Wife Swap, Faith, and the Need to Balance Conviction and Skepticism

In his recent and, so far, very interesting book Experiments in Ethics, Kwame Anthony Appiah writes:

Now, in real life reasonable people will not hold most of their beliefs with the level of conviction that we call certainty. Most of us, most of the time, will allow that most of what we believe about the world could turn out to be wrong. So our actual reasoning is not from certainties to certainties but from the probable to the probable. (pp.51-52)

I wonder if Appiah is not being a little too charitable here when he says that “most of us, most of the time, will allow that most of what we believe about the world could turn out to be wrong.” I have two reasons for being skeptical. The first comes from occasionally (and even that is embarrassing) watching Wife Swap. They usually manage to find some kind of podunk, redneck family, and some kind of extreme new age, lefty, artsy, hippy kind of family and then swap the wives for two weeks. The first few days the new wives live by the “rules” of the new family, but after that they get to make their own rules for the family to live by, thereby imposing their views on how to do things on the new family. From “occasionally” watching this show it seems to me that people tend to think that they and they alone know how things are, and how things should be done; and they are unwilling, for the most part, to consider that they could either be wrong or that there might be other ways to do things.

But more importantly, the second reason for questioning Appiah’s claim, has to do with the number of Christians, and I imagine at least a good number of Muslims, that accept things on “faith.” Faith in the sense of holding beliefs without reasons supporting those beliefs or in spite of contravening reasons. It seems to me that when faith is involved, and when that faith “infects” all of one’s other beliefs, then there is not a snowcone’s chance in hell that one will be properly rational. And that is very unfortunate, given the importance of rationality and because I don’t see why one cannot be religious or spiritual and still go about it rationally (however, that does not mean that I see how one could be Christian, etc., and still be rational).  And if one denies the importance of rationality, then I’d like to hear the REASONS for doing so.

At the great risk of sounding pedantic as hell, one of the most important things I have learned from studying philosophy is the importance of balancing conviction with skepticism, conviction with the acknowledgment that I may have to revise some, most, or all of my beliefs given appropriate reasons. And that balancing act is not always easy to do; and it can be even harder to get others to realize its importance.

4 thoughts on “Wife Swap, Faith, and the Need to Balance Conviction and Skepticism

  1. And I might add to the last line–”and it can be even harder to get others to realize its importance”–that it is even harder due, in part, to the popular idea that everyone is entitled to an opinion. While people certainly are “entitled” to have opinions about things, that does not mean that those opinions are worth jack shit. And it seems to me that a good number of people are a bit confused and tend to think that their opinions are worthwhile simply because they have them.

  2. Perhaps there’s not much empirical evidence for this, but I suspect that if you ask people about the level of their conviction, they would grossly overestimate. A lot of times it seems the desire to hold a belief with full conviction leads to the kind of defensive and dogmatic behavior we see on WifeSwap and among certain religious folk. And it’s perhaps the same reason people mis-self-report.

    But I agree with Spanky, Appiah appears to be writing about the class of “reasonable” people.

  3. Yeah, Appiah is probably writing about the domain of reasonable people, but that didn’t segue nicely into my rant. Of course, I could have found some other way to incorporate his quote and still rant in the same way but…

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