Belief and Fact

The worst speculative Skeptic ever I knew, was a much better Man than the best superstitious Devotee & Bigot.  David Hume (Letter to Gilbert Elliot of Minto, March 10, 1751)

Before I go on to share more with you about Ralph Waldo Emerson and continue to unfold his early and profound evolutionary spiritual philosophy I wanted to explore some of my most recent thoughts – thoughts that were spurred by some of the commenting on this blog. Some of the comment exchanges that Chuck, Frank and Catherine in particular have  made me think more deeply about the nature of belief.

Before getting to belief, let me set some philosophical context. Three huge pillars of philosophy are ethics, ontology and epistemology. Ethics includes the set of values that we hold and believe to be valid enough to act on as the basis for making decision. Ontology is the study and description of the way things are. Ontology is the domain of metaphysics, religion and science and it deals with the fundamental essence of reality.  Epistemology is the discipline that answers the question, how is it that we know what we know? How do we know what is true? How do we decide what to believe in?

When we question why we believe certain things and not others we are asking epistemological questions. Those are the kinds of questions that have been showing up in some of the commenting on this blog. Why do I believe in the reality of my spiritual experiences and why has Chuck decided that his earlier commitment to mysticism was unfounded. Why do we believe what we believe? That question is as important – if not more important – than the questions, what do we believe?

Before I get into why we believe what we believe let’s talk for a minute about the difference between facts and beliefs. We could ask the same question by asking what is the difference between what we know and what we believe in. Making these distinctions is actually harder than you might think. What do I know? What do I really know? What does it mean to know? If I say I know something, what I am saying is that I am aware of the reality of something beyond the possibility of doubt.

If you think too much about this you end up like David Hume the Scottish philosopher (see quote below) who in the end realized that he couldn’t know anything. All we have are our sensations and thoughts and no idea how these relate or not to any “real” thing. Continuing down this track we veer dangerously toward nihilism and despair.

I want to avoid this track by using more common sense definitions of fact and belief. A fact is something you believe in as a result of direct irrefutable evidence. If I see a man in a room and I talk to him and I touch him then I can say that I “know” he is there. It is an empirical fact. The fact that there is a man in the room with me we can safely say is a fact. (I realize we could argue that maybe I am delusional or hallucinating, but remember I am sticking only to common sense definitions for arguments sake.) A belief then is something that I “know” without direct irrefutable evidence. I might believe in God for instance, and even if I cannot point to direct irrefutable evidence, I will say that I know God exists. I might also believe that human beings have evolved from other life forms, but I don’t really have direct evidence. I have to trust the evidence gathered by other people and trust a great deal of experiments and conclusions of others.

Michael Shermer in his book “How We Believe” (a book that another commenter, Brian, turned me on to) describes the mind as a “belief engine” that is constantly creating patterns of belief. From fractured information and sense impressions the mind weaves together plausible pictures of reality that we believe in. What do we mean when we say we “believe” then? Things that we believe in are things that we “think that we know.”

I want to introduce a way of thinking about belief that the American philosopher William James was fond of and that I have come to accept myself. We can tell what we actually believe in because those are the things that we are willing to act on as if they were true. I can say that I believe I can walk on air. I can even say that I “know” that I can walk on air. But if you take me to a rooftop and I refuse to step off of it, then you would have to question if I really believed it. So a belief is that which we are willing to act upon. I can see that I believe that my spiritual experiences are real because I have been and am acting as if they are real in fairly dramatic ways.

But the question remains, how do I know? How do any of us know anything? Why do any of us believe in anything? William James again provided interesting thoughts for me on these questions. He wrote about knowing being essentially the feeling of the cessation of not-knowing. Not-knowing feels uncomfortable. When we don’t know something we feel tense. The experience of agitation at not-knowing spurs us to search for answers. When we find the answer we are searching for we feel calm and content because the tension of not-knowing goes away. If someone questions our belief we get tense or even angry. Why? because they are making us feel the tension of not-knowing again and we don’t want to. Much of the time we (and I don’t exclude myself) are more interested in the feeling of knowing than actually knowing. Could this be it? Are we all just chasing a feeling of existential contentment and then believing in it? This is the kind of questioning that sent David Hume to the public Backgammon tables to drown his uncertainty in some good clean fun.

“Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? … I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, environed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty.

Most fortunately it happens, that since Reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, Nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends. And when, after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.”  — David Hume (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding)