stat counnnter

Friday, April 11, 2008

To BE--lieve or Not To BE--lieve

One of the things I've been trying to do since becoming a student of Objectivism, is to stop using the words believe and belief except when referring to the act of accepting as true an idea for which there is no evidence. I've been trying to replace the words 'I believe that...' with 'I think that...' and while I've had some success at it I still find myself responding to inquires about my ideas with 'I believe.'

I'm trying to do this mainly to clarify my own thinking regarding the difference between knowledge and beliefs. All to often, people have said to me something like "Isn't everyone entitled to their own beliefs?" To which I've usually responded with "Politically, yes, but if those beliefs require action that will violate my or someone's rights, then those actions would be morally and politically wrong, in which case, the beliefs need to remain unrealized." This has resulted in at least partial agreement sometimes.

But these conversations are usually with older people whom I'm not trying to bring around to objectivism. If they were younger and thus more open to reason and new ideas, my responses may have been more involved. For example, a 60ish lady once asked me if I believed in an afterlife. I simply said no. She then asked if I believed that this world is all there is, to which I said yes. "I don't believe that" she said adding that there has to be more, there has to be some reward for going through life in this world. I said that I believed life is its own reward. (Looking back, I should have left 'I believed' out of that sentence.) That's when I knew she was operating, at least partially, on the malevolent universe premise. (This, despite having raised 4 kids successfully to adulthood and having been productive citizens all their lives.) Fortunately, the subject changed with no further questions of me.

Suppose the questioner had been much younger, say 30 or less. I might have answered with something like "Well, there are no facts of reality that give rise to the idea of an afterlife, so I don't give the idea any credibility." In my younger years I would have said something like "I don't believe in an afterlife." In the first response my frame of reference was reality. In the second the frame of reference was just mere opinion not tied or grounded to reality. So I think it is very important to respond to questions with answers that are tied to reality and not in just a belief system. So that's why I'm trying to purge the use of 'belief' from my everyday usage. Even if someone asks me "Do you believe America has a free future?" I will try to frame my answer away from the context of belief and into the context of reality by saying something like "Based on the evidence that..., I think..."

I know, in today's culture that 'I think' and 'I believe' are often used interchangeably. I know that people will often use 'I believe' in reference to something for which there is some evidence. I don't see evidence of a problem here. There is no point in jumping on someone because they're not as precise as we might like them to be, especially since most people have been taught to regard ideas in the approximate.

Even if someone asks for my opinion, "What's your opinion of Fred's honesty?" I would have to respond with say, "Within the context of everything I know about Fred, I have judged him to be an honest man." But, "It's my opinion Fred is honest" just doesn't seem to have the same tie to reality. I sometimes don't care for the word opinion because it can be a euphemism for belief as in "Do you believe in god?" Or knowledge as in "Do you believe two plus two equals four?" I know there are valid meanings for 'opinion' and invalid ones. I'll have to give that more thought.


Amit Ghate said...

Hi Mike,

I haven't ever given the topic much thought, but after you brought it up, it struck me that I use the word 'believe', when I personally don't have enough facts at hand to judge a claim, but the claim fits those that I do have.

For instance, "I can believe that the ancient Greeks were wonderful painters". As far as I know, there's not much evidence except testimonial, plus I'm not knowledgeable on art in general, but the claim fits the this-worldliness of the Greeks, their passion for art and life, their dedication to excellence and innovation in everything they did, etc.

Burgess Laughlin said...

I use the word "believe" to name a broad idea: "cognitive position."

- Mary the astronomer believes the Earth goes around the Sun.
- Bill believes in God.
- Sally believes it will rain in three days.

The question always, for me, is how did a person arrive at his belief?
- Through rigorous inquiry, tested evidence (which includes testimony as a subclass), and logical inference?
- Through faith ("assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen," as Hebrews, Ch. 11, Verse 1, states it neatly)?
- Through casual acceptance of whatever pops out of the subconscious based solely on past, personal, but unexamined experience?

Of course, in all these situations, the question that should be asked next (if the issue is important) is: How did you arrive at that conclusion?

That is when the conversation gets really interesting.

Mike N said...

I would say that your knowledge that "the this-worldliness of the Greeks, their passion for art and life, their dedication to excellence and innovation in everything they did, etc" is, along with testimonials, enough evidence to safely place your cognition that the Greeks were wonderful painters, in the knowledge folder of 'possible' maybe even 'probable.'

I think you're right that a person should always ask how did a person arrive at his belief. That can often tell you if he means belief in something without evidence or with evidence, i.e. knowledge.

What I'm trying to avoid is this: having used the word belief several times, "Mike, you belive in reason and I believe in faith. So how can you say that your beliefs are in any way more correct or superior to mine?"


"You have faith in reason and I have faith in god. How can you claim your faith to be truer than mine?"

It would be pointless for me to claim that my faith is grounded in reality where his is based on the supernatural and I don't recognize the supernatural. Then he could claim that he don't recognize my reality.

That's the kind of swamp I don't want to walk through.

I once told an aquaintance that I don't have faith, instead I have confidence in that for which there is some evidence. To which he said confidence, faith, what's the difference? So then I had to go back to basics and define clearly my terms.

Admittedly these are older people who I'm not trying to make objectivist. But these are the kinds of arguments that young people are exposed to almost daily. So it's neccessary to be able to refute them or otherwise provide rational responses to them and thay is why I'm trying to defragment if you will, my mind.

Amy said...

