Monday, June 23, 2008

Considering False Beliefs

I am still acutely embarrassed over my mistake regarding the expected release of the Pledge rulings. As a result of that mistake, my thoughts today are firmly fixated on considerations on the ethics of belief.

Note: Even though I got the timing wrong, I am still going to be using the Atheist Ethicist Journal to drum up as much support for the Pledge Project as I can before the decisions actually do come out.

It is a part of our human makeup that if, at some time, we go through a set of reasoning to determine the truth of a given conclusion, we will remember the conclusion, but not the reasons we had for believing it.

If it turns out that one of those premises happens to be false, we can then change our mind about the premise, and yet not change our mind about the conclusion that came from the original false beliefs.

If you think about it, a huge stock of your beliefs fit this description. One of my beliefs is that the Martian day is almost the same as the Earth day. I cannot tell you where I learned this. I certainly did not measure the length of the day on Mars myself - I trusted that others were right when they told me this. Yet, I am certain that it is true. Even though I might be mistaken.

I do not remember how I came to believe that the Courts of Appeals worked on the same calendar as the Supreme Court. Yet, I did reach that conclusion somehow, and I fastened a flag on it that gave it the status of near certainty. It had a certainty value around 9.8 on a scale from 1 to 10.

Rationalists never assign anything a certainty value of 10. Even a simple proposition like “parallel lines never meet” can be called into question by a different way of looking at the universe. Even the proposition that nothing should be assigned a certainty of 10 is not given a certainty of 10. It always waits around looking for the possible case in which it is false.

This is one difference between rationalist ways of thinking and some faith-based alternatives. Faith-based alternatives assign to some propositions a certainty of 10. There is no possibility that these propositions are false. If evidence appears to suggest that they are false, then this proves (to those who have faith in certain conclusion) that they do not understand the evidence. A proper understanding of the evidence can never contradict a belief with a certainty of 10.

Budget constraints (in terms of time and energy) do not allow us the opportunity to hold every belief up to the light of reason. We form some beliefs sloppily. We must. Can you imagine a young child of 3 years of age holding all of his beliefs up to the light of reason? And, when that child of 3 becomes a child of 13 and he holds his beliefs up to the light of reason, much of that reason will have to do with consistency with belies that he acquired at the age of 3. He will not remember how he formed those beliefs. He will simply know that he has them and they have a certain certainty value. He has no capacity to review every belief he has ever acquired.

So, we must pick and choose which beliefs we should actually take the time to examine more closely. One of the standards which we should use in evaluating whether to re-evaluate a belief is the cost of being wrong. Another criterion, strangely enough, is the certainty flag. Once a belief has been flagged as near certain, this tells the brain that there is little to be gained by re-examining that belief. Instead, one should focus one’s efforts on some other belief.

I was so certain of the belief that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ended its term on June 30th that I accepted very high costs without re-examining that belief. The certainty flag suggested that re-examining it would be a waste of time.

Yet, once other people became involved, those priorities changed. My certainty flag gives me reason not to re-evaluate a belief, where I alone suffer the consequences of error. However, a morally responsible person does not inflict costs on others based on his or her certainty flag. Obligations to others require extra diligence.

So it was the case that when others started to ask me how I could be so certain that the Court will release its opinion by June 30 that I went to the effort to actually find out the facts of the matter.

I knew what I would find. When I started the search, it was simply a matter of looking for an official statement that says that the Court term end s on June 30th. The search was not grounded on any doubt about the fact of the matter. It was grounded on the fact that I wanted to provide others with the same certainty that I had – and they could not have the same level of certainty unless their beliefs were grounded on something more solid than my certainty.

Of course, what I discovered is that my own belief was not true. My belief went from high certainty to a moderate certainty that the original belief was false over the course of a few agonizing hours.

This policy of re-examining one’s beliefs, even beliefs that a person holds to be certain, when one discovers its effects on others, is a moral obligation that many religious traditions deny. We hear it said that religion is the great foundation for all morality. Yet, here is a component of morality that most of those same religions not only ignore, but counsel against.

These are the simple moral lessons. In this context, these points seem clear and obvious. Yet, there is one clear and obvious case where these moral principles are ignored.

There are people who advocate that an individual can have a belief, can use that belief to ground behavior harmful to others, and yet have absolutely no moral obligation to check those beliefs to make sure that they are well grounded. The claim is that these beliefs may be held on faith and faith alone. The fact that the faith grounds behavior harmful to others gives the agent absolutely no obligation to go back and review the belief to make sure that it is justified.

The case is actually worse than saying that there is no obligation to review the harmful beliefs. The claim is actually made that morality obligates the agent to refrain from questioning those beliefs. It is not even permissible to reconsider such beliefs.

