Atheism, Christianity, epistemology, ethics, logic, philosophy, religion, Sam Harris, science
I listened to a podcast recently by Sam Harris.
As some of you may know arguments might be sound but that does not mean they prove anything to anyone. Why? Because people might not believe the premises. I blogged about the difference between a proof and sound argument here:
The limitations on these premises presents the questions what are our ultimate goals or beliefs? This was somewhat explored in that podcast starting around 50 minutes in. Rebecca Goldstein I think correctly identifies some beliefs that we can’t give up without becoming incoherent – such as belief in the rules of logic. But beyond that what fundamental beliefs would she hold?
She mentions belief in an external world and the laws of nature. That was interesting to me because I have considered that one myself and rejected as not as important as the belief that a rational person can reliably find out what I am supposed to do in life. I want to explore why I think that here.
They also mentioned belief in moral realism as one that is fairly fundamental. I think this sort of belief is what religious people will often adopt. I think non-religious people will often try to reduce the importance of morality in forming our beliefs. I think that is error.
There is a motivational aspect as to how we shape our beliefs and consciences. I would offer two noble goals in what we want our beliefs to be:
1) People want to believe what is true
2) People want to believe things that lead them to do the right thing
Both of these are noble motivations. And we obviously should try to form our beliefs with both of these in mind. But what if certain beliefs lead you to the conclusion there is no right way to act? That is certain beliefs lead you to believe what is wrong is not wrong because nothing is wrong? Does a rational person have a good reason to reject that belief? I think they do.
Now that might violate the first noble motivation. But let’s think about that motivation just a bit and I think we will see it really is subservient to the second.
The idea that we are here to fill our heads with true beliefs and expunge false beliefs is odd. If I just tried to memorize phone books few people would say that was really a good way to fill my head, or spend my time, even if I could fill my head with billions of true beliefs that way. We all understand that knowing certain facts are more important than knowing others. Just like some false beliefs are more problematic than other false beliefs.
But why? Believing any true fact seems to fit the first noble purpose. If it is a known fact then it has the quality of being true just as much as any other fact. So why is it that truly believing some facts are more important, and why does it seem correctly believing other facts is extremely unimportant? To the extent all the beliefs accord with reality, they are all true, and it is not as though some are “truer” than others. So it is not the extent of “truthiness” that explains this.
I think ultimately the answer is that believing some facts leads us to live a good life and some falsehoods lead us to a bad life. And I think this shows the second purpose is naturally more important.
What about some beliefs about morals being more important than other beliefs about morals? Someone may view it as immoral to hunt deer. The same person might also think it is immoral to round people up and kill them as was done in Poland at various times. We do not treat the belief about hunting deer as important as the belief about killing people. What explains this? Again the person might believe both are immoral. But the difference is the latter is more immoral. So it is still the morality of the issue that makes us view the second belief as more important. This I believe fairly clearly shows that morality is the more important goal that we want from our beliefs.
I think religious people tend to know this truth. Certain atheists sometimes seem to miss it. But then after they discuss their science, they tend to drift over to issues of morality and what we should be doing. Science is great and it answers many interesting questions. But having true beliefs about “what is” in the observable scientific realm, is not as important as knowing what we should do. It is forever stuck with a supporting role to the star philosophical/religious question of what we should do.
Interesting thoughts. Clearly some true beliefs are more important than others, but I think morality is only one reason why. Other reasons might include:
* Gravity is a more important fact than the shape of my left little toenail, perhaps because it is more universal, perhaps because it affects my life more, but not, I think, because of any moral value.
* The truth about God and “salvation” (i.e. how to enter an afterlife if there is one) is more important than many other things because its impacts are stronger and longer. You might argue that is a moral thing, but I wouldn’t call it that.
* The fact that my football team won a particular game in 2016 is more important than the fact that they won a particular game in 1975, because the 2016 game was the Grand Final and won them the premiership. Some facts are just more significant than others.
None of this negates what you have said, but it suggests the issues are quite broad. We can say that there are many things that make true beliefs important, and there are many different reasons what makes one belief more important than others.
Hi unkle E
Thanks for the great points. I agree with you and also agree that readers might have thought I was suggesting that the *only* 2 goals for forming our beliefs are the two that I mention. Or that morality is the *only* reason we might think some beliefs are more important than others. I did not intend that but I admit I probably should have made that more clear.
I did say “I think ultimately the answer is that believing some facts leads us to live a good life and some falsehoods lead us to a bad life.” But I agree I did not really supply reasons for that belief here and more work needs to be done to establish that. I have some other drafts for blogs that might address that more fully but they are still in the shop so to speak.
