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.