George Bernard Shaw once wrote that the fact the believer might be happier than the sceptic is no more relevant than the fact the drunkard is happier than the sober man. The relevance he had I mind, I suspect, was relevance to the truth of the matter. Just because believing something is so might make you happy, he suggested, is no good reason for thinking that thing is true. The pragmatist would be inclined to disagree.
I have a certain sympathy for pragmatism, and it’s probably the defence of belief (both theistic and atheistic) that I find hardest to dismiss. In this post I want to briefly outline how the pragmatic defence of belief works, and then explain why I’m not entirely convinced with it. Or rather, I think there’s an alternative way of looking at belief that sits much more comfortably with me. But first the defence itself.
The pragmatic theist’s line might go something like this: Yes, we understand that there is no slam dunk argument available to tell us whether it is more or less reasonable to believe in God. We would even go so far as to say this type of belief doesn’t yield to calculations of probability. We don’t know if it’s more or less likely that God exists. But, unlike the agnostic, we do not treat this profound uncertainty as cause to withhold belief. Rather, we would argue, that in the absence of any defeating arguments or evidence, it makes perfectly good sense to believe that thing that we know through experience makes our lives all the richer. To refuse to do this, on the grounds that in the absence of verifiable knowledge, one should withhold belief, is akin to cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. The principle of withholding knowledge itself relies upon a belief of sorts, and one that is equally impossible to establish, so if it just comes down to a choice between impossible to establish beliefs, then what could better justify this choice than the likely outcome for the believer?
This is sometimes framed as a doctrine of hopeful belief. In the absence of defeaters, one is warranted to believe in that which one hopes to be true. Atheists often employ a similar line of reasoning when they suggests, in the absence of a compelling case either way, believing in absence is the better path. Scratch beneath the surface and their notion of what is better often has a whiff of pragmatism about it too (if we refrain from believing in that we wish were true, we safeguard ourselves against wilful delusion).
So, isn’t the pragmatic case entirely reasonable? If we can’t rule an option out, and we find that believing in it improves our lives, isn’t belief the sane way to go? At this point many are tempted to rush in and construct the case against the opposition’s pragmatic virtue. No, claim some atheists, religion doesn’t make you feel better at all, look at all the harm it’s caused. Nonsense, returns the believer. Look at the progress our particular religion has laid the foundation for, your reading of history is mighty selective. And that, clearly, is not the sort of argument one could reasonably expect to be resolved. But, unless one accepts the premise, that usefulness is a reasonable guide to truth, then the argument is on some level a pointless one.
So, is there any way of equating usefulness to truthfulness? My instinct is to say no. I can think of any number of situations where a person might derive great pleasure from believing things where that pleasure is a lousy guide to truth. The person who misreads their lottery ticket and believes they have won might have a tremendously exciting time planning their spending spree and perhaps even indulging in some pre-claim celebrations, but the joy it brings them does not appear to be able to affect the truth of the outcome. The way I want the world to be, and the way it actually is, don’t appear to be related in the way that pragmatism seems to imply. Consider the person who hears a rumour their partner is being unfaithful. Sure, it might make them feel much better to believe this isn’t so, but that in itself can’t change the past. Isn’t belief about something other than trying to put the best spin on things? Isn’t belief, by definition, about trying to figure out what’s actually going on?
Perhaps in this case, definition is the whole thing. Consider this statement: ‘I have no idea whether that coin is going to be heads or tails, but I’ve bet on heads, and so I believe that’s what it will be. I’m an optimist.’ And ‘I don’t know whether it will be heads or tails, but based on past experience, I do believe it won’t land exactly on its side.’ I’m not convinced belief in these two cases is referring to the same thing at all. One refers to how we hope the world will turn out, and the other to how we genuinely expect the world to turn out. I understand the person who says ‘I hope this is true, and will behave as if it is’. That, I would suggest, is a stance more about hope than it is about belief. But, when the person says ‘I hope this is true, and so I believe it is’ some fine line of discomfort has been crossed for me. I want to say, fine, but that’s not what I mean when I speak of belief. Or rather I want to ask, how is belief any different from hope, in your case. In which case, why not use the word hope instead? Wouldn’t that be more honest?
In other words, I appear to be psychologically incapable of believing something is true just because I want it to be. At the point where I realise hope is the primary reason for my belief, my belief withers. I can not personally sustain belief in the face of the knowledge that this is just a position I have arrived at simply because it makes me feel good. I want belief to somehow be about more than that.
Of course, there is one pesky counter example to this line of reasoning, and that is the regularity of the universe. Isn’t it true that I expect the sun to rise in the east tomorrow for entirely pragmatic reasons? Don’t I understand that there is no compelling argument in favour of this expectation, beyond its tremendous usefulness? Give up on regularity, and we are lost. And doesn’t that make my dismissal of pragmatic belief inconsistent?
I think there might be a way around this problem, to do with what I think of as a theory of best guesses. I’ll try to lay that out next time.