Posts Tagged ‘my beliefs’

Belief without evidence (6 of 6): Comparing and evaluating


So, since introducing this series, I have identified five elements which might be considered my “dogma” – things that I cannot prove with reason and evidence from other, more basic principles.

Claims about reality:
R1. Induction. (What has come before can tell us something about what to expect next.)
R2. Other people exist.
R3. Non-just-nowism. (The world is not a trick designed to deceive us.)
V1. People matter.
V2. Truth matters.

Ultimately, I can only support these by saying, “I choose this.” I do not say this with apology or sheepishness: everyone has basic beliefs. In fact, I think most people share these specific basic beliefs, or some other set that includes them. (Please let me know if you or someone else actually rejects any of these, and why.)

I have also pointed out a few things that have been claimed as points of secular dogma, but are not:
a. How to reason.
b. The methods and conclusions of science (including materialism).
c. Atheism.

And finally, I have noted some common things that religious people add to the above list of basic beliefs in order to hold their more elaborate (and, I think, more vulnerable to refutation) worldviews:
i. God exists (and has various definite properties or traits).
ii. Sacred scriptures communicate important truths about reality.
iii. Inner feelings can directly reveal cosmic truths.

If you think I have missed some point of dogma that I hold, or misrepresented one of the ones listed above, please tell me about it. If you think I have overstated the case for religious dogmas, please let me know how I’ve misstepped.

But in the end, what is the point of this?

At one level it is simply a response to those who accuse atheists and other skeptics of having as much faith as the believers (or more). My contention, given the above, is that I (and most humanists and atheists) have fewer assumptions than religious people. We accept less on faith than they do – though I acknowledge that we must all accept some things “on faith”.

To which most of you will respond “Obviously!” … In my defense, though, I wrote all of this because it is clearly not obvious to an astonishing number of the (religiously) faithful. One example prominent in my mind is Lesslie Newbigin, the author of a book I am currently reading with a friend.

At another level, I think the current undertaking is valuable as an exercise in introspection. It is common for atheists and other skeptics to assert that others take things on faith, but we don’t. This is a simplification. One goal of skepticism – an important and valuable goal – is to take less on faith, but nobody can entirely escape the burden of basic assumptions. It is important to be aware of our assumptions – not only to help us guard against wrong or unnecessary elements in our basic beliefs, but also in order that we can respond with appropriate frankness and, yes, humility, when confronted by claims (accusations?) that we, too, use faith.

So: introspection, self-knowledge, humility, and an appropriate basis for responding to our neighbours. I think this was worth six not-too-long posts. Here are some questions I have for you:

  • Do you agree that avoiding unnecessary assumptions is a worthwhile goal?
  • When you examine your own beliefs, do you find similar assumptions to mine? More? Fewer? Different?
  • I thought before starting this series that I’d come up with two or three basic assumptions, and I found five. Do you think I could (or should) pare my list down?
  • Do you think I actually have more assumptions I haven’t acknowledged? Please let me know.



Belief without evidence (5 of 6): A religious inventory


I have listed some basic beliefs and values that I hold, and that I think others hold too. And I have pointed out some things that are often claimed as points of humanist/atheist/skeptic dogma, but are definitely not. Now I would like to have a look at further beliefs – basic dogmas – held by religious people.

i. Existence of a god.

For many believers, this is the irrevocable core of their beliefs. They do not believe in a god because of experiences, or evidence, or reasoning. They just believe. Their belief in a god is a personal point of dogma. This is how organized religions tend to treat their gods’ existence. They do not lead their congregants through the evidence supporting the belief; they simply assert the god’s existence, and go from there.

For others however, belief in a god is a consequence of some personal experience, or of a philosophical chain of reasoning. As a non-believer, I may conclude that they have misinterpreted the evidence, or that they have reasoned poorly from the evidence to the conclusion. Even so, I should concede that at least they are putting this on the table as one that stands or falls on evidence and reason. That is, for these believers, the existence of a god is not a basic dogma but a conclusion from evidence and reasoning.

Note that, aside from a rarefied few deists, believers don’t stop at proclaiming the existence of a god, but add many specific characteristics of that being: moral traits, aesthetic preferences, emotional behaviours, creative and divinatory abilities, and so on. Each such trait is actually a separate unsupported belief – I group them here only for convenience and brevity.

ii. Historical reliability of sacred scriptures.

Christians have the Old and New Testaments; Jews have the Torah; Muslims have the Quran and Hadith; Hindus the Gita; Sikhs the Guru Granth Sahib, Buddhists their various important texts. Written or oral tales carrying the weight of incontrovertible or sacred truth seem to be present in every culture.

Individual believers vary in the extent to which they take these stories literally. For example, were Adam and Eve actual historical figures, or metaphors for humans’ early attitudes toward the divine? Either way, though, the stories told in the scripture have some sort of special significance, either as historical texts or as literary guides to life. The literalist claim is of course the strongest, and carries the greatest burden of proof; but even the moderate, metaphorical approach often sets that tradition’s sacred text above those of other religions.

iii. Inner feelings can directly reveal cosmic truths.

