Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Belief is Not a Dirty Word

On a recent episode of the Unbelievable podcast, an atheist science teacher going under the pseudonym Elliot George explained why he advocates abandoning belief - not specifically belief in god, but belief of any sort, presumably even the belief that it's wrong to hold beliefs. In substitution for belief, George prefers us to say that we 'think' a certain way, or that a certain claim is 'indicated by the evidence.' At some point, he thinks, science supersedes belief. After all, we don't say we believe in gravity, do we?

Not so fast. A belief, as it is commonly used, is simply a disposition we have towards a given proposition. Put another way, my belief that pressing the keys on my keyboard will produce letters on my screen that can be assembled and organized into this blog post just means I hold it to be true that I can write this post by utilizing my keyboard. Beliefs may be informed or uninformed, supported or unsupported, justified or unjustified. No evidence interprets itself, and even science operates on the basis of certain beliefs (thoroughly examined and tested) about how data can be collected, evaluated, and formulated into conclusions that may tell us more about the world in which we live.

A strong case can be made that none of us are capable of avoiding the formation of beliefs, regardless of what we call them or how cognizant we are of them. Sincere Kirabo touches on this in a recent blog entry:

Kant’s postulation of noumenon (“das Ding an sich”, or “the thing in itself”) holds that “what is” (noumenon) is separate from phenomenon, the thing as it appears to an observer. Kant’s insight, while not without its own flaws, does rightfully allude to subjectivity contra objectivity. This demarcates the difference between how one views the world – our perceptions based upon upbringing, inculcated core beliefs, limited personal experience, culture, biology, environmental influences, prevalent developments and notions of our time period – and objective reality, the world wholly unadulterated by human cognitive biases, fallacious thinking and skewed perspectives. This applies to everyone – me, whoever’s reading this, whoever isn’t reading this, the president of Montenegro, and so on.

The notion that we perceive an objective, unfiltered reality in any capacity has long been regarded as dead within both the fields of philosophy and psychology. Thanks in large part to all the numerous avenues for self-deception that we continually discover, a persistent and nagging question remains as to how accurately our ideas of things model the things in themselves. On its own, this seems to practically demand the recognition of something like beliefs - our attitudes about the world around us, distinct from, but hopefully informed by, the actual world around us. To return to the example of gravity, the more justification a belief receives, the more reason we have to regard it as true, and following the standard description of knowledge as justified true belief, we come to accept gravity as known rather than merely believed, yet knowledge remains itself a subset of belief.

Should we value any beliefs, though? It would seem next to impossible to avoid acting on any beliefs, but even beyond this there are many things we apparently wish to esteem, like companionship, intellectual pursuits, and artistic endeavors. All of these stem from beliefs which are motivating to more than a few of us. It's hard to imagine anyone doing anything without some underlying belief to instigate it. And as mentioned already, the very thought that beliefs should be eschewed rests upon at least one belief. To the extent that 'thinking' on evidence resembles belief, it looks trivial indeed to play semantic games.

It's easy to understand why some non-theists like George are not fond of belief. Innumerable religions have deemed those belonging to other views to be "unbelievers" or "disbelievers." Even if strictly accurate, the terms carry with them somewhat of a negative connotation, to the degree that many atheists are routinely treated as if they believe nothing at all. However, attempting to turn belief into a dirty word is unlikely to accomplish much on that front, and a fair amount of the intent seems directed at marginalizing religion and religious associations no matter what the cost, when there has been nothing especially 'religious' about belief for hundreds of years, as Dan Linford notes in addressing John Loftus on this same issue. What we ought to want to avoid above all is sacrificing in the vicious cause of eradicating religion those things that help us to understand ourselves and our world.

Beliefs can be ugly, naive, and irrational, but they can also be beautiful, intricate, and sensible. Somewhere along the way, it seems that for certain people the lack of belief in gods has progressed to desiring the lack of all beliefs. While this might appear a useful argumentative tactic in staving off being put on the defense, it just is not tenable and will end up causing more problems in the long run. I think it's very worthwhile to have conversations about things like belief and faith, if for no other reason than to achieve even the smallest disassociation between tough questions about meaning and language and markedly religious concepts. It's one thing to leave open the possibility that we need to believe in something beyond ourselves, and it's quite another thing to dispute that we need to believe in a personal, omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect creative mind. Perhaps by obliterating any such distinction, these 'anti-beliefers' are actually doing more damage than good, merely offering another excuse for both sides to circle the wagons.

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