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Posts Tagged ‘epistemology’

Shermer on Belief: I Want To Believe

Posted by spritzophrenia on September 30, 2011

Perhaps, dear reader, you can tell me whether Michael Shermer applies the concepts in his new book to his own ideas. Essentially, The Believing Brain (2011) says that we create beliefs and then find evidence to reinforce those beliefs. On those terms, Shermer’s statement is also a belief, and Shermer is merely finding evidence that supports his idea and ignoring other possibilities. I want to know if Michael Shermer raises this problem and answers it.

Shermer‘s book seems to be a good read. His essential point is “Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow. I call this process belief-dependent realism.” He uses neuroscience, psychology, history and some sociology to explain what people actually do. So far, so good. There are various chapters with stories of people who believe in things like ghosts, ufos and God. He uses Leonard Mlodinow for beliefs on cosmology, and Mlodinow scratches his back in return, providing one of the publisher’s reviews on the cover of Shermer’s book. If you find this blog interesting, you might also like my review of Mlodinow and Hawking’s book.

However, I’d like your help, because I simply don’t have time to read The Believing Brain in its entirety yet and I have to return it to the library in two weeks. In that two weeks I have to finish writing about 10,000 words so reading Shermer in depth just ain’t going to happen yet. The problem: If our brains create beliefs, and then we find the evidence to support these beliefs how does Shermer know his idea is true? He may simply “want to believe” that his ideas are correct and conveniently only look at evidence that supports him. Even the idea of “looking for evidence” is a belief itself, a belief about how one best discovers “knowledge”. I don’t think– from my brief look so far– that Shermer addresses this. I may be wrong. Can you tell me if Shermer talks about this?


If he doesn’t, I think it might undercut much of what he says, because deciding how we find truth and know truth is not a simple question. And some people don’t even think there is a “truth” to be found. The epilogue is where Shermer talks about what he thinks is the best method to find the truth, which he says is science. He writes, “What makes science so potent is that there is a well-defined method for getting at the answers to questions about the world – a world that is real and knowable.” Notice the assumption that the world is both real and knowable – this is philosophy, not science. He continues, “Where philosophy and theology depend on logic and reason and thought experiments, science employs empiricism, evidence and observational experiments. It is the only hope we have of avoiding the trap of belief-dependent realism.”

I may be reading too much into it, but it seems Shermer doesn’t like philosophy much. This is sad, because as I pointed out above, he doesn’t seem to realise how much of his own point of view actually depends on philosophy, not science. I was surprised to find no mention of Thomas Kuhn’s ideas, let alone Bruno Latour’s or even Karl Popper’s “falsifiability” even though I suspect the model of science Shermer is using is based on the latter. This is a constant surprise to me: Scientists who seem to have absolutely no awareness of the philosophy or sociology of science which their discipline is based on.

Let me say at this point, that I love science. I trained in it in my undergrad degree, and I’m so grateful to live in a world where we have things like cars, medicine, and the computer on which I’m typing this. What I don’t love is scientism, the view that almost turns science into a religion. Scientism says that science can solve anything, including things which science just isn’t built to solve. Shermer concludes his book with the statement that the truth is out there and that “science is the best tool we have for uncovering it.” I will conclude by quoting him with a small modification: “In the end, I want to believe. I also want to know. The truth is out there, and although it may be difficult to find, science is one of the best tools we have for uncovering it.”


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King’s X | Believe (Great song! Lyrics.).

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Why I Will Always Be Agnostic

Posted by spritzophrenia on October 15, 2010

I came to the conclusion a little while ago that even if I adopt a particular belief, I will technically have to call myself an agnostic. The reason is that “agnostic” is about knowledge, what we can know. This is different to belief. Agnostic means “I don’t know”

We tend to place belief as an on/off black/white yes/no question. I think there can be shades and nuances, in terms of my own experience. Some time ago I came up with the Agnostic Scale. (We can argue about whether it should be called the “belief scale” or the “knowledge scale” 1) It looks like this:

Both zero and ten are not possible for us. We cannot “know” there is no God. Equally, we cannot— in this life at least— “know” there is a God. So let’s add to the diagram:

The best we can do is be at position one— “I strongly believe there is no God”, or position nine— “I strongly believe there is a God”. I strongly believe Morocco exists, even though I’ve never been there 2. Also note that position nine doesn’t specify what kind of God, a Deist could also be at position nine.

All believers are un-knowers. Having a concept of belief rather than knowledge allows me to move up and down the scale, as my beliefs change over time. At times in the past I’ve been at position nine. A few years ago I moved to about a three, which would be something like “It’s not very likely there is a God”, or perhaps “I have strong doubts about whether God exists.”

Pascal made me think about the distinction of belief versus knowledge. My other example is Bertrand Russell, who called himself an atheist but if his audience were more savvy would call himself an agnostic, as he couldn’t say he “knew” God didn’t exist.

My point is that even If I decide there is a Being behind the universe, it will always be a belief, not knowledge, however strongly I may feel about it.

