Forrest Cameranesi: Geek of all Trades

Against Fideism

Fideism

I am against fideism. "Fide" is the Latin word for "faith", so "fideism" means literally "faith-ism", and by saying I am against it, I mean I am against faith. But by "faith" I don't mean any particular religious beliefs, such as belief in gods, souls, or afterlives, but rather a more abstract methodology that could underlie any particular opinion about any particular thing. I also don't mean just holding some opinion "on faith", as in without sufficient reason; I don't think you need reasons simply to hold an opinion yourself. I am only against appeals to faith, by which I mean I am against assertions — statements not merely to the effect that one is of some opinion oneself, but that it is the correct opinion, that everyone should adopt — that are made arbitrarily; not for any reason, not "because of..." anything, but "just because"; assertions that some claim is true because it just is, with no further justification to back that claim up. I am against assertions put forth as beyond question, for if they needed no justification to stand then there could be no room to doubt them.

In short, I am against supposing that there are any such things as unquestionable answers.

I object to fideism thus defined on pragmatic grounds. As I have said, and will elaborate in my essay against cynicism, I think it is fine and even unavoidable that we pick our initial opinions arbitrarily, for no good reason. But when we do, we then have a very high chance of those initial opinions just happening to be wrong. If we go on to hold those arbitrary opinions (that we just happened into for no solid reason) to be above question, which is the defining characteristic of fideism as I mean it here, then we will never change away from those wrong opinions, and will remain wrong forever. Only by rejecting fideism, and remaining always open to the possibility that there may be reasons to reject our current opinions, do we open up the possibility of our opinions becoming more correct over time. So if we ever want to have more than an arbitrary chance of our opinions being right, we must always acknowledge that there is a chance that our opinions are wrong.

In the remainder of this essay I will argue that a variety of other philosophical views are effectively tantamount to fideism of one sort or another. First, I will argue that appeals to intuition, about either reality or morality, are the essential core of appeals to faith. Then, I will argue that appeals to authority, be it authority about reality or about morality, are essentially appeals to one's own intuition that the chosen authority is correct. And lastly, I will argue that appeals to popularity, in matters concerning either reality or morality, are essentially appeals to popular authority, and so likewise tantamount to appeals to faith.

Against Intuitionism

Appeals to intuition are the essential core of appeals to faith. The mere fact that you hold an opinion, or that some opinion seems like the correct one to you, doesn't constitute a good reason for anyone to adopt that opinion. Your own assertions should be open to question, not only by other people, but by yourself; you should question whether and why you should accept what you yourself think is true. However, very importantly, I am not saying to automatically reject all opinions that you cannot ground with a chain of solid reasons, for as I elaborate in my essay against cynicism, I hold that it is impossible in principle to ever do so for any opinion, so to insist that you reject everything until you achieve that impossibility would be to insist that you reject everything, completely, forever. I am as against that as I am against fideism. I think it is fine, and necessary, to tentatively hold some opinions that you cannot justify from the ground up, just because they seem to be true to you. All I am against is holding those opinions to be beyond question.

I maintain only that we must remain open to the possibility that those opinions that we hold without full justification might someday be shown false, and that if we are presented with reasons to reject them, then we must do so. But until we find reasons not to hold an opinion, it is fine to hold it, even if we also lack any particular reasons to hold it. It is only unwarranted to assert an opinion thus tentatively held, to push it on other people as a truth that they must accept over the alternatives. If you are to assert an opinion like that, then you need a reason; you need to be able to show the alternatives to be false, and your opinion the only remaining option. To do otherwise would be to demand that they accept your claims on faith. And to be clear, their lack of a reason to hold their opinions does not by itself constitute a reason not to hold their opinions. If they have no reason to hold their opinion, then they have no grounds on which to assert it to you as an opinion you must hold as well; but unless you have reasons not to hold their opinion, beyond pointing out their lack of reasons to hold it, then you likewise have no grounds on which to assert that their opinion is wrong and they must abandon it. Until either of you has reason to show the other is wrong, you both remain free to hold your different opinions, in disagreement with each other, neither of you wrong for doing so. And to express that you hold them, even without conclusive argument to defend them with, so long as you are not asserting them as indisputably right and all others wrong. To say that some other opinion is wrong, and yours the only correct one, without some kind of reason to back that up — just the bare assertion itself, and your intuition that the opinion asserted is correct — is the essence of an appeal to faith.

