Beliefs and Truth

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.”

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9 thoughts on “Beliefs and Truth

  1. differend!
    Lyotard thinks there might be ways around it! He writes, “A lot of searching must be done to find new rules for forming and linking phrases that are able to express the differend disclosed by the feeling, unless one wants this differend to be smothered right away in a litigation and the alarm sounded by the feeling to have been useless. What is at stake in a literature, in a philosophy, in a politics perhaps, is to *bear witness to differends by finding new idioms for them*” (van den Abbeele 1985, p. 7)
    Basically, it seems like Lyotard thinks that to not have beliefs and express that “feeling,” you have to be a postmodernist who “searches for new presentations…in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable” (1984 p. 80-81). He argues that a person could “displace and destabilize what may count in the relevant discursive community as knowledge” through the use of these “new idioms” (310) –basically deconstruction.

    However, his ideas only seem to work in this case if what he calls a “feeling” is fundamentally different than a “belief” and I haven’t been able to come up with an example of a different way to express this particular differend. Maybe your nonbelieving friends could, though!

  2. My presumption, from this post, is that you are imposing a fictional narrative upon the reply for the sake of illustrating a point. The more likely explanation is that people who give this reply are using it as a social tool:

    With respect to what I see as the larger point of the post, I find myself somewhat split. On the one hand, I absolutely agree with the idea that what matters in the final analysis is how useful a belief was, not whether it was true. On the other hand, the concept of truth plays an important role in our decision about how useful a particular idea might be, and for good reason. At a risk of looking like an uncritical follower of EY, another EY quote:

    This is not to deny that there is a gap between sensation and knowledge of the external world, but to say that the concept “truth” is one of the best tools that we have for addressing the nature of that gap.

    This preserves the correctness of the response “I don’t have beliefs”– to an extent. It would be wrong to have undue certainty (there is no need to choose one hypothesis and hold to it). However, it is useful to have degrees of belief which fluctuate up and down as we see more or less reason to believe.

    (Of course, you and I know that the naive theory of truth has some problems, but that is hardly the point here as I see it.)

  3. On the other hand, my suggestion that you are imposing a fictional narrative on the responses of these four people is in itself interesting. After all, the purpose of that fictional narrative is (in part) to help illustrate the idea that beliefs are fictional narratives in general. As such, I could have usefully interpreted it as an application of the principle of charity: you are searching for the best interpretation of “I don’t have beliefs”. While this may not perfectly reflect the intentions of the speaker, it is typically more useful (in many ways).

  4. Fictional narrative or not, you claim to have met 4 more non-believers than I’ve ever known, Luke. We are a rare breed indeed. But, of course, I am rather extreme in my lack of belief. And I have to wonder if these people are as strictly non-believing as myself. When pressed, I’ve found that most people that claim to be non-believers don’t take their claim very seriously, unfortunately.

    I am extremely comfortable making the claim that I have no beliefs, and I’ve lived it successfully and quite happily for many, many years. From my point of view, however, there’s no transcendence involved whatsoever. I feel that it’s obtained largely through proper education and discipline, and not so much thought and meditation.

    On one hand, I simply regard non-belief as a matter of eliminating what I simply consider to be an extremely bad habit that is all too widespread.

    I purposefully will avoid using the phrases “I believe that…” or even “I think that…” and similar statements simply because I regard them as intellectually lazy at best and misleading at worst. I also like to learn and research things, so I welcome the opportunity to do so even about the most trivial matter.

    I want people to respect that my opinions are well-founded and I absolutely abhor misinformation. So I either give a carefully-worded answer in which I’ve got a reasonable measure of confidence or I simply say “I don’t know.” It’s a better habit to be in than playing guessing games, in my opinion.

    But also, what does it mean to believe? Definition 1 of 1913 Webster states that it is “to regard or [b]accept[/b] as true; to place confidence in; to think; to consider; as, to believe a person, a statement, or a doctrine” (emphasis added). F=m*a is true, but we won’t get anywhere if we simply accept that it will be true in all inertial frames or systems. If we simply leave it alone, we are thereby having faith in it—believing it.

    To me, one of the greatest things about science is that it can always be doubted and questioned. In fact, it thrives on such actions. It’s how we learn. And that’s precisely how new discoveries are made. Questions might seem stupid or trivial, but they can often be good questions, too.

    I will go a step further and put forth the idea that having faith in science is a tremendously dangerous thing to do. Snake oil salesmen will always continue to operate under this expectation.

    I disagree with the sentiment that non-believers think that “there is nothing more than successful ideas being successful.” I certainly don’t think that, and I hope my post has illustrated that the process of non-belief is more like a journey than a destination.

    In my opinion, it’s simply that we are not satisfied with accepting things on faith. We will always doubt and question. I’ve yet to meet a single non-believer that claims to know everything (whether they be as strict in that stance as myself or not), but ridding ourselves of beliefs means that we can have some degree of certainty in many of the things that we say.

  5. @hexadecagram, your response is wordplay. Belief is to regard OR accept as true, not just to accept as true. If you object to people who accept too much, fine. If you object to people who insist that you must “BELIEVE,” well that’s understandable too. That doesn’t mean you don’t believe things. If your position is that you get by without need for any faith/axioms whatsoever, well, that strikes me as naive. For example, I drop a book and ask why it falls and you explain how other books/massive objects have fallen in the past. Great. But why do expect it to happen again?

  6. PlatoCaveman :
    @hexadecagram, your response is wordplay.

    Not at all. I’m not playing with words; I’m doing my best to choose them wisely and attempting to argue over semantics in a very serious manner.

