The Fundamental Problem is Belief

Thoughts on belief on the road to Sidney, on a bicycle trip.

Epistemology is the scholarly discipline concerned with determining the basis for truth. Ontology is the scholarly discipline concerned with understanding that which exists. These two go together under traditional branches of Western philosophy.

It has always seemed to me that the problems in the world are both epistemological and ontological. Even more fundamental a problem, maybe the fundamental problem, is belief. How do we know what to believe? How do we know what is true? These are not trivial questions – not abstract, not divorced from everyday concerns. That does not mean that they are everyday concerns for most people; they definitely are not. However perhaps they should be.

If we don’t have correct knowledge about the world, if our beliefs are unsound, we get into trouble. We invest our energy in mistaken activities; engaging in actions that are dangerous, or at the very least counter-productive. True belief is everything. The question is, “How do you achieve true belief?” It ain’t easy.

So I think there are three issues here. The first is: “Why do we believe certain things?” The second is: “How do we know something to be true; what is the justification for our beliefs?” The third is: “Can we ever know whether our belief is correct?”

A lot of people can tell a convincing story. Let me qualify that; a story which convinces me may not convince you. What we are convinced by is based not just on the story, but on the storyteller, and on our current system of belief. How could it be otherwise? We believe according to our pre-existing biases, according to that which we currently think to be true.

Let’s perform an experiment in thought. Suppose we have a listener and three people telling a story. By story I mean they are trying to support some position or other, making assertions. We have one who tells a story that is well told, articulate, seemingly supported by facts and generally one that could be convincing to many people. We have another individual who tells a different story. However this is just as well told, again, seemingly supported by facts, narrated in a very articulate fashion. We have a third individual telling yet another story. His story does not seem to be well supported by facts; at least he does not bring them out. Nor does he tell the story particularly well. He is not a gifted orator. He doesn’t have the charisma to convince his audience.

So we see we have three different stories. Each one told by different speakers, each one asserting different positions with different purported facts. Two of the speakers are quite articulate, personable and charming and convincing just by their manner. The third is not. Which of these ones will we believe?

Well not only is the story and the narrator and the manner of telling important in our belief, but correspondence with our current system of belief is vital. We will tend to believe the person whose viewpoints most closely mirror our current frame of reference. We will rely on our initial impressions of the person telling the story, or maybe we will have some existing knowledge about the person and his credibility. We might have formed some judgment before hand that will bias what we hear, and what we believe. Now it might be that the person with the least convincing narrative overall is the one who is in accordance with our beliefs. So even though his performance is substandard, the story he tells us not as good, we will believe him. We will believe him because he reinforces our existing biases. On the other hand if we come to the situation with no strong biases towards one position or another, we will perhaps be convinced by one or the other of the more articulate people. But it’s unclear which way we will go.

There are certainly cases where people adopt beliefs that are dramatically at variance with what they previously believed. There are these shifts where a worldview changes drastically. We reject what we previously thought to be the case and embrace diametrically opposed ideas. How this happens is undoubtedly a topic for psychology.

We may not choose one position over the other initially. It may be that we don’t form an opinion on the topic until we have heard many, many different people speaking, giving their views. Regardless at some point we may put a stake in the ground and say this is what I believe. At that point our beliefs become fairly fixed and harder to shake. We will tend to seek confirming information which supports our current beliefs. We will also tend to reject disconfirming information which seems to contradict our current beliefs. None of this is particularly rational.

It is some sort of skeptical position to assert that in fact we can never know anything. I think that’s a little too extreme. The pragmatic course is that there are obviously things we can believe, with justification, and know are true but they have certain characteristics. They are generally concrete. There isn’t a lot of variability. Both apparent cause and apparent effect are concrete. They are close in time. They are observable. They are repeatable.  We can vary the cause and see differing effects. We have some control, some ability to predict consequences. So this pertains to very many things we do in our life. Obviously, we could not exist if we didn’t have some confidence in our day to day manipulation of the world. So driving a car, making our breakfast, brushing our teeth, putting on our clothes, wiring a light, many other things of a concrete nature, are all pretty self-evident. We can be pretty certain that we know what is going on there. This all is obvious.

