Walking by Faith with Popper and Quine

A while ago I was having one of those oft repeated conversations about faith, doubt, and intellectual reconciliation. My thoughtful interlocutor asked, “Is there anything that you could learn that would cause you to abandon your beliefs?” The clear assumption of his question was that there was something distinctly fishy about a set of beliefs that cannot be falsified. It is an assumption worth thinking about.

Of course, the criteria of falsifiability is a chestnut from the philosophy of science, most famously articulated by Karl Popper who made it the touch stone of science. A set of claims is “scientific” — which in the modern world often acts as a kind of rhetorical and epistemological trump card — if and only if the claim could be falsified in some way. A set of beliefs that cannot be falsified cannot be scientific, and for that reason lacks a certain kind of intellectual respectability. Popper’s main targets were some of the misbegotten ideologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries — Marxism and Freudianism, for example — with pretensions of scientific certainty. Popper’s response was to point out that these endlessly malleable systems cannot be falsified — just ask Russell if he thinks the fall of communism tells us anything about the validity of Marxism — and therefore are not scientific. Popper’s move, however, did more than simply strip the cigar-theorists of their scientific fig leaves. He also reoriented science away from certainty and toward a bracing provisionality that always leaves itself vulnerable to new facts.

There is much about Popper to admire, and I am a fan on a lot of levels. On the other hand, I’m far from convinced that falsiability should be made the sine non qua of legitimate belief (a move incidentally that I don’t believe Popper himself ever made). Here I confess that I prefer something like the position staked out by the American philosopher W.V.O Quine. In his 1951 paper “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” Quine noted that even the most radical and revolutionary discoveries do very little to change our beliefs. The vast majority of what we think is true remains unchanged by any particular change in our beliefs, no matter how fundamental. He went on to note that it is possible to maintain one’s belief in any particular proposition by altering one’s beliefs about other propositions. The radical upshot of this is that we cannot really verify or falsify particular beliefs. Rather, we are always confirming or falsifying the totality of our beliefs and then making modest adjustments to this or that bit of it. This process is not some sort of self-deception or intellectual vice. This is simply how we think.

When I think about my own religious beliefs, I find that Quine makes much more sense to me than does Popper. Rather than reducing the whole of Mormonism down to a clean, simple test, say my ability to find a stone box someplace on the Hill Cumorah, I find that as I study, learn, live, and think about my religious beliefs I am constantly making adjustments to this or that bit of them. Hence, there is a real sense in which my beliefs are both never subject to the acids of falsifiability and at the same time are constantly being falsified. I regularly reject previous beliefs about Mormonism in favor of new beliefs, and at the same time I am constantly making adjustments in my beliefs in order to maintain what I regard as certain core convictions. I freely admit that at some point this process of adjustment and re-articulation might lead one to simply walk away from what were previously core beliefs. In a Quinian world one can indeed come to the conclusion that one has a false belief system but not because of some clean test provided by a single intellectual point of failure. Rather, it is the totality of one’s beliefs that is tested against the totality of one’s experience and knowledge.

There is also an important sense, I think, in which understanding one’s beliefs in terms of their relationship to other beliefs injects into the process of belief itself a moral component. Because one can, within limits, sustain most particular beliefs by making adjustments elsewhere in one’s belief system, there is an important sense in which we are ethically responsible for what we believe. Not completely and totally, mind you, but it is not true that the world simply assaults us with facts that then — in the absence of self-deception — completely determine what we will believe. Rather, we have as it were hopes about certain truths and we cling to those hopes as long as possible by making adjustments elsewhere in our beliefs. The hopes that we cling to and the adjustments that we make tell us something, I think, about the sorts of people that we are. In that sense were are morally responsible for our beliefs, although I freely admit that untangling this particular kind of responsibility is devilishly difficult.

Still there is an injection of the moral into the epistemological, and this is part of what it means, I think, when the scriptures speak of walking by faith.

56 comments for “Walking by Faith with Popper and Quine

  1. I am constantly making adjustments in my beliefs in order to maintain what I regard as certain core convictions. I freely admit that at some point this process of adjustment and re-articulation might lead one to simply walk away from what were previously core beliefs.

    I would submit that you have simply nuanced your interlocutor’s question. Both are simply variations of “At what point do you walk away from Mormonism?” If the answer is “never” than you should answer the interlocutor, “nothing” since there is nothing that would make you walk away.

    You constant adjustment idea implies that at some point enough core beliefs about Mormonism could be stripped away or changed so that either 1) You remain Mormon but have a set of beliefs so different than any other Mormon that you are Mormon in name only (in which case answer “never”) or 2) You walk away because a certain minimal set of beliefs and/or values no longer hold for you. In this case list these things and say “that’s what will make me walk away.”

    On further point, I think you are reading Quine in a much more post-modern fashion than is warranted, but that’s just me.

  2. Yes, I’d like to think that faith and hope play a positive role rather than (as often portrayed by secularists) a largely negative one. I think at some level anyone who moves beyond strong skepticism to affirm some set of beliefs about the world relies in part on faith and hope. But I’m thinking that personality differences — between those inclined to cling to hopes and those inclined to jettison beliefs every time they read a better book — explain much of one’s willingness to believe. Can we ascribe moral merit to one’s natural propensity to believe or to hope? [We do, of course, but should we?]