Right now I’d put myself at about a 7, something like “I think it’s likely God might exist”. I may move back towards the zero, or up towards the 10. But no matter what, I’ll always be an agnostic.


How would you label other points on the scale?
Where would you put yourself on the scale?
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[1] In conversation Phrenic Philosophy pointed out that Richard Dawkins published a similar scale in his book The God Delusion. I’d forgotten that, but my scale was conceived independently, so sucks to you, Dawkins 😉

[2] Philosophy alert: Language enthusiasts can amuse yourselves trying to finesse what the statement “Morocco exists” means. The study of how we know something is called epistemology. The classic definition of knowledge is “justified, true belief”. To be extra snarky: Do you “know” YOU exist?

Posted in agnostic, epistemology, Philosophy | Tagged: , , , , | 80 Comments »

I’m Not Driving That! – Strong Rationalism

Posted by spritzophrenia on August 6, 2010

On the way to the airport today I saw a billboard with two photographs of a single car, one labelled “the emotionally satisfying view” and the other, “the rationally satisfying view”4. Picture one showed happy people crowding around the vehicle, the other displayed engineering cutaways of the engine, safety and comfort features. Which vehicle will get me to my destination?

You may recall me wondering if I am a rationalist, given that I value reason and think it has a part to play in my search for the numinous. Simplistically, when deciding what to believe I can either say “there’s got to be rational proof ”, or simply try it out and say “this belief makes me feel good and gives me trippy spiritual experiences.”

I have doubts about spiritual experience alone as a guide, which I’ll save for a future post. For now, I came across a section in a recent book1, which helped me:

[The new atheist] authors are evaluating Christian arguments by what some have called “strong rationalism”. Its proponents laid down what was called the “verification principle”, namely, that no one should believe a proposition unless it can be proved rationally by logic or empirically by sense experience. What is meant by the word “proved”? Proof, in this view, is an argument so strong that no person whose logical faculties are operating properly would have any reason for disbelieving it.

Fractal rainbow self

A few theists also hold to strong rationalism, suggesting their arguments are so strong that you’d be a fool to disbelieve. I’m thinking of some Islamic apologists here. I met a christian rationalist in an online forum not long ago. Sadly, he was belligerent and rude.

For those of us who find the path of the intellect to g0d challenging, put this on repeat, enjoy some beautiful music and imagine the experiential path to g0d as we continue:

The Gayatri Mantra. I also really like this version.

Keller continues:

Despite all the books calling Christians to provide proofs for their beliefs, you won’t see philosophers doing so, not even the most atheistic. The great majority think that strong rationalism is nearly impossible to defend 2. To begin with, it can’t live up to its own standards. How could you empirically prove that no one should believe something without empirical proof? You can’t, and that reveals it to be, ultimately, a belief.

Strong rationalism also assumes that it is possible to achieve “the view from nowhere,” a position of almost complete objectivity, but virtually all philosophers today agree that is impossible. We come to every individual evaluation with all sorts of experiences and background beliefs that strongly influence our thinking and the way our reason works. It is not fair, then, to demand an argument that all rational people would have to bow to.

The philosophical indefensibility of “strong rationalism” is the reason that the books by Dawkins and Dennet have been getting such surprisingly rough treatment in scholarly journals.

If we reject strong rationalism, are we then stuck in relativism – without any way to judge one set of beliefs from another? Not at all.

He suggests an alternative approach called “critical rationality” 3. I’m not sure what he means by that, but whether or not I agree with critical rationality I don’t think I’m a strong rationalist. I think some things in life just have to be believed – my own existence, for example. However, I do want some rational underpinning for my beliefs. I hope that one vehicle, both emotionally satisfying and rationally satisfying will get me there. Somehow I want to hold these two together.

On the way home I saw a bumper sticker on a car: “Don’t follow me, I’m lost too”.



What do you think? Comment below.

1. Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (Dutton, 2008), pages 118, 119, 120.

2. Keller’s footnotes explain more, and cite Alasdair MacIntyre Whose Justice, Which Rationality (Notre Dame, 1988) in particular. He says “One of the best critiques of the Enlightenment view of strong rationalism is Faith and Rationality: On Reason and Belief in God A. Plantinga and N. Wolterstorff, eds (Notre Dame, 1983). The Enlightenment view has been called classic or Cartesian “foundationalism,” and that approach has been almost universally abandoned among philosophers. See also Nicolas Wolterstorf, Reason Within the Bounds of Religion (Eerdmans, 1984).”

3. Keller footnotes “For a non-technical introduction to the difference between strong and critical rationalism, see Victor Reppert, C.S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea (Inter-Varsity, 2003), pp 30-44.

4. [Edit:] I saw the billboards again, and realised they say “emotionally appealing” and “rationally appealing”. I wonder if there’s a difference between “appealing” and “satisfying”?

Posted in agnostic, epistemology, Hinduism, music, Philosophy | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 47 Comments »