In my previous post I noted the connection between behavior and belief and how doubts about God are often rooted in disobedience.  But how exactly does this work?  Why should one’s moral conduct, whether good or bad, have intellectual ramifications?  Let me quickly explain two moral-psychological dynamics that account for this.

First, there is the phenomenon known as self-deception.  As many studies have shown, reason is not the sole determinant in belief formation.  A person’s beliefs can be altered by significant desires, fears, and other emotions.  In fact, people often act on their passions even when reason clearly points in a different direction.  So, to illustrate regarding an ethical matter, when a person forms an immoral habit (say, anything from pirating DVDs to extramarital sex), they will naturally desire to avoid admitting their actions are really immoral.  Consequently, a moral perspective or general worldview that condones such behavior will be more attractive to them, and the desire to avoid guilt and shame about it will motivate the belief that such theft or adultery, at least in the person’s present case, is not really wrong.  This is a classic case of self-deception—believing what one, in some sense, knows to be false.

Second, and more fundamentally, there are the cognitive consequences of sin.  As Notre Dame philosopher Alvin Plantinga has elucidated (see chapter 7 of his Warranted Christian Belief), sinful behaviors have cognitive ramifications.  The mind was designed to, among other things, form true beliefs about the world, and when functioning properly in a congenial environment, it tends to do just this.  Immoral indulgences disrupt cognition so that it cannot function properly, thus clouding judgment and skewing perceptions.  This is especially so in the case of moral and spiritual beliefs where personal pride and selfish desires are most likely to interfere.

Because of the potentially devastating dynamics of self-deception and the cognitive consequences of sin, we must take great care in living virtuously and diminishing the corrupting effects of sin on the mind.  Only by avoiding the negative cognitive effects of disobedience can the intellectual challenges to the faith be addressed in a clear-headed (and pure-hearted) way.

The practical upshot is that we must prioritize right living, and this is especially important when struggling with doubts.  Some such doubts are genuinely intellectual and may be addressed accordingly.  But others are rooted in vice, in which case the first order of business is repentance rather than apologetic research.  In light of this, I have counseled some struggling students to live “as if” Christianity is true, even when they have severe doubts.  By this I mean that it is wise to observe Christian moral standards even when questioning the truth of Christianity, because indulging in sin will only further confuse one’s thinking and invite self-deception.

I recall one instance in which a student came to my office, wracked by doubt and feeling that he was “living a lie” by acting as if he was a Christian.  I told him to continue to live by biblical standards just in case Christianity is true.  This way he wouldn’t have any regrets if his faith convictions returned.  Well, sure enough, his Christian beliefs did re-solidify, and he later thanked me with immense relief that he hadn’t done anything rash (in terms of immoral indulgences) during his spell of doubt.  I suppose there is something Pascalian in this approach, but then again, there is a Pascalian dimension to all of life, as we must “wager” about many choices we make.

The lesson here is that all of our behaviors, whether habitual or one-time experiences, impact our cognitive condition to one degree or another.  And our cognitive health in turn impacts what we are inclined to believe and disbelieve.  Thus, whether or not virtue is, as the saying goes, “its own reward,” it certainly has cognitive benefits, just as vice has cognitive costs.  The wise person will take this to heart.

18 Responses to “Belief, Doubt, and Behavior (Part Two)”

  1. Chris Horst


    Thanks for the thoughts, Jim. I am thankful that Taylor students have the privilege of learning, discussing, and processing faith with you.

  2. Paul Adams


    Thanks so very much for this. It’s very insightful and helps a great deal. I wonder if a vicious cycle occurs, to wit: Not only does “our cognitive health in turn impacts what we are inclined to believe and disbelieve” but our beliefs in turn impacts the choices we make. This cycle, left unchecked, can destroy us (and others along the way). We are so prone to justify our actions, especially those that we know are for ill, that we end up compromising sound reasoning to “feel” better about what we’ve done. The longer we engage in immoral behavior and seek to reduce the cognitive dissonance that arises from it, the less able we are to think right and act right. God have mercy!

