A Philosopher's Blog

Believing What You Know is Not True

Posted in Epistemology, Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on February 5, 2016

“I believe in God, and there are things that I believe that I know are crazy. I know they’re not true.”

Stephen Colbert

While Stephen Colbert ended up as a successful comedian, he originally planned to major in philosophy. His past occasionally returns to haunt him with digressions from the land of comedy into the realm of philosophy (though detractors might claim that philosophy is comedy without humor; but that is actually law). Colbert has what seems to be an odd epistemology: he regularly claims that he believes in things he knows are not true, such as guardian angels. While it would be easy enough to dismiss this claim as merely comedic, it does raise many interesting philosophical issues. The main and most obvious issue is whether a person can believe in something they know is not true.

While a thorough examination of this issue would require a deep examination of the concepts of belief, truth and knowledge, I will take a shortcut and go with intuitively plausible stock accounts of these concepts. To believe something is to hold the opinion that it is true. A belief is true, in the common sense view, when it gets reality right—this is the often maligned correspondence theory of truth. The stock simple account of knowledge in philosophy is that a person knows that P when the person believes P, P is true, and the belief in P is properly justified. The justified true belief account of knowledge has been savagely blooded by countless attacks, but shall suffice for this discussion.

Given this basic analysis, it would seem impossible for a person to believe in something they know is not true. This would require that the person believes something is true when they also believe it is false. To use the example of God, a person would need to believe that it is true that God exists and false that God exists. This would seem to commit the person to believing that a contradiction is true, which is problematic because a contradiction is always false.

One possible response is to point out that the human mind is not beholden to the rules of logic—while a contradiction cannot be true, there are many ways a person can hold to contradictory beliefs. One possibility is that the person does not realize that the beliefs contradict one another and hence they can hold to both.  This might be due to an ability to compartmentalize the beliefs so they are never in the consciousness at the same time or due to a failure to recognize the contradiction. Another possibility is that the person does not grasp the notion of contradiction and hence does not realize that they cannot logically accept the truth of two beliefs that are contradictory.

While these responses do have considerable appeal, they do not appear to work in cases in which the person actually claims, as Colbert does, that they believe something they know is not true. After all, making this claim does require considering both beliefs in the same context and, if the claim of knowledge is taken seriously, that the person is aware that the rejection of the belief is justified sufficiently to qualify as knowledge. As such, when a person claims that they belief something they know is not true, then that person would seem to either not telling to truth or ignorant of what the words mean. Or perhaps there are other alternatives.

One possibility is to consider the power of cognitive dissonance management—a person could know that a cherished belief is not true, yet refuse to reject the belief while being fully aware that this is a problem. I will explore this possibility in the context of comfort beliefs in a later essay.

Another possibility is to consider that the term “knowledge” is not being used in the strict philosophical sense of a justified true belief. Rather, it could be taken to refer to strongly believing that something is true—even when it is not. For example, a person might say “I know I turned off the stove” when, in fact, they did not. As another example, a person might say “I knew she loved me, but I was wrong.” What they mean is that they really believed she loved him, but that belief was false.

Using this weaker account of knowledge, then a person can believe in something that they know is not true. This just involves believing in something that one also strongly believes is not true. In some cases, this is quite rational. For example, when I roll a twenty sided die, I strongly believe that a will not roll a 20. However, I do also believe that I will roll a 20 and my belief has a 5% chance of being true. As such, I can believe what I know is not true—assuming that this means that I can believe in something that I believe is less likely than another belief.

People are also strongly influenced by emotional and other factors that are not based in a rational assessment. For example, a gambler might know that their odds of winning are extremely low and thus know they will lose (that is, have a strongly supported belief that they will lose) yet also strongly believe they will win (that is, feel strongly about a weakly supported belief). Likewise, a person could accept that the weight of the evidence is against the existence of God and thus know that God does not exist (that is, have a strongly supported belief that God does not exist) while also believing strongly that God does exist (that is, having considerable faith that is not based in evidence.


