August 25, 2012

Culture of Belief

I have no difficulty with people who ardently believe — or who ardently deny, for that matter — propositions that are incapable of proof or for which evidence is either scant or absent; to wit, that God is (though perhaps in some manner rather different from how things are). But what makes me wonder sometimes about the human race is the capacity to cling to beliefs or denials about which there is more than enough actual evidence, and in some cases incontrovertible proof, to the contrary.

This seems to be a malady that is aggravated by the closing chapters of the current political season. One can easily witness people, who by all accounts appear to be rational, fervently espousing propositions that are little more than nonsense, plainly false, proven to be false, and yet clutched to the breast like a life-preserver in a flood. Whether it is birth certificates or climate change, the abiding power of money to trickle down as of its own accord, the omnicompetence of states to solve all human ills by the mere redistribution of said money, or the marvelous capacity of women’s bodies to fend off microscopic cells even if unable to fend off the body of their larger host — ideologies corrupt the ability to perceive evidence and reach rational conclusions.

My principal fear as we slouch toward the November elections is that the common sense of the vast number of the people will be eroded by the vast stupidity of a few of the people. And I begin to fear that there is more stupidity than I suspected. Or more who are simply lying. That's always a possibility, though I'd like to believe otherwise, as little comfort as I take from thinking more people are stupid than are liars.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


June Butler said...

The level of stupidity is pretty high, as I learned at the Mary Landrieu town meeting some years ago. I believe that it's mostly politicians and their campaign staff who tell bald-faced lies, and the voters believe the garbage they spout.

Don't discount anger and racism in the election cycle. Some people have never been able to wrap their heads around the fact that we have a black president, so they must attempt to show that Obama is not the legitimate president, thus the birth certificate issue that never dies.

One man we know, a "good Christian" fella, who home-schools his children to keep them from contamination by attending public schools, told Tom that he would sooner vote for a monkey than Obama. I suppose he thinks contaminating his children's minds with racism is fine. Sometimes the racism around here is overt, and sometimes veiled, but the anger at having a black president comes through loud and clear.

Murdoch Matthew said...

All our knowledge is organized in stories, and in former days, stories were validated by tradition and authority. Since Galileo and all, we've learn to base stories about the real world on evidence and experiment. But people cling to their tribal stories and suppose that science is just another narrative that can be trumped by asserting their beliefs more strongly. Paul in I Corinthians 1 encourages such thought: "For it is written,
I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. God has made foolish the wisdom of this world." Paul wasn't the last to give points to people who believe against the evidence.

Of course, the people behind the right-wing exploit this human tendency and flood the media with narratives supplanting ones based on evidence -- and make it a matter of patriotic honor to espouse the anti-establishment, anti-intellectual versions. It's a truism that the problem with even the most progressive religion is that it trains people to believe without evidence. The church is having trouble reconciling such obvious things as the equality of men and women and the existence of same-sex attractions and relationships with its traditions. Not the best group to raise the banner of evidence and fact in political season, I fear.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Mimi, of all the "isms" racism is perhaps the most baseless but the most pernicious. That it plays a role in the current political unhappiness is transparently true, more's the pity.

Murdoch, I'm not convinced that Paul was taking about scientific knowledge when he wrote about the "wisdom of the wise" -- more likely a reference to the sophisticated philosophical speculation of the various competing schools. It is also fair to note that science sometimes gets caught up in its own ideological orthodoxies, too -- hence the need for Kuhn's periodic paradigm shift. All human beings are wedded to their "stories" or their narratives -- and it takes an act of will to accept new evidence that disproves a pet theory. Moreover, some science at the edges is done well prior to evidence being available -- and is later confirmed or rejected when evidence is obtained. It isn't only religion that takes some things as basic without proof. As Gödel demonstrated, even "pure" mathematics has a level of base assertion and improbability about it. Perhaps scientism is just another ideology about which we need to be aware. The belief that only what can be proven is true is itself a belief that cannot be proven. (Hat-tip to Gödel.)

