Choosing our beliefs

The more I talk to theists, the more I find myself convinced that there is an enormous, possibly impassable barrier between the religious way of thinking and the nonbeliever’s approach. It mainly concerns how we choose which things to believe and which things to disbelieve — which things we call “true” and which things we don’t.

I have heard theists defending the truth of their religious beliefs with statements like:

  • Belief in x makes me feel at peace in my soul.
  • Belief in x gives me hope.
  • Belief in x is more beautiful than belief in not-x.
  • Belief in x is a cultural tradition — x is what my family has always believed, and traditions are important to me.
  • I just can’t imagine a world where not-x is true, so I believe x.
  • Belief in x motivates people to be good.
  • Belief in x gives us a straightforward rubric we can use to tell whether we’re being good.
  • Belief in x is inspirational.
  • I believe in x because I have faith that x is true.
  • Well, x may not be true for everybody, but I feel that it’s true for me.

All of these basically amount to, “I believe this because I like to think that it’s true, regardless of whether it is actually true.”

This is just not what knowledge means. At least to me, as an atheist. We atheists like to get our knowledge from evidence — at least enough to provide the basis for a logical inference, acknowledging that full proof is difficult in anything besides mathematics. We recognize that “I want it to be true” is very, very different from “It is true.” I mean, seriously, I could write a thousand words on the spot on the topic of things I wish were true that aren’t. It’s just mind-boggling for me to imagine that anyone really operates on the principle that wishing makes it so. (When a six-year-old wants their bedtime to be midnight, that doesn’t change it from being 8 pm. Didn’t we all learn this lesson as kids?)

The final “justification” in that list above adds another layer of complexity to this schism. Not only is it claimed that liking some idea makes it reality, but also that each of us can like different, mutually exclusive things and we can all have the realities that we want. This is such a different conception of what “reality” means, I hardly know where to begin. Religious beliefs generally include factual claims that are akin to physical laws. How could they be true for you and not for everyone else? In your reality, the universe was created in six days and on the seventh day God rested, but for everyone else, who knows, could have been the Big Bang? In your reality, an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent and all-loving deity definitely exists, but for everyone else — meh, whatever? Don’t we live in the same universe?

I think Bertrand Russell explained it very concisely in this 1959 CBC interview:

I’ll transcribe two snippets for you, with my emphasis added. One beginning at about 0:19 –

Interviewer: Do you think there’s a practical reason for having a religious belief, for many people?

Russell: Well, there can’t be a practical reason for believing what isn’t true. That’s quite — at least, I rule it out as impossible. Either the thing is true or it isn’t. If it is true, you should believe it, and if it isn’t, you shouldn’t. And if you can’t find out whether it is true or it isn’t, you should suspend judgment. But you can’t — it seems to me, a fundamental dishonesty, a fundamental treachery to intellectual integrity to hold a belief because you think it’s useful and not because you think it’s true.

and another beginning at 1:55 –

Interviewer: You were brought up, of course, as Christian. When did you first decide that you did not want to remain a believer in the Christian ethic?

Russell: I never decided that I didn’t want to remain a believer. I decided that — between the ages of 15 and 18, I spent almost all my spare time thinking about Christian dogmas and trying to find out whether there was any reason to believe them. And by the time I was 18, I had discarded the last of them.

How can we get past these colossal differences in how we understand the concept of truth, how we think about what makes something worth believing? I don’t have a simple answer to this (yet?), but I know it’s something that any atheist interested in interfaith dialogue or debate has to come to terms with.

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24 Comments

  1. Aristarchus

     /  May 21, 2010 at 5:54 pm

    I think the sad truth is that the the question posed at 1:35 is largely correct. I don’t see a world where everyone carefully questions all beliefs and develops their own sense of morality as realistic. Even if it is, it won’t be done until you’re at least 20, and until then you need some sort of in-the-meantime rules. Really, though, in societies where atheism is common (rather than where it’s limited to people like Bertrand Russel, who is not typical) people still get their moral beliefs by adopting whatever beliefs are widely held/traditional in the society where they are. This is always going to be true, and in the absence of religion, people grasp a bit for an internal justification for following these beliefs. Often I think this comes out as some cultural pride, where people believe that “western liberal values” or “traditional Chinese values” or whatever are in some way time-tested and proven superior.

