Does belief require understanding?

Jeffery Jay Lowder at the Secular Outpost recently asked a very interesting question: does belief require understanding? His main example is one of a physics paper:

Imagine going to the library at a university with a nuclear physics program and picking up a copy of a peer-reviewed journal in nuclear physics. I’m assuming that you, the reader, are like the 99.99999% of the population by having no ability whatsoever to understand anything in that journal. Unintimidated by the subject matter, you browse the table of contents and randomly pick an article. You try to read it, but discover that there are literally no nouns or verbs in the article you understand. Other than words like “if,” “then,” “and,” or,” and “but,” you have literally no idea what any of the other words mean. Now suppose you have it on good authority that the article does, in fact, make at least one empirical claim, albeit one that requires a Ph.D. in nuclear physics to understand. Call that claim ‘C.’

If you have no ability whatsoever to understand anything in the article, is it possible for you to believe C?

To this, my first answer would be no, I do not actually believe C. What I believe in is the credibility of the journal, the scientists who wrote the paper, and whoever or whatever told me that an empirical claim was made. I believe those things because they are in some way compatible with my self-identification. If it was shown to me that the journal or scientists in question are not credible, then I would retract my support for C, regardless of what I thought about C beforehand.

This leads me to my first point on the issue of belief and understanding: belief and understanding are fundamentally social activities and are the result of group identification.

Now, I imagine some people may use hypotheticals like the desert island scenario to try to refute that by showing that a person in that situation could have beliefs. But as I discussed in a past entry, I reject the desert island scenario; in this case, the person was obviously born from two other human beings and was taught survival techniques and language in order to be able to survive and have beliefs. So the beliefs are the result of social activities, even if those activities no longer exist (we should say that the person’s thoughts on the desert island embody past social activities).

So take some incoherent belief like the Trinity, which is Lowder’s other example. Do Catholics actually believe in the Trinity? My contention is that they don’t actually believe in the Trinity; rather, they believe that believing in the Trinity is good, because that’s what other people in their group believe. We naturally share the beliefs of the groups or ideologies we identify with, and use reasoning to bolster our inter-subjective agreements against other people’s.

One may reply that if someone says they believe in the Trinity, then we should take them at their word. But it is unclear why this should be so. After all, if someone said they know the Trinity exists, we would not take them at their word. But knowing and believing are both mental attitudes towards propositions, and there’s no particular reason to accept one while being skeptical of the other.

One may also reply that we don’t believe everything that’s advocated by a group or ideology we belong to. That’s correct, and my model of reasoning does acknowledge this in the form of cognitive dissonance. Our personality and intuitions form a bulwark against mindless herd behavior, and the more they clash with our inter-subjective agreements, the more we are subjected to cognitive dissonance, which is distressing. But in this case, there is no issue of belief in the first place, so it’s outside the topic of this entry.

So far I’ve talked solely about people who hold beliefs because of inter-subjective agreements. But what about those who stand outside of those agreements? Obviously those people cannot accept beliefs solely on the basis of said agreements, but rather require some other form of confirmation, which we call “evidence.”

Take the example of an atheist looking at Catholic beliefs. An atheist will not accept the Trinity simply because it is a Catholic belief, since ey does not identify with Catholicism and therefore feels no need to share in its agreements. So the atheist will demand some kind of evidence for the Trinity. Since the Trinity is an incoherent belief, no evidence can be presented, so the atheist cannot believe in the Trinity.

From the atheist’s perspective, understanding is not really the issue. As long as the proposition can be understood sufficiently to make sense of it, what is needed is evidence, not more understanding. In the case of the Trinity, no understanding can be acquired because there is nothing there to understand.

But take another example, such as the historicity of Jesus. Christians believe Jesus actually existed, in accordance with the history presented by the Bible. I understand this claim enough to falsify it, and that’s all I need. What I’d like is more evidence, which Christians are singularly unable to present. Until then, there’s no reason for me to believe it. I remain skeptical about the claim that Jesus existed.

Although skepticism is generally thought to be a [historically] recent ideology of Western origins which finds its family origins in ancient Greek thought and comes to us through David Hume and Carl Sagan, it is actually the default position of anyone confronted with a belief that they don’t have a prior agreement about. Just observe any religious believer confronted with another religion and you’ll see the same kind of skeptical attitude that “rational” thinkers use against religion. The only difference is that both sides have different group identifications.

So in answer to Lowder’s question, my answer would be, belief probably does require understanding; while I don’t dismiss the possibility that some people believe things they don’t understand, I see no reason to take them at their word when there is a much more powerful explanation.

Another interesting point is that when Christians ask atheists “what do you believe in,” they are really asking atheists what group agreements they are under. So while atheists try to give all sorts of answers, the only answer that really addresses what the Christian is asking in eir head is “nothing.” This is unacceptable to the Christian, as ey primarily identifies as a Christian and assumes that atheists do the same… but this is not true of most atheists.

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