinga would be by pure reason alone and hence rational), might be as fruitful as the 5 additional dimensions of P-branes.

  96. Andreas,

    I don’t think that I have made any astute observations. And I’m not quite sure that you are taking the meaning intended from what you’ve quoted.

    What I’m suggesting is that ‘folk psychology’ talk – talk about beliefs and desires – cannot mesh with properly formulated talk in biology and a mature neuroscience. And I’m contrasting that with the talk of chemistry and physics – it seems these can ‘mesh’ with each other in the way that I mean.

    By this I do not mean to suggest that in practice (or even in principle) we can explain all that we want in the language of physics or by sticking to its ontology (there are no chairs and tables in the ontology of physics). But biology, chemistry and physics are continuous in a way neuroscience and ‘folk psychology’ cannot be as far as I can see. The ascriptions of beliefs and desires cannot be continuous with the language of the natural sciences. Or so it seems to me.

    ‘Humans’ also have a place in the categories of biology and science but ‘persons’ don’t. I find it intelligible to talk of a person surviving bodily death or surviving as brain in a vat or as a non-human entity. If we remove your brain and put it in a vat, I find it natural to assume that you – the person – can survive the procedure – that you might retain sufficient memories and ‘character’, that there will be enough psychological continuity for this to be reasonably said. And I’m more inclined to think you could survive as the same person in such sci-fi scenarios than I am to say you would have survived as the same person if you’d been ‘lost’ to extreme Alzheimer’s or suffered some severe brain injury that made you a complete amnesiac with a radically different personality (though the same human being survives.)

    This does not mean a person is a brain though. It will be the person ’constituted’ by the brain that thinks not the brain. Your intuition is that your brain in a vat would be such that it wouldn’t really be numerically the same person – just some entity that carried some of your memories and personality traits.

    But questions of personal identity really are rather empty. It’s a mistake, I think, to suppose that the body is just some vehicle for the brain and certainly I think you would feel very different without a body or with a new or radically altered one. But we can establish all the facts and be left with no determinate answer as to whether it’s the numerically same person. And I don’t think personal identity is needed for survival. If we separate your two hemispheres and place them in very similar bodies to the one you previously had it seems to me you could survive as two distinct human beings and two distinct persons.

    But however you think psychological continuity and personality is related to the body I just don’t think it is at all helpful to say things like: “The mind extends into every part of us. Our body is our mind, and our mind is our body.” We have enough confusion about minds and bodies without bringing in talk like that. What you might usefully argue can be said, I think, without talking in those terms.

    Discussion about beliefs will and Plantinga will have to wait as I’ve rather gone off on a digression. But, no a baby does not have a concept like ‘nipple’. I don’t think that of itself decides anything but there might be something worth exploring in the relationship between instincts and beliefs. Whether ‘a belief is something that the believer must be capable of determining is TRUE or FALSE’ is a proposition worth pondering on for its own sake (I don’t think I’d be inclined to assent to it). But, to be clear, what I was getting at was the claim that belief ascriptions – “x believes y” – may not be determinately true or false.

    And I am quite certain that logic cannot demonstrate to us that there is necessarily an afterlife.

  97. Andreas,

    I think that much of the difference between us is a matter of terminology, rather than substance. But I’m having difficulty crossing the terminological barrier between us, particularly with regard to the words “thought” and “mental state”. I’ll try to avoid those words.

    The main difference between us seems to be that you think it’s inappropriate to use the word “belief” unless some conscious experience is involved, while I don’t think such a restriction is helpful. I assume the reason you allow that cats (but not nematodes) can have beliefs is because you think that cats (but not nematodes) have conscious experiences.

    Assuming I’m right about your position so far, perhaps you could clarify how you think a conscious experience must be involved. It seems to me there are three basic possibilities:

    (a) You think beliefs are necessarily formed by processes involving conscious experiences.
    (b) You think beliefs necessarily give rise to conscious experiences.
    (c) You think that beliefs are conscious experiences.

  98. Jim,

    I agree with much of what you said about beliefs, though I prefer some different terms. I see all our concepts as abstractions to some degree. After all, our words are only symbols representing reality, and not reality itself. Some words have a more direct correspondence to reality than others, and so those concepts can be seen as less abstract. I would say that a belief is more abstract than, say, the state of a neuron. Perhaps your “not as robustly real” can be seen as similar in meaning to my “more abstract”. The difference, perhaps, is that I see this (variation in level or type of abstraction) as being something that can be seen throughout our discourse, and not something specific to a mental/physical dichotomy.

