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.

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