Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Against Belief

As many of you know, like some of my esteemed colleagues, I am a PK (preacher's kid). To me this doesn't ultimately mean a whole lot, other than providing an explanation for why I went to church camps for so many summers and why I have been drawn towards this seemingly eggheaded vocation. It is not something that I think about a lot. But I do occasionallly wonder about the influence of Christianity in my life. I tend to think, since reading the Bible was never an activity forced upon me or one that I voluntarily pursued, that the influence would have been less explicit and more the result of habits of thinking, apothegms repeated, principles practiced. In other words, the results of a surrounding Christian culture rather than an actual intellectual encounter.

To put this another way, Christianity for me is not a matter of belief, but a question of a practice. The distinction here being that belief requires a conscious encounter with the concepts and principles, whereas practice would play out on a non-explicit level, but be captured by the things that I do and the decisions that I make (the latter not necessarily the result of "deliberation" and "rational determination"). I'm drawn to this description, in part, because I strongly distrust accounts of human behaviour in terms of deliberation and rational decision-making. Instead, I am convinced that individuals are shaped by experiences and institutions, stretching from the language that they use to the occupations they take up to the civic groups they populate.

To some degree, this prejudice has informed my comments on the dangers of certain literary experiences.

In the past few years, these ideas have percolated into a specific position on belief, that I must say I am rather proud of. It seems to me like an original idea that I can call my own. So now I'd like to share it with you. To begin with, I am uncomfortable with the question, "do you believe in God?" It mortally offends my sense of good taste.

The reason is that I believe questions about belief are immaterial, and erroneously attribute autonomy to individuals which is fact the effect of institutions (here my sense of institution is extended to the something as amorphous as language, which I take to be encoded with values and prejudices that give it intelligibility and that are the condition for any kind of meaningful communication). In a certain sense, I find the question insulting. As though an omnipotent being would need the affirmation or negation of a particular finite individual. It is a question that does not make sense to me. It is not as though we ask people if they believe in black holes or in quarks, although arguably none of us have ever seen them.

And it seems to me that God is not something we have to believe in. God clearly has effects in our experience everyday. I don't mean by this, God let Musshareff(sp?) put Bhutto under house arrest or God killed all of those Iraqi civilians. That is, if we are asking about the cause of these events being some omnipotent being, intervening in the course of worldly events. But that the concept of God has effects regardless of what I think. For example, "God" has been expressed through the convictions of millions of fundamentalists in their political engagements with infidels. These people act because of their "belief."

But their "beliefs" are also the effect, inarguably, of long traditions of ideas and practices and are not separable from them. Their "beliefs" require numerous conditions for their possibility. But it seems that this idea of belief is important, especially in a world in which we feel alienated in so many ways. Yet precisely for this reason it is deceptive. Because we place so much confidence in belief, opinion polls matter to us. And we allow ourselves to seriously consider a debate between a scientific theory (evolution) and a hodgepodge notion (creationism, intelligible design). We pursue a war in another country on the basis of confidence and belief, rather than evidence.

Belief, it seems to me, has been incredibly damaging, especially insofar as encroaches on "reality." But the latter is not a matter of "belief." This is one of the first illusions I try to disabuse my students of--that philosophy is a series of "beliefs" about the world and reality. It makes my blood boil for them to use the word.

I'm curious what others think about this.


Timothy Carter said...

Very interesting thoughts. Yes, beliefs can be very dangerous, and they are very hard to shake. If, for example, someone believes that God hates left-handed people, it may be impossible to convince that person that left-handed people aren't evil.

Good blog. I hope you'll check out mine sometime.

kgrady said...

Even though I think this post is largely a Trojan horse for the ongoing censorship debate, I'll bite.

Honestly, I think you've got several issues in the air here at once. You must be having a little fun with us though when you finish a post about the irrelevance of belief by asking us what we think, right?

Even if we entirely throw out ideas of deliberation and rational choice (rather than simply attending to their limits, as sound judgment recommends), I don't understand your claim that "questions about belief are immaterial." Perhaps these questions are wrongly put (though I won't exactly concede that), but that doesn't mean that it is if no interest whether or not I believe in God, since this in turn determines what other things I am likely to do, say, believe, and so on. So even on your strictly mechanistic theory of social behavior, belief is a very relevant question. Oh, and we don't ask people whether they believe in black holes for the simple reasons that we don't expect this to have much impact on the other forms of behavior in which they engage.

As you say, "the concept of God has effects regardless of what I think." Of course, but my belief is both one of those "effects," and the possible cause of future effects. Immaterial?

The fact that something, whether a belief or anything else, "requires numerous conditions for its belief" does not mean that it is sufficiently determined by those conditions. Ideas of freedom, undecidability, deliberation, or rational choice are in no way threatened by admitting their need to engage with other causal mechanisms.

But what troubles me the most is your last point, where you try to distinguish belief from reality, after having argued that whatever we think is merely the product of social and intellectual forces that precede and dtermine us. Presumably this would include you, and your notion of reality. So on what basis do we distinguish reality from belief if not according to some standard of judgment that is not completely determined in advance, and hence immaterial?

I'm worried that this is not an argument against belief, but against philosophy.

Doctor J said...

I hate that Kyle and I are in such utter agreement... well, not so much that we agree per se, but just that said agreement leaves me mostly repeating Kyle in these comment sections.

Surely you must recognize, chet, that this argument “against” belief runs counter to your previous argument “for” censorship. The earlier argument was grounded in your “belief” that some literature is good (and good for you) and other literature is bad (and bad for you). Consequently, you argued, one should censor the body of literature out there in order to separate the wheat from the chaff, that is, in order to distinguish the wanted from the unwanted, what we *believe* is valuable from what we *believe* is valueless.

I am inclined, in large part, to say that all “normative” claims are based in belief. “Reality” (s’il en y a) does not give us normativity. Your censorship argument demonstrates this well. Normative claims are based in “beliefs” about what we think the world and people are, what we think the world and people should be, and what we think it takes to get the world and people from the *is* to the *ought*. So, your judgment was/is something like the following: “Good literature is good for one’s intellectual, spiritual and social development as well as being good for the collective. One *ought* to read only good literature. To that end, one *ought* to prevent (especially young) people from consuming bad literature.” Clearly, there are a host of (non-immaterial) beliefs embedded in those judgments, resulting in a normative claim that, although derived in part from your personal and institutional experience, cannot be *necessarily* or *ultimately* derived from those (belief-shaping) experiences.

I am baffled by your insistence on leaving only two reductive options for talking about this—either (1) radical and ultimately indefensible voluntaristic rationalism, or (2) radical and ultimately indefensible mechanistic materialism. What gives?

Doctor J said...

I also wanted to say, as a fellow-PK, that I agree with you that PK-hood definitely shapes my belief, and that is primarily done through practice and environment (and the practices of my environment). But it also shapes my beliefs, sometimes negatively, which are not "immaterial."