I have now met the fourth person who has said that they don’t have beliefs.
Perhaps I am still stuck in a naive conception of truth that they have transcended. I still unconsciously assign beliefs to be axioms, as assumed truths upon which to base my inferences, and as such not having beliefs would seem impossible. Perhaps they have already achieved what I merely strive for: just living, just being the little perceptrons they are, already embodying the consequences of truth as a linguistic construction and not a fact of the world. They know that whether an idea is true is irrelevant — that there is nothing more than successful ideas being successful — and as such to “believe in” any truth is only to be enslaved by a clever, self-reinforcing idea: that ideas can be true.
This transcendence must have been achieved after many years of thought and meditation — we are perhaps even born clinging to truth as though it were unitary and absolute. Wars have been fought over is and is not, as if ignoring the evidence shining in their swords, both could not coexist. We have a deep genetic drive, because the uncertainty introduced in realizing the paradox of accessible truths is enough to delay a life-saving decision by a few milliseconds, and thus has been bred out of us. The option that there is a representational barrier between your perceptions and the world is not an option for the animal at the edge of survival. But perhaps there is a latent genetic drive toward the non-believer’s enlightened state after all — once you stop worrying about what is true, you can react faster, having closed the analytical gap between cause and effect. You are a wild animal, your thoughts having proregressed into instincts. Indeed, when time is of the essence, this idea could be more successful than the idea of truth — perhaps their meditation was to put themselves in life-threatening situations in which they needed to be lightningfast to survive.
They see the intimate connection between the words “belief” and “truth”. An idea must be able to be true in order to be believed. But they do not reject these words, for an idea must be able to be false to be rejected. The collusion of “belief” and “truth” makes them very hard to break out of: each reinforces the other. When it comes time to communicate, the non-believers see that language is built around truth, and one cannot communicate without presupposing it. So for them to communicate that they are not where you think they are, they must use a sentence which by its very utterance contradicts itself: “I do not have beliefs.”
Lately I have been considering myself a relativist. To cast away the kneejerks, I don’t consider all belief systems equally valid (with caveats1). Wikipedia sums it up nicely:
… that truth is always relative to some particular frame of reference, such as a language or a culture.
I have noticed an increase in my opposition to what I am currently calling “scientific realism” — the belief that discoveries made by science are true, and other things are false (basically just an incarnation of absolutism). Yesterday I had an impassioned argument (still in good fun, though) with my roommate about our differences in perception. I noticed my emotions firing up around this subject, a symptom begging me to analyze its cause. Humans get very emotional when their thoughts approach a shattering of a core belief, so I am curious if one is near.
This time, instead of a philosophical persuasive essay, I’m just going to write down some of my observations.
In the conversation with my roommate Monty (who I consider quite intelligent), mostly a battle over semantics, I found the following ensemble of his ideas to leave an impression on me:
- Newtonian gravity is false, and General Relativity is true.
- If he lived 200 years ago, Newtonian physics would be true.
- One thing cannot be more true than another (except in the trivial case of one thing being true and the other false, of course).
- General Relativity and The Standard Model, which are mathematically incompatible, can both be true at the same time.
- He hasn’t yet seen any evidence that would suggest there are things that can’t eventually be explained by our current scientific ideas.
Taken together, these ideas are fascinating to me. They indicate a different definition of truth than the one I use, and I’m fascinated because I don’t have a concept that I could substitute for it. On surface interpretation, these statements seem inconsistent to me, so I am really curious about the concept from which they arise. (I am pretty sure (5) is just a fallacy though: what would such evidence look like?)
I have met others who claim that they do not have beliefs. I find this to be common among scientific realists. I wonder what definition of “belief” they use to be able to consider themselves devoid of it; so far when I have pried I am just evaded. There are two reasons I evade inquiries: (1) I am not taking the conversation seriously, which may be because it is threatening my beliefs, or other reasons; and (2) the inquiries are using words in ways that don’t have meaning to me, so I answer in riddles that bring out the dissonance2. I usually assume they are doing it because their beliefs are being threatened3; what makes me curious is the possibility that they are evading because of (2)4. Perhaps I am using “belief” incorrectly when asking that question.
Among Skeptics, there is another possible reason to avoid the word “belief”: because it is very close to “faith”, the buzzword of the enemy. Maybe they use the word “truth” to mean what I call “belief”… but then the idea that someone’s beliefs can be false would be nonsense.
I think most of my anti-realism comes from a desire to (at least give due diligence to) respect the belief systems of others. I think I may start considering “true” to be a value judgement (which, as an experiment, I am trying to avoid). I had a debate with a young earth creationist, a belief system I typically have a hard time respecting. After a long time, I think I heard an essential difference, when he said (paraphrasing): “I believe there is a God because I don’t want to live in a world without a God.” That indicates to me a different relationship to truth — that truth and desirability are related concepts — and opened to me the possibility of respecting his belief system a little more.
Dan Piponi made a brilliant comment on twitter during a conversation about realism: “I don’t think ‘reality’ means much. It’s just a placeholder to make the sentence grammatical.”
1 What exactly does a belief system being “valid” mean?
2 This will happen, for example, if you ask me whether I believe extra-terrestrial life exists, because I get hung up on the definition of “life”. People seem to acknowledge the subtlety of that word, but then keep using the word anyway as if the inability to define it is no big thing: “you know what I mean.” No, I actually don’t.
3 Probably because it confirms my superiority.
4 Possibly because it threatens my superiority.
Arguments are in the business of increasing certainty. They begin with some assumptions, make some claims, support the claims with evidence, and then reach a new conclusion which, if you agree with all the steps, you should now accept as part of your belief system. We are born as blank slates who know nothing, and over the course of a lifetime, we make and read arguments until, by the time we die, we know a great many things with great certainty.
Opportunities for deep, life-changing learning are rare and must be cherished. Therefore, when we come across an argument whose assumptions are agreeable but seems to be heading in a direction contrary to our beliefs, we read with increased interest in hopes of being proved wrong. After all, if the argument is sound and comes to a conclusion that is contradictory to what we know, then, having seized the opportunity, we have discarded some nonsense and become more enlightened.
By this time, you have noticed that this is satire (I should hope!). But what am I making fun of? A simplistic interpretation is that I am lamenting the irrational way people treat arguments, that they need to be more willing to question themselves if they want a belief system founded in truth. Or perhaps they need to be more logically-minded, to prevent themselves from adopting such self-contradictory systems of belief in the first place. It doesn’t really matter what is wrong with people, as long as whatever it is explains why they will not accept my sound logical argument.
Now I am clearly making fun of someone you know. This person has a strong personality and holds as a core belief that most people are stupid. They write or speak passionately, they stay close to the scientific doctrine, they take pride in their certainty. While their arguments are convincing, they lack a certain respect for those who disagree, and it ends up limiting them from a more complete world-view. We all know this person, and, thankfully, acknowledging that we know someone like this releases us from the possibility of being this person.
The author is being subtly disrespectful now. He is trying to make me wonder whether I fall into this category, and in doing so, attempting to put himself above me. And this paragraph is even more disrespectful, taking on the voice of the reader, assuming he can predict his or her thoughts. Fortunately, he has failed, for one couldn’t say the reader was thinking anything beyond reading at the time.
At least I have not said anything that threatens your beliefs. That would merely serve the disengaged brain to produce a disinterested Ctrl-W or a polarized, indignant comment. Before I can convince you of any new truth, I have to convince you to engage with the question. An active mind taking a question seriously will produce a far more convincing effect than any amount of eloquent word-barrage. My goal was this: if the page was still in focus by the time you reached this paragraph, your mind would be curious and primed.
Now for my argument: what could I convince you of?