Should We Change Belief-Systems? Part 1

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When is it correct to change one’s religious, philosophical, or political affiliations?  Is it always wrong to do so?  Should we alter our belief-system often so that we get a chance to try out everything?  Or should we take up a different worldview to rationalize a lifestyle that we find appealing?

This question can only be answered with a goal in mind.  Do we want safe lives that don’t require us to think hard?  Do we want to stay where we are at for comfort?  Or perhaps do we want to just feel like what we are doing is right–even if it isn’t?

Goals and Truth

The problem with these above goals is that they care more about my personal satisfaction than reality.  This seems misguided.  After all, what satisfies me is not always what’s actually good; bad desires shouldn’t be satisfied.  Also, even if my affections are good, if I don’t care about what is actually out there in the world, then my desires might not actually be as well-satisfied as they could be.  I might be putting up with a second rate way of living.  I might be settling for second base when I could easily take third if I looked at whether or not the the ball got past the shortstop.

If I just want a safe life that doesn’t require me to think hard, this creates a tension.  If I want to be safe, then I should try to figure out how to be safe.  So I have to ask: do I know I am safe–or even have good reason to think so?  Asserting that I am safe doesn’t help; it definitely won’t save me from unseen dangers.  We must try to figure out how to be safe.

If I don’t want to change because my current worldview is immediately comfortable, this creates a tension.  How do I know this is the most comfortable worldview?  Have I tried the others?  Do I have an argument for why the others aren’t as comfortable–any reason at all to think that I haven’t settled for second best?  Also, is immediate comfort that great of a thing to pursue?

Lets say I want to just feel like what I am doing is good, even if it isn’t.  Some people may say this is how they conduct their lives; it seems they really mean is that what makes something good is how you feel about it.  But isn’t this obviously false?  Don’t we sometimes feel good about what is bad for us–even dangerously so?  If this were true, I could make all evil things good, just by changing my attitude; but that’s nonsense.

The common theme of all of these options is that truth is important, even if only as a means to an end.  Truth helps us get to what is good; it brings us into contact with goodness, which is what we actually want.  Without a desire for truth, we can’t fulfill our desire for good.  Maybe it will look like we’ve fulfilled it; but a lot of things look good that actually aren’t the best.  Or, if we’re really badly off, we might not even desire what is actually good (or at least not desire what is best).

Safety, resting, and feeling good are all important.  But none of these by itself offers a reason to prefer a certain view of the world.  So we have to be careful as we search not to deceive ourselves.

This little bit of questioning raises some issues.  Do emotions have absolutely no part to play in our search for truth?  If so, doesn’t that seem a little imbalanced, and mean that only scholars can live a good life?  Also, if we should search for what is good by finding the truth, then under what conditions would it be best to reject a belief system?

I hope to continue to address these issues in a later post (though I won’t be so foolish as to promise that I’m right in my explanations).  I will also try to develop a new kind of presuppositionalist argument for theism based on how we search for truth.  Stay tuned.

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22 Responses to “Should We Change Belief-Systems? Part 1”

  1. David Says:

    Wow, this is quite different from your usual style, but in a good way. 🙂 Did anything in particular prompt your musings on this subject?

    I look forward to the next installment.

  2. joshua Koop Says:

    hay mike :).
    thanks for tagging me in this note – i will be excited to here your blog’s epic conclusion :)!

  3. Jordan Says:

    I’m not quite sure i understand this question, “Also, if we should search for what is good by finding the truth, then under what conditions would it be best to reject a belief system?”

    “Do emotions have absolutely no part to play in our search for truth? If so, doesn’t that seem a little imbalanced, and mean that only scholars can live a good life?”
    will you go on in a future post to explain what you believe to be the appropriate proportions of emotions and reason or should I ask now? 🙂

  4. MG Says:

    David–

    Thanks–I thought that the casual style would be easier for everyone to handle.

    Yes, several things prompted this. First was the realization that I don’t look at “the search for Truth” the same way as everyone else does. Second was that I’m starting to wonder if a certain worldview is probably (ironically) presupposed by some attitudes that a lot of people take in their journey toward finding the truth. Third, I had recently encountered several examples of what I would call unclear “worldview-thinking”, and decided that I wanted to offer some friendly criticism.

  5. MG Says:

    Joshua–

    Thanks for reading and commenting dude! I expect at least 2 more posts… probably 3. I will try to make them short though! Did you think this one was too long? I sorta assumed that the easier-to-read style and language would counterbalance the length of the post.

  6. MG Says:

    Jordan–

    You wrote:

    “I’m not quite sure i understand this question, ‘Also, if we should search for what is good by finding the truth, then under what conditions would it be best to reject a belief system?'”

    Here’s what I mean. Lets assume that I was right to say that we find what is good by searching for the truth. I think this is obvious, because to find what is good, we have to know the difference between apparent goods and actual goods. This assumes that we need to know what is true about reality, because that way we can distinguish the two.