Many people argue that there is some strong and necessary link between morality and religion. In this one case, religion teaches immorality. When religion tells a person that they may engage in behavior harmful to others and yet are obligated to refrain from examining the beliefs that underlie that behavior to determine if it is justified, in this case religion is teaching people to behave immorally.

I must point out that this is not a criticism of all religion. There are religions that teach that we must examine our beliefs, yet hold that the belief that a God exists and places certain demands on us is justified. These religions do not suffer from the fault that I have identified above.

It is also the case that a person does not have to be religious to hold an unjustified belief that leads to behavior harmful to others. People can hold these types of beliefs about any number of subjects, and still, at the same time, believe that it is (almost) certainly the case that no God exists.

This is not a criticism that says that atheists are inherently better than theists. Instead, this is a criticism that is meant to focus on the wrong of not examining one’s beliefs when an error in beliefs might lead to conclusions that are harmful to others. This happens to be a belief that is very common among a number of religions. Where it happens in any religion (or outside of religion) – wherever a priest counsels individuals to refrain from examining beliefs that serve as a foundation for behavior harmful to others – that religion and that priest promote immorality. They are advising their followers to refrain from doing something that all moral people have an obligation to do.

The fact that there are religions who commit wrongs on a much greater magnitude then the mistake that I made with respect to the timing of the 9th Circuit Court opinion does not change the fact that I should have been more careful.


CrypticLife said...

"Even the proposition that nothing should be assigned a certainty of 10 is not given a certainty of 10. It always waits around looking for the possible case in which it is false."

I think, therefore I am?

Anonymous said...

I was totally blown away by your examination of "false beliefs". The honesty with which you have faced this "human condition" makes "must reading and heeding" for everyone, particularly the outspoken fundies, evangelists and politicians . . . and, in my personal life, all also those who are mistaken in their beliefs of who I am and why I do what I do. Your expressed concerns with the value of continuing to examine belief systems are now at the top of my "if only they would" list. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

"I beseech ye in the bowels of Christ, think it possible ye could be mistaken." Oliver Cromwell

breakerslion said...

It would be interesting to see how the delusional handle your challenge to their claim on the moral high ground.

Playing Deity's Advocate for a moment, it is also possible, lacking the response, "Because the god said so", to raise this question. To what degree of certainty should one hold the belief that there is a moral obligation to prevent doing harm to others?

Follow-up questions.

Does this necessarily reduce morality to a social contract, and/or an elaboration of the Golden Rule?

Where does one draw the line between preventing harm to others and causing harm to one's self as the alternative?

How did Oliver Cromwell come to think he was up JC's rectum?

Anonymous said...

Hi Breakerslion!

The delusional will completely ignore this challenge, or claim it is the lies of unholy forces and dismiss it. It is not the delusional who are the intended recipients of the message, even tho it is directed at them. The intent is to present true moral options to the moderate majority, who will then (hopefully) see how delusional the extremists are. You can never fix everything. But if you can unite the best 80% of the population against the worst 20%, you will make the world a much better place than if you pit the best 20% against the worst 80% (thereby ensuring the best are destroyed and the worst become dominant).

In response to the other questions (if I may be so bold)... it seems that historical evidence supports the assertion that if everyone has a strong desire to prevent doing harm to others then everyone is better off, and thus it is a desire we should promote as much as is reasonable. Thus the certainty we should attach to this belief is roughly equivalent as the certainty we should attach to any belief that has been repeatedly documented and verified throughout basically all of recorded history (so... pretty strongly).

The follow-up questions seem to imply that you are new to Desire Utilitarianism. :) There is much to read about the subject, and I don't want to overwhelm you. The best way to understand what Alonzo is espousing and why, is simply to keep reading the blog over a few months (it's only a few minutes a day). However for a brief introduction (I've really got to save this somewhere so I don't constantly retype it):
(also, this is only my current best understanding, and should not be taken as authoritative)

1. All intentional actions have reasons-for-action behind them (by definition)
2. The only real reasons-for-action that exist are desires.
3. Some desires are relatively fixed (desire for food), others are maleable (desire for an Xbox).
4. A person in a given situation will always act to fulfill the more/stronger of their desires (given their beliefs). This is definitional, given points 1 & 2.
5. Some desires tend to fulfill the desires of others (a desire for justice and liberty for all) while other desires tend to twart the desires of others (a desire to own a slave).
6. In regards to maleable desires: it is in everyone's interest to strengthen desires that tend to fulfill other's desires (which we'll call "good" desires), and it is in everyone's interest to weaken or eliminate desires that tend to twart other's desires (which we'll call "bad" desires). The definition that DU uses for "good" and "bad" desires are litterally desires that there are reasons to strengthen/weaken.
7. The tools best suited for strengthening or weakening maleable desires are praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.
8. Morality is the study and application of these personal and social forces.

A quick crash course can be found in the following posts: