Illusive Mind

The Unquestionable should be questioned

Sunday, January 02, 2005

I believe, not


I haven’t posted in awhile, primarily due to a judo injury that has caused me some discomfort. I was thrown (quite slowly) and as a result landed and rolled quite slowly over my right shoulder, during which I dislocated my AC joint.

In light of the recent Tsunami disaster there has been a lot of renewed discussion of how the notion of a good, omnipotent, interventionist god can be reconciled with natural disasters, or natural evil.

I took a philosophy of religion subject, during which I became a devout atheist, mostly because of the problem of evil. You see, if God were good then he wouldn’t want evil in the world (i.e. innocent people suffering) and if he is omnipotent (which traditional theists suppose he is) then he can prevent evil. If evil exists, then a good, omnipotent god does not.

In 1710, Leibniz invented the term “theodicy”. A theodicy is an argument that seeks to reconcile the existence of evil and god. The most compelling theodicy to my mind is the ‘free will’ theodicy, at least it was the one I was taught in school growing up as a catholic. That is, evil exists only as a product of human will, were god to prevent it he would remove a greater good, the good of free will.

What does this have to do with Tsunamis? Well in 1979 William L. Rowe published a paper in the American Philosophical Quarterly 16, called The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism. He suggests the existence of ‘natural evils’ that is evils that exist without any connection to human free will. An earthquake occurs, triggering a Tsunami killing over a hundred thousand people, many woman and children. Unless living by the coast is a sin, these people would have been killed regardless of any wrong doing by people. These are evils that a good and omnipotent can and should prevent because the removal of which would pose no threat to the existence of free will.

If you find this argument compelling like I did, then you probably have reason to doubt the existence of god. Maybe you a cold hearted rationalist, maybe you had religion thrust upon you as a child and you have an affinity for rebellion. If you are unmoved by this argument then you are most likely a snooty philosopher with a better one or a person of faith. Maybe you have felt God in your heart or you have been taught to have faith no matter what tempts you. Regardless, at the end of the philosophy of religion subject I lost my atheism and found agnosticism, I saw that the people who walked into the first lecture held the same views at the last lecture. I saw that their beliefs were reinforced, no matter what. This is what this post is about.

I have spent a lot of time in philosophy forums debating evolutionary theory against creationists and debating God against theists. It was fun and I actually ruined a few people and became quite disgustingly arrogant and righteous in the process. Mostly though nothing changed. I pointed to flaws in their reasoning that I found compelling and they did the same, though more often than not they denied my reasoning by providing ‘evidence’ and sometimes counterexamples.

I later came to realise, (or at least suppose) that beliefs are self reinforcing. You arrive in the world empty, something happens and you construct a belief, you then seek for evidence to support your belief and so it happens that the world starts to emerge and look just as you imagine it would, because you play the principal role as editor, choosing what information you accept and how you filter your reality.

This is not a closed loop, people are able to change their minds, I know I have. But for the most part they don’t. My change of heart can be seen simply as constructing a new belief that contradicts old ones, that is a belief in scepticism, and a belief in open mindedness.

If you view beliefs in the way I have described it becomes quite difficult to have an open mind. How can you view other ideas, if it is from the vantage point of a reality constructed by opposing concepts. If you believe in truth, then you can never hope to find it if you are simply ‘locked in’ to the idea that you have held for most of your life.

I’m not specifically talking about God, this applies to every form of belief. Beliefs about human nature, about reality, about truth, about everything. I have come to believe in not having beliefs at all. Some people will read that and think that I have settled for some wimpy ‘it’s all to hard’ agnosticism and others may see some value in what I am writing. Depends on your vantage point, doesn’t it? Where you’ve come from.

A belief is a mental acceptance, a conviction in the truth of something. Once you have such a conviction about anything you are liable to be blind to the alternatives. However if you have a notion, idea or concept of something, you are unattached, unconvinced and open to the possibility of possibility.

If you combine this with the idea that truth is unattainable then you arrive first and foremost at the ‘fortasse’ the perhaps. The realm in which any theory is possible, and all that determines your reactions to them are your preconceptions. It is not easy, but I also freely admit that this notion may be completely wrong and the best thing to do is have beliefs. To be open minded, you must first doubt yourself. I think that perhaps this is where all philosophy starts, but then as you wander you find ideas you like and you can loose this, and so you have eternal debates of belief where each opponent is unwilling and unable to see the world from another vantage point. That reduces philosophy to a faith of logic.

So sneer if you will at those who are desperately trying to reconcile their beliefs about God with the suffering in the world today. Perhaps anyone who thinks they are in possession of the truth are the greatest fools of all and those who are prepared to doubt their convictions are those with courage.

