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VALUING BELIEF ABOVE DOUBT: Is it better to doubt or to believe? In my opinion, it’s better to believe—at least if you want to maximize your enjoyment of life.

Bertrand Russell accused William James of preaching ‘the will to believe,’—James did in fact write an essay entitled ‘The Will to Believe.’ Russell said he wished to preach ‘the will to doubt.’ And Western intellectual culture, long biased in favour of scepticism, is firmly of Russell’s persuasion. In Western intellectual culture, which is increasingly a global intellectual culture, students are conditioned into thinking that believing and disbelieving are different mental processes, and that it is more intellectually respectable to doubt than to believe. But I would argue that the difference between believing and disbelieving is like the difference between up and down or right and left: they are just opposite sides of the same logical coin. For example, if you believe in theism you disbelieve in atheism; if, on the other hand, you believe in atheism you disbelieve in theism.

The proper distinction, IMO (in my opinion), is not between belief and scepticism, but between rational belief or scepticism on the one hand, and irrational belief or scepticism on the other. Now, if you want to maximize your happiness, this distinction is very important to make, because believing, where one has trust and confidence in the truth of what is believed, has the power to make people happy in a way that doubting does not.

Let me start with a satirical illustration which you may find mildly amusing. It’s from Bertrand Russell’s book, The Conquest of Happiness, and it’s amusing because Russell implies that the more eccentric or outlandish a belief is, the greater its potential to bring about happiness. For Russell’s example it’s important to know that, according to tradition, the twelve tribes of Israel were fathered by the twelve sons of Jacob; that in the eighth century B.C. Israel was conquered by an Assyrian king and ten of those twelve tribes went missing, including the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh; and that there is a whole literature involving speculations, theories, and claims about the whereabouts of the “lost” ten tribes. Here is what Russell wrote:

The men I have known who believed that the English were the lost ten tribes were almost invariably happy, while as for those who believed that the English were only the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, their bliss knew no bounds.

Elsewhere, Russell gives an opposite example from his own life, that is, where doubting a belief undermined happiness:

Mathematics and the stars consoled me when the human world seemed empty of comfort. But changes in my philosophy have robbed me of such consolations. It seemed that what we had thought of as laws of nature were only linguistic conventions, and that physics was not really concerned with an external world. I do not mean that I quite believed this, but that it became a haunting nightmare, increasingly invading my imagination.

Here’s another negative example. David Hume, a philosopher renowned for his destructive scepticism, was himself depressed by his doubts concerning a stable enduring self. The reasoning that led him to these doubts went like this:

When I enter most intimately [i.e. deeply] into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception.

From this he concluded that “What we call a mind is nothing but a heap or collection of different perceptions.” Convinced though he was of its truth, Hume found this conclusion to be a depressing one. It left him, he wrote, “in the most deplorable condition imaginable, inviron’d with [i.e. enveloped in] the deepest darkness.”

So, I conclude that, all things being equal, beliefs makes people happy. Now what about that subset of beliefs that we call articles of faith, that is, beliefs which by definition fall short of knowledge to a greater or lesser degree, but to which we’re committed despite the risk? IMO, what is true of beliefs in general is particularly true when it comes to beliefs held on faith. Here’s support for that assertion from Thomas Levenson’s Einstein in Berlin:

Before the results [from the British expedition in 1919 that confirmed Einstein’s general theory of relativity], a student had asked him what he would feel if the English failed to confirm the deflection of light. Einstein’s faith was unshakable. [my italics] If the eclipse proved the theory wrong, “then I would feel sorry for the dear Lord. The theory is correct.” He was neither bragging nor blasphemous. He had hinted at what he meant, or rather he hoped, in a speech given in 1918 to honour Max Planck on his birthday. “The longing to behold . . . pre-existing harmony,” he said, drove both Planck and (by implication) himself. Glimpsing such beauty, Einstein said, turns on a peculiar form of devotion: “The state of mind which enables a man to do work of this kind is akin to that of the religious worshipper or the lover; the daily effort does not originate from a deliberate intention or program, but straight from the heart.” A year later, [Arthur] Eddington [who was part of the British expedition] could tell Einstein that his beloved returned his passion.

Here’s one more example that I think favours belief over doubt. Eddington was an astrophysicist, mathematician, and the first one to expound and publicize Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. In 1928 he wrote, “In science we sometimes have convictions which we cherish but cannot justify; we are influenced by some innate sense of the fitness of things.” The belief in a stable, enduring, non-illusory self is certainly one of the convictions that almost everyone cherishes. ‘What have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece?’ wrote George Orwell. ‘Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.’ Obviously Orwell didn’t think this conviction required justification. Does it require justification? Because if it does, I would say we’re up the metaphysical creek.

In conclusion, doubt, in the sense of lack of trust or confidence in a belief, especially one held dear, is the enemy of enjoyment. And for most people most of the time, enjoyment is their number one priority.

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