Friday, October 31, 2014

THE ETHICS OF BELIEF- Brand Blanshard



REASON AND BELIEF 1951-1953 GIFFORD LECTURES
BY: BRAND BLANSHARD

CHAPTER 11: THE ETHICS OF BELIEF

[only the latter portion has been extracted]
 


THE STAKES OF RELIGIOUS BELIEF

We have looked at only two proposals for justifying a belief that goes beyond the evidence, but I think we should find the others similarly wanting. The natural conclusion from this line of argument is that belief is the same thing everywhere, and does not have one set of conditions in physics and chemistry and a different set in religion, that the ethics of belief, the meaning of intellectual honesty, is everywhere the same. This, I suggest, is the unavoidable conclusion. Belief should follow the evidence, neither stubbornly denying what it establishes nor impulsively running ahead of it and embracing as true what it does not warrant. When put in this way, probably most religious persons would accept the conclusion. They would, at any rate, draw back from the suggestion that the religious conscience is a coarser and less scrupulous organ than the scientific.

Yet it must be admitted that in the practical difficulties that arise the two fields are hardly comparable. There is little talk in scientific circles of an ethics of belief. Most of the issues of science offer small temptation to our feelings to believe in one way rather than another. Of course when a man is offering a new theory to which he has tied his professional hopes, he is only too likely to overrate the evidence in hand and ignore what makes against his theory. It is said that Newton, as he approached the end of his calculations about gravitation and saw the great law coming nearer, could not trust himself in his excitement and turned over the final calculations to another hand. But here was a theory with tremendous implications, in which he as its discoverer had a personal stake. Most scientific problems might be settled in any one of many ways so far as most of us are concerned; we should find it difficult to work up any sort of passion for or against the binomial theorem or Ohm's law.

The situation as regards religion is different. Whether the world is governed or not by love and wisdom is an issue of large concern to us; whether we shall live again after death is an issue to which no one who loves life and cares for others can be indifferent. The achievement of a positive belief on these points alone may alter the complexion of our world and give us a fresh infusion of buoyancy and hope. It is entirely intelligible that persons who have such beliefs should look with something like moral loathing on those who would introduce into these all-important matters the detachment, the cool appraisal of evidence, the reservations and doubts and hesitancies, of the rationalistic mind.

Even for those with the talent and leisure for inquiry such objectivity is difficult. And for the rest of us, the reply will come, it is out of the question. You cannot ask the plain man to sickly his whole life over with the pale cast of thought. He has no time for these ultimate speculations; he must get on with his work; and what he needs from the philosophers and the theologians is an outlook that will enable him to do that work with a heart and a will. Refinements about going beyond the evidence are all very well for the philosopher who can afford such luxuries, but they are lost on men who barely know what evidence means. Professor Dorothy Emmet asks with point, ‘Whoever worshipped a tenable hypothesis or a balance of probabilities?’

Every person of common sense must feel the force of this. It seems to present us with an unwelcome dilemma: we must give up either serenity or intellectual honesty, either the peace that goes with confident beliefs on ultimate things or else that saving salt of scepticism that is needed for integrity of mind. Is there any way out?

We should be merely deceiving ourselves if we thought that there was any wholly satisfactory way out. Something valuable must go. St Francis was a great and happy man; so was Socrates; and in giving up the hope either of the childlike faith of St Francis or the questioning spirit of Socrates, we should be losing much. But it is idle to say that we can have them both. Plant Socrates’ mind in the soul of St Francis, and the pearly gates and jasper towers would come tumbling down in irreparable ruin. Plant the soul of St Francis in the mind of Socrates, and the world of essence and implication and logical distinction would seem insupportably grey and inhuman. A man may try to be either Francis or Socrates, but if he tries to be both he will assuredly be neither.

One cannot have the blessings at once of an uncritical faith and a critical intelligence. ‘But then,’ it may be said, ‘no one in these days wants an uncritical faith, and there is no reason whatever why if the dogmas of one's faith are true at all a critical intelligence should not disclose their truth and thus confirm one's faith. There is no necessary conflict between faith and reason.’ But we have seen in the first two parts of this book that between reason and the sort of faith that is found in two important forms of current religion there is a very extensive conflict. And remembering how much in the way both of peace of mind and of moral direction and sanction are bound up with religious belief, the impatient reader may well ask whether such doubt-provoking inquiries are worth the price.

