Objective Reality, Rationalism and the Nature of Belief

I was in the middle of an utterly normal conversation with a friend when it suddenly veered off into a discussion of whether beliefs are a matter of choice. I said, obviously not, and she said, “of course they are!”. And then we quickly got into a tangential discussion which ended with her comparing me to Hitler*. So for the elucidation of anyone who cares to read it, here is my take.

The first question we need to settle is whether there is such a thing as objective reality. This is apparently not a very obvious question, but most of (modern, as in post-Kant) Western philosophy agrees that there is. Quite a lot of Eastern Philosophy doesn’t, I think, but we are sidestepping this question for a moment until more authoritative sources can contribute. Kant himself was cited as an objection, but his point was simply that the “true” reality was unknowable, not that it doesn’t exist in the first place. We will assume that there is such a thing, which I think is a comfortable assumption to make, because this is the assumption that all of modern science depends on. (No references to quantum physics or Fritjof Capra or anyone else will be accepted without substantiation; and I do think that is fair.) There can be no logic without an objective reality, or mathematics(again, any references to Riemann geometry or anything similar must elaborate). For a somewhat quirky “proof”, see here.

Belief is the psychological state in which an individual holds a proposition or premise to be true, according to wikipedia. When you believe something, you are essentially holding a concept in your head that you “believe” corresponds to The Way Things Are (or Should Be, or Will Be, or Might Be, or Were-we are not particularly concerned about that.) This means that to a rational mind something you believe must be either true or false. “Truth” might be unknowable, as Kant says, or it might just be unknown at present, in which case one can hold no beliefs about what one doesn’t know. This doesn’t mean that one can just believe anything. (It is possible to designate a “current best candidate” to a certain “degree of belief”, as one does in Bayesianism. One then performs “Bayesian updating’ taking into account the strength of new evidence and the prior degree of belief. This is essentially what the true rationalist/Bayesian always does, although it is invariably astoundingly difficult to explain to any “true believers” 🙂 )I can believe something to be true that isn’t, “actually”, but if I realize that it isn’t then I have an unavoidable obligation to change my belief.

This, of course, is only in an ideal situation. People do find it quite easy, in real life, to hold contradictory ideas in their minds. People find it easy to forcibly believe various pieces of dogma that they are “required” to believe, according to their church, their parents, their advisors or the state. I just finished reading 1984 yesterday, and was treated to some fascinating descriptions and explanations of doublethink. I have read, if only in a very amateur capacity, about cognitive dissonance.I know that people can be made to think that 2+2=5. So I fully understand that people are capable of voluntarily believing in things, although to see whether they believe it at all levels of consciousness is a question for psychologists-despite the horrifying, frightening ending of the book, I would like to think that there is some subconscious set of core beliefs that one simply cannot alter. My point is that it is not rational to do so.

(“Why rationality?”, you might ask. I would reply, “What else?” For more eloquent arguments-although I can’t see why, because someone who doesn’t believe in rationality will, by definition, not be swayed by any arguments other than appeals to brute instincts of pleasure and pain-you can check out any number of websites. Overcoming Bias and Less Wrong are comprehensive if tedious places to start, although the first is no longer updated, at least about this. Or just check any number of competent atheist websites.)

Not surprisingly, one of the areas where this question must be dealt with is atheism, or the voluntary “conversion” to atheism(I specifically mention voluntary as a means of excluding those cases where you are simply substituting another piece of dogma, such as communism). This post explains the concept of involutarism and voluntarism in the question of believing in God. It is written by an atheist, and at the end the author confesses that he tends very strongly towards involuntarism.

According to Terence Penelhum, there are two general schools of thought when it comes to how beliefs originate: voluntarist and involuntarist. The voluntarists take the position that belief is a matter of will: we have control over what we believe much in the way we have control over our actions.

Theists often seem to be voluntarists and Christians in particular commonly argue the voluntarist position. Some of history’s most prolific theologians like Thomas Aquinas and Soren Kierkegaard have written that believing — or at least believing religious dogma — is a free act of will. This isn’t surprising, because only if we bear some responsibility for our beliefs can disbelief be considered a sin punishable by sending nonbelievers to hell. Nonbelievers encounter this perspective when evangelists exhort others to “just believe” and to “choose Jesus,” reminding us that our atheism is a sin and a path to damnation.

