By Jon Cogburn
1. The Reverse BB Thesis
In analytic epistemology there's a longstanding debate about whether or not knowing that a proposition is true entails knowing that one knows the proposition is true (henceforth, "the KK thesis"). I'm not up to date on this literature, so as far as I know what I'm about to say is old hat to epistemologists proper. Even if that is the case, I think it's still important for philosophers of religion to think carefully about the semantic and epistemic issues I'm about to raise.
Since propositional knowledge is something like justified true belief, debates about the KK thesis should raise issues about a JJ thesis, a TT thesis, and a BB thesis. Truth is probably in good shape here.* If something is true, then it's true that it's true. Likewise with respect to the reverse TT thesis. If it's true that something is true, then that claim is true.
Philosophers of religion, as far as I can tell, often assume that the same thing holds for belief.** If someone believes something then they believe that they believe it (BB), and if somebody believes that they believe something then, they believe it (reverse BB). This is largely because contemporary philosophy is so centrally (for better and worse) concerned with discerning true beliefs. As a result, we think of religion as providing an explicit answer to the very question posed by Pontius Pilate, one that we have no record of Jesus answering.***
But what is so hard for us to understand is that - to repeat the point because it is so important - these people actually believe what they say they believe. The take-home message is that we should blame religion itself, not religious extremism - as though that were some kind of terrible perversion of real, decent religion.
But weirdly, earlier in the very same discussion Dawkins makes an extended case that the Muslims weren't really hurt by satirical depictions of the prophet Muhammad, even approvingly quoting Andrew Mueller's "if any of you clowns are right about anything, the cartoonists are going to hell anyway - won't that do?" The implication (a reasonable one, I think) is that people who really believe in an omnipotent deity don't feel the need to go out and do her work for her (and for that matter, show at least a modicum circumspection about speaking on her behalf).
But then when Dawkins reports on the preparation prior to a suicide bombing, he does not seem to realize that the same point holds. If the killers really believed they would end up in heaven, all the hoopla Dawkins recounts wouldn't be necessary. And empirical research bears this out. Pace everything Dawkins suggests when writing about Islam, the more religious people are in terms of things like Mosque attendance, the less likely they are to engage in or be sympathetic to terrorism.****
2. Some Anecdotes
2a.When I was a kid the biggest issue in the news was the Iran Hostage Crisis. Everyone in our neighborhood put yellow ribbons on the trees in their front yards. It was on the news every night. Even kids talked about it all of the time. I had lots of discussions with my Mom and really thought that it was this transcendently important thing.
Then, the October Surprise (actually in January, right after Reagan's inauguration) happened. The hostages are freed! The hostages are freed! Ten year old me was so excited about it that I called my Mom at the prison where she worked. The conversation went like this:
Me: Mom! The hostages are freed!
Me: The hostages are freed! The hostages are freed! They just said so on TV!
Mom: Jon, do not call me at work unless it's about something important.
That was pretty eye-opening.
2b. One of the weirdest experiences as a high schooler was having a close friend whose father was a priest. If you went along with his sermons you would conclude that people who prayed and believed had these magic powers to radically change reality.
He was a nice man, but with a whole set of all too human foibles that freaked me out, just because he was a priest and I was a mark for a lot of what he said in the pulpit. I remember eating dinner at my friend's house and his dad just read the newspaper the entire time, not talking to any of us. It was a completely different person than his public persona (present me who has taught and given public lectures for fifteen years says, "Well d'uh"). This weirded me out.
But the weirdest and actually terrible thing was one evening when three of my friends had been in a car wreck. They were turning left and got T-boned by a speeding thirteen year old who had stolen his parents' car. Two of my friends were in comas and had pretty bad health problems afterward as a result. When I'd just found out it happened I had no idea whether my two friends were going to die, and my friend who had driven the car was in a terrible situation blaming himself.
The very night of the accident I was dropping my other friend, the one whose Dad was the priest, off at his house and his Dad was there and had actually driven by the sight of the wreck with my other friends earlier in the evening. Again, at this point we had no idea whether two of my friends were going to live. Here's the conversation:
Priest: You should have seen that wreck on the Atlantic Highway.
Me: Three of my friends were in it.
Priest: Well I can't see how any of them are going to live through that. The car was in at least three pieces [puts face back in newspaper].
It dawned on me then and there that either he just didn't give a crap about my friends, not really believing the stuff about love in his sermons, or he didn't really believe the stuff about prayer from his sermons. If prayer is so magical, why not pray with us about it? He was a good man in many ways. I'm certain that he didn't really believe in the efficacy of prayer. In retrospect, I think that not going through the normal religious foofrah was a strange combination of sheer exhaustion (being a pastor is one of the hardest jobs I can imagine) and showing a kind of weird Scots-Irish kind of respect. We kids were old enough that he didn't have to sugar coat things.