Against Authoritarianism

The most archetypical examples of such appeals to faith are essentially appeals to authority. Some trusted religious figure or holy book says that something is true, and that assertion is taken as not needing any support: the assertion itself is taken as self-sufficient. But such appeals to authority are not the exclusive domain of religions, as that term is traditionally understood. Political authorities, states, also make assertions and expect them to be accepted for no reason other than that the state said so: we call them laws. Laws are not descriptive assertions, but rather prescriptive ones, which is to say that laws do not proclaim that something is, but that it is to be. But religions also make plenty of prescriptive claims of their own, and I am as against such prescriptive appeals to authority as I am against descriptive ones; and I am as against them coming from secular authorities, like the state, as I am ones coming from religious authorities. I would be equally against descriptive appeals to secular authorities as well, as if the mere word of a teacher or researcher or textbook was held up as sufficient support for the claims they made. I hold that faith is the defining characteristic of religion (for no particular beliefs are held universally across all religions, but all religions make claims they hold as without need of support), so as appeals to authority reduce to appeals to faith in said authority, nominally secular appeals to authority, like the state's assertion of laws, are functionally indistinguishable from religion, and still fall under the umbrella of fideism. They are all cases of someone justifying a claim with "because I said so", and I maintain universally that "because I said so" is never a good justification for anything, no matter who it is that said it, or what it is that they said.

This is essentially the same as the motto of the United Kingdom's nation academy of sciences, the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge: "nullius in verba", Latin for "on the word of no one" or "take nobody's word for it". One of the earliest and most famous of philosophical arguments, Plato's "Euthyphro dilemma", made this point specifically about the prescriptive claims of religions: either the gods (presumed by both Plato and his interlocutor Euthyphro to exist) command what is good because they have independent reasons to judge it good, in which case in principle those reasons are enough for us to judge it good as well regardless of what the gods command; or else whatever the gods command is definitionally good, in which case what is good is completely arbitrary just because the gods say so, which is strongly implied to be deficient support for the command. I am just applying that same reasoning to all claims, prescriptive or descriptive, coming from all authorities, religious or secular: either what is claimed is claimed for some good reason, in which case that reason is enough to support the claim regardless of the authority of whoever claimed it; or else the claim is to be accepted simply because the authority claimed it, in which case it is completely arbitrary, which I agree is deficient support for the claim.

But I am not saying to automatically reject all claims made by all authorities. I am not saying that everything every religion claims is wrong, be they claims about reality or ones about morality; nor that everything teachers teach in schools is wrong, or that you should disregard all laws put forth by all governments. I am actually very much in favor of defering to expert opinion on matters about which you have little information with which to form your own opinion. By rejecting appeals to authority, I am only saying to hold all such opinions merely tentatively, remaining open to question and doubt. If you are unsure of the answer to a question yourself, and some particular individual or institution claims to have looked into it extensively and become very confident in the truth of some answer, I think it's fine to tentatively accept their opinion as probably the right one, for lack of any better reason to think one way or another.

I only maintain that you should remain open to the possibility that maybe they are wrong, and if and when you can, you should look into their reasons for holding their opinion, and look to see if there are any reasons to think otherwise instead. And that you should put more trust in the word of authorities who offer reasons to support their claims (even if you lack the time or capacity to understand those reasons yourself just now), rather than those who ask you to simply take their word for it. And that if you do find good reasons to think otherwise, or if the reasons they give for thinking as they do seem weak and you're just inclined to disagree, then it's fine to go against the expert opinion, no matter how prestigious, powerful, or otherwise authoritative that expert is supposed to be. And even if you do decide to defer to the opinion of some authority, that never obliges anyone else to do the same. If someone else just doesn't trust them like you do, or even more so if they've looked into the reasons behind the possibilities themselves and found those reasons support a different opinion than the authority you've trusted, then they are free to disagree, and the authoritativeness of whoever you've deferred to doesn't matter. They might still be wrong.