Involuntarists, on the other hand, argue that we cannot really choose to just believe anything. According to them, a belief is not an action and thus cannot be attained by command. For example, everyone realizes that even after a person has concluded beyond any doubt what they must do, that doesn’t mean that they will automatically do it. Beyond their conclusion is the fact that extra steps must be taken to actually make the action happen.

This post, on the other hand, is written by a Christian, at a site that seeks to answer rationalist skeptics of Christianity (and religion in general, I assume). It , naturally enough, chooses the side of voluntarism. Aside from saying that “The Bible Teaches We Can Choose Our Beliefs”, it attacks the idea that a belief cannot be changed by exertion of will:

As an example, for many years, people held to the belief that those of African descent were somehow less human than other people on the planet and could be bought and sold as property. It was only after a dedicated minority of people such as William Wilberforce began to insist through discourse and argument that beliefs began to change. Even today, I know of many people who had some type of belief or conviction that they were taught but now no longer hold since they thought through the arguments. So, I would see this as proof that a specifically held belief can be changed by the exchange of ideas and some hard thinking on the topic.

Of course, this argument completely misses the point. “Thinking through the arguments”, as he puts it, implies that one is either acquiring additional evidence or better interpreting existing evidence. It is completely rational to change one’s beliefs when one no longer has evidence for them, or has evidence against them. When we say that belief is involuntary, what we mean is that we cannot “choose” to believe something against the evidence. If they hadn’t changed their views, that would be evidence of voluntarism.

In conclusion: I can see no way in which one can rationally argue that belief is a matter of choice. This isn’t as overarching a concept as one might think, however. As I was surprised at having to explain, it does not in any way affect my libertarianism. I do not suggest that some one or some group of people go around correcting all wrong beliefs. All beliefs might have value, or they might not-in an area where we do not have conclusive proof, anything can go. However, this does not mean that one abandons rationality, it just means that one adopts a more sophisticated but equally obvious method of reasoning, such as Bayesianism.

*My theory was wrong, at least according to another site that I visited just now. It was a thought experiment more than anything else, anyway. I was talking out of my ass, as less polite people would call it.

PS: This is certainly one of the best Christian sites that I have seen, I must say, because it accepts a rationalist worldview and concedes the obvious, and then makes Christianity consistent by claiming the facts of the Resurrection:

This same concept holds true in all our beliefs about God and the world. Beliefs make truth claims that can be examined to see if they are internally consistent and externally consistent. An internally inconsistent belief is one where its own claims contradict each other. Logical positivism is a good example of this. Logical Positivists held a principle called the verification principle which said that for a non analytical statement to be meaningful, it must be empirically verifiable.2 Of course, the statement “for a non-analytical statement to be meaningful, it must be empirically verifiable” is neither analytic nor able to be proven empirically3, so it becomes internally inconsistent.

A belief is externally inconsistent if any of its claims contradict what we know to be true. Baha’i beliefs hold that “God has revealed Himself to humanity through a series of divine Messengers, each of Whom has founded a great religion.”4 However, if the fundamental tenants of each of these “great religions” contradicts each other, then their claim that cannot be true.

Jesus held to the concept of a single God, while other faiths like Hinduism hold to multiple gods and yet others like Buddhism don’t believe in a personal God at all. All these views of God are in competition with each other – it is impossible for all of them to be true. Further, Jesus taught that God had a son, whom He called “His only begotten son”, while Muhammad taught that God does not beget nor is He begotten”. Again, these teachings stand in direct opposition to each other, therefore, Baha’ism is externally inconsistent. It makes claims that don’t match the reality of the world.

The concept of consistency is a good way to begin to judge the truthfulness of any belief system, including the one in which a person is raised. If a belief is internally inconsistent, you don’t need to be exposed to any other beliefs to recognize the problems with the inconsistent belief. As an example, look at the way our understanding of medicine and the human body have changed. We no longer believe in blood-letting and such things – and even if we don’t know what the diagnosis is, we wouldn’t resort to treating a patient using those concepts.

Christianity is unique in its challenge to its adherents to test its claims and see if they are true. Paul says that the entire faith if the Christian rests on the historical fact of the resurrection. If that’s not true, then we are liars and we should be rejected. To this end, God has given us our reasoning faculties so that we don’t simply follow whatever we’re taught. To do so doesn’t show maturity and wisdom as a person.

It so happens that they conveniently ignore some of the other parts of christianity, as laid out in the Bible and the guidelines of the church, which call for blind faith. But that is an entirely different issue, and one which I have no interest in going into right now.

