The Ethics of Belief - Spirituality and Intellectual Honesty, part 3/6

By Thomas Metzinger

photo by David Martin Castan

Today, the technical debate is conducted under the title of “The Ethics of Belief”— and this already reveals one of its most important aspects: When is it permissive, from an ethical and moral perspective, to believe in something specific, or to adopt a certain belief “as one’s own”?

The British philosopher and mathematician William Kingdon Clifford was one of the first thinkers to ask this question, and subsequently became the founding father of this discussion, which is central to the distinction between religion and spirituality. His two main principles are:

* It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.

* At any time, at any place, and for every person it is wrong to ignore or carelessly reject the relevant evidence for one’s own beliefs.

In academic philosophy, this position is simply called „evidentialism“. This means only believing things for which one actually has arguments and evidence. The philosophical counterpart is something we are all familiar with, namely dogmatism and fideism. Dogmatism is the thesis that „It is legitimate to hold on to a belief simply because one already has it.” In philosophy, fideism is the thesis that it is also completely legitimate to hold on to a belief when there are no good reasons or evidence in its favor, and even when faced with convincing counterarguments. Fideism is the standpoint of pure faith. For a fideist, it is legitimate to hold on to beliefs that not only lack any positive arguments or evidence in their favor, but even in the face of strong counterarguments and strong empirical evidence to the contrary.

The interesting point now is that fideism can be described as the refusal to take any ethical stance on one’s inner actions whatsoever. It involves a lack of inner decency. And this is the classical standpoint of organized religion as opposed to spirituality. If one were to interpret these two epistemological positions from a purely psychological perspective, one could say that fideism involves deliberate self-deception, systematic wishful thinking or even paranoia; whereas the psychological goal of the ethics of belief consists in a certain form of mental health. I call this form of mental health “intellectual integrity”.

If you let yourself go and allow yourself to simply hold on to a certain belief in the complete absence of any positive theoretical or practical evidence, then you have already given up on the whole idea of an ethics for inner action. In doing so, you reject the project of intellectual honesty, and on the level of your own mind, you refuse not only rationality, but also morality. This not only changes your own opinions and beliefs, but causes you, the person as a whole, to lose your integrity. And this is what I meant at the beginning, when I said that intellectual honesty is what theologians and representatives of organized religions of any type simply cannot have. This sentence might have sounded like cheap polemics or deliberate provocation just for the sake of it. But it is really about a simple, clear, and objective point, namely the “principle of self-respect”— about how not to lose one’s dignity and mental autonomy. Importantly, this statement not only concerns traditional churches, but also a large part of the so-called “alternative spiritual culture”. Many of the movements that developed in recent decades in Europe and the United States have long lost their progressive impulse. Today, they merely stabilize or conserve the status quo and are characterized by an infantile complacency and crude forms of intellectual dishonesty. Anyone who is seriously interested in our question concerning the possibility of a secularized spirituality has to take all the relevant empirical data and all possible counterarguments into account. In 1877, the philosopher William Clifford claimed the following about anyone who is unwilling to do so by “purposely avoiding the reading of books and the company of men who call in question or discuss” their presuppositions: “The life of that man is one long sin against mankind”.

extract 3 from Spirituality and Intellectual Honesty (see part 1 of the 6 part series)

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