How Should I Be A Sceptic -- belief without reason?

[Introductory note from Jason Pratt: the previous entry in this series of posts can be found here. The first entry can be found here.

This entry continues a fourth chapter, begun here. I highly recommend reading at least as far back as this, first.]

It seems to me (as an initial expectation, based on my previous considerations), that every 'real' belief requires an acted inference of some sort on the part of the believer; although the exact inference may not be what the believer claims it is with respect to the belief.

In other words, I question whether there can be any such thing as a real belief that is irrational (in the very limited sense I am using of ‘irrational’.)

As I roll on the ground in delirium after being snakebit, I might be muttering "Snake... in hole..." But that doesn't necessarily mean I actually 'believe' it: because I might not be conscious. The sounds coming out of my mouth might be the same type of non-intended effects-by-association which produced my delirium in the first place.

Dentists and some other physicians (or people like myself who have undergone special forms of anesthesia) know quite well that a human can be unconscious yet still respond to sensory stimulus in a manner not entirely different (but still somewhat different) from how the person might consciously respond. This can even include an anesthetized person answering questions. Yet the person is not conscious; he is purely reacting, not initiating events. Memory artifacts which happen to be processed during this period for retrieval later, might give that person some data to draw inferences from and thus to form beliefs later; but I do not see how the unconscious person as an 'unconscious' person can have a real 'belief' connected to his statement. [See first comment below for a footnote here.]

Similarly, a parrot can react to the environment (given proper prior conditioning) so that it responds with words which have some 'meaning' in connection with the keywords used as stimulus. An unconscious human, having a brain with better capabilities of that sort and a lifetime of already-ingrained habits, could be expected to respond more efficiently as an unconscious entity than the parrot.

But the parrot doesn't have a 'belief about what it is saying'. It might be able to consciously infer that it will get food if it replies correctly to the sensory stimulus, but that is not the same as believing what it is saying. [Footnote: my sceptical reader will probably know of some politicians and religious leaders, who consciously understand they’ll be well fed if they say certain things, but who do not believe what they are saying...!]

Many people would deny the parrot is conscious in any way, and most people would deny it is conscious of what the words mean as human language (rendering it effectively unconscious in that limited respect). Therefore, it either cannot have beliefs about the ideas expressed as English language contained in the words, or if it does it will be by accident. [See second comment below for a footnote here.]

A very few people might suggest the parrot 'believes' what it is 'saying'; but if so, the corollary to this would be that the parrot is conscious of what it is saying and is actively drawing inferences from that conscious perception.

I might even be willing to agree that this happens in the case of particular parrots! But the parrot's belief depended on its conscious perception of the meaning, and a parrot unconscious of the meaning (either by being ignorant of the meaning although otherwise capable of inferences, or by being utterly unconscious and thus completely reactive) could not have a belief linked to the content of the phrase, as such. It would be a contradiction to claim otherwise.

Not only do I therefore think that beliefs certainly can be produced by reasoning (which leaves the door open for me to continue, even without this extension to my chapter); but my further (somewhat more speculative) opinion is that every belief requires a train of reasoning in order to exist.

And 'every belief' includes 'religious belief'.

It seems to me unlikely (even contradictory) that beliefs can really exist without reasoning; therefore, I certainly want my beliefs to have the best reasonings possible (within the limitations of my capabilities, of course.) I have made some effort to discover what other people have tried in this venue, and to puzzle out for myself as much as I can.

Some philosophers, however, would admit much of what I have said above, yet still deny that beliefs necessarily require reasoning. A fideistic theist (for instance) would claim that the sheer action of asserting to a proposition entails a belief; she would reject all support as spurious and debatable, and perhaps even unbecoming the dignity due to God.

Some of my brethren might think this sounds just fine! But notice I said all support. The dedicated fideist would reject scriptural support as well--including doctrines drawn from or backed by Scripture.

Most of my Presuppositionalistic fellow-believers would at least say "I believe God has such-n-such characteristics because the Bible tells me so, or because such a presupposition is the only way that a non-crashing reality (or at least certain aspects of reality) could exist."

But the fideist would reject both of these supports. She flatly asserts God's existence; she denies (at least for as long as she remembers the implications of her stance) that any definite characteristics of God can be discovered through any means. She would say that even His existence cannot be discovered; and that even she has not 'discovered' it. She would say she purely asserts it, without proof, argument, or even evidence. [See third comment below for a footnote here.]

There are several reasons for a person to choose fideism. She might have been exposed to numerous strong counterarguments involving every support to her theism, and so to ‘protect her belief' she renounces all supports other than flat assertion.

