Thursday, November 15, 2007

Against "Belief" (in God), Part 2

Kyle's right. There are a couple of issues in the air here. But they do not come from some sort of overarching mechanistic view of social behavior. What a crass way to put that. What an invective. My heart skipped a beat when I first read that and I thought "et tu Kyle, Leigh" (and then I spent the day in bed crying). And I am not claiming that individuals are not capable of rational determination. It is just that what this rational determination is seems dubious. For example, it seems that certain ethical principles have more meaning and weight than supposed rational principles. Yet frequently the former are called rational principles. It is just that I do not know what a rational principle is. I understand the reasons why certain thinkers think as they do, and others do not, but I am not sure that I would call their reasoning rational. Really, it follows from the primacy of a certain principle which determines the way in which other claims or notions relate to it. If that is rational, then so be it.

But I am claiming that a special status is given to "belief," such that, because it supposedly reflects the individual and some sort of process of deliberation or soul searching, it is given a sort of autonomy and dignity, when I think that is the last thing one can say of it. Example: on Nova the other night they had a show devoted to the effort of the Dover PA school board, back a few years ago, to make intelligent design part of the 9th grade science curriculum. One scene in particular, I recall, where a local journalist finds that this issue becomes divisive in conversation with her father. He asks her if she believes in evolution.

So perhaps I want to limit the disdain that I have for the concept of belief to this particular expression and those kindred thereto. But this seems to me the most absurd of possible questions. Why is evolution supposedly a matter of belief? It is not, unless we are going to weaken the distinction between knowing and belief, such that all knowing becomes a matter of belief. Granted, on a strictly Humean line, it is. But it seems to me that we reserve the category of belief for something less than knowing.

For example, I know that I am sitting at this table writing on this computer. I know that the electricity that illuminates this room and makes this blog possible has travelled miles and miles of wire from a station and farther from a generator somewhere, and that equally the html coding that I am slowly, inadvertently constructing, will be sent as a message to another computer somewhere thousands of miles away where it will be read by someone else (because my readership is so large!!!). On similar grounds, although I have not witnessed the evolution of species, I have seen fossils and reconstructed skeletons, I know an adequate amount about biology and genetic theory and I know that we have evolved from other creatures. I don't "believe" in the theory of evolution, I think it is one of the only reasonable ways to make sense of all of the information we have culled from nature.

Now granted, the notion of belief in God is not attested to in the same way as the supposed "belief" in evolution. And yet, in a certain way, it is. There are these churches everywhere. Everyone uses this word "God" in a certain way that is intelligible such that others can understand what we mean. God is written about in books and discussed on television and on the radio and even on the Internet! Moreover, billions of people, over millenia, have acted and thought in terms of this idea of God. Not all of those thoughts have been the same, clearly, but then neither have all of the thoughts about "nature," although no one would doubt the existence of "nature." For all of these reasons, it would seem to me that God is inarguably real. I don't have to "believe" in God in this sense, but I know that God exists.

Similarly, it seems to me, although lots of Christians would not recognize this evidence of God, for these same reason all of them are "believers." But what that really means is that they have seen the practical, concrete effects of God in their life. They call this "belief" and give it a special status, but this seems to me inadequate. And what of those who don't "believe," are they all the sudden simply idiots ignoring the manifest "reality" of God. I don't know. I guess I would be more inclined to say that they perceive the contradictions in the concept of God and have preferred to express these contradiction in the terms of the lack of "belief."

Okay, maybe I'm finally ready to consider Leigh's claims about normativity. So by normativity we mean, as I understand it, the constellation of values and common notions that constitute the way a community represents itself. According to this concept, there would be vastly normative differences between places like Dover PA and South Philadelphia, or between places like Memphis TN and Sofia Bulgaria ... and even between South Philadelphia and Chicago. These normative values are not necessarily defined geographically or economically or ethnically (or politically or sexually or religiously), but each to some degree and in negotiation with other normative values. And out of this dramatic weaving of stratifications we find individuals situating themselves vis-à-vis these lines of normativity. So, as I understand it, and I admit I probably don't understand it, Leigh's point is that these claims about belief are important because they indicate the way an individual situates themselves in relation to what they understand to be the normative values.

