I think this article gives a pretty good description of a distinction I often think about:
“Theoretical rationality is (roughly) a matter of evidential and argumentative support. Your belief in God is rational in the theoretical sense just in case the balance of evidence and argument supports the truth of the proposition that God exists. Your belief in God is practically rational, on the other hand, if it is in your interest for you to hold it.”
It seems to me both theoretical and practical rationality are important. Often times it seems people only think in terms of the theoretical. I often suggest that we might want to consider something beyond the probability of our beliefs being true, as to whether something is rational to believe. The typical response from some atheist and theist alike is along the lines of “O my god! that’s Pascal’s wager O my God! Oh my god! You know that’s been refuted right? Oh my god!” And then they give me a link to some blog or wiki or something like that. (I don’t think I have ever been offered a link to a peer reviewed article on Pascal’s wager.) The link will rarely give a reason not to use practical rationality. Instead it will give objections to Pascal’s specific formulation of the wager. This will typically be a shot gun approach with decent and poor objections mixed together. The result is that atheists (and certain theists) often only think in terms of Theoretical rationality. I think that is a mistake. Here are two points I would make in that regard:
First we might not have an option which is more likely true than not. One of the objections to Pascal’s Wager is that there are many different exclusive God’s to choose from. I think this illustrates a major problem for only thinking in terms of theoretical rationality. If they all were assigned a probability value, it’s possible none of them would have a probability greater than 50% yet one still might put the probability of there being no God at under 50%. What sort of beliefs should we then use to conduct ourselves?
I think this issue of choosing beliefs to base our conduct on is most directly brought to bear when we consider ethical and meta-ethical views. As you might already know there are several different ethical positions we can hold. But unfortunately each of them seems to present more problems than solutions. I don’t think there is much in the way of evidence in support of one particular view of meta-ethics. At least not evidence of the sort that I can mark as an exhibit in a court case. (I plan to do a blog on what “evidence” is if there is an interest) Yes there are arguments in favor and against a variety of different views. But the problem is there are definitely more than 2 options. I gave 4 major options in an earlier blog. But there are all sorts of variations and sub-possibilities within those options. E.g., Quasi-realism, naturalist realism and non-natural realism. There are all sorts of varieties of constructivism and relativism. Suffice it to say that these options cannot all be true. If we ever find out the truth there will be many more losing theories than winning theories. That’s just meta-ethical theories. We also have many possible ethical theories, which one we choose might depend on which meta-ethical stance we take. Christianity presents a set of moral beliefs as does Hinduism and Islam, not to mention all the different secular theories of ethics.
Well here is the problem for someone who only follows theoretical rationality. Let’s say you think theory 1 has a 20% chance of being true, theory 2 has a 15% chance of being true, theory 3 has about a 15% chance of being true and 5 other theories (theories 4-9) all have about a 10% chance of being true. (this should add up to 100%) Well what to do? You have to live your life. In living your life you will be presented with binary options. For example you either will go to church on Sunday or you will not. What will you do?
You might say you will not believe any of these theories. But what does that mean? That doesn’t mean you will accept moral nihilism because perhaps you only give that a 15% chance of being true. So if you accepted that belief you would believe something that you think is more likely than not false. But what can you do? How can you live your life?
It seems to me that theism is indeed an ethical and a meta-ethical theory. Arguing that this theory is not more likely than not true is just like arguing nihilism or moral realism or relativism is not more likely than not true. It really doesn’t itself decide anything. This is because all these possibilities might be more likely than not untrue!
It is my opinion that theism and Christianity in particular not only has a higher probability of being true than other meta-ethical and ethical theories, but also it is the most attractive option when we consider consequences from a practical rationality point of view. But that is not the point of this blog. I am here just merely trying to explain why solely using the theoretical model of rationality is a mistake. That brings me to the second problem.
The second problem with just looking at rationality from the theoretical standpoint is that doing that doesn’t seem, well…. rational. If you are looking at rationality solely from the theoretical view then what? We are just to believe things that are more likely true then not and purge beliefs that are likely untrue.
