Years ago when I was struggling with whether I should become an atheist or not, several arguments dissuaded me from going that route. One argument which I had come up with for myself was a purely pragmatic argument which seemed, at the time, pretty good to me. In retrospect and with the advantage of a bit more maturity, I think the argument I had in mind was far from compelling. However, it was interesting nevertheless. I was unfortunately never able to track down certain miscellaneous quotes from Nietzsche with the use of which I wanted to frame part of the argument, but that may be because they were apocryphal to begin with. In any case, I will, in what follows, try to give the reader a decent sense of how this pragmatic argument is supposed to go.
In my youth I was committed to the project of truth-seeking; I felt uncompromising and optimistic. I recall, just by way of anecdote, that a professor of mine in a pre-university philosophy course asked the class which we would rather be: a happy pig or a miserable philosopher. I was one of the few (perhaps, actually, the only one) who said I would rather be the miserable philosopher, because the philosopher would be better able to ascertain the truth. This illustrated, I thought, my commitment to believing something – anything – in virtue only of its truth. This seemed to me, at the time, both right-headed and morally upstanding. However, there came a point where I began to feel myself sliding inevitably towards atheism, naturalism, empiricism and nihilism (a philosophical cocktail of bad ideas). I was slightly horrified by the thought that this collection of ideas may be true, and that perhaps intellectual sincerity would lead any inquiring mind (or, perhaps, at least mine) to affirm them. I reasoned that if they were true, however unpleasant I may find them, I ought to believe them.
It was only after a bit of reflection, coupled with sufficient exposure to two atheistic intellects (namely, Friedrich Nietzsche and William Clifford) that I began to recognize that I was illegitimately importing a sort of quasi-Judeo-Christian commitment into my ethics of belief. I realized that if atheism and nihilism were true, then were would be no robust ethics of belief at all, no moral imperative to believe that atheism is true. On the Judeo-Christian view, there is a sort of natural connection between truth, goodness and beauty. Beauty, on this view, is indicative of goodness, goodness of truth, and these relations are reciprocal. I had not previously considered, however, just how intellectually revolutionary atheism really is; there is, as far as I can see, absolutely no reason to suspect that the truth is either good or beautiful if atheism is true. The truth would just be whatever it is, however ugly or horrifying, however existentially disorientating and dreadful. In such a scenario, where is the moral value in believing in that which is true for no other reason than that it is true?
These ruminations led me to construct the following argument:
- Either theism is true, or atheism is true.
- If theism is true, then I ought to believe that theism is true.
- If atheism is true, then I ought to believe that theism is true.
- Therefore, I ought to believe that theism is true.
Intuitively the most surprising premise here is clearly the third, but I think that there are some eligible reasons for thinking that it is true. Allow me a moment to unpack that, a little, by appealing to Nietzsche.
Friedrich Nietzsche was one of the most stunning atheistic intellectuals of all time as well as one of the most perceptive avant-guarde philosophers (if he can be called a philosopher) to ever hold pen to paper. I have been fascinated with him at least since reading On the Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic. His insights, in some ways, have the eerie quality of haunting the mind forevermore once they have been introduced. It is to him I appeal, partly, in setting up this pragmatic argument for belief in theism. Consider the following two passages from Beyond Good and Evil:
“All psychology so far has been stuck in moral prejudices and fears: it has not ventured into the depths. To grasp psychology as morphology and the doctrine of the development of the will to power, which is what I have done – nobody has ever come close to this, not even in thought: this, of course, to the extent that we are permitted to regard what has been written so far as a symptom of what has not been said until now. The power of moral prejudice has deeply affected the most spiritual world, which seems like the coldest world, the one most likely to be devoid of any presuppositions – and the effect has been manifestly harmful, hindering, dazzling, and distorting… But suppose somebody considers even the affects of hatred, envy, greed, and power-lust as the conditioning affects of life, as elements that fundamentally and essentially need to be present in the total economy of life, and consequently need to be enhanced where life is enhanced, – this person will suffer from such a train of thought as if from sea-sickness. And yet even this hypothesis is far from being the most uncomfortable and unfamiliar in this enormous, practically untouched realm of dangerous knowledge: – and there are hundreds of good reasons for people to keep out of it, if they – can! On the other hand, if you are ever cast loose here with your ship, well now! come on! clench your teeth! open your eyes! and grab hold of the helm! – we are sailing straight over and away from morality; we are crushing and perhaps destroying the remnants of our own morality by daring to travel there – but what do we matter! Never before have intrepid voyagers and adventurers opened up a more profound world of insight: and the psychologist who “makes sacrifices” (they are not the sacrifizio dell’intelletto – to the contrary!) can at least demand in return that psychology again be recognized as queen of the sciences, and that the rest of the sciences exist to serve and prepare for it. Because, from now on, psychology is again the path to the fundamental problems.”1
A little later he writes:
“Something could be true even if it is harmful and dangerous to the highest degree. It could even be part of the fundamental character of existence that people with complete knowledge get destroyed, – so that the strength of a spirit would be proportionate to how much of the “truth” he could withstand – or, to put it more clearly, to what extent he needs it to be thinned out, veiled over, sweetened up, dumbed down, and lied about. But there is no doubt that when it comes to discovering certain aspects of the truth, people who are evil and unhappy are more fortunate and have a greater probability of success (not to mention those who are both evil and happy – a species that the moralists don’t discuss).”2
Nietzsche is, here, highlighting the point that there is no reason to believe there will be any correlation between truth and desirability, much less truth and goodness. If psychology, not physics, philosophy or theology, is the true queen of the sciences, then why the truth? Why not rather the lie?
