You can’t tell me I don’t have this belief. It’s in me, not you. You don’t feel it; I do. I feel it in my soul. When I say that I believe in God, I mean just exactly that, and obviously I am the best qualified to know!

This “argument from introspection” relies on two assumptions: first, that you perceive infallibly the events taking place in your “soul”; and second, that you have correctly identified one specific “feeling” in your “soul” as the belief we are trying to discuss.

To the first assumption: I do not deny that something is going on in you when you say that you believe. On the other hand, I have no reason to trust that you know exactly what it is; nor do you. I mean, are you an authority on exactly what belief tastes like? Very few scientists or philosophers will agree that you are that kind of expert on your own thoughts and motivations. Introspection is not an exact science. In general, when we look in there we have no idea what we’re seeing – and usually, we don’t even look.

It seems likely … that … ordinary people in their daily lives, do not even attempt to interrogate their memories about their cognitive processes when they are asked questions about them. Rather, they may resort in the first instance to a pool of culturally supplied explanations for behavior of the sort in question or, failing in that, begin a search through a network of connotative relations until they find an explanation that may be adduced as psychologically implying the behavior. Thus if we ask another person why he enjoyed a particular party and he responds with, “I liked the people at the party,” we may be extremely dubious as to whether he has reached this conclusion as the result of anything that might be called introspection. We are justified in suspecting that he has instead asked himself Why People Enjoy Parties and has come up with the altogether plausible hypothesis that in general people will enjoy parties if they like the people at the parties. [Nisbett RE and Wilson TD. Telling more than we can know: verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological Review 84:231-259 (May 1977).]

It is a commonplace that speech does not require that the speaker know what she means by her words, or why she is saying them. We have all asked ourselves at some time, Why did I say that? We have all nodded in agreement with someone, after not hearing what they said. We have all expressed in words a thought we had not known we were thinking; or, contrariwise, failed to utter a truth that we were certain must be voiced. We have seen ourselves reiterate a lie and start to believe it. And those of us who are parents have heard ourselves repeat, to our children, a catchy slogan our own parents used, though we have despised it for 20 years. You are just not that knowledgeable about what makes you tick. To insist that you “feel it” does not tell us very much.

To the second assumption: when I say that you don’t have a belief, you insist that you do; and then you testify about a feeling you have. This is odd, because feeling and belief are different categories, different experiences, different phenomena. Most importantly, feelings are by definition non-verbal. You can have a thought that (for example) “god is merciful”; this is a concept, which cannot be expressed without a specialized vocabulary. You cannot have a feeling that “god is merciful”. Feelings don’t work that way.

Feelings are notoriously resistant to verbalization. To make a sentence out of a feeling you have to run it through a language-dependent thought-process. The original, non-conceptual feeling is interpreted according to the rules of the conceptual framework(s) to which you happen to have access; the output is made of words, not feelings. The same feeling (if we can say such a thing) will be described differently by different people. One will speak of it as mercy, another as benevolence, another as peace, presence, Jesus, Krishna, the Buddha, and so on. The feeling itself carries none of these post hoc labels.

‘Feeling’ and ‘belief’ are different linguistic categories; they have different grammatical roles. A belief is a commitment to a proposition. You can’t have a commitment to a non-proposition.

Imagine that we ask someone: “After you made that promise, Ted, what did you do then?”, and Ted says, “I lifted it.”

We’d be like: “What?”

“Oh, yeah. I physically lifted it over my head.”

We now have no idea what Ted is talking about. He said he lifted a promise over his head, but that is not possible, because a promise is not a physical object – not the sort of thing that can be lifted. You cannot use that class of verb with that class of noun. The combination is so empty of sense that we may start to wonder whether Ted is speaking English. We might replay just the sound of his speech in our minds, thinking that maybe those raw phonemes would start to mean something if we took them as being in, say, Finnish.

Just as you can’t lift a promise, you can’t believe a nonsense-phrase. To insist that you are doing this is to make a statement with no meaning. It is, quite simply, a misuse of language: specifically, in this case, your sentence contains a transitive verb but lacks an appropriate object. You cannot form a meaningful sentence that way.

It may be hard to swallow, but the conclusion is unavoidable. Your impression that you believe profoundly in certain religious propositions is an illusion. Here is a tentative outline of what you’re going through. First, you have certain words in your mind that sound deeply meaningful (but are not). Second, in your daily experience these words are tightly associated with strong feelings that arise through social interactions and commitments. This combination of events you interpret as a deep commitment to the ideas that the words represent. But the words do not actually represent ideas, so you cannot actually be committed to them. Your interpretation, even though it is of your own experiences, has to be wrong.

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