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Gotta Have Faith

March 10, 2010

Perhaps it is irony, perhaps it is essential, but I believe that even hardcore rationalists have to have some degree of faith, the kind which Descartes was never able to eradicate satisfactorily. Despite the “cogito, ergo sum” formulation that is truly indisputable, a proposition on par with mathematical truths, Descartes relies on assumptions of an omniscient, omnipotent, omni-beneficent god to get past the radical doubt one can instill by questioning every perception other than the perception that one is perceiving anything at all.  Of course, that sort of assumption doesn’t really prove to anything to a rationalist, but a rationalist similarly cannot prove the truth of a single sensory perception.  Perhaps even more troubling, a rationalist cannot prove that Rationality itself is a worthwhile method of doing anything without certain baseline assumptions about general value or correspondence and to what.  Regardless of Descartes’ personal failings, his immediate reversion to assumptions that might strike a rationalist as begging the question, his example shows that quickly making that logical leap of faith is the only way to move on to any worthwhile answers.

Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) has a nice post showing that the contingency inherent in our basest assumptions, and in which we have the most need for faith, makes all the difference in terms of how we compare outcomes:

A Muslim, a Christian, and a crazy guy walk into a room. The one thing you can know for sure is that at least two out of three of them organize their lives around things that aren’t real. And that’s the best case scenario. Atheists would say all three have some explaining to do. And atheists are the minority, which is the very definition of abnormal.

Despite our own normative prejudices, if each of these people is following their faiths to lead satisfying lives, what difference can those assumptions really make?  Indeed, we really have no choice but to follow some of these base assumptions obsessively and compulsively to live life to the fullest.  Too much doubt is paralyzing and at some point unproductive, even if you were always moving closer to some concept of the Truth.  The fact of the matter is that life is simply too short to question certain questions that can predictably elude definitive answers (e.g., most religious questions).  One is better off living existentially–an attitude which can certainly accommodate a religious sensibility, see Kierkegaard if you don’t believe me–since the practical result is a better life here and now regardless of whether or not the afterlife exists.

Stephen Fry agrees in a much more typically tongue-in-cheek, elitist, deprecating, British way by pointing out that the value of intellectual hard work and effort are ignored or overlooked by most of society these days.

Of course, I agree that philosophic inquiry makes me happier and has fairly implicit potential to make any person much happier on average, but in a pluralistic society where 1/2 of the population has an IQ of less than 100 (by definition), it is unsurprising that the effort required by some of the more elusive questions would be better used on something with more pragmatic effects on one’s day-to-day life.  Consider it a transaction cost of thinking.  Of course Pragmatism is a distinctively American philosophy precisely because of that democratic sense of pluralism and laissez faire choices about things.  However, here is another wonderful example of an information asymmetry–and therefore a per se market inefficiency–where I might not want an unfettered market of ideas to control the outcome; some intervention might be appropriate.  Don’t worry, I’m not advocating for state-sponsored lessons in atheism (or any establishment of any form of faith for that matter), I hope that education is sponsored to make those inquiries all the easier for anyone who is on the margin.  The more the merrier.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Da Arab permalink
    March 10, 2010 6:37 pm

    Enjoyed this one. Warning: what follows may be a nonsensical rant.

    Makes me think of Sci-Fi plot lines where a group of hyper-intelligent aliens comes to save us/destroy us, their average IQ’s resulting in a higher level of understanding and/or basic assumptions. It also brings to mind the instances of pockets of over-intellectual micro-cultures (based on the average). College graduates. College graduates from top universities. I’ve heard people refer to the Jews in this respect. Iraq used to have the highest amount of PhD’s per capita in the Arab world. Doesn’t Denver have some absurd amount of PhD’s per capita? Seeing how the world/country/New York city isn’t homogeneous, don’t we have pockets of cultures living along staggered IQ averages –> importance of pragmatism decreasing & utility of “thinking” increasing? If that’s the argument, I think there are a few too many assumptions built in. Not to mention that if the thinkers and philosophers and “smart” people make more money and end up in positions of power, the society will be skewed towards their perceptions of things.

    And maybe the joke is on us because the most intelligent way of life is to live a happy pragmatic one when all is said and done and not go chasing unobtanium.

    Not really heavy handed thinking on my part, just some musings.

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