Wednesday, 2 September 2015

ANT4 - Doxastic Uncertainty, Non-Contiguous Me and the Provenance of Belief

This is now becoming a series in its own right, hence the change of titles (with appropriate backdating).  The context should now be really easy to find, but just in case … ANT1, ANT2 and ANT3.

ANT's first response (to my response to his comments at ANT3):

Hi neopolitan,

You said: “We’re not assuming selfhood (because we can only truly talk about our experiences of selfhood, without assuming that our experiences are veridical). . .”

You want to introduce epistemological uncertainty, but I’m not sure it makes sense to talk about experience of selfhood. As I stated before, I think experiencing anything at all justifies self-existence, but I cannot think of a specific “selfhood experience” that we could choose to accept or doubt. Acknowledging selfhood is a matter of rational argumentation, not phenomenological experience.

You seem very troubled by the idea of self because it seems to relate to the soul even though it is material, emergent, and ceases to exist upon death (quite un-soul-like). The concept contained herein I feel is inescapable. Either you endorse eliminativism or the self must exist. But, I understand your concern here. Daniel Dennett and other naturalists have the same concern. He thinks self is an illusion whereas freewill exists as an emergent phenomenon (note: Sean Carroll also holds this view on freewill). What exactly is free to act though? We cannot both say that something has freedom and does not exist, this is a logical contradiction. That thing that performs the action, if we trace it backwards from the tip of the finger through nerve fibers to brain to electrical impulse to emergent thing to whatever, that thing we could label as self. Of course science doesn’t understand it, theists hijack it to argue for dualism, and it may be enormously complicated and dynamic. But, it seems to be a center of receiving input and giving output. Some naturalists have conceived of it as a processing system. I don’t think Dennett or Carroll would deny this kind of self. They are simply denying the kind that singularitarians are saying can be uploaded only a silicon chip or potentially transferred between human brains. BTW these guys are not theists either.

It must be ironic for you to hear that your reformulation of the problem begs the question for naturalism since you ask “by what causal mechanism” as if we know for certain that a causal mechanism is responsible for partitioning selves to genetic and local conditions. This is what we are inquiring about. When causal mechanisms are nowhere to be found, we can employ an old atheist debate tactic – absence of evidence is evidence of absence. Therefore, if the self exists, and mental states, intentionality, experience, and so on really do exist in some sense, then naturalism is an incomplete worldview. Or otherwise, what explains the connection between specific selves and specific genetic and local conditions?

Hope your writing is going well. Don’t ever feel pressured to respond soon, not that you would feel pressured. We can correspond over longer time intervals. Happy thinking


ANT's second response (to ANT3):


True, the idea of gifts from a deity deserves more specification because it is distant from naturalism. Seeing your thoughts on the connection between gift and evidence, I think we might ultimately agree on this part. This is conditioned on whether we agree on what counts as evidence. If evidence is restricted to what can be published in modern science journals or what is permissible in law courts, then we have none. If evidence includes what is internal to the person, then some people might have evidence. For example, after I “reconverted” I analyzed the situation to the nth degree and found what really drove my belief was something internal and compelling. I cannot say what the force is or from where it originates. This is not what I wanted to happen! I wanted my worldview to be discovered by sheer power of intellect or an accomplishment worthy of respect, but what ended up happening was humbling.

Your point about the content of the belief is well taken. There are beliefs that are bad for the world, and we don’t have to search long to find examples. So a gift from a good deity would have to be a good gift, and if this were a belief, a good belief rather than one that leads to harm. Also, yes, it’s conceivable from my worldview that the light could go out so-to-speak and I could become an atheist. Job said it best, “The Lord gives and he takes away”. The point of this reality is not to homogenize human belief across the earth and not to create a futuristic superhuman or super-society. The point is to let people live and freely, both good and evil, and judge them, so that when evil and suffering are removed from the structure of reality at the apocalypse, only those who earnestly and humbly sought the good will be brought back.

There are two hypothetical deities we have compared here. The first rewards gullibility which makes the deity not good. The second rewards those who put their gifts to good use and demonstrate their faith in some way (not necessarily religious conviction). Though it does not nullify the problem of evil, this shows that we can be treated fairly with respect to the great cultural diversity on earth.

Does this go off track somewhere? I'll be interested to hear from you.

My response:

Do I want to introduce epistemological uncertainty?  Well, I suspect that I am a little uncertain about that, but I don’t know for sure.

I find it a bit difficult to parse the concept of epistemological uncertainty.  I’ve heard of “epistemic uncertainty”, but I am reasonable certain that you don’t mean that (neither in principle nor in practice).  I take it that you really mean doxastic uncertainty, which would cover both uncertainty with respect to the provenance of our beliefs and uncertainty as to what should be the content of our beliefs.  I would maintain that when we talk about knowledge there is a level of uncertainty built in (and that therefore epistemological uncertainty is a given).