There’s a huge class of other problems where we can be far less certain about the truth. This does not stop many people from thinking that they do know the truth. Some things are amenable to scientific exploration but that is problematic in itself. Experts of all ilks, including scientists, are no more immune to issues of false belief, bias, and any number of other pathologies of thought than any others. None can be assumed to be objective and reliable reporters of the world.

Interpreting the World

We don’t understand the world as much as interpret it. Things and events come to our attention, are perceived, and interpreted; sometimes more or less correctly; frequently quite incorrectly. We understand things in the context of our current beliefs, values, biases and emotional investment. It could not be otherwise. Some types of events lead to a more correct understanding. Some types of events will probably always be beyond our ability to comprehend.

Shared Beliefs and Delusions

A lot of what we believe is wrong. Communally shared beliefs are often wrong. Why do I think this? Here is one line of argument:

Many have a belief in deities, which has been called by some “The God delusion.” Now, there are multiple conceptions of what the deity or deities may be, call the number of them “N.” There are various incompatible views, and logically they can not all be correct. It does not follow that any are correct. So, we might uncharitably label most (N-1?) of these shared beliefs as collective delusions. This leads to the essential question: “How do you distinguish between a delusion and a simple false belief?” Is there any real and objective test? What are the implications for some types of mental illness?

Musings on Evidence

There are some serious questions around evidence. These would include:

  1. what is evidence,
  2. how do we evaluate it, and
  3. how do we use it?

These are questions neither trivial nor dumb.

Evidence can come in many forms. It can be first hand, second hand or third hand. It can be written, visual, olfactory, in fact, coming in through any sense. Usually it would come in through multiple senses.

Perhaps you can’t separate the notion of evidence from the notion of meaning. Evidence will mean something to people. Just what it means is going to depend on the person. How they interpret it will depend upon their current understanding of the world, their system of belief, their perceptual abilities, their biases, their ability to draw inferences and undoubtedly many other factors.

So, the questions around evidence are neither trivial nor simply answered. We need to look at what evidence is used for, to what purpose is evidence put.

Evidence can be used to prove things to other people or to ourselves. It can be used to guide further action. In commonplace situations this isn’t particularly hard to understand. If you are in the woods and you come across a body, the carcass of a deer, torn asunder, you can assume that some wild animal had preyed on at deer. The deer is evidence. However your interpretation may be off. If you know nothing of the woods, predation or wild animals you may be a loss as to why that animal was there in such a state of destruction. So again the evidence may mean different things to different people. To some people it may mean just about nothing. To others it may tell a very detailed story. This story may be wrong, there may be misinterpretation, but people might look at it and say something along the lines of “Based on my understanding of the world, my past experience this is what this evidence tells me.” Of course no one ever talks that way. However that’s really, I think, a good description of the situation.

Freedom of speech – freedom of thought

“Freedom of speech is actually about freedom of thought. Speech is the carrying agent of thought; controlling human communication is actually about controlling the spread of ideas. Censorship is about controlling the thoughts that the public think in their heads. Speech control is mind control.” Caitlin Johnstone

Guerrilla epistemology

Adapted from some of my comments on an article at, leaving in the redundancy from multiple comments.

Vantage Points

People often see things from a vantage point which seems strange to me. This is not just a right-left thing, since I am almost certainly far to the left of many, and I am often have views at variance with those of the left. (This left-right distinction is always a simplistic way of looking at the world anyway).

Understanding a Complex World

The more I read, opinion and interpretation disguised as fact, the less I think any of us are able to understand the complexity of the world. Some can tell a plausible story, some can tell their story in an elegant way, and some can augment that with scholarly references. Nevertheless for any position, however well articulated, there will be others, equally articulate, taking an opposing stance. They can’t all be right, but there is no guarantee that any are.

I suppose this is just a restatement of some form of skepticism.

“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” — Marcus Aurelius

Covert Operations and Head in the Sand

I am always perplexed by those who fail to see the 9/11 elephant in the room. False flags are the modus operandi of the shadow government. I am pretty sure that the historical precedent for these sorts of deceptions span millennia. Some can accept historical accounts of deep state operations remote in time, or in remote theaters, but can not fathom that to covert operatives, the theater is irrelevant, and people are expendable regardless of where they are.

