Thursday, August 25, 2011

How Do Your Beliefs Change Your Actions?

Stanley Fish has had two op-ed pieces in the New York Times about the real-world impact of philosophy. He argues that philosophy has little impact outside academia because people's philosophical positions do not translate into different decisions and actions. (First piece here, follow-up here.) A key passage:

What exactly will have changed when one set of philosophical views has been swapped for another? Almost nothing. To be sure you will now give different answers than you once would have when you are asked about moral facts, objective truths, irrefutable evidence and so on; but when you are engaged in trying to decide what is the right thing to do in a particular situation, none of the answers you might give to these deep questions will have any bearing on your decision. You won't say, "Because I believe in moral absolutes, I'll take this new job or divorce my husband or vote for the Democrat." Nor will you say, "Because I deny moral absolutes I have no basis for deciding since any decision I make is as good or bad as any other." What you will say, if only to yourself, is "Given what is at stake, and the likely outcomes of taking this or that action, I think I'll do this."

Of course, you could say that this isn't a problem with philosophy per se but rather people's doublethink in our current cultural milieu; fine, but the fact is, Fish is correct, and the more mundane consideration above is how most of us solve problems most of the time, rationalists included.

A recent recurring theme on this blog is an emphasis on outcomes as the real metric of a belief. That's what beliefs are for. As a thought experiment: imagine two computers with identical hardware, running different software. You feed the same string of numbers into each computer. Both produce the same output. You repeat many times, and with the same input, the computer produces the same output. Based on a limited sample size, you can't say for sure that there won't be some cases in the future where the output does differ, but up until now, as far as you're concerned, the two programs are equivalent. Compare this to religious and non-religious Americans who much more often than not, give the same answers to moral philosophy problems (e.g. trolley problems). In my case, I scored 90% identical to liberal Protestants in terms of my own moral sense.

Thomas Aquinas, who sat around categorizing the properties of angels, such as whether more than one could be in the same place. One wonders how a different answer than the one he gave would have affected anybody's actions ever; also, whether he ever thought it actually would.

Liberal Protestants might read this and say, "Then what are you so worried about? Why spend your time telling me to dump my religion when we're substantially the same in our moral behavior?" And in one sense I agree; politically, I'm much less worried about the impact of those liberal Protestants than about Al Qaeda members and Dominionists.

But there's a deeper point here, which is this: if people having two mutually exclusive beliefs on some question does not change their behavior substantially, it does not mean that both beliefs are equally valid. It most probably means that the belief concerns a pointless or meaningless idea that none of us should be wasting our time on. How, it's worth asking theists, would you behave differently today if you suddenly stopped believing in God? For most of them, not at all. So just jettison the supernatural language, and be good people. People do it every day.

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