Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Some Comments on the Respecting Beliefs Discussion

Looking at the recent discussions of Blackburn's paper on the religion and respect, one notices a number of recurring confusions. One of the most obvious is the confusion between 'admire' and 'respect'; clearly the terms are not synonymous, but there is a tendency of opponents of the claim that we can respect false beliefs to try to gloss this as the claim that we should admire them. A similar sort of confusion occurs when people take the claim, 'we can respect this false belief', and assume that it means 'there is no significant different between false beliefs and true beliefs'. Yet a third confusion is the one that runs throughout Blackburn's own argument, the sliding back and forth between 'false' and 'irrational'. This is not a minor confusion. A very natural way of glossing the claim that a belief is 'irrational' is to interpret it as saying that it is unworthy of respect on rational grounds. If one assumes, as most people in the discussion seem to assume, that these are the only relevant grounds for respect, then to call a belief irrational is already to have evaluated it as unworthy of respect. Thus one of the most common arguments I have seen in the discussion turns out to be question-begging: namely, that such-and-such belief is irrational and therefore unworthy of respect. This is, on the assumption, a circular argument: you are merely identifying unworthiness of respect as your reason for not considering an argument worthy of respect. If we don't make the assumption, on the other hand, the argument is inconclusive: there are other relevant grounds of respect, and the conclusion does not follow unless they have also been eliminated. Either way, it's a non-starter of an argument: a thinly veiled attempt to dress up mere emphatic restatement in the form of argument.

Thus a rational process of determining whether a belief is irrational is nothing other than a process of determining where it stands with regard to one possible ground of respect. And note that I say 'rational process'; a mere vague feeling that it is so, or an inability to see how it is true are not rational processes for determining whether anything is irrational. Without actually identifying such a process, one that can withstand scrutiny, dragging irrationality into the mix is simply question-begging.

I've also noticed an odd tendency to try to enlist preference into the argument; this is found in Blackburn's argument, where "We would prefer them to change their minds" is given as a reason for saying that we cannot respect them for believing X in a sense stronger than 'minimal tolerance'. This, of course, is pure non sequitur. I would prefer my colleagues to change their minds about the advisability of teaching the rule of Addition as the disjunction introduction rule. This has no relevance whatsoever to whether I can respect their beliefs about that advisability; the fact that I would rather that someone change their mind about X does not imply in any way that I can only give minimal tolerance to X. Thinking that the one is relevant to the other is rather odd.

Richard has an interesting argument, one that doesn't involve confusions, that I want to say something about:

I'm intrigued by Brandon's suggestion that false belief contents may warrant respect "as beautiful, ingenious, or such". Such aesthetic values might ground respect for a fictional story or a mental state like imagining, which does not aim at truth. But belief aims at truth. So I do not think that these values can make the contents in question respectable as beliefs.

I think that this might be a reasonable argument if belief aims at truth. But while the mind may aim at truth, belief doesn't aim at truth. Indeed, it has no way of doing so; there are no means or mechanisms whereby it could, unless we assume that God has simply give believing that sort of teleology. I may know something by recognizing that it is true, but it makes no sense to say that I believe something because I think it true; thinking something true is nothing other than believing it. So what is the aim of thinking something true? I think there are only two possibilities: inquiry and practice. (Actually, since inquiry can be treated as a particularly important practice, we can treat it as one possibility if we choose.) These are the things belief aims at; its purpose is, given the fact that we need a way to inquire and act in the world, and both would be extraordinarily difficult without belief, to facilitate acting the world. (Of course, the inquiry of which the belief is a part may aim at truth.) And in both cases there is nothing that prevents false beliefs from contributing to the aim, even if, as we would tend to assume, they do not generally do so as well as true beliefs.

Directory to the Discussion

This was getting a little unwieldy in its original place, so I'm starting it again here. I'll add to it if there are any more. I have put asterisks beside the ones that I personally think are most worth reading, although it must be understood that this is comparative; it doesn't imply that the ones I don't mark aren't worth reading.

Regardant les nuages *
Crooked Timber
Mixing Memory *
A brood comb
Gene Expression
Greg Sanders
Minds and Brains
Philosophy, et cetera *
Mormon Metaphysics
Mixing Memory (II)
Faith in Honest Doubt
Mormon Metaphysics (II)
Free Thinking Joy

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