To Believe Or Not To Believe, That Is a Question

Philosophers sometimes wonder what the purpose of philosophy is. Given what philosophers do, they probably wonder about the purpose of their role more than, say, dentists or tightrope walkers wonder about the purpose of theirs.

The British philosopher, Bryan Magee, was also “a broadcaster, politician and author”. He was “best known for bringing philosophy to a popular audience” through a series of television interviews (available, of course, on YouTube). In 1997, Magee published Confessions of a Philosopher: A Personal Journey Through Western Philosophy from Plato to Popper. It’s his intellectual autobiography. I haven’t read the whole thing yet, but in the first few chapters, Magee argues that academic philosophy in the UK and US went seriously off track after World War 2 when, first at Oxford University, philosophers became too focused on language. He argues that language is a tool for understanding the world and our place in it, but that the philosophy of language shouldn’t be any more central to philosophy than the philosophy of science, politics or art. Magee believed philosophers should spend their time trying to answer the Big Questions, the kind that keep some people awake at night, like how to live a good life, if we have free will and whether to believe in God.

Coincidentally, somebody posted a link to a recent article that deals with one of those very big questions. It concerns the 17th century French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, who argued it’s a good idea to believe in God, because if we do, we’ll be eternally rewarded in Heaven, and if we don’t, well, we haven’t given up anything of real importance and, what matters much more,  we’ll avoid suffering in Hell forever and ever. His argument is somewhat misleadingly known as “Pascal’s Wager”. Saul Smilansky of the University of Haifa argues that Pascal got it wrong:

Pascal famously argued that practical reasoning should lead people to try and form within themselves a commitment to religious practice and obedience, based upon a belief in God…

The argument roughly goes like this: if God is all powerful and all knowing, and he will reward the righteous with heaven and condemn sinners to eternity in hell, it would be irrational to risk upsetting him. Rationally, one ought to ‘wager on God’. If God does not exist, one’s losses (such as in missing out on the joys of sin, or wasting time on religious ritual) will be relatively meagre, and in any case finite; while eternal torment in an insufferable hell is an infinite risk, which it would be radically foolish to take. There are philosophical difficulties in Pascal’s argument, such as on which God to wager, or the thought that God is unlikely to be pleased by those who follow his commandments as a pragmatic gamble. … But these need not concern us here.

…  I argue that there is a huge puzzle here, about the radical dissonance between the beliefs and practices of many of the purportedly religious; so that we should be highly sceptical of the prevalence, strength, and value of religious life and belief in God.

There are, I will argue, good reasons to doubt, concerning many (clearly not all or even most) purported religious believers, whether they are indeed believers, or at least whether their beliefs are strong; and religion seems to greatly increase the risks of deception, duplicity, and hypocrisy, as well as self-deception and inauthenticity. In these ways, many religious people end up being much worse than otherwise similar, seriously morally offending, secular people. By turning towards a religious form of life, one will therefore be adding great morality-related risks; it is playing with fire. Arguably, if there is a God who deeply cares about individual moral behaviour, he would punish religious moral transgressors more than the secular ones. And so, pace [contrary to the opinion of] Pascal, prima facie it seems better to wager on the secular life.

Those are the opening paragraphs of Smilansky’s article, which is free online. His argument made me wonder. Are there many people who loudly proclaim their religiosity, yet don’t act the way you’d expect followers of Jesus to act? Are they at risk of offending the God they claim to worship? That’s a really tough question.

FffFcG0XgAAVy1K

What a Fool or Creep Believes

Back when there was a plague upon the nation (not the plague caused by the virus), the question whether the president was lying or merely mistaken was often discussed. Reputable journalists at reality-based news organizations didn’t want to say he was lying (30,000 times in four years) since maybe he believed all the nonsense he said. So, perhaps he wasn’t lying. It felt safer, less judgmental, to say he was merely saying things that weren’t true (30,000 times).

A very good reason to think he was lying his big boy pants off was that every “falsehood” he shared with us was self-serving. People who are merely confused occasionally say something that doesn’t make themselves look good. Not our former president. He never wavered from his fundamental message: “I’m a winner, not a loser”. He never deviated from the con man’s creed: “Never give a sucker (i.e. the rest of us) an even break”.

