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.
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