Belief without evidence (3 of 6): A skeptic’s values

On top of the metaphysical beliefs (inductivism, non-solipsism, non-just-nowism) I talked about in the previous post, I also have a couple of values that do not break down to simpler or more basic premises. I separate these from the metaphysical beliefs in acknowledgment of the irreducible is/ought divide identified by Hume. However, I include the values because they ground much of my worldview as a humanist. After all, humanism isn’t just about beliefs – it’s about moral and aesthetic values too.

Value 1: People matter.

The wishes and well-being of other people have value. This is the basis of all worthwhile social constraints. It’s a cultural universal.

Of course, cultural attitudes about which people matter have changed greatly through human history. Moral progress is often due to the extension of this rule beyond one’s own family or tribe, to all humans. Many historical and contemporary conflicts come down to disagreements over who counts as people. Consider the debate over slavery – largely resolved in most of the world: does this or that group of humans merit being treated with the same respect as I get, or not? Or the abortion debate, which in the eyes of the “pro-life” crowd is about treating the conceptus as a person from early in the pregnancy, and in the eyes of the eyes of the “pro-choice” crowd is about giving the mother the same sort of bodily autonomy given to every other breathing person. (Oh, do I have strong feelings on the topic! But this is not the time to air them.)

I have no more basic reason that I use to support my assertion that people matter. It cannot be logically derived from anything else I believe. This first value encompasses three main assertions:

  • Each person’s autonomy and personal choices should be respected.
  • Each person’s well-being and health should be protected.
  • The existence of many unique, autonomous people is desirable.

The definition of “person” also requires some definition – a non-trivial exercise that I am putting off for another post.

Value 2: Truth matters.

It is better to know the truth than (for example) to simply believe whatever we want to believe.

I think this value is held my just about everyone. Consider the cross-cultural consensus against lying, for example.

Of course, just because truth is important doesn’t mean that it’s never okay to lie. The value of human well-being can, sometimes, trump this one. The classic example is about hiding refugees when representatives of some oppressive power structure (such as the Nazis) come calling, but life is full of more benign practical instances where it seems better to lie than to hurt someone.

I think we should be rather conservative in granting such exceptions: It is easy to over-estimate the harm that would be done by telling the truth, and so excuse ourselves from difficult decisions. But sometimes, the best path does involve concealing or otherwise distorting the unvarnished truth.

So, this second value covers:

  • Beliefs should correspond to external reality.
  • Beliefs with more correspondence to external reality are better than those with less correspondence to external reality.

I’m glossing over the details of what it means for a belief to be “true”. I have in mind a rather simple correspondence definition: beliefs should correspond to external reality.


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4 Responses to “Belief without evidence (3 of 6): A skeptic’s values”

  1. jasonincontemplation Says:

    I would point out that many people have disagreed with the ideas you present here. What basis do you have for saying you are right, and they are wrong?

    Many rulers of nations, many brilliant people, many people of influence have disagreed vehemently with what you say. It sounds to me like you know truths you are unable to justify apart from the revelation of God.

    Romans 2:14-16
    14 for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves,
    15 who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them)
    16 in the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel.

  2. Timothy Mills Says:

    (I am sorry if the response below seems somewhat harsh and abrupt. I am trying to be brief, and losing something of my desired tone in the process. Please bear with me – I truly am enjoying this exchange, and I value your thoughts.)

    Many people have disagreed? I stand ready to accept evidence to this effect. Who has disagreed with the proposition that people matter? That truth matters? Do you think there are objections that have substance, or should cause me to question these values?

    As for your other comment … Yes, I accept some things as true that I am unable to logically justify. That is the point of this whole series of posts. But why qualify it with “apart from the revelation of God”? I have been probing these questions from various angles for some years now, and I have not yet seen anyone suggest how the existence of God solves the problem.

    Perhaps you can suggest something.

  3. jasonincontemplation Says:

    I think almost all ancient tribes and nations have disagreed with the idea that all people matter equally, which was my point.

    Regarding truth, many people are content to merely make up their own, with no regard for what others think:

    Joh 18:38 Pilate said to Him, “What is truth?”

    I’m pointing out that you are choosing to believe what you want, there is no ultimate justification for accepting the beliefs you hold, similar to what I said on the other post.

    I don’t think the existence of God “solves the problem,” people believe in God on the basis of preference as well. I’m just trying to point out that you haven’t arrived at your first principles form a stance of neutrality.

  4. Timothy Mills Says:

    Jason, you’re right that different societies’ definitions of “people”, or “people that matter” have varied greatly. As have ontological theories of “truth”. But all societies have some implicit or explicit code that values people (however they are defined), and that seeks to protect truth (however it is identified).

    Of course that is very broad, and there is much more to say. But I maintain that the basic ideas are essentially universal. (Not that their universality vindicates them, of course.)

    Thankyou for the clarification about the role of God in the problem. In that case, I think we both agree: none of us arrive at our first principles as neutral seekers.

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