From the archives: Gary Gutting on convictions and scientific beliefs

The final part of my review of Gary Gutting’s book What Philosopehrs Know, originally published in December 2010.

This last part of the review (see parts one and two) is mostly for the sake of completeness. Thus, it will be shorter, but I’ll be talking about something a lot of people care about: the status of our scientific beliefs.

At the end of his chapter on Plantinga, Gutting makes a claim that he spends most of the rest of the book elaborating:

Plantinga’s transformation of the philosophy of religion makes fully explicit the role of convictions in philosophical inquiry. Convictions are basic beliefs with two distinctive features. First, unlike standard examples of basic beliefs, they are neither self-evident (obvious to anyone who understands them) nor incorrigible reports of inner experience but substantive, controversial claims that are central in our conceptions of ourselves and have a guiding role in our lives. Second, although they are basic beliefs and so not justified by evidence or argument in any ordinary sense, our commitment to them is not just a matter of their seeming obviously true when we think about them. Rather, they strike us as arising naturally out of experiences we have had, have maintained themselves in the face of various challenges, and are central for our way of life.

Subsequent chapters elaborate this with regards to free will, the mind-body problem, political philosophy, and philosophy of science.

Gutting’s claim about the importance of convictions is plausible in the case of political philosophy, but on the whole, his arguments for his view strike me as entirely unconvincing, based on a false dichotomy first introduced here:

The question we need to ask is, why do they [philosophers like Daniel Dennett] hold materialism to begin with? Do they have convincing philosophical arguments for it or do they hold it as a pre-philosophical conviction? (p. 130)

But there’s no reason to think a belief like materialism must be based either on convincing philosophical arguments or be a conviction. It might be neither.

I’m not a materialist (I basically agree with David Chalmers on consciousness), but consider one belief I do share with most modern materialists: “my digestive system is composed entirely of protons, electrons, and neutrons, and its behavior probably could, in principle, be predicted from knowing only the original arrangement of subatomic particles and the laws of physics.”

I believe this as a well-founded conjecture from what science has discovered so far, rather than anything that would normally be recognized as a philosophical argument. But it certainly isn’t central to my conception of myself or anything like that. That alone disqualifies it from being a “conviction,” if I understand how Gutting is defining that term.

I’m also not sure if it even counts as a basic belief. Gutting initially introduces the term as meaning “not held on the basis of sound argument.” If “sound” is understood in the technical sense often used by philosophers, then maybe my belief about my digestive system is a basic belief, because the standards for being “sound” in a philosophers sense are much stricter than the standards for being a well-founded conjecture.

On the other hand, I would say I can give an argument for my belief about the digestive system, even if it’s not “sound” and does not otherwise resemble typical philosophical arguments. Partly, I think Gutting may have just failed to consider that the category of “arguments” is fairly broad. He may be right that philosophers rarely produce the sorts of arguments they claim to be aiming for. That doesn’t mean, however, that other sorts of arguments couldn’t be given for some of their beliefs.

Similarly with my beliefs about the general reliability of science. I certainly don’t have a conventional philosophical argument for them. Rather, my beliefs come from things like knowing enough about the history of science to have an idea of science’s track record, and reading arguments between mainstream scientists and representatives of various fringe ideas (parapsychology, creationism, etc.)

I’ve consistently found that mainstream scientists tend to have vastly more plausible interpretations of the evidence, and in many cases (creationism especially) the representatives of the fringe ideas seem incapable of getting their facts straight. That’s a good reason to put a lot more faith in mainstream scientists than in their critics.

That’s nothing to send in to Mind, but that doesn’t mean my views should be classed as “convictions” in Gutting’s special sense. And in any case, I am completely unable to see that his claims about “convictions” deserve to be counted as items of philosophical knowledge.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Second, although they are basic beliefs and so not justified by evidence or argument in any ordinary sense, our commitment to them is not just a matter of their seeming obviously true when we think about them. Rather, they strike us as arising naturally out of experiences we have had, have maintained themselves in the face of various challenges

    I have to disagree with him about the definition of “evidence in the ordinary sense.”

  • John Jones

    The propositions that make up what we call a belief are public, not private.
    “Having a belief” is acting upon one of two or more unproved or unprovable statements.
    We cannot have a belief in objects that we have constructed ourselves, such as a “digestive system”.

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