What I mean here is that we can only truly know A if A is true (where the truth of A is necessary, but not sufficient).  However, as individuals, and maybe even as a species, we only have beliefs about what we think we know.  We’d know what we think we know if and only if what we think we know is true.  And we can’t know that, so … we don’t truly know what it is that we know and what it is that we only believe.

Housekeeping note: for the purposes of this discussion, I am going to try to maintain the distinction between epistemological (pertaining to a consideration about what we know) and doxastic (pertaining to a consideration about what we believe).  I’m aware that in most constructions belief is an element of knowledge, such as in the tripartite theory of knowledge alluded to above, but I am also aware that faith is thought to be tripartite by some believers – consisting of knowledge, belief and trust.

It’s possible to have doxastic uncertainty, I suppose, since people do sometimes find themselves in the position where they claim to not know what to believe, bringing us to evidence.  If I were to stumble upon evidence that challenged my world view, I could possibly be unable to decide as to what I should believe.  I’m reasonably cynical about human perceptions, including my own, so I’d probably solve any dilemma quite quickly by choosing to doubt my faculties.  But there are people out there who are far more confident about the accuracy of their perceptions and, in the face of world-view disconfirming evidence, they might be uncertain as to which they should abandon their overweening perceptual confidence or their world-view, which one would assume they would also have considerable confidence in.

I’m not suggesting that it would be appropriate to have doxastic uncertainty of this sort with respect to the self.  However, if you consider my base position, that is being cynical about human perceptions, to be signalling doxastic uncertainty, then yes, I am suggesting doxastic uncertainty with the proviso that it is a nuanced doxastic uncertainty.

My personal experience of self certainly suggests the existence of something that is undergoing the experience of self and that would be, to all intents and purposes, my self.  I consider it reasonable enough, therefore, that experience of self is evidence of self.  What it doesn’t tell me, however, is anything about the nature of self, other than it (whatever it is) is capable of experience.  It doesn’t tell me whether the experiences I have are veridical.  It follows, at least in my world, that I should remain agnostic as to the nature of self … and I think we disagree significantly on the nature of self.

When I use the tools to hand to investigate the nature of self, in order to obtain a belief about that nature (not the existence) of self, all I am able to do is eliminate a few theories from contention.  The most reasonable theory among those that remain is that the nature of self is that of an emergent phenomenon that manifests in my physical brain, that self is categorically not an independent feature of that brain (or any other part of my body or of my “being”).

This doesn’t actually trouble me.  I’m quite comfortable with the idea that whatever self I have will dissipate on my death or the death of my brain and that, whatever it is, self isn’t even contiguous within my lifetime.  I sleep at night and like everyone I have episodes of microsleep.  Sometimes I drift off into my thoughts and become oblivious to the world around me while at other times I am so engrossed in a task that time will fly by as if I am being magically transported into the future, missing what transpires in the meantime.  I have had both general anaesthetic and something similar to propofol – which is administered immediately prior to unpleasant procedures which require the patient to be calm and relaxed but not necessarily unconscious or inert and it has the added benefit of preventing the laying down of memories for the short period that it is active.

Some version of “me” would have experienced the discomfort the procedure at the time but I don’t remember anything about it.  I just remember being wheeled into the surgical theatre, the anaesthetist putting a mask on me and asking me to count back from 10 to 1 and then I was in the recovery ward.  Anything that happened in the half hour or so in between might well have not happened.

I would have to say that the self who experienced discomfort in the surgical theatre was “me”.  But while I remember being the person who was going into theatre I don’t have any recollection of being a person for about half an hour after that.  Because of the nature of the drug, I know that there would have been a contiguous “me” in there, experiencing being a self in discomfort, but there is no chain of experience between the “me” I am today and that person.  In other words, there was some form of “me” in the past that is disconnected from the “me” of today, a “me” that bravely suffered and was no more, allowing another version of “me” to continue on without any sense of being inconvenienced or discomforted by minor surgery.

You want to tie me to eliminative materialism, which I suppose is okay if we limit that concept to the idea of the soul – so if we think of materialism eliminating the soul.  Just note, however, that there may be more to eliminative materialism than the negation of the soul and I am not signing myself up to an entire school of thought just because we have identified this one element of concordance.  The key question is whether I am being eliminative with regard to the self.  The answer would be no, not at all, so long as we permit consideration of an emergent phenomenon that we call “self”.

Could we simulate this emergent phenomenon in silicon?  I don’t know, I personally doubt it, but perhaps we will be able to and the transhumans and singularitarians will eventually have their day.  But I suspect that if I were ever to be “uploaded”, the upload would result in a “me in simulation”, not a “me in actuality”, because I consider being manifested by my own brain within my own body to be a key feature of the phenomenon of self that I refer to as “me”.  If an upload does happen in the future, I am quite sure that my simulation will have a different opinion and might consider that the silicon manifestation of “me” is just as much “me” as my wetware version is today.  The “me” of today will then become a little like the “me” on propofol, yet another non-contiguous version of my self.