    What would, I think, make sense is to have people who write books on morality that include rules (don’t steal) and practices (every Sunday night, reflect on what you did this week that you regret) that they think are good to live by. Over time, some of these teachings would gain followers and respect, similar to how respected Jewish thinkers in the Talmud or other works are respected and followed without any claim to particular holy knowledge. Lots of people would be raised as Kantians or whatever, but some would question and “convert” and so forth. It’d be basically the same as religion, but people would feel more free to question and more willing to see certain things as artifacts of the time when the book was written, etc. It would also be a lot easier for people who disagreed on moral rules to get along.

  2. I guess this is one of my pet peeves, but one of the things that I found truly poisonous from my religious experience is the idea that we choose our beliefs. I guess you’re coming at it from a different aspect, but it still chafes me.

    We believe what we are *personally persuaded* to believe. We can be personally persuaded by a great deal of things — it depends on our personality, can be influenced by our environment (but isn’t necessarily decided by it). We can try to “gamble” with our personality and our internal logical frameworks by throwing different kinds of evidence at it, but we don’t consciously choose to find x piece of evidence personally compelling.

    I think the issue is that different people come to the table with different logical frameworks. These logical frameworks define what things they view as evidence. But they fail to realize a few things. 1) That they do have a framework through which they view the world and that this colors their perception. 2) That others do not necessarily share this framework and so will naturally come to different conclusion.

    Getting more to the post, I feel like there are several ways to approach it. You say that for you, the various religious justifications you listed amount to “I believe this because I like to think that it is true, regardless of whether it actually is true.”

    I think this is either rather uncharitable of religious belief OR is trivially true of all kinds of belief (religious and non). To pursue the second argument a bit, I’d point out what you say next. You say, curiously, “This is just not what knowledge means.”

    …the thing that immediately comes to my mind is…who said anything about knowledge? This does not follow. You’re talking about beliefs. Not knowledge. (even if people often conflate the two). It is completely conceivable to me that, REGARDLESS OF WHAT ACTUALLY IS TRUE, one could be personally persuaded to believe something is true. And furthermore, they would probably feel quite justified in their belief by whatever they perceived the evidence as.

    I could probably go further by saying that your argumentation only really works if you follow a correspondence theory of truth, but I don’t really want to go into that more, because the conversation would just get weird.

  3. Andrew – You wrote: 1) That they do have a framework through which they view the world and that this colors their perception. 2) That others do not necessarily share this framework and so will naturally come to different conclusion. I think this is exactly my point. What I mean when I say, “I believe such and such” and what a theist means when they say, “I believe such and such” are based on two entirely separate frameworks.

    You go on to say, who said anything about knowledge? This does not follow. You’re talking about beliefs. Not knowledge. (even if people often conflate the two). I’m sorry my point was unclear. To me, and I think to many other atheists, one believes the things that are true (to the best of one’s ability to discern), and the process of examining ideas and determining whether to believe them is basically the process of acquiring knowledge. I cannot wrap my head around the believer’s approach to belief, which seems unrelated to the truth, to actual knowledge about the world around them. If you were aware something was not true or was unlikely to be true, or if you were disinterested in the actual truth value of your belief, but continued to believe it anyway solely because you found it personally compelling (see list above), you are following a procedure for choosing your beliefs that is utterly foreign to me. That’s basically what I was trying to get across.

  4. Heh, sorry for not responding more promptly. You should try to get a subscribe to comments by email feature…

    I’m sorry my point was unclear. To me, and I think to many other atheists, one believes the things that are true (to the best of one’s ability to discern), and the process of examining ideas and determining whether to believe them is basically the process of acquiring knowledge.

    I think that naturally, a belief would include a mental assent that a proposition is true. But I don’t believe that this is the process of acquiring knowledge. I think of plenty of times that people say, “I believe” precisely *because* they don’t want to say or don’t feel qualified to say “I know”.

    When I say beliefs have nothing to do with knowledge, I am not saying that believers do not believe their beliefs are related to truth. I just think that knowledge is a distinct subjective mental state to belief, and that both of these mental states (belief OR knowledge) may not actually align with what is actually true.

