Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The non-virtue of blind belief

Belief is not an intellectual virtue, while blind belief better belongs in the category of vices than virtues. It is my assertion that reason, and belief tempered with reason, are the far better path. Here are my musings on the topic.

Belief is not an accurate guide to determining "rightness" in our world.
We know this to be true because all across the world, equally ardent people believe absolutely opposing and contradictory things; if belief was a measuring stick of accuracy, they'd all be right -- but by the very nature of the ideas in question, they cannot be. Even when we believe that we are right, others believe with at least as much ardor that we are wrong. Belief then, even when we assume that some set of believers is right, proves nothing in and of itself.

Belief is strongly tied to our point of origin.
Belief is, for most of the world, strongly tied to an individual's point of origin: the era and physical location of your birth, combined with the beliefs of your family and region, is and always has been, for the vast majority of the world, the deciding factor in what you believe. The most ardent Saudi Arabian Muslim, had he been born in the Bible belt to baptist parents, would almost certainly not be a Muslim; the most ardent southern baptist, had he been born to Muslim Saudi Arabian parents, would almost certainly not be a baptist today. A person who, things as they stand today, “knows” with absolute surety that Jesus Christ is his Lord and Savior, almost certainly would “know” with equal certainty that there is but one God, and Mohammad is his prophet, if he was born to a different set of parents in a different area. That “knowledge” that people will often attest to having is not knowledge at all, but belief; and that belief has far more to do with the believer's location than with any inherent truth or lack thereof.

Reason is independent of point of origin.
Unlike belief, the ability to reason, and the products of reason, can be arrived at by any person in reasonable control of his or her mind. An Indian Hindu of reasonable intelligence is no less or more likely than a Scottish Christian of similar intelligence to reach a given logical conclusion through the use of reason. Region and point of origin, in a mind properly equipped to use it, has no bearing on the application of reason, whereas it has a significant effect, even on well-educated minds exposed to a variety of different beliefs, on belief.

Reason is superior to belief.
In religious circles, belief is often heralded as a great virtue (“faith like a child”, etc.). This is a contradictory notion, since most of today's major religions simultaneously laud their own followers for this “belief like a child”, yet damn to hell (or some unpleasant alternative) everyone else for the same belief: it is a virtue when practiced by those who pay tithes to your church, and a vice in those who fund your rival. But belief is the lesser, the lazier and (if any of our primary religions are right) more dangerous route: more dangerous, because, if you happen to fall in a region, or to be born to parents, not enlightened by the true god, you will suffer dire consequences; lazier (and less intellectually honest), because it's easy and convenient to accept without question what you have been taught to believe; and lesser because reason is not susceptible to these critiques. It is also not dependent on wholly variable factors, such as region of birth, meaning its conclusions are at least more consistent than the violently differing conclusions of belief. (In a worst case scenario, if reason is, as Luther so charmingly put it, “the Devil's harlot,” and the path of reason some curious road to hell, we'll at least all know how we got there -- rather than opining “had my parents but been born a little south, I might have been a Calvinist, and now I should be saved! But alas, mine were Catholic parents, and so I must burn.” As it is, I would wager instead that, as with science, reproducibility and verification lends some merit to reason's workings that is denied faith.)
Furthermore, belief attempts to fill the same role as reason, but (without itself delving into reason's territory) offers only conclusions. In other words, pure reason may prove something, whereas pure belief may only claim it. If belief attempts to prove, through the use of evidence, inferences and deductions, some article of faith, it implicitly embraces the strength of reason by illustrating that even faith has need of it to establish its hold on humanity. Now, theologians have been doing this for centuries, and well-intentioned people as well as hucksters are hard at work today on the same endeavor. But if faith were the superior, it would have no need of reason to prove its rightness. By contrast, reason has no need of belief to prove whatever conclusions it reaches. Belief offers an end alone, whereas reason delivers both the mechanism to reach an end and the end itself.

Reason is a more accurate guide to our world.
Belief is not an accurate guide to the world, as we've already established. It is also highly subjective, changeable, and unprovable. Reason being none of these things, it is therefore a more accurate guide to the world.

I do not say that reason and belief are incompatible, or that it is wrong or impossible to validate belief by the use of reason: I say only that belief proven is no longer strictly a belief. You have no need to believe it because you have proved it: you have moved from the realm of blind faith to proof. I do not “believe” that I need oxygen to breathe, or that gravity is real: it has been proven, therefore I know it. On the other hand, I believe Whitefish Dunes is one of the most beautiful places in Wisconsin because this is something subjective and more or less unmeasurable. If, at some point in the future, a means of evaluating human perceptions of beauty was developed, and tests were run to establish that humanity in general agreed with my evaluation, I would cease to believe and instead know that Whitefish Dunes more fully fits the human concept of ideal beauty than other places. And belief tempered by reason, in matters of religious faith where some proofs are difficult and others impossible, while still belief, will ideally be less along the lines of suicide bombing and crusade waging, and more (you knew I was going to say it) reasonable. 

As for the fact that religion both embraces blind belief and “faith like a child”, and at the same time tries to find and reason proofs for itself and the validity of its ideas, well, that's tonight's brain buster...

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