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I sometimes find myself disagreeing with Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy or other seasoned philosophers. However, I am scared to trust my own thoughts lest my ideas are erroneous. I do not know whether to back myself and to have confidence in my ideas or to just keep trying to understand what other philosophers are saying more deeply until my ideas align with theirs.

Let me give an example. I was reading about Pascal's Wager today. In point 5 (The table should have more columns: the many Gods objection) of 5.1, I disagree with Schlesinger and Askell:

In response, some authors argue that in such a competition among various possible deities for one’s belief, some are more probable than others. Although there may be ties among the expected utilities—all infinite—for believing in various ones among them, their respective probabilities can be used as tie-breakers. Schlesinger (1994, 90) offers this principle: “In cases where the mathematical expectations are infinite, the criterion for choosing the outcome to bet on is its probability”.

So, the expected utility for both Islam and Christianity is the same: infinite. So, they are tied. Schlesinger and Askell suggest that we need to use their respective probabilities of being true as a criterion to break the tie. However, I disagree. We have already accounted for the respective probabilities when we calculated the value for the expected utility. The value we got for Islam was infinite and the value we got for Christianity was infinite too. No infinite is less than the other. Bringing in probability into the discussion again is completely extraneous, in my opinion.

I don't think this tie is breakable. I think that this is an absolute tie.

This is just one example.

So, how would you advise me to approach studying philosophy considering my situation?

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  • @HopefulWhitepiller Thank you for your kind words. I am hesitant to edit my question because Pascal's Wager is not the main issue here. I mentioned it just as an example. My main question is whether I should trust my ideas or not when studying philosophy in general. Jun 3, 2023 at 10:32
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    tangentially related
    – Babu
    Jun 3, 2023 at 19:22
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    Sorry, but what is the use of studying philosophy if you can't apply your thinking skills to the newly acquired facts, opinions, thoughts and insights? If you reasoning is logical and takes a sufficient number of appropriate aspects into consideration, then just throw it out as a hypothesis for confirmation/falsification by others.
    – HarryH
    Jun 4, 2023 at 11:48
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    Suppose you can either have a 10% chance of infinite reward, or a 20% chance of infinite reward, and it's your choice. Surely you would pick the latter? You should not be indifferent simply because 10% of infinity equals 20% of infinity. If your mathematical analysis says you should be indifferent, then your analysis is flawed, or at least insufficiently precise to distinguish these options.
    – kaya3
    Jun 5, 2023 at 1:47
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    Utility if true, & probability of being true, are obviously different things. Why would you attempt to merge them? See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Expected_utility_hypothesis I take the utility in this case to be salvation/heaven, & then you arrange probabilities among all the conflicting religious claims + atheism such that they add up to 1.
    – CriglCragl
    Jun 5, 2023 at 11:52

9 Answers 9

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You have no choice but to be the gatekeeper of your own mind

The only things you believe are the things that you judge reasonable to believe. If you accept the word of another, you are doing so only because you judge that their word is credible. You are still the judge, even when following another.

You actually can't choose to believe something that you don't yourself judge as reasonable. The most you can do is lie and claim you believe it, but inside you will still know it doesn't make sense, so on the deepest level you won't actually believe it.

Specifically, in matters of philosophy, there's no strong consensus on anything. No matter what philosophical view you consider, you will be able to find reputable philosophers on either side of the issue. This means there are no experts. There's no reputable authority you can place your trust in on matters of philosophy. You must forge your own way, decide for yourself which arguments are most plausible to you and which are not.

But, doubt yourself, too.

Most people are much more confident than the evidence warrants. See the Overconfidence Effect. Often times in philosophy, something may seem reasonable to you on first consideration, but after thinking about it more and reading other people's views, you may realize that you were wrong, and a different position is more reasonable. This has happened to me many times.

Here are some tools you might use to question a philosophical position that seems reasonable to you.

  • Can you define all the terms very clearly?
  • If you judge that Y holds in a situation X, then consider different situations where it is trickier to judge whether Y holds. Does your judgment still make sense to you in all situations? Can you formulate a more general rule for when Y holds or does not?
  • Is your judgment based on methods of reasoning that work well in other domains?
  • Are you making any hidden assumptions?
  • What are some objections others might have to your argument? Make as strong a case as you can for these objections.
  • If a reasonable person is initially determined not to agree with you, refuses to accept some of your premises or some of your inference steps, how could you convince them?
  • Can you describe the argument with mathematical precision?
  • Can you diagram pros and cons to the argument?