  3. Jim Spiegel



    I think you’re exactly right about the vicious cycle, which might be one reason why the Apostle Paul is so stern in saying “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” But the good news is that there is also a virtuous cycle where obedience increases discernment and wisdom and diminishes cognitive corruption, which begets virtuous behavior. I discuss both of these “cycles” in a chapter on the virtue of wisdom in an upcoming Eerdmans volume, entitled _Participating in the Divine Nature_. It is edited by Mike Austin and Doug Geivett and should be out later this year.

  4. James in Madison


    “when a person forms an immoral habit (say, anything from pirating DVDs to extramarital sex), they will naturally desire to avoid admitting their actions are really immoral”

    I think you are getting it backwards. If people thought these were wrong, they likely wouldn’t have done them. I don’t deep down think that I’m immoral for having sex with my girlfriend, but cover it up with a moral theory that allows me to do it. Rather, I think that sex in certain contexts is a morally neutral subject while recognizing that it is wrong in other situations, like adultery. As a result of this view, I have sex.

    Additionally, how would you explain the health benefits of masturbation if immoral behavior is bad for us. A quick wikipedia check reveals that it’s even associated with lower prostate cancer.

    And if you’re saying that I’m simply deceiving myself, then you make it impossible for me to hold any sort of rational position different from yours. And a claim like that is one which can only be offered with tremendous hubris, something God would not like.

  5. Nick


    If I may, James, I think you have it backwards when you assume that “If people thought [immoral behaviors] were wrong, they likely wouldn’t have done them.” This assumes that man possesses an inherent inclination to avoid immoral behavior when he knows something to be “wrong”. While it is true that people can be morally trained to avoid immoral behavior because they are taught that certain actions are wrong, the Christian doctrine of original sin suggests that man in his natural state acts precisely how Dr. Spiegel suggests: badly and in full confidence.

    At any rate, Dr. Spiegel, I ran across an interesting article about self-deception and why Hollywood marriages fail at Psychology Today. The article is quite interesting.

  6. Chris


    James, you seem to be a bit all over the place if I may. First of all I concur w/ Nick about the point that often man does w/ full knowledge what he knows to be wrong. I am guilty of this over and over again.

    Now, I’m not sure whether you are positing a personal example, or a theoretical in your comments on sex, but if these are your personal beliefs, I would be curious how you derive sex outside the bounds of marriage as being morally neutral, yet adultery is immoral. I guess I don’t see the distinction as being self-evident, and would be curious at how one arrives at this point of view.

    Second, your comments on masturbation seem to be a non-sequitur. Unless you are stating that your guiding rule for all morality is whether or not the outcome is “healthy”. And if that is the case, couldn’t a case be made for adultery being moral? Because in fact, there are many studies that sexual activity leads to all sorts of health benefits. So if improved health is our only guiding light so to speak, then it seems to follow that you would allow adultery as a morally neutral behavior.

    Finally, I will not speak for Jim in any way, but in my mind, someone who claims to know what God would and would not like so easily, yet claims that pre-marital sex is morally neutral perhaps falls more into the second category of where wrong living can lead.

    It is not so much self-deception as, “Immoral indulgences disrupt cognition so that it cannot function properly, thus clouding judgment and skewing perceptions. This is especially so in the case of moral and spiritual beliefs where personal pride and selfish desires are most likely to interfere.”

  7. James in Madison



    If you think that having sex has healthy benefits, then what exactly are these “cognitive impairments” you keep reciting? Is there a published study that has determined this? Has the APA accepted the study, or is it too heavily biased in its execution to be acceptable? Let’s have some evidence for such a bold claim.

    As for the morality of pre-marital sex versus adultery, the distinction is based on mutual agreements. Marriage is an agreement between two people and adultery is a violation of that agreement. There is no such agreement between two people that is being broken when pre-marital sex is involved (unless you are already in a relationship). Now you may complain that this assumes that breaking an agreement is morally wrong and I have no basis for that unless I assume that God commanded it. To that, I suggest you read about the Euthyphro dilemma and understand that God as a source for morality has been a dubious foundation since Socrates.

