Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Arguments and sincerity

When we write down a complex logical argument, it seems there is a pretty good chance that while writing down the proof, we will write down sentences that express propositions which we do not believe. Some of these sentences will be as part of a conditional proof, and those are not puzzling. But some of the sentences that express propositions which it seems we do not believe will be simply asserted. For instance, in the middle of our argument, we might make a claim that involves some complex logical or mathematical formula, which we then expand out using appropriate manipulation rules. But the expanded out claim may well exceed our mental capacities: we can handle it on paper, but it is just too complex for us to believe, it seems.

If this is right, then sincerity does not require that I believe what I say. (I assume the rules for sincerity do not depend on whether I am writing or speaking.) All that is required is that I believe that what I am saying is true. (What should I say about the speaker meaning in such a case?)

Or so it seems. But here is a curious test case. Politician reads a speech that her speechwriter wrote. She trusts her speechwriter to write only truths. The politician did not read over the speech ahead of time. She enunciates the sentences carefully, but she is distracted and pays no attention to what the text says. I think we would say that she is not being fully sincere. Maybe, though, our standards for sincerity are unfairly high in the case of politicians. Or maybe there are different kinds of sincerity—there is the bare sincerity which is one's duty in speech, and there is something that one might call "real sincerity" which entails conviction (where conviction is belief and more).

On the other hand, there is a different way of looking at the case of the complex sentence in an argument (this is inspired by some things that David Manley said based on his book with John Hawthorne). Maybe we can simply gain access to the proposition by means of the sentence, without having ourselves to understand or even parse the sentence.

Or maybe the things in the middle of proofs should not count as assertions. Perhaps making steps in proof is a mechanical procedure, akin to punching buttons on a calculator and likewise intrinsically devoid of propositional content, aimed at producing empirical evidence of the truth of some entailment. (That the evidence produced by a complex proof is empirical in nature is clear to me, weird as it may sound. One reason is that memory is intricately involved.)


Heath White said...

You have commented before how religious believers will frequently be committed to beliefs they do not fully understand. And also that most of us do not *fully* understand all kinds of things we say and believe (about electricity, say).

It seems to me that this is just a more extreme case of the same phenomenon. My own view would tend to be that our folk (or is it philosophical?) notion of "belief that p" as something which one understands all the way down, so to speak, is problematic. There are greater and lesser degrees of understanding for all sorts of propositions; this is a continuum; and at one end of the continuum we would want to say "I believe p" while at the other we would only want to say that "I believe that p is true". However, there is not going to be a sharp line somewhere in the middle.

Alexander R Pruss said...


You've found an inconsistency between three things I've said, on and off blog:
1. This post.
2. The anti-Pelagianism idea that the central doctrines of faith are such that one can only believe them by grace.
3. The idea that we inherit the content of creedal propositions from the Church.

Specifically, while (1) and (2) are mutually consistent, neither appears co-plausible with (3). So something has to go.

I think I can make one of three moves:

A. Accept enough content externalism that one can inherit the content of one's beliefs from other people and even from inkmarks on pieces of paper. This would let me hold on to 3, and solve the problem in 1. I then would have to either change my view that even dead faith (in the case of the central doctrines) requires grace, or else say that to inherit contents from x you need the kind of substantive relationship that, when x is the Church, you only get by grace. I am not sure the latter is right--the other kinds of cases of content inheritance are ones where the relationship may be quite tenuous. So perhaps I should change my view on dead faith: maybe dead faith is possible without grace? I don't know if that's heretical. The stuff on demons in James would support the change.

B. Tighten the conditions on what it takes to have a thought or a belief to the point where a lot of our everyday mentation does not have the content we behave as if it had. This is a Spinozistic and Tractarian move, and goes against common sense. I do not know how far the move would have to be taken. I am kind of afraid that pushing this move through to its logical conclusion would require accepting all of Spinoza's (crazy?) view that we only believe p if we know p. This would let me retain 1 and 2, but perhaps not 3. Moreover, it would probably yield a solution to the liar and his friends.

C. Combine A and B by distinguishing two intentional states, and using these to assuage the intuitions pulling in each of the two directions above. But actually our conceptual arsenal already has two intentional states that might do the job. You can believe p, or you can believe of p that it is true. (Thus, you believe of the proposition expressed by a line of the proof that it is true, even if you do not actually believe the proposition.) So then I can do move B, while assuaging some objections by saying, e.g., that when the ordinary person says that there is electricity flowing in the cable, she believes of the proposition that there is electricity flowing in the cable (a proposition that she may not believe) that it is true. She may believe this of the proposition by means of a de dicto belief such as: "Dthat proposition which the expert affirmed is true."

Alexander R Pruss said...

I should add that another thing going for A is that content externalism probably helps a lot with the problem of how a simple God knows contingent facts.

Heath White said...


Actually (2) had not crossed my radar; I was thinking of the contrast between (1) and (3). Of the solutions you propose, (A) seems like the best to me. I do not recall now why you thought one could not deadishly believe creedal propositions; no reasons occur to me. The stuff in James did occur to me.

I do have some inclination to the view that the distinction between "belief that p" and "belief of p that it is true" is vague--it depends on the degree to which you understand p. I once posted something tangentially relevant in this vein here:

Alexander R Pruss said...

Well, here was the worry about Pelagianism.

1. Suppose it is possible to gracelessly believe that the Triune God is good.
2. If it is possible to gracelessly believe that the Triune God is good, then it is possible to gracelessly love the Triune God (since it requires nothing beyond our natural faculties to love something that we believe to be good, and to love it under that description under which we believe it to be good).
3. Therefore it is possible to gracelessly love the Triune God, qua Triune God.

But 3 is Pelagian, so I thought 1 should be rejected.

But I now see that Catholic tradition gives one good reason to reject 2, since it holds that a Christian in a state of mortal sin might believe the propositions of faith, but she cannot gain charity without an infusion of grace.

If I wanted to hold on to 2, I would have to either distinguish different ways of believing. (The demons are less of a problem, because I could say that they do not believe the doctrine of the Trinity; they only believe that doctrine to be true.)

It could be that the distinction is vague. But in the end I don't want any vagueness. :-)