Strength To Doubt Or Believe

From yesterday’s New York Times:

A new book of her letters, "Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light," published by Doubleday, show her struggling for decades against disbelief. "If I ever become a saint," she wrote in one letter, "I will surely be one of `darkness.’ " … "I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe," wrote Flannery O’Connor, the Roman Catholic author whose stories traverse the landscape of 20th-century unbelief. "What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe."

Being proud of having the strength to resist religion in the face of social pressure is just as biased as being proud of having the strength to resist doubt in order to retain religion.  Not everything is about your strength!  Your beliefs should reflect the world out there, and not just inner qualities you want to show off.  I will be proud of you if you can find the strength or weakeness, as the occasion demands, to just believe whatever the evidence supports.  Hat tip to Chris Masse.   

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  • Henry V

    “I will be proud of you if you can find the strength or weakeness, as the occasion calls for, to just believe whatever the evidence supports.”

    How do you feel about “hope”?

  • Jonathan L.

    Sir, Amen.

  • http://omelas.net Jorge

    This somehow underscores the tragedy of the canonization earned through martirology.
    Or even medals gifted to people whose merits are having been wounded in combat. Suffering is not a merit. Should not be.

    I do remember a Spanish politician saying some years ago: “Victims are always right. We support their views because they’ve suffered so much.”

    Incorrect as it might sound, the fact of being a victim doesn’t make your views more correct. The only claim that can be made is that suffering is unfair. But this should not grant any additional right on anything, should not.

  • Rue Des Quatre Vents

    For a contrary, and in my opinion, more persuasive view, read William James’s The Will to Believe.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Accuracy. Courage. Moral courage. All virtues, and all completely independent of each other (though some seem to have a hard time grasping that). People are not “virtuous”, they have some virtues (and lack others).

  • Pseudonymous

    Can you prove that those virtues are “completely independent”?

  • TGGP

    What facts concerning virtue have been proven? Speaking of that sort of thing, I was reading a lecture by the great James Flynn on increases in IQ scores in which he distinguished between intelligence and wisdom. He wasn’t sure if wisdom was increasing but thinks it is very important whether it is or not. I wondered how one would operationalize wisdom and develop a test for it. He mentions the Congressional Record, but that’s not much to go on.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    I think it’s very likely wisdom is increasing. It seems to me wiser algorithms would outperform less wise algorithms. It would only seem plausible to me that wisdom wasn’t increasing if the respective algorithms weren’t undergoing selective pressure, or if there was a reduction of energy available in the environment (particularly more so than efficiency gains), sort of a entropic constraint on the ability to increase wisdom

  • http://cureofars.blogspot.com/ Cure of Ars

    “just believe whatever the evidence supports”

    This assumes that we have enough evidence to make a conclusion. If you don’t know if you have enough evidence then other considerations should also weigh in. There can be virtue in perseverance, even in the face of doubt, if the possible pay off is high enough. No Guts No Glory

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Jorge, exactly.

    Cure, we always have enough evidence to choose an intermediate state of uncertainty; you should choose the state of uncertainty that best corresponds to your evidence. I see no glory in adopting stronger beliefs than your evidence can justify.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    “I see no glory in adopting stronger beliefs than your evidence can justify.” There may be benefit in us (you and I) encouraging other people to do so, though. For example, there may be benefit in us encouraging people to donate their brains to medical science, although presumably you and I plan to temporarily store ours at the Alcor facility.

  • http://cureofars.blogspot.com/ Cure of Ars

    Sometimes we don’t have the luxury to choose uncertainty. To live a fully human life demands adopting stronger beliefs than the “evidence can justify”. You can try to fit your life into the tiny box of science but to me that is no way to live. It leaves no room for glory.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    So I’m not fully human? That’s good to know.

    Well, it’s back to my tiny box for me. I’ve got to non-gloriously save the galaxy.

  • Nick Tarleton

    You’re more likely to get the glory if you succeed, and you’re more likely to succeed if you act rationally, eh?

    I suggest you actually try being in the tiny box sometime. It isn’t nearly as bad as you make it out to be.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    Cure of Arts,
    Do you have arrangements to donate your body to medical science upon death? Would you personally consider it a glorious thing to do?

  • http://www.satisfice.com James Bach

    “Being proud of having the strength to resist religion in the face of social pressure is just as biased as being proud of having the strength to resist doubt in order to retain religion.”

    Um, no it isn’t. Or if it is, congratulations, you’ve completely drained “overcoming bias” of all meaning.

    To be religious is to accept certain ideas as necessarily axiomatic; they are not subject to question. To be a true skeptic (by which I mean the original Pyrrohnian kind) is to accept no idea as necessarily axiomatic (they may be temporarily accepted, or unconsciously accepted, or practically accepted, but never *necessarily* accepted).

    If bias is about distancing yourself from some ideas while cozying up to others, independent of any rational consideration, then religion is biased by design. Skepticism may be biased by accident, I guess, but not by design.

    And don’t bother accusing me of being biased for holding the above stated idea. Unlike religious thinkers, I am not absolutely confident that I’m right. I’m open to counter-evidence. Or, at least I think I am. I hope I am.

    Since there can be no rational basis for religion, surely you can’t be saying that it is “biased” in some interesting rational way, to resist religion. In that sense, to ever have a belief that excludes another idea is “bias”. If so, then we are all biased and no one can ever overcome bias in any way.

    — James

  • http://cureofars.blogspot.com/ Cure of Ars

    If I only went with the evidence then the concept of glory would only be a construct produced by evolution. It would be just an illusion that is advantageous for natural selection. That’s the evidence that we have. My actions are no more glorious than a rock falling to the ground because I am just a product of material causes. Free will and choice are an illusion.

    What evidence do we have that it is not all an illusion? To say otherwise is “adopting stronger beliefs” than the evidence suggests. And if it is all an illusion then why isn’t religion just a part of the fabulous diversity of possible brain configurations?

    I have not made arrangement to donate my body parts but I am a organ donor if that counts. This is something I will think about. Although I may decide to be like Mr. Robin Hansen and plan to freeze my head. Just in case.

  • Nick Tarleton

    The existence of thoughtful materialists who haven’t turned into nihilists suggests you’re making a philosophical error. I submit that you have insufficient evidence for the proposition that materialism and determinism mean that nothing matters.

    There may be no absolute meaning in the universe, but what is meaningful to humans, is meaningful to humans.

  • http://irs.gov guy in the veal calf office

    I don’t agree with most of what’s being said here, although I’m agnostic about assigning glory to people’s various pursuits.

    Most atheists misunderstand religion because they assess it on its intellectual foundations, but that’s entirely besides the point. Religious folk experience it more than they think about it, and the experience sustains them and inspires them to good works. Saints, mystics and others found ecstasy in god never really focused on their “strength to resist religion in the face of social pressure” let alone on their own achievement, glory or showing off. St Francis, Augustine and their ilk wrestled with internal doubts and sought utter subjection to god; it was a personal relationship with god that they had to develop. And we should creidt them with converting themselves from dithering dilettantes into idealistic community leaders, and sources of inspiration and peace. Good job, fellas.

    People’s deep religious faith, and the examples of their deeply religious heroes, encouraged them to build this country’s first schools and hospitals, first orphanages and so on. That wasn’t an evidence based decision, it was an inspired decision. (Although the engineering, science and food storage were evidence based handiwork, which just shows you why asceticism isn’t highly valued.)

    The point is, people and the world receive goodness from evidence-based scientific method, religious-based faith, or just a feeling about things. It seems squirrelly to accept that religion delivers nourishment for people, and moves buildings and policies, but it does. For that reason, I’ll grant as much glory to the deeply religious among us who do well by the world as I will the evidence-based storm troopers. After all, neither the wild-eyed evangelical Abolitionist nor their contemporaneous economists and politicicans could bring down slavery, it took both.

