Belief and Fact

Jeff CarreiraBlog Posts, Philosophical Inquiry44 Comments

The worst speculative Skeptic ever I knew, was a much better Man than the best superstitious Devotee & Bigot.  David Hume (Letter to Gilbert Elliot of Minto, March 10, 1751)

Before I go on to share more with you about Ralph Waldo Emerson and continue to unfold his early and profound evolutionary spiritual philosophy I wanted to explore some of my most recent thoughts – thoughts that were spurred by some of the commenting on this blog. Some of the comment exchanges that Chuck, Frank and Catherine in particular have  made me think more deeply about the nature of belief.

Before getting to belief, let me set some philosophical context. Three huge pillars of philosophy are ethics, ontology and epistemology. Ethics includes the set of values that we hold and believe to be valid enough to act on as the basis for making decision. Ontology is the study and description of the way things are. Ontology is the domain of metaphysics, religion and science and it deals with the fundamental essence of reality.  Epistemology is the discipline that answers the question, how is it that we know what we know? How do we know what is true? How do we decide what to believe in?

When we question why we believe certain things and not others we are asking epistemological questions. Those are the kinds of questions that have been showing up in some of the commenting on this blog. Why do I believe in the reality of my spiritual experiences and why has Chuck decided that his earlier commitment to mysticism was unfounded. Why do we believe what we believe? That question is as important – if not more important – than the questions, what do we believe?

Before I get into why we believe what we believe let’s talk for a minute about the difference between facts and beliefs. We could ask the same question by asking what is the difference between what we know and what we believe in. Making these distinctions is actually harder than you might think. What do I know? What do I really know? What does it mean to know? If I say I know something, what I am saying is that I am aware of the reality of something beyond the possibility of doubt.

If you think too much about this you end up like David Hume the Scottish philosopher (see quote below) who in the end realized that he couldn’t know anything. All we have are our sensations and thoughts and no idea how these relate or not to any “real” thing. Continuing down this track we veer dangerously toward nihilism and despair.

I want to avoid this track by using more common sense definitions of fact and belief. A fact is something you believe in as a result of direct irrefutable evidence. If I see a man in a room and I talk to him and I touch him then I can say that I “know” he is there. It is an empirical fact. The fact that there is a man in the room with me we can safely say is a fact. (I realize we could argue that maybe I am delusional or hallucinating, but remember I am sticking only to common sense definitions for arguments sake.) A belief then is something that I “know” without direct irrefutable evidence. I might believe in God for instance, and even if I cannot point to direct irrefutable evidence, I will say that I know God exists. I might also believe that human beings have evolved from other life forms, but I don’t really have direct evidence. I have to trust the evidence gathered by other people and trust a great deal of experiments and conclusions of others.

Michael Shermer in his book “How We Believe” (a book that another commenter, Brian, turned me on to) describes the mind as a “belief engine” that is constantly creating patterns of belief. From fractured information and sense impressions the mind weaves together plausible pictures of reality that we believe in. What do we mean when we say we “believe” then? Things that we believe in are things that we “think that we know.”

I want to introduce a way of thinking about belief that the American philosopher William James was fond of and that I have come to accept myself. We can tell what we actually believe in because those are the things that we are willing to act on as if they were true. I can say that I believe I can walk on air. I can even say that I “know” that I can walk on air. But if you take me to a rooftop and I refuse to step off of it, then you would have to question if I really believed it. So a belief is that which we are willing to act upon. I can see that I believe that my spiritual experiences are real because I have been and am acting as if they are real in fairly dramatic ways.

But the question remains, how do I know? How do any of us know anything? Why do any of us believe in anything? William James again provided interesting thoughts for me on these questions. He wrote about knowing being essentially the feeling of the cessation of not-knowing. Not-knowing feels uncomfortable. When we don’t know something we feel tense. The experience of agitation at not-knowing spurs us to search for answers. When we find the answer we are searching for we feel calm and content because the tension of not-knowing goes away. If someone questions our belief we get tense or even angry. Why? because they are making us feel the tension of not-knowing again and we don’t want to. Much of the time we (and I don’t exclude myself) are more interested in the feeling of knowing than actually knowing. Could this be it? Are we all just chasing a feeling of existential contentment and then believing in it? This is the kind of questioning that sent David Hume to the public Backgammon tables to drown his uncertainty in some good clean fun.

“Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? … I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, environed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty.

