In Defense of “I feel…”—Philosophy is Not Merely, “I believe…”

How do you feel? –What did I just ask you? “Feel” is like many/most words, i.e., we usually use it without thinking and its meanings are many and varied. I might ask you how you feel in regard to your physical health—the answer, “I feel good; the pain in my ankle has gone away.” I might ask how you feel in regard to life/mental health—the answer, “I feel kind of down these days; I can’t quite place it.” I might ask how you feel when facing a particular challenge—the answer, “I feel a little intimidated, but I believe I can do it.” Or I might ask how you feel about a particular idea—the answer, “I feel like that’s a good idea; I think we should do it.”

I want to focus on the last example of feeling. I remember being at the University of Georgia, working on my BA in philosophy, when I heard for the first time someone say something to the effect: “Don’t say ‘I feel…’ but rather ‘I think’ or ‘I believe.’” The context was a discussion of writing philosophy papers. So, instead of saying something like, “I feel Descartesdualism is problematic,” one should say, “I think/believe Descartes’ dualism is problematic.”

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The Monkey Swinging in the Way of Greatness

After teaching about Buddhism this past week and Nietzsche’s ideas on creativity and greatness, and after watching Limitless last night, the following thoughts came to me.

In the Will to Power, Nietzsche writes:

How does one become stronger?— By coming to decisions slowly; and by clinging tenaciously to what one has decided. Everything else follows.
The sudden and the changeable: the two species of weakness. (Section 918)

In Limitless, a creatively blocked writer takes a drug that allows him to utilize his brain more completely and efficiently. Part of that involves an intense ability to focus and make connections.

In mindfulness meditation—for example, where your attention is on your breath—it becomes clear how true it is that we naturally have “monkey mind.” Monkey mind is when one thought or idea leads to another, often only tangentially connected, thought or idea. For example, you have a pain in your lower back that reminds you of how uncomfortable your chair is at work, which makes you think of the project that’s due next Wednesday, which makes you think of the doctor’s appointment Wednesday, which makes you think of your sick uncle, which makes you think of that time he took you to the amusement park, which makes you think….

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Possible Reasons for Endorsing Some Kind of Theism

What follows is that outline considering possible reasons for endorsing some kind of theism. Importantly, it is just an outline; so its details need to be filled in. Were that filling in to occur, I’m sure that certain points might get modified, added, or rejected. Further, a lot of it is based on things I have written about more extensively in my notebooks and as such a number of things will be presented that might not make sense or for which I will not offer arguments. I hope to elaborate on and present arguments for those claims later on.

In Experiments in Ethics, Kwame Anthony Appiah writes:

Now, in real life reasonable people will not hold most of their beliefs with the level of conviction that we call certainty. Most of us, most of the time, will allow that most of what we believe about the world could turn out to be wrong. So our actual reasoning is not from certainties to certainties but from the probable to the probable. (pp.51-52)

I believe Appiah is right about the above; so, I am not looking for certainty here, but rather what is reasonable to believe. All of the reasons given below may not be strong individually, but perhaps they add up to a strong argument, particularly when taken in conjunction with the objections and replies.  For that to make sense, the arguments need to be interpreted as inductive; a large number of invalid deductive arguments won’t add up to a strong argument.

Before getting to the reasons themselves, I want to distinguish between causes of belief, epistemic reasons for belief, and pragmatic reasons for belief. Roughly, the cause of belief is that which brings it about that a person holds the belief she holds. For example, Carol believes in God(s) because she was raised in a Hindu home. An epistemic reason for believing something is a reason that is supposed to make probable the truth of that which is believed. For example, Bob believes he will get over the infection because of the known efficacy of antibiotics for treating his kind of infection. That known efficacy is a reason for believing, it makes it probably true, that Bob will get well; and thus it justifies his believing that he will get well. A pragmatic reason for believing something is a reason based on a desired end and the idea that holding the belief in question will make more probable the achievement of that end. That is, for example, if a person has an epistemic reason to believe that if she believes she can make a particular jump across a chasm, then she will most likely be able to make the jump, then even if she doesn’t have an epistemic reason to believe she can make the jump, she may have a pragmatic reason. Almost all of the reasons considered below are epistemic reasons for and against affirmation of theism.

Reasons for believing in God:

1) The testimony of people, e.g., Gandhi, who are intelligent, sincere, and willing to explore and challenge religious dogma, and yet believe in God(s).