Now how important is it to hold beliefs that are likely true? Well this narrow view of rationality gives us no guidance of what views are important to get straight. It’s just a matter of gaining beliefs that are likely true and purging beliefs that are likely untrue. So on this narrow view there is nothing to say learning the facts by reading the phone book is any less important than learning science or ethics or history. In fact, the phone book will likely give you more certain beliefs than studying ethics or meta-ethics. So really if your goal is to just fill your head with as many beliefs that are likely true you might as well memorize the phone book. That just doesn’t seem rational.
Now it seems that certain atheists are more concerned that people might hold beliefs that they think likely untrue. Why is this a big concern? We hear arguments like well if people believe this, which is likely untrue, then maybe they will believe something else that is likely untrue. The concerns are fairly fantastic. Maybe people will believe in the flying spaghetti monster or a teapot in space. One philosophy professor even expressed concern that someone might believe in “absolute purple.” He wasn’t sure what that would mean but he thought perhaps someone would believe it. And this was somehow a concern.
It’s not that I think we should believe in absolute purple. Nor do I think we should believe in spaghetti monsters or tea cups in space, for that matter. But I also don’t think we should worry about people believing those things either. That concern, just really doesn’t strike me as rational either. It just strikes me as odd for several reasons. Not only does it seem unlikely people will believe that but it’s unclear what untoward consequences of such a belief would entail. It just seems a bizarre concern to have.
Of course I am not saying that the probability of a belief being true is not part of the equation. I think it is. But there is more to it than that. That’s the point of this blog. Any thoughts to the contrary or otherwise are always appreciated.
Travis R said:
Good post. This is something that I have also pondered quite a bit. I agree that what you call “practical rationality” should play a factor. This is in line with William James’ “Will to Believe” argument, in which I find no fault. It seems entirely rational to me for someone to base their faith in part on a pragmatic judgment, as the Unapologetics blog endorses.
These may seem like curious statements coming from an acknowledged agnostic. My problem is that I don’t understand how one actually does this in practice. I feel like I have no control over the strength of my beliefs about various propositions and I also cannot convince myself that I should pursue anything but wholesale truth, no matter what that result may be. Regardless of the pragmatic appeal of any type form of religious belief, I cannot compel myself to intentionally bias my pursuit of truth. To accept any hint of self deceit is untenable and, for me, demolishes any prospect of doing so. On several occasions I told people that I knew that this was possible – that I could blind myself to everything that might discourage belief and that eventually, when the things I had discovered faded, I would again be comfortable in the faith I once held. But I cannot do it.
Thanks for the comments and good practical questions.
As for James, I don’t agree with everything he says but I do agree this is in line with allot of the basics he sets forth. Also I enjoy reading the Unapologetics blog and I agree he is also discussing things along these lines.
“My problem is that I don’t understand how one actually does this in practice. I feel like I have no control over the strength of my beliefs about various propositions and I also cannot convince myself that I should pursue anything but wholesale truth, no matter what that result may be. Regardless of the pragmatic appeal of any type form of religious belief, I cannot compel myself to intentionally bias my pursuit of truth. To accept any hint of self deceit is untenable and, for me, demolishes any prospect of doing so. On several occasions I told people that I knew that this was possible – that I could blind myself to everything that might discourage belief and that eventually, when the things I had discovered faded, I would again be comfortable in the faith I once held. But I cannot do it.”
I have felt many of the same things you have. The first thing I would ask is this: Do you think what I wrote in this last blog is true?
I don’t think that question is as easy as it seems. I really think it requires allot of thought. After spending decades thinking about it, I do believe what I said in this blog is true. But I think that unless someone really thinks it through they will not give the conclusions in this blog the proper weight. It’s easy to say yeah that makes sense, but then not really try to apply it and revert to a mindset as if you never really understood this.
So from my perspective embracing this *is* embracing the truth. Refusing to accept it and fighting it is refusing to accept the truth. I still have my doubts about certain beliefs regarding morals and religion. But I always come back to the analysis that lead me to believe my current views are rational. To stray from what I have concluded is rational is irrational.
Believe me when I started in philosophy I thought it was very clear that it was rational to believe something only if I thought it was more probably true than not. This was the mold my mind created for reality and I wanted reality to fit it.
But when we embrace the truth we try to shape our minds based on reality. (not vice versa) Our minds might want it to be the case that we always have at least a 50% probability for every belief that is rational to hold. However, when we think it through we might find that reality doesn’t fit that mold. Are we going to try to force reality into that mold? Or are we going to accept reality for what it is?
Here are a couple of things that I have thought about in this regard.
First, I think its true (or false) that there are some things we “should” do. So in guiding our actions I think we “should” be rational. So I think these “shoulds” are a feature of reality. If they were not then it would be hard to say this blog is “true” i.e., it “accords with reality.” But here is the thing: If really there is nothing we should (or should not) do, then believing what I do believe, can’t be something I shouldn’t do.
Second is that our “beliefs” really have at least 2 types of meaning. The first is this conception of them being a mental thing. That is what the theoretical model focuses on. The second is that beliefs cause actions. This is where the pragmatic rationality comes in. This is why my second blog post starts out with the definition of belief from Quine. https://trueandreasonable.co/2014/01/09/do-you-belieeeeve/
If a gymnast tells herself she knows she is going to do this routine on the beam perfectly, right before she does it, is she really deceiving herself? At some level I think she can know she is forcing that belief on her for the practical effect it will have on what she wants to accomplish. Whether it is actually more probably true or not is irrelevant. She understands that telling herself she won’t be able to do it will only negatively effect her ability to perform the routine. So I am not sure there is any deception. She knows what she is doing and has good reason to do it for the end she is trying to achieve. Reinforcing that belief is rational. Not reinforcing it, is less than rational.
I know what I am doing. I am doing it because I have thought about my situation and I have decided this is the most rational course of action. It does to some extent require us to step outside of ourselves and look at what we are trying to achieve. I think this is one reason people have trouble coming to terms with it.
I tend to doubt I can change any belief I hold. But I do think I have some control over some of my beliefs. If something is truly beyond my control then I don’t worry about it. But if it is within my control I try to make sure I exercise my control in a rational way.
Now as to what you might want to do to help you believe certain things, that will depend on what you conclude it is rational to believe. For the reasons stated in several of the blogs (and a few others that I have not gone into yet) I have decided it is rational for me to believe in the Christian God. I know what helps me stay on what I think is a rational path and keeps me holding that belief. But there is nothing in this particular blog post that suggests that belief in the Christian God is rational in a pragmatic sense. The point of this last blog post is to establish that rational person should take into account pragmatic rationality in choosing his or her beliefs.
Travis R said:
This is a great comment and it has led me to try and figure out why it is that I can’t just pragmatically adopt a particular worldview in spite of reservations about its truthfulness. After spending some time pondering this, I think I may have unearthed a few reasons:
1) I’m not convinced that I can’t have my cake and eat it too. That is, it isn’t obvious to me that the benefits of pragmatically adopting a particular view on the nature of reality cannot also be obtained by committing to certain psychological postures independent of our view on reality. For example, one pragmatic benefit of religious belief is that when we think that God is “working all things to the good”, we tend to see this realized. The same can be said, however, of one who commits to holding an unrealistic optimism about what they can do and how scenarios will play out (like your gymnast example).
2) Uncertainty about pragmatic value. That is, why should I think that the result of this pragmatic acceptance actually will be better than an alternative? It seems clear that the placebo effect is very real, but does the resulting benefit actually outweigh the costs of the tension that I also anticipate? What if the tension never fades? It might be that the lack of tension is actually preferable to the placebo benefits. The cost-benefit analysis is not easy to piece together and the winner isn’t clear.
3) Must we choose? Adoption of a particular worldview has widespread implications and establishes many parameters that influence nearly everything we do. Why is this better than “winging it”? Why does it matter if your probabilities are all less than 50%? Just go with whatever seems best at the time and see what happens. The results will feedback and update your probabilities. Many people don’t like the fluidity and lack of rigor but this actually fits me reasonably well. Everybody has a worldview but some worldviews are more dynamic and pliable than others. I’m inclined toward the notion that this pliability is a good thing. I’m sure many would disagree, but I think our opinion on that is largely driven by our personality and how well we cope with change.
Sorry it is taking me so long. Not only have I been busy and had my mind occupied by other things but I want to give careful thought to your comments. I think these lines of thought about pragmatic considerations are not discussed nearly enough in philosophy so there are not any easy answers. It might take a bit longer. But I appreciate your comments and have thoughts on them.
Travis thanks for your comments. I have been out of the blogosphere both mentally and virtually. But I wanted to gives some responses to you points. I numbered them for each of your points.
1) I agree we need to look at the downside of adopting a certain view. I believe the arguments concerning the reliability of our moral beliefs given atheism and evolution have effectively eliminated any downside to rejecting atheism. That is because I think that any beliefs about what we should do arising from such a model are at best geared for survival/reproductive success. Well you know my view.
So to use the gymnast example if I, as an overweight middle aged man, were to think I can do some sort of backflip on a balance beam, that would probably not be good. Nor should I think that I can Jump from one building to another. But if the building I am in, is burning so bad that I know that jumping to another building is my best shot (even if it less than 50%) then believing I can make the jump might be a good thing – assuming it does help me actually do it. But yes you should not start down that path until you know the fire is so bad that it is your best option.
2) I don’t really experience any tension from this analysis. Actually tensions are relieved when I look at my options and confirm I am choosing the most rational choice. In the end my only tensions come from thinking that I am in fact choosing irrational options.
3) The fact that it has widespread implications is more reason to make sure you are choosing rationally not more reason to just wing it. Going with what “seems best at the time” as opposed to what? Going with what seems best after carefully considering all the options and their consequences? I think careful consideration is worth it.
Travis R said:
I too have found myself distanced from the blogosphere over the summer. Thanks for following up anyway.
1) I think your response to #1 is well summarized by “But yes you should not start down that path until you know the fire is so bad that it is your best option”. I can agree, but this is where #2 and #3 come in.
2) Unless I’m misunderstanding the point, it seems to me that tension in inevitable. The whole point of the analysis is that it may be rational to adopt one view over another due to its practical merits despite its theoretical inferiority. If this is the case, there will be tension on either side of the fence unless you think that a particular view is superior both theoretically and practically. My concerns about this tension comes from the fact that our theoretical assessment is largely a known quantity (based on evidence and arguments) but the practical assessment is largely an expectation of future performance. Our theoretical assessment seems more sure than our practical assessment. Thus, going back to point #1, this then raises a flag about whether our choice really is the “best option” and leads one to keep looking, to continue evaluating options until a practical conclusion is more clear. That, however, seems like an extremely difficult, if not never-ending, task. This leads to point #3.
3) Based on your response I think my original point perhaps wasn’t very clear. I was not condoning a cavalier attitude toward the adoption of worldviews, rather I was proposing an attitude which allows us to acknowledge our intellectual insignificance; that what we think we know is but a sliver in the forest of knowledge. For me, personally, truly coming to grips with this recognition has done much to open my mind and make me appreciate the pursuit of knowledge as a formative pressure in a constantly evolving worldview. I think you can agree that a stubborn adherence to dogma has done much harm, both in the church and outside. By focusing on the jump from one building to the next and convincing ourselves that it is the best option we may be blinding ourselves to other opportunities. There is of course also the danger that you succumb to the flames because you spent too much time evaluating your options. The analogy breaks down because the decision of the man in the burning building is final, whereas the adoption of a worldview is not. I suppose I am simply suggesting that we should be careful to never take the mindset that we know we are making the right choice with regard to our practical assessment and should instead allow ourselves to remain freely open other possibilities. This mindset, however, makes it difficult to truly commit to that which we, at the time, think is the “best option”.
Travis thanks for your comments. I really enjoy reading them.
“My concerns about this tension comes from the fact that our theoretical assessment is largely a known quantity (based on evidence and arguments) but the practical assessment is largely an expectation of future performance. Our theoretical assessment seems more sure than our practical assessment.”
