Thinking About the St. Louis Protests

protests "st. louis" policeIn my neck of the woods, there’s been a lot of talk about the recent protests in St. Louis. The protests concern the decision of the St. Louis Circuit Court to acquit police officer Jason Stockley in the 2011 shooting death of black driver Anthony Lamar Smith.

What should the rest of us think about the protests? Should we “take sides?” Should we remain neutral? From the perspective of an epistemologist, there seem to be several ways your thinking might go. Here are four possibilities:

  1. You might simply form an automatic opinion based on your previous sympathies for either protesters or police. No thinking required.
  2. You might suspend judgment because you simply don’t have enough reliable information to form a good opinion.
  3. You might investigate a little and try to gather testimony from eyewitnesses. Maybe you know someone who knows someone who lives in St. Louis and saw the protests.
  4. You might read the various articles and watch the array of videos and news casts on the events and use that as a basis for judgment.

Of the four options, #1 is clearly the one to avoid. Unfortunately, it is also the easiest, fastest, and often the most cognitively pleasant option. #2 could be justified, but there is a risk – remaining ignorant and thus, neutral, will appear less and less justified as the protests continue to accumulate momentum. The national outcry over police violence may turn out to be a game-changer in our country’s history.

I worry about #4, because the media is not highly reliable. The media’s goal is to gather clicks and eyeballs in order to generate revenue; they are not ultimately concerned with truth or justice. So my recommendation would be #3. If you form and express an opinion about the protests, don’t do it without getting information from the most reliable sources available. Real people on the street. Bystanders who are not officially part of the protests may be the best sources, since they have no agenda.

That being said, getting such information may be hard. So, get as close as you can. This article was helpful to me. If you know anyone in St. Louis, or know someone who does, reach out to them. Form your opinion carefully, thoughtfully. The more people who do this, the more likely we are to promote truth and justice.


How I Believe

believe belief think rationalBelow are 21 statements that form the basis for my own epistemology: how I believe. I’ve tried to avoid technical, philosophical language wherever possible, but it might still sound clunky to some readers. The sub-points, also numbered, offer something like an example of the claim. (Omitted from this post, for the sake of space, is any discussion about updating beliefs based on new evidence.) If you love this topic and want to go deeper, click the links.

Here’s the challenge: Read all the statements, see if you disagree with any of them, then tell me why. Refer to sub-points as “6.1 or 14.3.” Let’s avoid technical nitpicking and focus on substantial differences. I’m open to suggestions for revision. I think these can have important implications for what you believe and helping us clarify how we talk about our beliefs, regardless of your worldview.

