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Are there true philosophical theories that we cannot believe?

Few philosophical theories are so hard to believe that no philosopher has ever defended them. But at least one theory is.

Suppose that you think lying is wrong. According to a view that is known as the error theory, you then take lying to have a certain feature: you ascribe the property of being wrong to lying. But the error theory also says that this property does not exist. This entails that lying is not wrong. You may therefore conclude that lying is permissible. But according to the error theory, you then ascribe the property of being permissible to lying. And the theory says that this property does not exist either. The error theory therefore entails that lying is neither wrong nor permissible. And it entails similar claims about anything else you could do.

Some philosophers have defended an error theory about moral judgements. But no one has so far defended an error theory about all normative judgements: all thoughts about rightness, wrongness, goodness, badness, reasons for action, reasons for belief, and so on. You may think that this is because such a theory is clearly false. But the arguments for this error theory are actually surprisingly strong. These arguments are not direct arguments for the theory, but are instead arguments against the alternatives to the theory: arguments against views according to which normative judgements are attitudes that do not ascribe properties, or views according to which the properties that these judgements ascribe do exist. When I consider each of these arguments on its own, I am convinced that it is sound. But when I consider all of them together, I am unable to form a belief in the theory they support: an error theory about all normative judgements.

 Just as a theory can be true if we do not believe it, a theory can also be true if we cannot believe it.

What prevents me from doing this? When we have a belief, we cannot at the same time explicitly think that there is no reason whatsoever for this belief. For example, if we believe that Socrates was a philosopher, we cannot at the same time explicitly think that there is no reason whatsoever to believe that Socrates was a philosopher. If we did think this, our belief that Socrates was a philosopher would disappear. Since thoughts about reasons for belief are normative judgements, an error theory about all normative judgements entails that there is no reason to believe anything. It therefore entails that there is no reason to believe this error theory. And anyone who understands the theory well enough to believe it knows that it entails this. I think that this prevents us from believing this error theory.

You may take this to be a problem for the theory. But I do not think it is. Just as a theory can be true if we do not believe it, a theory can also be true if we cannot believe it. Of course, if we cannot believe a theory, we cannot sincerely say that it is true. But we can defend the theory without saying that it is true: we can put forward arguments against the alternatives to the theory and say that these arguments together seem to show that the theory is true. As long as we do not say that these arguments actually show this, we are not insincere. Moreover, if we did need to be insincere in order to defend this error theory, that would not be a problem for the theory. It would merely be problem for us.

So is this error theory true? Since I cannot believe the theory, I do not think it is. But I do think that the arguments against the alternatives to the theory together seem to show that the theory is true. And I think that our inability to believe an error theory about all normative judgements may explain why the philosophical debate about the nature of these judgements has been going on for so long without reaching a consensus: because we have been circling around a truth that we cannot believe.

Realising that we cannot believe this error theory may help us to make progress in this debate. And there may also be other philosophical theories that we cannot believe, such as scepticism about responsibility, eliminativism about belief, or nihilism about truth. If so, realising that we cannot believe these theories may help us to make progress in other philosophical debates as well.

Featured image credit: road sign attention shield by geralt. Public domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Robert Nowak

    Can you tell me why you wrote this article? Is it a joke? If so how? And if not, why?

  2. Bart Streumer

    Robert, I realise that what I say in this blog post may sound strange, but it is not a joke. It is entirely serious. I defend these ideas at length in my book.

  3. Anthony Person

    Seems to me as though you’ve reinvented Gödelian incompleteness.

    Which is why I have no trouble believing the assertion that you make in this blog post. Why should we expect philosophical reasoning to be able to do something that mathematical reasoning cannot?

  4. Robert Nowak

    Bart,
    Gee! this is a red letter day. This is the first time the OUP blog has ever deigned to give oxygen to any of my comments of dubious sincerity. Golly.
    For a start, I hope it is ok to call you ‘Bart’. I am aware that there are professors around who when faced with the task of filling out a form put ‘Professor Ralph’ in the space calling for ‘first name’ and I’d hate for you to have a cow, man,
    I feel in a difficult position when addressed civilly and with good will…not unlike situation when the wife comes home from the hairdresser all but in tears (having dutifully, and bravely, told the hairdresser that yes, it does look wonderful, or words to that effect….even I, who believe only in doubt, feel moral pangs – is it better to tell the truth, or to lie? Why, to lie of course; to the wife, anyway. Happy wife, tolerable life. But to a philosopher? A man who seeks truth, or something like it….but who also has an emotional attachment to his work every bit as compelling as the wife’s attachment to her crowning glory, her hair (top hair, that is).
    Lying of course is the principle function of all communication. Telling the truth comes a distant second. I happen to know these things and many more because language, laughter and animal noises are ‘my thing’ and I know more about them, or about their history, to be precise, than anyone in my street. Which brings me to my response to your response to my response to your piece.
    In the course of struggling through many decodes to become the best informed person in my street about the history of human communication, I have constantly had to guard against my work becoming a linguistic rather than a real event…I mean, simply, I like to write about real things (and I do not propose to define that because, in short, I do not believe in definition. (Nor did H.W.Fowler in Modern English Usage (OUP 1927) as evidenced by the entry under ‘humour’.)
    Rather than seeming to me strange, I felt the ideas were either non-existent or so subtle as to be either unnecessary or of little use. Now I know there are ideas that really are so subtle as to be barely understandable. I am not sure I am capable of detecting those. You maybe onto one of them, but from my reading it seemed that it was simply a linguistic event.
    With best wishes. May you have an adequate New Year.

