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Prudence and the Will to Believe

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I'm not an Aristotle scholar, and in fact I'm too indolent to do any research on his thought, so I'll just state something about which I have wondered and I'll consider that my responsible blogosphere citizenship for the day.

Aristotle famously characterized virtues as the golden mean between vices. The usual example seems to be: courage. It is a mean between impetuous action on the one hand, cowardice on the other. Temperance is likewise between anhedonia and hedonism --between the inability to experience pleasure and the inability to master one's pleasures. So far so good. Likewise, I remember hearing somewhere (and remember the indolence problem mentioned above) that justice for Aristotle is the mean between severity and leniency.

I wonder though about wisdom, the virtue otherwise known to the ancients as prudence. Is that also a mean between two vices and, if so, what are the vices?

My guess would be credulity on the one hand, and an excess of skepticism on the other.   But if this is right, the implication is that a wise man is one who believes something when the right amount of evidence for it is available -- who is neither too demanding of proof, not too gullible.  And that seems like a Jamesian notion of wisdom. Perhaps we could say that wisdom implies neither an excess nor an absence of the will to believe. And call ourselves Arijamesians.


  1. The Jamesian notion of wisdom is unobjectionable in the abstract. But did he practice it in "The Will to Believe," or was he too gullible? After all, when no evidence of the existence of God exists, then to deny that God exists (until evidence surfaces) is not to be too demanding of proof; it is to be wise.

  2. What would count for you as (real though non-conclusive) evidence of the existence of God?

    For James, if I understand him, almost any subliminal source of strength could count. That is, any situation in which you do something and then realize "gee, I didn't know I had that in me." Any such experience tends to suggest the inference that you literally DIDN'T have it "in you" considered as an individual, but that you are psychologically (spiritually?) continuous with a something more, whence came unexpected reserves.

    There are of course many ways in which you can conceive of that "more." The notion of wisdom as a midpoint between reflexive skepticism and gullibility suggests that we should be suspicious of ready-made inherited interpretations, but that "the reserves of strength that appeared in an emergency when I needed them must be subject to reductive materialist explanation even if I have no idea what that might be" is itself a choice, a POSSIBLE hypothesis, not a privileged one or a default option.

  3. What would count as evidence of the existence of God would be something materialist--something that we can perceive with one or more of our five senses or can deduce from something that we can perceive with one or more of our five senses. This is because "evidence" MEANS something materialist. To say that reserves of strength must be subject to a materialist explanation, therefore, is NOT a choice if we are seeking evidence to explain it. (Let's drop "reductive" because it is assumes that non-materialist explanations can exist--that something exists from which to reduce--and therefore is question-begging.)

    I can offer no evidence, of course, that no non-material world exists--no one can, and that is so by definition, because evidence, as I just said, is, by definition, materialist. To offer a non-materialist explanation is to offer an explanation without evidence. It is to offer nothing but a plea to have faith.

  4. Then you're not really making the point it sounded like you were making. You said "no evidence of God exists," and no context indicated that this really meant "or COULD exist, if God is conceived of in immaterial terms." If the problem is simply that we shouldn't believe X in the absence of evidence, it should be possible to show what WOULD be evidence. Otherwise, the problem really that you believe X to be an incoherent notion, an entirely different point.

  5. Let's assume that, God's being immaterial, we can never perceive God. Let's suppose, however, that we perceive an occurrence that we are unable to attribute to nature or to the agency of a mortal being. Throughout history, people have attributed such occurrences--earthquakes, for example--to God. Then we developed the science to explain them.

    But let's imagine an occurrence that we REALLY think that science could never explain. A booming voice comes from the sky and says, "I'm God. Watch what I am about to do." Then, all the trees in a forest fly up in the air, then land again with their roots back in place and the ground undisturbed. And thousands of people witness this. It seems safe to assume that science could never explain either the occurrence or the possibility of thousands of people simultaneously experiencing the same hallucination.