    If you were aware something was not true or was unlikely to be true, or if you were disinterested in the actual truth value of your belief, but continued to believe it anyway solely because you found it personally compelling (see list above), you are following a procedure for choosing your beliefs that is utterly foreign to me.

    The thing is that believers are not “aware” that what they believe is not true or unlikely to be true. This is your bias creeping in. They are not disinterested in the actual truth value of their belief (or at least, if they are, it is in a way that WE ALL ARE disinterested in the actual true value of our beliefs.) That they believe because they find it personally compelling is NOT anything special. It is something EVERYONE does. To say this process is utterly foreign to you seems to make me think that you are blind to the assumptions you make — these assumptions which you make because they are personally compelling to you.

    An atheist, like a theist, believes things that he is personally compelled to accept as true, or likely to be true. But since the atheist and the theist look at the same data with very different lenses, they come out with different conclusions.

  5. Well, I certainly agree with you that atheists and theists are looking at this issue with different lenses. What I was pointing out here was that a meaningful number of theists clearly don’t care about the truth value of their beliefs, because they justify them by saying things that are variations on, “I believe this because it would be fun if it were true.” If there is anything I believe because it’s fun to imagine, I would want it brought to my attention so I could rectify the situation immediately. It would be fun if money grew on trees. It would be fun if I had no obligations preventing me from sleeping in late every day. It would be fun if I had my PhD already. I do not believe any of those things, though, despite their “fun value.”

    When I think of how the word “belief” is used, I can think of examples ranging from, “I believe you” (i.e., “I think what you are saying is true”) to “I believe I left my keys on the kitchen table” (i.e., “This is my best recollection, what I think is most likely to be true”). These represent a range of uncertainty, but they all reflect an attempt at actually representing reality. When people give justifications for their beliefs like those in my list, they are openly admitting that reality does not factor into their calculation. That’s the difference I’m talking about.

    Good tip on the email notification for comments … I’ll look for a plugin. :)

  6. No, you’re still conflating *your* idea of truth with someone else’s. Not to mention you’re misunderstanding and oversimplifying the various reasons that have been presented.

    You say that when people give the reasons from your list that they are openly admitting that reality doesn’t factor into their decision. I think this is preposterous.

    When someone says, “I believe in x because it brings peace to my soul,” they are pointing to the reality of the peace that they feel. You simply reject this because you have a bias against subjectivity or anecdote (despite the fact that you rely on your subjectivity just as much, even if it predisposes you in a different way) .

    “I can’t imagine a world where x is not true”: they are pointing out that, from their processing of all the data that they have, the data are best explained by x. In other words, they are expressing that x seems so likely to them that “not x” s inconceivable, unimaginable.

    I could go through the rest of these similarly. The problem is that you have a particular view of what is “real,” what is “true,” what is “knowledge,” and therefore what reasonable “beliefs” are. Having this particular view isn’t problematic in and of itself…the problem arises when you fail to realize that this is your particular view…it may or may not be the superior view, the best view, the way that the universe actually works, etc.,

  7. Aristarchus

     /  May 26, 2010 at 1:38 pm

    Andrew, you are missing the point and playing with semantics. When someone says “I believe in x because it brings peace to my soul” it is true that the peace in they feel is real. NFQ wasn’t talking about whether the peace was real. She was talking about whether “x” was real. Lots of things can make you feel good, including a lot of really great fictional novels. It is, however, idiotic to believe them, because while the feelings you have while reading them are real, the stories themselves aren’t. That’s not to say there’s nothing valuable in the stories. It just means you shouldn’t believe them.

    The “I can’t imagine…” quote I believe you are using in a fundamentally different way than it is normally used. People don’t normally say it because the thing they can’t imagine conflicts with evidence. They say it because they find the idea that “x is not true” to be emotionally disturbing.

  8. Aristarchus,

    I’m not missing the point. I’m countering that the point only works under a certain framework, but NFQ hasn’t pointed out why this framework should be seen as the only or the best or the superior one. Now, I’m sure he could provide a case for that at some point, but until then, it seems like he’s just not recognizing that he is just taking one position and others are taking another.