As the January 6th committee reviews the evidence, similar questions about this person’s state of mind are being asked. Did he really believe he won the election? Did he really intend to stop Congress from counting the electoral votes?

Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo argues that trying to figure out what the creep believed is a waste of time:

For T____, there is just what he wants. He “believes” whatever will get him what he wants.

Does he somehow convince himself of this? Like some kind of willed delusion? Stop it. You’re sticking too much to your linear way of thinking about belief. He hasn’t “convinced” himself. Why would he need to and what would that mean? He just says whatever will get him what he wants. Full stop….

Trump doesn’t “believe” anything.

… It cannot be the case that someone can evade legal culpability for a crime by consistently claiming not to know things that are obviously true, that everyone around him says are true, that he has no basis for disbelieving…. Otherwise, it’s a “get out of jail free” card for literally any crime. Just say consistently that you believe Mr. X threatened your life and you’re entitled to murder him without any legal consequences.

As we know from actual trials, you can’t just “believe” anything…. Your belief has to be reasonable….

We don’t need to go down the rabbit hole of the inner workings of [his] mind. That’s his problem. Not ours. As long as we do, we’re chasing a figment where there is only one possible witness: him. That’s silly.

The mob boss who says he’s never been a member of the mob isn’t confused. He’s lying because he doesn’t want to go to prison. That’s obvious. Just as this case is obvious.

One correction I’d make: not “everyone around him” was saying he lost. Rudy Giuliani and other sleazeballs were telling him the opposite. I hope that doesn’t make any difference when he’s prosecuted.

If you want more on this topic, two well-known lawyers who’ve worked for the government wrote an article for Salon about T____’s “criminal intent”:

As apologists prepare to defend his conduct, it is important to realize how shallow their defense will be. It is laughable to suggest that T____ genuinely believed he had won the 2020 election. We already know that experts and advisers told him the election results were legitimate. He heard this from his campaign advisers, Department of Justice lawyers, high-level officials in his own Department of Homeland Security and Republican elected officials [and at least 60 judges!]. T____ knew he had lost a free and fair election, but he wanted to remain in power anyway….

The committee’s work will be helpful, providing key evidence about … what T____ and others were saying and doing in public and what they were admitting in private.

[There is also] a foundation for showing T____’s corrupt intent: his long-established pattern of crying “fraud” to undermine results he didn’t like.

After T____ lost the 2016 Iowa caucuses to Ted Cruz, he cried fraud and demanded a do-over. He did the same thing in the general election after losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton, despite winning the Electoral College… Throughout 2020, he made a series of statements along these lines … showing that even before the first vote was cast, he had no intention of accepting election results he didn’t like….

Even if T____ could somehow convince prosecutors and a jury that he really believed he had won — despite all the evidence to the contrary —  that would not have permitted him to use dishonest means to stay in power. His legal adviser, John Eastman, made clear that the scheme he and T____ tried to execute to keep T____ in power required breaking the law. You can’t keep power illegally even if you believe you really won an election. But prosecutors won’t need to reach this point, since the evidence is so strong that T____ and those around him knew he lost.

As If the Future Wasn’t Scary Enough

The science fiction I used to read often depicted the future as very weird, culturally speaking. It was the kind of place where nutty celebrities would rise to high office and strange cults would be born. It was like the Sixties and Seventies but more so.

If you don’t find climate change or the next pandemic scary enough (or a visitation like what killed the dinosaurs), read this long article by Adrienne Lafrance in The Atlantic. It’s about QAnon, the conspiracy theory that now looks like a new religion. A few paragraphs:

If you were an adherent, no one would be able to tell. You would look like any other American. . . . You may well have an affiliation with an evangelical church. But you are hard to identify just from the way you look—which is good, because someday soon dark forces may try to track you down. You understand this sounds crazy, but you don’t care. You know that a small group of manipulators, operating in the shadows, pull the planet’s strings. You know that they are powerful enough to abuse children without fear of retribution. You know that the mainstream media are their handmaidens, in partnership with Hillary Clinton and the secretive denizens of the deep state. You know that only Dxxxx Txxxx stands between you and a damned and ravaged world. You see plague and pestilence sweeping the planet, and understand that they are part of the plan. You know that a clash between good and evil cannot be avoided, and you yearn for the Great Awakening that is coming. And so you must be on guard at all times. You must shield your ears from the scorn of the ignorant. You must find those who are like you. And you must be prepared to fight.

