Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Belief as Declaration of Intent

In the documentary The Bridge, the filmmaker managed to get footage of several people jumping off of the Golden Gate Bridge to kill themselves. He also has interviews with family, friends, and the one guy who survived. The survivor now says that when he was trying to swim to safety in the water below, he felt something nudging at his feet. He also says that someone told him later that it was a sea lion. Then he says something very interesting: “I don’t care what you tell me, I am sure that that was God.”

This raises an interesting point about belief that I typically don’t address here. For many people, maybe the majority of ordinary believers, believing in God just isn’t about gathering evidence, listening to arguments, and trying to make an informed, reasonable decision. It’s a sort of declaration of intent, a statement of mental practice, and an avowal about a group of things that they will say to themselves and others. Many people, as Daniel Dennett points out, believe in belief. To think about God stuff, to be mindful of religious truisms, and to “be spiritual,” are good things, they figure. They make you happy (you think) and they give you guidance. They alleviate loneliness, angst, and being forlorn. Reading the Bible, socializing with other believers, going to church are all personally rewarding and fulfilling activities.

The mistake, of course, is slipping over to talking and arguing as if those claims are true. Emotional benefit and psychological edification are not reasons. They are motives. But wanting and is are fundamentally different things. Wantings and feelings can’t be taken as grounds for thinking any of that stuff is true.

Epistemologists in the western philosophical tradition have confined their accounts of belief, for the most part, to the notion that a person has a mental attitude of assent about a proposition. The person takes some state of affairs to be the case—to be true. To believe is to take to be true.

That account is obviously significant, and it’s the center of what belief is for the most part. But I am sometimes inclined to agree with many of you that we need some other terms here to capture the differences. What that jumper is saying about the sea lion is most assuredly not the same sort of thing we mean when we say “I believe the meeting is at 3:00.”

I’m open for suggestions. Maybe getting clear on the differences between these avowals of religious intent and taking something to be true will help us sort out the endless confusions that theists have in trying to understand what we are saying.


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Josh May said...

Hey, MM.

Thanks for the post. This issue has puzzled me too. I do think sometimes religious people don't really mean to say "believe" when they say "I believe God exists." That, I think, is one of their main reasons for shifting to the word "faith" so much. But, a couple points:

(1) You say "What that jumper is saying about the sea lion is most assuredly not the same sort of thing we mean when we say 'I believe the meeting is at 3:00.'"

I disagree. This bridge jumper believes that God exists and that he helped him. At least that's what it means to say (in that sort of context) "I am sure that that was God." He's saying he's confident that a certain proposition is true, which entails he believes it. He's just believing it without good evidence or reasons for it's truth (or likelihood). It's true that he is also saying he has certain other attitudes (like intent to be dogmatic about it). That's what it means to say "I don't care what you tell me..." in that context. But it's nonetheless true that he believes it, assuming that he means what he says and is not just inaccurately expressing his views by poor use of language.

We do, after all, speak a public language. And saying "I believe God exists" means (roughly) that one represents as true the proposition that God exists. If religious people mean that they merely hope that God exists, then they should say so.

This does raise an interesting issue about whether representing as true is sufficient for belief. What if, as it seems with the jumper, the person represents something as true, but also does this dogmatically or in some way that is not appropriately responsive to even apparent reasons? I've wanted to say sometimes that this is not sufficient for belief---that it's also a necessary condition for belief that one represents the proposition as true while being appropriately responsive to reasons for it's truth (or something like that). But I think that's too strong. I'm inclined to say that belief just is representing as true, but believing responsibly (in terms of epistemic norms) involves responding appropriately to reasons for the truth (or probable truth) of what one believes.

So, I think that the jumper believes God helped him, unless the jumper really doesn't represent the relevant proposition as true (despite his saying so).

(2) You suggest that maybe getting clear on this believing versus not believing may help resolve differences between theists and atheists. I doubt that, since I think most religious people do believe (in the normal, ordinary sense) that God exists.

There is no doubt that some religious people deep down are truly agnostic on the God question and merely hope that he exists. Suppose, for example, I merely hope that I get a full TAship next quarter, although I don't believe I will or that I won't---I'm just not sure either way, since there's not enough evidence available to me about one way or the other. I think a lot of people who go to church sometimes and do such things just out of tradition fit this category. But then those are the people who don't really debate about God's existence at all. They really do mean to play the faith card in an appropriate way. They're not really theists, but they are perhaps in some sense religious people.

Besides, I think most religious people still do mean that they believe God exists (and hope that he does, of course). If not, then why do they keep showing up to debates? Sam Harris once debated Rabbi David Wolpe (video here), and Wolpe started to back away, ready to play the faith card, and at one point said to Harris, "Belief in God is not belief in a proposition." I don't think that makes any sense. The objects of belief just are propositions. However, what he seemed to be trying to say is that what they do when they "believe" in God is not believing. But when he and others say this, that's just them wanting to play the faith card. But they do believe God exists. If not, then why did Wolpe (and so many others like him) continue to debate whether it's true?

To make a long story short, I think religious people by and large do mean that they believe God exists, even when they try to play the faith card by shying away from saying they believe and instead say they "have faith" that God exists. So, while I share the belief that there are some things to clear up here about what religious people are trying to say when they use language poorly, I doubt that getting clear on that stuff is going to resolve differences between atheists and theists. They do believe that God exists, and atheists don't. I wish they would just realize that and stop trying to back away from belief.

So, I'm inclined to say that what we have here with the jumper and others is not a case of some very different attitude than belief. Rather, we have a certain kind of belief or belief plus something else. What we have is belief that is especially epistemically irresponsible.

Anywho, sorry for such a long comment. Those are just some thoughts.

Relatedly, has everyone seen this article about the survey conducted on how many people believe in divine intervention when it comes to people in the hospital, etc. ("Survey: Many believe in divine intervention")?


Matt McCormick said...

Thanks for the great input, Josh. Lots of good ideas here.

And thanks for the link to the miracle study. That's just incredible. I suspect that a lot of doctors are really frustrated with their patients inability to listen and deal directly with real medical situations.