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Guardian Angels

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on January 22, 2016

AngelOn an episode of the Late Show, host Stephen Colbert and Jane Lynch had an interesting discussion of guardian angels. Lynch, who currently stars as a guardian angel in “Angel from Hell”, related a story of how her guardian angel held her in a protective embrace during a low point of her life. Colbert, ever the rational Catholic, noted that he believed in guardian angels despite knowing that they do not exist. The question of the existence of guardian angels is certainly an interesting one and provides yet another way to consider the classic problem of evil.

In general terms, a guardian angel is a supernatural, benevolent being who serves as the personal protector of someone. The nature of their alleged guarding varies considerably. For some, the guardian angel is supposed to serve in the classic “angel on the shoulder” role and provide good advice. For others, the angel provides a comforting presence. Some even claim that guardian angels take a very active role, such as reducing a potentially fatal fall to one that merely inflicts massive bodily injury. My interest is, however, not with the specific functions of guardian angels, but with the question of their existence.

In the context of monotheism, a guardian angel is an agent of God. As such, this ties them into the problem of evil. The general problem of evil is the challenge of reconciling the alleged existence of God with the existence of evil. Some take this problem to decisively show that God does not exist. Others contend that it shows that God is not how philosophers envision Him in the problem—that is, He is not omniscient, omnibenevolent or omnipotent. In the case of guardian angels, the challenge is to reconcile their alleged existence with evil.

One merely has to look through the news of the day to see a multitude of cases in which a guardian angel could have saved the day with fairly little effort. For example, a guardian angel could inform the police about the location of a kidnapped child. As another example, a guardian angel could exert a bit of effort to keep a ladder from slipping. They could also do more difficult things, like preventing cancer from killing children or deflecting bullets away from school children. Since none of this ever seems to happen, one obvious conclusion is that there are no guardian angels.

However, as with the main problem of evil, there are some ways to try to address this specific problem. One option, which is not available in the case of God, is to argue that guardian angels have very limited capabilities—that is, they are incredibly weak supernatural beings. Alternatively, they might operate under very restrictive rules in terms of what they are allowed to do. One problem with this reply is that such weak angels seem indistinguishable in their effects from non-existent angels. Another problem ties this into the broader problem of evil: why wouldn’t God deploy a better sort of guardian or give them broader rules to operate under? This, of course, just brings up the usual problem of evil.

Another option is that not everyone gets an angel. Jane Lynch, for example, might get an angel that hugged her. Alan Kurdi, the young boy who drowned trying to flee Syria, did not get a guardian angel. While this would be an explanation of sorts, it still just pushes the problem back: why would God not provide everyone in need with a guardian? Mere humans are, of course, limited in their resources and abilities, so everyone cannot be protected all the time. However, God would not seem to suffer from such a limitation.

It is also possible to make use of a stock reply to the problem of evil and bring in the Devil. Perhaps Lucifer deploys his demonic agents to counter the guardian angels. So, when something bad happens to a good person, it is because her guardian angel was outdone by a demon. While this has a certain appeal, it would require a world in which God and the Devil are closely matched so that the Devil can defy God and His angels. This, of course, just brings in the general problem of evil: unless one postulates two roughly equal deities, God is on the hook for the Devil and his demons. Or rather, God’s demons.

As should be expected, guardian angels seem to fare no better than God in regards to the problem of evil. That said, the notion of benevolent, supernatural personal guardians predates monotheism. Socrates, for example, claimed to have a guardian who would warn him of bad choices (which Stephen Colbert also claims to have).

These sort of guardians were not claimed to be agents of a perfect being, as such they do avoid the problem of evil. Supernatural beings that are freelancers or who serve a limited deity can reasonably be expected to be limited in their abilities and it would certainly make sense that not everyone would have a guardian. Conflict between opposing supernatural agencies also makes sense, since there is no postulation of a single supreme being.

While these supernatural guardians do avoid the problem of evil, they run up against the problem of evidence: there does not appear to be adequate evidence for the existence of such supernatural beings. In fact, the alleged evidence for them is better explained by alternatives. For example, a little voice in one’s head is better explained in terms of the psychological rather than the supernatural (a benign mental condition rather than a supernatural guardian). As another example, a fall that merely badly injures a person rather than killing them is better explained in terms of the vagaries of chance than in terms of a conscious, supernatural intervention.