  3. ” Can we ascribe moral merit to one’s natural propensity to believe or to hope? [We do, of course, but should we?] ”

    It is a hard question. The scriptures speak in terms of gifts of the spirit; some have them and some don’t, but they don’t suggest that those who have a particular gift are more worthy than those who are don’t. Elsewhere, the scriptures speak of hardening or softening of our hearts. My own sense is that disposition matters and enormous amount, but that we have some (limited perhaps) ability to change our dispositions by changing our habits. I take it that this is a big part of what commandments and ritual are about: inculcating certain habits of heart, mind, and life so as to change our characters.

  4. Can we ascribe moral merit to one’s natural propensity to believe or to hope?

    If we eliminate everything for which there is a natural propensity we will eliminate everything moral. I doubt there is *any* virtue of any kind for which we don’t see personality differences.

  5. David: You are probably right about my reading of Quine, particularlly as in some sense he was making a linguistic point as much as he was making an epistemological point. I am using him as a jumping off place rather than trying to offer a real exegesis of his ideas. In a sense, I think you are right that I agree with my friend, but I think it was pretty clear that he was looking for “some thing” — i.e. a singular fact that would falsify the whole show — rather than “something” — i.e. an intellectual event in which I reject my belief system. It is, I think, an important distinction.

  6. Really worthwhile argument, Nate O. I especially liked that last bit about the moral component of our beliefs.

    The apologist’s role, in your system, is not to prove that our beliefs are true but to demonstrate that our belief in their truth does not need to be adjusted. Or–and this is why apologetics, if necessary, can also be dangerous–to show ways that our beliefs can best be adjusted.

  7. Adam: In many ways, I think that apologetics is largely about fine tuning our beliefs, showing how some can be adjusted so as to maintain one’s allegiance to other beliefs…

  8. Nate, your ideas on these topics are always so helpful for me personally, thank you. I only regret that I’m not quite smart enough to really grasp the distinction you’re making with Quine v. Popper: it seems to me that Quine is describing how we do think about our values, while Popper is prescribing how we ought to think about facts. (Of course, not always so easy to distinguish statements of value from statements of fact.) Is this right, roughly? The difficulty I run into is when I try to use Quine’s method (if I’ve grasped it)—which, I agree, very aptly describes how I experience my inhabiting of a worldview—of gentle, accommodating, hope-filled explorations to reach certainty about what are, essentially, facts, those few facts that are the basis of a witness of the restoration.

    Then, even when I’ve found some peace with my hope-like faith, I run into some scripture or other that teaches that faith is real spiritual knowledge, then I’m back in trouble again. In other words, as much as I am attracted to the notion that we are morally responsible only for our hopes, not our certainties, that notion doesn’t seem very Mormon. Am I just reading the wrong scriptures? :)

  9. RW: The distinction that I am making between Popper and Quine isn’t a distinction between facts and values. I take both of them to be talkinga about facts. (Although in actual fact — as David points out — Quine’s discussion begins with an attack on the distinction between analytic and synthetic statements and is tied up with the philosophy of language as much as with epistemology; which is just a long way of saying that mine is an ideosyncratic and perhaps mistaken reading of Quine.) Both of them are talking about how we hold beliefs about the world that can be true or false. Popper thinks that we can reduce beliefs to a simple point of failure that allows us to falsify them. Think, for example, of the bending of light observed at the beginning of the 20th century that was taken as evidence falsifying Newtonian physics. The Quinian position, however, is that we can “save” certain beliefs from discordant facts by making adjustments elsewhere to our beliefs. For example, one can retain a geocentric view of the universe in the face of the observed motion of the planets by positing epicycles. The epicycles are the adjustments that allow us to retain our belief in geocentricism. I take Quine’s point to be that we are constantly doing something like this, so that ultimately we cannot speak of falsifying or verifying particular propositions by reference to some fact or observation. Rather, it is the totality of our beliefs that is confirmed or falsified by the totality of our facts and experiences. This doesn’t mean that we are relativists, just that we recognize the interrelated and networked nature of our beliefs.

    What scriptures are you thinking about that talk about faith as real spiritual knowledge. Off the top of my head, I can think of only two scriptures that seem to identify faith with knowledge: Hebrews 11 and Alma 32. Upon a closer reading, however, both of these seem consistent with my position. In Hebrews faith seems to be a principle of action that brings forth divine help, while in Alma we gain a certainty about the goodness of the fruit rather than some particular proposition.

    A final point: I don’t think that the Quinian position is something unique to religion. I think that most — all? — of our beliefs operate this way, including beliefs about things of which we are certain, such as the existence of beings (like me!) outside of our immediate presence, etc.

