Friday, March 13, 2009

The epistemic virtue of obstinacy in belief

If there's one charge that keeps getting leveled by atheists against Christians (and religious believers in general), it is that they are so darn stubborn. They cling tenaciously to their quaint superstitions, apparently in the teeth of evidence. They seem impervious to the 'devastating' rational challenges to their belief systems. What's more, in their delusion they do not realize that the best proof of the falsity of their own belief system is the existence of other belief systems with adherents equally as intelligent and equally devoted.

The implicit criticism here is that a truly open-minded, critically thinking person should hold to something like Clifford's principle in deciding what to believe: one's beliefs should be strictly proportioned to the evidence for them. If there seem to be equally plausible arguments for and against a certain position, the only rational choice is agnosticism concerning that position. From this point of view it is not only cognitively misguided to hold to one's convictions in spite of serious challenges to it, but morally wrong as well, as Clifford illustrates with the example of a ship-builder who does not know how soundly his ship has been built, but lets people ride on it anyway. If the ship sinks, the blame lies entirely with the ship-builder for basing his decision on inadequate evidence. Applied to religion, this view implies that religious belief is unjustified in the face of evidence against it in the form of counter-arguments, less than convincing empirical or conceptual evidence and the existence of other belief systems with adherents equally as committed and intelligent.

Is this really what we should conclude, though, from religious disagreement? In his book Faith and Criticism, Basil Mitchell argues that, on the contrary, Clifford's principle is actually very bad advice when it comes to making cognitive choices about belief systems. There are two problems with it: first, since human cognition is egocentric (i.e. we can't jump outside our heads to take a 'view from nowhere') we cannot take a totally objective view of the evidence for and against a position. When it comes to applying Clifford's principle, the best one can do is proportion one's beliefs to one's perception of the significance of the available evidence. And here is where the first problem comes in: it will often be the case that one's perception of the evidence does not reflect its true weight. It could be that difficulties with one's belief system which seem at first glance to be fatal, are actually only apparent, or vice versa.

The second problem is a direct consequence of the first: if one concludes that certain difficulties are fatal to one's belief system when in reality they are only apparent, the belief system will be abandoned before its full implications and explanatory power can be laid out. People will propose deep and insightful ideas, only to have them shot down at the first sign of apparent counter-evidence. We see this many times even in the natural sciences, where it would seem Clifford's principle would be most applicable. In physics, chemistry, biology and everywhere else, the only way science progresses is as a result of scientists passionately clinging to their pet theories, trying to answer all possible objections, before eventually giving up when the difficulties really do become fatal, and a rival paradigm of greater explanatory scope (which also provides an account of why the other paradigms were unsuccessful) is widely accepted. Or, alternatively, the scientist sticking to his guns is vindicated by the course of events. This is what happened with Charles Darwin. In the Origin of Species he candidly admits that "A crowd of difficulties will have occurred to the reader. Some of them are so grave that to this day I can never reflect on them without being staggered; but, to the best of my judgment, the greater number are only apparent; and those that are real are not, I think, fatal to my theory." (quoted in Faith and Criticism, p.18) Think of that: Charles Darwin was staggered by the objections raised against his theory, but he obstinately clung to it, convinced that most of the difficulties were merely apparent. He would have been called a religious fundamentalist by some of the posters on DC and other supposed 'champions of reason'!

Obviously, if matters are this complicated in the natural sciences, the most empirical and precise of all disciplines with the most impartial mechanisms for weeding out error, how much more so is this case in the social sciences and humanities, where the discussion is much more qualitative, the criteria for success or failure much less clear and so much more being at stake for individual human beings. For example, think of the rivalry between Keynesians and classical or Austrian economists about the best kind of economic policy for increasing productivity and standards of living. Both are paradigms with eminent scholars, ingenious arguments and access to the same kinds of evidence. Who should one trust in this case? You can hear scholars in both camps calling those in the other 'hacks', 'ignoramuses' and other choice epithets, each denouncing the other for not properly interpreting evidence and allowing theory to influence facts instead of vice versa. But it is only through this kind of vigorous back-and-forth that positions can be refined, evaluated, and then either discarded or embraced. But in the mean-time, it takes obstinate people with courage to stick with the perspective to its ultimate limits.

Paradoxically, then, as John Stuart Mill suggested, "truth is better served by having a variety of systems of belief in vigorous competition with one another than by allowing the expression only of what is currently held to be the truth. This policy favors the optimal development of the rival systems by encouraging creativity and ensuring the exposure of each of them to the most determined criticism." (Faith and Criticism, p.29) So the existence of rival religious traditions, far from providing a reason for agnosticism, is actually a reason to commit oneself all the more passionately to one's own tradition, working out its implications and fearlessly testing it against the most formidable challenges from other traditions.

Of course there is a difference between the obstinacy proper to vigorous rational debate and the dogmatism that keeps the mind trapped in defunct ideologies. But this is a very fine line to draw, so in light of the above considerations it is better in general to err in being conservative with one's beliefs, especially if they come from a long tradition of brilliant thinkers who contributed much to Western civilization and faced many of the same challenges that are still brought up against that tradition. It is my judgment that people like Anthony at Debunking Christianity gave up far too soon, before they could become acquainted with the full richness of the Christian tradition and its resources for making sense of human experience.

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Anonymous said...

"From this point of view it is not only cognitively misguided to hold to one's convictions in spite of serious challenges to it, but morally wrong as well, as Clifford illustrates with the example of a ship-builder who does not know how soundly his ship has been built, but lets people ride on it anyway."
Quaere: How does one 'ride' on a ship?

Jim S. said...

Well, I would assume "ride" would apply to anyone onboard a ship who isn't piloting it. "Sail" only applies to certain kinds of boats. Is there a better verb to refer to ship passengers?

timo_the_osprey said...

The epistemology of disagreement (as its called) is a hot topic in philosophy departments these days, at least among epistemologists.

Interestingly, there is sharp disagreement about the epistemic significance of disagreement.

Makes one wonder if those who hold that considerations of disagreement trump considerations of "sticking to your guns" must stick to their guns in the face of disagreement about the significance of disagreement!