    Belief is to regard OR accept as true, not just to accept as true.

    That may be the case, but the reverse is not always true. Just because one might regard or accept something as true does not necessarily mean one believes it.

    Anyone can simply regard something as true, and say that it is. And as time goes on and any contrary evidence is refuted for that proposition, it will continue to remain true, and it will cease to matter whether we believe it or not. Truth will stand on its own, and will survive the test of time. Part of the point that I’m driving at is that no harm can come of questioning beliefs or even well-established truths. Quite the opposite, in fact.

    As an aside, it seems to me that those that get bent out of shape about their beliefs are those that fail to refute evidence to the contrary.

    But belief is not just about religious or philosophical questions or even those of logic. The intent of my post was to stoke consideration of the effects of belief on practical or casual matters. Words matter.

    If you object to people who accept too much, fine. If you object to people who insist that you must “BELIEVE,” well that’s understandable too. That doesn’t mean you don’t believe things.

    I agree with this. You are correct, that doesn’t mean I don’t believe things. I don’t believe anything simply because I choose not to. I actively put that disbelief into practice, and have done so for decades.

    If your position is that you get by without need for any faith/axioms whatsoever, well, that strikes me as naive.

    My position isn’t that I “get by” without need for any faith whatsoever. My position is that I live a very full, satisfying life with absolutely no need for faith whatsoever.

    I have faith—specifically, when it is defined as “belief without evidence”—in nobody and nothing, not even myself. IMO, neither should anyone.

    I push disbelief to its limits (with the resources available to me), making evidence prove itself to the point that I’m reasonably comfortable with saying that I know that it’s true. I may not be so vocal about it, but that is how my mind works.

    Do I need people to have faith in me? Not in the least. It’s nice if people say they have faith in me for whatever reason, but I never ask for it.

    Furthermore, I know that I can get things done without having any faith or confidence in myself because they are not necessary catalysts. Survival instincts at the most fundamental level and economically-driven desire at a more modern, realistic level are simply enough. Having faith in such things has absolutely no effect whatsoever on the very real motivation they inherently provide. But can anyone reasonably argue that having faith in economics is not a needlessly risky position, especially if one is an investor?

    Likewise, I know that certain other people (or things) can get things done because they’ve demonstrated their abilities. That doesn’t mean that it will always be the case, but I only realize that because I always retain doubt. I don’t need to have faith in Haskell in order for it to perform its function; that should be obvious. Moreover, chances are that a program, even written by the most competent programmers, won’t execute without error immediately after the first development cycle. If I were to write a large program in the strictest faith that it will, I would be deluding myself and quite possibly others.

    Axioms, hypotheses, etc. are important to be sure, but I don’t need them per se, either. They raise interesting questions, certainly. Some may be worth studying and given serious consideration. Some may be grounded, others not so much. But a believer would give all such things consideration (as they often do). I prefer to be selective. As such, my skepticism is especially raised in regard to such things.

    Most importantly, axioms and hypotheses are entirely different from beliefs. Even an hypothesis is more thoughtful than a belief.

    We are all born not only with a natural curiosity but also complete faith in those around us. That is naive.

    For example, I drop a book and ask why it falls and you explain how other books/massive objects have fallen in the past. Great. But why do expect it to happen again?

    I don’t expect it to. I know that it should, because in order for something to break the laws of physics, it would quite definitely take a miracle. And given the fact that no such action has ever transpired except in Bronze Age myths, there’s absolutely no reason to suppose that it could.

    Do we say that we believe that the law of gravity is true? No, we say that it is true. Is it safe to doubt it? I would encourage you to test it all you like. YMMV.

    If somebody says to me “I believe that the supermarket is located on the corner of 5th and Main,” I won’t put much stock into what they said (and I will be upset if I spend 30 minutes out of a busy day looking for a supermarket that turned out not to be where they said they believed it was). So why should I take any different stance when I’m told that “I believe that proposition p is true?”

    I just don’t see the need to use the phrase “I believe that…” to express truths that we are reasonably confident in. In fact, using such phrasing is evidence (to me, at least) of playing guessing games or insufficient research, so any statement that follows it immediately raises a red flag.

    It is unfortunate that this practice is so widespread, and so difficult to point out to people without stepping on their religious beliefs.

  7. Questions:

    – In what context did this fourth person say that they have no beliefs?

    – What do you believe? As in, if I asked you at a party “What do you believe?” what would you answer? Do you have any pithy answers to this question?

  8. by asking the question; “What do you believe?” you’re assuming that one has them and your asking the question because your insecure within your own beliefs, in other words you know not the truth that you don’t know. One who knows need not ask. Better to know you don’t know then to believe you do as this is knowing. In knowing you don’t know one is open and able to accept all life as it presently is without needing to believe it needs to be any other way or could or should be any other way than it presently is. It neither believes or disbelieves but simply allows everything and everyone to be exactly as it is without judgement. All beliefs are based in ignorance or not knowing. Do you believe your breathing or do you know it? Do you believe the sun is shining or do you know it? As far as all the stuff written in religious books claiming this or that to be the truth, who cares? If its true great, if its not great, but in truth the only truth is to be known through direct experience. This goes with all the laws of nature and the universe which it matters not if you believe them or disbelieve them, as they function perfectly without any beliefs. All words are only abstractions of reality as they can all be divided hence duality, truth is not divided, hence silence is truth as it is not divisable and to be silent is to know you don’t know!

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