Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Confusing Possible with Probable and Having a Right to Believe

People are often confused about the difference between possible and probable. In the context of questions about the reasonableness of religious belief, or whether or not someone is epistemically entitled to believe in God, many people will defend their belief say that “God exists,” or “God has a plan in which all suffering serves a greater good,” by asserting or arguing that it is possible that God exists, or that God has a plan. That is, they make the inference from the fact that there is a possibility, even a very small one, that X is true, to thinking that it is therefore reasonable to believe that X is true.

The number of things that are possible is infinite. But in general, we do not think that the fact that something is possible gives us good reason for thinking it is true. Part of the confusion is related to people’s views about “having a right to believe what they want,” or “being entitled to their opinions,” or “being free to believe,” or having religious freedom. It is clear from many things that believers say in these conversations that they believe that these principles of freedom or entitlement are true, and that what they mean is that religious freedom is akin to physical freedom or the right to unrestricted in your activities. You have a legal right to assemble, a right to free speech, a right to free movement and so on. And in all those cases, that moral and legal right preserves your ability to do and say anything (with a few notable exceptions.) So with freedom of religion or the legal right to practice and pursue the religious activities of your choice, you are entitled to the same sort of openness.

But having the legal and moral right to say or do a wide range of things should not be confused with having epistemic justification for them. Your entitlement to the opportunity to pursue a wide range of activities doesn’t render all of those activities wise, reasonable, correct, or true. You have a right to free speech, and that means you can stand up in a public forum and shout that 2 + 2 = 5, but obviously that doesn’t make it true. Legally and morally you have a right to fall down on your knees and worship the great JuJu at the bottom of the river Limpopo. You can burn your house down as a sign of dedication to him, get yourself tattooed from head to foot with images of him (What the hell does the great JuJu look like anyway?), or you can go wait on a mountain top for him to come take you to the next realm of existence. But doing all of that would be completely stupid. Given what you know about the world, such beliefs and activities are clearly irrational, even though you are entitled to espouse them and act accordingly.

I’m not even really sure what it means to say that someone has a right to believe some claim. That right is nowhere in the U.S. Constitution or the United Nation Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The rights we all have legally and morally amount to being assured of having the option to pursue a range of activities without encumbrance. No one can act to restrict you, and they fulfill their duty to you simply by not messing with you. These are usually called negative rights. Positive rights are entitlements to some actual action on the parts of others. They have to get up off the couch and give you something to fulfill their duty to you. So your right to an education imposes a duty of paying taxes or some kind of response on others to make sure that you get what you have coming to you.

But when we say you have a right to believe what you want, does that mean that people have an obligation to not say something to the contrary when you claim you believe that 2+2=5, or that the Earth rests on the back of a giant turtle, or that God created the world 6,000 years ago? I guess it’s possible for you to believe that, although I find it hard to believe that anyone really does, even when they say they do. But your so-called right doesn’t mean that I have to nod my head and agree. I can and will point out that you are wrong, and give you my reasons why. Does your so-called right to believe entitle you to not be harassed, physically coerced, kidnapped and brainwashed, tortured, blackmailed, or otherwise physically forced to say and act like you don’t believe it? No. It’s not your alleged right to believe that guarantees that other people can’t do that to you. You have a legal and moral right not to have your physical freedoms encumbered, and that rules out those sorts of abuses. No where in the Constitution, or American legal precedents, or in thoughtful theories of morality, rights, and duties will you find an assurance against physical abuses that is based upon a right to believe. Your right to physical freedom is a basic human right to itself and is not built upon something more fundamental like a right to belief.

Furthermore, it’s even clear that other people can do anything to stop you from believing what you want to, even if they tried really hard. I have certainly been in lots of prolonged philosophical debates with people where no argument I could muster and no reasons I could give were adequate to dissuade someone of something that I thought was totally unreasonable. Sometimes I can convince someone, and sometimes they convince me. But I didn’t violate their bogus right to believe by convincing them to change their minds, nor did they do some belief injustice to me by trying or succeeding in getting me to change mine. In fact, I consider it a great benefit to have someone straighten me out—they’ve given me something very valuable that they didn’t have to.