  10. A better example for the Quinian adjustment, might be to reject the observed bending of light by believing that the observations were mistaken. This move would preserve Newtonian physics. Over time, however, the accretion of such adjustments might nevertheless lead one to reject Newtonian physics in favor of relativity. My point would simply be that this rejection would be based on a comparison of the totality of our beliefs with the totality of our experiences, rather than because there was a single clear, clean observation that laid the question to rest.

  11. But really, by the end of his life Popper himself was quite far away from this sort of simple falsification? So I’m not sure it’s really all that instructive. But it seems to me that Lakatos’s approach (particularly with regard to the negative and positive heuristic) could be qutie useful.

  12. There is the intellect and there are emotions. Intellectually Mormonism is infinitely falsifiable as opposed to ordinary Christianity which is not, really. Emotionally, does it matter? On two different planes, two different needs, two different desires. Not all intelligence is logic. Not all logic makes sense. All true things can not be proved (which was just proved, mathematically, I believe). Can you falsify an emotion without casting doubt on all emotions?

    (If, according to Quine, faith in Jesus Christ has the same epistemological equivalence as the rock I kicked on my latest hike, mercy, we are in trouble. So postmodern. Different ways of knowing, different emotional content, different neurons, different consciousness, different sympathy. Not the same on a human level, at least.)

    You could intellectually easily agree with your interlocutor. It has already been done for me. Emotionally (spiritually) I do not care. Likewise for God who sometimes seems to be like the blind demiurge of the Gnostics.

  13. Walking by faith is required at all levels of “faith”, I would think. Joseph Smith’s and Moroni’s level of faith, due to their experiences with the things of the Spirit, are certainly at the highest level possible for mortals–yet they had to walk by faith all their days. In other words, though one has absolute knowledge that Jesus Christ is Gods own Son, as they did, they still were required to walk by faith, just as we do. As we, they had to be prayerful, keep the commandments, repent and constantly seek guidance to move to the next level of “faith”.

    I suppose the Savior had to do all these things as well.

  14. Nate–forgive my ignorance because I have never read Quine, so I may be misunderstanding you, but I don’t really see a fundamental distinction between Quine and Popper here. Aren’t you (or Quine?) really just saying that when we learn something that falsifies a particular belief, we can and should intepret the implications of that new information very narrowly. Perhaps we once thought that certain so called core beliefs implied other propositions that we have now falisfied. It would be a logical error to assume that by falsifying those beliefs we have also falsified the core beliefs when all we have really done is falsify the belief that those core beliefs necessarily imply other beliefs. It may that the truth of those core beliefs is in fact consistent with the new information in ways that we had not previously thought and we should be open to that possibility, while guarding against the self deception that can arise from cognitive dissonance.

    Am I right, or have I misunderstood you?

  15. “Aren’t you (or Quine?) really just saying that when we learn something that falsifies a particular belief, we can and should intepret the implications of that new information very narrowly.”

    Not really. The point of Quine, as I take him, is that we never falsify particular beliefs. One can always save any particular belief by shifting other beliefs. Rather, what we falsify or confirm is the totality of our beliefs.

  16. Interesting observations, Nate.

    I think there’s a lot of truth to the idea that we start out with sets of beliefs, which are themselves formed by facts — but that later facts then get interpreted with respect to the initial set of beliefs.

    Or, to use an example — as a child, I’m exposed to the idea of cars. I learn that cars start when you turn the key. As I get older, I buy a car. I turn the key a few times, and it starts. I’m pretty solid in my belief that cars start through key turning.

    If one day I go out to my car and turn the key and it doesn’t start — I don’t think, “maybe cars don’t start through key turning.” I’m completely secure in that overall belief. Instead, I look for particular problems with my car’s ignition. Maybe it has a dead battery. But the thought, “maybe cars don’t really start by key” never enters my mind.

    However, that very much depends on the earlier experiences I had, which confirmed for me the operation of cars and keys. if I were an aboriginal from the Brazilian jungle (did you see those pictures from last week?), I might take that failure to mean that keys don’t really start cars.

    And, to mix in a little Kuhn with your Quine/Popper mix, but — at some point, we may shift our baseline narrative and assumptions enough that they really aren’t the same.

  17. Jay Wood (associate prof. of phil. Wheaton College; Ph.D., Notre Dame) writes on the entangled nature of epistemology and ethics: Wood, W. Jay. Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous. Countours of Christian Philosophy series, edited by C. Stephen Evans. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1998.

  18. Responding to the opening question,

    Rephrased to Joseph Smith it could be:
    – Is there anything that you could learn that would make you disbelieve that you saw God the Father and Jesus Christ?

    Rephrased to us it could be:
    – Is there anything that you could learn that would make you disbelieve that you’ve had a witness of truth from the Holy Ghost?

  19. Nice thoughts, Nate. I understood Gary’s question but didn’t understand your answer. Would you mind fleshing your answer out a bit?

    “This process is not some sort of self-deception or intellectual vice. This is simply how we think.”

    I don’t believe we can rule out the possibility that self-deception and other tricks of mind are intractable. Social psychology has already identified dozens of mental illusions, and what you’ve offered here appears to be an expanded theory on the operation of cognitive dissonance or confirmation bias.