Given the above discussion, there seems to be little reason to believe in the existence of guardian angels. The world would be rather different if they did exist, so clearly they do not. Or they do so little as to make no meaningful difference—which is rather hard to distinguish from not existing.

I certainly do not begrudge people their belief in guardian angels—if that belief leads them to make better choices and feel safer in a dangerous world, then it is a benign belief. I certainly have comfort beliefs as well—as we all do. Perhaps these are our guardian angels. This, obviously, points to another discussion about such beliefs.



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My Teaching Philosophy

Posted in Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on October 22, 2012

education (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

Teaching involves numerous general challenges and teaching philosophy involves some special challenges. Two of these challenges often manifest themselves in two stereotypical types of students. The first is dogmatic student who regards his or her own beliefs as sacrosanct and competing beliefs as unworthy of consideration. The second is the student who regards philosophy as a matter of mere opinion and hence as being useless.  Not surprisingly, dealing with the challenges has helped shape my teaching philosophy.

In the case of dogmatic students, it is often tempting to dismiss them as close minded and teach around them rather than trying to engage them. But, this is a mistake. In many cases dogmatic students can be reached by showing them that philosophy is not in the business of destroying beliefs or forcing people to convert to a specific view, such as atheism. In many cases, if a student can be shown that philosophy is about exploring beliefs they can be lead away from their dogmatism and to developing reasons in support of what they sincerely believe. Further, by exposing them to other views and their supporting arguments, they can begin to understand why other people might have different beliefs and this can help them become intellectually tolerant in cases where such tolerance is warranted.

Students who believe philosophy is merely a matter of bickering about useless opinions pose a different challenge.  I address this by showing that while philosophy begins with opinions it progresses into arguments and these are not just a matter of opinion. I also show the students the historical contributions of philosophy and then go on to show them how philosophy can be useful in what they regard as their real life. For example, students are often surprised to learn that epistemology has relevance for the legal system in terms of assessing evidence and what it means to establish a claim as being beyond reasonable doubt.

While my approach to teaching has been shaped by the two challenges just discussed, it has also been shaped by various negative experiences I have had as a student and as a teaching assistant. Perhaps the most negative and hence most shaping experiences involved students being left largely in the dark in regards to such important matters as the goals of the class, what the class would cover, the way grades would be calculated and how the written assignments should be done. Such situations made me feel like I was on a derelict vessel adrift in a sea of confusion. Naturally, this was not a good feeling. One of my most painful memories as a teaching assistant was having several students break down in tears during my office hours because they had no idea what the professor was doing or what he wanted for them. Sadly, I did not know either and I could only tell them that I would do all I could to see that they were graded fairly. These sorts of experiences lead me to ensure that my classes have clear objectives, stated and fair means of assessment and an overall plan. The students might consider it something of a strange trip, but they can be confident that the ship is on course and that the captain knows what he is doing.

I consider the writing of argumentative papers a key part of the philosophical education. After all, an essential part of philosophy is being able to present both rational defenses and rational criticisms. Based on the experiences mentioned above, I believe that students need to have a clear idea about what they are expected to do in such papers. Hence, I provide highly detailed paper guides that include extensive hints, careful details and even sample papers. I have found that, in general, the students greatly appreciate this. One potential risk I have considered is that the students might be too constrained by such detailed guides. However, I think my approach is justified by using and analogy to driving a car. A student needs to learn how to drive within limits before they can fully strike out on their own. Letting a student just set out on the road without any guides might be a learning experience, but it is more likely to teach them what it feels like to crash into  a telephone pole than it is to teach them how to drive properly. The same can be said of writing papers (without the actual crashing into a telephone pole, of course).

My positive experiences also shaped my view of teaching. Like many professors, I have had caring and excellent professors who made my education a positive experience. From these professors I learned that it is crucial to provide students with the extras that show one is concerned. Some of these extras are things directly related to education, such as downloadable class notes and downloadable practice tests. Some of these extras are not directly related to education, but are part of being a thoughtful person-such as my tradition of bringing candy to my classes on Halloween. The students sometimes laugh a bit at this, but the candy bags are always empty at the end of the day.

While it might seem a bit odd, my experiences as a long distance runner and a martial artist have had a profound effect on my approach to teaching.

