Can we choose what we believe?

Can we choose our beliefs? Hold out your hand and look at it for a moment. You see it there in front of you. Now, believe that it is not there. Can you do that? No, neither can I.

It seems as though beliefs are the inevitable result of the “facts” we have available to us. If you want to change my beliefs, you’ll have to show me something new that changes them. You can’t just ask me to believe differently.

Yet … I don’t think that is right. I think we choose what to believe lots of the time.

The point is that we are rarely absolutely certain that something is true, or that it is false. We believe things when they are reasonably sure enough that we can accept them as true, without being absolute certain. If we set the bar for evidence high, we won’t believe much. If we set it low, we’ll believe a lot of things. We don’t know exactly how high the bar should be set, but we have beliefs about how high is definitely too high and how low is definitely too low. Within those bounds, we can choose to set the bar at different levels. I can say, “Well, I guess that’s enough. I’ll accept that as true.” Or I can say, “I just don’t think that I’m going to believe without more compelling evidence.”

If something is really obviously false, like “my hand isn’t there”, then I probably can’t choose to set the bar that low. I end up just rejecting it no matter what I want to believe. But overall I think we have a lot of choice about what to believe and what not to believe.

(Here, I write about how this affects the certainty of Christian beliefs.)

Is there progress in philosophy?

I read an interesting philosophy paper recently, here.  Here’s my paraphrase of one of the things it said:

Philosophy is odd because it doesn’t seem to make any progress. We keep working out very precise arguments for things, but in the long run nothing ever gets settled. Why is that?

The reason is because philosophy doesn’t prove anything out of thin air; rather, it simply connects premises to conclusions. It says, if you believe A and B then you should also believe C. If I don’t want to believe in C, I can just say, “Well, then I guess either A or B must be false.” So you say, “But you have to believe in A and B. D and E are true, and if D and E are true, then A and B must be.” And I say, “Oh – well I guess either D or E must be false.”

Now sometimes this leads to progress. Sometimes, I’ll say, “Hey – I didn’t notice that D and E contradict my idea about C. I really believe D and E. I guess I must have been wrong about C.” Even if not, even if I stick to my guns about C, I may end up saying, “Well, I will admit that in order to believe C I have to reject either D or E, and I can see that’s a bit odd.” As van Inwagen says, philosophy shows us the cost of our beliefs. If I’m going to believe C, I have to let go of either D or E. If you’re going to believe D and E, you’ll have to let go of C.

Often, though, even when all the costs have been assessed, it comes down to your saying “D and E are clearly true, and C is less clear, so I believe C is false”, while I say, “C is clearly true, while D and E are less clear, so I will consider it to be proven that one of D or E is false.”

Problems arise when philosophy students are not taught that arguments show the cost of holding to a conclusion, but they are taught that arguments are absolutely certain proofs of something. Some philosophers present arguments by writing as though they are settling the issue for all time.

Personally, I hope the field of philosophy moves towards a humbler style in the future. I think it would be healthy for us.

(See my personal blog for a Christian perspective on this.)

Quality of life

How do you compare the value of one person’s life to another’s? If two people are about to die, and you can save one, which one should you save? Most of my students last summer assumed that you should save the one whose life is going to have less suffering.

It makes a kind of sense, I suppose. Killing someone is taking away their future. To figure out how much harm you’ve done them, you should figure out how good their future would have been. If someone was going to suffer a lot anyway, they haven’t lost much if they die now.

That is, quality of life can be measured in terms of how little someone suffers.

The problem is, I don’t think that’s true at all. I don’t think suffering, just by itself, has much to do with quality of life.

If X suffers, and Y does not, then all other things being equal, X’s life must have less net good in it than Y’s. But all other things are never equal in the cases we consider. Suffering comes bundled with very good things, like free will or having a meaningful life or loving others. Rocks don’t suffer but have no life at all. Jesus (for example) suffered tremendously but also presumably had a wonderful “quality of life”.