2) Cosmological reasons concerning an explanation of either the origin of the universe or a reason for its existing at all even if it has no origin per se.

3) Teleological reasons concerning the fine-tuned nature of the observable universe for the existence of life.

4) Connected to 3, the idea that the universe is morally valuable because of its fitness for life and that it actually contains conscious and self-conscious life; and that this indicates that if there is a God, that that God is in some way good. Further, we might think that a good universe is more likely the outcome of creation by a good God than by other means or reasons. So not only is a universe fit for life improbable given all the other possibilities, it is even more improbable that a good universe would arise “randomly.”

5) The wonder of nature, all life, and the fact that nature is not only conscious of itself (experiences itself, as animals do) but also conscious of itself as nature and conscious of itself as conscious of itself.

6) [This perhaps should be a part of objections and replies. It is not properly speaking a reason for belief in God] Regarding science and faith, Robert Pollack writes:

Science makes the following claim for itself, legitimately: most of what is knowable is unknown at this moment, and most of what is unknown will be knowable eventually through science. The faith of science makes a further claim: all that is unknown will be knowable through science. The distinction between the two turns on the question: Is there anything unknown now, whether or not it lies on the outer edge of what is knowable, that will never be understood, anything that is ultimately unknowable? No one denies that science will push the margin ever closer to full knowledge. The issue is whether some unknown will always remain. That question about science is by its very nature not answerable by science. Therefore to claim there is nothing unknowable is an act of faith, and to affirm this statement makes science into a faith. [From Practicing Science, Living Faith, Eds. P. Clayton and J. Schaal. Page 229]

Importantly, he goes on to make clear that he does not think that all scientists make the claim that “all that is unknown will be knowable through science.” And that may simply be because there are questions that science cannot answer as a result of contingent human limitations (e.g., whether there are extraterrestrials). Thus he is not claiming that the practicing of science necessarily requires faith. Rather, his claim is that a certain way of viewing science and knowledge requires faith. The crucial move in Pollack’s argument is “The issue is whether some unknown will always remain. That question about science is by its very nature not answerable by science. Therefore to claim there is nothing unknowable is an act of faith, and to affirm this statement makes science into a faith.”

“Science,” of course, might “say” that its “faith” is justified by the progress that science has and continues to make. However, against this we might point out that since the questions “Is all knowledge scientific knowledge?” and “Is there anything that will remain unknowable to science?” cannot be answered by science, and since their answers seem to be that no, not all knowledge is scientific knowledge and thus yes there are things that are unknowable to science—the latter may include things unknowable to any human—such faith in science is not only misplaced but simply wrong. And if science’s purview is the physical world and it cannot know everything, then it follows that there may be some things about the physical world it cannot know, e.g., its origin or reason for being, or that there may be something beyond the physical world that it cannot know simply because it is transcends the physical world.
Therefore, despite science’s successes, it is neither the keeper of all knowledge, nor the judge of all that can be known. Thus there is room open for God and science.

7) In the way that William James seems to argue in “The Will to Believe,” we might risk belief in God because once we do open ourselves to such a belief, new, religious/spiritual kinds of experiences may be opened up. So this is not an epistemic reason to believe in God; rather it is a pragmatic reason that may lead to epistemic reasons.

Reasons Against Believing in God and Replies:

1) God seems conspicuously absent from the world.

Reply: Well it depends on what one means by “absent.” There is no booming voice from the sky; there is no “person” making an appearance and saying, “Hey I’m God. Nice to meet you.” However, we might say first that God’s nature is so other that it does not make sense to think of God as being present or absent in the way that a person is present or absent in one’s life. Second, we might think that God is indeed present through God’s very creation—but this presence through nature is not necessarily one that can be seen unless the idea of God is given a chance. We, of course, have to be careful about the problem of seeing what we want to see (For example, when a spouse wants to believe that the marriage is working and so “doesn’t see” the evidence of infidelity). That is, seeing God’s presence may require an openness to God, but we have to be vigilant about not simply thinking we see God’s presence because we believe in God. How to distinguish the two in actual circumstances is surely difficult.

2) Sense cannot be made of God’s characteristics or attributes. What could it mean to say that God is conscious and outside of time? Doesn’t consciousness as we know it require successive conscious states of awareness? What could it mean to say that God acts, when God transcends space-time?