Against Populism

This is not just an anti-elitist stance I am taking here, merely rejecting the opinions of experts. I am not saying to distrust all the things that supposed authority figures proclaim, or your own judgement, and instead to trust in common folk knowledge. Appeals to popularity are themselves essentially appeals to the authority of the masses, and as such, still ultimately appeals to faith: faith in the authority of the masses. I maintain that not only does it not matter who any individual or institution is that says something, but it also doesn't matter how many different people say it. Some philosophers, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, have put forth arguments that popular opinion rationally should be trusted more than any individual's opinion, on the grounds that if the average individual is even slightly more likely to be right than wrong on any random question, then the more individuals you poll for an answer, the more statistically likely you are to get the right answer, and the collective opinion of the masses is more likely to be right than the opinion of any single random individual.

Yet I counter that if instead the average individual is even slightly less likely to be right than wrong on any random question, then the more individuals you poll for an answer, the less statistically likely you are to get the right answer, and the opinion of any single random individual is more likely to be right than the collective opinion of the masses. Which of those antecedent assumptions you start from (is the average person more likely to be right or to be wrong on any random question?) will depend on your prior assessment of popular opinions: if you find yourself frequently disagreeing with the masses, you will assume that average people are more likely to be wrong, while if you find yourself frequently agreeing with them, you will assume that average people are more likely to be right, and then either way you go, statistical reasoning like Rousseau's will lead you to conclude from that assumption that your prior assessment of popular opinions was right. But only circularly: anyone starting from the opposite assessment of popular opinion will find their view equally vindicated by such reasoning.

But I am not saying to automatically distrust the opinions of other people; only to not consider their opinions beyond question. If you are unsure of the answer to a question yourself, and many other people seem to agree on an answer, I think it's fine to tentatively roll with that popular opinion, for lack of any better reason to think one way or another. I only maintain that you should remain open to the possibility that maybe that popular opinion is wrong, and if and when you can, you should look into the reasons that people commonly think what they do, and look to see if there are any reasons to think otherwise instead. And that if you do find good reasons to think otherwise, or if the reasons that other people think as they do seem weak and you're just inclined to disagree, then it's fine to go against the popular opinion.

It is important to distinguish here between going against the common opinion, and disregarding the common experience. As I will elaborate in my essay against transcendentalism, I hold that all claims are ultimately to be grounded in the experiences held in common between the person making the claim and the person they are making it to, and that objectivity lies in commonality to all experiences. So while it is possible that most people misinterpret the things that they experience, and so the popular opinion about what is or what ought to be might turn out to be false, nevertheless, whatever the correct opinion is, it will have to account for those things that other people experience, and while you are free to disregard the conclusions that the masses come to from their experiences if you find their reasoning from those experiences to be weak, you are not thereby free to disregard their experiences themselves.

In this respect I actually come somewhat close to agreeing with populism, inasmuch as the relevance of other people's experiences means that any investigation of reality or morality must be collaborative, working toward a viewpoint that is agreeable to all reasonable people, taking into account all the reasons they may find, in their different experiences, to reject one view or another about what is real or what is moral. With such a constructive collaborative effort under way, it becomes quite reasonable to err on the side of the consensus of those most well-versed in the product of that collaboration, if one should find oneself uncertain in one's opinion, even if one's own intuition leans away from that expert consensus. But nevertheless, for such a collaborative effort to proceed accurately, we must always bear in mind that though there is a possibility that the currently received opinions are the correct answers to all our questions, we can never be sure that we have conclusively answered them correctly, rather than having just not found any problems with them yet. And without the possibility of such certainty, the only choice is between continuing to question despite the possibility of that maybe being in vain, or else resting contented on our laurels — embracing fideism — and definitely never finding out if we should happen to have been wrong, at least until it is too late and the consequences of that error become inescapable.


Continue to the next essay, Against Cynicism.