I said that suffering doesn’t have much to do with quality of life. In fact I think one could even argue that suffering for the right reason tends to be linked to a higher quality of life.

What about people who are being tortured, or who grow up in such horrendous conditions that they have no chance to find any value in life beyond merely surviving? I admit that there may be some cases like that, but my students weren’t focused on those cases. They were saying things like, “suppose this baby will grow up in a poor family – then it might be better off for him not to live at all”.

In class we studied the “the argument from evil”. It runs like this: an all-knowing, all-good, all-powerful God would not have allowed evil, yet evil exists, and so therefore there must be no such God. We also studied the typical response to this argument, which is to say that the best possible world God could have created would be one with evil in it. Evil exists as the necessary consequence of a greater good. My argument is similar, but applied to individual lives. I claim that some of the lives of highest quality will also have lots of suffering in them.

(My Christian take on this post is over at my personal blog.)

Some interesting philosophy blogs

As we enter the unit on philosophy of religion, I want to point out some interesting philosophy blogs on the subject.

The Prosblogion is a blog devoted to philosophy of religion. (The title is a pun on “The Proslogion”, the title of the famous work by Anselm in which the ontological proof for God appears.) Here’s one of the recent interesting articles that appeared there.

Alexander Pruss is a philosophy professor at Baylor. He is a Christian. I love reading his blog, although it can be quite technical, even including frequent posts on mathematics.

In Living Color is a blog by Jean Kazez, a philosopher who write about animal rights, feminism, and atheism, among other things. Her blog is a lot easier to read than the two I mentioned above. She seems to me to have a lot of common-sense wisdom about things, even though her views are very different than mine.

What there is and why there is anything hasn’t been updated a lot recently, but it’s got some interesting posts about the origin of the universe. Variants of the first-cause argument and the fine-tuning argument get discussed a lot. Most of the posters are skeptical of both arguments, and of philosophers of religion in general.

Meno’s paradox

Below is something I just wrote up about Meno’s paradox.

PHL 102 Students: Note how it follows the basic structure your paper should follow: a) argument from the Meno, b) my argument in response (expanding on Meno’s), c) an objection that might be raised to my argument, and d) a response to the objection. With a little more care in the citation and some expansion of the last part of the paper, it’d make a good term paper.


In Meno, the following exchange occurred:

MENO: And how will you enquire, Socrates, into that which you do not know? What will you put forth as the subject of enquiry? And if you find what you want, how will you ever know that this is the thing which you did not know?

SOCRATES: I know, Meno, what you mean; but just see what a tiresome dispute you are introducing. You argue that a man cannot enquire either about that which he knows, or about that which he does not know; for if he knows, he has no need to enquire; and if not, he cannot; for he does not know the very subject about which he is to enquire.

Meno wonders whether we can successfully enquire about anything if we don’t know what it is. He gives two related reasons for doubt.

Meno’s first argument is:

  1. Before we enquire about anything, we must determine what it is that we are enquiring about.
  2. We cannot determine that which we do not know.
  3. Therefore, until we know what something is, we cannot enquire about it.

Meno’s second argument is:

  1. To successfully enquire about anything, we must both discover it, and recognize that we have discovered it.
  2. We cannot recognize that we have discovered something unless we know what it is.
  3. Therefore, until we know what something is, we cannot successfully enquire about it.

Meno applies these arguments to virtue. If he and Socrates do not know what virtue is, then how can they even begin to enquire about it? And having discovered a definition of virtue, how will they know that it is the correct definition?

Socrates responds with the geometry demonstration. He asks Meno’s slave boy how to double the square. The slave answers in two different ways, but in both cases after Socrates questions him he recognizes that his answer does not work. Then Socrates asks him to consider a third procedure, and the boy recognizes, upon questioning, that this procedure will double the square.

So, as Socrates points out, the slave boy did not know the procedure for doubling the square, but his enquiry into how to do it was successful.

