From Passion to Belief

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.

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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.

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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.

5 comments

  1. Of all the posts you have written on this site thus far this one is my favorite. I am most happy you are a regular on Electric Agora. I take this discussion part of larger most contentious debate concerning internal states and consciousness itself. Even given that we can all agree that such a thing is most important or is real and not illusory or a side effect of mere matter, still there isn’t a consensus on what to do with it or how much authority to give it. Still further, there are those like Daniel Kaufman who want to emphasize its social or relational aspect – if I understand his argument accurately. Conversely, for me, this is primarily individual and prior to any social relation. So people differ. But you lay out a very coherent explanation here.

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    1. Dan T. is one of the original founders and co-editors of the site, so I am particularly glad that he has returned in some capacity. I hope he will return fully, down the road, when he is able.

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  2. I’ll hold further reply until I read the follow-up; but for now, I am wary of the conclusion you seem to draw.

    “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.”
    -Yeats, The Second Coming

    Passion seems no substitute for judgment. Reason seems to me best used to help us satisfy our desires in non-destructive ways within a given community. But what is useful? what non-destructive? what is our relationship with what community? One can feel some of this, but much of it relies on rectified reasoning. The problem with passion is its volatility. It should follow our commitments, but often it doesn’t follow, it leads; and we won’t even know this is happening, because ‘it feels so right’…. You discuss some of this in articulating when the passions might rightfully prove suspect; my concern is that this happens more often than not.

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  3. I enjoyed this too, but will try and be picky 😉

    Reason versus experience: Practical reason, by definition, is intertwined with empiricism (a la “practical extension of pure reason”). This includes a knowledge that we are all bounded finite reasoners. The modern reasoner with a little education has no problem reconciling Zeno with crossing a room, even though the mathematical foundations are actually quite deep, and I can only remember that at one time I thought I understood them.

    Gauthier channeling Kant (who I believe thought he had refuted Hume) says “As finite beings, lacking self-sufficiency, we have desires; as rational beings, we unite our conception of these desires in thought and so conceive of happiness as the proper object of desire. Rationality, applied to finitude, necessitates the idea of the satisfaction of all our desires and so necessitates the idea of happiness.”

    “Someone may have a faulty capacity…”: a realistic point of view is that everyone has a faulty capacity to a lesser or greater extent.

    “…we reject sentiments directed toward an inappropriate target”: an undirected gratitude for being alive is OK by me.

    “hope”: I think this is a simplification. Take one of a family of hypotheses where the truth is not known. My championing one of these as basis for action (or my current happiness) doesn’t have quite the same nature (I was going to say force, but this panders to the unidimensional folk psychological way of talking about beliefs and desires) as believing this chair I am sitting on is not going to give way suddenly.

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  4. David Duffy:
    Nice post. I think that paradoxoi are generated by the conflict between the abstract and the concrete. We can mathematically divide any distance to be traversed as a series of point instants and pause the normal flow at any time we choose and subdivide each section into an infinity. That’s useful for calculation, differential calculus, rates of acceleration and so forth but it is entirely the product of the human mind. A body in motion does not pause in its progress and that is what decides the outcome of a race or the flight of an arrow.

    Likewise and similarly those big words we fear which make us so unhappy. I mean general, global, abstract fear that existentialists specialise in – angst, anomie, the absurd, despair, and dread. How do you deal with them? Go concrete. Make a list. There’s a complex job you have to do with a multitude of elements. You are in your ‘workshop’. The first thing to is sweep the floor and put away your tools. Do not start to start the big engine. Get the donkey engine going first.

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