Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Taking Beliefs Seriously

In arguing for the universality of moral reasons, I also argued for, but took as less controversial, the universality of epistemic reasons, or reasons for belief. I just recently had a conversation with a friend, however, in which they, to my surprise, implicitly denied the universality of epistemic reasons.

For the most part, people tend to assume that epistemic reasons apply universally. That's why we can have things like science, and court rooms, where standards of evidence are laid out, and though we expect inevitable disagreement, we also expect that if there is sufficient evidence for a particular conclusion, every reasonable person will have decisive reason to assent to the conclusion. (There are a few caveats that could be included here, but none are relevant to the present discussion.)

The area where some people diverge from this understanding of epistemic reasons is in the area of religious belief. Some people claim, as my friend did, that certain facts about the way the world is could count in favor of believing certain religious claims for certain groups of people, even though they don't generally count in favor of believing those claims for any one outside this group. In particular, my friend claimed that certain discoveries of science might be taken to be evidence of God for those who already believe in God, even they give atheists no reason to adjust their credence on the subject.

In denying this, and claiming that reasons for belief have to be reasons for everybody(i.e., universal), I was accused of being intolerant. Now, there are many volumes written on toleration, and I don't want to dive into that fray. I'll just note that I'm not sure what toleration is, and I'm not sure when and to what extent it is valuable. However, I do think my view is in fact more respectful of the religious and religious beliefs, whether or not it's more or less tolerant.

In claiming that my view is more respectful, I see myself as taking religious claims seriously. I don't want to carve out special exceptions for beliefs because they're "religious" (whatever that means), I want to examine them and assess them as I would any claim. I've yet to find any religious claims convincing, so I am non-religious. But I do think they could be true, and I think it matters a great deal whether or not they are true.

And in this way, my beliefs are closer to those of many, and I think most, religious believers, than those of my friend. If I meet a theist, and they say a certain set of facts give them reason to believe in God, and I say that those sets of facts do not in fact give them reason to believe in God, our disagreement is not helped by my friend's position. My friend would claim that we're both right--these facts give the theist reason to believe in God, but fail to give me reason to believe in God. But the theist and I, I imagine, would both disagree with my friend. Either these facts indicate that there is a God, or they do not. Since we both care about whether or not there is a God, it's important whether or not we're correct on this matter. Saying to me that "God exists" is true (or not) for me doesn't help me at all if I actually care whether or not there is a God whose existence might have some effect on the way I live my life.

And that's what the theist has to think too, isn't it? If a theist claims that the beauty of the stars gives them reason to believe in God, they're going to think that it should give me at least some reason to believe in God. But if I point out that it's perfectly easy to imagine that human beings would find certain aspects of nature beautiful with or without a God, and they agree, but still think that it gives them a reason to believe in God, I'm going to conclude that they're really not that interested in whether or not the proposition "God exists" is actually true.

Some people believe that the Ontological Argument is a proof  of God. If it were, it would provide decisive reason to believe in God. As it happens, it's a fallacious argument. Perhaps some people disagree with me that it's fallacious--if they do, we could have a discussion about it, as long as we were both open to the fact that reasons universally apply to all of us. If we thought that reasons could be selective in who they applied to, we might not have any desire to discuss it further, because we just cannot access each others' reasons. There would be little chance we could persuade one another.

Rather than seeing reasons as selective in this way, it is much more respectful to me to see each person as a reasonable agent, with equal access to universal reasons for belief, all of whom are able to work together to get closer to the truth.

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