Sunday, April 7, 2013

On the Nature of Belief and Is Theistic Belief Warranted?

Part 1: Properties of Belief, Faith, and Assumption
Philosophers distinguish between beliefs, assumptions, andfaith based propositions, and rightly so, since all three are different.Although I’ve detailed the subtle differences before, it's worth repeating.

There is a big difference between assumptions and beliefs,even as the two are mutually dependent on one another. I would like to caution that it is probably unwise to conflate the two. One acts upon the other. This causal relationship shows that they are not one and the same.

Belief is, technically speaking, *holding a proposition to be true (this is the dictionary definition). In other words, one makes an a priori assumption in the veracity of a belief (without actually knowing whether it is true or not).

So beliefs require this basic a priori assumption to even get off the ground.

But aside from this, the assumption the belief relies upon is provisional. Meaning, that the assumption will likely be ratified at a later date, when there is convincing evidence to confirm or disconfirm the assumption, thereby making it true or false. For assumptions which remain unproved, and no set conclusion can be made, there are two options: skepticism or unfounded faith.

All beliefs are provisional for the very reason they rely on provisional assumptions.

Note: Something to keep in mind is that people often make the mistake of thinking that their beliefs are dependent on the facts. The veracity of the belief is, but the acceptance of the belief is not.

In my experience skeptics seem to recognize this more readily than those who take the faith based route. The reason why this happens might be more easily understood by examining the differences between faith and belief. Allow me to explain.

Faith, is different from belief in that faith makes the same a priori assumption that a belief proposition is true, with one noteworthy difference. Where faith differs drastically from belief is that faith *relies on conviction rather than definitive proof (this is the dictionary meaning).

So when I speak of matters of faith, I usually mean conviction held belief(s), or degrees of confidence in any given assumption. When I speak of beliefs, I usually mean propositions which can be tested and verified as either true or false. Let’s be mindful that there are also unproved beliefs, or belief propositions in which the assumption can still go either way depending on the future condition of evidence.

When discussing belief, faith, and assumptions with believers the term ‘trust’ often gets thrown into the mix. We must be careful, however, on how this term is applied, because as it is, trust can be synonymous with all three depending on context. Usually, I tend to think of trust as an assumption that we take for granted. Religious believers will sometimes say that the person of science has faith, for example, that the sun will come up tomorrow. This isn’t faith, this is trust. In other words, we take for granted that the laws of physics are universal, fixed, laws and will remain the same regardless of whatever we choose to believe. It’s not faith in the religious sense, because the assumption the laws of physics will hold is predicated on tested and verified claims which lend to the reliability of the laws of physics. That is, the belief in physics as a universal law has already been established as a true belief. Therefore there is no “faith” based assumptions involved.

Hopefully this clarification helps us keep these various forms of belief formation separate as we continue to look into how we validate and justify our beliefs.

Part 2: A Brief Intro to Verificationism
A valid belief is a belief which has been proved to support an independent claim or point, and is acceptable as cogent. An invalid belief,on the other hand, is a belief which fails to garner any support for its intended claim or point, and is in all likelihood not cogent.

So how do we discern the difference between one and the other? Well, this requires some rigorous work, and one way to go about validating a belief is through a process called verificationism.

Verificationism is a method of recognizing correct belief based on consequences of experience.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (2005):

The principle is central to logical positivism,according to which the meaning of a statement is its method of verification.Sentences apparently expressing propositions that admit to no verification (such as those of metaphysics and theology) are in consequence meaningless, or at least fail to put forward theses with cognitive meaning, capable of truth or falsity.

Basically, the definition of verificationism is a belief, according to its statements (i.e., claims/points) made, must in effect be falsifiable according to experience. If such statements (i.e., claims/points)are not falsifiable, they cannot be proved true or false, and therefore are unverifiable. To belief in an unverified statement (claim/point) as either true or false minus any verification of such, means the claim is not cogent, and therefore meaningless.

