We see everyone claiming to be rational but then we find that they view being “rational” as having a mindset that leads to their conclusions. My second blog was on what it means to be rational in general terms here.
Those views seem correct now just as they have for decades before I wrote that blog. But there is still a tension in what it means to “believe” something that I have been thinking about for decades and I have ultimately concluded that the term “belief” has two different meanings that are essential to our understanding of the term but can sometimes conflict. This blog is intended more as one that explains a problem that I see rather than provide a solution. Hopefully others will have a decent solution or at least understand the problem so their discussions can be a bit nuanced. Here are the two essential aspects of belief that I think most philosophers would at least agree are valid considerations as being part of the term “belief”:
- The first view is that of WV Quine where our “beliefs” are “…a disposition to respond in certain ways when the appropriate issue arises.”
- The second view is that a belief is something you properly hold if you believe the evidence supports the conclusion that the claim is more likely than not true.
Although I agree the second definition is a view that seems to capture an essential part of the term “belief” I also think it has problems that I think never get enough press in professional philosophy. I want to discuss the problems I see with the second view but then, in the end, will explain why I think it is, nevertheless, hard to just do away with it.
I think this second view of belief leads people to think rational people should be constantly weighing the evidence of each individual belief and then trying to banish those where the evidence does not measure up. Our beliefs are much more complicated than that. That simplified view does not even give us an idea of what beliefs should be examined and which shouldn’t or the pragmatic considerations. For example under that view a rational person could be memorizing facts out of a phone book as much as they investigate whether they should believe it is ok to have an abortion. Obviously being rational means more than just filling our heads with random facts which the evidence suggests are more likely than not true and expunging those beliefs that seem not to have that evidence.
But there is another problem. A logical problem with this view is that many decisions are not exactly binary. Either the Christian God exists or he doesn’t. That’s true. But that doesn’t mean, unless we think the evidence supports that the Christian God exists is more likely than not true, we are irrational for believing in that God. We have to consider the alternatives. And there seem to be many alternatives to believing in the Christian God. There are Gods as explained by other religions. There is the possibility to believe in a God that is not explained by a religion. All of these are possible beyond just either the Christian God exists or no God exists.
So lets analyze a hypothetical situation. Let’s just say I believe:
- Christian God is 30%
- non-Christian God(s) aggregate to 40% but all individually are less than 30%
- no God is 30%?
Sometimes people say that if we don’t have evidence that supports any of those beliefs are more likely than not true then we should “withhold belief.” Sometimes people say that means you are “agnostic” and some people would say that an “atheist” might fit that description as well. The arguments about the terminology seem more pedantic than helpful so I won’t address them.
But ultimately I still have to decide things like:
- Am I going to Church Sunday morning?
- Am I going to treat human life as though it is a sacred gift from God?
- Am I going to treat all humans as though they are made in God’s image?
- Am I going to teach my children these things?
These are a few Christian teachings that you are either going to live your life by or you are not. You need to act now.
If you can pause life then ok. But I can’t. So in the meantime my actions are going to reflect my beliefs. And it is hard to understand what it would mean to be agnostic here. Would that mean I sometimes go to church on Sunday? Should I try to go 30% of the time? If I never go to church on Sunday or act in accordance with the Christian teachings then am I not adopting the belief that the Christian God does not exist? And other religions are even less likely so I would act as though there is no God. But in my hypothetical the evidence doesn’t support that belief as being more likely than not true either! Does the agnostic know how to pause his life? Can he teach me how to do that?
Notice these issues arise before I even start to get into the fact that this is only dealing with “theoretical rationality” and not “pragmatic rationality.” It is irrational to ignore pragmatic reasons which can effect what views we should adopt, but these problems arise when we just consider the theoretical model on its own.
But let’s dig a bit deeper. Some say we can act as though something is true even though we don’t believe it is true. That sounds a bit like lying to yourself. But let’s go along with this a bit. We still need to ask which way should I choose to act when the evidence doesn’t support any relevant belief is more likely than not true? Should I just act and adopt views however I feel like at the moment? Ok but are we going to claim that is rational?
I’m sorry but the second view (where we rationally believe something if and only if the evidence supports that it is more likely than not true) is too simplistic and just won’t work in life. Any approach to being rational in a situation must address all the different probabilities and their pragmatic consequences. Yes it’s complicated but oversimplifying rationality only masks the problems.
So I think the first view is important. But the second view does have this going for it. If I say “I believe O.J. Simpson murdered Ron Goldman”, then it seems I am saying it is more likely than not true that OJ Simpson murdered Ron Goldman. It is hard to remove that aspect of the term “belief” without doing an injustice to language. I don’t have a solution, but I think we should understand these two different meanings of “belief” especially when we talk about whether beliefs are rational or not.