  1. A claim is expressed by a descriptive sentence like, “Bananas are fruits,” or “Triangles have three sides,” or “Unicorns do not exist.” (Philosophers like to call these ‘propositions.’)
  2. It is irrational to believe a claim without any evidence to support it.*
  3. If my overall evidence is strongly against a claim, then it is irrational to believe it.
  4. If my overall evidence strongly supports a claim, then it is rational to believe it.
  5. If my evidence for and against a claim is (roughly) even, then the most rational thing is to remain undecided (or “suspend judgment” or “withhold belief”) .
    1. The evidence for and against Jake’s guilt is even, so I don’t know what to think.
  6. If I have no evidence for or against a claim, then the most rational thing is to remain undecided.
    1. I am undecided whether polar bears enjoy raspberry sorbet.
    2. I am undecided whether there is a largest prime number.
  7. believe belief think rationalIf I’m undecided on a claim, then I think the chances of it being true or false are roughly even.
    1. I’m undecided on whether this coin will land on heads or tails.
    2. I’m undecided on whether there are twelve ants on that plant.
  8. I can believe a claim without being 100% convinced it is true.
    1. I believe that my car will last another 2 years.
  9. I can disbelieve a claim without being 100% convinced it is false.
    1. I disbelieve that I will be in a car accident today.
    2. (It is more common to say “I don’t believe that I will be . . .,” but for clarity, we’ll say ‘disbelieve.’)
  10. If I’ve never thought about a claim before (or if I hear a claim that I don’t understand), then I neither believe it, disbelieve it, nor remain undecided. I have no position on it at all.
    1. Prior to typing this sentence, I had no position at all on the claim that there are twelve ants on a plant in my front yard.
    2. I have no position on whether all blorgs are quazzies.
    3. If I have no position, then I have no idea whether there is evidence for or against the claim.
  11. Believing that a claim is false is equivalent to disbelieving that it is true.
    1. I believe that “Tom is a kangaroo” is false. I disbelieve that Tom is a kangaroo.
    2. I disbelieve that triangles have four sides. I believe that “Triangles have four sides” is false.
  12. If I am rationally undecided about a claim, then I neither believe it nor do I disbelieve it.
    1. I am undecided whether the number of stars in the universe is even. Thus, I do not believe it, and I do not disbelieve it.
  13. Having a certain belief means that I believe in a certain claim.
    1. I believe that green is a color. I have the belief that green is a color. I lack the belief that green is a number.
  14. If I lack a certain belief, then either (i) I have never considered the claim, (ii) I disbelieve the claim, or (iii) I am undecided on the claim.
    1. Prior to typing this sentence, I lacked the belief that my dog understands Klingon. I had never considered whether he did or not. Now I disbelieve that he understands Klingon.
    2. I lack the belief that green is a color. I disbelieve that green is a color.
    3. I lack the belief that the number of stars in the universe is even. I am undecided about this claim.
  15. My experiences are a part of my evidence.
    1. My experience of seeing the legal pad as yellow is evidence for the belief that it is yellow.
    2. My experience of Cassie being friendly is evidence for the belief that she is friendly.
    3. My experience of my own thoughts is evidence for the belief that I exist.
  16. conversation testimony believeThe testimony of others is a part of my evidence.
    1. Clark telling me that his shoes fit well is evidence for the belief that Clark’s shoes fit well.
    2. Julia telling me that she ate toast for breakfast is evidence for the belief that Julia ate toast for breakfast.
    3. Montgomery-Smith telling me that there is no known solution to Goldbach’s conjecture is evidence for the belief . . . (you get the idea).
  17.  My memories are a part of my evidence.
  18.  My perceptions are a part of my evidence.
  19.  My inferences are a part of my evidence.
    1. My belief that it will probably rain is supported by other beliefs (there are dark clouds outside, the temperature has suddenly dropped) and a logical inference that is made from them.
    2. My belief that every human has a mother is supported by my beliefs about human reproduction and a logical inference that is made from them.
    3. My belief that all triangles have three angels is supported by my belief that all triangles have three sides and a logical inference that is made from it.
  20.  Evidence can be misleading.
    1. Sometimes we remember incorrectly, misunderstand testimony, make faulty inferences, or have perceptual hallucinations.
  21. We should trust our evidence unless we have a good reason to doubt it.
    1. A good reason to doubt my evidence is either (i) that there was a problem the source of the evidence, or (ii) an independent reason to think the evidence-belief is false.
    2. frog evidence perception believeMy experience of a frog in front of me is evidence for the belief that there is a frog before me. A good reason to doubt my evidence is that I recently took LSD, which makes perception unreliable. (It’s possible that there’s still a frog there.)
    3. My daughter telling me that the door is locked is evidence for the belief that the door is locked. A good reason to doubt this evidence would be that I tried the door myself and found it unlocked.
    4. Note that it would be circular reasoning (or mere contradiction) to claim that my evidence for the frog is bad because there is no frog in front of me, without an independent reason to think there is no frog.

* Some philosophers have argued that if a belief is formed automatically by my brain in an appropriate way (the way brains should work), then that belief is a good one, even without anything that resembles evidence in the usual sense.

Hitchens, Hume, and Miracles

miracle belief skeptic

What should we think about miracles? Have you ever witnessed one? Most people haven’t, but they are willing to rely on the testimony of others. On the other hand, lots of people will insist that with all we know about the way the world works, we should discard our belief in miracles and dismiss testimony of them.

I found this short article to be very fair in its presentation. Philosopher Tim McGrew briefly presents a way of thinking about miracle claims that gives consideration to both skeptics and believers. If you think he wasn’t fair, or omitted some crucial perspective, let me know in the comments.

Evidence, Gender and God

coffee conversation genderMy friend Ellie is transgender. When Ellie and I had coffee a while back, she told me that ever since she was little, she just knew that she was a girl. This wasn’t based on any medical or scientific evidence—it was based on simply turning inward and examining her own sense of self. Some of you will sympathize, others will scoff, but both Ellie and I appeal to the evidence of experience and introspection to support deeply held beliefs. How do we evaluate such claims?