    I quite like Dennett’s idea of an intentional stance. As I see it, to take an intentional stance is to engage in a certain type of abstraction.

    I think what is of concern is utility of talk not what beliefs ‘really’ are (they seem to me to have no place in a developed neuroscience and can’t mesh it with it or biological science).

    I would part company with you here. I think our explanations often usefully mix concepts from different levels of abstraction. And a neuroscientist might well have reason to refer to beliefs. She might, for example, note the effect of a drug or electrical stimulation on a subject’s beliefs. Though I’m pretty ignorant of the subject, I seem to remember reading descriptions of split-brain experiments in which it would be reasonable to say that the two sides of the subject’s brain had conflicting beliefs. I expect someone more familiar with neuroscience could give more and better examples.

    Perhaps what you have in mind is that, if we take a dispositional view of beliefs, we don’t have to see them as having any necessary link to a physical substrate. But I would say that in practice they are linked to a physical substrate (the brain in the case of human beliefs), and it can be useful to investigate the nature of that link. We don’t need to make that connection in order to usefully discuss beliefs. Much of our discourse about beliefs will be just the same if we see them as properties of a supernatural soul. But the same is also true of tables (to return to a previous example of mine). We don’t need to know that tables are made of molecules in order to talk about books resting on a table, for example. Tables could even be supernatural objects with no composition, but with certain familiar dispositions, such as the disposition to support objects placed on them. I think we could, in principle, take a purely dispositional view of tables.

  99. Hi Richard,

    It’s a while since I’ve given very serious thought to the propositional attitudes and I’m not at all informed about what neuroscience is up to. I’d have to rethink the arguments – it seems I’m only really reporting the conclusions I came to when I last thought about these things.

    What I’m running up the flagpole is that a developed future neuroscience will not be making reference to beliefs – this is a prediction about where science will have to go rather than a claim about how neuroscientists have to talk now. I’d have to think about this some more, but intensionality seems an issue for meshing the intentional with the physical.

    It seems to me there are no things with semantic and causal properties stored somewhere in the mind. But still belief attributions can help us predict behaviour. Beliefs are thus as real as centres of gravity – so we have instrumentalism that’s not too ‘hard’ and it sits near dispositionalism yes.

    Will have to think about it some more.

  100. Jim,

    Thanks for your reply. I’m still thinking about it too. I don’t claim to have a mature view on the subject. Also, I wrote rather hastily about the possibility of taking a dispositional view of tables, and I’d like to retract that. I think what I described is not analogous to dispositionalism about beliefs.

    I can’t see why a future neuroscience would be less inclined to talk about beliefs than current neuroscience. Eliminativists about propositional attitudes seem to think that they will eventually be eliminated from correct, formal discourse. But I think they’re mistaken. Such terms are much too useful for predicting and explaining behaviour

  101. Some further thoughts…

    Suppose I explain Napoleon’s behaviour as follows: “Napoleon ordered the attack because he believed Wellington was retreating.” It seems to me that I’m attributing to Napoleon a mental state of the sort that would dispose him both to order an attack and to say “Wellington is retreating”. He may not actually have said “Wellington is retreating”. He may have said it in different words or not at all. But whatever caused him to order the attack is also the sort of thing which we would expect to cause him to utter something like “Wellington is retreating” under the right (possibly counterfactual) circumstances, such as circumstances where he felt like explaining his order to his subordinates. Though he may not actually have said it, truthfully uttering the proposition “Wellington is retreating” is the clearest way that he could have expressed his relevant mental state to other people (or to himself). So, if I want to refer to this mental state, the clearest way I can do it is to attribute that proposition to him, as a belief. I think that’s what makes propositional attitudes so useful.

    My sentence works as an explanation because the two behaviours to which Napoleon is disposed have a common cause, which I’m calling a “belief” or “mental state”. It may be that when they use the word “belief” the folk are inclined to have some misguided idea about what this common cause is. Perhaps some people think it’s supernatural. Perhaps some people think the words “Wellington is retreating” are written in the brain somehow. But explanation in terms of belief remains just as useful when we drop any such misguided notions, and that’s why I think there’s no good reason to be an eliminativist about it.

    I’ve referred to the common cause here as a “mental state”, which term inclines me to think rather abstractly about the mind. But, as I’m a materialist, I think that the cause is ultimately a physical one: a certain arrangement of matter in Napoleon’s brain disposed him to certain behaviours, where a different arrangement would have disposed him to different behaviours. If I want to focus my attention on the physical nature of the causation I find it helpful to think of a “brain state” instead of a “mental state”.