  20. Matt: I am not dismissing the possibility of self-deception, rather I am saying that the fact that we adjust some beliefs to preserve others in the face and new evidence is not per se an example of self-deception. The fact that we can preserve particular beliefs by adjusting other beliefs suggests that we cannot falsify any belief standing in isolation, but rather we only falsify our particular beliefs as they stand in relation to all of our other beliefs. Obviously, we regularlly reject particular beliefs in the face of new evidence, but we do this because we choose not to modify the other beliefs to which it is connected.

  21. Nate: Great post. I have always thought of Quine as saying that we have a web of beliefs and that rather than destroy the entire web, we will make adjustments to the outer and less central threads in the web to hold it together rather than changes at the center of the web that is make it collapse. In other words, we resist change to our belief structure and those beliefs that are more foundational and key in our beliefs will not be given up but we may make adjustment to those beliefs that are negotiable and open to assessment. He is saying something like Popper, as I read him, that scientists resist changes to paradigms (for lots of social and professional reasons in addition to cognitive dissonance). So they are addressing something very similar.

    The question, as I see it, is will we be willing to give up the essential, key or foundational beliefs? Is there anything that could get us to do that? Look at Alan Jackson’s post in #21. His rephrasing suggests that he may be willing to give up something less foundational for our testimonies (that Joseph had an experience in the First Vision as he later described it) rather than something that is so foundational it cannot be given up without the web of beliefs collapsing altogether (that I had a spiritual experience that is veridical or truth-conducive in some important sense). I believe that we can play with just what Joseph’s visions were, when he had them, when he realized fully the import of what he experienced and so forth, but giving up on the trustworthiness of our own, immediate spiritual experience is to place in doubt the entire web of beliefs and leave it foundationless. I am not promoting epistemic foundationalism (far from it), but I am suggesting that distrusting our own experience results in systematic doubt and destroys the entire web of beliefs.

    I suspect that that is what is involved in the issue of self-deception and the debate about self-deception in spiritual experiences. If we can always be self-deceived, then we never know if we are self-deceived and it is the end of the world because we cannot trust anything in our experience with some reliable trust. So when Matt suggests that Social Psychology has proven that we can always be self-deceived, he has sold the farm — hasn’t he? That means that no experiences can really be trusted and really the ultimate arbiter of truth is now Science — the disembodied authority with a capital “S”. However, that is precisely where Quine comes to our rescue. If we must place in doubt everything that makes our experience meaningful and possibly truth-conducive, then it is unreasonable to engage us such systematic doubt without first exploring a fair number of other options at maintaining the web of beliefs before we destroy the web of beliefs. If we must give up the central threads to the web, then the web of beliefs cannot hang together and we must engage in a paradigm shift. Perhaps we construct a new web using some of the old threads, or perhaps we build an entirely new web that abandons anything essential to the old way of viewing things. But to doubt that I have had specific spiritual experiences calls into doubt all of my experience.

    The obvious move is to suggest that scientifically replicable experiences are trustworthy because there are checks and such beliefs can always be adjusted, but subjective emotional or spiritual experiences are just not trustworthy because they can be based on self-deception. Popper suggests that science really doesn’t proceed in that fashion — it is much more subjective and like religious or beliefs than we may be willing to admit. Yet we are back to Quine and systematic doubt that isn’t reasonable in the entire mix of our experience.

    So thanks for this post. I’m still wondering about the “moral component” in beliefs. For the most part our beliefs are not voluntary or subject to our will. We cannot be morally accountable for them because it is not up to us what we believe. However, it does seem that we have a duty to believe what we reasonably believe is true without distorting the evidence in our favor to maintain a belief system or to come up with one. It seems that to the extent we are served by believing what is true (and it isn’t necessarily true that believing the truth is always in our best interest!) then we have some prudential reasons to prefer truth to falsehood.

  22. Nate and Blake, in what way does this theory differ from saying that when people encounter challenges to their beliefs, rather than dismiss the entirety of their belief system, they shift or discard particular beliefs, in descending order of their attachment, in ways that preserve their beliefs with greater attachment?

    (Blake, I’ve always thought Mosiah 4:8-10 was interesting in that King Benjamin directs people to believe, as an imperative: “Believe in God, believe that he is . . .”)

  23. Nate: As usual, you are way over my head.

    My single comment is that the discussion seems to center on the amorphous, shifting mass of concepts and connections that exist in our minds, and not as much on the fact of an objective reality that by definition cannot be fully depicted in the analogies that we keep in our heads to depict that reality. Our minds are too limited to even keep a complete and consistent arrangement of ideas from week to week (our memories are limited and incomplete and our minds simplify and amend our memories to make them fit into an artificially consistent picture). Our ability to comprehend reality is limited by our senses and the processing power and narrow focus of our minds. Much of reality does not get past various filters we may not even be aware of.

    Under these circumstances, the certainty that our mental picture is a completely accurate one-to-one high definition analog of objective reality is simply not justified. We can only maintain and sustain a certain portion of our thought as core realities that have been confirmed over time, while the rest can shift or escape our memories without us realizing it, in addition to whatever conscious change we make in response to data our minds identify in the real world.