As far as this blog goes I think I only established that the actual truth of a belief in itself does not seem to be all that important as compared to beliefs that lead to moral/immoral actions. But I agree that other things beside morality could lead us to say holding some beliefs are more important than others. (beside moral considerations and their simply being true.)
Your comment I believe is pushing the discussion forward. And I would like explore that further.
As far as the other considerations (beside mere truth and morality concerns) can we sum it up by saying we have other desires in life beyond moral concerns. It may not be immoral to not know how to tie my shoes or do simple arithmetic but I want to learn these truths for other reasons I find important. Yet it seems learning these truths will not necessarily make me more moral. Also it seems learning technology is at least arguably morally neutral. But it has lead to a huge number of desirable things including vaccines that have extended many peoples lives. And generally we desire to extend peoples lives. Even though it is not so clear that this leads us to more moral lives. (Interestingly Sam Harris might disagree. Since he does not believe in any sort of free will he separates morality from intentions and therefore seems to only look at the results. So he might say vaccines do make the world a more moral place. I will discuss this more in another blog.)
Your example of knowing the game was a championship is a good one. As a sports fan I would think knowing that would be more important but my wife not so much. Maybe for her it would beat out memorizing the phone book but I would have to ask her to confirm that. But I agree this desire or lack of desire here is not morally significant.
The question is whether these other desires are also subservient to our desire to live morally – like the desire to have our beliefs be true.
The Truth of God and salvation is a very interesting case. You say “The truth about God and “salvation” (i.e. how to enter an afterlife if there is one) is more important than many other things because its impacts are stronger and longer. You might argue that is a moral thing, but I wouldn’t call it that.”
Our possible difference of opinion on whether knowing this truth (and I would say truths as I think it is not just knowing one simple fact and you are in) leads us to a moral life (and how that ties in to the fact that the impacts are stronger and longer) might be based on my catholic versus your protestant outlook. It might also be a difference in how we think our beliefs effect our actions and whether we have control over our beliefs. So there are many interesting theological and philosophical questions there.
I would agree that the desire to be in heaven as opposed to hell does not mean someone is more moral. But whether this desire can logically leads people to be more moral is another question. I think it does and my concern for spreading this truth is for moral reasons, based on a command to love one another etc. But lets say there is an evil or crazy god and he wants us to believe something inane about the shape of your toenail or we go to hell (or heaven) for eternity. I agree that belief seems to have no moral significance. This belief would then be important and maybe even more important than being moral. (I think the latter is hard to say for sure because it is at least in part our moral instincts that make us want to help people avoid hell)
I think trying to account for such cases in our beliefs will lead to incoherence. Or perhaps I would say such cases are accounted for but have no effect on our actual beliefs about reality because there is nothing we can really do about them. What belief is it about the shape of your toenail that sends us up or down? How could we know that belief is what was required as opposed to the opposite?
Part of being rational is knowing what is beyond your control and what is within it, and focusing on what is in our control. If such a God exists then there is nothing within our control to help us to heaven. God either is going to judge us in a rational way or he is not. If he is not – well then we can not expect to solve this though rational means. If that is the case then it is out of our control. We are all just rolling dice anyway. Rational people should make choices (including choices about belief) as though their choices can be rational and that they will be judged (if at all) in a rational way.
This is how I view religions that suggest we have no input in our salvation. I think ok then if that is true then it is axiomatic that I can’t do anything so why worry about things completely outside my control? I think everyone should focus on the possibility that we can rationally figure out how to live, and continue to look for and consider evidence of how we should live. Martin Luther seemed to endorse the view that we have no input in our salvation. And it is not surprising to me that he also said faith and reason were very much at odds. I obviously do not agree with that worldview.
Sorry for the long response and tangents but your comment raised many things I consider interesting.
” We do not treat the belief about hunting deer as important as the belief about killing people. ”
I don’t think this kind of hypothetical holds up, because it all depends on where one stands at the moment, doesn’t it?
Who is holding the weapon and why…moralizing does not come down to an analysis of properties, rather it is a label for an expressive process.
You hint at it yourself in Goal #1. Though I do not think you formulation of truth is completely on target, I think the basic statement remains accurate.
Thanks for commenting.
I was albeit vaguely referencing massacres committed by the soviets and Nazis in Poland. See for example:
Most people view those events as morally worse than hunters killing deer.
But yes I agree that if you kill a human in self defense that is not immoral.
I agree with you that we do not know what is moral simply by empirical/scientific means – examining properties. We need something else to determine that in the situation as a whole is one in which evil or good occurred.
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