    The account I’ve given here might be seen as casting doubt on the idea of attributing propositional attitudes to non-verbal animals. If we say that a dog believes there’s food in his bowl, how can we be referring to a mental state that would dispose the dog to say “there’s food in my bowl”? But I said that this can be a disposition that only has this result under counterfactual circumstances. The counterfactual circumstance here could be seen as one where the dog is able to speak. If the dog could speak, he might say “there’s food in my bowl”. That’s quite a strange counterfactual, and it does feel a bit strange (to me) to attribute beliefs to non-verbal animals. But it seems like a useful extension from attributing beliefs to humans, and people sometimes do it naturally.

  102. Jim, I did indeed misinterpret what I quoted from you. I think I put a comma, an apostrophe and additional letters in there somewhere where they weren’t. I read that mid-sized physical objects CAN’T be spoken about just in terms of their components, just LIKE folk psychology and biology deal with different layers of abstraction. What you wrote was that, UNLIKE folk psychology and biology, they CAN. So I revoke your astuteness. 🙂

    I think you are wrong, Jim, in thinking the sciences are continuous in the way you seem to think and easily meshable. Not yet at least, not until someone comes up with a Grand Unified Theory and, ultimately, a Theory of Everything (TOE). Considering even just physics, the behavior of large and mid-sized objects CANNOT be modeled the same way as particles. If they could, we might have the beginnings of a TOE, still incomplete since it would only unify the subjects within the domain of physics.

    It might be that a TOE as envisioned by many is not possible. As is well known to you, I’m an ardent evolutionist. And though I think evolutionary concept constitutes some form of proto-TOE and operate on all levels, I suspect each level of abstraction (physics, biology, social studies) will always require some unique terms. Similarly to what Richard has suggested, I think terms from layers of greater scientific decomposition may be useful. But they are insufficient. As you said, Jim, there are no chairs in physics. This is because physics deals only with limited conceptual aspects of the chair: its motion, mass and energy. We have decomposed the chair and discarded our functional relationship with the object.

    Could we ever fully model in any meaningful way our functional relationship with a chair in physics? I doubt it. But could we use concepts of physics to enrich our analysis of how a chair functions for us? Certainly. Mass and energy are important attributes in determining the quality of a chair. But, yes, how do you say “humans like to sit on comfortable chairs when their legs get tired” using vector fields? Something gets lost in all those little arrows with magnitude and direction. I think of philosophy as the attempt to bridge all the layers of abstraction into a meaningful whole. This is where I suspect some form of TOE might be constructed and why philosophy deserves the nickname First Science.

    I think it’s important to consider what the first layer of decomposition is. I would say it is something close to what you have called folk psychology, Jim. It’s the domain where you say stuff like “I skeptically raised my eyebrow when Joe said Jane was driven by jealousy”. I would rather call it everyday life, or common sense and speak of it in the same breath as direct personal observations without technical mediation. This is the lifeworld we spend most of our days in. This is where philosophy must begin its attempt at unification.

    All our belief systems begin by necessity centered around us. If a burning bush spoke to me while I thought I was fully awake, I’d be troubled to say the least. My current beliefs would certainly influence how I behaved. But if no doctor could determine something was out of the ordinary with my body, for example that I had had a stroke or been poisoned with psilocybin, I’d have to reconsider some stuff despite all the bountiful scientific claims that burning bushes don’t speak. Which is why it is very difficult to convince people who claim to have had a religious experience that their “brain” was just playing tricks on them.

  103. Richard,
    I consider a belief to be a reflective act directed at the inexperienced. It’s different from a memory, which is an intentional act directed at the experienced. Although memories are not experiences as such, their intentionality is still directed at what was experienced. If this is what you mean by a conscious act, then yes, beliefs require consciousness. I’ve quite recently become uncomfortable with the term consciousness because of the wide use of the word subconscious. I associate the subconscious with concepts like penis envy, i.e. vacuous assumptions about the causes of certain dispositions.

    A belief is not a disposition to reflexively act in given future circumstances. This is what sometimes is called a procedural memory: a learned behavior that causes you to act autonomically under certain circumstances. You don’t act because you believe this is the way to act. No reflectiveness is involved. It is, in some sense, programmed that you thus act. You are aware of acting but would not have acted otherwise (i.e it is autonomic).

