Philosophers Without Gods

Here’s another book I want to recommend: Philosophers Without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life, edited by Louise M. Antony (Oxford University Press, 2007).

Half the book is taken up by informal descriptions by philosophers of why they don’t believe. Many are very interesting, and the more informal reflections are, I think, a good way of bringing out a distinctly philosophical sensibility leading to nonbelief. Plus, mercifully, no one goes on about ****ological arguments or other traditional themes of the philosophy of religion. One thing I noticed, though, is that moral considerations have a large role in what the philosophers in this book think about God and religion. Usually this is something I don’t care too much about, but then that’s possibly another difference in sensibility.

Especially in the second part of the book, there are a number of contributions that try to do something a bit different compared to more familiar narratives of nonbelief. I want to comment on three that I found especially interesting.

Kenneth A. Taylor’s chapter, “Without the Net of Providence: Atheism and the Human Adventure,” is something I want to celebrate because it’s rare for me to encounter a philosophical essay so in tune with my own sensibilities. In particular, I like the way that Taylor distinguishes between whether something is true and whether it is rational to believe something.

Suppose we ask not what we rationally ought to believe, but how, all things considered, we should rationally prefer to live. The answer cannot be that we should always rationally prefer to lead a life guided by beliefs that are rationally grounded in the evidence or even that we should always prefer that our beliefs be true rather than false. Some beliefs, even if they are both true and rationally grounded in the evidence, may serve only to undermine our deepest, most identity-constituting projects and thus to undermine our very being in the world. Whatever else beliefs are, they are instruments for guiding and supporting our practical projects. If holding a belief would be instrumental to the success of a practical project, then that by itself may give us sufficient reason, in particular sufficient practical reason, for adopting that belief, even if that belief is false or unwarranted by the evidence. [page 151]

Hear, hear! I think this is very important to keep in mind when discussing religion, and not just the different question of whether there is something to supernatural notions or not.

David Owens has a very interesting paper, “Disenchantment,” about some moral dangers inherent in secularism and modern science and technology. What happens, he asks, if we attain the capability to easily manipulate not just the world around us but our own minds and personalities: if we have to decide what kind of person we want to be? If we end with a large range of low-cost choices about what kinds of choices we would prefer to prefer, the result is a kind of vertigo. What, Owens asks, if we face this kind of situation without the moral fixed points provided by religion?

I was also intrigued by Georges Rey’s paper “Meta-atheism: Religious Avowal as Self-Deception.” Many of us skeptics have had occasion to wonder if some of the religious people we encounter really believe in what they insist they do. We get further suspicious when some of their behavior seems to fit badly with their beliefs: why, for example, all the devastation and mourning if a loved one really has gone on to a wonderful afterlife? Rey develops such questions and intuitions into a very interesting philosophical argument. I think it would have been more compelling if it drew on more scientific research on religion. A good number of people working in this area would agree with Rey that there is something odd about religious thinking and that there’s more than what meets the eye in avowals of belief. But they’d also temper that observation with a knowledge of the ways that supernatural concepts really are compelling for most normal human brains.

Anyway, it’s a good book; take a look.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    “If holding a belief would be instrumental to the success of a practical project, then that by itself may give us sufficient reason, in particular sufficient practical reason, for adopting that belief, even if that belief is false or unwarranted by the evidence”.

    What a *very* strange notion…..

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826768452963498005 Jim Lippard

    I don’t think it’s that strange–it’s quite familiar to me from a number of contexts. Those striving to achieve business success sometimes advocate the view that you should “fake it until you make it.” Those suffering from serious illnesses such as cancer think positively about recovery. Shelly E. Taylor’s book, _Positive Illusions: Creative Self-Deception and the Healthy Mind_ has numerous examples.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    jim said: I don’t think it’s that strange–it’s quite familiar to me from a number of contexts.

    It still seems positively self-delusional to me… At least to me beliefs are not the equivalent of hire-cars used merely to get from A to B and then discarded.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826768452963498005 Jim Lippard

    In general, I agree with you, but just as there are specific circumstances where a strong case can be made that lying is a virtue (or at least that telling the truth is harmful, as in a “hiding Jews from the Nazis” scenario), there are specific circumstances where lying to oneself can produce consequences that are more beneficial than not doing so.

    It’s possible that participation in a religious social group is such a circumstance. I suspect many people have decided that it is, though that’s not something I agree with for myself.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    jim said: there are specific circumstances where lying to oneself can produce consequences that are more beneficial than not doing so.

    Personally I’d rather be honest & authentic (or as honest and authentic as I can be). Beliefs should not be commodities that we ‘buy’ and discard when it is convenient to do so. There is *far* too much commodification of all aspects of our lives to begin with without explanding it into the area of belief.

    In a very real sense my beliefs make me what I am. If some of them are fake what does that say about me as a person?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    I agree that it is odd to think about intentionally adopting a false belief in order to obtain some supposed practical gain.
    But there is a weaker version of this that is, perhaps, more realistic. Thinking critically and skeptically about a question takes time and energy. This is time and energy that could be expended on other activities. Someone who is struggling just to make ends meet, just to put food on the table for their children, might reasonably comment that, “All this thinking and arguing is just fine by me, but I have more important things to worry about. The only thing I’m interested in thinking about is how to get some money into my pockets and food for my kids.” One might choose to go on intellectual cruise-control and not look to closely into the ideas and beliefs of the general culture because one had more pressing concerns. Also, we all must make practical choices about which beliefs and ideas to question, and about how much time to invest in that questioning.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05501109533475045969 Explicit Atheist

    There is no doubt that we (all of us) are more attracted to beliefs that promote “our deepest, most identity-constituting projects” then by beliefs that undermine “our deepest, most identity-constituting projects”. I disagree, however, that therefore “The answer cannot be that we should always rationally prefer to lead a life guided by beliefs that are rationally grounded in the evidence or even that we should always prefer that our beliefs be true rather than false.” Just because people have a tendency, it doesn’t follow that that it is a tendency we should embrace.

    We should avoid the circular, closed, dogmatic trap of making “our deepest, most identity-constituting projects” dependent on the truth of claims that may be false. We should always prefer that our beliefs be true than false. If macro-evolution is true and humans are descendents of primates who are descendents of mammals who are descendents of fish who are descendants of verterbrates etc. then we should embrace this fact without being held back by an aversion for sacrificing “our deepest, most identity-constituting projects”. That very insistence on building “our deepest, most identity-constituting projects” on facts without evidence that is later contradicted by evidence is itself a negative human tendency, a tendency we should oppose.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13562135000111792590 RBH

    I am having trouble getting my heard around the notion of what it means to “adopt a false belief.” Does it mean pretending to believe, professing the belief despite knowing that it’s false? Or is one supposed to somehow convince oneself of its truth (in spite of knowing that it’s false), incorporating the false belief into the cognitive schemata by which on navigates the world? It all seems pretty bizarre to me.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04447401108045680545 damianphipps07

    David Owens, “Disenchantment”, from his web page at the University of Sheffield.

    I also have this book and highly recommend it.

    If you go to his webpage, here, it’s possible to download several other essays — “Does Belief Have an Aim?”, “Testimony and Assertion”, “The Right and the Reasonable”, “Descartes’s Use of Doubt”, “Scepticisms: Descartes and Hume”, among others. Enjoy.


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