    If I sound a little too Freudian in talking about our mind mutating without our conscious control, just because Freud was crazy doesn’t mean he was stupid. Case in point: There is medical research that supports the theory that humans have a limited pheromonic sense that makes us respond emotionally to a limited number of chemicals that are exuded by the bodies of other people. These pheromones are not detected by our sense of smell, and the data does not pass through our conscious minds, but passes directly to the emotional centers of the hind brain. These pheromones can cause women to feel relaxed and comfortable when they receive the pheromones in male sweat–even when odor causing compounds have been filtered out. It is these unconscious chemical signals that cause women who live in close proximity to become synchronized in their menstrual cycles.

    Second case in point: I have, through my years of work as an attorney, developed the skill of being able to offer arguments, during which my brain is conscious of the formation of the argument and the response I appear to be eliciting from my audience, but I am unaware of any emotional component of my own concerning the argument. Yet when there is a pause in the action, I can note physical indicators of an emotional response by my body, including perspiration. My body is experiencing the physiological aspects of stress and emotion, but my mind is not conscious of them. Keeping emotion from interfering with my thought processes in these demanding situations is very useful, but I have no conscious control over this “Mr. Spock the Vulcan” distancing from my emotions.

    Third case in point: Living with my wife gives me constant opportunities to discover discrepancies in our respective perceptions of reality, our differing memories of very precise events we experienced together.

    So for simplicity’s sake I act as though I know what is objectively real, but if I discover a discrepancy in my mental representation of reality, I don’t get unduly emotionally invested in it. The discrepancy I perceive now may in fact be ephemeral, almost accidental.

    One of my humanities professors, Donald Helbling, told us that “There is no reason, only reasoners.” He was warning us to be cautious about claiming that what we think is rational really represents reality, or asserting that we are really witnessing a logical chain of cause and effect rather than constructing a pattern in our heads.

    For me, the realization that everything I know has tentative aspects, including in science, law, politics, history, family relationships, etc., helps me to feel comfortable with what I perceive as spiritual reality. If I honestly put a substantial amount of effort into understanding my religious convictions, what I think I know, I find that I know it with at least as much certainty as I can ascribe to every other aspect of my reality.

    One of my other humanities professors, who was teaching the section that surveyed parts of the Bible, stated his own view that if he saw Jesus descending to earth with thousands of angels, he would assume he was going insane in preference to that event being real. (He had just arrived in Utah, so was fascinated by the distinct Mormon take on aspects of the Bible, such as the idea that 1 Peter describes Christ as visiting and liberating the dead.)

    Just so, if I was presented with information that appeared to contradict one of my basic convictions about the Church, I would think it more likely that either the datum itself or my perception of it were in error. Since I have to doubt my own perceptions, I certainly can doubt the perception that a faith-destroying fact has been presented to me. And my verified experience of reality has shown me that doubting such doubts is often justified (as in the case of the Hoffman forgeries).

    Let me offer an extreme example. Let us say I have a friend who develops a time machine. He offers to send me back in time and space to a place of interest. I pick the date of a well recorded revelatory experience of Joseph Smith (such as the May 15, 1829, visit of John the Baptist or the September 22-23, 1823, visit of Moroni) and try to witness it. If I do not see it happening, I cannot say that it was not an objective reality, since my own presence may have altered the conditions (we are getting into quantum physics here); indeed, the Many Worlds hypothesis of quantum physics (which is supported by many physicists as a means of escaping the many Anthropic Coincidences that make the universe appear to have been purposely fine tuned for human life) tells me that I could have either created or fallen into an alternate timeline in which the events did not happen at that time and place, but it is still possible that in my timeline of origin they DID happen.
    (Indeed, the notion that every possible universe DOES exist suggests that in at least one of this infinite array, there is a being who, as far as we can perceive, has all the attributes of God, and we have no way of objectively eliminating the possibility that we are precisely in THAT universe.) This is a very scientifically sober explanation for my observation that does not require me to alter my mental analog of reality.

    So we can’t really say what hypothetical circumstance would alter our religious faith, since our certainty about our perceptions of any such event would always be tentative and subject to revision as additional data comes in.

  24. The issue of how beliefs are adjusted to new facts seem like a sideshow in the falsifiability debate when the key difference seems to be that Mormonism, like most other religious beliefs doesn’t make a lot of predictions about near-term facts. How does one falsify a belief about “When you are dead, then X will happen to you?”

    The devilishly difficult thing is that we do not have a scientific theory of how beliefs and/or choice relate to physical properties. We know on a gross basis that brain structures create beliefs but not the specifics. For example, we don’t know how big a belief is or what the mass of a belief is.

    But consider the following thought experiment. If it could be shown that belief in Mormonism has a one-to-one relationship with a physical state, say the potentiation of a certain type of neuron. So all people who have that structure believe in mormonism and all those who don’t do not. Furthermore, let’s assume that the technology exists to switch this potentiation off and on with 100% accuracy and reliability.

    The thought experiment is as follows. Would knowing that believing in Mormonism is turned on and off by a physical process change your belief in Mormonism?