This counterexample seems to refute Meno’s conclusion, but what was wrong with his arguments? Socrates seems to say: Nothing, actually. Meno is right. One must know what doubling the square is in order to discover anything about it. Therefore, the slave boy must have known how to double the square in at least some sense. The boy knew enough to determine the subject of enquiry. He knew enough to reject false answers and recognize the true one. It wasn’t that he started not knowing and ended up knowing; rather, he started out knowing but not knowing that he knew, and ended up knowing that he knew.

Similarly, when it comes to virtue, Socrates hopes that they may discover they already have the essential knowledge of what virtue is within them, if they can only recollect it.

I think there is a simpler way to explain what goes wrong with Meno’s two arguments, which is to distinguish between the knowing a definition and giving an example.

It is possible to know how to do one of these two things without the other. Meno gave examples of virtue, even though he could not define it. The slave boy on the other hand, knew what the definition of “a procedure to double the square” was – he had no difficulty grasping what Socrates was asking him to produce – but he was unable (at first) to discover an example of such a procedure.

Meno’s two arguments blur this distinction. The first premise of the first argument states:

Before we enquire about anything, we must determine what it is that we are enquiring about.

Meno’s point is that we can’t look for something if we don’t know what we are looking for. We can’t look for virtue if we don’t even know what virtue is. We can’t look for a way to double the square if we don’t even know what doubling the square is. Therefore, when he says “enquire about” he actually refers to finding a specific instance of it. We cannot do that unless we know “what it is” – that is, unless we know the definition of it.

Therefore, Meno’s principle would be more precisely stated this way:

Before we seek for an instance of X, we must know the definition of X.

I’m not convinced this is true, but it is at least plausible. It seems reasonable to suggest that before we can look for examples of virtue, we must know the definition of virtue, or that before we can look for a way to double the square we must know what it means to double the square.

Meno’s second argument relies on this principle:

We cannot recognize that we have discovered something unless we know what it is.

Again, the first phrase – to “discover” something – should be interpreted as referring to a specific instance, while “what it is” refers to a definition. Meno is saying we cannot know if we have found an example of virtue if we don’t know what the definition of virtue is. We cannot know if we have found a way to double the square if we don’t know the meaning of doubling the square. Thus the principle is more precisely stated this way:

We cannot recognize that we have discovered an instance of anything unless we know a definition of it.

Again, I am not convinced this is true, but it is at least plausible.

In light of these rephrased arguments, the geometry demonstration makes perfect sense. Meno’s first argument is now:

  1. Before we seek for an instance of X, we must determine a definition of X.
  2. We cannot determine that which we do not know.
  3. Therefore, until we know a definition of X, we cannot seek for an instance of X.

In terms of the geometry demonstration, the first premise means simply that before the boy could seek for a specific way to double the square, he had to understand what Socrates meant by doubling the square – which he did. Therefore, we conclude that he could not seek for a way to double the square until he knew what was meant by “a procedure to double the square”.

Not only is the geometry demonstration not a counter-example to this revised argument, it is actually a nice illustration of it.

Similarly, the second argument is now:

  1. To successfully seek for an instance of X, we must both discover an instance of X, and recognize that we have discovered it.
  2. We cannot recognize that we have discovered an instance of anything unless we know a definition of it.
  3. Therefore, until we know a definition of something, we cannot successfully seek for an instance of it.

In terms of the geometry demonstration, this argument merely points out that the boy, after being led to consider a procedure that actually works, was able to recognize that it was a correct answer. He was able to do this because he already knew what it meant for a procedure to double the square. Again, the demonstration does not provide a counterexample to the argument but rather illustrates it.

What about the virtue case? This is trickier. Whereas Meno’s slave sought a specific instance of a square-doubling procedure, Socrates and Meno were not seeking a specific instance of virtue. They were seeking a definition of it. Yet, as Meno proposed definition after definition, they were able to critique these definitions and see that they were lacking. That is because Socrates knew, and Meno, with Socrates’ guidance, knew what a good definition of virtue would be like.