Ruthless mercenaries or ideologues have few qualms about killing foreigners, brutally, in large numbers. They have no compunction when it comes causing large numbers of their own to to be sent off to kill or be killed in foreign lands. Why in the world would they hesitate to do the same on their own soil?

Counter objections such as “someone would have talked”, “they could not keep a secret”, “they would not be so bold”, “the government is incompetent” have been well rebutted by others as rather lame debating points.

With 9/11, the forensic evidence for atypical explosive demolition of two towers, and classic explosive demolition of a third which was not not hit by an airplane is extraordinary strong.

Many progressive writers ignore this aspect of the political world. It means that their analysis is woefully incomplete, inaccurate. I won’t speculate as to their motivations to ignore or to denigrate as conspiracy theorists those others who do think is vitally important to address these covert operations.

Reading the Entrails

Everyone reads the entrails a bit differently it would seem, even on the socially progressive side of values and belief. It is all entrails.

Telling a Good Story

Some tell a better story than others. One might think he/she is following the evidence, others think they are puffing smoke, and that is not even considering what those on the other end of the political spectrum might think. I remained underwhelmed in general with the human ability to make sense of the political world. I include my self in this.

Determinants of Belief

To me, the clear implication of this is that all belief depends to a large extent on prior belief. This is of course recursive. I can not see how any thinking being could operate apart from this principle, nor do I see how any “intelligent” machine could escape it as well. Of course there are other factors, emotional factors, social factors, and other things, but in the end, we can not reason without taking our prior belief system into account. It both enables and constrains how we assimilate new ideas.

Understanding a Complicated World

With respect to truth, the more broadly I read, and I do read broadly, the less I think any of us are particularly capable of understanding the more complicated aspects of the world. This is independent of political, religious, or other belief system. I do not believe any groups or individuals have a monopoly on understanding. In fact, it is my strong suspicion that we all fare pretty badly in that regard. Some cling to their ideas more strongly, valuing their own opinions more than those of others. This is all some sort of arrogance, or perhaps some neurotic defence mechanism, affecting a large percentage of us, myself included.

Anyone who thinks they understand current political events is delusional and not to be trusted. I mean “not to be trusted” in terms of their judgment.


I think that for a large number of reasons, we are doing not much better than the diviners who read chicken entrails. Of course, a person cannot live with that level of uncertainty, and will draw some boundaries about that which they think is most likely, and that which is most unlikely. Unfortunately, some people mistake their limited understanding of events for the omniscient one’s own truth, and act accordingly.

Guerrilla Epistemology

I have been trying to articulate these ideas in writing for years now, with no success. I am now filling a notebook with ideas on this, and may turn it into a website. How about “Guerrilla Epistemology?”

Opinions Do Differ

Take any number of people at random, and ask them for their opinion on something political, religious, or some other complex topic. You will probably find that some agree on some points, but it is unlikely that all will agree on all points. So, logically they can not all be correct. It does not follow that any are correct in whole, and perhaps none are correct even in part.

Telling a Good Story

Any number of people can tell a good story, plausible and well-articulated. It does not follow that the story is correct.

Hold you Views Lightly, but Keep Your Values

This sort of thinking of mine does not serve as an intellectual basis for strongly held opinions, although I am as opinionated on some topics as the next person. In addition, I have some firmly held values that I try to keep at the core: honesty, compassion, kindness, fairness, equality, brotherhood, freedom, and the golden rule. Going from there, things get a little murky at times, trying to figure out what will advance these values, and more broadly, where the truth lies.

Political Views and Certainty

With regards to certainty, you can be anti-war, and probably get a pretty good idea of who the war mongers are. You can be anti-prison-industrial complex, and be pretty certain about the soundness of your position.

On the other hand you can speculate on what some leader will do that is bad for the average person, and what he will do which might be good, and be on shakier ground. You can look at the evidence for right-wing vote rigging, as produced by progressives, and look at evidence for left-wing vote rigging, as produced by right wingers, and find that the contradictions are glaring. Some go with the party line and condemn according to party loyalties. Others, such as myself, who read broadly across the political spectrum, admit to no certainty on this.