Teaching philosophy is very much like teaching Tae Kwon Do. In the case of Tae Kwon Do people must be trained to defend themselves and practicing it develops both physical and mental fitness. While the practice of 21st century philosophy does not develop physical fitness, it does develop mental fitness. It can teach the students confidence and the ability to engage in intellectual self-defense. But, as with Tae Kwon Do, students must learn to practice control and respect for others. As with Tae Kwon Do sparring, there is always the possibility that people might lose their tempers while arguing and harm one another. As a teacher, one must guide the students so they learn to handle challenges, but at the same time ensure that no one is actually harmed.

When it comes to running you must train regularly and push yourself. If you do not, you get out of shape, grow weak and certainly do not improve. Just as with running, it is rather easy to start taking it easy when teaching. Just as with running, the consequences are equally serious. I know that if I do not keep up in my training for teaching, then my actually teaching will become rather poor. Because of this I regularly update my classes, use up-to-date examples and make sure that I am in good mental and physical condition for the classroom. While, unlike running, there are generally no trophies to win in teaching, a similar motivation is provided by the satisfaction of doing well and the shame of doing poorly.

Speaking of trophies, the rewards of teaching are manifold. Many people value making large life changing differences in their students’ lives. While I value doing that, it is usually the little things that matter most: having a student smile and say “I finally get the concept of validity” or getting a card from a student who says that although she thought my class was “a bit silly” what she learned is now helping her in law school. Often it is the many little things that make it all worthwhile. Of course, the big things are nice, too.

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Are Facts Dead?

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on June 22, 2012
Ideology Icon

Ideology Icon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Misrepresenting facts and actually lying have long been a part of politics. However, it has been claimed that this is the year facts died. The death blow, at least according to some, was April 18, 2012. On this day Representative Allen West of my state of Florida claimed that about 80 congressional democrats are members of the Communist Party. A little fact checking revealed that this is not the case. Interestingly enough, West decided to stand by his remarks rather than yield to the truth. While this might seem odd, West’s approach was probably the best policy politically.

In some cases, the abuse of facts is more subtle. For example, Obama has been attacked on the grounds that the average economic worth of the middle class in the United States plummeted on his watch. While this is truth-like, it does leave out some key information, namely that the plummet was well underway when Obama took office. To use an analogy, it would be like blaming a new pilot who took the stick halfway through a nose dive for that nose dive. Sure, he is at the stick and the plane was in a nose dive—but he did not put it there. As might be imagined, this approach of making truth-like claims is not limited to the right. For example, Romney is being bashed for the Massachusetts’ seemingly bad job creation numbers while he was governor. However, Romney’s situation was very much like Obama’s: he took the stick after someone else put the plane in a dive. Given that the situations are comparable, both men should be able to avail themselves of the same defense. Also, it is tempting to think that getting the relevant facts would defuse these attacks. That is, one might want to think that people would regard both attacks as flawed and essentially unfounded and this would be the ends of these attacks. But, one does not always get what one wants.

While this might come as something of a shock, people are often not very rational—especially when it comes to politics. While both of these attacks have been addressed in detail subject to rational examination, this did not spell their end. In fact, it has been found that when people get information that corrects a false claim, they will be even more likely to believe the false claim (provided that they claim matches their views).  For example, if Republicans and Democrats read an article that claims that one of Obama’s policies had a significant positive effect and then learn that the initial article was in error, the Democrats would  be more inclined to believe the original article despite the fact that it had been shown to be in error. The Republicans would be more inclined to reject the original article. In short, it seems that corrective information is generally only accepted when it corrects in a way favorable to a person’s ideology.  This has the rather unfortunate effect that correcting an error in an ideological context will only correct the error in the minds of those who already want to believe it is an error and will generally not change the mind of those who want to believe.

In addition to the obvious problem, this tendency also means that people who are wrong (intentionally or unintentionally) generally will not suffer any damage to their credibility among their own faction, provided that their errors match the ideology of said faction. As such, the consequences of saying things that are not true seem to be generally positive—at least from a pragmatic standpoint. After all, if the claim matches the proper ideology and is not called out, then it will be accepted. If it is called out and shown to be in error, the criticism will generally serve to incline those who agree with the claim to still believe it. As such, presenting an ideologically “correct” falsehood (which need not be a lie) seems to be generally a win-win situation.

