2013-05-02
My problem is with the word "belief"
Occasionally I have been asked by students what I myself believe, especially when it come to more sensitive topics dealing with a  religious outlook.  My answer typically is that I do not want to influence their own classroom discussion by intruding my personal outlook.  In this way I can continue to play Socrates,constantly challenging positions put forward without having to defend any stand of my own.

The truth of the matter, though, is that I am very uncomfortable with that term "belief."  Again, in the classroom, I will often cite as an axiom the idea from William James that beliefs are rules for action so that the content of a belief matters less to me than how it determines someone's behavior.  Consequently, I am far less interested in many of the standard debates dealing with metaphysical or epistemological issues than I am with discussions involving ethics and political theory.   At the same time, though, I understand full well that there are certain key assumptions about what we think we are as human beings that will unavoidably bring up many of the classic M&E issues (free will, the possibility of immortality, etc). 

That is not to say that I am particularly accepting of pragmatism as such.  Some time back after seeing the film,  I found myself cringing at the manner in which "The Life of Pi" was interpreted as a case for religious belief.  To say "X believes Y is true" still ought to mean more than "X wants Y to be true."  At the same time I do not think it should be taken to mean "X is committed to thinking of Y as true."  There is something between these two that I do not think has yet been adequately expressed.  It is analogous to what we do when we say we believe in someone, whether in a personal relationship or in a discussion about whom to support in an election.  It reflects a balancing of evidence and attitude and as such is clearly open to modification as either component changes.

Obviously the survey was geared to the concept of an intellectual commitment.  This does bother me.  When someone chooses among differing positions presented, does this indicate personal conviction or just an appraisal of the relative strength of the argumentation supporting it?  If the first, is it a conviction based on thoughtful analysis or one more nearly approximating what we have in mind with the term "faith" used as reflecting an act of the will?  I appreciate the distinction in the survey that allowed the choice of "leaning towards" a particular view, but the very manner in which the choices were themselves crystallized with classic labels (physicalism, dualism, etc.) actually invites this. 

I certainly respect the intentions of those undertaking the project and I do not see how in any way they could have developed a usable survey that would have dealt with the questions I have here.  What I hope is that possibly there could be something to follow it up that might actually be a better indicator of the extent to which we find real paradigm shifts in our profession.






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