On the specific example of Pascal's wager, I would ask you, imagine a religion that is the precise opposite of Christianity, where you go to heaven under the precisely opposite conditions that Christianity says you do, and go to hell otherwise. If this religion is true with some nonzero probability, then the expected utility of Christianity would be negative infinity. So to get the total expected utility of Christianity you would have to add a positive infinity (in case Christianity is true) to a negative infinity (in case anti-Christianity is true), which is mathematically undefined. This reveals a problem with making decisions based on expected utility when infinities are involved.

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No infinite is less than the other

There are actually a wild variety of infinities. See eg Strange but True: Infinity Comes in Different Sizes for an introduction. For a more in-depth picture of modern thinking about infinities, see How Many Numbers Exist? Infinity Proof Moves Math Closer to an Answer.

Bertrand Russell pointed out how members of modern religions have to be atheists in regard to other traditions:

"in regard to the Olympic gods, speaking to a purely philosophical audience, I would say that I am an Agnostic. But speaking popularly, I think that all of us would say in regard to those gods that we were Atheists. In regard to the Christian God, I should, I think, take exactly the same line"

― Bertrand Russell, in Am I An Atheist Or An Agnostic? A Plea For Tolerance In The Face Of New Dogmas (1947 or 1949)

See discussion here: Understanding Bertrand Russell on agnosticism and atheism as self-descriptions

There are a range of ways to be theistic and monotheistic, without taking part in formal religion - and, that is a growing proportion over those who do attend formal religious services. There are also non-theists going to religious services, which has long been acknowledged and even tacitly accepted in the Jewish community where more emphasis is put on ritual and cultural observance than declarations of faith, but increasingly there are 'cultural' Christians and Muslims too. See for instance this recent discussion here: Atheists who follow the teachings of Jesus

I make the case the processes of development and theological change/exegesis within the community of religions is neglected, but crucial to their character, here: The Ethics of Finding Comfort in Religion: Balancing Personal Benefits and Societal Harm

Durkheim the foundational sociologist, drew attention to religions in practice being far more about generating social cohesion, than declarations about epistemology or theology. For instance, shared participation in festivals. A winter festival has outlived both Pagan Winter Solstice/Saturnalia and Christian observance for most celebrants. Halloween which was the Pagan New Year celebration and time for animal sacrifices to get through the winter has become globally popular, almost totally umconnected from any religious or theological role. Similarly Carnival/Mardi Gras. No amount of atheism is likely to end these celebrations. I would assert utility of a tradition is strongly related to how it supports social cohesion, and whether people want to partake in it's festivals. A cold-hearted gamble on probabilities of literal truth, is a meaningless irrelevance to actual religious practice.

You may also be interested to consider the role of religious traditions and their 'rationing of symbolic immortality', in shaping society and easing our anxiety that our lives will have been meaningless after we are gone: What are some philosophical works that explore constructing meaning in life from an agnostic or atheist view?

I am scared to trust my own thoughts lest my ideas are erroneous. I do not know whether to back myself and to have confidence in my ideas or to just keep trying to understand what other philosophers are saying more deeply until my ideas align

Why would they be the only choices? I make the case here that philosophy is a toolbox, that we learn about from examples of it's tools being used. But we learn in order to be able to use those tools ourselves: on our own modern ethical dilemmas or, towards finding our own path towards a life that feels meaningful or authentic to us. See: (Why) is this negative outlook on the concept of philosophy misguided?

I make the case that wisdom is exactly the skill of solving dilemmas and making good decisions, which requires an active practice of knowing ourselves, and of reconciling our contradictory needs and impulses: Wisdom and John Vervaeke's awakening from the meaning crises?

So, cultivate your own wisdom, as an active practice. Don't simply champion your own thoughts or those of others, develop your own criteria, and remember above all the task of wisdom is not to win arguments, but to discover how to live well:

"don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, 'This contemplative is our teacher.' When you know for yourselves that, 'These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness' — then you should enter & remain in them"

-Buddha, in the Kalama Sutta

Only you can determine what matches that, for you.

