Saturday, July 9, 2011

Understanding and Belief

Not too long ago I was discussing naturalistic evolution with an atheist. After a while of being unable to convince me of its truth, he told me that if I understood it, I would believe it. And further that since I didn't believe it or understand it, that any arguments I offered would be strawmen, and he didn't have to respond to them. I let the discussion rest at that point. Not because I saw the problem with what he was saying, but more because I was caught "off guard" and saw that he had actually come to that conclusion before we even began the conversation.

I wasn't too worried about it at the time, but I've come across similar claims from those who don't agree with me on other things as well. So I'm going to take a few minutes to put together a response for such claims.

Let's start with "you don't believe it, therefore you can't understand it". Understanding does not guarantee belief that something is true. For instance, if that were true, then there could never be an expert in mythology or fictional literature. These people do not believe that these stories are true, yet they can still understand them quite well. We would never tell a mythologist that they “don’t believe that Jack climbed a beanstalk and found a giant in the clouds” because they don’t understand it.  In fact, it is precisely that they DO understand the story that they DO NOT believe it to be true. On the flip-side experts in history believe that things did actually happen because of their understanding. Understanding can lead to either belief or disbelief.

There is also an idea that keeps coming up that since we don’t believe something, there is no possible way for us to truly understand it (kind of the opposite claim of the one above). It seems to me that if this were completely true, then “blind faith” would be required for ANY belief (religious or not).  I grant that no one (including myself) will ever possess complete understanding of the essence of what we believe. Some small level of understanding will always exist, and initial belief or disbelief is arrived at from that. Beyond that initial belief, more investigation takes place. The investigation may lead to a lowering of the level of belief or may increase the level. Whether we believe something or not, does not prevent us from understanding it more. If so, then the mythologists are prevented from understanding myths more thoroughly just because they reject their truth due to a basic understanding of the myth (likely at an early age). 

Some people take these accusations even further to say that if someone does not believe something, they are incapable of arguing soundly against it- the unbeliever will NEVER represent the idea accurately and will ALWAYS put forth a strawman. If this were the case, then a mythologist is not capable of showing why or how a certain story is not true. If this is taken to its logical conclusion, then no one could show that ANYTHING is false soundly. There would be no reason for believing that any idea or representation of reality was actually incorrect. 

Understanding is crucial to either believing or disbelieving that an idea is true. That makes a proper understanding even more crucial. We need to make sure that we correctly understand an idea before we can decide on whether or not to accept it as true. As I mentioned above, we cannot wait for complete understanding, because that will never come. There is also nothing wrong with changing a position on the truth of an idea after further investigation. Further investigation tends to lead to better understanding, and that will determine whether or not we believe.

The results of our investigation will be the reasons for our belief or disbelief. Those reasons can be presented as arguments for or against a view. The arguments need to be evaluated on their own merits. If they are found unsound, they either need to be altered or abandoned. If they are found sound, then the other side needs to acknowledge the argument then deal with it, instead of making nonsensical accusations like those addressed here.

Other related posts:
Positive and Negative Arguments
Filling in the Gaps
Misengaged in Battle
Dangers of Consistent "Tolerance"

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