Ways of Knowing

Well, consider first that everyone relies on introspection as a source of knowledge. Introspection is one of the chief ways we come to know things. It is how I know that my knee hurts, that I am feeling sad, or that I exist. There are other ways of knowing, such as testimony, perception, inference and memory. But my experience of my own internal self is a perfectly legitimate means of knowing. Compare introspective experience with perceptual experience, for example. By perception, I can know that you feel depressed—I see your face, I listen to your story. By introspection, I can know that I feel depressed. So we all depend on introspection as a source of knowledge.

chicken genderBut like all sources of knowledge, introspection is not 100% reliable. The man who (by introspection) believes he is made of glass or believes he is a chicken, is mistaken. These claims easily allow for falsification, based on accepted definitions and considerations about what is or isn’t possible. It is physically impossible for me to be made of glass, and it is logically impossible for me to be a chicken, given a certain definition of ‘chicken.’ The clear definition provides a means of falsification.

The Difficulty

What about cases of religious experience and transgender identity? These are difficult, if not impossible, to falsify. Gender claims don’t submit to falsification by way of definitions, for instance. ‘Male’ and ‘female’ resist being cast in strictly biological terms. If we could simply assert that “female = having two X chromosomes,” then it would be simpler. But women with Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (CAIS) have a Y chromosome. It is also possible for a male to have two X chromosomes. Even genitalia can be ambiguous. So the precise definition of ‘male’ or ‘female’ remains slippery. If we insist on a rigid definition, we will still need to create new categories for those who do not fit in the boxes. Even in the religious realm, a place where strict categories are often assumed, Jesus himself said that “there are eunuchs who have been so from birth.” (Matt. 19:12)

religious experience prayerClaims of religious experience and gender identity are also difficult to falsify because they involve private, internal experiences. When I first encountered God and came to believe in him, my experience resembled what people might call a vision or epiphany. Powerful emotions and a sense of “rightness” also accompanied the experience. I can tell you about it, but I cannot share it with you directly, the way I can share my lunch with you. And since only I had access to this experience (or now to the memory), it cannot be falsified (except by me, perhaps). (It could still be undermined in various ways, though.) Similarly, when someone suffers from gender dysphoria (the feeling that one’s biological sex does not match one’s gender), doctors must rely on the self-reporting of private experience to make the diagnosis.

Responding Respectfully

So how should the reasonable person respond to a friend who makes such a claim? Unfalsifiability is not enough to dismiss these claims—my claims about being in pain (which seem legit) are similarly unfalsifiable. But I admit that some moderate skepticism is epistemically healthy. I would want to know more about their experience. Are they generally trustworthy, reliable and reasonable? I would want to know that their mind is functioning normally. If it turns out that they suffer from some physical or psychological disorder that undermines the reliability of their mind in general, then this should probably lower my confidence in the veracity of their claims. An atheist friend of mine dismissed his own religious experience after he was diagnosed with a form of epilepsy known to sometimes produce similar experiences.

reliable testimony gender godBut if you don’t have any reason to think your friend is unreliable, then you should probably say to yourself, “Well, they have a good reason to hold their view. They aren’t crazy. I may not agree, but they seem to be thinking rationally.” If you consider your friend to be especially reliable, then you may even think, “Well, perhaps their testimony now gives me a good reason to believe that such things are possible or even true!” Their word may not be enough to tip the scales of belief for you, but it should at least move the needle.

Is It Arrogant to Think You’re Right?

baseball scoreArrogance stinks. I’ve been accused of it, sometimes guilty of it. And I’ve seen the effects of it—even in my relationship with my dad. A year before he died, we attended our first and only baseball game together. My father loved baseball. When he offered to show me how to “keep score,” I scoffed, informing him that I wasn’t stupid and knew how to keep score. He tried to explain, but I had felt my intelligence insulted and wouldn’t have it. He didn’t force the issue. Years later, after he was gone, I realized what he was saying. I still haven’t learned how to do it.

So I’m under no illusions about the potential ethical consequences of arrogance. I know what it is and what it can do. Arrogance can damage relationships when others feel looked down upon or devalued, it can close you off to new ideas and crucial evidence, it can keep you from the truth. But being malfoy arrogantfamiliar with arrogance means I also know what arrogance isn’t. There is certainly nothing inherently arrogant about thinking you are right, even about important things. In fact, it is logically impossible to believe something is true and not think you are right about it. Arrogance is something extra, an added attitude that intermingles with our beliefs.