Here I think I disagree. Let’s take 2 questions that are being addressed.
1) Does God exist?
2) Does real morality exist?
Really I think we have very limited evidence to assess either question. One might even say
“extremely limited.” Consider whether God exists. In favor we have evidence like the accounts of miracles in the gospels. Against we have things like children dying before we can understand why they came to live in the first place. Ok there are other arguments for and against where people claim this or that is evidence for their position. And some are better than others but IMO none of it is as good as I would like.
I think the fact that so much time is spent arguing about who has the “burden of proof” tends to support my claim that there is precious little evidence either way.
I think if we consider the second question we have even less evidence. What sort of evidence do we have that real morality exists as a property of the universe? For me part of the evidence is the miracles in the Gospels. What evidence do we have that real morality does not exist as a property of the universe?
I think the theoretical landscape is barren and has been trodden so often there is very little promise in finding something really enlightening by continue to explore those parts.
“I was not condoning a cavalier attitude toward the adoption of worldviews, rather I was proposing an attitude which allows us to acknowledge our intellectual insignificance; that what we think we know is but a sliver in the forest of knowledge. For me, personally, truly coming to grips with this recognition has done much to open my mind and make me appreciate the pursuit of knowledge as a formative pressure in a constantly evolving worldview.”
I do agree with this. Much of this blog discusses how my own views have evolved over decades. That said I have also been living my life over those decades. I have had to make decisions and I had to do the best I could with what I know. The practical aspect of rationality has been a much clearer guide to me than the theoretical in regard to these questions.
Travis R said:
We may simply have to disagree about the relative strength of theoretical vs practical belief. When the question comes to belief in something immaterial there is not just a comparison of evidence for and against, but also a prior probability. That prior probability will be based on how well the claim conforms to past experience before the evidence is taken into account. If I can find no reason to attribute anything in my past experience to the existence of something immaterial then it makes sense that the prior probability of something immaterial existing is low; at the very least lower than 50%. If the evidence for and against the claim is weak then the conditional probability doesn’t really move. One could suggest that the prior probability is incorrect but that seems like a pointless discussion. The point is that even in the absence of strong evidence one way or the other I still have a lifetime of experience that informs my theoretical beliefs and shapes intuitions about what exists. The strength of the practical assessment is going to have to be substantial to overcome the past experience which inherently bolsters the theoretical assessment.
I would be interested in seeing you expand further on this. Perhaps you could give examples? I see practical belief as being most rational when it is supported by additional theoretical beliefs. For example, the person who knows that they can double their odds of survival from 1% to 2% simply by believing that they will be one of the survivors is applying a practical belief (I will survive) against a theoretical belief (1% survival), but in agreement with another theoretically founded belief (my odds will double). If there was zero evidence that the “practical” belief actually improved survival, or happiness, or anything that is valued, would we still say it is rational to hold that belief? Is there evidence that belief in the existence of certain immaterial things provides value in ways that cannot be obtained without that belief?
Travis R said:
Just wanted to plug a podcast episode of Rationally Speaking that I listened to today. It reminded me of this post and I think is well worth a listen.
Thanks for the link I will give it a listen.
I offered some of my thoughts not realizing that the post was over 2 years old.
I said this:
“I wonder if you would think belief in some things being good and bad/evil, in a moral sense, is magical thinking.
One interesting claim was along the lines of this:
Understanding that “the discovery that universe has no purpose need not prevent a human being from having one.” might make you “better off” and not having that understanding might make you worse off. If in reality there is no purpose, I wonder how that could be the case that we would be “better off” with one belief or another. Is the refusal to accept there is really no purpose and trying to create one a form of magical thinking? You guys started to go down this path a bit but I wonder how you each would ultimately crack it up.”
I wonder if the guests ever really sorted through these issues over the next few years? I tend to doubt it.
I think these are the questions where atheist world views start show cracks. I realize that there are many different views of morals an atheist can hold. But I don’t think that is any more helpful than the fact that there are many different religions for the theist to choose from.
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