    And finally, the conditioning nonsense. I by no means present a categorical statement that people will not do something they think is immoral. Yet, under your understanding of “being trained” leaves absolutely no room for the reality that we use moral terms like should and ought to give reasons for people to act in a certain way. We do not say that you should donate to charity because it is a tax benefit. We say that you should donate to charity because it is a good thing to do. Being a good thing, donating to charity, is used as though it were intrinsically motivating. The same applies for things that are wrong. With that, I can reasonably surmise that there is some foundation for the claim that people generally don’t do what they think is wrong. Otherwise we would see the impotence of moral terms reflected in our language.

  8. Dan Newcomb



    In regards to Socrates, check out Peter Kreeft’s book “Socrates Meets Jesus”. He gives great examples how people do exactly what they know to be wrong all the time. This agrees with the words of Jesus in the Gospels as well as the Apostle Paul and the whole Old Testament…and pretty much the rest of the Bible…not a good picture of mankind doing the right thing at all.

    Also I disagree, as a Theist, I definitely think morality is founded on God. Otherwise one is reduced to opinion and is stuck with the “Is/Ought” problem. When Dostoevsky wrote “Everything is permitted” I think he had this in mind.

    Another great quote from The Brothers Karamazov:
    “The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love, and in order to occupy and distract himself without love he gives way to passions and coarse pleasures, and sinks to bestiality in his vices, all from continual lying to other men and to himself.” (Book II, Chapter 2)

  9. James in Madison


    Though you may disagree with as a theist with morality being founded on God, that does not make the Euthyphro dilemma disappear. Wikipedia has a delightful analysis of the various problems that the argument proposes.

    As for doing things that we know are wrong, again I say that my position is qualified and applies only to most cases. The reason why it may seem to you that people do things that are wrong while knowing that they are wrong is because of your own beliefs as to what is right and wrong. And this is explicit in the above post where it is contended that people form immoral habits and therefore readjust their moral system accordingly. Does the christian teen that starts having sex after being in the chastity club really think that having sex is completely prohibited the first time he has sex? Or does he have sex because he sees the prohibition as being weaker than he once saw it? I think that most people who have had a change in their moral beliefs will usually identify with the second point.

    And it has more explanatory power for why the act was committed in the first place. If we do engage in acts which we believe are morally prohibited without a prior weakening in the strength of the moral principle, then I am at a complete loss as to the psychological mechanism that allows us to do something bad. One may still feel guilty after committing the act, after all the principle does not completely disappear, but the principle must weaken from a full prohibition in order to account for why we act in the first place. This is my main contention, which is that Spiegel is advocating something that might be backwards, that the change in morals happens before the immoral act occurs, and an analysis of why that happens will reveal more fruitful information as to why morals change, rather than this simple guilt avoidance theory which would mean that we would have many more people with belief systems that permit everything. And this makes sincere moral doubts based on rational grounds almost non-existent when the entire post is prefaced with “doubts about God are often rooted in disobedience”.

    But regardless of what you think about this, the Euthyphro dilemma is still one of the most powerful arguments against the reason why God can be the source of morality. Read it, think about it, if you can’t come up with a good argument against it, you should seriously think about accepting it.

  10. Dan



    Socrates, pre-Christian of course, made the point that people do what they know to be wrong. This is, to me, obvious. Murder happens every day by people who know full well. Educated people, church going people. They know it is wrong and yet they go about planning and plotting and they get a deer rifle and they figure they can do in their target from a hundred and fifty yards and get away and then they change their minds and they shoot them point blank mob style. And then they go to trial and they cry and they say how sorry they are for doing that which they knew was wrong. And then we all sit back and say…”poor guy, let’s give him another chance…you know, it is wrong to kill a man.”