So what is that something extra? I think a person is being arrogant when they assert something beyond what their reasons can support. Typically, this assertion takes the form of a value-claim about themselves. But I think it is the epistemic status (whether it is well-supported) of the claim that grounds the charge of arrogance. For example, if I sincerely claimed to be the greatest Scrabble player in Missouri, this would be arrogant because I have no good reason to believe it. But if I were to win the Missouri state Scrabble championship five years in a row, then I might be able to make such a claim without being arrogant.

Arrogance and Religion

What about claims regarding ultimate reality? If someone says, “there are no gods,” or “Jesus is the only way to God,” sparks can fly because they threaten the deeply cherished beliefs of others. But I think the same principle applies here: if you have adequate support for your claim, it isn’t necessarily arrogant. Granted, it is hard to determine what amount of evidence or support is “adequate,” but that is another discussion. The key is to avoid making the assertions without any good reasons at all.

Let me address two worries about the case of religion. First, many religious skeptics will insist that there simply isn’t sufficient evidence to ever make an exclusive religious claim. Religious claims are hopelessly unjustified and therefore inescapably arrogant. Ironically, this objection is itself an unnecessarily strong statement that would require a significant assemblage of evidence and argument to avoid the arrogance charge itself. I think skeptics would be better off simply asking the believer to present their evidence.

lottery probabilitySecondly, religious skeptics and religious pluralists (those who think all religions are true) might say something like this: “Look at all the religions in the world! Do you really think you’ve won the religious lottery and just happened to choose the right one?” Skeptics and pluralists, in this case, think of religion like a game of chance. There are many religions, like numbers in a lottery, and every number is equally likely to win. The probability of being “right” is evenly distributed among all religions. So even if there were only 20 religions, each religion would have only a 5% chance of being right, and this isn’t enough to justify belief or ward off the charge of arrogance. To be justified in believing your religion is true, you’d need at least a 51% likelihood – slightly better than a coin flip. But since there are so many religions, no religious exclusivist can have adequate support for their view, and thus their assertions are arrogant.

But I think this is the wrong model of probability when it comes to religion. It would be better to think of the religion question the same way we think of a murder investigation. Suppose you had 20 suspects. You wouldn’t simply divide the probability evenly among them. You would begin investigating and gathering evidence, and as the evidence mounted, you would eliminate some suspects and narrow the pool. Eventually you might only have 2 or 3 suspects, and hopefully the evidence would point more strongly at one particular suspect. You might say that there’s a 70% likelihood that this particular suspect is guilty, and there’s a small chance that the other remaining suspects are guilty. That may not yet be sufficient for conviction, but it would certainly be adequate to justify a belief in the guilt of that suspect. I think the same is true with religion. As we gather more and more evidence and arguments, we can eliminate certain “suspects” and narrow the field to a few candidates. Eventually, we may find that there is much more evidence in support of a particular religion, raising its likelihood above that of the others and providing sufficient support for belief.

Are We All Exclusive?

us and them arroganceLet me offer one additional thought about arrogance and religion. Exclusivists get a bad rap because they draw a line separating “us” (those who are correct) from “them” (those who are incorrect). Pluralists argue that it is better to avoid drawing lines and think of all religions as true. But whether they realize it or not, pluralists are also drawing a line. On one side are the pluralists (those who are correct) and on the other side is everyone who disagrees (those who are incorrect, which would include most of the Abrahamic traditions). No matter what your position, you will have to draw a line between your group and everyone who disagrees with your group. We are all exclusivists! So, if being an exclusivist makes you arrogant, we are all arrogant. Alternatively, maybe it isn’t arrogant to be an exclusivist.

In conclusion, if you claim to be right about something, and you have good reasons for your claim, then I don’t think you are necessarily arrogant. You should still exercise prudence in how you present your claim—attitude, tone of voice, body language, etc.—because you can still appear (or be) arrogant even if your belief is justified (and even true!). This applies to politics, science, religion and just about anything.

Changing People’s Minds

blaise pascal persuade

I came across this article about Blaise Pascal’s persuasion “trick” a few months ago and loved it. (The title is a bit click-baity, but the principle is sound.) Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was a French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer and Catholic theologian. (Check out his wiki here.) An impressive fellow, to say the least.