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Blogger Richard said...

Interesting post. You seem to be using the word 'belief' in an unusual way, however. I believe it's fairly warm right now, but I don't have any great conviction in the fact, and would consider it quite open to revision were someone to show me evidence to the contrary (e.g. a thermometer). One simply cannot live without beliefs (of the weaker sort described above) - they're what guide our actions. But I do agree with you that open-mindedness is surely a virtue, and confirmation bias is an unfortunate psychological tendency we all must be wary of.

I'm not convinced that convictions are always bad, however. We might consider some small group of beliefs to be 'foundational' to the game of philosophy; a necessary starting point or set of rules which must be followed if we are to make sense to each other, and hope to make any philosophical progress. I think that may be Wittgenstein's response to radical skepticism: conviction in the existence of an external world is one such foundational belief.

P.S. Regarding the free will theodicy, I've argued that it actually exacerbates the problem of evil!

1/02/2005 04:00:00 PM  
Blogger Illusive Mind said...

You’re right in that I’m using ‘belief’ in a specific manner. I think believing something usually refers to two different ideas, that of accepting the truth and conviction of something or placing trust or confidence in something. An example of the latter “I believe in you”, “I believe it’s warm”. These kinds of beliefs are easily subject to change as trusting in something does not mean you are convinced by it.

For the purposes of distinguishing the stronger kinds of beliefs, I would refrain from calling these kinds of mental actions beliefs at all. I say, “I think it’s warm”, or “I know it’s warm”. The difference being, thoughts and knowledge imply imperfection and do not entail conviction, beliefs to my mind do not. It is about admitting at any moment that you may be completely and utterly mistaken. I agree that this kind of knowledge is necessary for were I to doubt the existence of temperature I might be scalded by boiling hot water.

As to ‘foundational’ beliefs necessary to the game of philosophy, I disagree. I think you can set up premises to be supposed true for the purposes of various games within philosophy but that this is distinct from accepting a particular view as the truth.

I hold no such conviction in the existence of an external world, it is a leap of faith like any other, but I will quite happily suppose its existence (and the people in it) so that I may buy bread from the supermarket and have conversations with people, does this mean I accepts its existence as ‘the truth’? I think not.

1/03/2005 12:15:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I entirely agree with your observations on beliefs/faith of the sort I think you mean.
Especially .. quote ..'I saw that the people who walked into the first lecture held the same views at the last lecture. I saw that their beliefs were reinforced, no matter what."
I have seen the same thing. And the cleverer the person the more they can come up with clever reasons to explain or justify their belief.

I can say too, it was a huge emotional upheaval for this person to change a deep religious conviction ... to admit it must give way to a greater view.
It has not helped a lot to repeat the process upon that presumed greater view!

Nor is it just religious views. I have become close to some fundamentalists who show that side, but there is another who prides herself on her atheisim and general superior clear thinking who cannot truly 'see' any arguement that supports the opposite view.
I feel there is, as there was with myself, a REAL value that comes to a person from the conviction - either way.
However, it is not entirely irrational to have such convictions that resist immediate arguement, since so many thought and ideas that first seem valid, are on a really close look over a period, not so convincing, .. did not take account of this or that.
Not that this guarantees that what we end up believing is true. It's just the best that out brain can accept at that time.

Just a note about the goodnes of God and suffering. If you have not seen it, read CS LEWIS's 'the problem of pain'
He states the reasons for the common atheist position (that he previously held) more fully and clearly than most, then explains how he as a christian answers it. By, for example, defining more clearly what we mean by 'goodness' and how that might apply to a "god'.
They are at least answers you do not usually hear.

For myself I do not know what to belief. I think a (very) few things are certain, but where they may lead in understanding the universe I cannot decide.
There are several concepts/models of the univers which COULD be true .. at least they could not be disproved by logic. But i fear I will expire well before I settle it for myself.

good wishes.

1/03/2005 02:23:00 AM  
Blogger Illusive Mind said...

Thanks for the comment.

In terms of rationality in holding a belief that something is true, well to my mind, if you admit that it may be impossible to know ‘truth’ then it is irrational to say that you know the ‘truth’. Note however this does not make it irrational to suppose that you might or that it is possible that you know the truth. There is a fine line between the two.

I have not read “The problem of Pain” and I am sure there are many more arguments on both sides that would vary in degrees of convincingness. I think that you are in the best position you can be, not knowing what to believe. Neither do I, although I constantly have to catch myself from believing in scepticism or nihilism. I think that if you give up searching for a truth to believe in then you can bear witness to the fullness of reality from which all truths and their opposites can be derived.


1/03/2005 07:26:00 PM  

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