You know all this because you believe in Q.

The origins of QAnon are recent, but even so, separating myth from reality can be hard. One place to begin is with Edgar Maddison Welch, a deeply religious father of two, who until Sunday, December 4, 2016, had lived an unremarkable life in the small town of Salisbury, North Carolina. That morning, Welch grabbed his cellphone, a box of shotgun shells, and three loaded guns . . . and hopped into his Toyota Prius. He drove 360 miles to . . . Northwest Washington, D.C.; parked his car; put the revolver in a holster at his hip; held the AR-15 rifle across his chest; and walked through the front door of a pizzeria called Comet Ping Pong.

. . . As parents, children, and employees rushed outside, many still chewing, Welch began to move through the restaurant, at one point attempting to use a butter knife to pry open a locked door, before giving up and firing several rounds from his rifle into the lock. Behind the door was a small computer-storage closet. This was not what he was expecting.

Welch had traveled to Washington because of a conspiracy theory known, now famously, as Pizzagate, which claimed that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of Comet Ping Pong. . . .

While Welch may have expressed regret, he gave no indication that he had stopped believing the underlying Pizzagate message: that a cabal of powerful elites was abusing children and getting away with it. Judging from a surge of activity on the internet, many others had found ways to move beyond the Comet Ping Pong episode and remain focused on what they saw as the larger truth. If you paid attention to the right voices on the right websites, you could see in real time how the core premises of Pizzagate were being recycled, revised, and reinterpreted. The millions of people paying attention to sites like 4chan and Reddit could continue to learn about that secretive and untouchable cabal; about its malign actions and intentions; about its ties to the left wing and specifically to Democrats and especially to Clinton; about its bloodlust and its moral degeneracy. You could also—and this would prove essential—read about a small but swelling band of underground American patriots fighting back.

All of this, taken together, defined a worldview that would soon have a name: QAnon, derived from a mysterious figure, “Q,” posting anonymously on 4chan. QAnon does not possess a physical location, but it has an infrastructure, a literature, a growing body of adherents, and a great deal of merchandising. It also displays other key qualities that Pizzagate lacked. In the face of inconvenient facts, it has the ambiguity and adaptability to sustain a movement of this kind over time. For QAnon, every contradiction can be explained away; no form of argument can prevail against it. . . . 

QAnon is emblematic of modern America’s susceptibility to conspiracy theories, and its enthusiasm for them. But it is also already much more than a loose collection of conspiracy-minded chat-room inhabitants. It is a movement united in mass rejection of reason, objectivity, and other Enlightenment values. And we are likely closer to the beginning of its story than the end. The group harnesses paranoia to fervent hope and a deep sense of belonging. The way it breathes life into an ancient preoccupation with end-times is also radically new. To look at QAnon is to see not just a conspiracy theory but the birth of a new religion.

Unquote.

Joseph Smith said he was visited by an angel in upstate New York. There are now more than 17 million Mormons. William Miller claimed Jesus would return in the 1840s. There are more than 20 million Seventh Day Adventists. America has done it before and can do it again.

One more paragraph from The Atlantic:

The Seventh-day Adventists and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are thriving religious movements indigenous to America. Do not be surprised if QAnon becomes another. It already has more adherents by far than either of those two denominations had in the first decades of their existence. People are expressing their faith through devoted study of Q drops as installments of a foundational text, through the development of Q-worshipping groups, and through sweeping expressions of gratitude for what Q has brought to their lives. Does it matter that we do not know who Q is? The divine is always a mystery. Does it matter that basic aspects of Q’s teachings cannot be confirmed? The basic tenets of Christianity cannot be confirmed. Among the people of QAnon, faith remains absolute. True believers describe a feeling of rebirth, an irreversible arousal to existential knowledge. They are certain that a Great Awakening is coming. They’ll wait as long as they must for deliverance.

