JR'S Free Thought Pages
Beliefs with Intellectual Barriers
There are two typical ways in which a belief can be maintained in the face of intellectual difficulties. If a theory is defended by these devices:
1. not allowing any evidence to count against the theory, i.e., always finding some way of explaining away putative counterevidence; or
2. answering criticism by analyzing the motivations of the critic in terms of the theory itself…
Then we say that it is being held as a "closed system." It could be argued that Christianity, Marxism, Freudian theory, and now Global Capitalism can be held as closed systems - but this is not to say that all Christians, Marxists, Freudians or hard-line capitalists hold their beliefs in that way.
Why should people want to maintain a belief in the face of conceptual difficulties and counterevidence? Inertia and unwillingness to admit that one is wrong must play a large part here. If one has been brought up in a certain belief and its associated way of life, or if one has been converted to it and followed its precepts, it takes courage to question or abandon one's life-commitment. When a belief is an ideology, used to justify the way of life of a social group, it is difficult for the members of that community to consider it objectively. There are strong social pressures to continue to acknowledge it, and it is very natural for believers to maintain it as a closed system. People will tend to feel that their belief, even if open to some theoretical difficulties, contains some vital insight, some vision of essential truths that have practical importance. To question it may be to threaten what gives meaning, purpose, and hope to one's life and to endanger one's social position.
Considerations about belief in God:
First, there is the obvious question of why any intelligent person living in the twenty-first century would want to believe in the existence of a personal Creator and Lord. Many people would like to believe some such thing, for it seems to offer an overall "meaning" to human history and to individual lives, but we are here seeking reasons for thinking it true, rather than motives for wanting it to be true. It has long been alleged that there is obvious evidence against, in the notorious "problem of evil." The suffering (both animal and human) and the evil in the world seem to count against there being an omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent God characterized by Christianity and Islam. Yet theists do not usually take this as disproving their claim, and various defenses are proposed. It is sometimes suggested that out of suffering greater good can eventually come, or that the possibility of evil must be there if we are to be genuinely free to make moral choices. But the nonbeliever may still wonder why God did not make the world such that suffering was not the only way to produce goodness and such that human beings freely choose rightly. It seems that the theist does not take his or her belief in God to be falsifiable by evidence about the actual state of the world.
Second, if empirical observation cannot count for or against God's existence, just what is being asserted? This is where the philosophical debate about meaningfulness and verifiability comes into play. Surely any factual statement, any claim about how things actually are in the universe, must somehow be testable by observation. If the assertion of God's existence is such that no conceivable evidence could count for or against it, then it is hard to see how it can be a factual claim. Some theists suggest that in certain human experiences - moral or religious or mystical - there is the possibility of empirical verification of God. But descriptions of such experiences are highly controversial, and nonbelievers will interpret them in other ways, not in terms of a transcendent God. It has also been suggested that in the life after death we shall be able to verify the existence and nature of God, by some sort of direct observation. But this is to meet one verifiability problem by posing another - for how can we now find evidence for the reality of life after death?