    My hunch is that it wouldn’t but it should. On the evidence, we know that there is no free will but since we experience it we can’t stop believing it. Ditto with Mormonism.

  25. Martin: Re: your neuron thought experiment. Wouldn’t a possible rational explanation be that our neurons are arranged according to our faith, or that neurons are caused by God as a gift of faith, or that neurons reflect choices we make, or that any other mirror is a divine ordering, etc.? All of these ways of construing the incipient physicalism that drives your example could be consistent with emergent libertarian free will.

    Raymond: And if you had to give up your well ordered belief that our beliefs are not well-ordered, wouldn’t that be a pretty significant change in your belief system? Your post-modernism is just too slippery to really reflect the kinds of assertions at issue, i.e., Joseph had a vision of God, the Book of Mormon occurred somewhere in the Americas and was written by descendants of Israelites, the Book of Abraham was originally written by Abraham, etc. You seem to reject realism and adopt a relativism that leaves no room to make any solid assertion of belief about anything including one’s own experiences and mental states. It seems to me that what you describe as faith cannot be altered because it ain’t faith, doesn’t affirm anything and cannot be shown to be false because it fails to accept anything that can be described in any way. So is it your view that when we say that Joseph Smith carried the golden plates from the hill Cumorah to his house on 22 September 1827 we’re not really asserting anything that can be described with adequate definiteness to even have the status of true or false?

    Matt: I’m not sure that there is any difference.

  26. #27: “Would knowing that believing in Mormonism is turned on and off by a physical process change your belief in Mormonism?”.
    ” Ask Alice…..when she’s ten feet tall” (Jefferson Airplane)

  27. For you who are too young to have listen to the song “White Rabbit”, by the group, Jefferson Airplane. it is about taking mind altering drugs and built around Alice in Wonderland. The question of the song: can drugs cause you to fall into a rabbit hole, where all you believed is no longer true, and may even cause your whole Being to chance? The answer: “Ask Alice…when she’s ten feet tall’.

  28. #27 — a variation on Blake’s #28: On the hillsides abutting the Pacific Coast, there are trees whose branches extend only leeward — opposite the direction of the winds that constantly blow from sea to land.

    If I dig the tree up, rotate it 180 degrees, and replant it with those same branches now facing the ocean, the wind will not now blow from the land to the sea. Assuming it survives, the tree will grow new branches to leeward, lose branches to windward, and wind up looking much as it did before the replanting.

  29. Blake,

    Its not the possible divine ordering I’m questioning, its what happens when “we” become able to do the ordering.

    In other words, does it change your understanding of belief when we have precise and complete control over our experience of the divine.

    In a world where the blue pill gives you faith and the red one takes it away, does our understanding of faith change?


    In your analogy, the wind blows when there are no branches to the leeward. In my thought experiment, no branches to the leeward, no wind. I think you are talking cause and effect and I think I’m talking identity of existence, but I’m not sure.

  30. Bob,

    Or in less romantic terms, when watching people lose their mind to senility and dementia, when, precisely, have they lost their faith or free will or rationality?

    Go ask Alice when she’s 85 years old?

  31. Bob,

    Or in less romantic terms, when watching people lose their mind to senility and dementia, when, precisely, have they lost their faith or free will or rationality?

    Go ask Alice when she’s 85 years old?

  32. A true philosopher! How often do we find thèm among the blogs?

    I agree that “it is the totality of one’s beliefs that is tested against the totality of one’s experience and knowledge.” And testing one’s beliefs against those of our moral tutors is what Festinger called ‘social reality’ as a complement for ‘physical reality’. However, I do miss a notion of ‘falsifiability’ or ‘reducibility’ for that whole. We do not always need crucial experiments or crucifixions to change or beliefs. We know when our representations are invalid, by measurement; and we know when our sources are unreliable, again by measurement. It is too anti-democratic and lustful for power, to (simply) dominate and submit to each other in our group. The individually independent confirmation *or rejection* of hypotheses and assumptions about what is true, truly valid objects and truly reliable sources, is what turns dominators into submitters and vice versa.


  33. Would knowing that believing in Mormonism is turned on and off by a physical process change your belief in Mormonism?

    By definition, no.

    I’m curious about one aspect of your hypothetical. Saying that belief in Mormonism is turned on and off by a physical process is another way of saying that disbelief in Mormonism is turned on and off by a physical process. Why then do you think that the conclusion we *should* draw is that Mormonism is not true?

  34. #32,

    You’re right — I botched my own analogy. That was elegant. ;-) The nub of what I think I had in mind when I started that comment was this:

    Analogize the direction of the branches to “belief”? IOW, I turn “off” the belief by rotating the tree. But the prevailing winds (a context of diligently living a life of faith-promoting actions) are going to reverse the positioning of the branches over the course of time, right? So too, maybe, with belief. If that model’s right, then the “choice” or “agency” element is how one chooses to live, not what one believes.