Most fortunately it happens, that since Reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, Nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends. And when, after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.”  — David Hume (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding)

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Carl
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Does your definition of fact suggest that facts are only things that I directly experience with my own senses? What about superstition? If the elevator closes when I jump up and down inside of it, and this happens several times, do I “know for a fact” that jumping up and down in the elevator makes it close? I’m trying to understand the implications of what you say for HOW we “know” things, the process by which we conclude that things are facts or not. Whether experienced directly or reported by others, isn’t the process and the logic by which I… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
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Jeff Carreira

Hello Carl, I am so happy to have your commenting, I have missed your thoughts over the past little while. You are of course totally and astutely correct. “Why we believe?” is the most important question – much more important than “what we believe?” I am not sure about the answer actually. This post, like many of mine, are a form of public thinking out loud. I want to keep going into the reasons why we believe and you are absolutely correct that empirical evidence is not enough to define truth. I was grossly over-generalizing in an effort to make… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
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Jeff Carreira

Carl, I think what I am trying to create here is a peer-reviewed blog! :)

Carl
Guest

Well, you might have anticipated my view as far as the establishment of “facts” is concerned. What I think is meant by the perhaps grandiose term “scientific method” is the same thing that developmental psychologists such as Piaget pointed to in how children come to know the world: a process of experimentation, elimination of alternative explanations joined with the emergence of logical reasoning and the drawing of implications from observations. I think, for example, that my own “belief” in the non-duality of the world is based on both the accumulation of scientific evidence that everything is connected and interdependent in… Read more »

Carl
Guest

P.S. Jeff, I never left. Still checking in regularly. I just haven’t had anything to add.

Jeff Carreira
Guest
Jeff Carreira

This is great. I can totally relate to what you say when you say ” But it’s not just about a feeling, or personal experience. It is also about the observations of others, experimental evidence in which alternative explanations were eliminated, etc.” because I feel the same way. And as I think about this deeply I start to wonder if observations of others, experimental evidence and even logical consistency actually constitute objective “proof” of what I believe, or are they just things that I feel more comfortable believing in. Is it that for me I can’t get to that feeling… Read more »

Carl
Guest

My particular branch of science, the science of behavior, depends on “replication” of single-subject experiments. That is, you apply the same conditions repeatedly to different individuals or in different situations and you accumulate examples of where a particular outcome occurs. With repeated replication, you become increasingly confident that if you do the same thing again, you will get the predicted outcome. And you also uncover the variations in conditions that predict a different outcome. So there is a refinement of “knowing.” This could, I suppose, be called a “feeling.” Or you could call it a matter of probability testing, if… Read more »

Chuck R
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Chuck R

Jeff: Good questions. It never hurts (well, maybe just a little) to question belief and the process of belief. James’ characterization of belief as “what we are willing to act on as if they were true” is truer than most people can tolerate. We are daily surrounded by people professing all sorts of beliefs on which they do not and in many cases cannot act. My model for this phenomenon is this: the normal state of the human mind is compartmentalization. We hold multiple beliefs, multiple thoughts and perform multiple sorts of actions & behaviors all at the same time.… Read more »

J.
Guest

“”If you think too much about this you end up like David Hume the Scottish philosopher (see quote below) who in the end realized that he couldn’t know anything.”” Some scholars might say that is a naive reading of Hume. Hume’s points on induction–at least two major thrusts– concerned necessity, really–not just skepticism, as usually read, or misread (including by Popper). Even high-powered academic scientists can not make perfect predictions about, say, upcoming hurricanes. Or the stock market or MLB pennant race for that matter. Nor can we obtain infallible knowledge of past events (ie causes). That doesn’t mean knowledge… Read more »

Brian
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Brian

“real” “believe” “know” “trust” “facts” “proof” “feeling” “replication” “control” — Y’all are taking “abstractions” to new heights! I guess your not feeling very “extensional” today.

Meanwhile, I put down a 6 mil plastic sheeting vapor barrier in my crawlspace.