I won’t try to summarize the article, but if you enjoy engaging in lively discussions about important things with people who disagree with you (and actually hope to persuade), then this is worth a read! exists to help people learn how to communicate with each other about religion, politics, etc. without resorting to emotional outbursts, alienation and violence. This essay about Pascal exemplifies this spirit. You may also be interested in reading about Pascal’s famous argument for belief in God: Pascal’s Wager. For an easy primer, go here. For a more challenging and detailed discussion, go here.


Theism, Atheism and Being Irrational, Part 2 (Evidence)

What Is Evidence?

court room evidenceI’ve served on a jury just once in my life. The case involved the rape of a child. The direct evidence consisted almost solely in the testimony of the victim. The defense introduced what I would call “defeaters”—reasons to doubt the veracity of the testimony. Being an epistemologist, I paid careful attention to how both attorneys built their cases. When the trial concluded, the judge sent us into a private room to deliberate, and the jury chose me as foreperson. I found the procedure quite simple. There were several charges, written in propositional form. Each juror was to indicate whether they believed or disbelieved (or stood undecided on the truth of) each charge. I read them one at a time, and each juror stated their position. No one doubted, no one disputed. We unanimously  affirmed each charge as true. The swiftness of the process surprised me. The prosecution had presented a powerful case, and the defense was weak. The man was convicted.

lap top pond evidenceThis all sounds quite reasonable. Beliefs, especially about important things, should be carefully formed and supported by evidence. This includes beliefs about God or the absence of gods. But I think a great deal of confusion and clutter arises because we have misconceptions about what evidence is and how it supports beliefs. What kinds of things can support our beliefs? Probably just two things: experiences and other beliefs. For example, what supports my belief that the computer in front of me is black? Well, one thing that supports this belief is my visual experience of the computer. It appears black to me. That is my primary source of evidence. What supports my belief that this computer, if tossed into a lake, will sink? One thing that supports this belief is another belief: the belief that things of a certain density and configuration cannot float in water. Both my beliefs—about the color and buoyancy of the computer—seem perfectly rational given my evidence. My jury experience was similar. My belief that the suspect was guilty was supported by my experience of listening to testimony and other beliefs about the situation, like the reliability of that testimony.

unicorn pig evidenceSo how does all this help us in thinking about the rationality of belief or disbelief in God? One person believes there is a God, and one person believes there are no gods. Both are belief-states. This has nothing to do with certainty or claims to “know.” Some may say that disbelief in gods is a “lack of belief.” But this isn’t quite accurate. If I lack a belief about some matter, it means I’ve never considered it at all. Five seconds before typing this sentence, I lacked a belief about whether pigs are descended from unicorns. I had never considered it. I didn’t affirm it, I didn’t deny it. I wasn’t even “undecided.” I just had no mental state about it whatsoever. Now I do—I deny it. Anyone who has thought about whether gods exist has a belief about the matter, and both belief-states (affirming & denial) are on equal terms, both are claims about reality. And since both views are belief-states, they should both be based on evidence—either experiences or other beliefs.

The Rubber Meets the Road

So, if you are a God-believer, what is your evidence? If you are a god-denier, what is your evidence? You might appeal to some combination of experiences and beliefs that you have. But there are still at least two questions that come up, one for theists and one for atheists. (1) Is there really evidence for God? And (2) what should we believe if there is no evidence for God?

the matrix evidenceThis may shock you, but I’ve never met a theist who has no evidence for their belief. It is almost impossible to form a genuine belief without evidence. For theists, this includes “religious experiences,” testimony, philosophical arguments, etc.  However, not all evidence is created equally. So, if you are a skeptic about God, rather than tell the theist she has no evidence, inquire about the quality of that evidence. Still, even if a theist’s belief is only supported by misleading evidence, this does not make her irrational. Suppose a person unknowingly lives in the Matrix. That is, all her perceptions are being fed to her by a super-duper neuro-computer that can simulate anything. She now believes she is climbing the steps of the Eiffel Tower, but in reality, her body is sleeping in a plastic tube. Is she rational to believe that she is climbing the steps of the Eiffel Tower? Certainly. Her belief is supported only by misleading evidence, but she is being quite rational and epistemically responsible in taking it all at face-value. So, as I argued in the last post, rationality and truth can come apart. Similarly, even if there are no gods, theism can be quite rational (although rather tragic). The break-down in the analogy is that, unlike those trapped in the Matrix, we do have access to counter-evidence and friends who can help us identify bad beliefs.