So the right to believe that people keep talking about really doesn’t make any sense at all. It’s not a negative right—it imposes no duties of restraint on others that weren’t already covered by your real rights. It’s not a positive right—I don’t have to pay taxes or make some positive contribution to your being able to form beliefs. You’re going to do that, no matter what I do or don’t do. Nothing I could do would make it possible for you to form beliefs whereas you couldn’t before. And nothing I might withhold will make it impossible for you to form beliefs.

What renders a belief reasonable is that a person has good reasons for it. They have done a good job of gathering the evidence, they have considered it carefully, they have reflected on the various ways in which they could be wrong, they have taken alternative views seriously, and they have arrived at an informed view about what the evidence indicates or supports. What renders a belief probable is that it is more likely than not to be true. There is a greater than 50% chance that it is correct. It is not probably that you will win the $100 million lottery tomorrow. Although it is possible. And many people will believe unreasonably that they will win, contrary to all the evidence in front of them. They don’t have a right to believe that as far as I can see. Beliefs aren’t the sort of things that fall within in the purview of rights and duties. People just have them. And it’s an unfortunate thing that so many of them are as silly, unreasonable, and unjustified as they are. We should all be doing a lot more to try to prevent that from happening. We should do much more than nod our heads and say, “Well, people are entitled to their opinions,” and walk away, but obviously we shouldn’t resort of any kind of physical coercion to stop it. We should all be prepared to say about something that someone else says is true that we disagree with, “No, that’s mistaken. Here’s why….” And we should all be prepared to listen, think about it, and maybe accept it when someone says it to us. Let’s practice out loud: “That’s bullshit!” “You’re wrong!” “Why would anyone with any sense believe such nonsense?” “But there’s a mountain of evidence against that silliness.”

If you’re still confused about the difference between possible and probable, here’s a long list of things that that are possible—there’s nothing contrary to logic that renders them false like “there are no married bachelors,” but most people do not think they are true or probable.

It is possible that there was no Civil War
It is possible that the Holocaust didn’t happen.
It is possible that the Apostles made it all up.
It is possible that Mohammed made it all up.
It is possible that someone slipped something into Jesus’ drink before he was entombed to make him look dead.
It is possible that Jesus was walking on a sandbar at low tide.
It is possible that wearing a raw steak hat wards off disease.
It is possible that eating three year old rotten duck eggs is good for your health.
It is possible that your positive pregnancy test is a false positive.
It is possible that your negative pregnancy test is a false negative.
It is possible that even though you are taking birth control pills exactly as prescribed everyday you are pregnant.
It is possible that the government is watching everything you do and hiding it very well.
It is possible that there was no Jesus.
It is possible that Christopher Marlowe wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays.
It is possible that having sex with a virgin cures HIV.
It is possible that eating the flesh of your enemies gives you power.
It is possible that birth defects are caused by wickedness from a past life.
It is possible that the Detroit Lions could win the Super bowl.
It is possible that fever is caused by demon possession.
It is possible that the earth rests on the back of a (invisible) turtle.
It is possible that lightening is thrown by an angry Zeus.
It is possible that natural disasters are God's anger with sinners
It is possible that the moon is made of green cheese.
It is possible that the stars are light shining through tiny wholes in a
heavenly orb that surrounds us.
It is possible that the moon landing in 1969 was faked on a secret Hollywood set by NASA.
It is possible that aliens conspired with Oswald to kill JFK.
It is possible that the CIA is responsible for 9-11.
It is possible that there is a secret Christian society -the Knights Templar--that run the world governments.
It is possible that Jesus married Mary and had kids.
It is possible that exorcisms cast out the devil.
It is possible that the juice and crackers actually turn into the body and blood of Jesus in your mouth
It is possible that Poseidon rules an underwater kingdom.
It is possible that wishful thinking can help you win the lottery
It is possible that wearing your lucky underwear will help you win the basketball game
It is possible that Santa exists.
It is possible that there are still dinosaurs.
It is possible that dunking an accused witch underwater will reveal whether or not she is a witch.
It is possible that giving someone the evil eye will actually harm them.
It is possible that failing to pass on a chain letter will bring disaster to you.
It is possible that hexes work.
It is possible that you can concoct a love potion from herbs.
It is possible that crossing yourself will ward off evil spirits.
It is possible that blessing someone who sneezes helps protect their soul.
It is possible that if you concentrate you can levitate.
It is possible that martial arts masters can channel chi.
It is possible that tossing spilt salt over your shoulder improves luck.
It is possible that opening an umbrella indoors or breaking a mirror is bad luck.
It is possible that the bumps on someone's head indicate personality traits.
It is possible that conceiving in the spring produces boy babies.
It is possible that swinging a wedding ring on a string in front of a pregnant woman's stomach will reveal the sex of the baby.
It is possible that bad things happen on Friday the 13th.
It is possible that people do more wild things on a full moon.
It is possible that plants can think and have feelings.