So I just looked up normativity and now I'm less confident that my definition fits it, seeing as how it leaves out the imperativity of normativity--but let's just pretend that this is implicit within my notion of values, which charitably I would say is true.

Are these beliefs then important? Sure, they are very important. And by no means immaterial, they are in fact quite material. So maybe I'm flipflopping. But I think what I'm trying to say is consistent, although the scope may be more limited. I suppose my concern is this: that a special status is accorded to certain statements of belief, such that belief can ignore realities when they do not suit their needs. Perhaps I'm only concerned about notions of belief when it comes to political, religious matters. But seems to me that these are the matters in which the subterfuge of belief is most dangerous. In matters where we might be better suited by accepting certain realities, we choose to cling to belief: global warming, evolution, the existence of weapons of mass destruction, the distinctions between incipient and actual life, etc. This is the ultimate telos of my critique.

And a couple of last words: Kyle's concern that I want to abrogate philosophizing. A really serious concern that became, as all arguments do between myself and Kyle, very contentious while he was here. More on that in another post. This one is too damned long.

13 comments:

Chet said...

by the way, perhaps it's tacit, but thanks for following along with me as I struggle to put these ideas into words.

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kgrady said...

hahaha, spam, just what this conversation needed.

ok, you're sounding more sensible now, but i still am not quite with you on this. i'm not sure belief is given this "special status" you're referring to, except in cases (like belief in god) where verifiable knowledge is iunavailable. so, when i say i believe in god, i mean something quite different (faith) from what i mean when i say i believe in the science that makes the internet possible, even though i can't see it all for myself. in the latter case the belief is in principle verifiable, even if i do not verify it for myself, while in the former what i mean by my belief is that i affirm something even in the absence of any possible verification (ridiculous "proofs" of the existence of god notwithstanding). thus faith is more an assertion of the disposition of the will, rather than a claim to knowledge.

so belief is used in two distinct senses that are only nominally related, the one referring to something like faith (a regulative idea, if you will) and the other referring to unverified-but-in-principle-verifiable ideas. when someone asks whether you believe in something like evolution they are not saying it is a matter tjat is up to belief, they're just acting whether you've been persuaded by the evidence you've seen.

and i think you are again conflating things that are only nominally identical when you assert tht god is real, as evidenced by bibles, televangelists, etc. unicorns are also real in this sense, and yet you would not have any difficulty understanding me if i told you that i deny their reality. the diea of god exists, verifiably, wther or not the benevolent, omnipotent creator of the universe does. in other words, separate god from the concept of god, and i don't think this is all that confusing anymore.

lucky for you i have to go to dinner now.

oh, and it might be tacit, nut that doen't mean it's not nice to hear every now and then. anytime, bro.

Doctor J said...

I think I've figured out what happened here... Clearly, Chet's body has been snatched and secretly inhabited by someone who has never heard of Edmund Gettier.

So, "chet", all this was just about distinguishing between knowledge (qua "justified true belief") and non-justified or non-justifiable, untrue belief? You are "against" unjustified and untrue beliefs, especially when they are represented as "knowledge"... okay, okay.

But this last post was a bit of a red herring. Your original argument seemed to rest on the odd claim that such beliefs are "immaterial," which is what Kyle and I were objecting to. Even if we put aside the Gettier claim that we can have beliefs that are justified and true, yet don't count as "knowledge"... you still have yet to demonstrate (as far as I can tell) that beliefs are immaterial. In fact, you seem to be demonstrating, increasingly in each post, just the opposite.

I have more to say on this but don't have the time right now. (houseguests here until later this afternoon) More later, though.

Also, thanks back atcha for the great conversation(s).

Doctor J said...

What happened, Chet? Did you give up? Did I miss the concession speech?