So what about the second question? If you believe there are no gods, and your basis for this is the claim that there is no evidence for gods, is this a rational position? This will depend on your total evidence. It is true that you shouldn’t face-off evidencebelieve something without evidence for it, but it is also true, in the same way, that you shouldn’t disbelieve something without evidence against it (or evidence for disbelief). So, if the atheist lacks evidence for God (perhaps they’ve never had a religious experience or credible testimony), and she possesses evidence for disbelief, then she may be rational in her disbelief. But now you must be prepared to face-off with the theist on even terms. You both make a claim, you both must offer a defense of your position. Alternatively, if you think there’s simply no evidence whatsoever for the question of whether gods exist, then the rational position is to be undecided (sometimes called being ‘agnostic’). This is the “default” position, for those who have considered the question.

Theism, Atheism and Being Irrational, Part 1

condescending irrationalI loathe condescension for two reasons. One, I find it deeply offensive to be treated as a cognitive inferior or be told I’m being irrational. Two, when someone acts condescendingly toward me, it is like a mirror painfully reflecting my own condescending attitude toward others. Ouch. And there are few places where people are more smug than in debates about God and religion. Both sides are quite certain they occupy the rational high-ground, the moral high-ground, or both.

Many atheists think that belief in a god is irrational because there is a lack of evidence. Believers maintain faith by denial, ignorance or wishful thinking. On the other hand, Christians think that atheists “suppress the truth in unrighteousness,” to quote a line from St. Paul. “Unbelievers” run from reality to preserve their illusory sense of moral autonomy. Both sides accuse the other of irrationality. It wouldn’t be hard to produce anecdotal evidence for both claims. But we must recognize that the rationality of individual persons and the rationality of a worldview are two separate things.

dinosaur velociraptorSo here’s the first question I’m interested in: is it possible for someone to be rational AND be a Christian/atheist? (For philosophy nerds, I’m talking about epistemic rationality.) One way to think of rationality is as a relationship between a person’s belief and their total evidence. To keep it simple, let’s start by talking about a single belief: (A) the dinosaurs were wiped out by a comet. Suppose a person, Stephen, believes (A) rationally because his total evidence supports it. What evidence does Stephen have? Stephen was taught (A) by his teacher, who offered good evidence in class, and Stephen has no defeaters (beliefs that would lead him to deny (A)). Sounds rational. Now suppose another person, Marie, never studied this topic, but believes (A) because she dreamt it was true. It seems that Marie is not believing rationally. Now imagine a third person, Neil, who thinks (A) is false, even though he sat through the same lessons as Stephen. Neil saw a reputable scientist on TV who argued that (B) the dinosaurs died out because of natural changes in climate. Is Neil rational in believing (B) and denying (A)? Arguably, yes. For the sake of argument, let’s suppose that (A) is true, and (B) is false. Interestingly, this has no effect on the rationality of Stephen, Marie and Neil, because rationality is a relation between my belief and my total evidence.

I made up these cases, but they illustrate how beliefs and evidence can relate. Stephen stands in the ideal position. He believes rationally and his belief is true. Marie’s belief is true, but less than rational. Neil believes something false, but he seems rational in doing so.

Takeaway #1: Truth and rationality can come apart.

I can maintain my rationality even when I (unwittingly) believe something false, and I can get lucky in believing the truth even when my cognitive process goes awry.

What is the upshot of this finding? It is this: Christians and atheists should not assume that people on “the other side” are being irrational simply because they believe something false. The best thing to do is look at each case individually, rather than generalizing about how “Christians” and “atheists” think.

evidence irrationalNow, new questions arise. How do we know when someone believes irrationally? When you talk to your friend on the other side, how do you evaluate the quality of their believing? Well, keep in mind that each person’s total evidence is different. This means that what is rational for me to believe may be different from what is rational for you to believe. In Neil’s case, it would probably be epistemically bad for him to switch his belief to (A) because his total evidence better supports (B). But also keep in mind that you may not know what is contained in your friend’s total evidence. They may have evidence you don’t know about. Stephen, unaware that Neil saw this TV program, might consider Neil’s denial of (A) to be irrational. Likewise, Neil might fault Stephen for continuing to hold (A), even though there is better scientific support for (B). Both are wrong.

