Proving What You Want To Believe

You can always find a way to believe anything. That “always” is strict—the magic of belief, like a card trick with a gaffed deck, can always be worked. But just as important is the root “believe.” To believe means to hold something true. And true means certain: it does not mean almost certain, or highly likely, or any other words short of absolute concreteness.

I cannot emphasize enough that I do not use the word true in its colloquial sense. I use it specifically: there is no more precise word. True means there is no possibility of being false.

James Alcock, a psychologist who investigates the minds of UFO aficionados, calls our brains “Belief Engines, ” and has developed a theory why this is so. He speaks of learning and yearning, of input and emotional response units, and so forth. Whether this alienist is right about why “abductees” believe as they do is unimportant. It is clear that people are good at trusting themselves and that they excel at believing.

For example, if I want to believe “Socrates is mortal” all I need do is dig up enough evidence which makes this statement true. It is not difficult to supply. For example, if I accept that “All men are mortal” and also that “Socrates is a man”, then my statement is true.

I may now confidently announce to the world that “Socrates is mortal.” Further, since time is short, I can clip the premises. Besides, since I am already convinced—my belief is true—I assume the world cannot but agree with me. I will expect people to reason that I would not have announced my truth if it weren’t true.

I no longer need worry about the premises, I may jettison them and speak only of my truth. So how will I react to the person who points out that one of my premises is not certain? “How do you know that all men are mortal?” he might ask. To him, I would say, “It is obvious that Socrates is mortal. My belief is true.” I will dismiss him as an enemy of the truth if he persists pestering me. Besides, even if he can talk me out of a premise, I can always find ready replacements.

Think of the average, non-scientist global-warming-is-doom believer. The premises which lead him to his belief appear to be few in number. “Scientists told me it is so” is the main, but alone it is insufficient. It must be married to “What scientists say is true.” If what scientists say is true, and scientists say that global warming will bring doom, death, and destruction, then it is true that the end is nigh. (A rapture is only possible if we “End our dependence on oil” via fiat.)

It will do no good to question the premise and to show that scientists are often wrong, especially when speaking of far future events. If you do not accept the “truth,” if you question the premises, you are a denier. To deny is to lie.

The problems with the Godly are so notorious to the modern mind that we needn’t consider them. But take the average atheist, a person who believes the truth of “There is no God.” What premises does he employ? For the average atheist, none beyond, “It is silly to believe in God” or “No intelligent person I know believes in God,” or perhaps “Religion is evil” or a variant.

None of these alone can make the conclusion true; each is logically independent of that conclusion. Thus, each must be married to at least one more premise such that the conclusion “There is no God” may be validly inferred.

For the first two, the additional premise must be along the lines of “Intelligent people, who are never silly, can figure out conclusively whether or not God exists.” Questioning that premise, by showing that intelligent people are often wrong, labels you a fool or, paradoxically, a “believer.”

We must join “Religion is evil” with at least something like “If God exists, He would not allow evil”, and then the argument becomes one of the traditional lines of attack on theology. But if you question this premise by noting that if God exists and gave us free will, which we have, thus evil is possible and thus so is God, then you face ridicule and contempt—you will at least make people uncomfortable—because to those who hold with the spiritual vacuum, the belief is just true.

On this most important question, i.e. whether God exists, I do not think there any premises short of “God exists” or “God does not exist” that are convincing. Each must taken on faith. Whether this is coincidental with the major premise of the Christian religion, I leave for you to decide.

The lesson, if there is one, is one of the things Ayn Rand got right: always check your premises.

18 Comments

  1. Just curious – what are your premises that lead to the conclusion that we have free will?

  2. “On this most important question, i.e. whether God exists, I do not think there any premises short of “God exists” or “God does not exist” that are convincing. Each must taken on faith. Whether this is coincidental with the major premise of the Christian religion, I leave for you to decide.”

    Interesting thought. I think there is some truth to this statement, but isn’t it also the case that one might look for “evidence” of a First Cause or First Mover in the existence of the universe, the fine-tuned laws of physics, life, etc.? Granted, I don’t think this gets you anywhere in terms of identifying the First Cause (meaning there probably isn’t any strong reason to conclude the Christian god or any other type of God), but some, including some of the early philosophers, certainly think that there is evidence of some kind of First Cause, which means you have more than just a naked premise of existence. I’m not sure it works equally the other way, because the “God does not exist” premise is affirming a negative.

  3. Because the claims of a believer that states who that god is, what is his name, his preachings, his desires and warrants, and what exactly happens when we die, what happens if we disobey him, etc.,etc., etc. is in the same exact silly position as the person who says that all of that is make believe.

    /sarcasm

    But you got what you wanted, which was me to write a comment and stirr up another atheist discussion. I don’t mind ;).

  4. The best proof of there being no god as described by all the different religions is the huge number of different religions, that number increasing all the time.