Many (but certainly not all) religious traditions have made inner feelings of some sort or another into an unassailable source of truth. The claim is that their god has “imprinted” knowledge on their hearts, and that because it comes from their god it should be taken as true without subjecting it to rational examination.

There seems to be no way to demonstrate this as reliable by other means (for example, deriving it from observation and reason). While some rely on religious texts to back up this claim, there are many who hold this point of dogma while trying to distance themselves from any organized religion.

There are many other claims that could be listed here, depending on the religious tradition and the individual. There are historical claims, which are either extra assumptions or fall under the reliability of scripture, making that assumption carry more weight. There are claims about morally privileged cultural practices, often but not always connected to scripture in the same way.

I include these not to argue against them as ridiculous, or even wrong. (I think most of them are wrong, but that is a discussion for another time.) I include them to point out that religious believers make at least one or two extra assumptions, on top of those made by secular humanists like me.

Next up: where does all this discussion of basic beliefs get us?

Belief without evidence (4 of 6): Not on my list


I’ve introduced five points of dogma that I accept – three claims about the nature of reality and two values. Now I’m going to discuss three things that may seem to be dogmatic (I hold them fairly strongly and openly) but are, in fact, derived from the other points and from personal experience. These are things that critics of skepticism and atheism often assert are basic beliefs – points of faith – but that I don’t think qualify.

a. How to reason.

I try to follow the laws of logic and mathematics when I reason from evidence to belief, or from one set of beliefs to something new. I have heard it said that a firm adherence to reason and math is a kind of blind faith. (eg, here)

This is of course nonsense. I did not arbitrarily choose to believe that 2+2=4. I learned it through experience. In other words, it is a natural consequence of applying two of my basic beliefs: that truth matters, and that the inductive principle holds.

I know there are those who argue for some sort of ontological primacy of logical and mathematical rules. I am not qualified to judge on that, but whatever the ultimate nature of reason, I as a finite being have had to learn the rules by experience. So, epistemologically, I believe in reason, and understand reason, by applying my empirical foundation.

People may disagree about what is reasonable, but if they are pursuing understanding in good faith, those disagreements will diminish the more they discuss and learn. Disagreements indicate failures of understanding, not arbitrary individual freedom about how to “do” math and logic.

So the rules of how to reason are not basic dogma, but the product of thinking and acting on even more basic principles.

b. The methods and conclusions of science.

The whole point of science is that it’s a way of applying certain basic principles (such as valuing truth, accepting the inductive principle, and assuming a comprehensible universe). This is true not only of the conclusions of science, but also of its methods (which have been developed by the same process).

All of the methods and conclusions of science are open to question. If someone can offer reasoning or evidence that overrides the reasoning and evidence used to establish a scientific claim in the first place, then we will revise or abandon that claim.

So no part of science is dogmatically-held – it is the product of applying basic principles as rigorously as we can.

There is a particular point here that I want to make more explicitly, because I often see it arising in religious reactions against scientific conclusions. This is the claim that scientists assume materialism – the claim that only material things exist. Materialism is like atheism: it can either mean an active rejection of the alternative, or simply a lack of commitment to the alternative. Science requires that we only consider causes and effects that can, in principle, be observed. That is, we consider material causes and effects. It does not require a belief that this is all there is. It’s just that, as a process based on observation, science can only ever, even in principle, deal with observable things. This is “methodological materialism”, and it is not dogmatic – it is simply a recognition of the proper scope of application for the tools of science.

It seems to me that most supernatural claims of religious believers are, under scientific definitions, material. That is, they would (if the beliefs are true) produce observable effects. It is on this basis that many scientists reject supernatural claims: they have been tested where possible, and they have failed. This too is not dogmatic – it is a reasoned response to the evidence put forth.

c. Atheism

For me, and for any atheist I’ve ever talked to or heard speak on this point, atheism is not a starting point. We reason our way to it. Many of us even choose an alternative label (such as “humanist”) or no label at all, rather than identify as “atheist”, because atheism simply isn’t that important to us. It is just one conclusion among thousands that we have drawn using the principles that are truly at the foundation of our worldview.

We try to be open to revising this conclusion in the face of relevant reasoning and evidence. I do not know how you could argue me out of my belief that people matter, or the inductive principle should be followed. But I do know how you could start to persuade me that my atheism is in error. For example, you could bring evidence of miracles, or demonstrate the superiority of a particular religious ethic. Or you could identify points in my reasoning to atheism that are invalid.

It’s a high bar, because the claims of religions are so extravagant. But it is conceivable.

I am happy to say that most religious believers I’ve talked to have accepted that I do not hold my atheism as a dogmatic belief, either right away or after some friendly discussion. (See the comments on the second post in this series for an ongoing exchange on this very topic!)