Hi Mike,

I try to avoid using the word, "believe." I am often intentionally wordy when I have only a small amount of evidence to cite for a position. So I preface what I say with, "To my knowledge," or, "To my understanding," then I posit the assertion, and if I'm really not sure, I will say, "but I haven't studied this thoroughly," or simply, "but I'm not entirely certain." And I also indicate that I can learn more by looking up the subject and reporting back, etc.

I like your references to probable and possible. To indicate a more certain assertion than "probable," I say "most likely." Of course, I give any reasons I have to back up the assertion during all this. What I try to imply in a conversation like the one you described, is that there are objective facts worth looking up, and that conflicting assertions can be resolved.

You are right to understand that using "believe" isn't as strong as using "think," however it is also strong and valid to assert an idea without those words. Instead of, "I think that the sky will be blue today," you can say, "The sky will be blue today."

Neat post, Mike!

Mike N said...

Thanks Amy:
That's a good point about prefacing statements with "To my understanding" and so on. I have been doing some of that but I need to get better at it.

Also, the point you made about being more affirmative as in "The sky will be blue today" instead of "I think it will be..." is a good one. That's another bad habit I've been trying to break.

Burgess Laughlin said...

Tactics of discussion and debate are very close to my central purpose in life. This is therefore a very important subject for me. I am not trying to argue, but to understand your position.

If someone says to me ...

"Burgess, you belive in reason and I believe in faith. So how can you say that your beliefs are in any way more correct or superior to mine?"

... I don't see how that creates a "swamp."

If I am dealing with an honest person, several paths are open. For example, I can say, "My beliefs--that is, my conclusions--are correct because they are, I think, objective, that is, they are drawn logically from facts of reality. Being in touch with reality is better than (superior to) not being in touch with reality. Don't you agree?"

So, where is the "swamp" here?

P. S. -- As a matter of terminology, what do you mean by "objectivist"? Traditionally in the history of philosophy an "objectivist" is someone who agrees with one principle, that there is a reality independent of consciousness. That tenet is one tenet of Objectivism, which is a whole philosophy not a single tenet.

I am both an "objectivist" and (more inclusively) an Objectivist (as distinct from a Kantian or Aristotelian).

Myrhaf said...

I never say "have faith in" when I mean "have confidence in." Sometimes you'll hear careless thinkers say, "I have faith in reason."

Mike N said...


On the use of the word objectivist, I meant to capitalize it as in OPAR.

You wanted to know were is the swamp? I was referring to the error of having a discussion based on the premises of one's opponent rather than my own, and thus the need for me to clarify my own usage of words which of course refer to concepts.

But I don't know what you mean by honest person. If you mean intellectually honest, I can only say that it would be nice if all the mystics I run into were intellectually honest and would agree to my well reasoned and logical argument upon presentation. But such is not been my experience. I have met a lot of religious people who consider themselves honest people. I was religious once and never considered myself dishonest in any way.

When I was younger, reality included the supernatural, god, and faith. I wasn't aware of any other way of thinking about it having never been exposed to any alternative. If someone were to tell my that I was religious because I was dishonest in some way, I would have flatly rejected any such idea with the conviction that I have nothing to learn from this person.

I would say that an intellectually dishonest person would be one who has been exposed to rational principles but still chooses to stay with mysticism. I don't want to converse with such people if they are older unless they express a desire to learn more. But younger people who are still open to new fundamental ideas wil often be interested in learning more. To converse with them I must clean up my own thinking on some things.

tinker said...

Hello Mike, very interesting article. The concept of believing opposed to thinking, can be quite murky. One needs to define the definitions used with these words, as an individual can 'believe' a given argument to be correct based on personal knowledge of the facts, research, etc.

I 'belive' that a single, improperly taken blood pressure is not a valid idicator of a person's overall blood pressure. No physician would prescribe antihypertensives based on that single test result. I 'belive' this to be true based on experience, medical literature and research. I have been convinced. I believe the science.

I also 'think' it is true by my interpertation of the science - although I did not 'think' up the initial hypothesis that guided the research. The short version, 'I believe it because I have 'thought' about it. Another option - one may believe the science, but still not think it is true - the considerable debate regarding evolution brings this to mind.(There are those that do not believe even the science; they are another topic.)

I do have one question regarding your analysis of your thoughts and beliefs regarding your inner thought process(which is to be applauded - few people it seems do not or are not capable of introspection.)You wrote,'But these conversations are usually with older people whom I'm not trying to bring around to objectivism. If they were younger and thus more open to reason and new ideas, my responses may have been more involved.'

Consider: Your belief (I say this as you do not support your comment with any 'facts' of this conculsion) that older persons are not as capable of objectivism. An exploration of this belief/thought may benefit from a larger data pool. This belief is very subjective and will conflict with your objectivism!

Paul McKeever said...

As I see it, all knowledge is belief, but not all beliefs are knowledge. So, if you want to say something that is in accord with the facts of reality, say "knowledge". If you want to speak about an arbitrary concept (i.e., one that is not ultimately supported by physical evidence the existence of which is known to you) speak of "fantasy". If you want to speak about a concept that is demonstrably contrary to the facts of reality, call it a "falsehood". And, if you need a word to refer to all concepts, regardless of whether they are knowledge, fantasy or falsehood, use the word "beliefs".



Mike N said...

Tinker and Paul:
Thanks for the input. It helps me clarify my own thinking.

As for my claim that older folk don't seem to be open to new fundamental ideas, I'm willing to concede that I may be wrong on that. The only evidence I have for that cognition is my own experience which admittedly, is limited. Thanks again.

Phoroneus said...

I say "I hold that..." or "I've concluded that..."