by Daniel Tippens
David Hume, the 18th century Scottish philosopher and empiricist, did not believe that there are any self-evident truths (beyond the trivial “relations of ideas”), nor did he believe that reason is what makes us confident in our beliefs. For him, all knowledge is acquired and justified by experience — observation of the world — and reason is a slave to the passions. It is sentiment that instills belief, and reason which, in a post hoc fashion, justifies it. In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Hume uses this brand of empiricism to undermine his readers’ confidence in the existence of God.
To illustrate the distinction between reason giving us confidence in our beliefs and experience, consider Zeno’s Paradox. Reason has it that in order to traverse the distance between any two points A and B, there is a halfway point C between them. If there is always such a halfway point — as reason insists there is — one could never traverse a room. But experience tells us that one can traverse a room: try it yourself, right now. This is a paradox precisely because the epistemic force of reason and experience clash. According to Hume, experience inevitably wins out, and we modify reason in light of it.
When I say, “experience wins out,” I mean that we act in line with it. Our confidence is clearly rooted in experience as opposed to reason, because we act in line with the belief that we can traverse a room. If a particularly annoying philosopher told me I could never cross a room and exit the door, because of the infallible reasoning involved in Zeno’s Paradox, that wouldn’t stop me from leaving the room and telling him that he and his reason can go fuck themselves.
I don’t want to take a firm stand on the Rationalism vs. Empiricism debate, here. I note it only by way of framing my central claim: that there are times when the experience of a passion alone gives us overriding confidence in a belief. A passion is a sentiment of some form or another: fear, hope, guilt, anger, rage, joy, etc. If I am afraid of something, that fear alone can provide me with defeasible confidence in the belief that a threat exists. But what I want to suggest is the stronger claim that there are times when a passion by itself can legitimately ground confidence in our belief, regardless of whether and how that belief stands with respect to reason.
Before examining this, let’s consider cases in which we don’t think experience of a passion grounds confidence in one’s belief, insofar as we would criticize the individual who has confidence on the basis of it. Suppose, for example, you ask someone why they refuse to leave their house and they say, “because I’m afraid of everything outside of my house. People, cars, and even the neighbor’s dog.” You’d likely say, “Okay, good luck with your life,” and walk away.
There are five conditions under which, I think, we legitimately reject someone’s passion as grounding confidence in their belief.
The first is to say that it is because they hold it irrationally, in the sense that the individual willfully ignores evidence to the contrary. In the case just mentioned, there is plenty of evidence available — crime statistics; the number of dog-killings; testimony of others; etc. — to be confident that the world outside should be no scarier than the inside of the person’s home. In this way, the individual exhibits an epistemic vice, in that he chooses to ignore things that likely would sway his passions.
Another condition is that the passion was brought about in the wrong way. If I take a hallucinogenic drug and see an apple, then when I tell my friend about it, he would be right to criticize my confidence. Similarly, if your friend smokes a joint and feels a sudden, crippling fear with regard to everything around him, you would describe him as paranoid. If a particular sentiment wasn’t brought about in the right way, we don’t take it as grounds for confidence in a particular belief.
The third condition is related to the previous one. Someone may have a faulty capacity. If, say, a person’s amygdala has been injured, then –- as was the case with the hallucinogenic drug –- we don’t take them to be a reliable source when it comes to their sentimental responses to the world.
Fourth, we reject sentiments directed toward an inappropriate target. I can’t feel gratitude toward a rock, as rocks aren’t appropriate recipients of appreciation. Only agents are. The same, of course, goes for anger at, say, a hurricane or a tree.
The fifth condition is speculative, but I want to throw it in anyway. We reject someone’s sentiments as grounding confidence when they constitute a vice. Consider the house-dweller again. Even if the world is legitimately scary, he chooses to stay inside instead of facing his fears. They dominate his actions in such a way that can only be described as cowardly. And so we might think that a person’s passions may be rejected as grounds for confidence, when they demonstrate a vicious character, either epistemically — as when one willfully ignores evidence — or morally — as when one exhibits cowardice.
There are times, of course, when these conditions don’t apply, and experience of a passion alone can provide confidence in believing something on the basis of it. Suppose that you were to ask someone why they believe that another person is a threat, and they say with composure, “because I feel terror whenever I’m around her,” or “I sense danger in him.” Such an answer need not be strange in the slightest, if the person satisfies none of the conditions outlined above. In such a case, fear can serve as a perfectly legitimate ground for confidence that there is a threat.
In this case of being afraid when around a particular person, you might think that your passion is still defeasible when confronted by reason (on a personal note, I don’t think it necessarily is, but you might). You could learn more about this person — say, through conversation with others or online research — to undermine the confidence derived from your fear. After thinking about it, you might decide not to act on the basis of your passion alone. That passion may provide legitimate grounds for confidence, but it may subsequently be defeated, upon rational consideration.
So here’s a better example: suppose that someone is diagnosed with liver cancer and given a slim but still uncertain prognosis. She’s read all the statistics, discovered the number of people with her diagnosis who tend to make it through, and calculated her chances, which appear low. Yet, she still believes she will live. Now, imagine upon being asked why, she says, “because I have hope.” Despite reason indicating that she won’t make it out, wouldn’t her feeling of hope be good enough, given that her epistemic condition is one of rational uncertainty? Certainly, I wouldn’t criticize her for it, and this is not just because doing so would make me an asshole.
What this shows is that there are times when passion alone is sufficient to justify a belief. If this be an epistemic fact, then it is worth taking some time to consider what philosophical belief(s) can be justified purely from the heart. I’ll provide one answer to this question in my next essay.
Daniel Tippens is a PhD student at the University of Miami working in Moral and Political Philosophy. He currently blogs at The Related Public.