Next, I will describe some extra beliefs that seem to be held by religious people.

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.

Belief without evidence (2 of 6): A skeptic’s inventory


The previous post introduced the topic of skeptical “beliefs without evidence”. This post gets to the meat of it by identifying three beliefs that I hold without evidence or sound reasons to back them up.

The most thoroughgoing logical, rational system of beliefs must start with some assumptions. In this post, I will go through three claims about the nature of the universe – you might call them my metaphysical beliefs – that I have identified as the basis of my consciously-held humanist worldview. In the following post, I will add to these two basic value statements.

1: The inductive principle

The inductive principle is the idea that the past is a useful guide to the future. If a light comes on every time we flip a switch, we are reasonably justified in expecting that the next time we flip the switch, the light will come on. If the sun has come up consistently every morning for my whole life, I can expect it to come up tomorrow morning too.

The thing is, there really is no way to demonstrate that this is a good form of reasoning, without assuming that this is a good form of reasoning. It’s tempting to argue, “The inductive principle is sound, because it has always worked in the past.” But this amounts to saying that if you assume the past (successful uses of the inductive principle) is a good guide to the future (future uses of the principle), then you have good reason to conclude that the past is a good guide to the future. It’s circular.

Pragmatically, of course, the inductive principle is a must-have. Even those who engage in the most heinous special pleading (“Oh, but you don’t *know* that the laws of physics were the same back then, so maybe the Earth *is* only 6000 years old!”) will use the inductive principle in every important aspect of their lives. They are only inclined to dismiss it when it points away from their cherished beliefs.

This is a point of faith that we all share. Even acknowledging that it will sometimes fail us (consider the poor turkey in this story), and applying the principle with due care, we have to live as if the inductive principle works most of the time.

2: Other people exist

I don’t have it in me to be a solipsist. Just because I can only experience the world as me, I don’t assume I’m the only one experiencing the world. I think it is a psychological imperative for mentally healthy social creatures such as humans to accept this dictum. But I cannot imagine a context where evidence could demonstrate this to be true. (Or false.)

3: Non-just-nowism

Call it the non-perversity of reality. I assume that the world is not so perversely arranged as to give systematic evidence contrary to reality. For those who haven’t come across it, “Just-nowism” is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek belief that the universe was just created, moments ago, so that everything in it – the physical evidence, our memories, everything – would make us think that it had actually been around a lot longer.

It seems to be a response to the Omphalos hypothesis (from the Greek word for navel – a reference to Adam’s belly button), originally by nineteenth-century apologist Henry Philip Gosse. It’s still sometimes promoted by creationists: the idea that all the scientific evidence of an old earth, of evolution, and so forth, is just put there by God to test their faith. Or, perhaps, by Satan to destroy their faith.

Either way, the Just-nowist/Omphalos hypothesis is the ultimate conspiracy theory: any evidence you see is simply proof that such evidence has been faked. There is no argument against it; that is why my non-just-nowism is a dogmatic belief. It’s also a useless way of facing the world, so I’m happy to remain a non-just-nowist. (Also note that just-nowism would undermine the inductive principle mentioned above.)

So there you have my three “faith-based” beliefs about the real world: induction works, other people exist, and the world is not perversely arranged to mislead us.

Next, I cover a couple of values that complement these metaphysical beliefs.

Belief without evidence (1 of 6): Skepticism versus religion


Religious believers believe things without sufficient evidence.

This is a common accusation leveled by skeptics of religion (and many other belief systems). Believers respond, in general, with one or both of the following tactics: “faith is a good thing” (the so-what response) and “skeptics have faith too; and anyway their faith is even more extreme than ours” (the I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I response).

Now, the first approach is simply silly and indefensible. For example, faith as belief-without-evidence* is categorically not a virtue. Perhaps I’ll spend some electrons elaborating on that some other time. But my position seems so self-evidently true that, for now, I’ll just assert it.

But the second approach has a kernel of truth in it. There are some things that even the most ardent skeptic accepts without evidence. Instead of the knee jerk response (“am not!”) that I am tempted to offer, I thought I’d take the accusation on in a more considered and honest manner.

I will begin by offering a frank list of some of the things (facts and values) I accept without rational evidence (and some I don’t).

Following that, I will compare this list to some things religious believers accept as true without rational evidence.

Finally, I will discuss why the skeptical list of assumptions is preferable to the religious list.

Naturally, I would like this to add up to an airtight case for religious skepticism. In my fantasy, everyone who reads it will end up agreeing with me. But, you know, feel free to point out how reality deviates from my fantasy. In particular, please tell me if you spot an error, omission, or whatever. (You can also tell me if you think I’m spot on – I like hearing that too.)


* Yes, I know that “faith” can cover more than just “belief without evidence”. But the element of faith that skeptics object to is believing without evidence, and that is a key part of the broader definition of the word.