Subject: Re: Normative aspects of belief Summary: More on religious arguments in response

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Path: ncsuvm!ncsuvx!mephisto!uflorida!!!usc!!turpin From: (Russell Turpin) Newsgroups: talk.religion.misc Subject: Re: Normative aspects of belief Summary: More on religious arguments in response to Mr Wingate. Message-ID: <> Date: 12 Jan 90 03:38:43 GMT References: <> <> <> <> Organization: U. Texas CS Dept., Austin, Texas Lines: 257 ----- On Distinctions The reader should be forewarned that the ongoing discussion between Mr Wingate and myself has undercurrents which are easily misinterpreted, because the subject turns on what meanings are -- or perhaps, should be -- assigned to certain key words, such as 'truth' and 'reason'. A large part of the debate has been that I draw certain distinctions which Mr Wingate does not like. For example, I wrote: Reason, like a lot of words, has many meanings. You know how I have been using it in this dialogue, in a way that has everything to do with justification, in the epistemological sense, and nothing to do with motivation. [On reading this, I would prefer to have written for the last phrase "and has to do with motivation only to the extent that justification motivates." Mr Wingate moves directly to the question of what should motivate, an issue which I will put off until a later posting.] (Charley Wingate) responds: > And I'm criticizing this distinction as being hollow and false. This > argument centers about the motivation behind your preferences for > justification. False? Mr Wingate does not claim that the distinction does not make sense, nor that the difference to which it alludes is meaningless, but that it is 'false'. At this point, it would be futile for me to ask how it is 'false', because we would dance around for a while and then discover that Mr Wingate is using 'false' in a sense different from how I was asking about it. Mr Wingate's complaint that the distinction is 'hollow' comes more to the point; it is not a distinction on which he places great importance. The distinctions which I make but which Mr Wingate does not, and from this, how we assign different meanings to words, lie at the root at many of his criticisms. Let's begin with 'truth'. Mr Wingate asks, not rhetorically: > But why care whether a belief is true? And here he is asking me why I don't add to my epistemological toolbox 'justifications' which have little connection with their ability to route out truth or even to avoid error. Here, he is using the word truth somewhat close to the way I use it. But even Mr Wingate wants to attach the word 'truth' to his beliefs, so two paragraphs later, he writes: > ... In spite of your protestations to the contrary, you still > seem to me fall into the arguments which make you the arbiter of > truth. I have a hard time understanding why you don't see that > such a position is hopelessly prejudiced against a God who is the > *real* origin of truth. But in the sense of that I have been using the word truth, in the sense that Mr Wingate asks why I care about it, and -- dare I say? -- in the more normal sense of the word, truth has neither an arbiter nor is it created (as a universal, as opposed to specific truth claims). Truth in this sense is a quality, the quality a statement or thought has when it reflects an accurate understanding of its subject, and it makes no more sense to talk about the 'arbiter' or 'real origin' of truth than it does to talk about the 'arbiter' or 'real origin' of roundness or honesty (as qualities). Mr Wingate may think unimportant the distinction between justification of and motivation for belief, and between the more restricted sense of truth and how he uses the word. But other people place importance in these differences, and they are sometimes crucial to many arguments that have appeared in this newsgroup. If I have one general criticism of Mr Wingate's methods, it is that he often 'refutes' an argument using his definitions rather than those in which the argument was framed, and when this flaw in his criticism is exposed, he then tries to shift the debate to why his definitions are "better". Such semantic game playing deserves deconstruction! Sometimes he does this so ingenuously that one wonders whether it has become a habit of thought for him. For example: > ... Time and again I hear people on the net rejecting religious > modes of thought with appeals to the unpleasantness of various > outcomes. ... For instance, we have the commonly made claim that > belief in religion ought logically to lead to belief in Santa > Claus and the Tooth Fairy. I may well be the person who, in this newsgroup, has made the comparison between Santa Claus and the gods more than anyone else this past month. In no case was it to argue that belief in the gods leads to belief in Santa, nor have I read anyone else advance the idea that religion is a 'gateway drug' leading to belief in the fat elf. Instead, the point is always that particular arguments about religion -- particular attempts at truth justification -- apply as much to Santa as they do to the gods. Mr Wingate is reading into arguments about truth justification his own concerns about risk and benefit, motivating factors, and consequences of belief. It is ironic that Mr Wingate finds "hollow" distinctions which he must ignore to dismiss various arguments. A major purpose in drawing certain distinctions is to enable arguments that are understood in their terms. This is generally considered a good thing, because it adds to our understanding. The arguments and the truths they reach do not disappear because one does not like the distinctions which enable one to understand them. Among those who care about rational argument, one can complain that a distinction doesn't make sense, or is used inconsistently, or that the arguments based on it are wrong, but to complain that it is used in arguments whose conclusions are undesirable, and so one is going to dismiss the distinction as "hollow" is just willful refusal to accept valid arguments. ----- On the Human Limits to Human Knowledge There is one sense in which everyone is an arbiter of truth. Each of us counts some things as true and some things as false. Regardless of the process by which this division comes to be, it is a division within each of our minds, human minds. The inevitable humanness of our thoughts and decisions is something that should be obvious, but with Mr Wingate, I am having a hard time pressing this point. I