Jeff Carreira
Guest
Jeff Carreira

J – I have to admit that I am guilty as charged, my reading of Hume is superficial indeed – and as with all great intellects characterizing their thought in any specific way is inevitably disastrous. I also wanted you to know that this post was not meant as a final statement on knowledge. I was opening up the inquiry and I am honestly trying to figure out how knowledge is possible. I guess over the past couple of years my epistemology has leaned heavily toward Pragmatism, but I still have questions unanswered for myself. I keep trying fresh approaches… Read more »

Catherine
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Catherine

I am horribly busy today [ our small new Institute here in Brazil is welcoming a few Nobel Prices, an the minister of research on monday for the Inauguration; one of my favorite physicists, David Gross, will be present…]. But well I cannot resist to comment on this post. OK here is my point of view . IKnowledge is nothing without the Drive for Knowledge, the “Wanting to Know”. My point [ and my everyday experience as a researcher] is that “Wanting to Know ” completely transcends knowledge itself. The Drive for Knowledge is always alive, the conclusions of knowledge… Read more »

Anonymous
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Anonymous

Dear Jeff and “commentors”. I am happy to be back in these discussions after a few months’ break! Maybe I am not completely aware of the discussions you have had, but I have a perspective that I want to share, so forgive me if it is not completely about this topic. I think that brainscience is the most interesting area for the next step in our understanding of ourselves and the world. What I keep coming back to when I get a new understanding is how our brain contains all our evolutionary history. We have a part in the brain… Read more »

Mette
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Mette

Dear Jeff and “commentors”. I am happy to be back in these discussions after a few months’ break! Maybe I am not completely aware of the discussions you have had, but I have a perspective that I want to share, so forgive me if it is not completely about this topic. I think that brainscience is the most interesting area for the next step in our understanding of ourselves and the world. What I keep coming back to when I get a new understanding is how our brain contains all our evolutionary history. We have a part in the brain… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
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Jeff Carreira

Mette great to have you back….I want to do more studies in brain science and cognitive psychology. It is totally fascinating and getting so sophisticated that the promise of deep answers is ever-alluring.

Stuart
Guest
Stuart

Great post. I too am struggling with these all too real question? Is there any substance to our certainty? Is any action possible from uncertainty? What is a belief founded on? How do we act on a belief when we “know” it is “just a belief?” Michael Polanyi in his book “Personal Knowledge” proposed, as Catherine has said, that our tacit knowledge comes prior to our empirical knowledge. Meno’s paradaox – how do we know where to look for the solution if we really don’t know the solution – is solved by the fact that we do know it somehow,… Read more »

Chuck R
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Chuck R

Brian:

“Extensional.” Excellent! I “love” it.

Let me know how that vapor barrier in the crawlspace works out. I considered doing that but decided it was beyond my limited desires and abilities. The crawlspace was far too large and”crawly”.

Brian
Guest
Brian

Actually I’m moving on to pondering hopeless abstractions like you guys. From Hayakawa’s Abstraction Ladder in the book Chuck R recommends “Language in Thought and Action”:

Bessie –> cow –> livestock –> farm assets –> asset –> wealth.

I wonder if we continued we could find the most abstract word of all, infinitely abstracted, the mother of all abstractions, exalted in its abstractedness ——-> God.

Brian
Guest
Brian

Can anyone suggest a word more abstract than “God”?

Chuck R
Guest
Chuck R

Brian: You wrote: Can anyone suggest a word more abstract than “God”? As a single word, probably not. But I, like Brian, would be interested if such a word existed (in English). As a phrase or sentence, of course there is. Just use “God” in that phrase, such as, “the concept of God” or “the ramifications of the concept of God”, or “the socioeconomic effects of the implications created by the ramifications of the general belief in the concept of God.” There is literally no end to this sort of abstracting. Seeing statements such as those I just invented above… Read more »

Brian
Guest
Brian

So all this abstracting is probably a uniquely human activity (at least to our level of proficiency). And we are so enamored with it that we create the greatest abstraction of all and make it the object of our worship. True?

I don’t know about truth with a capital T unless it starts a sentence. But I know lots of little truths.

Chuck R
Guest
Chuck R

Brian: Re: Abstracting. I think that’s pretty much correct. I don’t see how any animal species could create all these abstractions without some sort of versatile symbolic means of communication (either to others or to oneself). If any other animal species has one, we haven’t yet been able to perceive it. So in that sense we’re unique in this ability to abstract. Worship it? Again, symbols & inferences (probably) needed for that sort of behavior. Humans are born with neural systems which search our surroundings for patterns and then draw inferences for survival purposes. We can’t turn these systems off… Read more »

Stuart
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Stuart

Question: what is more abstract, to try to articulate your experience, or to doubt your experience?

