January 2009

We value having true beliefs, and the way we support the thought that we have true beliefs, and our opponents don’t, is by giving reasons for our beliefs. But what if, in the process of giving reasons, we’re really just rationalizing — cherry-picking the arguments and evidence that we like, and unfairly dismissing the arguments and evidence we don’t like?  

Hilary Kornblith has an interesting paper discussing this issue: “Distrusting Reason”, from Midwest Studies in Philosophy 1999. He writes:

When we rationalize, at least when we do it sincerely, we are not aware of doing so; we are not aware of being motivated by anything other than a desire to get at the truth. And it is precisely because of this that the process of scrutinizing our reasons for belief may, at times, be terribly counterproductive from an epistemological point of view. Scrutinizing our reasons, when we are engaged in sincere rationalizing, will get in the way of the goal of believing truths.

How does giving reasons get in the way of the goal of believing truths? Giving reasons can do so because  (according to Kornblith) we give a biased presentation of the reasons:

When we scrutinize our own reasons for belief, we … take the evidence that is available to us at face value. Because the biasing processes that selectively filter our evidence take place behind the scenes, as it were, unavailable to introspection, we are able to produce perfectly good reasons for belief, reasons that not only survive our private scrutiny, but would survive public scrutiny as well. The process of scrutinizing our reasons, in the case of sincere rationalization, gives the illusion of being responsive to available evidence. And the more intelligent one is and the better one is at the skills of presenting and defending arguments, the more powerful the illusion will be, if one engages in rationalizing, that one is forming beliefs in ways that are appropriately responsive to evidence. … From the point of view of belief fixation, reason-giving is frequently epiphenomenal. 

I’m inclined to think that Kornblith is right that this sort of rationalization at least sometimes happens. 

It’s worth thinking about for what topics of belief one would be most likely to rationalize. I can most easily see this happening for deep-seated beliefs, beliefs that impact, for example, the way one views one’s purpose and meaning in life. Thus, beliefs about the existence of God are prime candidates for rationalization. When people give arguments for why they believe, or don’t believe, in God, we should be wary of the possibility that they are giving a biased presentation of the arguments. Perhaps even more importantly, the people who are giving the arguments should be wary of the possibility that they themselves are evincing bias. I get the sense that people are pretty good at remembering to search for bias when they hear arguments for views they oppose, but are remarkably non-self-introspective when it comes to their own presentations of reasons for belief. 



I haven’t yet posted anything about politics on this blog, but I can’t resist pointing out this line from Obama’s acceptance speech:

We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers.

Contrast that with what George H.W. Bush offensively said in 1987:

No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.


On a perhaps related point, there’s been a rather striking decline in the number of Americans who say they believe in God — from 90% to 80%, in just the past five years. I wonder if this is because 10% of Americans really stopped believing in God in the past five years, or because there’s been more discussion as of late of the atheism/theism controversy, and hence it’s become more culturally acceptable to declare oneself a non-believer. And if it’s the latter, what fraction of the 80% of ostensible theists in the 2008 poll are still falsely declaring that they believe in God, just because that’s the culturally expected thing to say?




I’m thinking about going to the Pacific APA in Vancouver April 8-12, and then going skiing at Whistler. If you’re going to be there, and you’d like to hang out, let me know.

I’ll also be in London April 28-30, participating in a workshop on the scientific realism/anti-realism debate at the LSE. 

I don’t have any plans yet for spring break, March 21-29…

Articles like this one, about job-hunting experiences at the recent meeting of the Eastern division of the American Philosophical Association, remind me how fortunate I am to have a stable job.