Takeaway #2: Your rationality is relative to your unique total evidence

Rationality remains an objective, knowable fact about a person’s belief, but I simply must take care not to judge another person’s belief according to my total evidence. And it is so hard to know what someone else’s total evidence includes!

Takeaway #3: Exercise caution and care when judging another’s rationality

In my next post, I plan to look at particular cases of theistic and atheistic belief and evaluate their rationality. (I will also talk about the nature of evidence.) Feel free to offer feedback on what I’ve written so far. Do you agree with each of my takeaway points? Your feedback helps me know what to clarify and what to address in the next post.

Dealing with Dissonance

psycho dissonanceWho can forget the menacingly repetitive theme from the film “Psycho.” Sonic dissonance creating tension and setting our teeth on edge. Extreme dissonance is useful for horror films and car horns, but it’s not the sort of thing you can listen to for long. Ideas can be dissonant as well. Ideas or thoughts in the mind that contradict or conflict in some way can cause mental and psychological irritation. We want to press ‘mute’ on them, as we do with disturbing music.

fight even matchA frequent cause of this cognitive dissonance is disagreement with others—especially someone we consider to be an intellectual peer. A person is my ‘intellectual peer,’ roughly, when they are just as smart as me and have the same information I have. The other day, I read a story about a well-known atheist blogger who would be considered an intellectual peer by most atheists. The story explained how this blogger had recently converted from atheism to Christian theism.  I’ve encountered stories like hers before, including my own, and when I talk to my atheist friends about these stories, they typically insist that the conversion must be due to some failure of reason. Why insist this? Often, it is a way to “mute” the cognitive dissonance that arises when you are faced with the following two ideas:

  • There are no good reasons to believe in God.
  • Fiona is an intellectual peer who believes in God for good reasons.

Understand, though, that this problem plagues humans indiscriminately. Religious believers as well as atheists are susceptible. We can generalize it to apply to anyone:

(1*)  There are no good reasons to believe X.

(2*)  Tom is an intellectual peer who believes X for good reasons.

“X” can be Christian theism, or atheism, or flat-earth theory. The point being that these two incompatible thoughts grate against each other like nails on a chalkboard in our mind. We need to resolve the tension, so what do we do? We can revise (2*) and simply “downgrade” the other person, saying to ourselves, thinking hard“they just aren’t as smart or well-informed as I am.” This can alleviate the cognitive dissonance. But if we had trusted them as an intellectual peer in the past, it isn’t reasonable to downgrade them simply because they now disagree with you. After all, if you are peers (as you had every reason to believe), then you’re just as likely to get things wrong as they are. To downgrade due to disagreement is intellectual hubris.

Instead, consider withholding on or revising (1*). A more reasonable and stable position to hold would be

(1**) I have no good reasons to believe X.

Consider that there may be good reasons to believe X that you don’t know about. This doesn’t mean you have to abandon your own worldview—it simply means you investigate further. You can justifiably maintain your theism or atheism (or agnosticism) and take some time to look into the reasons given for the person’s conversion. But one must be prepared to adjust one’s beliefs depending on the outcome of that investigation.

music composition

Cognitive dissonance is, ultimately, an inescapable part of being human. Instead of trying to instantly quash its unpleasantness, recognize it as a friend that pushes us toward the truth and keeps us from becoming intellectually stagnant. We should learn to appreciate it just as we appreciate musical dissonance (not necessarily the “Psycho” variety) and its capacity to create movement and beauty by elevating tension and releasing it into a (more) harmonious conclusion. When we respond patiently and thoughtfully to dissonance, we improve our ability to resolve it into something constructive and beautiful.

Krista Tippett on Intellectual Humility in Religion and Politics

If you haven’t completely given up on politics yet, and you’re wondering how we can affect the way conversations play out in the public square, then you’ll enjoy this podcast. You may be familiar with Krista Tippett, host of On Being, a open hands humilityradio program and podcast. She discusses “Public Life, Social Humility, and the Religious Other” with Evan Rosa, host of the The Table podcast, produced by the Biola Center for Christian Thought. I find discussions like these immensely helpful to the pursuit of better thinking.

Here’s the link.