The key observation is that to know what a good definition of virtue would be like is to know a definition of a definition of virtue.

With this idea in mind, we can see that the two Meno arguments again pose no obstacle.

The arguments imply that Meno and Socrates would have had a hard time seeking for a definition of virtue if they hadn’t known what a good definition would look like. That is why, before looking for the right definition, Socrates had to help Meno understand what was wrong with the old ones. One Meno understood the criteria of an adequate definition, he was ready to seek for one, and to recognize it if were discovered. This is exactly what Meno’s revised arguments predict.

One might be tempted to object that Meno’s arguments still contain a flaw. For they imply that until we have a definition of virtue, we cannot seek for specific virtues or recognize them as such when they are found. Yet both Meno and Socrates agreed that justice was a specific instance of virtue. If they had no definition of virtue, how did they know that justice was one?

Even worse, one of the criteria of a good definition of virtue was that it should cover all the specific cases. How can that be if none of the cases are recognizable until after the definition has been found?

Technically, Meno’s arguments do not say that we cannot already know that something is a virtue without a general definition, but only that we cannot seek and discover new instances. Therefore I propose that we accept, with Meno and Socrates, that there are some virtues that we already know are virtues, without needing a definition. Meno’s question is not to show where all knowledge comes from, but to show how we can gain knowledge we did not already possess.

For both Meno and Socrates, it is possible in theory to start with some knowledge of certain virtues already given, use these cases to work out a general definition of virtue, and then use that definition to identify new, previously unsuspected cases.

Thus, when due attention is paid to the difference between giving an example of something and giving a definition of it, Meno’s paradox is easily resolved.

Inborn knowledge

In Meno, Socrates asks Meno’s attendant (“Boy”) questions about geometry, and the boy is able to answer just by thinking about it. Having been asked the right question, he knows what the answer must be.

Socrates argues that the boy had knowledge about geometry before he ever learned about it in this life, and that he merely recollected this knowledge when he was asked the right questions. Socrates thinks that this is evidence of the boy’s having gained that knowledge in some sort of preexistent state before he was born.

These days many people would explain the same thing by suggesting that our brains are wired to “understand” geometry. It’s not that we have the answers to geometric questions already memorized. However, on being asked those questions we have a built-in ability to figure out the answer to the questions on the fly. Furthermore, those answers seem self-evident to us, which is why they are so similar to “recollection”. Having thought about the question, we are able to “just see” what the answer must be.

Suppose this is true: that our brains are wired to respond to certain questions in certain ways, to interpret the world according to certain principles of space and time and cause and effect and so on.

In that case, it would explain the boy’s awareness of basic geometric principles, but it would also have some important ramifications for what knowledge is. Some of our knowledge comes from the senses. Some comes from our culture and our family (by means of the senses). But some also would come from the way our brains our wired — presumably, everything that has the quality of “recollection” that Socrates pinpoints.

In the normal course of our thinking, what has this quality of recollection? A lot. Our understanding of space and time. Our understanding of things as things, with an identity that persists (think of Descartes and the wax). Our understanding of logic. Our assumption that memories of the past reflect a real past. Our sense of ourselves. Our recognition of other people as people and not just robots who act like people. Our sense of having the freedom of choice. Our recognition of cause and effect. Our assumptions that the universe works according to regular principles. Our preference for simpler explanations over complex ones. Perhaps our recognition of moral and esthetic and religious values.

Does all this count as knowledge? If not, it is hard to see how we can know anything.

Yet it is also hard to see why it should count as knowledge. Saying that it evolved in us isn’t quite an answer. Evolved beliefs wouldn’t have to be true, they would just have to have survival value. Some false beliefs might be very good for survival.

