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practical reasoning

This is old news, but I happened to see my GPA today for the first time since completing my coursework. 3.63, baby!

This is significant, because you can't continue in the program with less than a 3.50. I always have this sneaking suspicion that I don't "really" belong in grad school and that if people caught on they'd drum me out. (This is my own insecurities, btw; the Fordham folks have never been anything less than welcoming.) But somehow I hadn't been able to work up the nerve to check after I finished that requirement. Then I happened to see it on an administrator's screen this afternoon. With one more hurdle passed, I hope that I can relax a bit more and actually focus on getting work done.

Also: Yay for productivity! This week's lecture notes are done, and next week's (the last week of the semester) is on material I've already taught three times. So I think preparing those should be relatively easy. But on the flip side: where did this semester go? O¿o

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On Friday, I'm teaching Robert Adam's "Moral Arguments for Theistic Belief" (pp. 13-24). This offers among other things an overview of Kant's argument for God from our sense of moral order. I won't go into the specifics of that argument now; it's actually quite interesting in Kant, though Adams strips the best bits out in an effort to make it accessible to people who aren't learned in German idealism. But even leaving natural theology out of things (for once!) he makes some pretty interesting comments about different style of arguments.

See, Kant actually develops two arguments for God from morality. Adams says that one of them is theoretical and the other is practical. Here's how Adams summarizes these concepts:

The Kantian family has members on the distinction between theoretical and practical arguments. By "a theoretical moral argument for theistic belief" I mean an argument having an ethical premise and purporting to prove the truth, or enhance the probability, of theism. By "a practical argument for theistic belief" I mean an argument purporting only to give ethical or other practical reasons for believing that God exists. The practical argument may have no direct bearing at all on the truth or probability of the belief whose practical advantage it extols.


Put more simply: a theoretical argument tries to prove some claim is true. A practical argument tries to prove you should believe some claim whether it turns out to be true or not. If you're familiar with the arguments for God, Pascal's Wager is a good example of a practical argument. It basically says we can't know whether God exists or not, but we have to believe in God, and believing in God is most likely to have the best consequences. Now, I reject the Wager part of all this, but the basic metaphysics... there's just something intriguing about practical arguments.

First things first, the misconceptions. Practical reasons don't trump theoretical ones. I may wish my nation's capital was Manhattan rather than D.C., but there's plenty of evidence that that's not the case. The universe has no duty to arrange itself to please me, and beliefs should match up with reality, wherever possible. And just because there's no evidence, that in itself doesn't mean we can appeal to practical reasons. We should only use practical reasons where there's a practical reason to hold the position.

But there are a few cases where we can't know the answer - where there's no evidence one way or the other and no easy way to gather it - and where it's important we come to a decision. We should not rush to judgment where we can afford to, to be sure, but in some cases this seems to suggest it's okay to believe things because there's some practical benefit to believing it. It's not irrational, let alone anti-rational. And the reason it's not irrational is that reason doesn't really have anything to say here. So we're not just believing what we want and avoiding evidence, which would be wrong, but we're making a decision because we have to believe something.

I read this as saying it's okay to be an optimist, and it's okay to hope when life hasn't exactly encouraged that, precisely because it's good for us to do so. That's also a very Tolkienish line of thought. I'm thinking of what Gandalf said at the Council of Elrond: "Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not." Btw: That's not quite the same as believing it because you want to. You believe it because you recognize the belief is good for you somehow, and until you're given good reason not to, you decide to believe.

What say ye? Is it ever okay to believe something not because you have evidence, but because it's good for you?

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