    Again, Paul the Apostle agrees with Socrates brilliantly in the book of Romans chapters 5-7. This hit me so hard as a young man as I realized I was just like that, doing what I knew was wrong, daily. As well as not doing that which I should be doing (another form of immorality) It is an interesting thing about mankind, and to me, undeniable. It is because of our fallen human nature. But fortunately there is a remedy.

    In regards to the Euthypro dilemma, premise one is incorrect. Morality is a reflection of the nature of God which is Truth. Right and wrong exist because God Himself exist. It’s just the way it is. Not manufactured or created by anyone as God is eternal.

  11. James in Madison


    Your ignorance of Socrates astounds me. In the Apology he actually offered an argument exactly against what you just said when arguing against the corruption of the youth indictment. If you obtained this idea from Socrates Meets Jesus, I would be highly skeptical about the validity of what the book purports to be. Furthermore, does the murderer actually believe that he is doing something wrong, or does he simply have some reasons for not murdering? The difference between doing something wrong and believing it is wrong must be separated in any ethical theory. An example is Michael Smith’s distinction between objective ethics and practical ethics. Objective ethics concerns the convergence of neutral ethical judgments in idealized conditions and practical ethics concerns the ability to motivate ethical action. And as for your Paul argument, this does not address the point at all. Toward the end of chapter 7, Paul is struggling with his actual beliefs and desires and the countervailing reasons offered for the Christian ethic. This simply means that Jesus saying something is right is not a sufficient motivator for action. Hume realized this schism between reasons and desires all the way back in the 18th century. It comes as no surprise that Paul would not have this distinction and would blur the lines.

    Furthermore, I submit this argument for you to consider:
    1) If you judge something to be right (or wrong) then you have reasons for judging it to be so
    2) If you have reasons for judging it to be so, then you can be motivated to do so (such is the nature of reasons, right?)
    3)If you are be motivated to do so, then you must desire to do that (After all, you cannot be motivated to do something you simply do not desire, though there may be conflicting desires that cancel each other out, one still has the desire. Like the desire to golf motivates you to go golfing, unless it is raining, where the desire not to get wet countervails and you are motivated to stay home).
    4)Therefore, judging something right (or wrong) is dependent on your desires.

    And as for your “nature of God” response, it fails. This would make goodness a property of being God. While this evades the naive reading of the Euthyphro dilemma by relocating goodness so that it is independent of God’s will, the argument still applies. Now it simply reads: is God good because of this property, or is the property good because it is a part of God. And as for the nature of God being Truth. What does that actually mean? Are we reflecting on God when we employ methodological naturalism to elicit the nature of cellular replication? And if truth is a correspondence between beliefs and reality, how can this correspondence be verified or known in any objective way when it applies to God?

  12. Dan



    You are absolutely correct about Socrates, I was remembering Peter Kreefts book Socrates Meets Jesus. I recall “to know the good is to do it” was what Socrates thought. There was a moment in the book when Socrates finds himself on a modern college campus and he speaks with a young lady who buys and eats a candy bar even though she knows she shouldn’t! It was shocking to Socrates, a funny moment, one of many. I hope you get a chance to pick it up, or anything by Peter Kreeft. You can google his curriculum vitae, he is a brilliant man. But I think it is clear people do what they know is wrong in spite of being well educated. In this I disagree with Socrates. I am certain Bernie Madoff knew well “Thou shalt not steal” yet he did spectacularly.

    The apostle Paul is clear about man’s condition Romans 7:15 “…for what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do…” Man is guilty, not ignorant. Again, Bernie Madoff was well educated.

    When you conclude “judging something right or wrong is dependent on your desires” are you arguing for moral relativism? Without God, I would agree. But be careful, there are advantages and great disadvantages to that view. According to your boy Hume, you can’t get an ought from an is…at least you can’t without God.

    Well, you still haven’t convinced me on the E Dilemma. It seems clear to me that it’s a false dichotomy. There is a third option, morality it tied to God’s nature. Am I wrong?

