Law in Contemporary Society

Believing in Believing

-- By RyanBingham - 12 Feb 2012

The Question

What does it mean to believe in things that don't accurately reflect reality?

At first glance, and at repeated glance, for that matter, it seems like a question that is too big, and too vague to even begin to ask. But it feels like something worth asking.

In order to explore a possible answer to the question, we'd better start by clarifying what is even being asked. What do I mean by "belief?" The knee-jerk reaction of a definition that comes to my mind is something like "the state of being characterized by my thinking that something is correct (that is, accurate to reality, as opposed to morally praiseworthy)." In other words, believing would be what I am doing when I hold to a conclusory interpretation of a set of facts. But does this capture the meaning of "belief?"

Thinking It Through

On second thought, this definintion might have some problems. There are plenty of things that I think are correct, that are actually demonstrably correct, whether I think they are or not. Certain principles of mathematics, for instance, are correct, independent of my opinion regarding them. It seems irrelevant to say that I "believe" that 2 and 2 make 4. It is something that I actually know is correct, because, as long as it is understood that we are dealing in agreed-upon, abstract symbols (in this case, base-10 numerals), then we are working within a truly verifiable system.

I don't use the concept of "belief" to describe the state of my mind regarding known certainties, since my knowledge takes me beyond mere belief.

One important component of "belief," therefore, seems to be uncertainty. If I'm already certain that something is correct, then where does "belief" come in? What point is there in discussing my opinion of something's correctness, when it is actually demonstrably accurate?

Another problem with my initial definition (and with my first criticism of it) might be the invoking of "reality." Reality, to me, is of course my indirect and terribly shortsighted experience of the things around me. My conception of what is Real is necessarily limited by my (in)ability to comprehend it. Saying that math can be demonstrably correct is all well and fine, but it is only demonstrably correct because it is abstract and logical, by nature. The Real world, assuming there is one, is not bound by the terms we frame it in.

This gets us to the idea that, in the world we experience, nothing is Absolute, and no proposition about our daily experience is as water-tight as we tend to think. Still, although I have no logical certainty that the sun will come up tomorrow, I don't have a lot of doubt about it. Plenty of things in our world are predictable enough that we can rely on their being "real," or, at least real enough for our purposes. For us, then, the uncertainty that "believing" entails seems to be more than just the remote spectre of falsifiability. Perhaps it involves an implicit acknowledgement that the object of our belief is actually worth doubting?

Second Attempt At a Definition

Maybe a better definition for "belief" is this: "a state of being characterized by an assumption that something is accurate, in the absence of enough evidence to think of it as reasonably certain."

It would be state of a maintaining a supposition about some proposition's truth, without enough evidence to make for a rational conclusion. I'm not going to try to set up a universal measure for how much evidence is enough to make a given conclusion rational. If it's crossing the barrier of "more likely than not" in some contexts, it's some other measure in other circumstances.

Under this definition, the moment I recognize that I assume something to be true--that I am maintaining a particular "belief"-- I must also recognize that I am operating in a fundamentally unreasonable manner. That is, I must acknowledge that the object of my belief is not reasonably certain--that it would more reasonably be considered uncertain.

Taking a step back for a moment, I want to consider what could be the potential results of continuing under this kind of belief. For a sort of reverse take on Pascal's Wager (similar ground having been explored by Richard Carrier, among others), let us say that I believe in a God for the rest of my life. Regardless of the effect of that belief on my eternal state of being (or lack thereof), how does this belief affect my ability to understand reality? If it turns out that a God exists, then I will have struck a lucky guess--and gained nothing in the way of increased ability to comprehend, as I will not have confirmed that belief until I have departed this world. If it turns out that no God exists, I will never discover that fact, and will go to my grave believing a falsehood. In either case, I will not have gained any understanding of any God's potential existence until after the time has passed in which it would have been most useful to have had it. I have tested no hypotheses, and refined no understanding.

Quite opposite from the treatment of a hypothesis under the scientific method, this sort of a priori belief does not tend to an inquiry into its potential falsifiability through the gathering of evidence. As such, believing in this manner does not lead to an increased ability to listen to and comprehend the world around me. Simply maintaining this sort of belief means never finding out whether I was close to the truth in the first place.

And that seems like the beginning of an answer to my first question.

Yes, I think this draft gets closer to beginning work on this question.

But here you have dealt with the difference between "I believe 2+2=4" and "I believe in the existence of God." You have not dealt with "I believe in the pursuit of equality and social justice," or "I believe in putting criminal behind bars," or "I believe in smaller government." Nor have you dealt with "I believe in myself," or "I believe in you," or "I believe in Gandhi." Both of those inquiries are at least as relevant, and perhaps more relevant, to law thought. From there, it might be possible to address "I believe in federalism," or "I believe in private property," or "I believe in free speech."


Webs Webs

r5 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:10:49 - IanSullivan
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