It’s a little startling to realize how much of everything we think is based on things we “just know”, whether we learned them before we were born or merely find them built into the architecture of our brains.

What do you all think?

The “Dark Ages” actually weren’t

When we talked about the medieval philosophers in class the other day, I mentioned that they were disregarded for a while in the 1900s, on the grounds that they hadn’t been doing real philosophy, but that recently scholars have begun to emphasize that there was a lot of good intellectual work being done in the so-called Dark Ages.

Here is a really interesting book review/article about the same topic. The author is an atheist who is tired of hearing his fellow atheists spread the myth of the evil Christian empire that squashed all intellectual inquiry during the middle ages. He focuses on science rather than philosophy, but still it’s good reading, especially if you have a tendency to picture the middle ages as being a time when the church quenched scientific progress.

Descartes, paragraph 2: Certainty is overrated

The second paragraph of Descartes’ Meditations says this:

But, to this end, it will not be necessary for me to show that the whole of these are false–a point, perhaps, which I shall never reach; but as even now my reason convinces me that I ought not the less carefully to withhold belief from what is not entirely certain and indubitable, than from what is manifestly false, it will be sufficient to justify the rejection of the whole if I shall find in each some ground for doubt. Nor for this purpose will it be necessary even to deal with each belief individually, which would be truly an endless labor; but, as the removal from below of the foundation necessarily involves the downfall of the whole edifice, I will at once approach the criticism of the principles on which all my former beliefs rested.

I love Descartes, but I don’t agree with him here. He says above, “my reason convinces me that I ought not the less carefully to withhold belief from what is not entirely certain and indubitable, than from what is manifestly false”. In other words, if I can’t be absolutely certain, then I shouldn’t believe it.

It seems to me that that standard is irrationally high.Descartes says reason convinces him of it, but reason convinces me of the opposite.

Descartes’ standard of belief is “if there is any possible way in which I could be wrong, then I shouldn’t believe it”. I don’t see how we, as finite humans, can possibly have the kind of certainty Descartes seeks.

In the second meditation, Descartes argues that we can be absolutely certain we exist because we experience ourselves thinking, and thinking implies existence.

1. If something does not exist, it cannot think.

2. I think.

3. Therefore, I exist.

That seems like a good argument, but it makes some assumptions.It assumes that we know what “something” and “existence” and “thinking” and “I” mean, for instance: that these are well-defined terms that can be used unambiguously in the argument above. The argument assumes that we have a world in which there are certain things which exist separate from other things, that existence itself is a clear category rather than being a spectrum from things that mostly exist to things that barely exist, that thinking is clearly what we are doing when we wonder if we exist, and so on. Let me be clear. I think these are good assumptions. I believe them. But I don’t think that they are absolutely certain, that it is impossible for them to be false. So they don’t have the kind of certainty Descartes requires.

Furthermore, for the argument to work, we have to be sure that it is logically valid. The argument pattern above is well-known. It’s even got a name: modus tollens. I agree with philosophers in identifying it as a trustworthy logical form. I cannot even imagine how it might be false. But it doesn’t follow that we can be absolutely certain of it.

It seems very clear that we cannot be absolutely certain of anything. That’s not a problem, though. Certainty is overrated.

Some philosophers after Descartes argued that the only reason we can think at all, the only reason we can even form logical categories to think with, is that we have available to us a whole bunch of assumptions about how thinking works and what concepts mean and how they are interrelated.There is just no way for us to clear all of them away and start reasoning  with no prior knowledge at all. We can’t even think coherently without them.

This doesn’t commit me to skepticism. I am not saying we don’t know anything. Knowledge has to do with justified belief. We can know lots of things, but only because we do not need absolute certainty about them in order to know them.

Because we can be certain of nothing, and because we need to assume something to think at all, it is rational to accept some things as true even though we can see a way in which they could theoretically be false. There are truths which are not certain and indubitable, but to which I should assent. Reason convinces me of this.