Thursday, May 23, 2013

"How to Be A Morally Responsible Skeptic"

I recently listened to a thought provoking lecture, "How to Be A Morally Responsible Skeptic," delivered by [the late] Dallas Willard on December 31, 1995 at Indiana University.

Here are some of the takeaways:

“Irresponsible Disbelief.” "The Faith of Unbelief."

“Disbelieving also has its own responsibilities. . . . And I am just not talking about religious matters.”

“Disbelief is regarded as a virtue. Belief is often regarded as a vice. Isn’t it true that the person who doubts today is thought automatically to be smarter than the one who believes? Never mind that you could be as dumb as a cabbage and still say, “Why?” . . . . There is a healthy skepticism. It is right to skeptical, but not dogmatically skeptical. You not only should doubt your beliefs and believe your doubts, but you should doubt your doubts and believe your beliefs.”

“Uncertainty has its consequences as well as certainty. You see, we live in a context today where automatically it is assumed that if you doubt, you don’t really have to justify it. If you believe you have to justify it.”

W. K. Clifford wrote an article titled, “The Ethics of Belief.” “The ethics of belief. . . . We are responsible for our beliefs.”

William James responds to Clifford in an article he originally titled “The Reason to Believe” (which is a better title) but the editor changed it to “The Will to Believe.”

“Often belief is recommended as a way of social acceptance. Also it’s sometimes recommended for peace of mind. If you believe you will be more peaceful. But, you know, neither of those is the main function of belief. The main function of belief is generally is to enable you to integrate your life with reality. It brings you in touch with reality.”

“Your beliefs are there to help you fundamentally integrate your life with reality.”

“A belief is there to integrate you with reality.”

“To be a morally responsible skeptic, simply assume the burden of proof for your disbelief.”

“I want to make a statement of a thesis here . . . . Much, if not most of the unbelief, found in the intellectual world today, is morally reprehensible faith posing as a scientific worldview or something of that sort.”

“Much, if not most of the unbelief, with reference to the larger issues of life, but with also with reference to the nature of truth itself . . . .”

Dr. Willard would often encourage his students: "Go to your Professor (in whatever subject) and ask if they are teaching truth and watch the dance begin."

“Truth is a representation of objects of various kinds as they really are. It is a representation of objects of various kinds as they really are. On the other hand, a lie is a misrepresentation of facts.”

“I want to repeat my thesis here that much, if not most of the unbelief . . . .”

“If you are going to pursue truth you have to have a certain hopefulness about you. And only that will sustain you in the pursuit of truth.”

“So let me repeat. We have assumed that if you doubt you do not need to justify it. That doubting is somehow appropriate in the general frame of the world as it exists. Belief, on the other hand, has to be justified. And what I have said to you is that is not true because unbelief governs behavior and its consequences in precisely the same way belief does.”

“Belief is a disposition or a readiness to act as if something were so.”

“But you know belief is what governs life. And you always act on your beliefs. Faith, in the sense of something you may profess, may not govern your life. What you really believe is what your life runs on. Your beliefs are the rails as it were on which your life runs. And you will act on them. And that is exactly what you will do about your disbeliefs. And is this regard, beliefs and disbeliefs are no different. Your disbeliefs will also guide your life. Instead perhaps of acting on something you will not be prepared to act on it. But it’s a funny thing about human life. Not acting is acting. Did you know that? You can’t do nothing. Not acting is acting. It is based on belief, representation, values, the whole theory of action applies to disbelief just the way it does to belief. Consequences are real.”

“And recognizing unbelief governs behavior and its consequences in precisely the same way that belief does is the key to understanding why so far as belief and unbelief are concerned we have to have the same attitude towards them. We have to be morally responsible for them in the very same ways. We have to be rational. Now we would like for our beliefs to be true. Ideally we would have only true beliefs. And it’s possible for us to know that some of our beliefs are true. But many of our beliefs we cannot know for sure they’re true. We can only have varying degrees of probability. And moral responsibility at that point is or dictates that we should be as rational as possible with reference to our beliefs. That is to say we should do everything in our power to guarantee the likelihood, the highest likelihood, that our beliefs are true. To be morally responsible for our beliefs then is to be rational. It is to be rational in our conduct of life. And if we want to be responsible for our disbeliefs, the way to do that is to be a rational person. Same as our beliefs, be a rational person.”

"A rational person will attempt to reason soundly. They are committed to reasoning soundly."

"Rationality is commitment. A commitment to reason soundly. . . . Seek the best possible evidence you can find from every possible source. Reading. Listening. Listening is a major part of being a rational person."

“We don’t try to defend what we already believe in the sense that we hold sacrosanct the beliefs that we already hold.”

“If there were a better way to follow, Jesus Christ would be the first to say, ‘Take it.’”

“If we are committed to truth we must not hold our beliefs above the play of serious inquiry.
That’s a part of what it means to be rational.”

“And if we wanted to be rational with reference to our beliefs or our disbeliefs in religion, we would follow the same pattern: of seeking the best evidence, of reasoning soundly, of listening to everyone that we could listen to about it. We would be thorough in our research.”

G. K. Chesterton used to say: “We don’t know enough about the unknowable to know that it is unknowable.”

“It is often assumed that if you believe anything you’re an idiot. And to be discounted. And that’s a relatively recent thing but there it is. It used to be assumed if you’re not a believer you were an idiot—or worse.”

[78.36 mins (48 mins lecture / 30 mins Q & A)]

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