John Stuart Mill on unreasoned belief

 Yasemin asked:

I have trouble understanding this paragraph, can you help me?

“There is a class of persons (happily not quite so numerous as formerly) who think it enough if a person assents undoubtingly to what they think true, though he has no knowledge whatever of the grounds of the opinion, and could not make a tenable defence of it against the most superficial objections. Such persons, if they can once get their creed taught from authority, naturally think that no good, and some harm, comes of its being allowed to be questioned. Where their influence prevails, they make it nearly impossible for the received opinion to be rejected wisely and considerately, though it may still be rejected rashly and ignorantly; for to shut out discussion entirely is seldom possible, and when it once gets in, beliefs not grounded on conviction are apt to give way before the slightest semblance of an argument. Waiving, however, this possibility — assuming that the true opinion abides in the mind, but abides as a prejudice, a belief independent of, and proof against, argument — this is not the way in which truth ought to be held by a rational being. This is not knowing the truth. Truth, thus held, is but one superstition the more, accidentally clinging to the words which enunciate a truth.”

Answer by Graham Hackett

The author is suggesting that there are still too many people who are willing to base claims of knowledge on faith alone, unsupported by evidence, and suggests that when faith is lacking, or insufficient in itself to sustain belief, too many fall back on authority for support. Not just a case of “believe this”, but “believe this, or else…”.  The author makes the assumption that the truth is something “out there” to be discovered, independent of our minds.

I do not recognise the passage, but the criticism may be aimed at two problem areas.

The first target may be  Fideism, which is the view that claims to knowledge can be  underwritten by faith alone, quite independently of any kind of evidence. There are almost no philosophers, and I would hope (in agreement with the author) fewer and fewer of all kinds of people who would support Fideism. The reason is because it is just too permissive a standpoint; you could hold pretty well any kind of opinion as true provided you could show that people had an active faith-based belief in it. As the author suggests; “this is not the way in which truth ought to be held by a rational being.” 

It is quite true that many hold that religious beliefs are only supported by faith. For example, Tertullian, the early christian divine, is alleged to have remarked “what has Jerusalem to do with Athens?” Athens would be seen as the home of reason and Jerusalem the home of faith, and Tertullian is clearly making his argument in favour of Jerusalem rather than Athens. Calvin is often cited as settling the argument in favour of faith alone, even suggesting that we have a ‘sensus divinitatus”, a reliable human organ for detecting what beliefs we should have faith in. However, the matter is not quite so straightforward. St Augustine uses the maxim “faith seeking understanding”, and St Aquinas has the famous “Five Ways”, which has five arguments for belief in God, quoting reasons and evidence. These two examples suggest that Christians, at least, were not always happy with relying on faith alone. However, I do not wish to over-egg the pudding, as I do not have any knowledge as to how, in comparison with Christianity, Islam and Judaism deal with this matter.

The other target of the quoted text could be said to relate to the activity, behaviour and character of the believer. There is a great deal to be said for a “due diligence” approach to knowledge aquisition. Have we used all the tools and methods available to us for checking the truth, have we examined the authenticity of all testimony respecting the belief and the credentials of those providing the testimony? In other words, it is not just the catalogue of evidence quoted in favour of a belief which we should consider; it is also “the way in which truth ought to be held by a rational being” . To use the language of reliabilism, are we a “reliable instrument for tracking the truth?

I think I would even go one step further in this direction then taken by the writer. Perhaps we should take a leaf from Aristotle’s book, and be prepared to consider the process of gaining knowledge as a set of virtues. There is a recent venture in philosophy known as virtue epistemology, which seeks to explain some knowledge issues as depending to some extent on the character of the agent. Characteristics such as open-mindedness, courage in defending beliefs, thoroughness etc, could be said to be epistemic virtues. If you wish to get the flavour of this kind of thinking, you might read the article “Virtue Epistemology” in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, written by J. Turri, M. Alfano, and J. Greco. The writers are all leaders in this field. For them, establishing knowledge becomes an ongoing process conducted by agents displaying different levels of epistemic virtue, rather than a once-for-all discovery of something which is “out there”.

Well, do you think you are a reliable instrument for establishing truth, showing due diligence, and all the right epistemic virtues?

4 thoughts on “John Stuart Mill on unreasoned belief

  1. “I have heard from several people — true Christians and true communists alike — that “if you are still outside, you will not understand. If you understand you need no explanations.”

    Good fremowolf!

    This applies to all religions and ideologies (true believers). Underneath their outward differences their way of thinking and epistemologies are similar. Uncaring towards truth and logic and just trying to reach a predetermined goal.

    1. and what’s the predertermined goal? It’s peace of mind and soul. True philosophers are never content. They put everithing in doubt, as Kant suggested. They are disrupters, not everybodys darling. They are shunned, called smartass. I know this from experience. Socrates was put to death for that “corrupting the youth”.

      Of course, the paragraph you cited is Popperian “ultrastability”. But weak people need that exoskeleton. They need a place where to rest.

      1. “and what’s the predertermined goal? It’s peace of mind and soul. True philosophers are never content. They put everithing in doubt, as Kant suggested. They are disrupters, not everybodys darling.”

        Very good. I agree. Yes, these people are self-deceivers.

        By the way, you mention Kant. I do not understand him very well. Do you understand his ‘transcendental idealism’ ? Do you have a blog etc. where I can contact you? You can always contact me by leaving a comment on my blog.

  2. It’s not just believing, it’s experiencing. People fell to Jesus or to Hitler and sometimes to both. It’s the experience of “clarity all in a flash”, like a conversion from Saulus to Paulus. So it is far beyond mere believing in some book or opinion. I myself once saw “God in every leave of grass, in every door-knob”. Then this experience dwindled. Now I am a sceptic — but still remember the experience as somebody does who once fell in a great love.

    I have heard from several people — true Christians and true communists alike — that “if you are still outside, you will not understand. If you understand you need no explanations.” It’s like have the key-code to the mystery as in “Enter Player One”.

    Thus too many explanations are too “bookish”. Well, philosophy is the science of good arguments, but people are not always out for that, and experience is not an argument. Love and hope, fear and despair are no arguments. Even philosophy has its limits.

    And then: We live in a time of scientific belief in cause and effect. So when somebody says “I believe in God and in sin and salvation” the therapist may say : Take this pill and all your sorrows will go away!” What would the philosopher answer to that? The laws of nature would not go away by taking a pill, but believing is a different thing. So, where is the reality behind the belief?

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