Costs, Benefits, and Beliefs


By N.S. Palmer

I’m puzzled.

No worries. It’s my normal state.

I’m revising the draft of my book Belief, Truth, and Torah. I want to make it engage more fully with arguments from one of our professors at Hebrew College, Solomon Schimmel.

Dr. Schimmel’s own book, The Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs, tries to analyze why Orthodox Jews believe in the literal truth of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). The central belief he discusses is that God dictated the Torah word-for-word to Moses at Sinai, which he calls “TMS” (Torah to Moses at Sinai).

If TMS is true, then it follows that everything in the Torah is also true — literally true, except in places where it’s obviously meant allegorically, poetically, or figuratively.

Dr. Schimmel wants to know why Orthodox Jews believe TMS. Relevant historical and archaeological evidence either doesn’t exist or seems to contradict it. In spite of that, the belief is held not only by ultra-Orthodox Jews, but also by Modern Orthodox Jews who embrace science, as well as by Muslims and Evangelical Christians.

A Psychological Look at Belief

What puzzles me is not that Dr. Schimmel finds the belief peculiar, but why he, of all people, should find it so. He says he looks at the belief:

“As a psychologist interested in the workings of the mind, and in the relationship between beliefs and emotions.” 1

So Dr. Schimmel avows that he is looking at the belief as a psychologist, not as a theologian or philosopher of religion. That’s what puzzles me.

First, a minor point: To look at certain beliefs “as a psychologist” risks unconsciously assuming in advance that they are unjustified — and that, well, “you must be nuts” to hold them. Schimmel doesn’t make that mistake. He states explicitly that he thinks the beliefs are unjustified, so his assumption is out in the open. Paragraph 1, Chapter 1 declares that people hold those beliefs:

” … in the face of overwhelming evidence and logical arguments against such a proposition.” 2

I still suspect that lurking in the back of his mind is the thought that “you people must be nuts.” However, if it leads him to make particular arguments, the arguments will stand or fall on their own merits.

Now we get to my main source of puzzlement: Dr. Schimmel is a psychologist. He knows as part of his vocation that when people believe things, it’s almost always for a reason. It might not be a logical reason. It might not be a reason you would give in an archaeology class. It might not make sense to anyone else. But it’s still a reason.

More importantly, it can be a good reason or a bad reason. The idea that reasons can only provide justification if they are based in a conventional scientific worldview is as narrow-minded as the idea that they have to be based on the Bible.

All Beliefs Are Not Alike

All beliefs are not alike. Suppose I believe that the world is basically good, and even unpleasant experiences will eventually work out for the best. That belief might help me cope more effectively with the inevitable difficulties of life. It has no specific factual implications because I’ve immunized it against them. If something bad happens, then I believe either that it will work out well in the long run, or that it wasn’t really bad in the first place: perhaps it challenges me to do better or to improve myself.

My belief does not require me to do anything harmful to myself or others. It gives me a way to frame my life experiences in a positive and productive way.

Just like TMS, belief in the goodness of the universe has its costs. When I encounter misfortune, I must do extra mental work to reconcile it with my general belief in happy endings. The costs would exceed the benefits only if my belief prevented me from acting to remedy misfortune when it occurred.

The essential point is that it doesn’t matter if I can prove my belief is correct. I can’t prove it; nor can anyone else prove it’s false. It doesn’t matter if there’s evidence against it. I’ve decided in advance that my belief takes priority, and that I will interpret evidence to fit my belief. Questions of proof ignore costs and benefits that can, on balance, justify beliefs.

Foundational and Interpretive Beliefs

The reason for this odd situation is that some beliefs are general and foundational. Our worldview has to start somewhere: we can’t interpret anything based on nothing. Belief in the goodness of the universe, like TMS, is general and foundational. It is an interpretive belief, not a factual one. It’s something we assume a priori. Its job is to help us make sense of our lives and our other beliefs. If it works, it’s justified. If it doesn’t, it’s not.

As a result, such beliefs are less descriptions of anything than they are prescriptions for how to interpret other beliefs and experiences. The most important criteria by which to judge them are not truth and falsity, but usefulness or the lack of it.

The case would be quite different if I believed that I could jump off the top of a building and fly. That belief has action implications that would make my life, like summer’s lease in the Shakespeare sonnet, “have all too short a date.” 3

Beliefs in a Biological Context

It seems to me that Dr. Schimmel goes wrong at the very beginning: ironically, the same place where he thinks the Orthodox go astray.

The Orthodox start with a belief in TMS, which determines their view of everything that comes after it. Dr. Schimmel starts with a belief about belief, which exerts an equally powerful influence on everything he says afterward. With W.K. Clifford 4 and most of the rest of the world, he believes:

  • That belief’s only legitimate purpose is to make assertions, and
  • As a result, belief’s only legitimate justification is appeal to logic and empirical evidence.

He recognizes that belief has other benefits and costs, but he doesn’t seem to think that the benefits matter when logic and evidence seem clear:

“There are many rewards and positive reasons for ‘believing.’ Beliefs uphold hold a value system and bond a community. They also provide, for some, an ‘escape from freedom’ — the freedom, often fraught with anxiety, of having to use one’s own intelligence to make fundamental existential decisions …” 5

However, such benefits are irrelevant if belief’s only important job is to assert matters of empirical fact and logic. Given such a restricted notion of belief, it follows almost by definition that empirical evidence and logic are the only ways to justify beliefs. Anything else is illegitimate.

However, if we see belief in a biological context — as a form of human behavior that confers an evolutionary advantage — then other forms of justification become relevant. When we decide if beliefs are justified, we may consider more than just evidence for what they seem to assert. We may also consider their value in uniting communities, providing rules of conduct, and promoting psychological health.

That’s where the popular concept of belief goes wrong — because it is less useful 6 for evaluating beliefs than a more expansive definition that includes more criteria.

If beliefs can serve purposes other than making assertions, then some beliefs can be used mainly for asserting things while other beliefs are used mainly to achieve other goals, such as social cohesion or moral encouragement.

Justification of beliefs is not only about logical or empirical proof. It’s also about costs and benefits. And sometimes, beliefs aren’t about what they seem to be.

Works Cited

Clifford, W.K. (1999), The Ethics of Belief and Other Essays. Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY.

Schimmel, S. (2008) The Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs: Fundamentalism and the Fear of Truth. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. Kindle edition.


  1. Schimmel, S. (2008), loc. 46. 
  2. Ibid, loc. 43. 
  3. Shakespeare, W., Sonnet 18:
  4. Clifford, W.K. (1999) advocated this view of belief, and since then, it has influenced almost every discussion of the ethics of belief. 
  5. Schimmel, S. (2008), loc. 694. It’s worth mentioning that existential decisions, by definition, cannot be settled by logic and evidence. 
  6. Definitions can generally not be proven or disproven. They are simply more or less useful. 

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
This entry was posted in Jewish Philosophy, Judaism, Modern Orthodoxy, Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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