Monday, January 13, 2014

Are all "beliefs" equal?

I recently watched the following debate between Cliffe Knechtle (Ask Cliffe) a nd Matt Dillahunty (Sans Deity), a pastor and atheist respectively. The debate, if you have two hours to spare, is interesting and worth watching, though somewhat galling at times. Cliffe ranges from appeals to emotion and promises of nice things (and he employs these a great deal: have you been hurt? God will fix it! Have you come from a home broken by divorce? God will make the pain go away! Would you like to have eternal life? God will give it to you!) to some rather underhanded insinuations (implying, for instance, that atheism is more or less dangerous, and that atheistic Darwinism led to the holocaust -- despite the facts that Nazism [whatever Hitler's private thoughts may or may not have been] very publicly embraced Christianity, Hitler frequently employed Martin Luther's teachings about Jews -- not evolution -- to support his antisemitism, and evolution was banned in Nazi Germany [!!]). Dillahunty, however, manages to keep a respectful demeanor throughout, address his points and generally dance logical circles around Knechtle. If you're interested in watching (not actually the point of this piece :) ), it is below.

Throughout the debate, Knechtle invoked a common misconception about belief, one that I've seen utilized in debates on numerous occasions: that belief in well-supported conclusions is intellectually equivalent to belief in premises or ill-supported conclusions. He specifically compared a student's belief that satisfactorily completing course work will result in a diploma with belief in his god.

As I say, I've seen this one in various forms multiple times. The Merriam-Webster defines belief as follows:

1:  a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing
2:  something believed; especially :  a tenet or body of tenets held by a group
3:  conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon especially when based on examination of evidence

I think the difficulty comes in when people conflate definitions 2 and 3. In general, the more evidence we have for a belief, the more verifiable it becomes, the less we tend to consider a belief at all. We do not "believe" that we had grandparents. We "know" it. How? The evidence, both objective (the basic realities of human biology, birth, census, etc. data) and subjective (our own memories, etc.) convince us that they are or were real: we all, all human beings, had grandparents. Even someone for whom there is no subjective data to reference, no memories of grandparents -- an abandoned child, say, of unknown parentage -- will conclude that they had grandparents. They might not know who or when, but they will conclude that they at least existed. And while that might technically be a belief according to the definition above, we do not consider that to be on the same level of accuracy as things for which there is no or limited data; we consider it to be so well-established, so heavily supported by fact and reason, that is regarded as knowledge rather than belief. It is knowledge, the only reasonable conclusion that can be arrived at by examination of the facts.

Compare that belief, then, to a belief in Jack Frost, let us say as outlined in the Rise of the Guardians. A child might believe with all his heart that Jack Frost is real and we need to believe to see him, but we would not suggest that his belief merits the same certainty as a person's belief that they had grandparents. Indeed, we would classify one as a biological reality, a fact of life, knowledge; and the other as a child's myth, an innocuous, even charming, but ultimately incorrect belief.

All beliefs, then, are not equal. The more heavily supported a belief is by fact, the stronger it is. A belief that is merely a stand alone premise -- rainbows lead to pots of gold; Jack Frost exists -- is not so strong as a "belief" that is a conclusion reached by sturdy logic. Likewise with a belief that is borne of a conclusion reached by faulty logic or supported by unsupported premises ("you need faith to understand"). The stronger an argument's evidence and supporting claims, the more fool-proof its reasoning, the more likely we are to regard its conclusions as fact-based than belief-based.

It is a false comparison to conflate the certainty with which a student views the likelihood of receiving a diploma (provided he or she keeps up his/her end of the bargain) from a reputable university with belief in a deity that is supported largely by faith. The one can be supported by a great deal of evidence, and the other with a limited set (thus the reliance on "faith like a child). While that does not rule out either belief being accurate, it does justify a great deal of confidence about one -- and only one.

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