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    Thank you for your elaborate answer! However, isn't "Don't simply champion your own thoughts" contradictory with "develop your own criteria"? In order to develop my own criteria I must formulate and champion my own thoughts, don't you think? Jun 3, 2023 at 13:34
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    @tryingtobeastoic: See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socratic_method It's about engaging in mutual open-ended enquiry, towards finding better answers. It's not the thoughts that matter, it is, can you defend them, in discourse. I argue Socrates is paradigmatic in understanding what philosophy is, here: philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/55051/…
    – CriglCragl
    Jun 3, 2023 at 14:21
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    I think the point about different (Cantorian) infinities is irrelevant. The expected utilities of Christianity and Islam can be taken to be the same (infinity), and we're not dealing with any wildly different infinitesimal probabilities between the two faiths that would cause them to separate when multiplied. So neither of the infinities involved is less than the other. In general, I'm not aware of a reasonable definition of multiplication between cardinals and [0,1], so I'd be tempted to say that this is completely the wrong notion of “infinity” to talk about.
    – mudri
    Jun 5, 2023 at 9:21
  • @mudri: Returning to the OP question, I realise the terminology is garbled, so added a clarifying comment. Utility is the value you place on the reward the religion offers. Weighing likelihood the religion is correct, is totally seperate. If you definitely want the offered thing, then all the matters is the likelihood tof the offer being from a true religion.
    – CriglCragl
    Jun 5, 2023 at 11:57
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    @tryingtobeastoic There is a difference between fearlessly exploring your ideas and championing one's ideas (which is basically staying within one's biases). The point is to always keep an open mind towards all inputs and to acknowledge and explore all positions and arguments, not only those that suit you.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jun 5, 2023 at 12:34
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Intuition Is Important in Philosophy

However, I am scared to trust my own thoughts lest my ideas are erroneous.

Well, coming from a place of fear is a bit irrational since the stakes don't seem to be particularly high in this circumstance, but self-skepticism is an incredibly important part of the skeptic tradition, and is the big difference between someone who makes a good-faith refutation of another position and someone who has a dogmatic and denialist stance. It's a good sign that you're willing to concede that you might be missing something. To come up with a series of counterarguments to natural selection, for instance, is a reasonable thing to do. No one should just accept natural selection dogmatically, and to not understand, especially if one doesn't have a mathematical and scientific education, is reasonable. That anyone's ideas might be wrong or irrational in light of new evidence is a very fallibilist (IEP) approach to critical thinking and is consistent with modern epistemology and psychology.

Self-Skepticism Is Important in Philosophy

Should I trust my own thoughts when studying philosophy?

Yes and no, because your thoughts come in two flavors: intuitions (SEP) and rational conclusions which are the outcome of applying logical consequence (SEP). While it's a metaphilosophical claim, I suspect most people who regard themselves engaged serious in philosophical practice accept that finding a balance between intuitions and logical consequence is a primary aim of philosophical discourse. So, trust that your intuitions are right for you, and then try to find how they relate to logical consequence; that of course involves an effort to understand what intuition and logical consequence are. Also consider if your intuitions aren't an obstacle to constructing better knowledge. Sometimes truths are uncomfortable. If one takes language as the central medium of philosophy, a metaphilosophical point that has taken central stage in analytic philosophy since the linguistic turn, then besides intuition and logical consequence, studying language also is a strategy for being more sophisticated.

Psychology Is Important In Philosophy

A third metaphilosophical thesis is philosophy is an activity conducted by human minds; that is, there are psychological and sociological aspects of philosophy. Some "philosophers" want to win. Instead of being engaged in argumentation for the purpose of learning, they conduct argumentation in a way that screams: I am right! You are wrong! In their minds, there's a bucket called philosophy, and only certain people and certain things get put into the bucket. Such thinkers don't do epoche or practice the suspension of belief and disbelief. They're easy to spot because they often accuse people of attacking them personally when their beliefs are challenged, use black and white logic or cling to one-right-way of logical consequence, get emotional when confronted with claims that differ, or vociferously proclaim they are logical and no one else is, and that their arguments are good, and everyone else's are bad. Such thinkers often see themselves as oppressed, use in-group-out-group language, and don't understand that human reason is primarily defeasible (SEP), conducted in natural language (which is semantically difficult), and relies on informal reasoning. They suffer from the I'm-a-logic-engine syndrome (and thereby lack healthy self-skepticism).

Conclusion

So, how would you advise me to approach studying philosophy considering my situation?