All demonstrable things are true, but not all true things are demonstrable. This is precisely why religion isn't science: it is not falsifiable. But that doesn't mean it is always wrong. The important thing is to be clear about what you believe in the absence of evidence, as opposed to believing things that are contrary to the evidence.

Finally, it isn't only the far-right that has its unrealistic narratives, though those seem to be getting a lot more air-time these days.

Murdoch Matthew said...

Of course Paul was talking about something else. I was just pointing out that such thinking gives cover to people who Just Know in their hearts what's so.

My point was that we all have stories; it matters what bases they have. The fundamentalists aren't wrong that rationalists are accepting much of their beliefs on faith as much as anyone. We trust our sources, which may or may not be worthy.

"Not all true things are demonstrable"? How do you decide? There's a view that some things aren't even wrong.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Not sure I follow, MM. Decide what? If something is true? My point is that some things which are true cannot be proven to be true, but are either accepted or not. One of the issues with some of the work in string theory is that it isn't open to experimental testing. Some scientists therefore just reject it as "not science" -- but it may be true nonetheless. Some things have to be addressed as probabilities rather than certainties, but one cannot live in total skepticism --- as you say, we trust our sources, some of which may not be worthy.

My point in this essay was really not about such unknowns (known and unknown) but about people continuing to believe things that are demonstrably false, even after the evidence is presented. That's the phenomenon I find distressing. I'm not at all distressed about people believing things that cannot be proven -- or disproven. That would be a waste of time.

Murdoch Matthew said...


You criticize people who don't accept having their worldviews subjected to the falsifiable principle. But they don't believe things that are to them "demonstrably false" -- they believe what they've been taught and they hold it on the basis of authority that they trust. It's what they hear on all sides. Contrary evidence seems to them merely another, less reliable story. That's why your saying that not all true things are demonstrable bothers me -- you can't really draw a line between your unsupported good opinions and the bad ones that deny evidence. There's no way to conclude a discussion of opinion (belief). As you note, arguments over things that can't be proved are a waste of time.

Sorry to divert this discussion -- I only wanted to point out the role of (tribal) narratives in the situation. Tradition and authority still rule. Peer pressure is as strong as evidence. If you manage to convert the holder of a demonstrably false worldview to factual ways of thinking, you'd better be prepared to offer them asylum when they're rejected by friends, family, and church.

Gary Paul Gilbert said...

Tobias, Invoking Gödel and string theory is not very persuasive. Wittgenstein said words such as "proof," "truth," "evidence," etc. in the language-game of religion don't mean what they mean in other games. Religion is not science and if it were, it would be bad science. Rather than being descriptions of reality, religious expressions may be better taken as action indicators, in which case they needn't be true to be helpful.

Your main point, however, stands that people accept things which have clearly been proven wrong.

But Murdoch's point remains a good one that religion may train people to be uncritical of authorities in general. Saint Paul's natural theology in Romans is not a good model for thinking either in general or in religion. One cannot look at the world around one and intuit a god or God.

Gary Paul Gilbert

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Murdoch (and Gary) I did not intend this to be a debate about religion vs science. If anything, my point is that science has its "narratives" and "tribal traditions" to some extent -- the danger in science being that scientists sometimes think they are being rational and objective when they hold to some former orthodoxy and miss new evidence -- the history of science is littered with such twists and turns. The "narrative" of objectivity is itself subjective.

I'm sorry you are bothered by the notion that not all true things are provable. I regard that as a fact; based in part on the limits of human knowledge. If the ultimate "truth" is simply reality itself, there are limits to what we can know that are insuperable. Sorry too you don't find Gödel persuasive -- though mathematicians find his theorem to be proven. That his theorem proves that some true things cannot be proven is the point. (I realize the actual theorem is very subtle and restricted to a realm of pure math, but the principle is applicable.)

