This post is by Bart Streumer. Bart Streumer is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Groningen. In this post he introduces his book Unbelievable Errors, which has recently been published by Oxford University Press.
Widespread beliefs can be systematically mistaken. Take religious beliefs: if God does not exist, these beliefs are all mistaken. But you may think that some widespread beliefs cannot be mistaken in this way. For example, consider normative judgements: our beliefs about what is right or wrong, or about what there is reason to do or to believe. Could these beliefs be systematically mistaken?
In my book Unbelievable Errors, I argue that they are. I argue that normative judgements ascribe normative properties, but that these properties do not exist. This means that all normative judgements are false. For example, the belief that stealing is wrong ascribes the property of being wrong to stealing, but this property does not exist, which means that this belief is false. The belief that stealing is permissible ascribes the property of being permissible to stealing, but this property does not exist either, which means that this belief is false as well. And similar claims apply to all other normative judgements.
The view I defend in the book is known as ‘error theory’. Some philosophers accept such a theory about moral judgements. But the error theory about all normative judgements that I defend may seem so bizarre as to be simply incredible. I agree. For in addition to defending the error theory, I also argue that we cannot believe this theory. If I am right that the theory is true of judgements about reasons for belief, the theory entails that there is no reason to believe the theory. I therefore think that we only really believe the error theory if we believe that there is no reason to believe the theory. And I argue that we cannot do this: we cannot have a belief while at the same time believing that there is no reason for this belief. If so, it follows that we cannot believe the error theory.
If I am right that we cannot believe the error theory, the arguments I give in my book cannot convince anyone that this theory is true. That is why I have called the book Unbelievable Errors. But the fact that an argument cannot convince us does not show that this argument is unsound. Moreover, I argue that our inability to believe the error theory actually makes the theory more likely to be true, since it helps to answer objections to the theory, it makes it harder to reject the arguments for the theory, and it undermines revisionary alternatives to the theory. I therefore think that our inability to believe the error theory is an advantage rather than a problem for the theory.
When we have mistaken beliefs, it is normally possible for us to see that these beliefs are mistaken. But this may not always be possible. If I am right, our normative judgements are systematically mistaken in a way that we are unable to see.