John has recently commened the following advice in the blog when it comes to belief:
“You can (and should) give weights to your beliefs. If you only have 20% justification, then evidence that approaches 20% should be sufficient to force you to at least reexamine your belief. In fact, if you’re using a belief with low weight to make a super weighty decision, that alone should be enough to force you to seek more evidence. I’ve had to do that in a few cases recently, including some of the reasoning for my core political beliefs. There’s no shame in it; in the end I’ll come out closer to truth.”
John Locke made a similar point in Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Here is how it put it (three centuries ago, replete with the spelling conventions of the period which, as you’ll see, has a lot of ‘f’s where we have ‘s’s):
“For how almoft can it be otherwife, but that he fhould be ready to impofe on others belief, who has already impofed on his own? Who can reafonably expect arguments and conviction from him, in dealing with others, whofe underftanding is not accuftomed to them in his dealing with himfelf, who does violence to his own faculties, tyrranizes over his own mind, and ufurps the prerogatives that belong to truth alone, which is to command affent by only its own authority, i.e. by and in proportion to that evidence which it carries with it? ”
So should we proportion our belief to the evidence as Locke argues? I have noted in the past some of the problems that come with any stipulation that all beliefs ought to be subjected to x, because then the stipulation x must be subjected to itself which tends to result in self-referential defeat or at least a lack of justification to accept stipulation x (be it John’s x, John Locke’s or anybody else’s).
Nonetheless, I think it makes sense to reflect on the conviction we have in our beliefs, to do, as I say, a belief inventory. For instance, a Christian could reasonably conclude the following upon reflection:
(1) I am most certain that I exist
(2) I am a bit less certain (but still quite certain) that God exists
(3) I am less certain (but still quite certain) that God is a Trinity
(4) I am less certain (and maybe by this point not quite certain at all) that the Baptists (or Catholics or …) provide the best expression of triune Christian faith.
And so on…
The value of this exercise should be immediately apparent. For instance, by recognizing that (3) is more deeply ingressed in one’s noetic structure than (4) the Christian is challenged to focus on what unifies Christians. And by recognizing that (2) is more deeply ingressed in one’s noetic structure than (3), one is able to develop greater sympathy with the contrasting definitions of God in other religions. And by recognizing that (1) is more deeply ingressed than (2), a person thereby is open to a greater sympathy with contrasting non-divine definitions of the ultimate nature of reality.
The point is not about making people pluralists (a grumble I sometimes here), but rather by appropriately grading the strength of our convictions, maybe not simply to the evidence (as Locke proposes) but also relative to the centrality of the place of those beliefs in our view of the world. And if a Christian is as certain that their Baptist church is the one true church as they are certain that they exist, well I would think that’s a problem.