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February 19, 2014



It's a good question, and one that baffles me as much as it does your students. Hopefully this question isn't too off-topic: have you come across anything in your students' societies of origin that is puzzling to them the way fervent yet unpracticed Christianity is puzzling to us?


I like the thoughts here. I don't think the claim that belief and action are identical is defensible, though. The thought experiment he uses in the quote shows this. A person who pretends to believe in public but acts contrary to his stated belief in private. I think he is right in his claim that this private behavior undermines the man's claim claim to believe. It does not support the stronger claim that belief and action are the same thing. To see this, consider this question: is it possible to fake belief. That is, could someone act as though they believed for reasons other than belief? It seems clear to me that someone could. In fact, it's not preposterous to think that someone could always act as though she believed without actually believing. Suppose a woman living in a fundamentalist religious community believed that to keep herself and her family safe, she could not let anyone know that she secretly found the entire theology of the local religion to be nonsense. A person in her position might reasonably find it prudent to appear devout in all circumstances, even private ones, if she had any reason to believe that her private moments could be made public. So one could act devout without believing. So belief and action can come apart.

A more plausible claim might be that belief necessitates action that indicates belief (beyond the speech act of claiming to believe). While I think a defense could be made of this claim, even it seems too strong. It seems to ignore out tendency to compartmentalize our decision-making. For example, I believe that I should not eat refined sugar. I have a strong belief that the pleasure refined sugar brings me is in no way comparable to the ill-effects it has on my health. Very often I act on this belief, but I don't always. If I'm tired, or hungry, or both, and there's a candy bar on the table, there's a better than even chance that I'll eat it. Philosophers, psychologists, and economists have built careers offering answers for how such a thing could be so. But I think it is unlikely that the puzzle can be solved by simply claiming I don't actually believe that I shouldn't eat sugar.

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