    Obviously, many of us (and definitely NFQ) don’t believe that because the peace is real, x is real. But that doesn’t mean that believers do not believe that x is real, or that they have no concern for reality or truth. It simply makes sense for them to attribute the reality of the peace they feel (or whatever may be the case) to the reality of x. If all you can say is “that’s idiotic,” “that doesn’t mean you should believe,” etc., then you’re not going to get why the vast majority of the world’s population are and have been theistic…and that’ll be your loss.

    The “I can’t imagine…” quote I believe you are using in a fundamentally different way than it is normally used. People don’t normally say it because the thing they can’t imagine conflicts with evidence. They say it because they find the idea that “x is not true” to be emotionally disturbing

    My entire point is that most things relating to beliefs will drill down to mental states, like emotions. A conclusion that conflicts with evidence as you understand it is emotionally disturbing. It brings cognitive dissonance.

    The problem is that people have different ideas of what counts as evidence.

  9. Aristarchus

     /  May 26, 2010 at 2:08 pm

    Andrew, I’m honestly a little bit confused by what you’ve said. I think your last comment clarifies things a bit, but also makes it sound like you aren’t actually disagreeing with much at all. If your point is just that most people make decisions about religious beliefs based on emotions rather than out of a logical attempt to determine truth, I entirely agree, but I think that was the point NFQ was making in the first place.

    If your point is that they really do care primarily about what’s really true, but see “it makes me happy” as good evidence of truth, then that’s different. I am sure there are a meaningful number of people for whom that is true. However, it’s just objectively true that “it makes me happy” isn’t good evidence for it being true, regardless of what people believe. Those people can be debated. You point out that lots of things you know are false would also make you happy if they were true. It’s not good evidence. I think the real point of the post, though, wasn’t that a lot of people don’t fall into that category. They aren’t mistaking “it makes me happy” for evidence of truth. They just don’t care. There’s no way to prove it, but I agree with NFQ. A lot of people I’ve talked to use this kind of language to defend their beliefs. Now, it’s possible that this is just a convenient way to shut down a discussion when they are incapable of actually arguing well for their beliefs, but at the very least it’s what a lot of people say.

  10. No, you missed my point.

    To the extent that anyone can say people make religious “decisions” based on emotion rather than a logical attempt to discover truth, then that is applicable to all people about all decisions. Either you take this to a conclusion of trivial truth, or you don’t take it far enough, and you become selective (and therefore incorrect) in your application of this kind of concept.

    The issue is that logic is just a tool. But logic doesn’t determine the answer. Rather, you put in premises, make inferences, and conclusions follow.

    The issue is not that one class of people is being logical and another class of people is being illogical. It’s rather that different people have different premises, and most people across the spectrum do not question their premises.

    You take as your premises ideas like “objectivity” and whatever else that entails, but you don’t realize that this is just the premise you’ve assumed, and that you haven’t questioned the nature of this assumption.

  11. Andrew — I’m really trying to understand where we disagree. You say,

    The issue is not that one class of people is being logical and another class of people is being illogical. It’s rather that different people have different premises, and most people across the spectrum do not question their premises.

    What is the premise you think that I work from, if not “It’s good to be logical”?

  12. Some premises:

    “Objectivity is better/more reliable/superior than subjectivity”
    “The correspondence theory of truth is the only/is a superior method for determining truth.”
    “The kinds of evidences that can be scientifically verified are the only/the best kinds of evidence.”

    and then

    “My worldview is objective.”
    “The premises I hold above need not be questioned or challenged, because they are obvious, and therefore, people who disagree with them are illogical or irrational, or unconcerned about truth, or unconcerned about evidences.”

    just to name a few.

    That you think your premise is “It’s good to be logical,” where you think you’re logical and other people aren’t really say a WHOLE lot more than you suspect. It means you have a very particular view of what “logic” is or entails.

  13. Actually, I think it’s really important to question and pick apart as many of one’s premises as possible, so I appreciate you explaining this here. (I suppose I should question that premise, but then we loop endlessly and my head explodes — that’s basically what I mean by “as possible.”) I’m going to read up on the correspondence theory of truth and alternatives to it, so I’m able to say something cogent about it, but in the meantime could you tell me what you mean when you say “objective,” “subjective,” and “evidence”?