There is, however, a caveat. Even if moral nihilism is ultimately true in the sense that there is no moral ontology, a naturalist, I thought, should still practice something like rule-utilitarianism, even if only out of self-interest (which, I suppose, makes it a form of ethical egoism). What I mean by that is that atheists can still have a rationale for adopting an ethics of belief; one which is admittedly not morally loaded, but which is nevertheless sufficient for practical purposes. They can appeal, for instance, to personal preferences for living in the context of a social contract. That is, in fact, what I was preparing to do if I became an atheist.
What does this atheistic ethic of belief come to? In answer to this I can turn to William Clifford, whose evocative essay, The Ethics of Belief, is the “locus classicus”3 for subsequent philosophical reflection on the ethics of belief. In that essay Clifford argued that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”4 He reasoned that beliefs formed upon insufficient evidence were liable to lead, in general, to otherwise avoidable suffering, providing some provocative thought experiments to illustrate his point. He insisted that beliefs are really just the chain-links between sensation and action, and that no bona fide belief has no influence over action. Perhaps I can be permitted to quote him at length;
“Nor is it that truly a belief at all which has not some influence upon the actions of him who holds it. He who truly believes that which prompts him to an action has looked upon the action to lust after it, he has committed it already in his heart. If a belief is not realized immediately in open deeds, it is stored up for the guidance of the future. It goes to make a part of that aggregate of beliefs which is the link between sensation and action at every moment of all our lives, and which is so organized and compacted together that no part of it can be isolated from the rest, but every new addition modifies the structure of the whole. No real belief, however trifling and fragmentary it may seem, is ever truly insignificant; it prepares us to receive more of its like, confirms those which resembled it before, and weakens others; and so gradually it lays a stealthy train in our inmost thoughts, which may someday explode into overt action, and leave its stamp upon our character for ever. And no one man’s belief is in any case a private matter which concerns himself alone. Our lives are guided by that general conception of the course of things which has been created by society for social purposes. Our words, our phrases, our forms and processes and modes of thought, are common property, fashioned and perfected from age to age; an heirloom which every succeeding generation inherits as a precious deposit and a sacred trust to be handled on to the next one, not unchanged but enlarged and purified, with some clear marks of its proper handiwork. Into this, for good or ill, is woven every belief of every man who has speech of his fellows. An awful privilege, and an awful responsibility, that we should help to create the world in which posterity will live”5
To have beliefs which are formed upon insufficient evidence, then, is to be liable to act on misinformation, which, if it results in preventable harm, represents the fruits of a failure to properly discharge one’s social duties in forming one’s beliefs. I have treated more extensively of Clifford’s views elsewhere (and I refer the interested reader to another post here), so I won’t spend any time critiquing his views. What is significant, here, is that all the thought experiments Clifford provides make clear that he is a consequentialist, and, in particular, presumably a rule-utilitarian. That implies, though, that if there were a false belief which led, on its own, to no negative consequences (and perhaps even led to positive ones) it could be adopted without fear of failing to discharge one’s ethical duties with respect to belief-formation.
