09 May 2011

What Should You Believe

I wrote this as a final writing assignment for my Philosophy of Religion course at Morehouse College. I'm currently editing it and my Theory of Truth for submission into The Presage (An Undergraduate Journal) this fall. Here's a taste of the final product.

I believe that God exists. By that I mean I believe there is an ever-present power that far exceeds my own here on earth. I believe this power moves and informs my daily life without completely controlling that life. Something like Plato’s unmoved mover, I believe in an actuality that is the force behind all existence, but that this God-being has limited conscious contribution (whether intentionally or by nature) to our current world. This force is one with which I hope to be (re)connected upon my death from this world. This means that I believe in the eternality of the spirit or soul- that there is some part of me that is separate from my body or earthly mind. My beliefs are general and complete (for me), and while they coincide with my overarching perceptions of morality, they consider not such particulars as which actions in themselves are (im)moral- not, at least, until my conception of how to determine moral goodness is established, a formula that I have yet to officially discern.

The “evidentialist standard” asserts that “you should believe something if, and only if, you have good reasons, good evidence… in favor for [that] belief” (Nobis, emphasis mine). This means that all beliefs must be justified by sufficient reasoning or arguments.

Generally speaking, the evidentialist standard is one that should be universally applied to maxims of belief because without such our beliefs would be arbitrary, and therefore unnecessary (and dangerous). While one may argue that following rules you do not believe in may prove beneficial (whether in the extreme case of heaven and hell or the simple desire not to be put in “time out”) I argue that a failure to provide reasons for one’s beliefs equate to a failure to apply oneself to one’s personhood appropriately. That is to say that a failure to provide evidence for belief is little less acceptable than failure to provide evidence for what one claims to be (definite- even if temporary) truth. What purpose is there for evidence if not to base our understanding of life thereon [1]? For me, there is no question as to whether one must have a reason to believe what they do, but the worth of those reasons are what must be explicated.

For example, “because mommy said so” may be a child’s sole reason for not eating from the cookie jar before dinner. The child may wholeheartedly feel that this restriction is ungrounded, unfair and may vow to never make her child endure such hardship. Yet the child will refrain from eating the cookie because she recognizes the authority of her parent, or perhaps because she wishes to avoid the wrath that will inevitably ensue. Here, we have an example that includes several kinds of reasons for not eating the cookie. Is respect for authority enough reason to do what that authority tells her? Does it depend on the particulars of what that authority has demanded, and how so? Are there different levels of authority that determine the scope of that authority’s command? Is not wanting to be punished sufficient reason for doing this act she would otherwise not have done? Or does the amount of punishment determine how justified her decision was? What about her own, natural convictions that tell her there is no logical reason why she should not eat the cookie- that it is in fact her natural right to be able to do so? Here we see the necessity of clarifying what is meant by evidence and what constitutes “good” evidence, for every reason has many countering ones that put the former into question.

Evidence, according to Dr. Nathan Nobis, comes in 3 forms: 1) empirical proof, 2) experience (which at times may be personal and unrepeatable) and 3) pure thought (a priori- as in 2 + 2 = 4) (Nobis).  I agree with this assessment. To further this general make-up, I question whether certain of these forms of evidence are greater than the others and in what ways. I answer that no one form of evidence can be held in higher esteem than any other when it comes to belief. If someone were to say they “had a strong feeling” that the green leaves on a tree were blue, or even that their eyes told them so, that would not be reason enough to justify the/my understanding of trees as having blue leaves. It would, however, serve as justifiable reasoning for that individual’s belief that the leaves were blue, because their personal experience tells them so, and all understanding, as aforementioned, must be based on some sort of evidence[2]. The reason why these forms of evidence are sufficient for justifying belief yet not truth(read: facts as ascertained and maintained by society) is because they are personal and only have to be checked by the individual. The truth, then, must be checked by a vast grater number of individuals before being considered valid or true.

Allow me to insert a very brief explication my theory of truth here, for a familiarity of it will best help round out and inform one’s understanding of my assertions concerning evidence and belief. Absolute Truth exists. It consists of those actualities that cannot be proven here on earth. God (however defined) either exists or does not exist or exists in many forms (polytheism) but no two of these can be true and at least one of them must be. Whichever of these statements is an actuality is an absolute Truth that cannot be a fact (“little t” truth, if you will) yet nonetheless is real. On earth, there are certain things that can be and are proven or at least maintained. That trees (typically) bare green leaves is a universal fact that has been generally accepted by humankind. To say that this is not so would be to lie- to offer a version of the facts that goes against what has been established as (“little t” true). Belief, then, would rest in between the absolute realm and earth. One must use the facts ascertained here to best determine what may be in the other realm (if such a realm exists). It would not be untrue or a lie, then, to assert that God exists- even if in all actuality God did not, because such matters are weighed on a scale of empiricism that is limited to earthly matters. Such a belief, if unTrue, would rather be a misjudgment of the facts/evidence (that is three-fold) that have been provided us here on earth.

I would like to take this time, then, to generally assert the following: The validity of belief can only be determined on a personal, particular scale. My reasons for believing what I do (or even that you should believe the same) do not have to be approved by any other person. Furthermore, they cannot be discredited by any other person[3], for in believing what I do I am saying that I have ascertained the facts, judged accordingly, and come to a specific, resultant if not universal or provable conclusion.

For this reason, my beliefs meet the evidentialist criteria. Simply put, I have my own reasons for believing what I do and therefore am justified in believing them. I furthermore have reasons for believing my reasons are good enough from which to base my belief (based on the 3 forms of acceptable evidence). Specifically, for example, I believe in an eternality of the spirit or soul because of the utilization and pure existence of thought itself. I furthermore, feel as though the existence of a being as cognizant, critical, affective, and feeling as I could not exist, and would serve little purpose to exist, for such a limited amount of time. There must be, in my estimation, some grand scheme that gives worth to my temporary state (there must be some reason for goodness and growth that exceeds the “good life” of humans who arbitrarily ended up on a planet such as ours). While I justify my reasons (a proof, experience or thought) with deeper reasons (that such experiences are justifiable reasons for believing and why), the fact alone that a reason exists for someone is enough for me to appreciate and respect that belief (though I may, even vehemently, oppose such beliefs, based again on my own experiences). [4]

Having outlined my theory of Truth, it is safe to say that my religious beliefs both should never change and may continue to do so- and this is no contradiction. That is, my beliefs are (currently) supported and confirmed yet will be so in a new way in the future. For, as my obtaining and interpretation of facts grow, so will the appropriate understanding of God (among other things) therefrom. Likewise, so long as any individual’s belief system is informed by any of many reasons that are by their own estimation reasonable, that individual is justified in their belief.

[1] Here I am reminded of arguments concerning the foolishness of lying (as a general (moral) axiom): poor communication, absence of any real (or relative) knowledge. The same ideas apply here with reference to belief.
[2] Conviction (often confused with or written off as a “mere feeling”), where a priori thought meets (personal) experience, is an oft-belittled yet pertinent reason from which to form a decision or belief.
[3] This is not to say that one cannot or should not take the arguments and claimed experiences of others into account when drawing their own conclusions.
[4] This is not to say, I must add, that certain actions that are informed by beliefs should not be hindered, for actions, like earthly truths, can affect a much greater number of persons than those who hold the particular belief. Determining which actions should and should not be monitored is another conundrum of its own.

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