    A belief somehow implies a choice. It could be, or it could not be. If there is no other way it could have been, then it is not a belief. I do not believe I suffered pain when burning my finger. I simply suffered pain and it was beyond my choosing. When I reflect on how I acted autonomically, I make certain assumptions of why I so acted. I have the capability of changing my mind about what caused me to swerve in traffic. Hence I believe I acted thus because of x, y or z. The fact remains: I acted so. But the cause is up for grabs. You could convince me that I’m wrong, and that I really avoid the car because I have, well, vaginal envy maybe. It would be hard to convince me of this but, if you’re really rhetorically talented, maybe you could. I might on reflection doubt I thus acted. Maybe my memory is not a reference to anything that ever happened in reality. Again, true or false. I could be convinced of one or the other.

    A cat sitting in front of a mouse hole seems to be making certain calculated choices. I have cats and I have seen them in what I assume to be reflective poses. They even occasionally tilt their heads like a human might do, trying to figure out what to do next. It is not an autonomic act. There are choices that are being weighed. I am not an expert on nematodes, but I doubt nematodes have some behavior that resembles such pensive moods. Question: Does a nematode believe in God? And if you think this is a nonsensical question then consider this: does an Ascaris lumbricoides believe in human-oriented parasitism? Does it ever consider it might be less advantageous to penetrate the human’s intestinal wall? Maybe a pig’s intestine would be better! Ha! Pigs, here I come! I believe you to be better, piggies.

    This does not mean I don’t think nematodes might be aware. They are mobile. Anything beyond the simplest types of mobility – directed mobility – requires some awareness of one’s environment. Gas particles are mobile but in a purely Brownian way. There is no rhyme or reason to how they move. It’s randomness in its most pure form, the kind that would cause a human to be declared insane (i.e. lacking any predictability, a state of 50/50).

  104. Jim,
    I found a quote from The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris that illustrates the problem of viewing biology, chemistry and physics as continuous and substantially different from how neuroscience and “folk psychology” integrate:

    There are many scientific frameworks (and levels of description) that resist integration and which divide our discourse into areas of specialization, even pitting Nobel laureates in the same discipline against one another.

        Sam Harris (The Moral Lanscape, page 66)

    Various beliefs attributed to “folk psychology” may not be universally localized in a specific part of our body. And I don’t think staring at an fMRI screen will ever fully explain why we believe what we believe. But medical imaging could potentially identify bodily (i.e. neural / endocrine) compositions that predispose us to certain attitudes and behaviors. And these bodily disposition can be encapsulated in simple statements that we usually associate with “folk psychology”.

    I’ve been trying to get a grip on this person and identity thing you raised. I heavily disagree that it’s a vacuous question. But I have to admit, despite 15+ years of relevant work, I find it tricky to answer. Understanding identity is actually my main line of work (I’m a software engineer that specializes in ontologies). As I see it, a “person” is an identity reference created by our bodily functions to discretely distinguish between the complex phenomena we apprehend by our senses. It makes no great difference when the reference is reflexive. We look in the mirror, we see our hands, our feet, we taste and we feel pain. All these phenomena are encapsulated into myself, an entity that is mostly a blackbox, even to that which is referred to as myself.

    Essentially, persons exist as an blackbox encapsulation of complex biological structures. Certain internal changes in that blackbox will not alter how the blackbox is perceived (including by itself). But certain drastic internal changes will alter our perceptions. We then say things like “Something is wrong with him. He’s not the same person anymore”. Sometimes we may even be aware of the difference ourselves. We may confirm others suspicions: “They’re right. I don’t feel like my old self anymore”. Such an observation may lead someone to go to a medical doctor, who may then by MRI or chemical testing identify say a tumor or glandular abnormality. This is an example of how neurology and endocrinology feed into “folk psychology” and vice versa.

    Neurologists performing complex surgery will often keep the patient awake to make sure they’re not causing any harm. They will ask the patient some question that have little meaning except in terms of “folk psychology”. They are testing the integrity of the blackbox. The term blackbox may seems strange but I use it to more illustriously express an important concept borrowed from system design: encapsulation. Every encapsulated aspect of a system has an interface through which you can interact with the encapsulated part (i.e. the blackbox). The one interacting with the blackbox does not know (or need to know) what happens inside the box. All they need to know is how to communicate with it, which is known as the protocol. It’s John Searle’s “chinese room”, and one reason why I think Searle’s thought experiment is sort of pointless.

  105. Hi Andreas,

    I’m not subscribed to the thread so didn’t notice your comment.