Another way of saying this is that there are some true things (realities) that by their very nature are beyond experiment or evidentiary proof. This is precisely the problem with some string theory models. But there are many other examples. The best that can be done is to come up with a theory ( = "way of seeing") that makes the most sense of what evidence there is. There is much in science that relies on such theory rather than proof.

"Proof" as such is in the realm of things like math and geometry. Natural science is more restricted to the proposition of sound and testable theories, which hold up until new evidence or a new test comes along. But some things cannot, by their very nature, be tested. There are known unknowns -- and unknowables.

My issue here was, as you rightly suggest, the problem of allowing one's narrative orthodoxy to override countervaling evidence. That is a fault whether the proponent is in a "religious" or a "scientific" world. And I've been around science long enough to see the paradigm shifts and course corrections, so as not to fall into the myth of scientism. In its own way that is the more dangerous narrative, as most religious people know that their beliefs rest on faith, not proof.

Finally, I think one can "intuit" the divine on the basis of perception of the world as it is. Countless people have done so Whether it is true or not cannot be proven, right or wrong.

Gary Paul Gilbert said...

Tobias, The problem remains that once people are taught to accept doctrines on faith they are more likely to accept just about anything as true, especially if they are taught that something may be true but unprovable. Antisemitism and other forms of prejudice work like that. A conviction may be indistinguishable from a prejudice.

As for unprovability, I grant that, following Wittgenstein insights, I cannot say I know I have a toothache because it would make no sense to doubt the pain. Here we are dealing with something that is neither true nor false. Someone else may know I am in pain because he or she may observe my facial expressions and other behavior. But "I have a toothache" spoken in the first person is not true because it cannot be doubted.

Likewise there is no possibility of a mistake when Saint Augustine invokes God in his writing. "God" is part of the rhetoric of the text.

Historians of science tend to be much more into romanticizing science. I agree scientists can be very emotional and very human.

Tolstoy was put off by science but had read too much to accept the doctrines of the Russian Orthodox Church. So he wrote The Gospel in Brief, which influenced Wittgenstein. Instead of the facts about the scriptures, and instead of a regurgiation of Russian Orthodox dogma, he emphasized ethics.

The gospels needn't be true for purposes of religion. Christianity needn't be a hypothesis about ultimate reality, whereas science is not science without hypotheses (even string theory would at some point require some kind of indirect evidence).

Claiming things are true without evidence can set the stage for religious conflict. If nobody is making an assertion about the ultimate state of affairs then there is no need to fight over doctrines.

As for intuition, Saint Paul in Romans basically projects his own cultural prejudices and claims that wrong worship leads to men sleeping with men, etc. Total nonsense.

Gary Paul Gilbert

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Gary, I'm trying to describe what I see as a real situation -- that some true things cannot be proven to be true. That does not mean people must accept them, or even should accept them, or even be aware of them. The fact is that many people do accept as true things which cannot be proven -- including in the sciences -- a fact which for me is neither good nor bad. It simply is. When people fight about such things, I agree it is not good, and I can hope for greater toleration among various forms of faith, including faith in science as well as the faiths of the various religions.

The real problem, it seems to me, and as I have tried to make clear, but which you do not seem to want to engage, lies in people believing as true things that are proven to be false. That, for me, is a very different thing from believing something which cannot be proven or disproved one way or the other.

To believe in God is everyone's free option, as God cannot be proven or disproved. But to believe, for example, that Barack Obama is a Muslim is not helpful, and it can easily be shown to be false. These "beliefs" are in two wholly different categories. My "concern" in the blog post was about the latter, though I acknowledged the existence of the former at the outset of the piece. It seems to me you are missing this very important distinction.

I'm not all that familiar with Wittgenstein, though if what you say here is a fair portrait, I'd have to say my impression is affirmed, that he is dabbling in language games -- in a language I find it hard to understand. As someone with a background in communication theory, it seems to me Wittgenstein -- from the little I know of him -- has it backwards.

Gary Paul Gilbert said...

