There’s a larger subject lurking behind (and propping up, motivating, triggering, etc) a lot of the issues we’ve been discussing lately. Belief. Belief in the sense of belief full stop, belief tout court, belief undefended and unexplained. Belief just because; belief because I said so; belief as intuition or instinct or inner voice or gnosis; belief that doesn’t have to give an account of itself; belief that is self-justified, which in other kinds of discourse is called a vicious circle or begging the question. The kind of thing Mill quotes Bentham teasing:

One man says, he has a thing made on purpose to tell him what is right and what is wrong; and that it is called a moral sense: and then he goes to work at his ease, and says, such a thing is right, and such a thing is wrong-why? “because my moral sense tells me it is”.

Because his moral sense tells him it is, and he believes it. If he believes it, there is no more to be said – according to a line of argument that seems to be increasingly prevalent. Public discourse seems to have far too many believers in proportion to people who ask for reasons before believing. A certain philosophy professor states it this way:

This attitude toward belief — that one should believe a proposition only if one has articulable reasons for it — represents liberalism in the epistemic realm. The contrast is epistemic conservatism, which holds that belief — in God, in the importance of marriage, in the value of tradition — needs no defense. To a conservative, beliefs are presumed innocent until proven guilty. To a liberal, they are presumed guilty until proven innocent. The liberal epistemic standard begs the question against political conservatism, just as a conservative epistemic standard would beg the question against political liberalism. Conservatives must not fall for the liberal trick of making nonbelief the default position.

Of course, that’s a rather tendentious way of describing the ‘liberal’ (I would call it rationalist, and I’m pretty sure conservative rationalists do exist) view. The point is not that beliefs are ‘guilty’ (or indeed innocent) but that one wants a reason or reasons to believe them rather than just accepting them blindly. It is possible to believe things that are not in fact true; that’s one reason people (even conservatives, actually, much of the time, perhaps even most of it) want reasons for beliefs. And then the examples given in the interjection are curiously mixed – are not really the same kind of thing, so that belief in one works quite differently from belief in another. Belief in God is belief in a supernatural entity that exists in the external world independent of humans; belief in ‘the importance of marriage’ or ‘the value of tradition’ is belief in human ideas or institutions, which is quite a different kind of thing. ‘Belief’ doesn’t even really mean the same thing about both. In the first case it means belief in the existence of something in the world; in the second it means something more like allegiance or commitment or approval – something more like a yes vote. And then the final touch: calling the rationalist approach to belief a ‘trick’ – now that’s very odd. Especially for a philosophy teacher. I would have thought it was pretty much a minimal definition of philosophy, that it examines the grounds of beliefs. That activity is not usually described by philosophers themselves as a ‘liberal trick’ – is it? Unless I’m terribly out of touch.

I was pondering all this anyway, and then I pondered all the more after reading that strange article about the relative absence of ‘faith-based’ law professors in law schools. And then my pondering was ratcheted even higher when I saw this post by PZ Myers at Pharyngula. I want to comment on it a little, but this post is long enough. Anyway you know what I’ll say (I’m predictable, I know). I do not like all this pressure on rationalists and scientists to be apologetic and sycophantic and appeasing, to back off and refrain from challenging or contradicting erroneous beliefs. I think the pressure needs to go in the other direction. Just for one thing the humble approach doesn’t work. The more rationalists give ground to believers, the more ground believers demand. There is just no satisfying them short of giving in on every single issue and argument – so we might as well dig in here as over there.

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