Keep reading from the canon, and professional interpretation of the canon, and continue to have discussions. If you were to put all the great philosophers in one room, they'd all vigorously disagree about everything. Some people show more talent for reason and language than others, but diligence and copious reading and thinking goes a long way to level the playing field. And keep in mind your motivations and the motivations of others for reading and arguing philosophical claims. If you find yourself particularly attached to a given stance, ask yourself why this might be. It may have less to do with pure rationale (or as close as we can get to it) than you assume. If you come across someone who disagrees, it's a learning opportunity. For instance, to what extent is the disagreement metaphilosophical rather than philosophical? How much is attributable to a difference in time and effort? Does the other person conceive of logic and logical consequence in a different manner? I personally reject the supernatural, the notion that concepts are independent of language, and think introspection is largely a flawed approach to understanding mind in its entirety, so when I come across someone who peddles religion, claims that the truth is objective, and that they have it all figured out (presumably inspired by their god of choice), I smile and move on, because my intuition, reason, and experience all affirm that these aren't the right ways to go about constructing knowledge. And constructing rational, defeasible knowledge consistent with naturalized epistemology (SEP) is my preferred language game. Not everyone play by those rules, and that's okay. So, figure out what rules you play by, and then you can rely on those rules to know you're consistent with your own views on philosophy and are playing the right language game.

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    Re the stakes not being very high: I feel obligated to point out that the stakes are (allegedly) infinite. That is the whole point of Pascal's wager (if you believe it).
    – Kevin
    Jun 4, 2023 at 5:05
  • "the point of philosophy is to help suss out the differences between appearances and actuality" I don't think that's a good definition of philosophy; that job fits physicalist-materialist science better. Philosophy investigates definitions & meta issues, & self-knowledge & how to live well, among issues that don't fit.
    – CriglCragl
    Jun 4, 2023 at 19:10
  • Minor edit suggestion to emphasise a critical point in the last para. Totally understand if you wind it back though. Jun 5, 2023 at 11:15
  • @Futilitarian Works for me! Thanks.
    – J D
    Jun 5, 2023 at 15:10
  • @Kevin I get the point, but I'd counter that believing there to be high stakes isn't the same as their actually being high stakes. A stoic might chide Pascal over worrying for nothing. ; )
    – J D
    Jun 5, 2023 at 15:16
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The irony of your question is that you ultimately decide who or what you trust. If you don't trust your thoughts, then you trust your thought that your (other) thoughts aren't trustworthy. If you trust other people's thoughts, you trust your thought that other people's thoughts are trustworthy.

When it comes to specific arguments like Pascal's Wager (which is not an argument for the existence of [the Christian] God, but rather an argument for the utility of believing in God), you can examine the premises and the logic used to reach the conclusion. I find reframing an argument as a syllogism helpful.

Premises that seem to be baked into Pascal's Wager

  1. Greater utility is to be preferred
  2. If God exists, believing in God has infinite utility in the afterlife
  3. If God exists, not believing in God has infinite negative utility in the afterlife
  4. If God does not exist, believing in God has no utility in the afterlife
  5. If God does not exist, there is no afterlife
  6. Believing in God has no negative utility in this life
  7. Only the Christian God need be considered

Conclusion

  1. Believing in God is infinitely better than not believing in God.

I might have missed some assumptions/premises. What I do is break down the argument into terms. What is meant by "utility" in this argument? What is meant by "God" in this argument? What is meant by "infinite" in this argument? Etc. Most words have multiple meanings. Is the argument equivocating any terms?

Then I look at each premise in turn. Do I accept the premises? Or in other words, do I consider them to be sound? If I don't, why not? Let's say I don't accept premise 2: "If God exists, believing in God has infinite utility in the afterlife". What is that based on? As it turns out, it's based on Christianity which the argument is trying to convince me it's better to believe in than not.

We can ask "How do we know it's true?" of each premise in turn. What if there's a creator God who doesn't care about religion at all and only wants people to be nice to each other whether or not they believe in this God? What if it's a trickster God who only rewards atheists? So all atheists go to Heaven and everyone else goes to Hell. If a creator God exists, how do we know whether or not an afterlife exists? After all, I've built (created) a computer which broke after 10 years, but I didn't design an afterlife for my computer to go to after it "died".

As soon as I find a single premise I don't agree with I stop. The argument can't convince me as a whole if I don't accept each part of it. If the premise is not needed for the conclusion to be valid, it shouldn't have been included in the first place. Only if I agree with all of the premises do I consider if the conclusion logically follows from the premises. This is usually easier than evaluating the soundness of each premise. Only if the argument is valid and completely sound do I accept it.

Keep thinking, keep practising, keep exposing yourself to arguments, both good and bad. It's important to be able to recognise bad argument when they're presented to you or when you think of them yourself!

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In practical terms on the general point rather than your specific example, I would suggest in such situations to find the philosopher or other thinker who has made this point before you, those who have responded to them with counters, and so on. (There will almost certainly be such).