wrote: >> You and I are human. Any knowledge we acquire is constrained by >> our nature. There is no way out of this conundrum. NO WAY. You >> can claim that faith let's you go beyond human nature, but this >> claim issues from a human mouth behind which lies a human mind. And the point completely missed Mr Wingate, who responded: > In the concrete, this appeal is most absurd. One might as well > say that the fact of my knowledge of Albania being constrained by > my inability to get there in person is a Great and Important > thing. ... It is indeed fortunate that it is within our nature to communicate with each other, one benefit of which is that we learn about places we have never been. Mr Wingate's response is so totally irrelevant to my claim, and is so totally inappropriate if meant as an analogy, that I can only assume my claim, which seems so simple and obvious to me, needs more explanation. Any knowledge someone has is first of all a thought in that person's mind. If one cannot encompass it in one's mind, then one cannot know it. Nor does one believe every thought. Within each mind, thoughts are ranked, as more or less true, as right or wrong, as lucid or murky, etc. Anything one knows is not just something that is conceived, but also something that has received the favor rank of belief. And regardless of how this ranking occurs, it is a person's mind that must believe for it to count as that person's knowledge. This is not all there is to knowledge, but since the remainder is contended between us, this minimum will do to press the point. What one knows is constrained by the nature of one's mind, and it cannot be otherwise. The gods believing something does not make it Mr Wingate's belief. My believing something does not make it Mr Wingate's belief. Only Mr Wingate's believing something makes it his belief, and potentially his knowledge. In this sense, Mr Wingate is an arbiter of truth, though like all of us, a fallible arbiter, and he cannot escape this burden. Now perhaps the gods write a belief into one's mind that one would not have had otherwise, but it is still one's mind that holds it. Perhaps the gods have expanded a person's mind [1] so that it can think things those of us not favored by the gods cannot, but until they make that person a god, his is still a human -- though perhaps expanded -- mind. One cannot escape the human limitations of our thoughts until one becomes other than human. It's just that simple. Mr Wingate complains: > ... The notion that religious reality may not be encompassed by > human thought is *quite* reasonable. ... And this is perfectly true, but it is hardly a unique feature of religious reality. It is quite likely that mundane reality cannot be encompassed by human thought. Mr Wingate should note that it is not the atheist who denies such limits, but the fideist believer, who first claims some religious knowledge, and then ducks the issue of how that knowledge is acquired or validated by claiming that this knowledge -- which the believer, a human like you or I claims -- is beyond human ken. This is a strange dance indeed, but one that becomes somewhat understandable when it is realized that its steps also involve shifting the meaning of words, in this case, the meaning of knowledge. [1] I have written on the idea that the gods direct or specially justify certain beliefs, in the postings where I consider the god-bit, and faith as a cognitive faculty. ----- On Why People Believe Mr Wingate writes: > ... In my experience, people tend to reject "religion" for reasons > that tend to have a lot more to them than formal justification -- > indeed, I see FAR more rationalization than reason in this light. Now if Mr Wingate insists that he really means formal, I would agree with the first part of his statement, but it becomes a non-sequitor. Neither I nor anyone else in this thread has demanded formal proof. This said, I will ignore this adjective, taking it as flare rather than substance, and disagree with his statement. As to non-belief, I can directly vouch only for myself. As for others, my experience and observation is just the opposite of Mr Wingate's. Even here on the net, it is the non-believers and sceptics who usually raise issues of truth and justification (in the mundane sense of these words). Now if the believers here offered clear evidence and straightforward justifications, which the questioners dealt with unfairly, there might be something to Mr Wingate's claim. Instead, we see appeals that justification is not required for religious belief; arguments that religious claims are possible or 'plausible' and then one just has to choose; questions as to why truth is important and hints that we should look for something else; replies that blur these distinctions and play with the meanings of these words; and other attempts to shift the focus of the discussion. Given this -- and especially that Mr Wingate takes more than one of these tacts -- it strikes me as not a little ironic that he accuses the sceptics of what more characterizes the religious postings here. One mistake Mr Wingate makes is assuming that evidence of the supernatural is impossible without epistemic contortions. Nothing could be further from the truth! Mr Wingate asks: > If we may live dangerously, I would like to open the question of > (for instance) what would it take to get you to believe in the > resurrection, and some justification for that standard. Nothing I have written, and nothing I believe, excludes the possibility of the supernatural, nor of evidence for the supernatural within the natural realm. It is easy to imagine events whose best explanations are the intervention of some purpose beyond us. I have written some on this in other postings. Because the resurrection is placed so far in the past, it is hard for me to imagine something that evinces it except in the context of demonstrating the truth of Christianity as a whole. But I can easily imagine evidence for this! If you don't like my God's Sunday Schools(tm) example (in other posts), something more traditional that would provide more than a good start is a prophet who verifiably and miraculously raises the hopelessly dead, who specifically and correctly fortells the future, and who shows other signs of faithful contact with the supernatural. Faith is NOT required because natural evidence for the supernatural is impossible; faith is required because natural evidence for the supernatural is lacking. Russell


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