Reply: These are indeed troubling conceptual problems; ones that are difficult to sort out. Further, it is difficult to know whether they indicate the nonexistence of God or the limitations of our reason. We might notice that there are a number of conceptual problems in physics, particularly, quantum mechanics, ones that seem contradictory to reason, and yet they are not taken as evidence of the failure of quantum mechanics. One might reply to that by saying that quantum mechanics can be used to make true predictions, which give it credence; but the same cannot be said of God. That is indeed true, however, it might miss the point that in and of themselves, conceptual problems do not necessarily give us reason to reject a view. Further, one might say that the other reasons for believing in God are analogous to the true predictions made by quantum mechanics. That is, just as there are those predictions that keep us from rejecting quantum mechanics even though it seems to involve conceptual impossibilities, we might say that even though the idea of a transcendent God involves conceptual “impossibilities,” the other reasons given above mitigate the conceptual problems so that they do not give us reason to reject God solely on their basis.

Further, we might, and perhaps reasonably should, acknowledge that the human mind is capable of only so much, and is formed and limited in its thinking by the nature of the physical world. So we might not be too surprised if there is something incomprehensible about the idea of a God who transcends the physical world.

3) The world contains a great deal of evil, pain, and suffering; why would a good God allow such things? A good God wouldn’t; therefore, there is not a good God.

Reply: We might argue that while the world (the universe) contains much suffering, it is on the whole a good world in that it allows for conscious and self-conscious life, which are intrinsically valuable, and whose existence allows for still further goods.

Secondly, we needn’t conceive of God as omnibenevolent. God could be good in virtue of having created the universe and fine-tuned it for the evolution of life without being all-good such that we should expect there to be no suffering. Further, the existence of suffering might in some cases be seen as a good (Nietzsche), and secondly, in some cases it is the result of human free will (itself a good).

4) Belief in God is leftover from prescientific times. It was the result of earlier people’s attempts to explain the universe, its origin and workings.

Reply: Aside from committing the genetic fallacy (which in this case means claiming that the origins of belief in God count against the truth of God’s existence–in a sense the genetic fallacy takes the causes of a belief to count as epistemic reasons for denying the belief; and that doesn’t necessarily always follow), this objection assumes that the only role of God in prescientific times was as an explanation of the physical world. That seems to be simply false. God has and does play a number of different roles in people’s lives.

5) Belief in God is the result of not being able to accept that the world is meaningless without God.

Reply: Aside from committing the genetic fallacy, it is not at all clear that without God the world is meaningless. Even if there is not a God, conscious and self-conscious life is intrinsically valuable. I take this to mean that the universe itself is valuable and as such can “contain” a great deal of meaning.

6) Belief in God is the result of not being able to accept our or our loved ones’ deaths.

Reply: Aside from committing the genetic fallacy, belief in God does not necessarily involve a belief in an afterlife.

7) Science can or will be able to satisfactorily explain the origin of the universe.

Reply: That is questionable given the limitations of our instruments to probe the depths of what we take to be the origin of the universe, i.e., the big bang. So it may not be possible to do more than offer speculative theories that defy confirmation or disconfirmation. Further, it is doubtful that science can offer a reason for why there is something rather than nothing, since that does not seem to be a scientific question; and it is not clear that science can explain the fine-tuned nature of the universe (multiverse theories are rather controversial, and there is always the rejoinder that a multiverse needs to be fine-tuned itself in some way).

8) Look at all of the atrocities done in the name of God. How could God permit such evil in his/her name?

Reply: Again, God need not be all-good to be good. Secondly, what humans do is what humans do. Presumably we act from free will; and our actions often stem from our nature, which is not through and through good—but that does not mean that we are fallen or full of sin. Religion does not equal God; evils done in the name of religion do not give us reason to think that God doesn’t exist—it gives us reason to think that people are often misguided, wrong, and at times evil.

9) You appeal to God as an explanation of the universe’s existence and for its fine-tuned nature; but how can you explain God’s existence?

Reply: This is a difficult question. I’m not entirely satisfied with the idea that God is some sort of necessarily existent being such that God could not have not existed. So, to this objection I don’t have a very good reply. I can only say that it makes more sense to me (even if I cannot explain exactly why) to say that God is in need of no explanation (God just is) in a way that it doesn’t make sense to me to say that the universe is in need of no explanation (it just is). That may well be the biggest lacuna in all of the above.

I am by no means convinced by the above lines of argument for theism, though all of the above does get me closer to believing in God. However, even if the above were convincing, we ought to be left wondering what kind of God we have been given reason to believe in. I don’t think it is the God of any of the major world religions. But that, as with so much else, will have to wait for another time.