But at the risk of sounding inflexible, the verification principle isn’t holistic as it does not require all statements(claims/points) to necessarily have strong or conclusive verification. It does allow for indirect or inconclusive methods of verification.

Verificationism recognizes that conceptions of language and its relationship to the world suggest a more flexible set of possible relations, with sentences that are individually not verifiable nevertheless having a use in an overall network of beliefs or theory that itself answers to experience.

Notice that although metaphysical and theological statements(claims/points) attempt to explain an experience, or a perception, they do not seek to answer to the experience. That is, they do not seek to verify that metaphysical or theological proposition as cogent, but merely take it on faith that it is. This is why serious philosophers will always distinguish between philosophy and theology, as they understand the relationship between experience and belief.

One reason many philosophers, myself included, do not find theology a valid form of philosophy is that theology does not add anything to the veracity of any experience that philosophy is not already capable of.Moreover, most theological claims are themselves unverifiable, and therefore not
cogent, meaning that for most philosophers theology is quite meaningless.

This doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t important questions which metaphysics posits, but it does mean that metaphysics is most probably an impotent method for verifying, and thereby proving true or false, any metaphysical claim.

Part 3: A Brief Introduction to Justification
Justification is different from verificationism in that it is an epistemological method for scrutinizing and critically evaluating beliefs. Because it is an epistemological form of reflection, justification trespasses on the area of ethics where belief and experience exist. Justification holds that if a belief or idea stands up to critical reflection and scrutiny, a person is then exempt from criticism on account of it.

Before we continue on, I want to explain that we must be careful, as Justification can easily lead us into the coherence theory of truth, which states that the truth of a proposition consists in its being a member of some suitably defined body of other propositions. This would, at first glance, seem to contradict verificationism which depends on experience(see correspondence theory of truth). But I do not take justification so far. Rather, I think of justification more as a principle for critically examining the likely truthfulness or falsity of any given claim. This is important to keep in mind, as we do not want to fall into impossible contradictions.

Part 4: Applying Verificationism and Justification to Theistic Belief
How might we might validate the belief in God? Well, one way would be by verifying God’s existence. It is predicated on a referential form of justification, which is a form of justification which attempts to isolate the actual referent to thereby provide a proper description which can be held up against all other descriptions. If the many independent descriptions of the referent match up exactly, then it is the same referent and the reference to it becomes validated. If a referent can be validated, then we can begin attempting to verify the belief in the referent as valid based on the success of its justification.

Without justifying one’s claims, however, one cannot begin to validate their beliefs. Consequently, it is why those who claim other faiths know God, but simply by a different name, is a bogus argument. If this were true, their descriptions would match up exactly because they would all have access to the actual, real life, referent. Let me explain. Everyone knows what an apple is. So even if we called it by another name, such as ringo (the Japanese term for apple) then at least our referents would match, and therefore our descriptions of what an apple is would match exactly.

The problem is like this. God is not a universal concept.There are competing God-concepts and therefore the definition for what God is,or might be, is in conflict. For this reason, we know God lacks a real life referent. With no actual referent to observe no theist can point to matching descriptors which the referent would provide. Which is why most God concepts do not match up, and why believers can never seem to agree, and why there are so many dissimilar and divergent forms of God-belief, theistic or otherwise.

As a consequence, the very term “God” is semantically problematic since their concept doesn’t align with other concepts and we can never be one hundred percent certain which God-concept any one person of faith is talking about since there are so many competing definitions of what “God” is assumed to be or mean. Lacking a cogent definition, as such, we have the unnecessary burden to always have to begin by asking the theist to define their version of God. It is quite telling, I think, that if someone begins talking about God that the philosophers first response must always be, “What do you mean by *God?”

If God existed, and there was an actual referent to relate back to, we wouldn’t have this problem.

Validation through referential justification is one of the best ways of recognizing where the burden of proof lies, because it asks you to demonstrate your beliefs by justifying your claims. If you’re claims do not support your beliefs, and vise versa, odds are you are either mistaken or confused (or perhaps both). Which is why when someone says they believe in God,I have to ask, what do you mean, which God, and what is your belief based upon?