Liesbeth
Guest
Liesbeth

I am reading the mystery-drama’s of Rudolf Steiner. Here he is explaining that we are conscious of the world through our senses. What everybody will agree with is that great art transmits something which goes beyond the senses. I, for example, deeply experienced this when I was reading Emerson. I have read great books with great ideas, I have read writers with beautiful language, but Emerson transmits more. It widens awareness for a moment. Steiner says: God is that which we experience beyond our senses; in evolutionary philosophy it is called: the force that created the universe (Eros): some energy… Read more »

Liesbeth
Guest
Liesbeth

To be clear: above, I was looking for something more abstract than the word God. I remembered something of Whitehead; he also points to poetry as ‘expressing deep intuitions about the Universe: poetry confronts science with the totality of reality’. He connects abstractions of science with insights expressed in literature, art, religion and expressions of normal healthy thinking: To try to understand reality we shouldn’t reject any source of evidence.. Expressions of great poets are specifically important because they express deep intuitions of humanity penetrating into that which is universal in the total of reality’.

Chuck R
Guest
Chuck R

Stuart: You wrote: what is more abstract, to try to articulate your experience, or to doubt your experience? You didn’t indicate to whom this question was addressed (perhaps to everyone?) but I’ll try a brief answer. First, let me add a phrase to your question: “…or to doubt YOUR INTERPRETATION of your experience?” Every moment of every day of your entire life is an experience of some sort, even if only of dreamless sleep. Thus you cannot doubt that you are always experiencing something, whatever it might be. What you can doubt, and should always be prepared to doubt, is… Read more »

Brian
Guest
Brian

“men became superstitious not because they had too much imagination, but because they were not aware that they had any” Santayana

Stuart
Guest
Stuart

Brian, great quote! Chuck, I agree in general with the spirit of the critical method. We have to recognize how our interpretations are built upon previous interpretations, which are in turn built on previous interpretations, etc. And then we have to ask, are we really experiencing anything or are we just throwing concepts around. Still, just as I don’t have to buy into someone else’s interpretation of their experience, I don’t have the right to say that they have no experience at all of what they are talking about. The standard critique of metaphysics first questions the interpretation of our… Read more »

Chuck R
Guest
Chuck R

Stuart: You wrote: “The standard critique of metaphysics first questions the interpretation of our experience as hopelessly distorted, which it probably is, but then throws out the whole experience as meaningless from the start. This is what I object to.” I agree with you. I would say that human interpretations will always be inaccurate to a varying degree, but I wouldn’t say they are hopelessly distorted, let alone meaningless. If they were “hopelessly distorted”, humans couldn’t survive in a difficult and dangerous environment. Thus, natural selection weeds out, over the millennia, organisms whose interpretations tend to be “hopelessly distorted”. But… Read more »

Stuart
Guest
Stuart

Chuck, I’m not sure where I stand on the idea of unspeakable experience. On the one hand I think our experience is somewhat ineffable. We are aware of more than we know and we know more than we can say. But on the other hand to know what we know we need language and concepts that are hard wired into a cultural context, a kind of background that is full of interpretations. There seems to be two kinds of knowledge. There’s knowledge that is pre-linguistic, where we just know without knowing how, and there is knowledge that is post-linguistic or… Read more »

Frank Luke
Guest
Frank Luke

Hi Brian, re: “Can anyone suggest a word more abstract than “God”?”

The Buddhists put forth “Nothingness” which is not Nothing but Pregnantness. Is this abstract enough? I believe it’s naming what existed before existence and that to which all returns.

Chuck R
Guest
Chuck R

Stuart: You wrote: (1)(…on the idea of unspeakable experience. On the one hand I think our experience is somewhat ineffable.” (2)We are aware of more than we know and we know more than we can say. (3)But on the other hand to know what we know we need language and concepts that are hard wired into a cultural context, a kind of background that is full of interpretations. (1) Somewhat ineffable. Agreed. (Especially when it comes to mystical experience, which is probably the least “effable” of all experiences.) But it is possible to simply “experience” an ineffable experience without putting… Read more »

Chuck R
Guest
Chuck R

Frank: You wrote: “The Buddhists put forth “Nothingness” which is not Nothing but Pregnantness. Is this abstract enough? I believe it’s naming what existed before existence and that to which all returns.” Your definition also operates quite well as one type of description of the mystical experience. Stuart (above) reminded me of the word “ineffable” which is very often applied to this experience. However, humans being what they are, we can’t leave the “ineffable” as simple that. (“Oh, it was ineffable. What’s for dinner?” Thus we come up with innumerable descriptions of the ineffable mystical experience. Nearly all these descriptions… Read more »

Frank Luke
Guest
Frank Luke

Hi Chuck, re: “However, humans being what they are, we can’t leave the “ineffable” as simple that.” To leave the matter as ineffable is true and also a cop out in that there are common denominators to the experience which I submit is The Awakening of spiritual consciousness tha can be shared. The details seem to vary and seem to be as individualistic as there are individuals undergoing the experience, IMO. Zen chronicles many instances of people chopping wood or seeing the blossoming cherry trees, maybe even being whacked by the roshi and experiencing satori (awakenng). But the effects of… Read more »

Stuart
Guest
Stuart

Hi Chuck,

Your number “3” is really interesting. Can you refer me to some sources?

