A while ago I was having one of those oft repeated conversations about faith, doubt, and intellectual reconciliation. My thoughtful interlocutor asked, “Is there anything that you could learn that would cause you to abandon your beliefs?” The clear assumption of his question was that there was something distinctly fishy about a set of beliefs that cannot be falsified. It is an assumption worth thinking about.
Of course, the criteria of falsifiability is a chestnut from the philosophy of science, most famously articulated by Karl Popper who made it the touch stone of science. A set of claims is “scientific” — which in the modern world often acts as a kind of rhetorical and epistemological trump card — if and only if the claim could be falsified in some way. A set of beliefs that cannot be falsified cannot be scientific, and for that reason lacks a certain kind of intellectual respectability. Popper’s main targets were some of the misbegotten ideologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries — Marxism and Freudianism, for example — with pretensions of scientific certainty. Popper’s response was to point out that these endlessly malleable systems cannot be falsified — just ask Russell if he thinks the fall of communism tells us anything about the validity of Marxism — and therefore are not scientific. Popper’s move, however, did more than simply strip the cigar-theorists of their scientific fig leaves. He also reoriented science away from certainty and toward a bracing provisionality that always leaves itself vulnerable to new facts.
There is much about Popper to admire, and I am a fan on a lot of levels. On the other hand, I’m far from convinced that falsiability should be made the sine non qua of legitimate belief (a move incidentally that I don’t believe Popper himself ever made). Here I confess that I prefer something like the position staked out by the American philosopher W.V.O Quine. In his 1951 paper “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” Quine noted that even the most radical and revolutionary discoveries do very little to change our beliefs. The vast majority of what we think is true remains unchanged by any particular change in our beliefs, no matter how fundamental. He went on to note that it is possible to maintain one’s belief in any particular proposition by altering one’s beliefs about other propositions. The radical upshot of this is that we cannot really verify or falsify particular beliefs. Rather, we are always confirming or falsifying the totality of our beliefs and then making modest adjustments to this or that bit of it. This process is not some sort of self-deception or intellectual vice. This is simply how we think.
When I think about my own religious beliefs, I find that Quine makes much more sense to me than does Popper. Rather than reducing the whole of Mormonism down to a clean, simple test, say my ability to find a stone box someplace on the Hill Cumorah, I find that as I study, learn, live, and think about my religious beliefs I am constantly making adjustments to this or that bit of them. Hence, there is a real sense in which my beliefs are both never subject to the acids of falsifiability and at the same time are constantly being falsified. I regularly reject previous beliefs about Mormonism in favor of new beliefs, and at the same time I am constantly making adjustments in my beliefs in order to maintain what I regard as certain core convictions. I freely admit that at some point this process of adjustment and re-articulation might lead one to simply walk away from what were previously core beliefs. In a Quinian world one can indeed come to the conclusion that one has a false belief system but not because of some clean test provided by a single intellectual point of failure. Rather, it is the totality of one’s beliefs that is tested against the totality of one’s experience and knowledge.
There is also an important sense, I think, in which understanding one’s beliefs in terms of their relationship to other beliefs injects into the process of belief itself a moral component. Because one can, within limits, sustain most particular beliefs by making adjustments elsewhere in one’s belief system, there is an important sense in which we are ethically responsible for what we believe. Not completely and totally, mind you, but it is not true that the world simply assaults us with facts that then — in the absence of self-deception — completely determine what we will believe. Rather, we have as it were hopes about certain truths and we cling to those hopes as long as possible by making adjustments elsewhere in our beliefs. The hopes that we cling to and the adjustments that we make tell us something, I think, about the sorts of people that we are. In that sense were are morally responsible for our beliefs, although I freely admit that untangling this particular kind of responsibility is devilishly difficult.
Still there is an injection of the moral into the epistemological, and this is part of what it means, I think, when the scriptures speak of walking by faith.