For example, if "I think therefore I am" strikes you on first reading as using a grammatical trick, and no more requires an "I" than "It's raining" requires an "it" to rain and therefor provinge that a weather god exists, then study Gassendi or Lichtenberg, and responses to their responses.

If the cogito offends you rather more as a logical tautology, that the anticedent includes an "I" and so the conclusion vacuously follows, see what Kierkegaard had to say about it, and so on.

People study philosophy for different reasons and if you, say, are studying it for examination then I recommend you study those on the syllabus. But if you are studying for personal interest and development, this will help ensure you retain some sense of generally positive disposition with the author while avoiding jumping into uncharted waters while still learning how to swim.

The philosophical field is well-trodden, some crueler commentators might say compacted to the point of infertility.

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You should certainly trust your own thoughts. A large part of philosophy is to understand reality, as in the limits of reality: what one can know for sure. In The Origin of the Work of Art (p 30), Heidegger describes two limiters: refusal – the impenetrability of a thing – and obstruction – its obscuration, disguisement or camouflage.

In the midst of beings as a whole an open place comes to presence. There is a clearing. ... Only this clearing grants us human beings access to those beings that we ourselves are not and admittance to the being that we ourselves are. Thanks to this clearing, beings are unconcealed in certain and changing degrees. But even to be concealed is something the being can only do within the scope of the illuminated. Each being which we encounter and which encounters us maintains this strange opposition of presence in that at the same time it always holds itself back in a concealment. ...

Concealment can be either a refusal or merely an obstructing. We are never really certain whether it is the one or the other. Concealment conceals and obstructs itself. This means: the open place in the midst of beings, the clearing, is never a fixed stage with a permanently raised curtain on which the play of beings enacts itself. Rather, the clearing happens only as this twofold concealment.

Awareness of this is the start of loosening naïve identification with things.

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You should at least trust that your thoughts represent starting points, inspiration; they identify areas of interest upon which you can focus your attention and learn.

From this perspective, it matters little whether your initial thoughts are accurate, because if you are sincerely inquisitive and willing to equip yourself with the tools required for investigation, then your thoughts provide the impetus for further exploration and the accumulation of knowledge.

The more you delve into philosophy, the more likely it is - via the experience of encountering material which persuasively articulates alternate/contrary positions - that you will develop at least a rudimentary form of skepticism which suggests that trust in unexamined, untested ideas is reckless. Instead trust should be reserved for those ideas which you have rigorously exposed to the weight of evidence and logic.

Trust in this process of analysis becomes far more important than what otherwise amounts to a faith in untested (if perhaps inventive/original) ideas.

If you are creative enough to come with ideas not obviously addressed within accessible literature, be excited, but let this excitement return you to method; the task of evaluation. It is only once you have attempted this that you will gain any insight into how trustworthy your ideas truly are.

You may already be an expert, but if not, one of the most efficient ways to learn to critique your ideas and the ideas of others is to become familiar with logical fallacies. Doing so is not a replacement for becoming familiar with literature, but it can equip you to identify flaws in argumentation and claims even when you are new to a subject.

You say you sometimes find yourself disagreeing with SEP and seasoned philosophers. This is perfectly understandable and occurs between professional philosophers (and between enthusiasts - there is a lot of disagreement on this site). Just make sure you're not mistaking well-constructed arguments for mere opinion though. Other than disagreement, what are the specific weaknesses in their perspectives? Why is your opinion stronger? Can you identify ay flaws in your own arguments? As a hack myself, I have to be honest and mention that the times I've felt most strongly that I was right have quickly led to a realisation that I was simply unfamiliar with enough of the mountains of work that had been done by professionals before I turned my relatively untrained mind to the matter. In philosophy, the notion that you have a truly original thought should probably make you suspicious that you simply haven't read enough of what has already been written.

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This means you are a philosopher, rather than merely a student of philosophy. Philosophers are precisely the people who are disinclined to accept the judgements and assumptions of others.

With that said, the arguments of trained philosophers are subtle and complex. It's worth developing the skills of logical analysis to test your intuitions more rigorously against those of others. Their reasoning may be better than you realize.

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Two prospective

  1. There are many battles to pickup in the life. So to keep things Simple, I do and believe which has no negative effect. Seems statement #6 - "Believing in God has no negative utility in this life" is on point in this case.
  2. When we munch on these thoughts they should make sense and get integrated with our knowledge, like food becomes part of the body. for that basic assumptions and context have to be same.
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    Jun 9, 2023 at 6:12

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