Or, she might advocate one of the theories about the unfeasibility of reasoning-to-God that I have been discussing during the previous chapters, and take such a stance to the ultimate conclusion that no reasoning at all can support theism (so if she is going to remain a theist, she must abandon all supports).

Relatedly, if by taking a faith/reason disparity to its ultimate end she decides that faith must mean pure assertion, then she would reject anything except pure assertion.

She might also choose this path because she wants to recognize God's glory and/or believes the highest level of trust (or similar personal relationship with God) involves 'faith without any supports'. But remember, 'without any supports' means without Scriptural support, too, as far as the robust fideist is concerned.

There could well be other reasons to be a fideist. My goal here is not to launch ripostes against every possible reason to be a fideist. That isn't necessary, because every fideist stance has an intrinsic problem that transcends particular reasons for being a fideist:

The fideist invariably has reasons for choosing to be a fideist.

In essence, the fideist has the same problem as a more traditional 'faith-only' theist: both groups have particular beliefs about God (and religion in general) which are based on inferences they have drawn--their beliefs are in fact derived through reasoning. Indeed, a fideist may have long recognized the hidden inferences that a more traditional 'faith-not-reason' advocate doesn't recognize he himself has. What she then does (provided this is the particular path to fideism she follows), is draw an inference from the unintentional error of her fellow-believer to the conclusion that she must rid herself of what is obviously yet another reason to accept God's existence and character (for example, "the Bible tells me so").

But in doing so, she has still grounded her belief through a chain of inferences herself.

For instance: "If faith should be kept separate from reason, and if I discover that traditional faith-not-reason positions actually use reasons, then I should also renounce those reasons." But her 'if-then' is itself an inferential path and so is itself a 'reason' to be a fideistic theist rather than some other kind of theist.

The attempt must fail: no matter how well-intended the fideist may be, she cannot successfully argue that our beliefs and attitudes toward God should not and/or cannot be grounded on reasons--because she will be tacitly ignoring the chain of reasoning that led her to her own attitude and belief about God (including the inferences which led her to accept a faith/reason disparity in the first place).

Other routes to fideism carry the same intrinsic fallacy, although the expression of the fallacy will differ according to the path taken. Of course, having gotten to fideism, our philosopher (she would probably not consider herself as having anything to do with 'religion' in a 'real' fashion, although she might still appreciate it aesthetically) could make a blanket raw assertion of being "a fideist"--a "believer in God", per se.

But I think 99% of the time she will find herself explaining to the non-fideist why she is a fideist and perhaps even why the non-fideist should also reject all support of God's existence. And this immediately undercuts her position at the most fundamental of levels: by claiming God's existence and character cannot be discovered by reason, she herself makes a positive characteristic claim about God which she almost always will try to justify by showing her reasons for that stance.

What about my hypothetical 1% of fideists who refuse to give any reasons at all for being a fideist?--who, when asked "Why do you hold this belief?" respond "There is no why; I just do."

I know this cannot help but sound insulting to them, but I am not sure these 'hyperfideists' have a 'belief' either in or about God at all.

To begin with, when other topics are discussed I see very clearly that sheer assertions are not necessarily beliefs. I can quite easily assert "The sun and all the stars revolve around the earth" without believing it myself.

And if an assertion is not necessarily a belief, how am I to agree that a hyperfideist does have a belief? A further discussion beyond the flat assertion requires some kind of inferential analysis, which means a justification on the part of the fideist. But the extreme fideist will not provide any justification, because she understands perfectly well that such an act would undercut her claimed position of 'faith without justification'. But without some kind of inferential train to follow, I have no way of discerning whether her flat assertion reflects some kind of a belief on her part or not.

Second, a belief must have content; propositions must be accepted. A fideist's position either has content, or it does not (and with no content there simply is no position). Typically the fideist has one content to her belief: God exists. [Footnote: actually, she would claim another content as well, although the claim might be only implicit: God is such that no reasoning about God can reach true conclusions.]

But existence is a positive characteristic, even if the most basic of characteristics. Why stop there? Why not make other assertions?

The fideist will say she can have no grounds for making those other assertions. But then, she can have no grounds (specifically as a fideist) for asserting God's existence, either. If she refuses to assign other characteristics to God because no grounds can be sufficient for those characteristics, why does she assign the characteristic of 'existence'?

If she follows the actual implications of her position, she ends either with a mere zero (indistinguishable from atheism in all but name) or with an ultimately arbitrary set of characteristics (even if that set only contains one characteristic: existence. Plus the tacit characteristic of ‘no reasoning about God can reach true conclusions, of course.) If the propositions are arbitrary, then what use is it to say she 'believes' them?

