IMPORTANT POINTS NOTED SO FAR
(1) The expression “absolute truth” is ambiguous between: (a) just “true” (and not relative to anything), and (b) “absolutely certain”. The answers to the question “Is there absolute truth?” on the two different meanings are: (i) “Yes, many”, and (ii) “Yes, but not very many”, respectively.
(2) A “good” argument for something must pass (at least) two tests: (a) it must have a strong connection between premises and conclusion, and (b) the premises must be known, or at least reasonable.
(3) An argument that is only inductively strong should not be used as the basis of forming ones’ beliefs unless the premises contain all the known relevant evidence. (“Requirement of Total Evidence”)
(4) An argument is only one step in an “argument structure” (a.k.a. “a piece of argumentation”). A whole argument structure ultimately seems to rest mainly upon two sources of knowledge: (a) experience, and (b) reason. [We shall assume for the purpose of this course that both may be trusted -- if due caution is exercised.]
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THE ETHICS OF BELIEF
Distinguish the three questions:
(1) Is there a God?,
(2) Is it probable (or reasonable to believe) that there a God?,
(3) Ought I to believe that there is a God?
If the answer to (2) is “Yes”, then the answer to (1) is “Probably”. So (1) and (2) are closely connected. We shall pursue both questions vigorously.
Suppose the answer to (1) and also (2) is “No”. Does this mean that the answer to (3) is “No”?
TWO VIEWPOINTS: W.K. CLIFFORD AND WILLIAM JAMES
“It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything on insufficient evidence. [W. K. Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief”]
Objection: “But everyone has a right to believe whatever they want.”
Reply: It just isn’t so. Perhaps no one ought to brainwash you, but your beliefs can lead to action and you may be obligated to make sure that certain of your beliefs are true (or probably true). And it might even be an obligation of others toward you that they attempt to dislodge an irrational belief.
“[A] rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth if those truths were really there, would be an irrational rule.” [William James, “The Will to Believe”]
William James argued that in certain circumstances it might be that one ought to believe something – even if the evidence is inadequate.
The Two Questions Sharpened:
“Is it reasonable to believe (solely) on the basis of the evidence and arguments concerning the matter?”
“Would it be good (or valuable, or morally permissible) to believe?”
LOIS HOPE WALKER, “RELIGION GIVES MEANING TO LIFE”
The atheist’s argument reconstructed:
(1) Believing in God has bad effects in that it prevents one from developing ones’ freedom and autonomy.
(2) The value of autonomy and freedom outweighs whatever other values theistic belief might have.
(3) One ought not to (“it would be wrong to”) believe in God.
DIFFERENT VALUES INVOLVED IN BELIEF
(1) Truth vs. falsity (Alethic values)
(2) Reasonability vs. unreasonability.
(3) Good consequences of believing
(e.g. happiness and meaning) vs. bad consequences (e.g. bad actions and habits arising from the belief). (Consequential values).
SOME IMPORTANT POINTS IN WALKER’S ESSAY
(A) Autonomy is not an “absolute value” in the sense that it always outweighs everything else. To decide on the rightness or wrongness of believing in something, e.g. in the existence of God, all the values involved must be considered.
(B) The atheist is presupposing that there is an objective basis for morality independently of theistic belief. This may or may not be true, but some theists have argued (“Moral arguments for the existence of God”) that the objectivity of morality supports belief in the existence of God. [The ethically-relativistic atheist’s view is just inconsistent: “Morality and value is just relative . . . and here’s the absolutely more (most) valuable thing: autonomy.”]
(C) The hypothesis that there is a God might explain the origin of the Universe (“The Cosmological Argument”). This is an argument concerning the rationality of belief in God on the evidence.
A MISTAKE TO AVOID:
“It would be nice if the universe has a purpose, if life has a meaning, if justice is done, and if good will ultimately triumph over evil. … so… probably …”
(1) The universe might not be nice. The pleasantness of a belief is no evidence for it whatsoever.
(2) However, the observations may bear on the question whether or not you will be happier if you believe this. And this bears on whether or not it ought to be believed – but so do other values.