  5. I believe I am thankful today I’m not a seismologist living in Italy. At least I think I believe this. Though on second thought, maybe I’m wrong. Hmmmmm. Dang it! Between Briggs and Luis I’m confused again.

  6. Sander: Your statement could also be evidence that there is indeed a God. Why would every culture in every age seek something nonexistent? How would we even develop such a strange concept?

    I knew someone like Tom M would come along. Someone like him always does, questioning free will, for that is the foundation of the explanation of a loving God who countenances evil in the world. I’ve found arguments against free will an interesting intellectual pursuit but ultimately unconvincing.

  7. Tom M, Oh, I dunno, maybe the fact that you asked that question when you didn’t have to . . .

  8. “Intelligent people, who are never silly…” *gapes at the computer screen, sniffles, and tries in vain to fight back tears*

    My favorite premise is this: I am never wrong!

  9. Sander van der Wal,

    Try substituting X for god in your sentence to see the problem with it. E.g., the best proof of there being no GOOD a is the huge amount of legal code, that number increasing all the time.

    Silverfiddle,

    If people always act in the way they perceive to be the best course, then free will is an illusion. You might find people who act one way and say another but the action belies the words.

  10. There are often hidden agendas in these types of questionning. The real reason one wants to know if he exists is because of the hope that, if he exists, he can have an impact in one’s life. And if he does, maybe we can influence him to our advantage. If he exists but does not interact, then why bother? He’s there, we can’t see him, we can only imagine him. So (for fun) let’s change the question: can we prove that God interacts with us? If not, the question of his existence is moot. If we can, then we answered the initial question.

  11. Nutz! You’ve just ruined the word “belief” for me!

    I often describe Bayesian priors as formal descriptions of our BELIEF in the value of a set of parameters. Now I gotta go find another word.

    On second thought, maybe a Bayesian prior is useful in dealing with this whole God Discussion, at least for some statistically-minded agnostics….

  12. @silverfiddle

    There are plenty of religions, and plenty of them have more than one god. There are in fact more religions with multiple gods than religions with exactly one god, so by your reasoning the existence of more than one god is more likely than a single god.

    If you want a theory why people would develop god based theories, well, there are probably as many of those as there are religions. Apparently people love to develop unprovable theories. It gives them something to argue about, and people love to argue too.

    @DAV

    I am not a platonist, so I completely agree with there being no good. However, there are good deeds and bad deeds. There is no law needed for good deeds, but there is law needed to try and prevent bad deeds. As deeds are done by people, and people can invent even more bad deeds than they can invent gods, there is lots of law needed for all the bad deeds people can imagine and are willing to do.

  13. I believe that there is no such thing as proof, only that which persuades. Which varies from person to person. A syllogism would not have impressed my mother-in-law.

    By the way, if you buy a Fiat aren’t you more dependent on oil?

  14. It will do no good to question the premise and to show that scientists are often wrong, especially when speaking of far future events.

    Scientists question their own assumptions, ponder other possibilities and further advance knowledge. Isn’t this what scientists do?

    Can the prediction of the future events be true NOW?

    I remember a famous scientist saying that people only know about the successful research he has conducted, but many many more unknown wrongs and failures are hidden behind.

    “Our fate lies in God’s hands.” Given God is omnipotent, shouldn’t he know what we are going to do and the outcome beforehand. So, we still have free will, supposedly given to us by God?

    Dear 49er,

    I am baffled too. I couldn’t to find a way to believe in God. Let me put it this way: I simply don’t get it. But it’s OK, life still goes on… happily.

  15. Tut,Tut Mr Briggs – thou shalt not put words into peoples’ mouths to prove thine own belief.

    “…a person who believes the truth of “There is no God.”

    I am atheist and I can assure you I hold no such belief, I simply do not believe there is a God or gods, which is not the same as believing there is no God or gods, because of of course their might be, and I might be persuaded in the light of evidence.

    I have no belief at all – that is the point – I merely reject a particular proposition and project no other.

    As far as I can tell other atheists say the same

  16. John B,

    The proper term for that is agnosticism. If you truly disbelieve there is a God/Gods then you must believe there is none. The middle ground is “I don’t know because …” which is the agnostic position.

  17. ++++
    “…a person who believes the truth of “There is no God.”

    I am atheist and I can assure you I hold no such belief, I simply do not believe there is a God or gods,
    ++++

    I guess that’s all swinging on “what the meaning of ‘is’ is, isn’t it.”

    Beyond that, the whole pose is simply becoming boring.

    I don’t know why people bother arguing with atheists. Their minds are more colonized on this issue than the most rigid Jesuit.

    Indeed, they are much less interesting in their non-belief. It seems mainly to be a method of getting in people’s faces about it. Fine.

    Please hand me the clue bat.

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