Sunday, August 26, 2007

Correct Beliefs

Sean over at Cosmic Variance often wonders about religious belief and morality:
People sometimes argue back and forth about whether religious belief is a good thing, because it induces believers to be moral or charitable. In a big-picture sense, I think arguments of this form completely miss the point; beliefs should be judged on whether they are correct or incorrect, not on whether they cause people to do good or bad things.
I generally agree with some of the things he says on this topic, although I am often puzzled by his focus on "correct beliefs" and the idea that you actually can judge beliefs on whether they are correct or incorrect. Also, I don't get a lot of utility out of telling people that their religious beliefs are wrong and that mine are correct (although plenty of people on the internet seem to find this quite enjoyable) so I suppose I fall into the camp of those who are quite happy to have people religious people in the world and don't generally see that they are more or less moral than the non-religious.

Generally I place politics over epistemology. I don't really care what people believe -- because, let's face it, people believe some crazy stuff and no one really agrees with anyone else -- but because I do have to share the planet with other people, I am concerned about what they do. Religious folks who share my values and are out there doing good in the world are pretty damn awesome in my book and I am happy to work with them to make a better and more just world. This isn't to say that non-religious folks aren't doing good work, just that there are a lot of religious people who undoubtedly are.

What's more, I have serious doubts that most beliefs are even falsifiable - i.e. that there is even a framework for deciding correct vs. incorrect. Leaving religion aside, not every belief conforms to the high standards of scientific discourse, even for people who are working scientists. Honestly, most political beliefs (right, left, up, down) are more about values than rational appraisal of evidence and thus fall into this category.

Anyway, I agree with Sean that it's pointless to try to measure the aggregate good caused by religion and compare it against the aggregate evil, but I'm also suspicious of the idea that our all of our beliefs can or should be judged by scientific standards. I'm sure this makes me an "appeaser" in the eyes of the New Atheism Movement, but the only people I've ever met who claimed to be "totally rational in every facet of their life" were Objectivists. And that just ain't cool.

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