    In composing the hypothesis, I don’t know that it is, in fact, a fair representation of my own experience, which has been a continued (nearly life-long) level of basically LDS-faithful living, but with (at least in the last decade or so) a series of substantial changes in my actual belief state that many would construe as a loss of belief, though I’m coming to wonder whether it isn’t more of a transformation than a deficit.

  35. #36: Adam, in the 60s, I tried both Hashish and Peyote, (No LSD). Trust me, that physical process can have you believe or disbelieve in your Mommy. But there is no control over WHAT you are going to believe. I do believe outside forces can chance beliefs more than we are willing to accept. I have seen beliefs so shattered by outside events, (say learning one’s mate is cheating on you), that simply “some rerouting”, or backfilling, isn’t enough. A whole rewiring is needed.

  36. Adam,

    I don’t think its true by definition that it wouldn’t change your belief if you knew the result of the experiment.

    The reason is as follows. The physical process that turns belief on and off could be the result of the thinking that was done on the result of the experiment. In other words, that new knowledge started a chain of physical processes that changed the orientation of the switch.

    The reason that I thought it may(not should, but may) change belief for some people is two basic reasons.

    1. Knowledge that belief is a physical process may change the weight someone puts on beliefs and experience.

    2. It may be inconsistent with various beliefs about agency and the soul. In other words if my beliefs can be changed outside of my control, it would seem to open up lots of questions for faith and agency,etc.

    One could conceivably respond that this knowledge confirms Mormonism. Something like an old school realist argument, look, they’ve discovered a switch for belief in Mormonism. This is clear evidence of the truth of Mormonism because why would there exist creatures with minds that could believe in Mormonism if it wasn’t true (i.e. have existence).

  37. Here’s a little different take on the falsifiability issue.

    If something is not falsifiable, its useless for the purpose of short run predictions and technology and possibly useless as science.

    The historical trouble with non-falsifiable beliefs is that they tend not to stay confined to the the non-falsifiable. Too many statements of the type X must be true because of Y, where Y is a non-falsifiable theory and X is a potentially verifiable fact. (Substitute egregious witch-burning belief of choice.)

    So the first result of admitting LDS belief may be non-falsifiable is to admit that it is of no help scientifically. LDS belief isn’t the golden road to the Nobel prize.

    But what about the non-scientific? The vast realm of inexplicable purpose and meaning that we all inhabit. It seems one either must admit that we’re all roughly equally justified or unjustified in our unfalsifiable beliefs.

    We don’t have any standards of evidence that LDS beliefs meet that other beliefs do not.

    There’s no test for telling whether someone else has had a confirmation of the spirit or a pseudo-confirmation of the spirit.

  38. #40:(#2) I don’t follow: How could one come to believe in say the BoM, without an outside process providing him with a BoM?
    I believe, most of what we believe, is provided by outside forces, God, Nature, or Culture.(?)

  39. Bob,

    So then what amount of our “choices” are a direct function of our beliefs. Are our “actions ” also provided by outside forces, God Nature and Culture?

  40. #43: ” How old would you be, if you did not Know how old you were?” ( Satchel Page). ” The answer my friend, is blowing in the wind” (Peter, Paul, and Mary).
    “So then what amount of our “choices” are a direct function of our beliefs?”. I believe that came up in the Senate Water Boarding hearings. If enough force is used, the man will review his choices.
    I don’t believe we make one choice on one belief. “Function ( See Functionalism), may be direct, but what are the weight ratios?
    Our actions are in response to outside forces.(See wives, kids, the boss, and alarm clocks).

  41. Nate, re: #10, restoration teachings that real spiritual knowledge—rather than hope or yearning—is necessary for salvation: well, large swaths of the D&C, including sections 50, 84, and 88. Joseph’s many pronouncements on the topic, including “a man is saved no faster than he gets knowledge, for if he does not get knowledge, he will be brought into captivity” and “no man can be a minister of Jesus Christ except he has the testimony of Jesus; and this is the spirit of prophecy. Whenever salvation has been administered, it has been by testimony.” I also take the strong emphasis in restoration scripture on free moral agency to be based on the possibility of real spiritual knowledge (see the BoM especially, 2 Ne 2, Helaman 14, Moroni 7). To be sure, “knowledge” in these contexts is live, internalized, motivating, rather than an assault of inert facts (a distinction that is essentially modern, anyway, and only present in restoration scripture).

    I take your point that one’s testimony ought not (or doesn’t, anyway, which seems to be more to Quine’s descriptive point) hang on a single, clear factual test. On the other hand, I think you’re discounting some of the unique force of Mormonism as a religious system when you dismiss falsifiability as a general notion. Mormonism makes claims that are rationally falsifiable—most obviously in the provenance of the BoM—and I take that to be one of its great strengths and attractions. (I’m not suggesting that the falsification would be clear, simple, uncontested, or incontrovertible—as has been pointed out, very few rational inquiries are so elegant.) As discoveries in neurobiology and cognitive psychology (like those Matt and Martin have cited upstream) have brought a lot of what we assume about consciousness and understanding into question, it has been somewhat reassuring for me to know that there is some sort of epistemological escape hatch from Mormonism, that there is some kind of evidence that could be offered against it and thus there is a way out of the matrix, a way for me to know if I were wrong. This is the great epistemological risk that Mormonism takes in making audacious claims about recent history, but it’s also the source of much of its vitality and relevance in the modern world.