Sorry Tobias, I still see that Murdoch's point remains that once one accepts something as "true" but unprovable there is little to stop people from choosing to believe stuff which has been disproven. Nietzsche said racism is a failure to test. It is no accident that a good percentage of those who don't think the President was born in this country are Christian fundamentalists.

Murdoch provided a larger context for the phenomenon of people believing nonsense. The United States media have also made it possible because they generally do not challenge assertions but leave both parties with that task, making it seem that some things are up for grabs which really are not.

The word "true" in religion does not means what it does in ordinary language. That is Wittgenstein's insight. But he doesn't say it is false. Merely different.

Wittgenstein's philosophy is not easy because he would, as P. M. S. Hacker, says condense things excessively. So his disciples are left to fight among themselves.

What I find useful in this philosophy is the idea that not every language has to prove things. A truth which cannot be proven is probably on its way to a death by a thousand qualifications.

Gary Paul Gilbert

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Gary, I think you can stop short with the truth of your assertion that "there is little to stop people from choosing to believe stuff which has been disproven" and leave out the part about "once someone accepts something as 'true' but unprovable."

THat's where I disagree with you and Murdoch: in your attempt to make a causal relationship between belief in the unprovable and belief in the false. I don't think that's the correct causality. You seem to me to be making a classic mistake of coincidence with causality. I think you have the context wrong when you see it relation to belief in the unprovable, though right when you raise the issue of narratives.

Racism, for example, is not caused by Christianity. In fact, that it exists is in contradiction to the teaching of Christianity. Racism derives from a kind of tribalism, which is not about truth statements (though it may include some, some of which may be improbable) but about social constructs of cohesion and identity. This is an area where I think Girard is more helpful than Wittgenstein. That racism coincides with some fundamentalisms (whether religious or political) is less about faith than fundamentalism itself being an instrument of tribal identity. It isn't so much about belief in God, or small government, but the power to define the other as different and not-me. People do not believe false statements about Obama because they are Christian fundamentalists. I think you have to look elsewhere for the genesis of those expressions.

I simply don't see logical positivism, or even its weaker cousin empiricism, as a viable possibility. It is an overly optimistic claim that falls far short of even its own standards. There is, in fact a Gödelian quality to its self-destruction.

The fact remains that there are true things, in both the real world and the metaphyscial world, that cannot be proven true. (There are a number of examples, most from mathematics, which is the purest form of science I know! and also in computer science, such as the halting problem.) I know that's a kind of uncomfortable position to be in, rather like Schrödinger's famous cat, but this is the actual Eigenstate of things. I think people should sit lightly with these things they hold to be true, not forcing them on others, but not abandoning them either.

In process philosophy it is the possibility that calls forth reality, and it seems to me that empiricism is too post facto (as analytical) and shuts off that deepest truth about the way things are as they become themselves.

Brother David said...

It becomes super boring when these two decide to gang up on someone. Let me know Father T when it's over and you have a new thought posted.

Gary Paul Gilbert said...

Tobias, I didn't say religion causes violence but it is often an important factor. The desire to convert others easily slides into extermination. Christianity over the centuries has done lots of harm, starting with antisemitism and antijudaism. But I don't say that all Christianity is like that. Slavery, for example, was tolerated for centuries, with the Bible itself being equivocal.

I would not say Christianity causes violence but that it has violent tendencies that make it liable. Antisemitism plays up certain features of the Second Testament, such as the claim that Jesus is the Messiah.

I am reminded of French phiolosopher Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe's remark the combinint Romanticism (with its cult of nationalism and nature) with Christianity (with its anti judaism) helps to explain the particular form Nazism took. I would not condemn all of Romanticism and all Christianity but there are strands which can lead one astray.

Christianity was the religion of Western imperialism. The belief that people who are not baptized are at risk of damnation helped to justify conquering people and forcing them to become Christians.

I am not willing to let churches ofr the hook for what is done in the name of religion. Tribalism is part of the religion itself, that baptism grafts one into the mystical body of Christ.