    (Please, let’s not get into a juvenile listing of atrocities committed by the religious. The same can be done for what the scientific method has delivered and for atheists.)

  • http://www.acceleratingfuture.com/tom Tom McCabe

    “If I only went with the evidence then the concept of glory would only be a construct produced by evolution.”

    We all are constructs produced by evolution. Yet I still value human life.

    “It would be just an illusion that is advantageous for natural selection.”

    We know that the feeling of glory is real; we can even detect it on an MRI machine. Certainly it is just as real as that other impostor, solid matter.

    “My actions are no more glorious than a rock falling to the ground because I am just a product of material causes.”

    If I hit a newborn baby on the head with a rock, I would suspect that you would consider it vastly more important than if an ordinary rock fell to the ground somewhere in Australia. All things are physical, but not all physical things are morally equivalent; to argue otherwise is as absurd as to argue that killing a human is morally equivalent to killing a zebra. Saying that human life is “just” the product of material causes is like saying that the Lord of the Rings is “just” a long string of letters and punctuation; the way in which the pieces fit together is much more important than any individual piece.

    “Free will and choice are an illusion.”

    See http://www.acceleratingfuture.com/tom/?p=8.

    “What evidence do we have that it is not all an illusion?”

    Assume that it is all an illusion. Then assume that it is all real. What is the difference between the two beliefs, in terms of anticipated experiences?

    “And if it is all an illusion then why isn’t religion just a part of the fabulous diversity of possible brain configurations?”

    It is; it’s just a configuration that is farther away from the truth than non-religious configurations. It is possible to build a brain that thinks things fall down, and it is possible to build one that thinks things fall up; but the former brain will have much more success at designing bridges.

  • Nick Tarleton

    Veal calf guy: I strongly appreciate the value of “religious”/”spiritual”/”mystical” experiences, but see no good and a lot of harm in linking them to empirically unsupported beliefs like God and dualism. I’m quite fond of Eric S. Raymond‘s essay on this, as well as Sam Harris’s and Ben Goertzel‘s writings.

  • Henry V

    “To be religious is to accept certain ideas as necessarily axiomatic” –James

    And scientific axioms are better than philosophical axioms why?

    Some people are religious believers (I’ll call them “believers” because “religious” is a different thing from having spiritual beliefs) because of the influence of their family or culture, but (as was mentioned by “guy”), some have actually had religious/spiritual experiences.

    What is one to do with these experiences? I can ignore them. I can explore them. Is my personal exploration “scientific”? Not by standard definitions, because it’s not necessarily reproducable. If these spiritual experiences are created by “a higher being”, would that being’s actions necessarily lead to (scientifically) reproducable results? Maybe, but maybe not.

    One cannot predict a particular being’s behavior from a purely scientific standpoint. Can you always predict what your sister will do? To some extent, maybe; it depends on how well you know her. (Hmm… I poke her, but sometimes she laughs, sometimes she says “ow”, sometimes she hits me and sometimes she does nothing.)She’s a strategic actor. Strategic behavior may itself cause the results to be irreproducable.

    Personally, my spiritual experiences have led me to believe. But, my humility requires that I not believe that I can put God in a box. James’ conclusion that all religious people have hard and fast axioms is false. I am open to God revealing himself to me in different ways, and I can learn from that. For me to ignore that revelation would be just plain stupid, and, in fact, biased.

    There is such a thing as putting your faith in something, and then testing that faith. If it comes up short, one can re-evaluate. But, it is certainly *possible* that spiritual exploration requires a seed of faith to begin with. By rejecting faith (or hope) of any sort, one may miss this opportunity. The only evidence that you would then be faced with is the testimony of believers who have faith. Ironic, isn’t it?

  • TGGP

    And scientific axioms are better than philosophical axioms why?
    Because science works, it lets us do things like create spaceships that can go to the moon.

    Not by standard definitions
    What definitions would include it?

    Nick, I skimmed through the ESR link, it was laffo.

  • Henry V

    “Because science works, it lets us do things like create spaceships that can go to the moon.”

    Oh, scientific axioms work b/c they allow you to do scientific things? So, then, religious axioms work b/c they allow you to do religious things?

    “What definitions would include it?”

    Anything that involves experimentation. Have you ever experimented with faith?

  • Nick Tarleton

    What is one to do with these experiences? I can ignore them. I can explore them. Is my personal exploration “scientific”? Not by standard definitions, because it’s not necessarily reproducable.

    This is not an obstacle to personal rational investigation. See Scientific Evidence, Legal Evidence, Rational Evidence.

    Naturalistic explanations for spiritual experience are to be preferred to supernatural ones; they’re a lot more parsimonious. I haven’t had your spiritual experiences, so I don’t know what led you to see them as indicating the existence of God, but I strongly suspect there’s a better naturalistic explanation. I’ve had a number of what you would probably call spiritual experiences, but remain an atheist. (Which doesn’t mean I see those experiences as valueless.)

  • Henry V

    Nick–Thanks for the link. It’s a useful taxonomy.

  • TGGP

    So, then, religious axioms work b/c they allow you to do religious things?
    What things do they allow you to do? Go to heaven?

    Anything that involves experimentation. Have you ever experimented with faith?
    I’m not sure what that would mean. I used to be puritanically religious, but I was never spiritual. I tried talking to God and didn’t get a response, so I figured He likely had better things to do. I’ve discussed that part of my past here and here. I think Steve Sailer had some similar reasoning on how men and women might imagine God, but I can’t remember where it is to link to it.

  • http://danielhumphries.livejournal.com Daniel Humphries

    ‘”Being proud of having the strength to resist religion in the face of social pressure is just as biased as being proud of having the strength to resist doubt in order to retain religion.”

    Um, no it isn’t. Or if it is, congratulations, you’ve completely drained “overcoming bias” of all meaning.

    To be religious is to accept certain ideas as necessarily axiomatic; they are not subject to question.’

    I agree with Robin’s statement, and disagree with James’ gloss.

    Although it is precisely the sort of thing that leads people to claim that Buddhism is a philosophy and not a religion (I have no dog in that fight… who cares what category you want to jam it into?), the Buddha laid out a very detailed and specific mode of inquiry into what might be called “inner science.”

    A lot of what comes down to Westerners about Buddhism has been filtered through several Asian cultures over thousands of years, then through Western psychology and neurosis (in the form of Western interpreter). But in the original Pali cannon (as original as can be established given that it was originally an oral tradition), the approach is very rational and includes all sorts of instructions for spotting and overcoming your own biases.

    However, there is asked of the practitioner a certain level of faith, that the end results of the practice, which are not knowable to an initiate, are as the Buddha describes them. Experience will bear this out, he says, but for now you must take my word for it (in essence). And these are not trivial unknowns the novice is asked to accept, but assertions about the ultimate nature of existence and, furthermore, practical dictums about how one should behave in life.

    Is this a religion? Is it rational? Is it a good way of seeking the truth? Do we have a falsely- or cheaply-arrived at inclination to claim science and religion are necessarily in opposition?

  • http://cureofars.blogspot.com/ Cure of Ars

    Making uncertainty home base is, in my view, escapism. It is to focus on the small questions at the exclusion of the big questions. With the only motive being that we can be certain in regards to the small questions. The big questions are really the questions about meaning. What I am looking for is not a truth to serve me, but a truth that I can serve. Without finding a truth to serve there is no opportunity for heroism and glory. Mother Teresa found the truth to serve and persevered with heroism and glory. She gives witness to something that a lot of people don’t have and this bothers some people.

  • Henry V

    “What things do they allow you to do? Go to heaven?”

    It seems to me that the limitation you’re using here is related to your answer to the second question about experimentation with faith. Surely you’ve heard of spiritual experiences that occur before death? If I had no evidence of this, then I would quickly give up my own faith.

    “I tried talking to God and didn’t get a response, so I figured He likely had better things to do.”

    Suppose for a moment that to have any sort of spiritual experience (e.g., getting a response) requires faith. Faith comes first (that’s the nature of it—believing without direct evidence), and the evidence comes second.

    The only ex ante evidence that one would have to go on would be the testimony of current believers. The closer your relationship with those people, the more credible the testimony. This is one reason why religious beliefs are spread primarily through close relationships.

    If someone has already decided that there is no God (or higher power or whatever), then it would admittedly be quite hard for them to have faith. Even if one is agnostic deep down, faith would be a contradiction.

    I’m not saying that you should have faith (my question about “have you experimented with faith?” was intended to be paradoxical). I’m saying that it’s not unreasonable to have faith, b/c after one acquires it, it can be tested. It’s relational. I’ve chosen to put my trust in certain people, sometimes with evidence of their trustworthiness, sometimes without. I continue to trust them so long as they continue to be trustworthy.

    And, I would add, that I call “blind faith” someone who continues to have faith when their faith hasn’t or can’t be tested. (Like “do and you will go to heaven, but don’t expect any other evidence in this lifetime. See also Flying Spaghetti Monster.)

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Guys, not every mention of the word “religion” gives you license to hash out all the old religions arguments pro and con. The topic of this post is when one should be proud of having the strength to believe or doubt. Religion was just the example.

  • http://cureofars.blogspot.com/ Cure of Ars

    Uncertainty prevents the leap of faith which is needed if we are to ever come close in getting answers to the big questions. The leap of faith is not the end but just the beginning. It’s like a tight rope walk toward the transcendent. But uncertainty prevents the journey.

    In regards to the small questions (scientific questions) taking a position of uncertainty can be fruitful. It is probably the most efficient thing to do in regards to the small questions. But in regards to the big questions we do not have this luxury.

    This is a little off topic but Robin Hanson described Mother Teresa’s motives as “having inner qualities you want to show off”. I think this is ludicrous to say this. The letter was a personal letter sent to Mother Teresa’s confessor. Mother Teresa asked that all her letters be destroyed. Surely this is not an example of Mother Teresa showing off.

  • J Thomas

    The topic of this post is when one should be proud of having the strength to believe or doubt.

    When should pride itself be considered a sin?

  • TGGP

    Suppose for a moment that to have any sort of spiritual experience (e.g., getting a response) requires faith. Faith comes first (that’s the nature of it—believing without direct evidence), and the evidence comes second.
    I might have misrepresented myself. I start out very young being very confident that there is a God. I expect that because God does exist I will get a response. I get none and then rationalize this result to myself in order to reconcile the existence of God (which I still believe in) and the lack of response. In that situation I had a preference over belief. I wished to continue believing despite the evidence. It wasn’t until over a decade later that I decided to honestly weight the evidence and see if I truly though it was most probable that God exists or merely wished to believe, and found that I didn’t.

  • J Thomas

    I start out very young being very confident that there is a God. I expect that because God does exist I will get a response. I get none and then rationalize this result to myself in order to reconcile the existence of God (which I still believe in) and the lack of response.

    I had the opposite problem. I had no faith there was a God. But I got responses, and then had to rationalise out where they might be coming from.

    Since I wasn’t willing to put my complete trust in directives from an unknown source, but instead I insisted on judging the responses by my own best judgement, I eventually decided it didn’t matter what the source was or whether it was connected to a god who made universes etc. As long as I judged I was getting better advice than I’d make for myself, it was worth paying attention to independent of the source. And that happened with fair consistency. When I rejected the godly responses it was consistently because I didn’t want to be that good a person.