    This would constitute evidence (not proof, because we do not know for a fact that science could never explain it) that something exists that has the power to cause trees to fly and return to earth as described. But we would have no evidence that that something was omnipotent, omniscient, or morally good. Nor would we know whether it had created the universe or anything else other than the occurrence described. Whether we'd be satisfied to call this something "God" would be our choice. The booming voice's claim to be God would be worth little, because we'd have no evidence of its credibility.

  6. So, would the God for whose existence we would then have evidence be an immaterial or a material being? If trees flying up in the air could give us evidence for the existence an immaterial being's existence, then you seem to have abandoned the claim that there can be no evidence that there can be no evidence that a non-material reality exists. So such more mundane matters as unexpected sources of psychic endurance could also count, though they too (like the flight of trees) manifest themselves in material ways.

  7. If the notion of an immaterial being is a coherent notion, then I can't dispute your latest comment. But your latest comment has brought me back to your earlier question whether I believe X (the existence of an immaterial being) to be an incoherent notion.

    An immaterial being seems oxymoronic. What is an example of something immaterial? A thought or a feeling, I suppose. But we wouldn't call a thought or a feeling a "being," and thoughts and feelings cannot act; they can't make trees fly or even take more ordinary actions of the sort that humans can take, such as speaking with a booming voice. Can you suggest another example of something immaterial--one that can act?

    In the world of fantasy, of course, anything can exist, including immaterial beings that can act. But I'm afraid that this conversation has entered the realm of fantasy.

  8. Is a mind an immaterial being that can act? To start with whether it can act, we read about psychics who claim to be able to move objects solely by concentrating on them; I'm not aware whether any of these claims have been verified or if the "psychics" are merely magicians.

    But is a mind an immaterial being? Hume would probably say (if he didn't actually say it), and I'd probably agree, that the mind is no more than the sum of one's thoughts and feelings. And, as I said in my preceding comment, thoughts and feelings are not "beings." Furthermore, the mind, of course, is a function of the brain, which is a material object. In the real world, as opposed to the world of fantasy, a mind cannot exist without a brain. I realize that a believer in a transcendental realm would say that that realm is an alternative to both the real world (the material world) and the world of fantasy, but he or she would have no evidence of that, which takes us back to the starting line.

  9. Henry, A couple of quick points. First, you began with claim that disbelief in God is simply a matter of disbelief in something for which there is no evidence. You wrote, "After all, when no evidence of the existence of God exists, then to deny that God exists (until evidence surfaces) is not to be too demanding of proof; it is to be wise." So, in principle, in the view you were then expressing, such evidence COULD surface. It simply hasn't. Of course if you believe that an idea is incoherent, then evidence for its truth can't "surface," and your objection is not what you first thought. So, I'm happy to have helped clarify your thought.

    But, second, you seem to revert. Your last line is that the believer in a transcendent realm "would have no evidence of that, which takes us back to the starting line." Yes, indeed. Which is the problem? I think you want you cake and you want to eat it too. You want any immaterial reality to be impossible and, possible-but-evidenceless, because the two charges serve separate purposes for you and you can't bring yourself to abandon either. But I can't put my finger on what the separate purposes are.

  10. Christopher, I do not, at least consciously, have any purpose here; I'm just trying to think this through, and you have helped to clarify my thoughts.

    You are wrong that "if [I] believe that an idea is incoherent, then evidence for its truth can't 'surface.'" My belief could be wrong and evidence could surface.

    The problem here is in the ambiguity of the word "incoherent." I find the concept of an immaterial being that can act incoherent, in the sense that I cannot conceive of its existence in the real world. But "the real world" to me means the material world, and the question we're discussing is the existence of an immaterial world.

    I don't claim that the concept of an immaterial being that can act is incoherent in the sense that it is logically impossible (self-contradictory). I just can't conceive of it, but my conceptions are based on my real-world knowledge and experience. In my real-world knowledge and experience, if God wants to hurl a thunderbolt, he needs arms, and only material beings have arms. In a transcendental realm, however, anything goes. After all, it is (I believe) a realm of fantasy.