    Now, given that the above method should be adopted, what are the necessary and sufficient conditions for when it would be the most intellectually honest to reject a belief-system? If we are seeking for truth, under what circumstances should we change our overall view of reality? When is it okay to ditch what we have believed before and replace it?

    Does that help?

    You wrote:

    “’Do emotions have absolutely no part to play in our search for truth? If so, doesn’t that seem a little imbalanced, and mean that only scholars can live a good life?’
    will you go on in a future post to explain what you believe to be the appropriate proportions of emotions and reason or should I ask now? :)”

    Expect it coming up really soon in the next one or two posts.

  7. Brett Stroud Says:

    Interesting stuff, Garten. I look forward to reading more.

  8. Garrett Says:

    Good times, Mike. I’m interested in reading what you think on this subject, as it’s one that’s quite near and dear to my heart. 🙂

  9. catz206 Says:

    Good post Michael

  10. pdve Says:

    Interesting question.

    In answering it, I think an important distinction should be drawn between belief-sets and mere beliefs. For to change one’s belief does not necessarily imply that one changes one’s belief-set or that it is rational to do so. There are, however, beliefs which i’ll call ‘gateway’ beliefs. Formulated thus:

    If (1) S beliefs in p, and (2) p is gateway belief for set X, then S is justified in believing in set X.

    An example of a gateway belief would be believing in the infallibility of the Pope. If one believes that the Pope is infallible, then one is justified in believing in transubstantiation, sainthood, etc, without extra reasons do to so. It also thus seems that if p is not a gateway belief for set X, but yet S assents to set X based on belief p, then S is not justified in assenting to set X. An example of this would be converting to Catholicism because one believes in transubstantiation. This is an interesting conclusion, in my opinion, because many people shift worldviews – political, religious, or otherwise – based on assent to beliefs that aren’t gateway beliefs. Which seems to be symptomatic of people wanting to be comfortable in the beliefs that they hold. To hold beliefs that are members of multiple sets puts one in a liminal space outside most belief-sets which is often uncomfortable because of the tensions it may cause.

  11. Andrea Elizabeth Says:

    MG,

    Your comments about safety remind me of Matthew 16:25, For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.

    We leave a copy of safety and comfort for ultimate safety and peace when we follow Christ. There is safety, either the former or latter, in tradition, but tradition has gotten such a bad name in our modern society, Instead, individualism has been glorified to the point that people do not feel safe accepting a gateway belief (if I am understanding pdve correctly) and feel they must pick and choose cafeteria style, which I guess is a new kind of belief system in itself.

    Still, being made in God’s image, I think there is a palpable tension inside of us and with others when we are not unified (body, soul, and mind) by ultimate truth – correct belief and practice.

  12. MG Says:

    PDVE–

    You wrote:

    “For to change one’s belief does not necessarily imply that one changes one’s belief-set or that it is rational to do so. There are, however, beliefs which i’ll call ‘gateway’ beliefs. Formulated thus:

    If (1) S beliefs in p, and (2) p is gateway belief for set X, then S is justified in believing in set X.

    An example of a gateway belief would be believing in the infallibility of the Pope. If one believes that the Pope is infallible, then one is justified in believing in transubstantiation, sainthood, etc, without extra reasons do to so. It also thus seems that if p is not a gateway belief for set X, but yet S assents to set X based on belief p, then S is not justified in assenting to set X. An example of this would be converting to Catholicism because one believes in transubstantiation. This is an interesting conclusion, in my opinion, because many people shift worldviews – political, religious, or otherwise – based on assent to beliefs that aren’t gateway beliefs. Which seems to be symptomatic of people wanting to be comfortable in the beliefs that they hold. To hold beliefs that are members of multiple sets puts one in a liminal space outside most belief-sets which is often uncomfortable because of the tensions it may cause.”

    I agree with this distinction, but I think that the definition needs to be clarified. For instance, there also might need to be an analysis of necessary and sufficient conditions for a given worldview to be true that is included in the definition. So a belief set x has to include within itself the necessary and sufficient conditions for a worldview to be true. And the gateway belief has to contribute to the justification for belief in the necessary and sufficient conditions for the truth of that belief-set. Perhaps the truth of the gateway belief would be a necessary and sufficient condition for the truth of that worldview. And like you pointed out, gateway beliefs may be necessary in order for me to believe in the truth of a belief-system even if I can give independent arguments for all of the other doctrines in that worldview; for instance, a Roman Catholic might be able to argue overwhelmingly for the legitimacy of prayers to saints and even transubstantiation, etc. based on biblical, historical, or philosophical theology. But because the infallibility of the pope has to be true, you will always stop short of being a true Roman Catholic if you can’t accept that specific doctrine about authority.

