The elimination and ratification of belief

The problem of nihilism is also the problem of belief. If our highest values have corroded and our firmest foundations have been removed from beneath us then the question is “what is left to believe in”. Even deeper than this crisis in belief is the crisis of belief itself that issues from the ferocity of eliminativism’s dismissal of the “folk psychology” that counted belief among its terms. So we know longer know what to believe in and find even the category and phenomenal experience of believing to be illusory (at the least). In the first instance we find the possibility of taking up a belief but also the possibility of refusing to do so. This is the common horizon of theism and atheism; the territory on which the belief in God and the lack or refusal of belief in God stand. There is a long, exhausting and bloody history that has carved out the geological morphology of this territory that stretches further back than our histories record up until our questioned modernity. The acid of eliminativism is like an asteroid on collision course with the planetary of belief and unbelief, which threatens to pulverise both into the dust of history.In what follows I want to discuss how this collision perversely ensures the resurrection of a weakened form of belief, a belief that corresponds to a faith in the empty space of God.

Insofar as “belief” is taken to be a kind of element or entity in our inner mental life, eliminativist materialists like the Churchlands consider them to be false theoretical representations of what is really going on. By now we all know that eliminativist materialism reduces mental states to brain states and calls for the literal elimination of concepts like belief from our theoretical repertoire. The crux isn’t that a representation like a belief (“God is real”) doesn’t happen but that we ought not suppose that the belief is itself the whole story but instead regard such a representation as the outcome of an elaborate neurocognitive process. It is not so much the case that the experiential phenomena of having a belief is false, but that the explanation that sees the belief as the depth rather than the surface level of the engineering of such a belief.

Thus the fact of experiencing oneself as having a belief says in place but the empirical reality of the belief itself is called into question. In seeking to support the eliminativist programme that folk-psychology is false, Paul M. Churchland lists a host of phenomena that it cannot but ought to be able to explain: sleep, learning, mental illness and perceptual illusions. To take the example of mental illness we can see how the claim that a delusion is a false belief that is not amenable to rational falsification in the mind of the deluded merely describes the situation that a paranoid schizophrenic may find herself in without actually explaining it (although I’d point out that no naturalist theory has been successful either). That the deluded has a “false belief” only opens up an abyss of epistemological problems regarding the truth and falsity of belief that are associated with the deeply problematic theory that the evaluative criterion for belief is the correspondence-theory of truth.

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