    Lots of good questions at the end. The cell, immensely complex. Not sure I can answer them for you. But the last one, I think the answer is the Christian doctrine of The Incarnation.
    Best wishes,

  13. Jim Spiegel


    This is an interesting discussion, which in many ways pits the Socratic view against the Aristotelian view. Naturally, I side with Aristotle on this, holding that people often act inconsistently with their moral beliefs and that this is due to moral weakness (akrasia). And, as Dan points out, the Apostle Paul is quite Aristotelian when he says in Romans 7 that he sometimes does the very thing he does not want to do (which, presumably, he believes to be wrong). Now, as for the question whether chronic moral weakness can give rise to a change of beliefs, whether about morality or even the existence of God, I think the evidence in favor of this is pretty conclusive. As a person repeatedly succumbs to temptations, this leads to feelings of shame, regret, etc., which are unpleasant. This naturally creates a desire to avoid such negative feelings. One way to avoid these feelings is for one’s belief about the immorality of the besetting sin to change. Plenty of psychological studies confirm that desires influence beliefs. Also, I personally know, and have read comments by, many folks who report this very phenomenon in their own life when it comes to moral and religious beliefs. Does this apply in all cases? Of course not. All of us hold beliefs despite certain desires to the contrary. But the point is that this is a real dynamic in the moral life–behavioral patterns do sometimes have cognitive ramifications.

    As for the other major thread of the above discussion, concerning the Euthyphro dilemma, I will treat that in my next post. That is, as they say, an oldie but a goodie.

    Thanks, James, Dan, and the rest of you, for the thoughtful interaction.

  14. Glenn


    James says, “to that, I suggest you read about the Euthyphro dilemma and understand that God as a source for morality has been a dubious foundation since Socrates.” He also accuses another person of being ignorant of Socrates (I’m sure you meant Plato, who wrote the Euthyphro).

    With respect, my diagnosis, James, is that you’re pretty ignorant on what has been said about the Euthyphro dilemma over the last half century. Anyone who, in a room full of philosophers of religion, announced as fact that the Euthyphro has shown that God isn’t/couldn’t be/whatever the source of morality, he would be met with polite chuckles and the suggestion to catch up on a bit of reading. Virtually nobody thinks this, and in fact the burgeoning literature on divine command ethics since the seventies has done a tremendous job of ensuring that this line of objection is truly dead and buried (whether all authors realise this and have read said literature is, of course, another matter).

    Forthcoming in Think: Philosophy for Everyone is my “A New Euthyphro” where I re-write the dialogue, arming Euthyphro with the insights that have been gained in the millennia since his time. Check it out here.

  15. James in Madison


    Glenn, the dialog was quite enjoyable to read, but I feel that there is confusion about certain metaphysical implications of the view, specifically de re-de dicto and also the implications of Kripkean semantics and other possible worlds.

    You begin by saying that there is an identity between what god wills and what is right, analogous to the morning star being the evening star. But Kripke is discussing de re modality when he is offering up this theory. So being right is what god commanded to be right, not that he commanded it (which would be at home in Russellian descriptivism). Having established this identity between the content (what god willed) and that god willed it, that identity is true for all possible worlds. So what is right in another possible world will always be the same regardless of what god wills in that world. But, if you shift into a de dicto claim, allowing goodness to be determined by the proposition “god commanded to do x”, then you lose any grasp on the content of what goodness is or is not. Furthermore, the work of Alan Sidelle (1989 Necessity, Essence, and Individuation: A Defense of Conventionalism) brings serious doubts as to whether these de re identities are actually a necessity born of the nature of objects or (Alan’s position) a necessity born of our concepts and terminology. If Alan is correct, and being joined by people like Nathan Salmon in a similar accusation against Kripke, then the de re identity statements still lack that crucial semantic content of the objects actually being identical. Thus, an appeal to God wills it = good will not be an identity independent of our conceptualization of it which implies that it is not an essential characteristic of goodness independent of our own thoughts on the matter.