    I also agree with your diagnosis. Only if one becomes convinced that a gateway belief is true should one assent to the worldview that it serves as a gateway to. However, if a certain worldview turns out to be true, and if the truth of that worldview entails the proper basicality of its gateway belief(s) (!) then that may mean that people who convert mistakenly, based on bad reasons, might still become retroactively rational in their belief, once they believe in the gateway belief in a basic way. But that model of warrant is somewhat speculative.

  13. Διονυσιος Says:

    Michael –

    This post represents a huge improvement in overall style and length. Good job.

    I look forward to reading more like this, as well as the conversation it sparks.

  14. The Scylding Says:

    I’ll add my ‘ditto’ here – good post, and I’m looking forward to more of the same.

    I often think about this subject. And I have to admit that I’m quite perplexed by it.

  15. MG Says:

    Andrea–

    Thanks for the comment. I agree with your remarks, but think that it is important to clarify that when we say there is safety in tradition, this does not mean that just “any ole’ tradition will do”. Only truth is safe. If we hold to the traditions of men, that’s obviously a problem. The traditions of God, on the other hand, provide that safety that you so rightly pinpointed. I figure you would agree with me, yes?

  16. David C Says:

    Great questions!

    I have a couple of questions myself:

    1) Are you making a distinctinon between comfort and peace? Can I be comfortable living with apparent goods yet lack peace because I know that there are actual goods still available?

    2) Can I live with actual goods and have peace yet lack comfort?

    3) Can an actual good become an evil if it is chosen over a greater actual good? (ie. Creation is good as God says so. However, if we choose the creation over the Creator, we have chosen evil in relation to Him.

  17. MG Says:

    Andrea–

    I am sorry; I misread your comment. The last part states exactly what I just said about truth! Sorry for not being attentive enough to realize that we agreed on all points.

  18. Andrea Elizabeth Says:

    MG,

    No apology necessary 🙂 You raise an interesting point. It is of course best to be in the God-given, true Tradition, which will perfectly echo with our created inner self. But before one finds that Tradition, is it better to be in a flawed, man-made (which is actually a warped version of God’s) tradition or to go it on one’s own? I think I’ve heard it taught that it is better to be under authority, though sometimes this is untenable I guess.

    I don’t think a person on his own is really able to come up with the whole truth by himself, even if he is very smart and has good intuition (listens when he is “uncomfortable”), we still need to learn from others. I almost included “has his own Bible” in the above list. There, I snuck it in anyway.

  19. David C Says:

    MG
    Did my questions make any sense at all, or should I find a way to re-state them?

  20. MG Says:

    David C–

    Your questions made perfect sense–sorry I didn’t respond yet.

    You wrote:

    “1) Are you making a distinctinon between comfort and peace? Can I be comfortable living with apparent goods yet lack peace because I know that there are actual goods still available?”

    Wow that’s a good point–yes, and I think that’s a way to characterize the problem I was bringing up. You can be happy (comfortable) without being blessed (at peace).

    You wrote:

    “2) Can I live with actual goods and have peace yet lack comfort?”

    I think so. The dark night of the soul might be an example of this phenomenon.

    You wrote:

    “3) Can an actual good become an evil if it is chosen over a greater actual good? (ie. Creation is good as God says so. However, if we choose the creation over the Creator, we have chosen evil in relation to Him.”

    Basically yes. Sin is misusing your natural powers. The objects of desires are goods, but not all of them are goods of equal worth (some are equally good). When we deliberate about which objects to choose from, all the options are good in some sense–but not all are equally good. When our deliberation leads to satisfying a desire that is for an object that does not fit with how I should function at some given time, this is sin. I don’t think it makes the object intrinsically evil, though–just extrinsically. You don’t change the essence of a thing to “evil”–you just changed the relations between yourself and your desires and their objects into improper relations.

  21. David C Says:

    MG
    I agree with you completely.

    Thanks.

  22. CircularReason Says:

    I realized last night (discussing with friends) that ‘intellectual integrity’ cuts both ways.

    People usually use the term intellectual integrity to refer to changing your beliefs when best evidence leads you to, consistently, over time, from a variety of angles.

    I would posit that it should equally be used to refer to NOT changing your beliefs until best evidence leads you to, consistently, over time, and from a variety of angles.

    This agrees nicely with your point is that the argument is always progressing forward. Following it is unsafe. Following it too fast will probably lead you into error, but not following itat all will definitely leave you behind in error. Following at the right pace may will lead you to stay committed to old beliefs that become unfashionable, or commit to unexpected new beliefs, whether or not you want to.

    Integrity demands that we not change but for good reason (whether that be emotional, intuitive, intellectual, divine, or whatever), and that when good reason presents itself, that we DO change.

    In the words of Sheldon Van Auken, there is a cliff before AND a cliff behind.

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