  14. I think that what most people mean (and what I would take as a reasonable definition of) when they say “objective” is “existing independent of thought or an observer.” Whereas subjective would be somewhat counter, “existing as a result of thought or an observer.”

    Evidence is ground for belief, that which supports or does not support an assertion.

    I think that a foundation with objectivity sets the stage for much else. For example, with objectivity, the idea is that truth is “out there.” It is external to us. Since truth is “out there,” you dismiss the various reasons for belief that you’ve listed here as being unconcerned about the truth…because from your framework, truth is “out there,” “external,” “objective,” and unrelated to what is “in here,” “internal,” “subjective.” You have similar ideas about knowledge, so you say things like: “I cannot wrap my head around the believer’s approach to belief, which seems unrelated to the truth, to actual knowledge about the world around them.” The reason you cannot wrap your head around the believer’s approach to belief is because you are stuck in your premises and assumptions, and you have not thought about your premises and assumptions all that much. So instead of the believer’s approach to belief seeming to you like a different approach to truth or knowledge about the world around them (which you can still believe is an incorrect or misguided approach) you believe it is completely unrelated to truth or knowledge. Instead of noting that believers (for the most part) use logic just as you do, but start with different premises and as a result come to different conclusions, you assume that your premises are part of logic itself, so you think believes are not using logic.

    I’m not saying whether I think this is a right or wrong way to look at things, but I would point out that the reason you believe these things is not because they are “out there,” but rather because it makes sense to you. In other words, you accept these principles because of a subjective reaction that is *within.* So that is why I say to Aristarchus, to the extent that people make religious “decisions” based on emotion, that is true of everyone of all “decisions.” We are going to do what makes sense to us. If we don’t, we do face a kind of cognitive dissonance or emotional discomfort. The problem? Different things will make sense to us, because we come from different premises.

  15. So, I read a lot about the correspondence theory of truth, and read also about coherence, pragmatism, consensus, constructivism, and redundancy. Frankly, this whole thing strikes me as intellectual masturbation. Which of these alternatives is suitable if you do not buy into the correspondence theory of truth? Can anyone legitimately argue that, using the “consensus theory of truth” for an example, things are true when many many people believe they are true? Can I become a millionaire by telling everyone I meet that I am a millionaire? Obviously not. The correspondence theory of truth matches the dictionary definition for truth, as well as what is commonly understood to mean. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy sums it up as: “x is true iff x corresponds to some fact.” But what is a fact if not a statement which is true? Where is the debate here?

    I suppose that I do make the assumption that we do not live in the Matrix, that some external reality exists and we can be either right or wrong about it. I also make the assumption that making logical inferences based on evidence is the best way to determine what is true. If you want to disagree with me on either of those, I suppose you can, but I don’t understand how we can go on having a conversation. If you think there is no external reality, why talk to me? I’m just a hallucination. If you think that logical inferences are not valuable, why have a logical debate in which you present arguments and discuss what those arguments imply?

    Getting back on topic a bit, I don’t think that most religious people would contest my first assumption. They have beliefs about reality which they see as objective, external truth/fact — a deity exists, an afterlife of this sort exists, these various and sundry prophets have told us the will of this deity, these are the rules this deity wants us to live by, these are the consequences for breaking the rules and these are the rewards for obeying them — and they think it would be good for everyone else to realize the truth/fact of these beliefs.

    As for my second assumption, that the process of making logical inferences based on evidence is the best way to determine truth/fact — this is exactly what my post was about. I think that religious people often do not share this assumption, as evidenced by the fact that they often believe things because they find them to be pleasant to imagine. We clearly do not have the same understanding of what constitutes “logical inference,” or of what constitutes “evidence,” or perhaps even whether “logic” is a framework worth operating in in the first place. That is certainly a conundrum for those of us involved in debates with believers, and that is the point I was making. If you are disagreeing with this in some way, I have yet to decipher how.

  16. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy sums it up as: “x is true iff x corresponds to some fact.” But what is a fact if not a statement which is true? Where is the debate here?

    Consider: what does it mean if someone is Sultan? It means a relationship between people….the sultan and his people. He is sultan because of people living out this relationship. The fact and truth only work because of *people*. Not because of something *out there*.

