Saturday, February 21, 2009

Objectivism's Benefit for Me #2

In my last post I indicated that my new world view contained no more unknowables. So, it probably should have occurred to me that since I no longer had to deal with a partially unknowable universe, I no longer needed the mental process of believing things to be true on faith, I could now enjoy the comfort of knowing something to be true or false based on at least some evidence.

But this did not occur to me. As I continued to study Objectivism I learned that I had adopted from the culture around me certain conceptual confusions. Two of these stood as barriers to my clear understanding of this knowable world: the difference between knowing vs believing and faith vs confidence.

For now, I'll just focus on knowing vs believing even though a precise understanding of faith vs confidence is also involved.

To know something to be true in a knowable reality, there must be at least some evidence for it in that reality. For example, I see the table, touch the table, put my glass on the table. The table exists. I don't believe the table exists. I know it does. To know something then requires evidence. Believing on faith does not require evidence.

Yet despite this clear identification, I still hear people using the terms interchangeably as if they meant the same thing. For example, 'I know the planets revolve around the sun', 'I believe the planets revolve around the sun.' But this shouldn't be so. Words have meanings. Objectivism holds that reality is very precise. This means then that our knowledge of reality, to be true, that is, correspond to reality, must therefore also be precise. So if I'm dealing with a precisely knowable reality, it makes no sense to adopt a method of thinking that includes believing on faith. To do so would be to ignore reality. Ignoring reality for any organism is suicidal.

So I have spent the better part of recent years identifying then purging beliefs from my world view. I now try to deal only with knowledge that can be placed in file folders labeled 'possible', 'probable' or 'certain' all of which require evidence.

Objectivism benefit #2 then is a mental process of reason devoted to knowing reality. Let me add that it's been my experience that the more one uses one's mind to understand reality, the better at it one becomes and that provides its own comfort zone known as self confidence. Thoughts on that in the next post.


Burgess Laughlin said...

> "Words have meanings."

I would like to suggest an alternative approach.

Except for proper names ("Columbia River"), words themselves do not have meaning--directly.

"A word is merely a visual-auditory symbol used to represent a concept; a word has no meaning other than that of the concept it symbolizes, and the meaning of a concept consists of its units." (Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 40 and 174-177.) However, a particular word, considered as symbolizing a particular concept that refers to particular, defined things, does refer directly to the objects.

The problem is that there are more things in the universe than there are words in our vocabulary. Aristotle recognized this:

"But the two cases (names and things) are not alike. For names are finite [in number] . . . while things are infinite in number. Inevitably . . . a single name [can] have a number of meanings." (Sophistical Refutations, 165a10-13)

"Belief," for example, can be a synonym of faith (or other form of mysticism), or it can be a name for the fact that a person has some position on an issue, but without specifying how he arrived at that position.

I believe the earth goes around the sun. Why? Because of explanations I have seen coming from scientists, explanations that are logical and integrate fully with the rest of my knowledge.

Of course, the solution to the problem of a single word (symbol) referring to different concepts (valid or not) is to ask: "What do you mean by X?"

So, if someone (a Thomist) tells me he believes in God, I can ask him what he means by "believe." If he then tells me he has been persuaded by the arguments of Aquinas, which are based on sense-perception, then I can tentatively conclude that he is trying to be rational but has adopted fallacious arguments. He is not, in this instance, acting on faith.

In summary, I try to avoid assuming that my word names the same concept that another person's word names. "Democracy" is an example. Even "freedom" is another example.

Mike N said...

You are right of course that words don't directly have meanings. They refer to concepts that have meanings.

I don't want to get very technical with this series of posts although I may do so later. In fact I may have to.

For now I just want to keep it somewhat personal showing how Objectivism has helped me. The hope is that a few readers will also want to be so helped and will inquire of Objectivism further.

It's also an exercise in affirming in my own mind the value of the philosophy more clearly.

But I do think that in the future I will avoid 'words have meanings' per your suggestion and use phrases like 'words refer to concepts which have precise meanings'. Thanks for the input.

Mike N said...


After reading your comment again I want to clarify another point. I am purging beliefs, the content of believing and the precess of believing out of my sum of knowledge and method of thinking. This means that I'm trying never to use the word believing again.

To my way of thinking on this, when you say: "I believe the earth goes around the sun. Why? Because of explanations I have seen coming from scientists, explanations that are logical and integrate fully with the rest of my knowledge" you are really saying "I accept on faith that the earth revolves around the sun because I have evidence from other scientists." Clearly this is a contradiction is it not? The statement should have said "I know the earth revolves around the sun because of the evidence provided by scientists..."

Another example: "Do you believe the Detroit Tigers will do well this season?" My reply would be something like "Based on the trades made in the off season, I predict, or estimate, that they will do much better than last year." On the other hand you could say "I believe the Tigers will do well this year because I'm praying for them."

My point is, if there is evidence, the process is knowing and the content is knowledge. No evidence, the process is believing and the content a belief.

I welcome any and all thoughts.