The president has spoken highly of QAnon and provides publicity on Twitter. All he claims to know is that they are patriots who “like him” a lot (that’s all that matters). It’s easy to imagine QAnon playing a bigger and bigger role in the Republican Party after a difficult election, with less crazy office-holders being replaced by crazier ones.

From Charlie Warzel in The New York Times:

For almost three years, I’ve wondered when the QAnon tipping point would arrive — the time when a critical mass of Americans would come to regard the sprawling pro-Txxxx conspiracy theory not merely as a sideshow, but as a legitimate threat to safety and even democracy.

There have been plenty of potential wake-up calls. Among them: a 2018 standoff at the Hoover Dam with a QAnon believer, the 2019 murder of a Gambino crime family boss by a QAnon supporter who believed the boss was part of a deep-state cabal, an August 2019 F.B.I. report that warned that QAnon could spur domestic terrorism, a West Point report calling the movement “a security threat in the making,” and the April arrest of a QAnon follower who was found with a dozen knives while driving to “take out” Joe Biden . . . 

Then, on Tuesday, Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican from Georgia who has been vocal in her support of QAnon, won a primary runoff. (In recently uncovered blog posts, Ms. Greene said that Hillary Clinton had a “kill list” of political enemies and questioned whether the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting was orchestrated in a bid to overturn the Second Amendment.) Given the deeply Republican makeup of Ms. Greene’s district, she is widely expected to be elected to Congress in November.

This week’s news is a sign of QAnon’s increasing influence in American cultural and political life. What started as a niche web of disproved predictions by an anonymous individual has metastasized into a movement that is now too big to be ignored.

Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism by Paul Boghossian

Boghossian is a professor of philosophy at New York University. This is a short, well-argued book, although its title is misleading. Its subject is doubt about knowledge or the dismissal of knowledge. The idea that anyone is afraid of knowledge is only mentioned once on the next to last page.

Boghossian’s main target is constructivism: the idea that “knowledge is constructed by societies in ways that reflect their contingent social needs and interests”. He points out that constructivism comes in different varieties. The benign version simply notes that we gather knowledge about topics we’re interested in or need to investigate. He is concerned with versions that lead people, often academics, to say that no group’s or culture’s beliefs are more valid or accurate than anyone else’s. From the epilogue:

There look to be severe objections to each and every version of constructivism about knowledge that we have examined. A constructivism about truth is incoherent. A constructivism about justification is scarcely any better. And there seem to be decisive objections to the idea that we cannot explain belief through epistemic reasons alone.

On the positive side, we failed to find any good arguments for constructivist views…. At its best, … social constructivist thought exposes the contingency of those of our social practices which we had wrongly come to regard as naturally mandated. It does so by relying on the standard canons of good scientific reasoning. It goes astray when it aspires to become a general theory of truth or knowledge. The difficulty lies in understanding why such generalized applications of social construction have come to tempt so many.

He believes that the appeal of constructivism is mainly political, although misguided:

Constructivist views of knowledge are closely linked to such progressive movements as post-colonialism and multiculturalism because they supply the philosophical resources with which to protect oppressed cultures from charges of holding false or unjustified views. [But] if the powerful can’t criticize the oppressed, because the central epistemological categories are inexorably tied to particular perspectives, it also follows that the oppressed can’t criticize the powerful.

Apparently, Boghossian doesn’t recognize the appeal of oppressed groups being on an equal footing with the powerful (“your views are merely a matter of perspective and no more valid than ours”). He concludes:

The intuitive view is that there is a way things are that is independent of human opinion, and that we are capable of arriving at belief about how things are that is objectively reasonable, binding on anyone capable of appreciating the relevant evidence regardless of their social or cultural perspective. Difficult as these notions may be, it is a mistake to think that recent philosophy has uncovered powerful reasons for rejecting them.

Conspiracy Theories, Plausible or Not

Last year, a company called Public Policy Polling asked 1,247 registered voters in the United States their opinions regarding what the company called “conspiracy theories” (although some of the questions, such as “Do you believe aliens exist, or not?” don’t necessarily refer to conspiracies). Here are some of the more interesting questions and answers, beginning with the least popular “theories”. The poll, which is described here, had a margin of error of 2.8%.