    I find it very difficult to do philosophy these days – can’t do the thinking, reading or writing. Serious engagement in difficult or technical conversations is simply beyond me really. You might say I’m not quite the person that you met online a year or so back.

    There are all sorts of ‘sci-fi scenario’ puzzles about personal identity associated with Derek Parfit that are worth having a look at. My opinions on the matter were largely shaped by reading him years ago. The SEP and IEP will both have entries on personal identity that will discuss those and I’d point you in that direction if you’re interested in the topic.

    Regarding intentionality, eliminativism etc. – I don’t pretend that ascribing propositional attitudes to people – desires, beliefs etc. – isn’t useful, indeed necessary, for present practical purposes. I don’t imagine anybody does. But there all sorts of difficult philosophical problems surrounding intentionality and physicalism and how talk of things with ‘aboutness’ could possibly ‘fit’ with a naturalised ontology and a good scientific description of things. It’s not as easy a topic to get a handle on as personal identity and it’s simply beyond my present abilities to get into all that.

    Such is.

  106. Andreas: I see you are a software engineer.. perhaps the following anecdote from the man who taught me software engineering more than any other, will help..

    “Whats a subroutine?”
    “It’s just bits, in silicon”.

    “Ok what about a linked list?”
    “It’s just bits, in silicon”.

    “OK is there anything in software engineering that isn’t just bits in silicon?”

    “Hmm. why them do we use those terms?”

    “That’s a different question. That’s not what, that’s why. And why implies human interest. And things like purpose and intentionality, and hence fitness for purpose, and if you like a sort of morality and of course BUGS!”.

    Software is a model – a pattern – that represents, at the HUMAN level. And its HUMAN meaning is encapsulated in what it represents and why…

    The way through the mess of what is real and what is not, is to understand that, just as software represents something else – a description of an object, a description of how to do something – so the whole of what constitutes a person and their mental activities (while at some levels is still only ‘wetware and biochemistry’ ,if you are an ardent realist anyway) is actually nothing more than a model we impose on experience to reify it (and, simultaneously, ourselves) into a form where we can deal with it.

    NONE of it is ‘real’. There is no argument about what is real and what is not, none of it is ‘real’. Every last little bit of it is conjecture, including the experience of an external world. That’s not ‘real’ either.

    If you adopt this stance, it clears away all the clutter of trying to decide the realness of something: One never is dealing with the real. One posits its existence, yes, but that is all that need be said on that matter, from there on in one is dealing not with real things, but with ideas about things – maps, transforms, ‘wetware’ representations of things…

    It makes no sense then to argue whether or not such and such a concept ‘actually exists in the real world’.

    In the sense it exists as a pattern in someones mind, it does. In the sense that it exists as anything else, it does not. The only criteria for judging it, left, is whether or not the mapping produces useful results in some sense. And in the abstract sense of ‘arriving at the Truth, it never ever will.

    How is this helpful?

    Its helpful because it removes a pointless argument, the argument about realness and truth content. The answers become ‘none’ and ‘unknowable’ respectively.

    This clears the intellectual ground to consider what, if any correlation the model has with observed reality and what, if any utility it has when dealing with it.

    In terms of our experience of the physical, external world – which is already a concept – not ‘real’ – we can clearly see that a God concept, is completely useless and unnecessary: Our experience, as scientists, of the phenomenal world is predicated on the assumption that matter/energy, time and space and causality rule that realm, not God.

    Consciousness and free will can only be seen as the froth on the waves of the phenomenal unfolding of a deterministic and unalterable pattern.

    And if that prospect depresses, its inescapable, and if you didn’t want it, why sign up to those predicates in the first place?

    One must go back to first principles and ask oneself why one chose them, why consider that the world is just stuff and energy in a causal space time theater?

    The answer is of course, because it works. Pretty well with simple mechanical things at human scales. It works less and less well as one approaches the boundaries of the physical realm – at cosmological distances and times, at the massively subatomic level, and at very close proximity to the self… and the reasons WHY it works less well are self evident if you pause to consider the implications of the proposition that the world is just ‘stuff’.. because we are part OF that world, and cannot therefore form a truly objective view of it, not without – as Hofstatder points out – getting involved in a huge positive feedback loop. Because we can’t see the world AND ourselves in that way… Its a bit like a brain surgeon operating on himself. He has nowhere else to stand but as the subject and object..and there will be considerable confusion..