I prefer not to use the word "true" in the game of religion.

Gary Paul Gilbert

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Gary, I'm afraid I have to agree with Brother David here. You seem to be interested in waging a war on religion which I find to be singularly ill-informed, historically speaking.

I have no quibble with the fact that religious movements of all sorts have done terrible things. I also can bewail the strains of anti-Judaism in Christianity. I am not seeking to let anyone off of any hook. But historically speaking the rise of anti-Judaism was in large part a result of Jewish anti-Christian action in the first century -- and the Christian Scriptures bear those scars. That is not to excuse them, but merely tn note that the reasons for the split between church and synagogue had driving forces on both sides. It is similar to the phenomenon of later centuries in which the church supported corrupt monarchies or dictators, and suffered with the rise of democracy or communism -- people could not separate the religious from the historical cultural reality that "the church" connived in the oppression of the proletariat.

But the fact is that religion, though culpable, is not the only purveyor of ills in the world. Science and rationalism are just as capable of prosecuting their own jihads -- and militantly atheist regimes are just as capable of doing ill, as militantly religious ones.

My point here is that your particular pet peeve has little or nothing to do with my original post, which is about the capacity of people to believe things in the face of evidence to the contrary. That is true of religious as well as non-religious people; and for what it is worth the militant atheist who insists that God does not exist is just as much basing her belief on an unproven premise as is a militant theist. I by no means wish to excuse religion from responsibility for the harm it has done, but I also hold the Stalins and the Mao Ze Dongs of this world equally responsible for the ills they inflicted.

In short, the problem is not religion, but ideology, and the desire to force others to accept ones own ideology.

Gary Paul Gilbert said...

Tobias, You may label me however you wish. I recite from The Book of Common Prayer though on doctrine I cross my fingers.

I agree any discourse can go off the deep end, though for different reasons. Psychoanalysis has taught that when the patient speaks about X he or she may really be concerned about Y.

Gary Paul Gilbert

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Gary, I don't think I've "labeled" you though I've critiqued some of your critiques, in terms of your reading of history. I don't really understand the rest of your comment, but will observe that what you say of psychoanalysis is also true of coffee hour.

Daniel Weir said...

I find the reference to Girard helpful. The attempts to define the President as not American or to see his political philosophy as European or anti-colonialist are forms of scapegoating. The ease with which those who want to define him as OTHER lie about him, e.g., removing the work requirement from welfare, is understandable. If he is the OTHER to be driven out, speaking truthfully does not matter.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Daniel. The other supremely Girardian irony (or Girardian supreme irony; I'm not sure which) is the strange element of mimetic desire -- those who decry big government but want to be elected to office!

Padre Gustavo said...

I guess it is the price of freedom. If we are free to ardently believe in things which we are incapable of rationally/scientifically prove we must therefore accept that people may chose to believe in things for which there is actual proof to the contrary. It just may be that human beings rather value inner certainty than verifiable truth.

Brother David said...

"those who decry big government but want to be elected to office!"

Exactly, it's the same the world over. They decry government messing in their lives, but wish to be elected to office so that they can mess in my life!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Indeed so, Padre Gustavo. Part of human freedom is the freedom to err. This is, in part why it is so wise to sit lightly with all certainties — one of the reasons I am an Anglican!

Yes, Bro David: this is where the desire to control others is a projection of the inability to control oneself!

Mark Diebel said...

A few good liars can stir up a whole lot of people who won't check out, won't find out for themselves, what is true.

This has nothing really to do with religion. More, human nature. It can lead to tragedy.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Mark. This is why I value the ministry of fact-checkers so highly, and why facts are so important in the critique of any ideology or world-view.

When it comes to religion, I can speak to my own. I was taught a very helpful tool by one of my NT professors in seminary: when people make assertions along the line of "Well, the Bible says..." it is always fair to ask, "Show me where it says that." Often the text does not actually support the assertion, and sometimes it contradicts it!