Oct 21, 2009

Philosophical Phun - Pragmatic Arguments and Belief In God

Let me preface this entry by stating "It is important to recognize the distinction between theoretical moral arguments for theism (arguments intended to show that God exists), and pragmatic moral arguments for the rationality of theistic belief." This entry deals with the pragmatism for the rationality of theistic belief, and in no way is related to whether God exists or not. So, if you can make that distinction, please read on, if you are in a moral outrage that this is even here, please pass on by. For the full origin of this highly abbreviated summary, click here.

Pragmatic arguments have often been employed in support of theistic belief. Theistic pragmatic arguments are not arguments for the proposition that God exists; they are arguments that believing that God exists is rational. The most famous theistic pragmatic argument is Pascal's Wager. Though we touch on this argument briefly below, this entry focuses primarily on the theistic pragmatic arguments found in William James, J.S. Mill, and James Beattie. It also explores the logic of pragmatic arguments in general, and the pragmatic use of moral arguments in particular.

Pragmatic arguments are relevant to belief-formation, since inculcating a belief is an action. There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of pragmatic arguments that have to do with belief-formation. The first is an argument that recommends taking steps to believe a proposition because, if it should turn out to be true, the benefits gained from believing that proposition will be impressive. This first kind of pragmatic argument we can call a “truth-dependent” pragmatic argument, or more conveniently a “dependent-argument,” since the benefits are obtained only if the relevant state of affairs occurs.

Among the various versions of his wager argument, Pascal employs this Rule in a version which states that no matter how small the probability that God exists, as long as it is a positive, non-zero probability, the expected utility of theistic belief will dominate the expected utility of disbelief. Given the distinction between (A) having reason to think a certain proposition is true, and (B) having reason to induce belief in that proposition, taking steps to generate belief in a certain proposition may be the rational thing to do, even if that proposition lacks sufficient evidential support. The benefits of believing a proposition can rationally take precedence over the evidential strength enjoyed by a contrary proposition; and so, given an infinite expected utility, Pascal's Wager contends that forming the belief that God exists is the rational thing to do, no matter how small the likelihood that God exists.

The second kind of pragmatic argument, which can be called a “truth-independent” pragmatic argument, or more conveniently, an “independent-argument,” is one which recommends taking steps to believe a certain proposition simply because of the benefits gained by believing it, whether or not the believed proposition is true. This is an argument that recommends belief cultivation because of the psychological, or moral, or religious, or social, or even the prudential benefits gained by virtue of believing it. In David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, for example, Cleanthes employs an independent argument, “religion, however corrupted, is still better than no religion at all. The doctrine of a future state is so strong and necessary a security to morals that we never ought to abandon or neglect it” (Hume 1776, 87). Perhaps the best-known example of an independent-argument is found in William James's celebrated “Will to Believe” essay in which he argues that, in certain circumstances, it is rationally and morally permissible to believe a proposition because of the benefits thereby generated.

Unlike independent pragmatic arguments, dependent ones are, in an important sense, truth-sensitive. Of course, being pragmatic arguments, dependent-arguments are not truth-sensitive in an evidential sense; nevertheless they are dependent on truth since the benefits are had only if the recommended belief is true. In contrast, independent pragmatic arguments, yielding benefits whether or not the recommended beliefs are true, are insensitive to truth. Independent-arguments, we might say, are belief-dependent and not truth-dependent.

Phew, you made it all the way through, so tell me your thoughts. Are you outraged at the subject, are you intrigued by the implications to modern religion, are you contemplating the extension of the pragmatic arguments to other topics and applications?


  1. Interesting topic ... complex and with so many nooks and crannies ..!

    I like to think that the extension of these arguements take place in my life, daily. I cannot think of a decision where I have made that was without either the faith that what will happen, will happen or where overwhelming evidence allowed for me to believe that something would happen.

    Nietzsche called religion one of the 'narcotics of Europe', and I agree. Some of the most ferverent followers tend to shut down critical thinking and place responsibility on a outside entitity. I hope to be interested in the application of these arguements in conversation of religion, but I don't think that the intellectual understanding can be achieved to do so.

    Don't be surprised if I revisit this particular entry!!

  2. Believing there is a Heaven is the single reason some folks I know (IRL) stay on the straight & narrow. Some people must have something to believe in and if the thought of eternal damnation keeps them from becoming amoral souls....I would say that is good.

    I've often wondered what would happen to society if it was proven beyond a doubt there is no afterlife/Higher Power. I think it would be madness & chaos for those who had been enslaved by the rigidity, they would go bonkers without regard.

    A shred of belief keeps order, in my opinion.

  3. Bucko make Beth's brain hurt. ;)

    I think there are non-religious societal mores that keep things in check. I don't go out and murder someone because the bible tells me not to; I choose not to do so because it is morally wrong, and those morals come not from religion but from a sense of humanistic right and wrong.

    And I'm spent.

  4. The idea that something higher than me is pulling the string is comforting to me. The Idea that a bad religion is better than no religion at all, is unacceptable to me. Come to think of it If I believe that there is something higher than me that is pulling the string then why should I settle for something bad or unpleasant.

  5. Philosophy is unimpressive in general. Specifically, Pascal's wager is an example of one of the classic logical fallacies: the false dichotomy. Pascal's argument might bear some weight if one could be confident his two alternatives were the only ones possible. However, what in this world is truly only black and white?


Tell Me What You Think, Don't Make me go Rogue on you :o)