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10 thoughts on “Objective Reality, Rationalism and the Nature of Belief

  1. I agree…belief is not a matter of choice. But I guess it stems more from my being a determinist than anything else. Sorry to disappoint 🙂

    On a different note (I’m assuming here that you’ve read the bible) I want to know about Sodom and Gomorrah (at least I think I heard it correctly). I was seeing this Bill Maher documentary called Religulous in which he says some pretty…well…controversial stuff, to say the least. I wanted a christian’s take on it, even though you are a “pessimistic agnostic” 😛

  2. Hi. Nice try and you are on the right path. Billy Hatcher would be proud. I would advise you examine the axioms and their history in the past 100 years or so. You may want to look at the fundamentals of Schopenhauer and where they led to. We do not have to justify Truth with reality. Truth IS reality. It’s reality by definition. That’s what Truth is, ’cause if it ain’t, then it ain’t the Truth. ‘Course, if it is, well, then it’s the Truth, ’cause that’s what Truth is. Truth is that which exists independently of our perception. Our perception may cloud our understanding and recognition of Truth, but your perception ain’t the Truth. ‘Cause if you really believe your perception is the Truth, then you got more problems than any philosophy can handle.

  3. I had to look up Billy Hatcher, and I must confess I still don’t know what you meant 🙂 .But thanks for the support.

  4. Very interesting and thought provoking. I enjoy reading your blog site very much. I am a Baha’i and am studying the writings of the Apostle Paul. When Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 “that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures …” What scriptures or “Writings” do you think he is referring to? It can’t be the Gospels because, as you know, they hadn’t been compiled and written when Paul wrote his letter, which was much earlier. My question isn’t meant to be argumentative; it relates to your point that Paul insists that witnessing (being in agreement with) the notion of physical resurrection is essential to Christian belief in general, and this is a point which objectively sets this belief system apart from all others. You believe it, or you don’t. It is not necessarily the case, and I believe there are ways to show why, objectively. In other words, there are other points of view besides the one you stated. It’s not just a matter of one imperative, singular statement of belief. Rather, it depends on your perspective and understanding.

    With regard to these perspectives in understanding (which I use in place of “belief”), well of course this depends upon your perspective. The story of the six blind men of Hindustan and the elephant comes to mind; what you know and believe depends upon your point of view, what information you have, and how you process that information towards understanding (and how much your imagination contributes), all translating to belief.

  5. :)You don’t really have to convince me about ambiguities or inconsistencies in the tenets of Christianity. You can try convincing the guy at the blog I linked to, though. He has a rather impressive collection of explanations for various specific arguments against the “absolute truth” of the Christian faith. I didn’t check for this one, specifically, but I think he’s likely to have tackled it.
    “….Rather, it depends on your perspective and understanding.With regard to these perspectives in understanding (which I use in place of “belief”), well of course this depends upon your perspective. The story of the six blind men of Hindustan and the elephant comes to mind; what you know and believe depends upon your point of view, what information you have, and how you process that information towards understanding (and how much your imagination contributes), all translating to belief.”

    Well, that’s obviously true. This example again commits the same mistake that I referred to earlier in the post. The point is that in any given situation, given what you know and all your prior beliefs(which hopefully, you also arrived at using some logical method), you can only believe one thing. As you said, our individual processing styles and imagination will make a difference, although ideally we should find some way to correct for or take advantage of that.When you know more, and as your beliefs change over the years, these beliefs will have to change. This makes things rather difficult in practice, but as I said Bayesianism helps you perform this updating in a more rigorous manner. Of course, when it’s obvious that you have a clear lack of knowledge about any given issue and you’re not required to make a decision soon, and you have no easy ways of procuring more information, you might want to delay judgement. Which is what a lot of people end up doing, anyway.

  6. Belief, to me, means forcing something on your mind. You believe something which you have no knowledge of. Where there is knowledge there is no need for believing. No need for faith.

    You know that tomorrow the Sun will rise again. You know that the Moon will show up tonight. You never say such thing as “I believe Sun will rise every morning.” You just say “Sun rises every morning”. This explains the difference between knowing and believing.

  7. Well, actually, I do believe the sun will rise every morning. I don’t have to say it that way because nobody will insist I do, unlike with more controversial statements. I don’t think the distinction you make is a part of the english language. Believe:Accept as true; take to be true. The definition itself has nothing to say about the existence of proof.

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