Pursuing Truth and Knowledge, Virtuously

“Critical thinking is a desire to seek, patience to doubt, fondness to meditate, slowness to assent, readiness to consider, carefulness to dispose and set in order, and hatred for every kind of imposture.” – Francis Bacon

In my first post, I said that what we believe affects the way that we live. This is obviously true for some issues – whether you believe you are in North America or England will affect which side of the road you decide to drive on – and I think it is true for many more significant issues as well.

Because of this, if we have some kind of moral responsibility for the way that we live, this responsibility impinges not only on what we do, but also on what we believe. Even from a pragmatic standpoint, it is more likely that true beliefs will be useful to hold than false ones, since false ones will conflict with reality in some way. For both of these reasons, it is important to hold beliefs that are true, and to not hold beliefs that are false. And that means that it is important to hold only beliefs that we have good reasons for believing.

By saying that we have some responsibility for what we believe, I am implying that we can, to some extent, choose what to believe. Of course, we cannot simply choose to believe just anything. I could offer you a hundred dollars to believe that there are such things as flying pink elephants, but you probably couldn’t do it. That is not how our psychology works. But we can choose to examine or pursue arguments, evidence, or justification – in short, reasons – for different beliefs. And when presented with appropriate reasons for a certain belief, I think we are then able to choose whether or not to believe it.

Epistemic Responsibility

The idea that we have moral responsibility in regards to our beliefs, and not just our actions, is known as epistemic responsibility, and I think it’s an area that deserves more attention in our intellectual culture. In fact, this whole discourse is really my attempt to exercise my epistemic responsibility. After some reflection, I’ve come to think that a person’s epistemic responsibilities are embodied in two key virtues, which may surprise some people in their juxtaposition. These virtues are critical thinking and epistemic faith.

Critical thinking is the virtue both of not accepting beliefs that do not have sufficient justification, and of accepting beliefs that do have sufficient justification. Exercising critical thinking means, when possible, weighing the justification both for and against a proposition before deciding to believe or disbelieve it. It means seeking both confirmation and disconfirmation of the belief in consideration, and critically examining the relevant information. It means only accepting rational justification, not believing on the basis of wishful thinking, and being careful to avoid cognitive biases and fallacious reasoning. But critical thinking also means making a decision, after the evidence has been evaluated, to either accept the belief or its negation. Otherwise, you would be intellectually paralyzed, never able to actually form beliefs, or act on them.

Borrowing terminology from Aristotelian ethics, the vice of deficiency corresponding to critical thinking is gullibility, accepting beliefs too easily. The corresponding vice of excess is extreme skepticism, having an excessively high standard for accepting beliefs and remaining in perpetual deliberation, even when the evidence is there.

Epistemic faith is the virtue of not discarding beliefs without sufficient justification. This is my own definition, but I don’t think that I’m stretching the meaning of the word too far by using it this way; one of the dictionary definitions of faith is strongly held belief, trust, or confidence. Exercising faith means holding on to beliefs that you have evaluated and found justified, unless new evidence against it comes to light. If new evidence is encountered, it must be critically examined and weighed against the evidence you already have, not giving new evidence more weight just because it is new. It applies the same standards to discarding beliefs that critical thinking applies to accepting them. Thus, epistemic faith and critical thinking can be seen as two sides of the same coin.

The vice of deficiency corresponding to faith is unbelief, discarding one’s beliefs too easily, without sufficient evidence against them. (That is, assuming that they were accepted critically in the first place.) The corresponding vice of excess is dogmatism, the refusal to critically evaluate and revise one’s beliefs, even when there is strong evidence against them.

As a side note, in a broader moral sense, I would say that faith is the virtue of living according to the beliefs that one has accepted. Without this quality, the epistemic aspect of faith is useless. It is worth almost nothing to confidently hold a true belief if you live as if you did not believe it. But even here, faith does not mean believing in something without evidence, as is sometimes alleged. Rather, it is trust or confidence in something, especially trust that is lived out.

Other Epistemic Virtues

There are other epistemic virtues in addition to critical thinking and faith, especially when we consider how we should conduct ourselves as an intellectual community. We are not isolated thinkers, but instead we are part of a communal pursuit of truth and knowledge. When we engage in discourse together, there are a few crucial responsibilities that are needed, and which I think need to be highlighted.

First, because we need data from which to form our beliefs, and because each person is extremely limited in the amount of data that they could collect through their own experience, we are hugely dependent on the testimony of others in the formation of our beliefs. Thus, we have a responsibility of truthfulness when giving that testimony to others. This means telling the truth and not lying, obviously. It means not “fudging the data”, even when the intent is to lead others to the belief we think is correct. It also means fact-checking before conveying a report that might be unreliable, even, and maybe especially, when the report conforms nicely to your preconceptions.

Second, when we engage in discourse we need epistemic charity. Being charitable means treating others in intellectual discourse the way you would like to be treated. This means fairly and accurately representing the viewpoints of others, and taking the time to understand those viewpoints before passing judgement on them. It means not prejudicially disbelieving someone’s testimony simply because you disagree with their other beliefs. It also means not silencing or censoring viewpoints that you disagree with. Instead, it means engaging with those viewpoints, and giving reasons why you disagree, rather than shouting them down. Berating others for expressing ideas that differ from your own might give you the last word, but it does nothing to show that your ideas are right.

I think we also need intellectual humility. This means recognizing your own fallibility, being sensitive to your biases, and being open-minded about the possibility that you are wrong. It means not claiming more than you can actually justify. Humility is opposed to close-mindedness and overconfidence in your own opinions, but it is also opposed to undue timidity in forming conclusions based on evidence. You can have confidence in your beliefs while still exercising humility – indeed, if you have taken the time to really think through your beliefs carefully, you should have confidence in them!

We don’t talk very much about virtue in our culture, either in the moral or intellectual sense. But I think that we still care about it, deep down. And I hope I am not the only one who sees the value in striving to find the truth, and trying our best to live according to our hard-won beliefs. I hope that our society can serve to nurture that, and not stifle it. I hope we can be a community that pursues truth and knowledge together, speaking truthfully, and treating each other’s beliefs with fairness and respect. These are ideals, obviously. We are human and we aren’t perfect. But they are ideals worth aspiring to.

Anyways, that is why I am writing all this. I want to seek after truth and knowledge, virtuously, and with right thinking. I hope you find the synthesis of my search enlightening.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s