Clifford’s ethic may provide the atheist with an understandable motivation to eradicate religion. What, though, about theism? Theism and religion are not necessarily inseparable; there are atheistic religions (e.g., Buddhism) as well as irreligious forms of theism (e.g., Deism). So what difference does theism itself make? Well, it allows one to consistently avoid moral nihilism, for a start. It safeguards us against the overwhelming existential angst of living in a world in which our entire lives necessarily amount to nothing more than ‘sound and fury signifying nothing,‘ the effect of taking seriously is veritably crippling. Theism provides a rational basis for hope, a firm foundation for existential optimism. Theism seems more psychologically natural (consider the reasons evolutionary psychologists provide for why we have beliefs like theism at all), it is more epistemically conservative, it is in line with phenomenal conservatism. Indeed, if one is a pragmatist, then I think one already has good reasons to be a theist; theism, after all, adds nothing but philosophical elegance and existential optimism to one’s view of the world. Provide me with any naturalistic view of reality and I can create at least one theistic parody of it with the result that the view I provide will have no relevant differences save for improvements like having fewer brute facts, or being existentially more bearable (of course, it may also be slightly less parsimonious, but at an agreeable cost, and besides, it isn’t easy to see why parsimony would be valuable in its own right on atheism, even if it were,6 on atheism, indicative of truth).
One can easily imagine an old widow, living alone with only her faith and knitting needles to comfort her as she faces the prospect of death. Strip her faith of every element save for theism (and whatever one might have to add to theism to get existential optimism in the face of death); can anyone imagine a scenario where that belief alone contributes in any way to otherwise avoidable suffering? Does anyone really think it can be our moral duty to disabuse her of her belief in God? One might argue that the belief invites more of its kind, and it is, in kind, a belief based upon apparently insufficient evidence. However, there is a sub-kind of this kind which, I’m arguing, can be believed upon insufficient evidence with no possibility of negative consequences, and it is this ‘kind’ of belief about which Clifford must remain silent. After all, we don’t want to disqualify beliefs on the basis of arbitrary ‘kinds,’ and I have pointed to a significant difference in kind between beliefs like theism and the sorts of religious or superstitious beliefs to which Clifford’s attention is drawn.
Now, in reality, I think much more can be said by way of defense not only of religious beliefs, but of the proper basicality of beliefs like the belief that God exists. However, I am attempting to make religion (and controverted epistemologies) as peripheral to the argument as possible, and attempting to show how theism, at least, seems always and everywhere to be a beneficial belief, all things being equal.
How good, really, is this argument? Well, although I feel that atheism would be a metaphysical nightmare, and I agree with thinkers like Nietzsche (et alia) who recognize that atheism is anything but a desirable truth, perhaps some optimistic atheist would just disagree with this and insist that atheism is good news. Additionally the atheist may argue that it is our social duty to embrace atheism (or the agnostic argue that it is our social duty to embrace agnosticism) because either (i) I am wrong to think that theism in itself (conjoined with whatever auxiliary assumptions will license existential optimism) is a beneficial rather than harmful belief in general, or (ii) I am wrong to think that I can legitimately distinguish the ‘kind’ of belief theism represents and the ‘kind’ of belief Clifford warns us against, or both. Finally, the atheist can also argue that it isn’t so clear that if theism is true one ought to believe that theism is true (perhaps God rewards the intellectual honesty of disbelief). Premise two could, therefore, be called into question, but it will be hard to do so if, on theism, there really is a connection between truth, goodness and beauty (or, at least, a correlation between truth and ultimate desirability). The third premise is obviously the critical one; that if atheism is true, and assuming there can be an ethics of belief at all, it seems to follow that one ought to believe that theism is true in light of the clear psychological (existential, philosophical, et cetera) benefits of belief in God, with none of the potential negative consequences associated with other false beliefs. The only other way to get away from this argument which I can think of would be to deny the first premise by appealing to something like verificationism, logical positivism or non-cognitivism about the proposition “God exists.”
So the argument is, like all arguments, only as powerful for some subject as the premises are plausible to that subject. I can imagine numerous ways for the atheist to object to the argument. I, myself, cannot shake the impression that each premise is extremely plausible, but this impression hangs on the view that atheism would be a horrible truth, theism would be a comparably wonderful truth (which, if true, ought to be believed whether we are pragmatists or correspondence theorists, so long as we agree to have an ethics of belief at all), atheism provides no rationale for believing something merely in virtue of its truth, and that theism, as a belief, seems preferable to atheism even if atheism is true.
1 Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, eds., Rolf-Peter Horstmann and Judith Norman, trans. Judith Norman.” Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy (2002): 23-24.
2 Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, eds., Rolf-Peter Horstmann and Judith Norman, trans. Judith Norman.” Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy (2002): 37.
3 Chignell, Andrew, “The Ethics of Belief”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2017/entries/ethics-belief/>.
4 Chignell, Andrew, “The Ethics of Belief”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2017/entries/ethics-belief/>.
6 For more on that, see Pruss here: http://alexanderpruss.blogspot.ca/2013/08/explaining-simplicity-of-theories.html