Friday, January 26, 2007

What is a "valid" belief?

Okay, while I'm expanding my vocabulary, any idea what a "valid" belief is?

For example, D.A.N. writes that standing up for your beliefs involves "understanding that other belief systems are valid, and no less valid than your belief system." We are also meant to understand that "beliefs do not always have [need?] concrete evidence to support them and that a lack of evidence does not necessarily make a belief system invalid."

Now what in the world does he mean? I would have thought that "valid" meant something like "good", "reasonable", or "justified" (i.e. epistemically permissible). But then D.A.N.'s claims would be plainly false. It's just not true that all belief systems are equally well grounded. You really shouldn't hold baseless beliefs. And it wouldn't make much sense to "stand up for your beliefs" if you didn't think they were objectively any better than the alternatives. Emotivists aside, opposing torture isn't like cheering for your local sports team.

In short: relativism is false. But are those who claim that 'all beliefs are equally valid' just silly relativists, claiming that all beliefs are equally good? A more charitable interpretation, I guess, would be to understand 'valid' in this context as meaning something more like 'tolerable'. All belief systems are equally tolerable. Some are stupid, perhaps, but that's no excuse for persecution.

But now we seem left with a truism. (Who seriously advocates a new Inquisition to forcibly root out false beliefs? Setting aside socially pernicious ones, at least...) There's not much point asserting something that no-one disagrees with anyway.

Perhaps it's simply a metaphorical call to refrain from expressing negative judgments. Some beliefs may be daft, but you shouldn't say so. It ain't nice. For that matter, you probably shouldn't even suggest that some beliefs are false. Believers might be offended. Now, it really wouldn't do to imply that people are ever less than perfect -- they might not like that, see. What? Something to be said for recognizing room for improvement? No, no, that clearly implies that we're not already perfect. That just won't do at all. Not at all. No.

*cough* Sorry, just had to get that out of my system.

To be fair, overly harsh scorn and derision might take the fun out of life. But if we value truth and rationality at all, there must be some legitimate place for reasoned criticism in the public sphere. If weaselly talk of "validity" is used to undermine these values, that's something to watch out for.


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  2. I've always taken "valid belief" to be analogous to "valid argument." That is of equal justification but not necessarily equal truth. Just like arguments can be valid without being sound.

    Of course this is used rather loosely by many - especially those with little philosophical background (or worse just enough to be dangerous).

    I suspect that what your interlocutor is getting at is something like anti-foundationalism. Once you reject the idea of absolute incontrovertible basis for knowledge then there are all those other approaches to "knowledge." i.e. coherence, stability, etc. Given those varying epistemic approaches you can have multiple justified beliefs without concrete evidence. That is, an anti-foundational approach to belief.

    However as we both know the philosophers espousing these approaches to knowledge are much more careful than most naive uses. As used, especially in far too many non-philosophical humanity departments, it ends up being a kind of quasi-relativism. Which is why a little philosophy can sometimes be worse than no philosophy.

  3. To add, the big error folks espousing such views of "equally valid" is in never analyzing the reasons for belief so as to see if they are, in fact, equally valid. Considering that most justifications for belief aren't just deductive in nature but include induction and other logic then the assumption of "equal validity" seems rather doubtful a claim to make.

  4. Thanks, Chloe!

    Clark - yeah, my first thought was that 'valid' = 'justified' (or reasonable, etc.) but relativism about justification seems no better than relativism about truth. So that's why I was wondering if there was some other interpretation.

    The analogy with valid arguments is interesting. Loosely put, we might say that a valid argument is one that can't be ruled out simply as a matter of form. It needs to be considered on the merits of its content (i.e. premises). That's not enough to establish that it's a reasonable argument, of course -- the premises might still be absurd.

    Is there an analogous status for beliefs? The status falls short not only of truth, but even of full justification. But it passes the most minimal test, say of being worthy of public discourse, or of getting a "fair hearing". Do any beliefs fail this test?

  5. One possible interpretation of "valid" (and one which I am sympathetic to) is simply "valuable", where the kind of "value" under consideration is not primarily truth-value or epistemic-value, but primarily social value or emotional value or aesthetic value. So, for example, some people once held that the rainbow is a spell made up of seven chants, each of a different colour; and some other people hold that volcanic eruptions are expressions of divine discontent. These beliefs are valuable, I suppose, in the sense that they gave coherence and beauty to the mental lives of the people who believed them; and perhaps also because they served some kind of social purpose (perhaps they acted as mnemonics of some kind; or perhaps as stories they established some kind of camaraderie between the teller and the listener.)

    Of course, philosophers are likely to emphasise the importance of epistemic-value when assessing a belief; while people in "non-philosophical humanity departments" are often likely to emphasise other kinds of value. And I suspect that the disagreement between the two kinds of people stems not so much from any difference in opinion about the relative truth-values of various beliefs, as it does from a difference (and I think a quite major difference) in opinion about how to weight the different kinds of value that one can attribute to a belief.

    I agree, though, that the word "valid", as often used, is vague and misleading: I think more effort should be made by the user to point out that beliefs can be equally valuable (in the broad sense of "value") without being equally true or equally well-justified.

  6. As a Quinean I would think that

    beliefs do not always have [need?] concrete evidence to support them and that a lack of evidence does not necessarily make a belief system invalid

    is true, whereas

    understanding that other belief systems are valid, and no less valid than your belief system

    is false.

    (That's just from the 1953 Two Dogmas paper.)

  7. Hi, long time reader.

    This post got me thinking. I'm almost certain that your "more charitable interpretation" is what was meant. Using "valid" as a technical term (like a valid argument) obscures (literally) the common sense of the term.

    I think of having a "valid" membership or a "valid" parking permit to the throne, which seems to mean "able to be tendered". This would fit with D.A.N's comment being about tolerance and also with yours: not all beliefs stand up to critcal/rational investigation as well as others.

    I do wonder thought, how many strawmen are constructed precisely because someone listens to words in their technical dennotations that are meant in much more common, fluid ways.

  8. I taught on Friday, and a student of mine said the *exact same thing*.

    It would be better if he had said that there are many conflicting or contradictory views, each of which has just as much going for it as the others. (Obviously, not *all* beliefs are just as "valid" as others).

    I suspect that this is true. It is either true because reasonable pluralism is true, or because there are many things we just don't know about. We might not know what you know (and haven't told us yet) and so believe something different. Or we might attach different subjective probabilities to some purported facts, and come to differing conclusions reasonably (provided the weighting is reasonable), and so on.

    The claim that all beliefs are just as good as any others is probably my biggest pet peeve. It is not the height of intellectual sophistication to (pretend to) be a radical relativist.


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