2c. In college I became friends with a double math/philosophy major who was also from Alabama and who had grown up in an even more charismatic church than I had. We bonded over it. I had played guitar in a church band while people exercised "the gifts of the spirit." My math friend had, along with the members of his family, actually spoken in tongues and "prophesied" in his church on a weekly basis. This fascinated me, because I'd never been so moved.
But when all of the faith healing failed to halt my friend's brother in law's cancer, his whole family quit the church. Their response to being asked "but have you given it up to the Lord" one too many times was (quite properly) to respond with obscenity. As if it was their fault his sister's husband was dying.
I asked my math friend how they all construed what had been going on when they were jibbering and jabbering, shaking and jerking all over the church floor.
Math Friend: We were faking.
Me: You were faking?
Math Friend: Yeah, but we didn't realize had been faking until the cancer.
How can you fake and not realize that you are faking?
3. The Upshot
I think all of the above case are best described by people not really believing what they believe that they believe. Moreover, I suspect this is common in certain forms of Protestantism where belief is treated as having magical powers, as if the state of your soul depends crucially and solely on whether you assent to one proposition (this kind of thing is no more absurd if you replace the bit about Jesus' resurrection with the view that the Gettysburg Address was delivered on a Tuesday).
Defenders of a reverse BB thesis might avail themselves of the same machinery of which the defenders of the KK thesis avail themselves. Perhaps the thesis only fails if you wrongly mix de dicto and de re interpretations of the belief attribution. My intuition (maybe I'll work this out in another post) is that this strategy isn't going to work. In addition, if, big if, knowing that you know something requires believing that you believe it, then the failure of the reverse BB thesis would entail the failure of the reverse KK thesis, which would be a big surprise.
In any case, I think that something like Dennett's instrumentalism about belief gets us closer to the truth about what's going on than playing with de dicto/de re machinery. We attribute belief in part to allow us to predict our own and others behaviors, and the actual behaviors often don't jive with what, at a second order level, we predict about ourselves. Dennett argues that this often produces indeterminacy. But I think if the example is extreme enough, it's not indeterminacy, but rather a case where the reverse BB thesis fails. And one can't separate this from normative questions. First, we are often aspirational with respect to what we believe we believe, because we would like to behave differently than we really do. This is not a bad thing! Someone who is trying to not be racist will very likely live in Dennettian indeterminacy and the kind of bad faith I'm describing. But this is probably a necessary route to becoming a better person. Second, beliefs about what we believe are pretty convenient shortcuts for human beings to classify ourselves. This too is unavailable since many of the relevant beliefs will themselves be normative (consider sports fandom). But it strikes me as more problematic.
Nietzsche infamously wrote that the last Christian died on a cross. Maybe he had something like this in mind. The teachings of someone who gave his life attempting to deconstruct the foolish manners in which we separate ourselves from one another gives rise to theological disputes by which we separate ourselves from one another. This happened pretty early in Christianity with debates about the nature of Jesus' divinity. I'm certain that it's to some extent unavoidable, but that doesn't make it a good thing.
[*Actually not so clear for "robust deflationist" views of the sort suggested by Robert Kraut in an article of the same name. If it's neither true nor false whether a proposition is either (true or false) or (neither true nor false), then Convention T rather spectacularly fails. If a claim is (true or false) then by convention T it's true that it's (true or false), but robust deflationism assures us that it's neither that the claim is (true or false). Not so deflationary after all.
**I very much doubt that either Wittgensteinian philosophers such as DZ Philips would accept this, given their construal of religious belief. I also take what I'm saying above to be broadly sympathetic to what I understand of Jonathan Kvanvig's fascinating recent (non-Wittgensteinian) work arguing that belief is not nearly as central to religion as philosophers of religion typically assume. I mean to teach a class covering Kvanvig's work soon. I would not at all be surprised if he already considers the case I am making above.
***Compare the Buddha's arrow sermon with what Jesus says it is to wait for him in Matthew 25.
****I'm not trying to sugar-coat anything. Dawkins has a point, he just makes it very badly. Americans who self identify as Christian are far more likely to support torture than those who don't. Observant Muslims are far more likely to have rebarbative attitudes towards gay people. This being said, in the same paragraph Dawkins mentions Tamil tigers and Japanese kamikaze pilots and then claims that only religion provokes terrorism. Does the man actually know any history? Anarchist terrorism was a pretty big thing, as were communism and fascism abroad and racial terrorism at home.]