She has no grounds for belief and she restricts content for the belief in a fashion that, if rigorously applied, ends with the removal of even the characteristic of 'existence' from her idea of God. Thus, what she calls her 'belief' is either utterly alien to any concept of 'belief' I can understand or even imagine; or else she is fudging, whereupon she might as well try to figure out as much as she can of God's characteristics by reasoning.

And that leads me to one more conclusion about fideism: if it is held rigorously as fideism, it is inaccessible to other people. In fact, technically it should have been inaccessible to our fideist, too! But given (for sake of argument) she has reached that point, the content of her position (such as it is) renders further cogent discussion impossible--or else, not without cheating a bit.

At the very best, if fideism is correct, it is impossible for someone not a fideist to know it is correct (I would say it is also impossible for the fideist herself to know it is correct, as long as she sticks to the implications of her assertion); and therefore I cannot be faulted (on that ground at least) for continuing to derive and reinforce my (and other people's) beliefs about God through reasoning.

There is one possible fideist 'justification' (I know no other apt description for it) which could also be held by other philosophers, be they religious or not: if an ultimately transcendent God does exist, then it would be arrogant fatuity for me, or any other thinker, to claim that particular characteristics of God can be known or at least discovered.

I have plenty of sympathy for this view, because I do believe in God's ultimate and infinite transcendence. At least, I accept that unless we are discussing that type of God, we are not yet discussing supernaturalistic theism. [See fourth comment below for a footnote here.]

The question here is whether God's characteristic(s) as an Ultimate Being necessarily prevent us from discovering any positive characteristic about Him. And I immediately point my reader back to an earlier discussion of mine on this topic: whoever holds this position must have discovered at least one positive characteristic about God--He is such that no other positive characteristics may be discovered. Otherwise, if characteristics are merely asserted, then we are only playing word games about we-cannot-say-what, and we might as well become atheists.

My simple assertion "God exists" does not make God exist. Nor does any reasoning I do about God, of course; but then, I am looking to discover particular characteristics of God (characteristics I have not invented) through this process. The sheer asserter does not claim to be discovering any facts about God--she is only asserting them. But one of the things the sheer asserter is sheerly asserting, is that no reasoning can discover attributes of God. If there is no defense for this position (and by its own character there can be no defense) then I may safely continue.

But does this absolve me from the arrogance of claiming I can discover something about God? Yes; or at least I will be no more arrogant than the fideist who either has discovered one particular fact about God ('no other particular fact may be discovered') or who sheerly asserts this proposition as being itself a fact.

Personally, I would consider the sheer assertion of anything, to be potentially more arrogant (if we must talk of such attitudes) than any process of potential discovery, which at least might be qualified (as I try to constantly do in my own work). I certainly think a person, be she sceptic or believer, might possibly humbly search out a trail where it leads without forcing the issue. The discovery of God's existence and attributes (even the discovery of God's non-existence, if that is where the evidence leads) need not necessarily be an exercise in prideful self-acclimation.

[Next week: a return to religious belief and reasoning]


Jason Pratt said…
.......[first deferred footnote here]

Or, more precisely, an unconscious statement may reflect a belief consciously held at other times, and so be connected in that manner. But such a link is not a necessity, and at any rate I think it is a contradiction in terms to say 'I' 'am believing' something at the moment when 'I' am unconscious.
Jason Pratt said…
.......[second deferred footnote here]

The parrot may infer that if it says "Polly wanna cracker" or "Hasta la vista, Bay-bee..." then it will be fed; but only the first sentence carries a meaning in English language which properly reflects the resultant event. (Notably, the meaning in this example is given by someone who can actually give meaning. If the parrot says "Polly wanna cracker", it isn't by accident after all...)
Jason Pratt said…
.......[third deferred footnote here]

This is another reason why I reject a faith/reason disparity, especially when proposed to be part of the religion I think to be true: such a position, carried to its logical conclusion, leads straight to the rejection of 'religion', which includes (in passing) the rejection of everything that makes Christianity specifically 'Christian'. Once again, such a fortress mentality is no safeguard against heresy. This is aside from the question of whether the fideist is correct to think this way.
Jason Pratt said…
.......[fourth deferred footnote here]

I will defer a deeper discussion of this point until a later chapter. If you, the reader, dispute this point I can only ask you to hold off a little while and treat this as a hypothetical issue while I discuss further contentions and common grounds I have with fideists. For readers who wonder, my belief in God's transcendence does not exclude my belief in God's immanence. I will cover this all later, in other sections.

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