    Your friend,
    Robert
    For clarification you may email me.

  5. Joo Heung Lee

    It’s nonsense like this that turns the general public off of philosophy. This is not a pipe.

  6. san

    Sounds a bit like using Goedel’s Incompleteness Theorem put into a philosophical context

  7. Bart Streumer

    Robert: Sure, you can call me Bart. I don’t think my point is merely linguistic. Rather, my point is that we may be unable to believe certain philosophical theories even though those theories are in fact true. Of course, a blog post is too short to show that this is true of the error theory, but that is what I try to show in the book. For a somewhat longer (but still fairly short) account of the main idea, see here: http://www.streumer.net/UnbelievableTruthaboutMorality.pdf

  8. Bart Streumer

    Joo Heung Lee: I don’t think so, but who knows. I don’t claim to be turning anyone on to philosophy. I’m only trying to get as close as possible to the truth.

  9. Bart Streumer

    San: I don’t think there’s a direct connection to Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, but perhaps you’re right that it’s similar in some way.

  10. Carlos Caravaca

    This article encloses a whole philosophy as well as it presents the paradox life consists of. The constant colliding of our human need of believing and the falseness and deceitfulness this entails. A theory whose veracity resides in disbelieving it unfolds perfectly the contradiction of our nature, in which our ability of knowledge hits frontally with our being believers, faith slaves. Thinking, knowing, learning, everything turns around believing: we don’t know, we believe we know. Under no circumstances would I have the certainty of thinking I know something! Socrates was right!
    I really saw your point, and the way it was deployed seems to me quite right. I really liked this article, good job!

  11. John

    You need to give example; if you mean this theory is right because there are things that are beyond our human capacity, that’s fathomable and depending on its right application might be true – however if what you mean is that there is no “truth’s value” (as it mostly looks so) then that’s pretty much just reductio ad absurdum. Nihilist.

  12. Bart Streumer

    John, I don’t think that the theory has no truth value: that is, I don’t think that the theory is neither true nor false. I think that the arguments against the alternatives to the theory seem to show that the theory is true, but that I cannot believe that the theory is true. This means that I cannot sincerely say that the theory is true, since I would then be saying something that I do not believe. But it does not mean that the theory is false or that it has no truth value.

  13. H

    Bart/prof. Streumer,

    I am struggling a bit connecting your post to the practice of moral deliberation. The last bit of article you posted is: “If this is right, the truth about morality is literally unbelievable. You may think that this is a bad thing. But I think we should welcome it. For a truth that we cannot believe cannot make us change or give up any of our moral judgements. Our inability to believe this general error theory therefore prevents it from undermining morality.”

    Suppose tomorrow everyone in the world accepts your argument (and is that even possible given the conclusion?). Everyone now believes that they cannot believe error theory, but at the same time believes that the arguments against competing accounts show that it is probably true. Now a person asks themselves the question whether or not it is permissible to lie to their wife about her haircut. Given what you wrote, they cannot conclude that such a question is meaningless on account of error theory. After all, they believe they cannot believe error theory. At the same time your argument rests on the claim that all other accounts are so problematic that they are probably untrue (if I understand you correctly).

    So I fail to see where this would leave the person trying to answer the moral question of whether or not it is permissible to lie to his wife according to you.

  14. Bart Streumer

    H, that’s a good question. I don’t address it in the short article that I posted in the comments above, but I do address it in the book. I argue in the book that there are several ways in which we can come close to believing the error theory, one of which is believing that the arguments for the theory seem to show that the theory is true (which I take to be different from believing that the theory is probably true – I don’t think we can do that). I accept that coming close to believing the error theory will probably decrease our confidence in our normative judgements somewhat, but I argue that this decrease will be too small to make us give up these judgements. And I argue that this decrease also will not change which normative judgements we make, since it will affect all possible normative judgements in the same way.

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