Since I teach critical thinking, this rather worries me. After all, I devote considerable energy to trying to teach people that they should base their beliefs on evidence and rational argumentation rather than on whatever matches their ideology.  One stock response to my concern is that people are this way “by nature” and hence there is little point in trying to teach people to be critical thinkers. Trying to overcome this tendency and solve the problem of ideological irrationality would be as futile as trying to solve the problem of teen pregnancy by trying to teach abstinence (after all, people are fornicators by nature).

On my bad days, I tend to almost agree. After all, I have repeatedly seen people who are capable of being rational in non-ideological areas show that they lose this capacity when it comes to ideology. However, this is not true of everyone. After all, there are clearly and obviously people who can do a reasonably good job of objective analysis. While some of this might be disposition, much of it is clearly due to training. While everyone might not be trainable, most people could be trained to be critical thinkers. To use an analogy, just as natural tendencies can be overcome by other forms of training (such as military training), this allegedly natural tendency to just go with one’s ideology can also be overcome. I know this because I have seen it happen.

Of course, there is also an artificial barrier. Folks in politics and other areas benefit greatly from being able to (consciously or not) manipulate the poor thinking skills and emotional vulnerabilities of people. As such, they have a vested interest in learning techniques to do this and to ensure that people are left as defenseless as possible. As such, while critical thinking skills are in demand, the education system is actually largely designed to not create such skills. One rather glaring example is that the most basic critical thinking classes are generally taught in college and not earlier. While some educators wonder why students do so badly at critical thinking, this is obviously part of the answer. Imagine what the math skills of students would be like if they took their first actual math class as a college freshman. While it might be countered that critical thinking is too hard for kids, this is clearly not true—the basics could be taught as soon as kids were being taught the basics of math and probably even earlier. In short, I would say that much of what is attributed to human nature is actually the result of education—or the lack thereof.

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Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on August 15, 2011
David Hume's statements on ethics foreshadowed...

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While on a run in Maine, I happened to be thinking about the Is/Ought problem as well as fallacies. I was also thinking about bears and how many might be about in the woods, but that is another matter.

This problem was most famously put forth by David Hume. Roughly put, the problem is how one might derive an “ought” from an “is.” Inspired by Hume, some folks even go so far as to claim that it is a fallacy to draw a moral ought” from a non-moral “is.” This is, unlike the more common fallacies, rather controversial. After all, it being a fallacy or not hinges on substantial matters in ethics rather than on something far less contentious, like a matter of  simple relevance. While I will not address the core of the matter, I will present some thoughts on the periphery.

As I ran and thought about the problem, I noted that people are often inclined to make moral inferences based on what they think or what they do. To be a bit more specific, people are often inclined to reason in the following two ways. Naturally, this could be expanded but for the sake of brevity I will just consider thought and action.

The first is belief. Not surprisingly, people often “reason” as follows: I/most people/all people believe that X is right (or wrong). Therefore people ought to do X (or ought to not do X). For example, a person might assert that because (they think that) most people believe that same-sex marriage is wrong, it follows that it ought not be done. This is, obviously enough, the fallacy of appeal to belief.

The second  is action. People are also inclined to infer that X is something that ought to be done (or at least allowed) on the basis that it is done by them or most/all people. For example, a person might assert that people ought to be able to steal office supplies because it is something everyone does. This is the classic fallacy of appeal to common practice.

While there are both established fallacies,  it seems somewhat interesting to consider whether or not  they are potentially Is/Ought fallacies when they involve deriving an “ought” from the “is” of belief or action.

On the one hand, it is rather tempting to hold that they are not also Is/Ought errors. After all, it could be argued that the error is exhausted in the context of the specific fallacies and there is no need to consider a supplemental error involving deriving an “ought” from an “is.”

On the other hand, these two fallacies seem to provide a solid foundation for the Is/Ought error that is reasonably well based on established logic. This suggests (but hardly proves) that there might be some merit in considering the Is/Ought fallacy in a slightly different light-that it can actually be regarded as a special “manifestation” of various other fallacies. Or perhaps not.


What people believe is X, so X is good: Appeal to belief.

What people do is X, so X is good: Appeal to common practice.

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Rambling a Bit on the Value of Reason

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on August 19, 2010
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The Fall semester is spinning up, although for me the summer semester never spun down. I’ve chaired a search committee, concluded my summer class, been part of the massive return to our renovated building, and have been attending meetings and advising. This, not surprisingly, has had an impact on my blogging. As such, I’ll just be able to ramble for  a short bit today.

Writing about the evolution of irrationality got me thinking about the value of reason. Since I am a philosopher and make a living by teaching people to reason, it is natural that I would regard reason as valuable. However, it is well worth inquiring into the matter.

As I mentioned in my post on the evolution of irrationality, I tell my students that people  often use fallacies and poor reasoning because they are effective means of persuasion. So, if you want to get someone to believe something or buy a product, then using a fallacy or rhetorical tool will generally be more effective than taking the effort to craft a well reasoned argument. To put it crudely, syllogisms do not sell beer and modus ponens never got a politician elected.

However, reason is useful even in regards to persuasion. After all, even if a person is employing fallacies and rhetoric to sway others, she would benefit from reasoning about what methods to employ to reach her ends. As such, reason has value even for those who might claim that the power to persuade is greater.

Also, while poor reasoning might serve as an effective means of persuasion, it serves poorly as a means of sorting out exactly what people should be persuaded to believe. Methods of persuasion serve good ideas as readily as bad ideas. They also serve the true and effectively as the false.

While people can persuade others to accept bad or false ideas, persuasion does not alter the nature of those ideas from bad to good or from false to true. Obviously enough, people who go through life on the basis of false and bad ideas are likely to run afoul because of these beliefs. This points to another use of reason.

While poor reasoning can be an effective tool of persuasion and hence desirable to some, people also have to consider that they will be on the receiving end of such persuasion. As such, to avoid being duped, deluded or misled they will need to use reason to pierce through the poor reasoning and avoid being taken in by it. Of course, while those who rely on persuasion no doubt value reason as a defense against their fellows, they would prefer that others were lacking in it.

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Am I Anti-Religious?

Posted in Philosophy, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on February 8, 2008

No, I’m not.

Since I am a philosopher, many people assume I must be an atheist who hates religion. This is not the case. Like most people who fancy themselves intellectuals, I did go through an anti-religion phase. In part, I found the arguments against religion compelling. In part, I was angry at the way people who claimed to be religious behaved. In part, I thought that being an atheist was a sign of being intellectually tough. And, of course, I enjoyed that smug feeling that I was better than the fools who believed.

As I grew older and wiser, I stopped being anti-religious. One reason is that I achieved a better understanding of the arguments for and against religion as well as deeper understanding of ethics and metaphysics. From a rational standpoint, it is difficult to dismiss God with a haughty “bah” after reading and grasping arguments put forth by thinkers such as Aquinas, Descartes, Leibniz, Locke and others. It might be the case that there is no God, but the case against God is far from being a certain one and there are powerful arguments for His existence.  Another reason is that I achieved a greater degree of personal and intellectual maturity. Believing something to seem “tough” or because it made me feel superior  now strikes me as foolishness. I am still angry at the way some allegedly religious people behave. But I can now distinguish between a belief and those who claim to hold that belief. I do oppose those who use religion to justify their evil, their hatred and their prejudices. But I oppose them because they are evil-not because they claim to be religious.

In all honesty my religious beliefs are not settled. I have never had a definitive religious experience that convinced me of the truths of faith. I cannot believe just because some person in a fancy costume waves a book around and tells me it is true. I cannot believe just because most people do.

Naturally, I do want to believe. I would prefer a meaningful reality in which the wicked are brought to task, the good are duly rewarded and an afterlife awaits us all. I want that very much. But, I know that what I want and what is true are two distinct matters.

At this point, I reject the hateful dogmatism of the extreme atheist and the fanatic theist. But, I do not really know what I believe. Of course, neither do most people. When I speak to people about their faith and their God, they tend to speak empty words and have no real understanding of what they claim to believe. Worse, they often seem completely uninterested in learning anything about their alleged faith. It does strike me as ironic when they smugly judge me for my lack of faith when I am far more interested in what they believe then they are.