I don’t know what you mean by “partitioning selves to genetic and local conditions”.  It seems like partitioning is the wrong word here and you are trying to find another way to say “attributing/designating/allotting selves to genetic and local conditions”, as if the causal mechanisms were distributing pre-existing selves to young humans on the basis of the genetic and local conditions.  That would be soul-like indeed, and I am quite convinced by the arguments against the soul concept.

Now on to gifts (the subject of ANT’s second response):

The first issue revolves around evidence for a deity.  I had said “a true gift would be the provision of evidence that would support a belief, rather than the mere imposition of that belief”.  What you seem to be focussing in on is the veracity of the belief and thus we seem to be blurring the line between the epistemological and the doxastic.  (I’m not sure how I should conjugate “doxastic” into a noun to mirror epistemology, I’m leaning towards doxasty but it could be doxastology or doxastemology.)  With the sort of imposition of belief that we are talking about here, do we know something that we believe or believe something that we know?  Or both?  Or neither?

You ask what counts as evidence and hint that if there is a deity, and that deity is an inherently good deity, then belief in that deity (as imposed on us by the deity) would be good evidence.  Well, possibly, but what would it be evidence of?  It can’t be evidence in support of the belief (other than mere existence of the belief, in the tautological sense that evidence is evidence of evidence).  Perhaps you mean as evidence for the existence of the deity.  But this doesn’t work, because the existence of the deity is a prerequisite for the belief to be good evidence.  You’d have to present a compelling argument that the only way you could come to such a belief, which you experience as imposed upon you rather than coming via intellect, must be from an existent deity – but if you are successful then you won’t need the evidence of your belief anymore.  So, as far as I can tell, it’s not really good evidence.

You apply similar thinking to the idea of imposed belief as a gift.  Let me try to unpack what you wrote: “a gift from a good deity would have to be a good gift, and if this were a belief, a good belief rather than one that leads to harm”.  This assumes the existence of a deity, and that the deity is good, and that a good deity cannot give any other gifts than good gifts.

I agree that a good belief would not lead to harm, but I note that “harm” here is undefined.  We might consider the condemnation of your immortal soul to be “harm” and not be overly concerned about the thousands of kafir, infidels and apostates you might have to kill and torture in order to preserve your soul.  A belief that it’s alright to kill people for not believing correctly would thus be a “good” belief.  A belief that it is better to live and let live could, in this context, be a “bad” belief, because even though you might be dedicated to minimising short-term harm you are enabling long-term harm.  You and I might shy away from this, but only because we don’t have this particular belief (and belief set) imposed on us.  We not only think this is morally wrong, but also factually wrong.

What I am aiming at here is that belief as a good gift would not only be good in the moral sense, but it would also have to veridical.  I think that this strikes at the heart of the beliefs held by religious universalists – the idea that behind all forms of theism (including polytheism and deism, but not atheism and probably not henotheism) is the one god (or a specific group of gods) making all the various faiths true, in a sense.  But surely an untrue belief cannot be a good belief – and even if it were good in some sense, such a belief would be suboptimal, given that there would exist a potential belief that is as good, if not better, and also true.

There seems to be some confusion about what I said with respect to rewarding gullibility.  (Note that I don’t see this as inexorably linked to the idea of imposed belief.)

I made the original comment in the context of the “evidence” that is supposedly provided by the standard Christian deity and the supposed rewards for belief based on such “evidence”.  I’d need more than the “evidence” that is currently available if I were to believe in the existence of this or any other deity.  Now, if belief were imposed on me directly by the deity or if some clarity of mind were granted so that the existing “evidence” became significantly more compelling, then I suppose that might be considered the “more” that I am demanding.  Until then, however, I am simply not inclined to “fake it until I make it”.

You do suggest, however, that the other type of deity, the good one that doesn’t reward gullibility, but instead “rewards those who put their gifts to good use and demonstrate their faith in some way (not necessarily religious conviction)”.  As someone outside of your worldview, I don’t really understand why this faith, which is the problem we started with, should be being rewarded – because “faith” appears to be no more than belief with insufficient evidence.  Therefore, as far as I can see, you’re just moving the problem back a step – no longer is your deity rewarding gullibility per se, but gullibility becomes an essential prerequisite for reward.