Jon said...

I don't see how God is probable or even possible, but for the sake of argument lets say: The existence of God is a 49% chance of being true. Would it reasonable to believe that it is true? or false? Should be stick to our guns and say that there needs to be a greater that 50% chance, ie. 50.0001% chance in order to be in a belief state? Maybe metaphysics and physics/science have two different categories concerning the possible/probable dichotomy.

Ted Drange said...

The sentence "There are no married bachelors" is NOT false!

Anonymous said...

This is all very fair and objective, Matt, but let's cut to the chase: what we're really trying to say is --

Theists just hold on to possibility and "the right to believe" as an excuse to ignore the facts.

ME: Hey, did you know there is NO EVIDENCE for god, and all the facts show us that we can explain everything better without a creator?

SILLY THEIST: My "right to believe" allows me to ignore all the facts for an easy story of "truth." This makes me smile and live longer because ignorance is healthy.


Anonymous said...

I am all for rational debate, but realistically there will always be disagreements about the probability of some ideas.

How are we going to force everyone to accept that Elvis is dead.

There are so many reasons people ignore the facts, that singling out the right to believe as the culprit does not seem necessary.
It only catches the really silly ones.

Many germans wanted to believe that Hitler's regime would restore their national pride. So much so that they bought into theories of bad press being the work of the Jews and other enemies of the nation.

Many want to believe that Global warming is not that big a problem, because they are enjoying their lifestyle, or don't want to be inconvenienced, not just because it is their right to believe what they want.

If I go to explore a public place, I do not have to provide a reason why I am there. I can't stop people from saying "This is bullshit you should not be here", but I am under no compulsion to leave.

If I choose for a time to explore where believing in marxism will lead, I can't stop people from saying "Marxism is bullshit", but I would never want the state to say I did not have the right to believe it.

If you think that the people on the whole are not capable of correct reasoning, then this correct way of thinking must be protected by something other than democracy.

Otherwise why get so discouraged by the fact that everyone is not on board at the same time.

Even if stem cell research is not done for another century, it is the right of the citizenry to judge the risks and benefits for itself. We have for the most part, not selectively bred the human species for specific traits, but let natural selection take its course. Is the opposition really just silly religious notions, or is it that some of the public does not have the confidence that the scientists, and pharmaceutical companies have their best interests at heart.

I say this because I sense an exasperation, that silly "religious" notions are holding back the potential greatness of the nation. Its not that I don't think people can't hold silly notions. But I think sometimes, like in game theory experiments, people make seemingly irrational choices that somehow give them the optimal outcome.

I have often wondered, as someone with moderate intelligence, what strategy should I employ, to acheive the best outcome, knowing that there are much smarter and powerful players in the game.

My suspicion is that it would be one that favours loyalty, over expertise or reason. But alas I am not able do the math.

Reginald Selkirk said...

It is possible that there are still dinosaurs.

It is quite probable that there are still dinosaurs, and that they are called "birds."