  42. “Matt: I’m not sure that there is any difference.”

    My question 26 would be accepted within social psychology as an operational description of cognitive dissonance or confirmation bias, but I believe this description does involve self-deception. A person’s attachment to particular beliefs should be irrelevant to the decision of which beliefs to abandon, and to the degree we jettison beliefs according to our attachment rather than their being implicated in the challenge, we are self-deceived. Our attachment is relevant only if we’re trying to alleviate psychological conflict.

    According to social psychology this is the way people do think (jettisoning beliefs in order of their attachment), but also evidence that people think in self-deceptive ways.

  43. RW: Two quick response. First, I agree with you in some sense. You’ll notice that I never dismissed the notion of falsifiability. Rather, I was insisting that it is the totality of our beliefs that is affirmed or falsified, and hence our approach to any individual belief is going to be “slippery.” Second, I freely admit that I am not up on the neuroscience arguments, but I have yet to see how increased knowledge of brain science presents any special epistemological problem that we haven’t already know about for a long time. We know from a little bit of ordinary reflection that physical states can cause mental states, and it at least appears to be the case that mental state, e.g. my decision to begin typing this message, can cause physical states. It seems to me that the issues presented by neuroscience are simply complex iterrations of an old philosophical puzzle. This is not to say that I have a clear answer to the puzzle; just that I am not sure why neuroscience ought to have me especially twitterpated about it.

  44. RW: One other point. I don’t think that anything that I have said here denies the possibility of knowledge. Quine argues for holistic verificationism not skepticism.

  45. For me the twitterpation is the potential to move from a philosophical puzzle to a technological tool.

    Its an oldie but a goodie.

  46. Mit der Lüge kommst du durch die ganze Welt, aber nicht mehr zurück. – German saying.

    If you go along with Quine, then I wonder how honest misperceptions and misunderstandings can be criticized. Worse, what if a story is told of which you know it isn\’t true but you cannot prove it when the storyteller doesn\’t test it properly (suggestio falsi) or, even worse, a story is denied of which you know that it is true (suppressio veri). What if this lying is to get a mortgage? In totalitarian regimes people are not trusted unless they lie!

  47. So I guess Quine would say that if I believe

    1. All dogs are mammals
    2. All mammals have hair
    3. Harry is either a dog or a lizard
    4. Harry is not a lizard

    and I come to believe that

    5. Harry has no hair

    then I deduce that there is a contradiction in the totality of my beliefs, so I pick one of the five to get rid of, and then I’m happy again.

    But what if I only believe that each of the statements is true with 80 percent probability? Then it is possible to hang onto all of the beliefs (at least, in the sense that I “pretty sure” of each of them) even while recognizing that at least one of the beliefs is wrong.

    You say, “Well, looking at my total set of beliefs, there are some things that appear to lead to contradictions, but I’m not sure where the problem is — whether a particular belief is completely wrong or another belief is partly wrong or my logic is wrong or my interpretation is wrong — and I am still pretty darn sure of each individual belief, though maybe a little more humble and a little less sure about some of them than before.”

    This is seems to be what actually happens when we discover contradictions in our religious beliefs, no?

  48. Too much Word Magic for me!
    Am I wiser then to have faith in what I believe, or safer to doubt in all of them? Can I really control either choice? Are my beliefs motionless, like the white snow in a snow globe, until an outside force picks it up an shakes it?

  49. In the SEP, belief has the following definition.: “Contemporary analytic philosophers of mind generally use the term \”belief\” to refer to the attitude [settled way of thinking or feeling] we have, roughly, whenever we take something [data] to be the case or regard it as true.”

    I submit we have two types of beliefs. One represents a settled way of thinking about data the other a settled way of feeling about data. The distinction is important. For example I may have a ‘belief’ that if I take this data; combine it to this other data I will get an expected value. Can this be falsified? Sure. We can have the wrong data points or the way we combine them will not work, etc.

    Next, I can go to the restaurant and have a steak. After eating it I state that, in my estimation, the steak was delicious. Can I falsify that belief? Don’t think so. On my way home I almost hit a car. I told my wife, that was scary. Can that statement be falsified. No. Not for that person.

    To understand the significance of events we must ask “does the belief have personal significance for me or not.” If the event has personal significance for me then the event will be justified (made real) by feelings or senses. These can only be changed with additional data accompanied by affection (feelings or senses).

    The problem we get into is when we’re talking about beliefs based on ‘data and thinking’ and assuming we are discussing beliefs based on ‘data and affection’. Popper is discussing the first type but the assumption is he is talking about both. Religious truth is established affectively. It is belief of the second type. It has little or no relevance to the first type of belief which is belief data and thinking. This last type is what science is involved in.


  50. Rich,

    I think your belief in the statement “religious truth is established affectively” is a belief of type 2 not type 1.

  51. Martin, I think that is what I said. “Religious truth is established affectively. It is belief of the second type.”


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