Notice that when we talk about what apples are the most delicious, we rarely ever spending time having to describe what an apple is,how it tastes, or what it looks like. Experience of being able to find the actual object in real life, i.e. the referent, allows us to avoid any such redundancy. The fact that most God-concepts fall into this habitual, redundant,re-defining strongly suggests the concept lacks any real world referent. In other words, God is not an object which exists in the real world.

Part 5: Addressing Some Common Objections
Most believers, at least the ones I commonly have in depth conversations with, like to resort to anecdotal stories about their personal experiences with God, as if this were enough to validate their belief in God. But let’s not forget that anecdotal evidence isn’t enough to demonstrate a claim as valid or invalid, especially one as profound as believing in the existence of a God. Rather, we need multiple forms of evidence to create a really strong argument for belief, and even then, this may only go as far as to validate belief, but not prove the type of God one believes in. If you want to prove a highly specific type of God, then you need even more evidence!

If we want to actually prove the belief that God is omnipresent for example, we would have to find a way to test that claim. We couldn’t, for example, simply rely on a Holy Book which claims God is omnipresent,because that would just be a tautology. What we would need to do is actually devise a test for God, and see if he passes it. This should be no skin of God’s back,so to speak, since if he existed he would surely oblige us silly skeptics and run through the test thereby allowing us to collect the data and measure the results and definitively, once and for all, verify his existence.

If God could, you know, just suddenly appear, well, that would be the end of the debate! Simply put, our skepticism would be quelled,and there would be no such thing as a non-believer. Belief would be justified by the appearance of God, and so belief in God would be completely valid. Yes, in this case, seeing is believing(insofar as our seeing could not be dismissed as a hallucination or illusion).

Right now, however, I see no reason to think any form of God belief has been validated in this way—even as there are a lot of people who claim to have experienced God. More often than not these experiences don’t match up, or they can be explained more easily by mundane natural means. It’s a miracle! God cured my cancer! Or, perhaps, it could have been the 21st century medicine, the tireless attendance of nurses to tirelessly cared for your every need as they fed you, changed your bedpan, bathed you, and quite literally nursed you back to health. Let’s not forget the doctors who spent years of medical training so they would know exactly how to combat and treat your form of illness. The mundane answer explains why you got cured without needing to invoke God. And the reason this works is, because, there is no reason to invoke God if it can be explained naturally. You see, God is very well hidden.So well hidden that his existence becomes irrelevant as a consequence.

Some Closing Thoughts
People’s selective biases on what they believe they experienced compared to what they actually experienced often confounds matters.[1]Near death experiences are another grey area. People often feel the presence of the divine, but this too can be duplicated by science. Out of body experiences can be recreated using narcotics under controlled conditions that simulate the very situation the person was in, including duplicating stress levels, etc.When someone claims that they were experienced the divine, the problem is,there are too many other well-known natural possibilities for what they might have experienced, ones that aren’t in any way supernatural.[2]We simply can’t take their word for it, which is why validation via referential justification of belief becomes so important, especially when claiming God is real.

Minus a proper verification of belief, and without a means of justification, one’s beliefs do not count for much. In fact, they would amount to less belief than conviction, and as we saw earlier, and unfounded conviction is a profession of faith. This is what theists hang their “belief” in God on,and it is by which the theologian claims belief is warranted. However,understanding perhaps a little more clearly the subtle differences between actual beliefs which have been verified, provisional assumptions, and faith based convictions, we can safely conclude that belief in God is not warranted,rather, all the proving is still ahead of the person of faith if they in anyway want their faith to be meaningful.

[1]See Thinking, Fast and Slow by Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahnemen. This book talks about how we think and shows how our biases determine the types of beliefs we hold.
[2]See Michael Shermer’s excellent book on how we create beliefs, The Believing Brain

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist