“I believe in God, and there are things that I believe that I know are crazy. I know they’re not true.”
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.
One of the classic moral problems is the issue of whether or not we have moral obligations to people we do not know. If we do have such obligations, then there are also questions about the foundation, nature and extent of these obligations. If we do not have such obligations, then there is the obvious question about why there are no such obligations. I will start by considering some stock arguments regarding our obligations to others.
One approach to the matter of moral obligations to others is to ground them on religion. This requires two main steps. The first is establishing that the religion imposes such obligations. The second is making the transition from the realm of religion to the domain of ethics.
Many religions do impose such obligations on their followers. For example, John 15:12 conveys God’s command: “This is my commandment, That you love one another, as I have loved you.” If love involves obligations (which it seems to), then this would certainly seem to place us under these obligations. Other faiths also include injunctions to assist others.
In terms of transitioning from religion to ethics, one easy way is to appeal to divine command theory—the moral theory that what God commands is right because He commands it. This does raise the classic Euthyphro problem: is something good because God commands it, or is it commanded because it is good? If the former, goodness seems arbitrary. If the latter, then morality would be independent of God and divine command theory would be false.
Using religion as the basis for moral obligation is also problematic because doing so would require proving that the religion is correct—this would be no easy task. There is also the practical problem that people differ in their faiths and this would make a universal grounding for moral obligations difficult.
Another approach is to argue for moral obligations by using the moral method of reversing the situation. This method is based on the Golden Rule (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) and the basic idea is that consistency requires that a person treat others as she would wish to be treated.
To make the method work, a person would need to want others to act as if they had obligations to her and this would thus obligate the person to act as if she had obligations to them. For example, if I would want someone to help me if I were struck by a car and bleeding out in the street, then consistency would require that I accept the same obligation on my part. That is, if I accept that I should be helped, then consistency requires that I must accept I should help others.
This approach is somewhat like that taken by Immanuel Kant. He argues that because a person necessarily regards herself as an end (and not just a means to an end), then she must also regard others as ends and not merely as means. He endeavors to use this to argue in favor of various obligations and duties, such as helping others in need.
There are, unfortunately, at least two counters to this sort of approach. The first is that it is easy enough to imagine a person who is willing to forgo the assistance of others and as such can consistently refuse to accept obligations to others. So, for example, a person might be willing to starve rather than accept assistance from other people. While such people might seem a bit crazy, if they are sincere then they cannot be accused of inconsistency.
The second is that a person can argue that there is a relevant difference between himself and others that would justify their obligations to him while freeing him from obligations to them. For example, a person of a high social or economic class might assert that her status obligates people of lesser classes while freeing her from any obligations to them. Naturally, the person must provide reasons in support of this alleged relevant difference.
A third approach is to present a utilitarian argument. For a utilitarian, like John Stuart Mill, morality is assessed in terms of consequences: the correct action is the one that creates the greatest utility (typically happiness) for the greatest number. A utilitarian argument for obligations to people we do not know would be rather straightforward. The first step would be to estimate the utility generated by accepting a specific obligation to people we do not know, such as rendering aid to an intoxicated person who is about to become the victim of sexual assault. The second step is to estimate the disutility generated by imposing that specific obligation. The third step is to weigh the utility against the disutility. If the utility is greater, then such an obligation should be imposed. If the disutility is greater, then it should not.
This approach, obviously enough, rests on the acceptance of utilitarianism. There are numerous arguments against this moral theory and these can be employed against attempts to ground obligations on utility. Even for those who accept utilitarianism, there is the open possibility that there will always be greater utility in not imposing obligations, thus undermining the claim that we have obligations to others.
A fourth approach is to consider the matter in terms of rational self-interest and operate from the assumption that people should act in their self-interest. In terms of a moral theory, this would be ethical egoism: the moral theory that a person should act in her self-interest rather than acting in an altruistic manner.
While accepting that others have obligations to me would certainly be in my self-interest, it initially appears that accepting obligations to others would be contrary to my self-interest. That is, I would be best served if others did unto me as I would like to be done unto, but I was free to do unto them as I wished. If I could get away with this sort of thing, it would be ideal (assuming that I am selfish). However, as a matter of fact people tend to notice and respond negatively to a lack of reciprocation. So, if having others accept that they have some obligations to me were in my self-interest, then it would seem that it would be in my self-interest to pay the price for such obligations by accepting obligations to them.
For those who like evolutionary just-so stories in the context of providing foundations for ethics, the tale is easy to tell: those who accept obligations to others would be more successful than those who do not.
The stock counter to the self-interest argument is the problem of Glaucon’s unjust man and Hume’s sensible knave. While it certainly seems rational to accept obligations to others in return for getting them to accept similar obligations, it seems preferable to exploit their acceptance of obligations while avoiding one’s supposed obligations to others whenever possible. Assuming that a person should act in accord with self-interest, then this is what a person should do.
It can be argued that this approach would be self-defeating: if people exploited others without reciprocation, the system of obligations would eventually fall apart. As such, each person has an interest in ensuring that others hold to their obligations. Humans do, in fact, seem to act this way—those who fail in their obligations often get a bad reputation and are distrusted. From a purely practical standpoint, acting as if one has obligations to others would thus seem to be in a person’s self-interest because the benefits would generally outweigh the costs.
The counter to this is that each person still has an interest in avoiding the cost of fulfilling obligations and there are various practical ways to do this by the use of deceit, power and such. As such, a classic moral question arises once again: why act on your alleged obligations if you can get away with not doing so? Aside from the practical reply given above, there seems to be no answer from self-interest.
A fifth option is to look at obligations to others as a matter of debts. A person is born into an established human civilization built on thousands of years of human effort. Since each person arrives as a helpless infant, each person’s survival is dependent on others. As the person grows up, she also depends on the efforts of countless other people she does not know. These include soldiers that defend her society, the people who maintain the infrastructure, firefighters who keep fire from sweeping away the town or city, the taxpayers who pay for all this, and so on for all the many others who make human civilization possible. As such, each member of civilization owes a considerable debt to those who have come before and those who are here now.
If debt imposes an obligation, then each person who did not arise ex-nihilo owes a debt to those who have made and continue to make their survival and existence in society possible. At the very least, the person is obligated to make contributions to continue human civilization as a repayment to these others.
One objection to this is for a person to claim that she owes no such debt because her special status obligates others to provide all this for her with nothing owed in return. The obvious challenge is for a person to prove such an exalted status.
Another objection is for a person to claim that all this is a gift that requires no repayment on the part of anyone and hence does not impose any obligation. The challenge is, of course, to prove this implausible claim.
A final option I will consider is that offered by virtue theory. Virtue theory, famously presented by thinkers like Aristotle and Confucius, holds that people should develop their virtues. These classic virtues include generosity, loyalty and other virtues that involve obligations and duties to others. Confucius explicitly argued in favor of duties and obligations as being key components of virtues.
In terms of why a person should have such virtues and accept such obligations, the standard answer is that being virtuous will make a person happy.
Virtue theory is not without its detractors and the criticism of the theory can be employed to undercut it, thus undermining its role in arguing that we have obligations to people we do not know.
The recent resignation of Eric Shinseki from his former position as the head of the Department of Veteran Affairs raised, once again, the issue of the responsibilities of a leader. While I will not address the specific case of Shinseki, I will use this opportunity discuss leadership and responsibility in general terms.
Not surprisingly, people often assign responsibility based on ideology. For example, Democrats would be more inclined to regard a Republican leader as being fully responsible for his subordinates while being more forgiving of fellow Democrats. However, judging responsibility based on political ideology is obviously a poor method of assessment. What is needed is, obviously enough, some general principles that can be used to assess the responsibility of leaders in a consistent manner.
Interestingly (or boringly) enough, I usually approach the matter of leadership and responsibility using an analogy to the problem of evil. Oversimplified quite a bit, the problem of evil is the problem of reconciling God being all good, all knowing and all powerful with the existence of evil in the world. If God is all good, then he would tolerate no evil. If God was all powerful, He could prevent all evil. And if God was all knowing, then He would not be ignorant of any evil. Given God’s absolute perfection, He thus has absolute responsibility as a leader: He knows what every subordinate is doing, knows whether it is good or evil and has the power to prevent or cause any behavior. As such, when a subordinate does evil, God has absolute accountability. After all, the responsibility of a leader is a function of what he can know and the extent of his power.
In stark contrast, a human leader (no matter how awesome) falls rather short of God. Such leaders are clearly not perfectly good and they are obviously not all knowing or all powerful. These imperfections thus lower the responsibility of the leader.
In the case of goodness, no human can be expected to be morally perfect. As such, failures of leadership due to moral imperfection can be excusable—within limits. The challenge is, of course, sorting out the extent to which imperfect humans can legitimately be held morally accountable and to what extent our unavoidable moral imperfections provide a legitimate excuse. These standards should be applied consistently to leaders so as to allow for the highest possible degree of objectivity.
In the case of knowledge, no human can be expected to be omniscient—we have extreme limits on our knowledge. The practical challenge is sorting out what a leader can reasonably be expected to know and the responsibility of the leader should be proportional to that extent of knowledge. This is complicated a bit by the fact that there are at least two factors here, namely the capacity to know and what the leader is obligated to know. Obligations to know should not exceed the human capacity to know, but the capacity to know can often exceed the obligation to know. For example, the President could presumably have everyone spied upon (which is apparently what he did do) and thus could, in theory, know a great deal about his subordinates. However, this would seem to exceed what the President is obligated to know (as President) and probably exceeds what he should know.
Obviously enough, what a leader can know and what she is obligated to know will vary greatly based on the leader’s position and responsibilities. For example, as the facilitator of the philosophy & religion unit at my university, my obligation to know about my colleagues is very limited as is my right to know about them. While I have an obligation to know what courses they are teaching, I do not have an obligation or a right to know about their personal lives or whether they are doing their work properly on outside committees. So, if a faculty member skipped out on committee meetings, I would not be responsible for this—it is not something I am obligated to know about.
As another example, the chair of the department has greater obligations and rights in this regard. He has the right and obligation to know if they are teaching their classes, doing their assigned work and so on. Thus, when assessing the responsibility of a leader, sorting out what the leader could know and what she was obligated to know are rather important matters.
In regards to power (taken in a general sense), even the most despotic dictator’s powers are still finite. As such, it is reasonable to consider the extent to which a leader can utilize her authority or use up her power to compel subordinates to obey. As with knowledge, responsibility is proportional to power. After all, if a leader lacks to power (or authority) to compel obedience in regards to certain matters, then the leader cannot be accountable for not making the subordinates do or not do certain actions. Using myself as an example, my facilitator position has no power: I cannot demote, fire, reprimand or even put a mean letter into a person’s permanent record. The extent of my influence is limited to my ability to persuade—with no rewards or punishments to offer. As such, my responsibility for the actions of my colleagues is extremely limited.
There are, however, legitimate concerns about the ability of a leader to make people behave correctly and this raises the question of the degree to which a leader is responsible for not being persuasive enough or using enough power to make people behave. That is, the concern is when bad behavior based on resisting applied authority or power is the fault of the leader or the fault of the resistor. This is similar to the concern about the extent to which responsibility for failing to learn falls upon the teacher and to which it falls on the student. Obviously, even the best teacher cannot reach all students and it would seem reasonable to believe that even the best leader cannot make everyone do what they should be doing.
Thus, when assessing alleged failures of leadership it is important to determine where the failures lie (morality, knowledge or power) and the extent to which the leader has failed. Obviously, principled standards should be applied consistently—though it can be sorely tempting to damn the other guy while forgiving the offenses of one’s own guy.
In March of 2014 popular astrophysicist and Cosmos host Neil deGrasse Tyson did a Nerdist Podcast. This did not garner much attention until May when some philosophers realized that Tyson was rather critical and dismissive of philosophy. As might be imagined, there was a response from the defenders of philosophy. Some critics went so far as to accuse him of being a philistine.
Tyson presents a not uncommon view of contemporary philosophy, namely that “asking deep questions” can cause a “pointless delay in your progress” in engaging “this whole big world of unknowns out there.” To avoid such pointless delays, Tyson advises scientists to respond to such questioners by saying, “I’m moving on, I’m leaving you behind, and you can’t even cross the street because you’re distracted by deep questions you’ve asked of yourself. I don’t have time for that.”
Since Tyson certainly seems to be a deep question sort of guy, it is tempting to consider that his remarks are not serious—that is, he is being sarcastic. Even if he is serious, it is also reasonable to consider that these remarks are off-the cuff and might not represent his considered view of philosophy in general.
It is also worth considering that the claims made are his considered and serious position. After all, the idea that a scientist would regard philosophy as useless (or worse) is quite consistent with my own experiences in academics. For example, the politically fueled rise of STEM and the decline of the humanities has caused some in STEM to regard this situation as confirmation of their superior status and on some occasions I have had to defuse conflicts instigated by STEM faculty making their views about the uselessness of non-STEM fields clear.
Whatever the case, the concern that the deep questioning of philosophy can cause pointless delays does actually have some merit and is well worth considering. After all, if philosophy is useless or even detrimental, then this would certainly be worth knowing.
The main bite of this criticism is that philosophical questioning is detrimental to progress: a scientist who gets caught in these deep questions, it seems, would be like a kayaker caught in a strong eddy: she would be spinning around and going nowhere rather than making progress. This concern does have significant practical merit. To use an analogy outside of science, consider a committee meeting aimed at determining the curriculum for state schools. This committee has an objective to achieve and asking questions is a reasonable way to begin. But imagine that people start raising deep questions about the meaning of terms such as “humanities” or “science” and become very interested in sorting out the semantics of various statements. This sort of sidetracking will result in a needlessly long meeting and little or no progress. After all, the goal is to determine the curriculum and deep questions will merely slow down progress towards this practical goal. Likewise, if a scientist is endeavoring to sort out the nature of the cosmos, deep questions can be a similar sort of trap: she will be asking ever deeper questions rather than gathering data and doing math to answer her less deep questions.
Philosophy, as Socrates showed by deploying his Socratic method, can endlessly generate deep questions. Questions such as “what is the nature of the universe?”, “what is time?”, “what is space?”, “what is good?” and so on. Also, as Socrates showed, for each answer given, philosophy can generate more questions. It is also often claimed that this shows that philosophy really has no answers since every alleged answer can be questioned or raises even more questions. Thus, philosophy seems to be rather bad for the scientist.
A key assumption seems to be that science is different from philosophy in at least one key way—while it raises questions, proper science focuses on questions that can be answered or, at the very least, gets down to the business of answering them and (eventually) abandons a question should it turn out to be a distracting deep question. Thus, science provides answers and makes progress. This, obviously enough, ties into another stock criticism of philosophy: philosophy makes no progress and is useless.
One rather obvious reason that philosophy is regarded as not making progress and as being useless is that when enough progress is made on a deep question, it is perceived as being a matter for science rather than philosophy. For example, ancient Greek philosophers, such as Democritus, speculated about the composition of the universe and its size (was it finite or infinite?) and these were considered deep philosophical questions. Even Newton considered himself a natural philosopher. He has, of course, been claimed by the scientist (many of whom conveniently overlook the role of God in his theories). These questions are now claimed by physicists, such as Tyson, who regard them as scientific rather than philosophical questions.
Thus, it is rather unfair to claim that philosophy does not solve problems or make progress—since when excellent progress is made, the discipline is labeled as science and no longer considered philosophy. However, the progress would have obviously been impossible without the deep questions that set people in search of answers and the work done by philosophers before the field was claimed as a science. To use an analogy, to claim that philosophy has made no progress or contributions would be on par with a student taking the work done by another, adding to it and then claiming the whole as his own work and deriding the other student as “useless.”
At this point, some might be willing to grudgingly concede that philosophy did make some valuable contributions (perhaps on par with how the workers who dragged the marble for Michelangelo’s David contributed) in the past, but philosophy is now an eddy rather than the current of progress.
Interestingly enough, philosophy has been here before—back in the days of Socrates the Sophists contended that philosophical speculation was valueless and that people should focus on getting things done—that is, achieving success. Fortunately for contemporary science, philosophy survived and philosophers kept asking those deep questions that seemed so valueless then.
While philosophy’s day might be done, it seems worth considering that some of the deep, distracting philosophical questions that are being asked are well worth pursuing—if only because they might lead to great things. Much as how Democritus’ deep questions led to the astrophysics that a fellow named Neil loves so much.