Saturday, January 27, 2007

The So-Called Right to Believe: Confusing Hoping with Justified Believing

Sometimes people use the word "belief" in a peculiar way. They use it to mean something like "hope" or "principle they live by" or "fundamental outlook." So they say, "I believe my husband will be home safely from Iraq by Christmas," or "I have to keep believing that I will pull through this terminal illness," or "I believe that everything happens for a reason." Or, most importantly, "I believe and have faith that there is a God." One of the interesting things about this usage of belief is that you have good reasons not to believe it. To watch the news, it doesn't seem like anyone is coming home from Iraq soon. Or the prognosis for the disease is bad. Or you are trying to hold on to hope that everything happens for a reason because some inexplicably bad things just happened to you and you can't see what good could come of them. The other interesting thing is that we praise and encourage people to "believe" this way. We reward people for standing up for their principles, and we have reverence for unshakeable faith. And a third interesting thing is that these "beliefs" are ones that we stubbornly hold onto no matter what. In fact, we consider it a sign of weakness of will and defeat if someone relents and gives one of these up.

I have a simple response: we shouldn't have any such "beliefs." Hope is fine. And it's not that I want someone to despair about the possibility of her husband coming home from Iraq. But the problem comes when we equivocate from this sense of belief to the regular sense of belief. You can and should hope for lots of things. But calling that a belief doesn't entitle you to treat it like an ordinary belief that is supported by the evidence and that plays a role as support for other beliefs. You don't get to actually think of it as true by calling it a belief. This is an idea you actually have good reasons not to believe. Calling it a belief doesn't entitle you to recommend that other people should believe it. And it doesn't entitle you to have that belief be immune from any kind of critical scrutiny or denial from the rest of us. And it doesn't sanction that belief to play a vital role in your other social, moral, personal, and spiritual convictions, especially when what you think about all of these things has such a significant impact on the rest of us.

"Oh, but I have a right to believe what I choose," lots of people say. "I am entitled to my opinion," is the standard response. What exactly does that mean? For one thing, you don't really think it is true. If somebody told you that a principle they live by--one of their fundamental beliefs--is that whites are superior to blacks, you would not be inclined to say they have a right to believe that. People can and do believe a lot of things, and many of them are patently and obviously false. Calling it a "belief" and invoking some mysterious right to it (where is the part about freedom of beliefs in the Constitution?) doesn't render it true or reasonable or well-supported by the evidence. In fact, you probably think that a person has a duty not to believe something as inflammatory and hurtful as the racial superiority claim unless they could show that they have met the highest standards of evidence. So why is it with religious beliefs we have reversed this and the religious believer doesn't have to offer any evidential support whatsoever? We can't simply take it on faith that blacks are inferior, or that women are not as smart as men, or that homosexuals are pedophiles. So why do we give people a free pass when they take it on faith that there is a God and that God told them to do all sorts of things?

We can make sense of "rights" talk about things like freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, a right to vote, a right to legal representation, a right to be treated as an autonomous moral agent. One interesting thing about all of these rights is that other people can do things that will impair or deprive you of the right. You might get physically prevented from voting--and we want to make sure that doesn't happen. You might be prevented from assembling--and we want to make sure you are able to do so. You could be deprived of a fair trial, and so on. But what could anyone do to make you stop believing something? I can talk to you. I can argue with you. I can try to persuade you that what you believe is mistaken. There can be nothing morally wrong with any of these. If I kidnap you, threaten you, or brainwash you to change your beliefs, then clearly I have violated your rights. But it's not your right to believe whatever you want. It's your basic freedoms to be unencumbered. But arguing with you, making a case against something you believe, or showing you evidence that makes it clear that what you believe is mistaken are not things you have a right to protected from. You do not have a right to not hear me claim that something is false when you think it is true. I do not have a duty to refrain from speaking my mind when you believe something that is unreasonable. (And the same goes if I am the one being unreasonable.) You do not have right to be protected from anything that might change your mind. So I really can't make any sense of the claim that you have a right to believe what you choose. Even if people have the right, that doesn't give anyone the right not to be criticized, corrected, argued with, or refuted by the evidence. And it doesn't give you the right to continue to believe something that is patently false when you know better and all the evidence is against you.


Alan said...

This reminds me of a conversation I had with a physics PhD student here at UC Riverside.

Do you believe in god?

What a common question, but what exactly does it mean to "believe in" something? What else do we believe in? Children believe in Santa Claus and fairies, perhaps adults believe in magic, or true love, or maybe miracles. Notice the similarities between the things that we typically believe in: none of them exist! Perhaps this is too strong, but at the very least, believing in seems to imply a choice, to believe or not to believe. It sounds odd to fault someone for believing in magic, even if you don't believe in it, or even if there really is no magic. Believing in appears to be orthogonal to the truth of the belief.

Now contrast this with "believe that", clearly a more common phrase. I believe that it is Wednesday, I believe that my buddy Barack will win the nomination, I believe that avocadoes are natures gift to mankind. If someone gave me strong evidence that it is actually Tuesday, or that America will never vote for a black man, or that avocadoes were actually created in a lab (I knew such an amazing fruit could not happen by chance!), then I would adjust my belief accordingly. Believing that appears to, in some sense, aim at the truth in a way that believing in doesn't.

By using believing in when talking about god, the very language we use insulates the belief from empirical falsification. You can give a theist all types of evidence that god doesn't exist, yet the truth of the claim is simply not central to the belief. God beliefs are beliefs in, not a beliefs that, preempting any attempt to argue the belief away.

Whether or not believing in should be avoided is another question, but I tend to think it should be.

Peter Grant said...

Hi Matt :)

I am currently researching this strange "right to believe" subject and I couldn't agree more.

Thanks for the great post!

feathertail said...

You don't get to actually think of it as true by calling it a belief

No, you call it a belief because you think of it as true.

You're right that professing belief in something shouldn't make it immune to scrutiny, or obligate anyone else to believe the same thing. But all that your ranting boils down to is you don't accept anyone else's right to not let you dictate their opinions. All the evidence in the world could be on your side, and you'd still be a troll and a bully, no matter which university's paying your bills.

More people ought to be skeptical of their and others' beliefs, but whining at someone and saying "you totally know better and you're just believing that way to upset me" is bogus. You're behaving just like a fundamentalist Christian, and it's wrong whether you're "right" or not.

And no, you don't get to say "I'm not stoning the gays so I'm not like Those People." Not when your other essays associate having a belief in deity with strapping bombs to oneself.