TRUTH THE COMPASS OF THOUGHT

In reply there is one thing that must be said unequivocally. To think is to try to get at the truth, and the person who professes to be doing that will be a dupe if he consciously allows any thought of his own or other people's advantage to affect his conclusions. He will be worse if he does this as a professional philosopher, a person maintained and paid to think as straight as he can on problems of difficulty and to make his conclusions known. Everyone has been repelled by the parlour atheist whose spirit of contradiction is obviously belted to a noisy little dynamo of self-importance within, or the lover of paradox who would rather coin a new epigram than see a new truth. ‘An ethical sympathy in an artist’, said Oscar Wilde, ‘is an unpardonable mannerism’. We are not convinced. Neither are we by those books on apologetics or Christian evidences in which the overwhelming importance of reaching the right and edifying conclusion held the writer's mind in a straitjacket. In my youth I thought Mark Hopkins’ Evidences of Christianity a great book. When I return to it now I see that Mark Hopkins was so good a man, if one may say so, that it is idle to go to him for the truth; when the ark of salvation was at stake, he could afford to treat the evidence cavalierly, because he knew beforehand what it proved and had to prove. I agree that a man is on a higher level if his intellectual compass habitually veers toward human good than if it veers to party or self-esteem. But as a thinker he has no business to let it veer toward any pole but one. Truth lost through noble motives is just as truly lost as if one were deceived by some malicious demon.

SCEPTICISM AND MORALITY

It may be said that this somewhat self-righteous line may do for a philosopher, but that before he sows his doubts abroad he may well think what they involve for the great majority of people who lack the way and the will to become philosophers. The whole-hearted acceptance of religious conclusions means much, both emotionally and morally, to numberless people; doubt of these conclusions, to say nothing of their rejection, robs them of their efficacy. ‘You destroy what these people find precious, and give them nothing in its place.’ There are philosophers today who look down on all such objections from a great height. I do not belong to their party. Agreeing that knowledge is a great good, I think that hope and peace and happiness are great goods also, and I can conceive a situation in which it would be better for mankind to remain in permanent error on some matter of belief if this were the price of happiness than to know the truth and be unhappy. Pedantic and cavilling intellectualists in these matters are, as James* thought, bores. But several things need to be said.

First the notion that either men's morality or their happiness is bound up with any set of dogmas about ultimate things seems to me untrue. It is unquestionable that religious belief may affect their motives for right doing in various and potent ways, but to say that apart from such beliefs we should have no ground for discriminating good from evil, right from wrong, is irresponsible. Our knowledge that love is better than hatred, happiness than misery, enlightenment than ignorance, is not an inference from theological premises but an independent insight which may be had with equal clearness by Christian, Buddhist, and secularist. It may be replied that this may be correct in theory but that practical morality is so entwined with belief that the two stand or fall together. But practical morality does not rest on so tremulous a base that in order to keep it standing we must surround it with a veil of illusion as to what it really stands on. No doubt if people have supposed their morals to rest on their theology, they will go through a period of bewilderment if that theology totters. But if they are reflective, they will soon see that morality has a much firmer base than any of the speculative dogmas on which it is supposed to be built. If they are not reflective, they may fly about aimlessly, but thoughtful persons can hardly be asked to keep their candle under a bushel for fear that some human butterflies should singe their wings at it.

There is a somewhat similar connection between belief and happiness. Religious dogmas may contribute to happiness; indeed, as McTaggart said, they may ‘change the whole aspect of heaven and earth for those who believe in them’. Nevertheless they do not seem to be essential to happiness. People of all faiths have been happy; people of all faiths have been unhappy; it is probable that such things as health and temperament have more to do with happiness than any theological belief. The general presumption must surely be that one's happiness is more secure if it is accompanied by a true apprehension of the nature of things. These premises are perhaps enough for us to go on. If no dogma is essential to happiness, and happiness is more likely with the truth than without it, inquiry into truth need not be inhibited by worry about the consequences of what it may uncover.


NOTES-------------------------------------------------------------------------------

* Blanshard refers to the Pragmatist philosopher William James, he has been discussing his work, "The
Will to Believe."