Thursday, September 17, 2015

Is the Believing Feeling Good for Us?: Part One

“Don’t stop believin’.  Hold on to the feelin’.” – Journey

“Believe.” – Macy’s

Ours is a culture of belief.  As Journey and Macy’s remind us, belief feels good.  And we like what feels good.  But what feels good isn’t always good for us.  I think there’s something odd, maybe even harmful, about the way we valorize belief and the feelings associated with it. 
An epistemological imperative from Macy's
Of course, these statements need qualification.  I’m talking primarily about the United States and primarily about people’s most deeply held beliefs in areas like politics, religion, and philosophy rather than more mundane beliefs like, “2+2=4” or “Santa Fe is the capital of New Mexico.”  

The beliefs that Santa Fe is the capital of New Mexico or that the Earth revolves around the sun probably don’t make people feel good unless they’re lobbyists who like the Southwestern charm of Santa Fe or people with a fanatical interest in Copernicus and Galileo.

The Believing Feeling

Macy’s puts up a giant sign that says “Believe” because beliefs in the fun of Santa Claus for kids, the magic of the holiday season, and so forth make people feel good.  And of course people who feel good will spend more money at Macy’s and tune in to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  Much the same could be said for many beliefs in politics, religion, philosophy, science, sports, business, art, music, or any other area where the tenacity with which people hold beliefs is matched only by the pervasiveness of disagreement about these beliefs.

In light of Journey’s brilliant discourse on the relation between believin’ and feelin’, let’s call this the believing feeling.

The Right to Believe and the Rightness of Belief

I’m not denying that you have a right to your beliefs.  But that doesn’t mean your beliefs are right or that others don’t have the right to scrutinize them.  As John Stuart Mill argued, freedom of belief is important precisely because it allows us to engage in rational debate that might allow the better arguments to emerge, maybe even the truth!

Does this mean we’re likely to find the truth?  Here’s where I, like my favorite ancient skeptics, have my doubts, especially when it comes to three areas that often produce the believing feeling: philosophy, religion, and politics.

Philosophers Don't Stop Believin'

As I’ve discussed before, philosophy doesn’t give a lot of firm answers (although it’s useful in other ways, such as making people less dogmatically attached to their beliefs!).  This, however, doesn’t stop people from committing to some philosophical view, often quite adamantly.  The longer I do philosophy the more confused I become that people have firm beliefs in an area that almost seems to be specifically designed to resist firm beliefs.  

I love arguing as much as any philosopher, but at the end of the day I suspect that I have as much chance of being wrong as everyone else (I half-jokingly thought of putting a footnote at the end of my dissertation that said, “Or maybe not.”).  Still, the feeling of being right and defending one’s views is just too good to give up.  Some social scientists have even argued that reasoning evolved to help us win arguments rather than to seek the truth.

Religion: Hold on to the Feelin'

Religion is a big and amorphous thing that resists easy encapsulation, so I’m not making any claims about religion as a whole.  In 21st century America, however, there’s a popular idea that faith is a desirable thing even (especially?) when it’s in the absence of any reasons or arguments.  This view is a kind of fideism (literally,“faith-ism”).  The popularity of fideism is the product of America’s and Europe’s relatively recent religious history – you find little fideism among the religious philosophers of, say, classical India or medieval Europe (they tended to think their religious views were supported by reasons).  Today’s breezy fideism confuses me, because I tend to think the proper response to a lack of evidence is to withhold belief.  But, again, maybe belief just feels too good to give up.

The Beliefs of Politics and the Politics of Belief

Lest readers think I’m declaring myself immune to the believing feeling, let’s turn to politics.  I find it easier to suspend belief in philosophy and religion than I do in politics.  I taught critical thinking courses for many years, and I felt that using my authority as a teacher to make political claims ran contrary to my goal of promoting independent critical thinking (I still feel this way, although nowadays I teach fewer political controversies).  So, I adopted a policy of classroom neutrality, which affected my own political thinking.

For instance, while teaching logical fallacies, I noticed that politicians I agree with use fallacious reasoning about as often as politicians I dislike.  This doesn’t make my side wrong (that would be the fallacy fallacy!), but I’ve lost my taste for using the word “rational” as a synonym for “agrees with me."  Even more troubling, sometimes people I disagree with say things that I can’t immediately discount as wrong!  I still have political beliefs and I still act on them, but I’ve come to realize that I could be wrong – although I think I’m less likely to be wrong than my opponents!

People are Strange

But isn’t this all a little odd?  After all, if beliefs are supposed to be about what you think is true given available reasons and evidence, then why would belief make us feel good?  And is the believing feeling good for us?  Does it make us better people, intellectually and morally?

I’ll take these questions up in Part Two.  That is, if you can believe me!

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