  11. In my penultimate sentence, I meant, of course, that in a transcendental realm, anything logically possible goes. I don't think that one can reasonably claim that God can make 2 plus 2 equal 5. One who claims that is blindly insisting that God can do anything.

    And, in writing my second paragraph above, I was having fun by taking your words literally, even though I knew that you meant to write, "if an idea is incoherent, then evidence for its truth can't 'surface.'"

  12. Thank you for your thoughts. I'll wrap of this discussion for now by picking up on your Hume allusion above. Hume's own effort to analyze what is the mind, and whether it is simply a succession of thoughts and feelings, ended in an admission of failure. Here are his words: from his APPENSIX to his TREATISE ON HUMAN NATURE.


    I had entertain’d some hopes, that however deficient our theory of the intellectual world might be, it wou’d be free from those contradictions, and absurdities, which seem to attend every explication, that human reason can give of the material world. But upon a more strict review of the section concerning personal identity, I find myself involv’d in such a labyrinth, that, I must confess, I neither know how to correct my former opinions, nor how to render them consistent.

    [After several paragraphs restating his theory, he gets back to why it seems to have self destructed]:

    But having thus loosen'd all our particular perceptions, when I proceed to explain the principle of connexion, which binds them together, and makes us attribute to them a real simplicity and identity; I am sensible, that my account is very defective, and that nothing but the seeming evidence of the precedent reasonings cou'd have induc'd me to receive it. If perceptions are distinct existences, they form a whole only by being connected together. But no connexions among distinct existences are ever discoverable by human understanding. We only feel a connexion or determination of the thought, to pass from one object to another. It follows, therefore, that the thought alone finds personal identity, when reflecting on the train of past perceptions, that compose a mind, the ideas of them are felt to be connected together, and naturally introduce each other. However extraordinary this conclusion may seem, it need not surprize us. Most philosophers seem inclin'd to think, that personal identity arises from consciousness; and consciousness is nothing but a reflected thought or perception. The present philosophy, therefore, has so far a promising aspect. But all my hopes vanish, when I come to explain the principles, that unite our successive perceptions in our thought or consciousness. I cannot discover any theory, which gives me satisfaction on this head.

    In short there are two principles, which I cannot render consistent; nor is it in my power to renounce either of them, viz, that all our distinct perceptions are distinct existences, and that the mind never perceives any real connexion among distinct existences. Did our perceptions either inhere in something simple and individual, or did the mind perceive some real connexion among them, there wou'd be no difficulty in the case. For my part, I must plead the privilege of a sceptic, and confess, that this difficulty is too hard for my understanding. I pretend not, however, to pronounce it absolutely insuperable. Others, perhaps, or myself, upon more mature reflections, may discover some hypothesis, that will reconcile those contradictions.


    With that language near the end about how our perceptions might "inhere in something simple and individual" he seems to be entertaining if only briefly the idea of a mind as traditionally conceived, or even a soul. Certainly that is odd language for the description of the physical brain. He can't adopt that view he says, but he hasn't really figured out how to make do without it, and pleads the "privilege of a sceptic" of not knowing.

  13. In my posts of Dec. 18th and Jan. 3 in this blog I discuss that passage, as interpreted by philosopher Galen Strawson, in some detail. It may shed some light on this discussion, and at least leave open the possibility for you of some interaction of material and immaterial realities, and so of the existence of the latter.

  14. Christopher, I have difficulty following the Hume passage you quoted, and not enough interest to work on it. Hume writes, "If perceptions are distinct existences, they form a whole only by being connected together. But no connexions among distinct existences are ever discoverable by human understanding." Hume does not say a word about memory, but doesn't our memory of our perceptions connect them?

    Our perceptions (as well as our thoughts and feelings, which, inexplicably to me, Hume doesn't mention--does he include them among perceptions?), together with our memory, seem to me to constitute our minds.

    If by "soul" you mean something that can outlive our bodies, then I see no basis to think that Hume is entertaining the notion.


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