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I Believe They Have A Point

by Craig Good

August 4, 2011

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Michael De Dora writes over on Rationally Speaking in defense of belief.
This describes in precise manner the two different arguments I have encountered. The first is that belief either carries religious baggage or is the same thing as faith (a word usually tightly associated with religion). The second is that belief, even if a reasonable concept, is unnecessary. That's because secular people don't "believe" in anything — they just accept facts.
The first argument has always struck me as an unsubstantiated conjecture. There is little evidence that belief carries significant religious baggage, and it is absolutely not true that belief is the same thing as faith. I find the second argument equally unconvincing, as there is a need for an intermediary between facts and human psychology. As such, I'd like to take this opportunity to explain what I think belief is, and argue for why I think we should — and, in fact, need — to use the word.

This echoes what Robert Burton argued on Slate a few years back.

It's not easy, of course, but somehow we must incorporate what neuroscience is telling us about the limits of knowing into our everyday lives. We must accept that how we think isn't entirely within our control. Perhaps the easiest solution would be to substitute the word "believe" for "know." A physician faced with an unsubstantiated gut feeling might say, "I believe there's an effect despite the lack of evidence," not, "I'm sure there's an effect." And yes, scientists would be better served by saying, "I believe that evolution is correct because of the overwhelming evidence."
I realize that this last sentence runs against the grain of those who have fought the hardest to establish science as the method for determining the facts of the external world. It is particularly loathsome when you feel that you are playing into the hands of religious fanatics, medical quacks and word-twisting politicians. But in pointing out the biological limits of reason, including scientific thought, I'm not making the case that all ideas are equal or that scientific method is mere illusion. My purpose is not to destroy the foundations of science, but only to point out the inherent limitations of the questions that science asks and the answers it provides.
It's an interesting read, and includes a reading exercise which I simply must not spoil for you.

by Craig Good

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