    Truth is a relationship of words. Words are created and employed by people. The meanings of words are created and employed by people. You cannot speak about anything without introducing subjectivity into it, then.

    I suppose that I do make the assumption that we do not live in the Matrix, that some external reality exists and we can be either right or wrong about it. I also make the assumption that making logical inferences based on evidence is the best way to determine what is true. If you want to disagree with me on either of those, I suppose you can, but I don’t understand how we can go on having a conversation. If you think there is no external reality, why talk to me? I’m just a hallucination. If you think that logical inferences are not valuable, why have a logical debate in which you present arguments and discuss what those arguments imply?

    We can still go on having a conversation without objectivity because of shared subjectivity. Consider if we ARE in the Matrix. It wouldn’t be the case that there isn’t an external reality…simply the case that your inference, “My perceptions about reality align with external reality” would be untrue. Your perceptions would be deceptive and would not align with external reality.

    But would that mean we can’t have a conversation? No. Because we can share the perception, even if it doesn’t correspond with external reality. We can share subjectivity, and recognize that it was the subjective perception that was important the entire time.

    Would it mean your beliefs are “unconcerned with truth and knowledge.” in a sense, yes. You’d be more concerned with shared subjectivity and shared perception.

    HOWEVER, the only sense that this would be answered “yes” is if you defined ‘truth’ and ‘knowledge’ as relating to the outside, external reality. Things in themselves. Noumena, as opposed to phenomena. This problem completely disappears (regardless of whether we are in the matrix or not) if you recognize that your beliefs are concerned with your perception, but your perception is subjective.

    Of course, with this, more conclusions can arise as a result of the same logical inferences. When we recognize that people can look at the same thing (our “Matrix”) and perceive different things from the same data, it shouldn’t be surprising that people come to different conclusions.

    If you think that logical inferences are not valuable, why have a logical debate in which you present arguments and discuss what those arguments imply?

    Again, you are conflating different things. No one has raised “value.” But what I am saying is that logical frameworks, when they are valid, only tell us about *consistency*. We find a lot of value in consistency, but this consistency doesn’t necessarily say anything about objectivity. This doesn’t ultimately matter. If the robots in the Matrix have us programmed all to see and feel and perceive the universe in a certain way, then we can easily talk within that framework and be *consistent* about that…and that will end up VERY valuable to us. But if we think that truth is in something like correspondence to external reality, then we will have to admit that we are living a lie.

    Getting back on topic a bit, I don’t think that most religious people would contest my first assumption. They have beliefs about reality which they see as objective, external truth/fact — a deity exists, an afterlife of this sort exists, these various and sundry prophets have told us the will of this deity, these are the rules this deity wants us to live by, these are the consequences for breaking the rules and these are the rewards for obeying them — and they think it would be good for everyone else to realize the truth/fact of these beliefs.

    If this is the case, then I don’t see why you wrote the post. In your post, you said you believed that religious people’s beliefs are “unrelated to truth or knowledge or reality”. (I do think that the idea of objectivity reaches deeply…so it wouldn’t be surprising if most people *idealize* it, even if their frameworks for determining truth do not completely fetishize it)

    As for my second assumption, that the process of making logical inferences based on evidence is the best way to determine truth/fact — this is exactly what my post was about. I think that religious people often do not share this assumption, as evidenced by the fact that they often believe things because they find them to be pleasant to imagine. We clearly do not have the same understanding of what constitutes “logical inference,” or of what constitutes “evidence,” or perhaps even whether “logic” is a framework worth operating in in the first place. That is certainly a conundrum for those of us involved in debates with believers, and that is the point I was making. If you are disagreeing with this in some way, I have yet to decipher how.

    This is your problem. You assume that religious people do not make logical inferences based on evidence. Yes, that IS because you and they *clearly* do not have the same understanding of what constitutes logical inference or evidence. As a result, you assume that (perhaps) religious people may doubt whether logic is a framework worth operating in the first place. I challenge that point. People don’t go about saying, “Oh yeah, let’s be illogical.” Rather, they take serious challenge to your premises and assumptions, as you take serious challenge to religious premises and assumptions.

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