I could stomach the idea that your deity might reward people for what good they do in their lives, irrespective of what faith they have or whether they have any faith at all, but as soon as you admit that as a possibility, the whole motivation for being a theist drops away … unless faith in the (correct) deity is posited as some sort of shortcut to reward.  Even then though, this seems to be predicated on the idea that your deity benefits in some way from having humans believe in it and when we look closely at this, such a situation would imply that your deity is less than omnipotent (cue WLC argument with respect to necessary omnipotence).  It also makes the idea of heaven even less appealing that it is already.  There would be those who are there on the basis of their good works and then a group of people, some of them quite horrible people, who are there merely because they had faith.  That doesn’t sound like the game plan of a good and just deity to me.


  1. Hi Neopolitan,

    The distinction between doxastic and epistemological is important, so I’m glad you brought that up. I thought you might be introducing doxastic uncertainty about self-existence through questioning the veridicality of your ‘selfhood experience’. But it seems this is not what you intended. You intended to introduce doxastic uncertainty with regards to the nature of self which I think is perfectly reasonable.

    So in our last few exchanges, I have been asking a question like this – what explains how specific selves associate with specific biophysical conditions? You have interpreted this as presuming substance dualism. This question stems from abstract ideas in my head which are translated rather imperfectly to the world of words and sentences. And it was intended to be neutral towards theories of mind. It assumes that self is core feature of the mind. Therefore, we could replace “associate” with “emerge from” (emergent physicalism), “supervene upon” (supervenient physicalism), and so on. Suppose we tentatively agree on emergent physicalism. The inquiry, at least by intention, assumes that there is a reason why I (self) emerge from these biophysical conditions. What reason could be provided according to naturalism?

    I am flirting with the idea that the naturalist could argue the reason is these occurrences are necessary. This would go along with necessitarian views of Laws of Nature. However, it raises a significant problem for the naturalist. The Laws of Nature may be entirely mathematical, but a Law of Self-emergence would add qualitative complexity to the universe, which may extend to infinity. This is rather inconsistent with the simplicity and elegance desired by the naturalist, and rather a bit like wizardry.

    Another answer might be there simply is no reason because it is random. Barring the problems with randomness (i.e., may not exist, may require substrate), this solution is problematic. The addition of arbitrary qualitative complexity to the universe potentiates the fine-tuning problem. The stench of fine-tuning is so strong that some have gone as far as to reject Karl Popper’s demarcation criterion and adopt other criteria in order to upgrade multiverse from pseudoscience to science.

    Finally, invoking uncertainty about the answer is intellectually humble, but it misses the point of the inquiry. The point is to find at least a hypothetical solution which is consistent with naturalism. The inability to find a hypothetical solution would be a deficiency of naturalism.


  2. Neopolitan,
    I agree with you that “a true gift would be the provision of evidence that would support a belief. . .” Also, I totally agree with you that it is important to distinguish between beliefs and knowledge, and we could further subdivide based on the level of uncertainty as you stated.

    What is imposed upon me is not the belief itself, rather a kind of internal evidence which must be weighed like all other evidences. This means intelligence is indispensible. So what I meant to contrast were two processes that lead to belief. One is dominated by acquiring data and analyzing it to make the best conclusion. It is meritocratic and favors the curious, wealthy, and socially apt. The other is dominated by provision from outside forces wherein the individual’s abilities are not a major factor. The important factor is the individual’s acceptance of provision. This is the difference between merit and grace in Christianity.

    If the imposition were belief itself, I think we would run into the problems you raise. It would be strange discovering within oneself a new belief!

    “I agree that a good belief would not lead to harm, but I note that ‘harm’ here is undefined. . .” and “What I am aiming at here is that belief as a good gift would not only be good in the moral sense, but it would also have to be veridical. . .”
    All good points.

    “I don’t really understand why this faith, which is the problem we started with, should be rewarded – because ‘faith’ appears to be no more than belief with insufficient evidence.”
    By faith, I don’t mean doctrinal belief, rather faith defined as trust. Bottom line, if the Christian deity is as far reaching as they say, and demonstrating trust is important, there must be opportunities to demonstrate trust for all people of all worldviews.

    “I could stomach the idea that your deity might reward people for what good they do in their lives, irrespective of what faith they have or whether they have faith at all, but as soon as you admit that as a possibility, the whole motivation for being a theist drops away. . .”
    I don’t think this kind of belief will save anyone. This does dissolve the motivation to adopt religion in order to gain salvation. Or does it? I think it depends on what exactly God is calling the individual to believe. We all have unique life situations, and maybe some are called to be lifelong skeptics. For some, perhaps a good version of Islam. For some, perhaps a good version of Judaism. I don’t think this scenario diminishes the value of truth, rather it is a fact of living in an evil world with deceptions and yet God knows what to expect of individuals and can call us in unique ways.

    I'll be back in a week and a half, going on vacay! Take care,

    1. Hi ANT,

      I'll fold the response to this into the response to your other comment (which is already posted here). Enjoy your vacation. :)


Feel free to comment, but play nicely!

Sadly, the unremitting attention of a spambot means you may have to verify your humanity.