Saturday, June 26, 2010

What does "I have a right to my belief" mean?

What does the "right to believe something" amount to? Does it simply means that some powerful people, like the government for example, or the Spanish Inquisition if it were still around, have an obligation not to use force to make me believe something? I am not sure much of anybody is in the business of taking that kind of a right away, anyway, so to say that sort of thing almost seem trivial.

If it means more than that, then what does it mean? Does it implicitly involve a refusal to reason, and to consider the views of one's opponents seriously? If I think you are making a serious mistake, (and if belief or unbelief in God is a mistake, it's a serious mistake), don;t I have the right to try to convince you of the error of your ways, at least until you tell me to go away?

Is the attempt to provide reasons for rejecting a belief you currently have an example of trying to shove your beliefs down someone's throat? Perhaps what "I have a right to my belief" means is that we have an obligation to desist from debating a subject if we are asked to desist. Perhaps the "right to believe what I believe" is an article of conversational decorum.

What does not follow is that no belief is more justified than any other. It does not mean that there aren't well-supported and defensible beliefs and poorly supported and indefensible beliefs.


MKR said...

I recommend to you the first chapter of Jamie Whyte, Crimes Against Logic, "The Right to Your Opinion." Whyte writes: "You don't really have a right to your own opinions. And the idea that you do, besides being false, is forever being invoked when it would be irrelevant even if it were true" (p. 2).

As much as I share Whyte's impatience with that phrase and the intellectual laziness and sloppiness that it so often betokens, I think he is actually unfair to it. I think the problem with the saying is that it confuses two different ideas. One is the idea that you discuss in your first paragraph, viz., that one should be able to hold opinions with impunity: no one has the right to impose consequences on you for holding a particular opinion. That idea, however, gets confused with the idea that opinions do not require justifications (as in your second paragraph). The first idea is an appealing political principle; the second idea is a disastrous epistemological one. Unfortunately, by conflating the two, people end up investing the bad epistemological principle with the passions roused by the good political principle.

You write, however, of a "right to believe something." In contrast to "right to one's (own) opinion," that is not a commonly used phrase. I am not sure if it means the same thing, but it is not something that I hear people say.

Victor Reppert said...

Actually, I linked to thatt Whyte piece a few months back.

Anonymous said...

I've always understood "within ones epistemic rights" to mean that one is right or has good reasons to believe X is true.

Steven said...

Why is it a serious mistake to believe in God if he doesn't exist?

Gandolf said...

Does it depend lots about how the word believe is translated.

If believe = opinion.then its not often so much of a problem.Infact opinions are very important.

If believe = practicing something.Thats when it changes lots and becomes a whole different matter.