Chet said...

philosophically faith may be a disposition of the will, but not for the individual. and this is, i hate to say it, a cartesian, kantian distinction between the will and knowledge. which doesn't obtain. adequate ideas contain their own affirmation.

second, i think it's funny that you mention unicorns. that example occurred to me as i was writing this post. it makes me think of that book of borges on imaginary creatures. the imaginary has a link with the real, even if largely symptomatic. granted, we're going to give different types of reality to different things. but unicorns have effects in the world only in philosophy classes and in teh dreams of little girls and little effeminate boys.

as for gettier. thanks for the reference. i read the article. now i feel like much more the philosopher (and quite virile, surprisingly) . but i don't think that has anything to do with it. it's not that there are forms of belief which appear to be sufficiently justified which are not. we're not separating the form of the claims from the claims, which is what gettier is doing. that's stuff is fine if you are just talking about belief as some kind of epistemological problem. but i'm talking about belief as a political and social problem.

belief within these domains stands increasingly as a type of knowledge (justified, perhaps, yet not true, I wonder?) such that it doesn't need the evidence which provides it with support. again I appeal to these very important examples: the presence of wmds in iraq. i know i was not the only one very skeptical about the actual existence of their existence before the war. granted, i'd been reading "the nation" and other alternative news sources.

belief in these domains is immaterial, why, because it presents itself as knowledge and is too often accepted as knowledge (like my rumsfeldian rhetoric?). belief has subtly crept into these domains and essentially legitimated a form of relativism.

concession? pshaw.

kgrady said...

dude, you're actually getting less clear the more you try to make your point.

again, i think you're confusing different kinds of belief. belief in god is of an entirely different kind from belief in the presence of wmd in iraq. the latter could be known, the former is in principle unknowable. do you really need to be reminded of this difference? of course not. so why are you acting like you do?

i introduced the notion of a will as a separate faculty of affirmation from knowledge in order to try to make sense if your distinction between belief and knowing in relation to god. so what is your complaint then, that people should stop saying they believe in god and start saying the know god?

enough of this childish practice whereby we try to discredit arguments by labelling them "cartesian" or "kantian," as if that meant "wrong." call it whatever you want, but your whole rant is evidence of some capacity that we have to act as if things were known to us when in fact we lack any knowledge of them. i'm calling that a will, but you can call it whatever you want. how exactly does that "not obtain"?

as for the unicorn thing, you totally missed my point. the point is simple: something doesn't even need to be knowable in order to have real, knowable effects in the world. this is true whether we're talking about god, unicorns, or wmd. if more people believed in unicorns they would not become real, just as (and this was your own point originally!) my belief in god has no bearing on god's existence (fuck, now i sound like the willard preacher).

once all this mess is sorted out, i'm afraid leigh's correct, your point is rather banal. don't confuse genuine knowledge with the appearance of knowledge (which you, in a highly equivocal manner, are calling "belief"). yeah, okay, but until you give us a standard for sorting out the difference, your argument is pretty toothless.

kgrady said...

by the way, you gotta pick up the pace a little here. i thought i was slow in responding to comments.

Chet said...

the point is not that here is not distinction between different kinds of belief and that some are more reasonable than others. the point is the way that belief is being assumed as a kind of sufficient knowledge within a specific political and rhetorical domain. i'm speaking of a phenomena, not a series of concepts regulating the possibility of belief.

maybe i haven't accentuated this point enough. again, let's locate the problem in terms of effects, not in terms of the concepts supposedly regulating the possibility of something like belief. it is the effects which are problematic.

kgrady said...

but you still haven't made it clear to me what you mean by "belief." how is it (on your account) meant to be distinguished from knolwedge?

if you reduce it simply to a question of "effects" then (i take this to be your point) the two are indistinguishable, since both have very real effects.

but i take you to want to say that only things that are known ought to have these effects. so again, how do we distinguish?

Doctor J said...

You say that the point is "NOT a distinction between different kinds of belief and that some are more reasonable than others"... but rather that "belief is being assumed as a kind of sufficient knowledge within a specific political and rhetorical domain."

You say you want to "locate the problem in terms of effects."

How does propose to measure the "effects" of beliefs in the "political and rhetorical domain" other than by their "reasonableness"?

Doctor J said...

And isn't the effect of measuring these "effects", effectively, the distinction between belief and knowledge?

Doctor J said...

Give up yet?