Very Intelligent People Routinely Disagree

You can take in the words of Pepe Escobar, The Saker, The Duran, Moon of Alabama, John Pilger, Justin Raimondo, William Blum, David Swanson, Chris Hedges, Paul Craig Roberts, Mike Whitney, Robert Parry, Peter Laveille, Michel Chussodovsky, Abby Martin, and so on for a few pages, for any topic, and find that smart, well-informed people with good intentions disagree on so many things, yet each argues their case so expressively. Again, they cannot all be right. All can be convincing.

Why is this so Hard to Understand

I don’t know much of this makes sense to others though it does to me. Most people give me looks of incomprehension when I make such “epistemological” suggestions to them. It is obvious to them where the truth lies, and they know what it is.

Judging by the comments at OP Ed News, and some progressive columnists, I am not alone in my thinking.

Denigration of the Other

I read a lot of left opinion and a lot of right opinion every day (a simplistic distinction by the way), and there is a lot of anti-war, anti-police state, anti-military-industrial-financial complex thinking in a both camps.

One thing the right is agreed upon is that the left are snivelers, boneheads, libtards, spawn of Satan, you name it.

One thing the left is agreed upon is that the right are boneheads, fascists, corrupt, evil, …. and so on.

They Can’t All be Correct

There are any number of people of any political orientation who can eloquently justify why they are right, and the others are all wrong. Logic says that they cannot all be correct, and there is no necessity for any to be correct, in part or in whole.

In the US (an outsider’s perspective by the way), the political polarization, and the idiocy, know no sectarian lines.

They can’t all be right

The more I read, opinion and interpretation disguised as fact, the less I think any of us are able to understand the complexity of the world. Some can tell a plausible story, some can tell their story in an elegant way, and some can augment that with scholarly references. Nevertheless for any position, however well articulated, there will be others, equally articulate, taking an opposing stance. They can’t all be right, but there is no guarantee that any are.

I suppose this is just a restatement of some form of skepticism.

Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth. — Marcus Aurelius

Consistency and evidence

In science, there is theory and hypothesis, and evidence supporting these things. There is no proof, only probability.

I can prove something to you, and that works at the level of psychology and belief, it is not mathematical. Even logical and mathematical proof depend on convincing you that the logic is sound. The most carefully constructed logical or mathematical proof may be incorrect, the logic erroneous. Even with the correct logic, something that can not necessarily be established in most real world complex cases, the argument may yield incorrect results, as the premises may be wrong. In the end, the reader of the logical argument must be persuaded that the logic is sound, the mathematics correct. Again, in the end, there are no proofs, in a platonic sense.

“In the empirical sciences, which alone can furnish us with information about the world we live in, proofs do not occur, if we mean by ‘proof’ an argument which establishes once and for ever the truth of a theory.” The Open society and its Enemies by Karl Popper

The Open Society and Its Enemies; Karl Raimund Popper, Alan Ryan, E. H. Gombrich
Princeton University Press, 2013 – Philosophy – 755 pages

Ignorant and arrogant

We are ignorant and arrogant, both individually and collectively. Look at YouTube comments for extreme examples. We exist in a sea of:

  1. prior belief, shaping what we can hear, see and understand
  2. shared misunderstanding
  3. intellectual limitations
  4. inability to handle real complexity
  5. illogic
  6. unreliable memories
  7. faulty interpretation
  8. opinion that is to a large extent wrong
  9. misinformation
  10. disinformation (e.g. propaganda, marketing, and other lies)

It is amazing that we have come this far.


Whereas at one time I would have dismissed everything some people with different political views out of hand, I now figure that some of what they say may not be as remotely crazy as I used to think. Right-winger or left-winger or some other dimension is irrelevant. There are values, which may differ, and facts, which are subject to interpretation, but can sometimes be evaluated for truth.

Anyone presenting information conflicting with your view of the world is going to be regarded as unsound in their thinking (bonkers is the technical term). That says as much about your view of the world as it does about the soundness of the other persons view.

A lot of people think those of us who believe that the World Trade Centre was brought down by explosives, that governments routinely run false flag operation against their own citizens and other such things are considered to be outside the realm of rationale discourse by the more conventionally-minded.

I am pretty slow to label someone a moon-bat just because they have reached unorthodox conclusions. Often enough, such conclusions prove to be right. Most non-trivial new knowledge seems to come from unorthodox thinking.