1) Do you believe that shape-shifting reptilian people control our world by taking on human form and gaining political power to manipulate our societies, or not?

11% of the respondents said Yes or weren’t sure (happily, that means 89% said No).

2) Do you believe that the exhaust seen in the sky behind airplanes is actually chemicals sprayed by the government for sinister reasons, or not?

13% said Yes or weren’t sure (not surprisingly, 87% said No).

3) Do you believe the moon landing was faked, or not?

16% said Yes or weren’t sure.

4) Do you believe Paul McCartney actually died in a car crash in 1966 and was secretly replaced by a lookalike so the Beatles could continue, or not?

19% said Yes or weren’t sure.

5) Do you believe the United States government knowingly allowed the attacks on September 11th, 2001, to happen, or not?

22% Yes or weren’t sure.

6) Do you believe media or the government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals, or not?

30% Yes or weren’t sure.

7) Do you believe global warming is a hoax, or not?

49% Yes or weren’t sure.

8) Do you believe a UFO crashed at Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947, and the US government covered it up, or not?

53% Yes or weren’t sure (21% said Yes).

9) Do you believe that a secretive power elite with a globalist agenda is conspiring to eventually rule the world through an authoritarian world government, or New World Order, or not?

53% Yes or weren’t sure (but 28% said Yes).

10)  Do you believe there is a link between childhood vaccines and autism, or not?

54% Yes or weren’t sure (20% said Yes).

11) Do you believe the Bush administration intentionally misled the public about the possibility of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to promote the Iraq War, or not?

56% Yes or weren’t sure (44% said Yes).

12) Do you believe that there was a conspiracy (whether or not it included Lee Harvey Oswald) behind the assassination of President Kennedy?

75% Yes or weren’t sure (although I rephrased the question to make it consistent with the others).

One might conclude from some of these results that an uncomfortably large percentage of the American electorate is absolutely nuts. However, we should keep in mind what David Hume said about miracles. If someone claims to have seen a miracle, it’s much more likely that he or she is lying or confused than that a miracle actually occurred. Likewise, if roughly 10% of voters are open to the possibility that shape-shifting reptiles walk among us or that those vapor trails up in the sky are a government plot, we should conclude that many who gave those answers were either confused about the question or messing with the pollsters.

On the other hand, if shape-shifting reptiles do control many of the world’s governments, that would explain a lot. And I for one say “Welcome to our reptilian overlords!”.

(Note: that’s supposed to be a giant insect in the picture behind Kent Brockman, but somebody decided to add a guy’s face.)

A couple of these poll results are more troubling. Half of us think that global warming is a hoax or are open to that possibility, and a similar percentage think that vaccines do or may cause autism. It’s understandable why some might think that the experts are mistaken about global warming, but to believe that thousands of scientists are or could be conspiring to mislead the rest of us is incredibly dumb and also likely to impede efforts to address the problem. Similarly, one might wonder if there is a possible link between vaccines and autism, but to take that idea seriously enough to ignore the medical consensus and not vaccinate one’s children is both foolish and dangerous.

There’s a natural tendency to be skeptical about whatever the official story is. None of us want to be taken in by the powers that be. Governments, corporations and supposed experts lie more than they should and conspiracies do sometimes occur. There’s also nothing wrong with keeping an open mind on controversial topics when there is evidence on both sides.

So I’m comfortable being with the skeptical majority who think people in the Bush administration lied about those weapons of mass destruction or at least decided it wasn’t worth knowing the truth. I’m also comfortable saying that Lee Harvey Oswald may have participated in a conspiracy or been used by one. I think he acted alone but wouldn’t be surprised either way (unless Vice President Johnson had something to do with it – that would be a big surprise). The good news is that Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld can’t do much damage anymore and anyone who was involved in the Kennedy assassination is probably gone or will be soon.

A probably unrelated note: Having been on the Central Coast of California for the past week or so, I can report that the state has not completely dried out. In fact, casual observation revealed very little evidence of the major drought they’re having. Shops in one small town were directing everyone to some new portable toilets on the main street, and the outdoor showers at one of the beaches were turned off. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the drought is a hoax being carried out by conspiring reptilian shape-shifters, but you never know.