Saturday, February 24, 2007

How Do We Believe?

If, like me, you're one of those "secular-progressives" that Bill O'Reilly is warning us about, you may be slightly alarmed about recent surveys which indicate that, not only do 95% of your fellow Americans believe in a God ("of some kind"), but that 55% accept a literal interpretation of the Bible, just under half believe that humans and dinosaurs co-existed, usw.

Is this cause for alarm? Depends, I think, not just on what believe, but on how they believe it -- and also, and more importantly, on whether our fellow citizens really believe these things -- or just think they do.

Can one be mistaken about one's own beliefs?


James R. Martin said...

"Can one be mistaken about one's own beliefs?"

A friend offered a definition of "belief" that I've been believing ever since: "To belieive in X is to behave as if it were so."

Until I have good reason to behave otherwise, I'm behaving as if this defines 'belief'.

(Writing and speaking are behaviours, for sure. -- Is thinking a behavior?)

So, yes, I think a lot of us are probably mistaken about our own beliefs--or what we take to be our beliefs. And the orthodoxly religious are often those with the greatest gap between what they *think* they believe and what remains to be seen.

Take, for example, homosexuality. A lot of the orthodoxly religious claim to believe that it is very, very bad -- but
many of them behave, or have behaved, as if it were very, very good.

Or take the common proclaimed belief in a ideal afterlife in Heaven. How many approach their own death behaving as if such were awaiting them?

Much evidence for belief awaits an opportunity to behave.

Cal Sachs said...

Those are good examples, James. But I had something even broader in mind.

Consider, for example, how many people claim to believe in a God "of some kind". What is it, something like 90% of Americans? 95%? Certainly it's a lot!

But -- this is another way of getting at the problem -- how do they believe? How do they understand their own beliefs, and what roles do their beliefs play in their lives?

A religious form of life has a different shape than a non-religious form of life. (This is part of why it's true that atheists and theists do not disagree over the same proposition.)

But merely having a belief, or saying that one has a belief, is neither necessary nor sufficient for a religious form of life. The belief has to enter into the texture of one's intentions and actions -- otherwise it is merely idle. And if a belief is a disposition to behave, then an idle belief is no belief at all.

Konst. Kokarev said...

The chiefs of Russian Orthodox Church says that 80% of population of Russia believe in god and that they are orthodox. And many people think that they are orthodox. But only 2% or 3% attend churches regularly. Most of the people can't name the ten Commandments.
But that people can be very dangerous (in all senses).

Maureen said...

Personally, there seems to me to be massive underestimation of the amount of stupidity at work in the world. Stupidity is difficult to define, for it encompasses so many dimensions of human life, whether its secular or religious. Simply parroting whatever "beliefs" one has heard that sound good or just happen to be what one feels are better than saying "I don't know," is one aspect. Misperception of what one's actual skills, position, and knowledge are adds a whole other dimension, speaking to the point of whether one can be mistaken about one's own beliefs. On this there is a resounding YES, and our social scientist freinds have determined that people do have false beliefs about themselves. (And they project their false beliefs--so not only do they have false beliefs about what they know and can do, but in turn have false beliefs about what other people know and can do.) You would very much enjoy the work of psychologist David Dunning at Cornell who has over many years tested and assessed people's overstimation of themselves in cognitive and skill oriented tasks. One of his major papers verified that those with the lowest abilities are significantly deluded about themselves, as they do not have the cognitive skills to determine their knowledge and skill level in the first place. Even when given models to help them adjust their errors in their sefl-knowledge, they simply do not understand these models and cannot apply them.

Konst. Kokarev said...

The link is very curious. Thank you.

Carl Sachs said...

I think that stupidity is a huge problem in many senses, not least of which is epistemological. (You'll recall our argument with Tallise, Maureen?)

If Brandom is right in thinking that propositional content is inferential, then what are we to make of people who are unable to infer? They say the sorts of things that we'd expect from inhabitants of "the space of reasons," but there's some weird way in which they are blocked from being full members of that space. And this block, or failure, of rationality needs to be addressed both in terms of psychic resistance and in terms of political obstacles.

What's needed here is a much more politically and socially nuanced account of "the sociality of reason" than anything the Sellarsians or Davidsonians have yet provided. Philosophers continue to overestimate the intelligence and rationality of non-philosophers. You'd have thought that we would have learned by now.

Maybe Adorno comes close, but even he is a long way off -- he's got the Hegelian insight, and he's got the Freudian insight, but he doesn't have a worked-out account of how they fit together.

Crystal said...

Well written article.