21 Sep, 09 | by Iain Brassington
I’m going a bit off-topic with this, I think, but John Coggon’s reply to today’s earlier post has got me thinking. His reply pointed out that
[i]t might be worth noting that Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (presumably the key right under issue) states:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”
This has got me thinking about the nature of that supposed right. Note that the right is to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; that isn’t quite the same as a right to belief. Nor, as far as I can see, could there be a right to believe anything, and when we say that a person has a right to his beliefs, I think we must be mistaken.
Why? Well, quite simply because those beliefs, whatever they are, could be mistaken, and there’s something odd about saying that a person has a right to mistaken or false beliefs. Suppose, for example, that you believe that Pythagoras’ theorem states that the square of the hypoteneuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of the cubes of the other two sides. I attempt to change your mind by demonstrating the falsity of your belief. If you have a right to your belief, then I’ve thereby wronged you; and that looks absurd. So we have to ditch the idea that you have a right to a belief. And I can’t see why there should be different rules for different kinds of belief: if Smith can show Jones’ belief to be false, then it doesn’t make much sense for Jones to say that he has a right to keep hold of that belief all the same.
So far so good, and so far so falsificationist. I think, though, that we can go further. Suppose I am able not only to show that your belief is false, but that another claim is true – for example, I’ve got the mathematical know-how to demonstrate a more conventional version of Pythagoras: perhaps I could do this mathematically, or perhaps by cutting up various bits of paper into the right shapes and reassembling them. In that sort of case, I think that you ought not only to ditch your old belief, but that you ought to adopt a new one. That is, granted that there’s at least a passing resemblance between what we ought to do and what we have a duty to do, there’s some sort of duty to abandon old beliefs when a better one is encountered. And, again, I can’t see why mathematical truths are special here: if I can prove (and you accept the validity of my reasoning) a statement in any field, I think you ought to believe it; and if I can’t prove it, but can provide a better reason to believe that statement than not to, then you ought to address your beliefs to that, as well.
Whatever: the idea that you have a right to your beliefs is weird – but now it looks like “freedom” of thought has to be reconceptualised wholesale. If we ought to believe the best available arguments and ought to believe proofs – which seems correct – and if we have a right to freedom of thought, then that freedom can’t be the liberty to believe whatever we damned well want: it has to be a freedom within certain limits. Plausibly, those limits are set by some standard of the best available evidence and – perhaps more importantly – the best available reasoning (since reason itself can count as evidence).
This looks like a very Kantian account, both because of the close relationship between what we’re free to do and what we ought to do – Kant would deny that there’s a difference – and because of the way that “thinkability” constrains and defines intellectual freedom.
I’m not sure if I’ve missed something here – but, if my hunch is correct, then the interpretation of Article 9 rights to freedom of belief might be up for grabs. I think I feel a paper coming on.