    …returning to the main point, of what people do and what they think and believe, it becomes a truism to say that they are what they think and what they do – at least from someone else’s standpoint – and that if they encode themselves in a given way, that will govern their behaviour. Some people may have deep rooted routines of insecurity that predispose them to patch in complementary concepts of ultimate self worth and meaning, others may not. Whatever works to evolve the species is retained: Truth content is as always zero to undecidable: Functional efficacy rules OK?

    If evolution teaches us anything, its not that the fit survive, its more that the completely dysfunctional do not. Mere survival is no guarantee of optimal characteristics, especially in an unchallenging environment. Look around you today to see the truth of that observation 🙄

    It is in the nature of Realism to divide the world into what is real, and what is imaginary, like some vector diagram. In reality it is all imaginary (sic!) – or rather there may be a real axis, but we are not equipped to detect where it is. Reality and realness and Realism are just..another map.

    And like religion, another limitation to be overcome to get the largest possible picture of what is going on.

    You note that physiology affects sense of self and reality – what more proof is needed that there is no fixed ‘reality’ at all – it’s merely a map of something else, and a map that is subjective.

    Take the red pill, consider that the real world is only as real as the picture on the computer screen in front of you. It REPRESENTS me, my thoughts, my words, to you, but it is not any of those things in itself. It’s a quantum level device for the purpose of doing that representation. I might be no more than a random AI plugged into the net…and in a very real sense that is exactly what I am.

    And, analogously, as it is seldom of value to plug a hardware analyzer into a computer when its not doing what is expected, it’s not that helpful to use physics to apprehend the workings of the mind: To say it’s all biochemistry, is ..not helpful. It may be, it may not be. What counts is not what it is, but what the patterns are.

    Here, we find the exact reverse to the external world, here we find that Realism fails us, and, actually, god concepts, or similar things – the ‘subconscious’ ‘morality’ ‘ethics’ and so on – become far more useful.

    In the end, it behooves us to remember that the pattern is not the substrate on which its formed, nor the machine that interprets the pattern, and neither are the reality, of which the pattern is an [incomplete] model.

    We do not, I consider, live in a real world: We live in a hierarchy of patterns upon patterns upon patterns: It’s patterns – information – all the way down.

    Underlying it one suspects there may be a substrate, and a machine to work with patterns, but our knowledge of that is just – another pattern!

    Realists and the religious alike have to break the deep conviction that there is a reliable guide to what is real. There is not. It is all conjecture. And, in that context the fact that it works sometimes, and sometimes does not, is the only reliable guide to, or evidence, that its not all in your mind. That there is some ultimate reality beyond the patterns we make to represent it.

    Physics is closest to that ultimate reality, yes. One assumes that the ‘objects’ with which physics deals do not have ‘minds of their own’ and don’t notice,. or care when someone prods them with the sharp end of a hadron collider. (except actually they do, and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle as well as the ‘observation problem’ encapsulate THAT…).

    But the nearer one gets to Life, the further one is from physics, and the more the observational process starts to affect the reality (or not) of what is there…to the point where a large part of psychotherapy acknowledges that , actually, its not the analysis or the treatment, it’s actually the analytic process that changes things. Ones self obsessed ramblings suddenly become important to someone, and this works wonders for the soul…

    Really I am getting bored with this religion versus science debate: Its not a real problem, except for the dogmatic in both camps. Once you realize there is no absolute metaphysic that trumps all other metaphysics, and that we can’t live without some sort of metaphysic, the debate turns into one between two metaphysics that don’t rightfully even exist in the same space. They shouldn’t be impinging with each others concepts on areas where they are not valid, anymore than I would consider a RAM chip ‘depressed’ or a human being to suffer from parity errors.

    The ultimate argument as far as I am concerned is really all about the human tendency to apply a one size fits all metaphysical conjecture to all of life, when its patently clear, and probably logically deducible, that one size can’t fit all.

    Not without a brain the size of (or larger than) the universe, that is paradoxically, operating outside the universe. Which is pretty much the Christian God when you think about it.

    On the other hand, its perfectly possible for such an entity – billions of them in fact – to exist provided you understand that the Universes they think they inhabit are, after all, inside the brains that conceive them. Which are to them the living embodiment of God. 😆

    And not to be confused with the actual world of those intelligences. Which they are not aware even exists – except that sometimes their internal worlds are moved by it, slightly.

    A Christian friend of mine remarked ‘But prayer works!’

    “So?” I replied, “That’s no proof that the God to whom you pray exists, in the form you conceive Him”.

    And indeed it may be more useful to conclude a much shorter path, straight into your own personal operating system.. “Run command ‘increase brightness level on world simulator screen'”.

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