Tuesday, February 11, 2014

You Can't Force Yourself to Believe in God


Noah Smith, guest-posting over at Confessions of a Supply-Side Liberal, argues that you should go ahead and believe in God, if you want to.

 Smith endorses a form of pragmatism, a theory about truth according to which the "truth" and "falsity" of beliefs corresponds only to whether or not those beliefs are useful or not useful, respectively. For instance, according to pragmatism, I believe that fire is dangerous because it is useful to believe this. If I didn't believe this, I probably would have been burned at some point. Since it is better for me not get burned, I believe that fire is dangerous.

Pragmatism has a rather recent history. It began in 19th century with Charles Pierce, and was further developed by William James and John Dewey. It is notable for being developed largely by American thinkers.

There are deep echoes of James's work Smith's post. Smith's defense of religious belief, however, is not one I take it most religious people would want to accept. It is essentially the assertion that it doesn't really matter whether God exists, it only matters how better or worse it would be for you if you believed that God existed. Smith appears to be writing to people he assumes are atheists, or at least on the fence, and giving them a permission slip to become theists. But if religious people read Smith's account, it's hard for me to believe most of them would endorse it. It seems to be, contra Smith, that religious people in fact really do care about whether or not a God exists.

What's especially problematic about his account, however, reveals itself when we imagine the perspective of somebody who does endorse the account. Suppose I agree with Smith that what's true is what is useful, and that it's useful to believe in God. It's hard for me to see how I'm go from accepting those two claims to accepting that God exists. I might wish it were true, or even wish that I could accept it, but I don't think I could force myself to accept it.

Smith seems to think you can. He says, "Pick and choose your religious beliefs. Yes, we are all born with the ability to do this." I am perplexed by this assertion, personally. I think it gets the phenomenology of belief all wrong.

Of course, Smith would say this is because I'm not a pragmatist. Indeed I'm not, and I don't want to be. But I can imagine wanting to be, but I can't see how I could get from there to actually believing in God (or pragmatism, for that matter).

I believe people self-deceive, all the time in fact, but they cannot do it consciously. If they could, it would be plain to them that they were trying to deceive themselves. Some people claim to be able to deceive themselves self-consciously; however, it is when they make these claims, I believe, that they are truly self-deceived.

My objection to Smith comes down to this. There are different kinds of reasons. Some reasons are reasons for belief, call them epistemic reasons. Some reasons are reasons for action, call them practical reasons. Smith's argument confuses the two. He believes that because we (might) have reason to make ourselves believe in God, then we can just believe in God. But the reasons we have to make ourselves believe in God are practical reasons. The only kinds of reasons that can actually convince us of anything are epistemic reasons.

We might be able to do certain things that would cause us to start believing in God, non-rationally (i.e. without any reason). This is what Pascal thought we should do, given his argument known as Pascal's Wager. We might start attending Church, going to confession, reading religious texts, etc., and perhaps eventually we would start believing in God. I have strong doubts this could work, but I grant that it might. (In a sci-fi scenario, we could imagine taking a pill that caused us to believe in God--this case is interesting, but my purpose her is only to discuss real-world considerations.)

However, this undermines a primary part of Smith's argument, which is that we should choose which religious beliefs we have based on whatever would be most useful. We wouldn't want to become hateful theists, or misanthropes. But since the process I've proposed of acquiring religious belief is non-rational, it's doubtful one could safely guard against these problematic beliefs. Since the presence of these beliefs could significantly change the accuracy our prior assessment that believing in God would be useful, it seems the pragmatist account would offer little guidance under these conditions.

All of which suggests that it's only rational to believe in God if there are, in fact, good reasons to believe that God actually exists.

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