Arguments and core beliefs

We Postmoderns are apparently particularly cynical about the power of arguments in the face of religious beliefs. Problematically, our idea of religion is so vague (it can be theist or non-theist, dogmatic or practical, personal or communal, syncretist or exclusive, and any combination of these) that “religion” ends up collapsing into “core belief” or some equivalent. This cynicism was given its modern structure by the psychological revolution that (to oversimplify) divided reason from from our deepest and most motivating drives and experiences. Reason was seen as a secondary phenomena that came along to give plausible justifications and an acceptable public face on decisions that were already made. Steven Pinker goes so far as to say that we can prove this by experiment:  if you take someone whose right and left hemispheres of the brain have been severed, and give a command to leave the room on a card that can only be perceived in the right hemisphere, then the person will leave the room, but when you ask them why they do so, they will invent some reason like “I wanted a soda” etc.  Pinker takes this not as a coping behavior to deal with serious brain damage that leaves a man unable to access a reason he knows he must have but as an insight into what intact brains are doing. I for one can’t decide between the options, and the prerequisite assumptions Pinker is working from are too extensive for me to say much about it. But the general cynicism about the power of abstract arguments in the face of core beliefs is open to some basic objections:

1.) It is contrary to experience to say we never change our minds on the basis of arguments. The number of arguments that have changed my core beliefs are few compared to the number I’ve heard, and I doubt you could ever observe them under experimental conditions or predict exactly what would do the trick, but it’s happened more than once.

Even arguments that have changed my core beliefs have not all worked in the same way: some come in a flash and work quickly; and among these some are exciting new insights and others are painful realizations. Some arguments have no effect at first and gradually work over some period of time. Other arguments were ineffectual of themselves but contributed towards a cumulative case; other arguments were ineffective when given by one person but not when given by another.

2.) We wouldn’t want to be the sort of persons who followed reason wherever it went – it’s not morally upright or even rational to do so. Reason is far to experimental, capricious, dialectical, prone to err, and confined within its circumstances to have our core beliefs follow it down every path it wanders down. There’s a name for the sort of person who always changes his core beliefs in the face of new evidence: a flake.

3.) Our modern psychologically and experimentally based cynicism of reason easily gives rise to a meta-cynicism of its own motives. The psychological or scientific story smells suspiciously like a salvation narrative/myth: Man finds himself in the grip of dark forces (subconscious, neural networks) he cannot possibly overcome by his own wits, and he can only be saved if he gives himself over to… (wait for it) … Psychotherapy! Oh wait, it’s no longer 1950, so … (wait for it) …. “the” scientific method!

4.) Changing core beliefs is a matter of being touched to the heart, but different things move different people. One who loves logically rigorous and abstract arguments are not bloodless and cerebral – they are moved by the beauty of these things.


  1. Kristor said,

    February 6, 2013 at 4:06 pm

    “Some arguments have no effect at first and gradually work over some period of time.”

    That’s how it was for me with Anselm’s Ontological Argument. The first time I encountered it, I scoffed. “Pish,” said I. It seemed like a pathetic appeal to mere words.

    But I kept reading and thinking about it, and gradually I realized it was one of the strongest arguments I had ever encountered.

    The Argument didn’t change my core beliefs – I was a theist to begin with – but it did deepen my understanding of what must be the case if theism is true.

    • FZ said,

      February 7, 2013 at 10:56 am

      I really like Nagasawa’s paper on that argument. He shows pretty well that island style parodies fail because they are not parallel to Anselm’s argument. The atheist could still counter with an Evil God or Deist God parody, but I think that a move like that is more damaging to atheism then it is to theism.

      • February 7, 2013 at 1:25 pm

        Bertrand Russell once became convinced that the Ontological Argument was sound too; and he didn’t refute himself later but was simply unable to reconstruct what he saw.

  2. Kristor said,

    February 7, 2013 at 2:32 pm

    I found Hartshorne’s book “Anselm’s Discovery” amazingly helpful.

  3. j mct said,

    February 8, 2013 at 1:23 am

    Per Pinker, an implicit assumption about his theory about reasons being post facto to beliefs is that it doesn’t apply to Pinker.

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