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Part Four of an Imaginary Conversation on Faith and Belief Between Aristotle and William James Part Four of an Imaginary Conversation on Faith and Belief Between Aristotle and William James
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2013-04-14 09:13:43
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William James: Good morning Professor Aristotle. May I ask you a question on belief or faith?

Aristotle: But of course Professor James. I’d consider it an honor and a privilege to answer  questions from an eminent psychologist/philosopher such as yourself.

J. Are you the ancient who said or at least implied that the fact that belief may be good for us does not guarantee its truth?

A. I may not have expressed it exactly that way but, as a convinced rationalist, I’d have to agree with such a statement.

J. Well, as you certainly know, I have argued for the truth of religion precisely on that basis, especially in my famous essay “The Will to Believe.”

A. Yes I have read your work on psychology and I am impressed by your analysis of what happens to people psychologically when they undergo a religious conversion. But my puzzlement is this: what does it have to do with cold rational truth?

J. Indeed, you are quite correct, as usual, Professor Aristotle; that is the crucial question. I have argued in that essay of mine to which I have alluded that the truth of religious claims is decided the same way the truth of any other claim is decided: by the value to the believer for believing it, or in terms of the practical consequences or results to a person’s life.

A. Sounds utilitarian or functionalistic to me. I don’t see in that definition anything resembling the concept of “piety” or respect for the gods, not to speak of respect for truth, convenient or inconvenient as it may turn out to be. But go on.

J. Well, in my philosophy of pragmatism the adjective pragmatic means having to do with practical matters. So, in practical terms the meaning, or the logos as you Greeks called it, of a claim has to do with the sort of change believing it makes on a person in terms of behavior and mental balance. I claim that desirable beliefs are the sort of beliefs that make people act in positive and beneficial ways; which is to say, that makes them better than what they would otherwise be. In my research for my book The Varieties of Religious Experiences I discovered much evidence that religious beliefs where of that kind.

A. But I ask again: what does this have to do with truth as such?

J. You may think that I am trying to evade your question, but in my Pragmatic Theory of Truth calling beliefs true simply means that those beliefs are good for people to hold; they make them better off.

A. So you are saying that the usefulness of a belief is the evidence that it is true? Again I point out that you may be confusing psychology with philosophy. But hasn’t truth always been understood as the correspondence with the way things are ontologically? And if that is the case, the truth of a particular belief and its potential beneficial consequences are two different things.

J. Not really. Isn’t having true beliefs an advantage in practical matters?

A. It may or may not be. There may be true beliefs that actually makes us worse off. Vice versa, there may be false beliefs that makes us better off.

J. For instance?

A. Imagine that your mother who is of very advanced age, would be quite upset if you were to tell her the terrible experiences you may be presently undergoing.

J. I don’t follow.

A. I am saying that in such a case, for you mother to know the truth about you might well hasten her death and such a knowledge may do absolutely nothing to help you out of your difficulties. Knowing such a truth about you would simply maker her miserable. Would she be better off in believing that all is fine?

J. Perhaps.

A. Even if you don’t completely agree with my premise, I have offered you an example of a true belief making somebody worse off, and a false belief making the same person better off, not to speak of those beliefs which are neither beneficial nor harmful; they are wholly inane and irrelevant either way. Much data spewed forth by today’s media is factually true but as a belief it is completely irrelevant and useless. An example is the inane and scurrilous reporting of the media on the recent Papal conclave, slightly informative but lacking in inspiration and a depth analysis of an institution that happens to be the oldest on earth.

J. I see where you are going with this argument Professor Aristotle, but I continue to hold that according to my pragmatic philosophy it is not the wonderful enunciations, principles and preaching of virtue that reveals what people truly believe but the way they act.

A. I can certainly agree on that Professor James; too contrived a virtue lacking prudence and balance is a pseudo virtue.

J. Indeed, to enshrine in a Constitution ideals such as freedom and equality and inalienable human rights but then retain one’s slaves and thus violate those ideals in practice (i.e., pragmatically) as both you ancient Greeks and us modern Americans did, is to have shown what we truly believed despite our pious pronunciation about equality and human rights.

A. I think you have a point there Professor James but I need to ponder it. We can pick this up at our next conversation.

J. That’s just fine. Have a good day Professor Aristotle.  

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