A few days ago, Ebonmuse at Daylight Atheism addressed the issue "Why Do We Care?" He was concerned with the question of why some atheists, such as himself, seem concerned with the fact that others are devoting time and energy serving entities that do not exist.
I thought it was an interesting question.
I no special qualms with the answer and Ebonmuse gave. However, I wanted to give an answer in my own words – in terms of the view of morality that serves as the foundation for this blog.
A reader who sticks around for a while will discover that I almost never concern myself with questions about the existence of God. This is just one of an infinitely large set of questions that I do not concern myself with.
I also do not concern myself with the question of whether there is an invisible gremlin sitting in the next seat on this laptop, reading my screen, making plans to arrange for a rather brutal ‘accidental’ death of a young child 100 years from now each time I use the word ‘atheism.’
I could accept this proposition on faith. Yet, I could just as easily accept, on faith, the proposition that such a demon exists who will save a child from a brutal death each time I use the word ‘atheism.’
I have just as little evidence for each of these claims, so I have no reason to accept one over the other. I cannot accept all of them, so I accept none. I focus instead on the things that can actually affect the world around me. "If X is true, then Y will result; if X is not true, Y will not result. We can prove or disprove the truth of X by looking at whether Y results." If there is no “Y” or “not-Y” in the real world that counts as evidence of “X” or “not-X”, then “X or not-X” is a waste of time.
So, does this mean that, unlike Ebonmuse, I do not care about other peoples’ false beliefs?
Okay, I have to change the question somewhat. Another question I do not focus on answering in this blog is whether I, personally, care or do not care about a particular state of affairs. As an ethics blog, the relevant question is whether you, the reader, should or should not care about a particular state of affairs. Morality, as I have been describing it in this blog, would focus on the question, “Should people, generally, be promoting a universal desire for true beliefs and aversion to false beliefs?"
Another way of asking the same question: "Does a good person prefer truth over fiction (except where fiction is provided for entertainment purposes only and is not meant to be a basis for decision making)?"
In the terms that I have used as the foundation for this blog, humans seek to perform those actions that will fulfill the more and the stronger of their desires. Humans actually act in ways that would fulfill the more and the stronger of their desires if their beliefs were true.
If a person’s beliefs are true, his actions fulfill the more and stronger of his desires. If his beliefs are false or incomplete, he may fail to do so.
Imagine that it is a hot summer day, and you want to cool off in the swimming pool. You believe that the swimming pool has been filled with water. In fact, it has been filled with hydrochloric acid. You jump in. You choose an action that would have fulfilled your more and stronger desires if your beliefs were true. However, your beliefs were not true. Therefore, your attempt to fulfill your more and stronger desires failed. Instead, a great many desires, some of them very strong (e.g., desire to avoid pain) were thwarted.
True beliefs are important.
People, generally, have reason to acquire true beliefs so that they can better fulfill the more and the stronger of their desires.
One way to surround ourselves with true beliefs is to create a society in which the people who surround us are people who love truth and hate deception. Also, it would help to surround ourselves with people who are intellectually curious so that the will go out and seek new discoveries – create new true beliefs -- that we can then put to use. Accordingly, we have reason to discourage people from becoming either dishonest and deceptive, or intellectually reckless and irresponsible to the point that they freely make claims without regard as to whether they are true or false.
To the degree that we do this, to that degree we will find ourselves in an environment with more true beliefs, and less chance that a false belief will lead to incidents such as jumping into the pool.
We have tools that we can use to help to create a society filled with people who love truth and honesty, are intellectually curious, and accept moral responsibility for their claims about what is true or false. These are the tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. To form a culture that values true belief, we should praise and reward those who value honesty and truth, who are intellectually curious and seek new answers, and take care to draw only sound conclusions. We should present them with these rewards and honors in public and hold them up as an example for others.
At the same time, we should condemn those who show by their actions that they care nothing for truth. We should express our contempt not only for the dishonest, but for the intellectually reckless who assert things without taking proper care to determine if they are true or false. We should hold these people up as an example for others as well so that they can see what comes to those who are dishonest and intellectually reckless.
We can tell the difference. Let nobody convince you that we cannot.
We have the tools of logic. These are the tools that describe how to link premises and conclusions in a way that are truth-preserving. We can tell when a speaker or writer respects those rules, and when they violate those rules, either through a malicious intent to deceive or a careless disregard for truth.
We also have the tools of science. These tools tell us to take propositions and to look at their implications -- to design experiments -- and to use the results of those experiments to determine which propositions are true and which are false. History makes it obvious to any who would look that medicine has cured more people than prayer. Chemistry has saved more lives than communion. Biology and genetics has fed more people than sacrifices at an altar.
Those who belittle and denigrate these methods are preventing us from acquiring the true beliefs we need. They stand in the way of the medical advances, engineering accomplishments such as telecommunications and climate prediction, and advances in agriculture -- because they promote fiction over fact.
That is reason enough to care.
If you actually care to save lives and reduce suffering, go with what works.
As an example, Hume's Ghost has been following the practice some public relations firms have of finding ways to pass on corporate and partisan advertisements as neutral third-party news stories and even getting them to show up on the evening news as news.
These organizations have been producing video news releases (VNRs) and submitting them to news organizations, who then insert them into their evening news casts as if they were neutral third-party reports filed by their own staff. Against this, some have been calling for the Federal Communications Commission to force news organizations to disclose when they are using these paid advertisements.
As Hume’s Ghost has reported, elements of the PR industry is fighting this requirement calling it censorship.
Those who are protesting this requirement are effectively protesting the idea that we should form true beliefs about the authorship of these so-called news broadcasts.
Why would they do that?
It seems reasonable to conclude that they think we will act different if we had true beliefs. As I mentioned above, a person will act as if their beliefs are true, and may fail to fulfill his desires if his beliefs are false. Any organization or group that adopts a policy of preventing us from acquiring true beliefs is an organization that would rather have us risk thwarting our desires to allowing us to make informed decisions grounded on true beliefs.
They seem to think that they profit from our ignorance and are anxious to preserve their profit. Their clients want us to jump into the metaphorical pool (because they profit from it) and those who make these VNRs fear that we might use a little more caution if we knew who was telling us that the water is fine.
They may be right.
However, the question we need to be asking is whether, and to what degree, we can succeed in fulfilling our desires in a culture that values deception and the encouragement of false belief over honesty and truth.
We care, some of us anyway, because we have, and we recognize the value of the love of true belief.