    Again, we see a confusion of certain modal rules with this statement: “God cannot command that which he hates, even though it is within his power.”
    Since it is conceivable that God has a different character, then there are possible worlds in which something else is willed. Furthermore, since omnipotence gives access to all possible worlds, there are even logical worlds which would exist in which God willed himself to be different. This can be further buttressed by him allowing his character to be determined in a random way, such that it is possible for him to be cruel as well as kind. To deny this, would be to deny the existence of these possible worlds, meaning that the character of God is necessary to him being God. But that claim, the necessity of character, has absolutely no possibility of being proven or even substantiated (Kripkean semantics requires a certain degree of intuitionist input about the nature of God, which is highly contestable and therefore it would not fly in this framework. Or if you go with Lewis’s counter-part theory, then you must show that there is no logical counterpart to God. But that will face difficulties since Lewis even has a hard time establishing identity between humans across possible worlds).

    As for the reasons argument, it is very clever, but it misses the point that reasons are considered objective. The reasons that the wife has for calling back her husband are quite different from the reasons why the husband obeyed her wishes. But the husband could possess those reasons that his wife has, and then inform his action as a result. He could make a choice about returning home independently of her asking him. It is only because of his ignorance that he simply obeys her. So the question raised by the dilemma is that these reasons for doing things are objective, that is we can know them independently of someone’s will. Thus, if god has reasons for us to do something, we should be able to have those reasons independently of his willing them; that is, if we are going to be using “reason” with any semblance of our usage (if not, then you might as well say god has gumblefish to will x). Furthermore, reasons, like facts, are independent of someone’s will/beliefs and so these reasons for commanding x by god are compatible with us commanding x to be good or following x regardless of god’s existence.

    Like I said above, this was a very interesting piece. And later, when I have some time, I’ll definitely diagram some of the modal claims to see if they can be derived.

  16. Glenn


    James, actually the “identity” version of divine command ethics is about properties, so the property of being right is identical with the property of being commanded by God, which is different from the way you re-describe the identity thesis. Similarly, the numerous names you bring into your comments all, I am sure, have fascinating things to say, from what I can see there’s nothing here to pose a problem for the thesis that the property of being right (i.e. morally required) and the property of being commanded by God are actually the same property. The more I read through your comments the more certain I am that you must be finding things in my presentation that are not actually present.

    I note that there’s a confusion in your post when you frequently introduce the language of goodness. Divine command are about moral obligation, not about goodness. There’s a really important difference between those two things, so for any given comment where you appeal to goodness, I can’t tell if you’re talking about something I said or not.

    You imagine that you’ve found a “modal confusion” when I say that God cannot command that which eh hates, even though it is within his power. I beg to differ. You defend this by saying “Since it is conceivable that God has a different character, then there are possible worlds in which something else is willed.” But this really misses the point quite fundamentally. In the first place many say that God has his nature necessarily, and they would simply dismiss your claim that God’s character could be different. But more to the point, context made it clear that I was not suggesting that God could or would not command different things in other possible worlds. I was talking about what God can do in this possible world. And in this possible world, although it’s true that it’s logically conceivable for God to command certain things, his character constrains him in response tot he facts of this world. In fact, in this very dialogue I unpacked this further in reply to the concern about horrendous commands.

    I think you similarly miss the point when it comes to reason. You say: “He could make a choice about returning home independently of her asking him.” Yes that is true, and a person could make a choice about the right thing to do independently of God’s commands too! The point in that analogy was to set up a scenario where the man has chosen an ethical rule (do what my wife says) and the wife has reasons for issuing commands. The only purpose here was to prove that reasons are not transitive, and the fact that God has reasons for commanding does not mean that those reasons actually provide a moral reason for our actions. This, at least, was certainly proved. The point being made here was not about whether or not we could, by understanding the reasons, figure out what we are required to do (provided we perfectly knew how God would incorporate those reasons). But the issue would still remain of why we are required. Those reasons do not actually make moral requirements, after all.

    I do strongly urge you to delve into the literature on divine command theory, especially if you’re still under the impression that the Euthyphro poses a serious problem for it. The reality is, Plato has been buried under a landslide of rebuttal.


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