Chuck R
Guest
Chuck R

Stuart:
You wrote: Your number “3″ is really interesting. Can you refer me to some sources?

This comment on inferential systems was mostly a combination of what I gleaned from two books, stirred (not shaken) and mulled with some additional spices:
1. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought – Pascal Boyer
2. Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief – Newberg, D’Aquili & Rause

The comment on “free will” is my own conclusion.

Chuck R
Guest
Chuck R

Frank: On the “ineffable”: The problems encountered in writing/talking about “it” was well noted in the Tao Te Ching: “He who knows does not speak. He who speaks does not know.” But, like this Zen Master story: “Shuzan held out his short staff and said: If you call this a short staff, you oppose its reality. If you do not call it a short staff, you ignore the fact. Now what do you wish to call this?” Zen Flesh, Zen Bones – Gateless Gate #44 Humans, being humans, have to say something. But we’ll never get “it” *right*. I completely… Read more »

Frank Luke
Guest
Frank Luke

Hey Chuck, TY for your comments and response. It’s as I disccovered subsequently and have been speaking of my experience as an Awakening, a small e enlightenment that is a step on the way to big E Enlightenment. Compounded on that experience I was in an audience where the Dalai Lama administered the Bodhisattva Vow that I tentatively took with the others. At first I was dubious but as time has gone by, I do feel I’ve taken the vow to heart and do feel now I am a bodhisattva, not a big deal now but something I accept as… Read more »

Frank Luke
Guest
Frank Luke

Hi again Chuck, re: rats / aha moments Furthermore, I must submit that in cases of human spiritual Awakenings, they differentiate from the rat experiment conclusions in that I feel my experience is not simply a matter of a task being understood but more like a life-changing event where I’ve not only perhaps had brain alterations but my life has undergone a transformation as well, I’ve had a psychic metaphysical transformation. It may be said that the rats also have had their lives transformed, becoming more efficient in their tasks but I submit my experience has been for profound than… Read more »

Chuck R
Guest
Chuck R

Frank: Re: Additional lifetimes. What if this really, *really* is the very last incarnation for you? Would that knowledge affect your behavior in any way? If it would, in what way? Re: Dalai Lama. I read a while back – maybe 4-8 years – in an interview that he didn’t really believe in the whole “returning” lama aspect of Tibetan Buddhism. Do you know what his current position is on that? Also: As “original” Buddhism held that there was no permanent “soul”, thus no “transmigration of the soul”, thus no reincarnation, and instead developed the concept of rebirth (not the… Read more »

Chuck R
Guest
Chuck R

Frank: It may be that there are Awakened rats, but we don’t know about them because they have nothing to say to humans, only to other rats. Rats are animals. Humans are animals. Why would there be spiritual wonders and Awakenings for humans but not for rats? Would we know an “Awakened” rat if we met one? Would he act like Yoda, the Jedi Knight? For that matter, would we know an “Awakened” human if we met one? Or will he always exude an unmistakable “aura” of saintliness and wisdom? Is their personality and behavior that predictable? Or perhaps he’ll… Read more »

Frank Luke
Guest
Frank Luke

Hi Carl re: 1) Awakened rats For all we know there may be such, and there are swifter rats than others more able to perform tasks efficiently. But you must remember our brains are so much more complex than others on the chain of life, even those of our closest cousins, the apes. 2) Living my ultimate life I go about attempting to make this one as meaningful as I can manage, which may be wanting but I try and keep attempting to grow in conscioiusness. 3) I so respect his saying that if science proves Buddhism to be wanting… Read more »

Chuck R
Guest
Chuck R

Frank: 1). Unless you know exactly what “awakened” (“spiritually”) entails, how can you judge whether someone or something (like a rat) is capable of such a (postulated) state or if they have achieved it? If you’ve been hungry every minute of your life, can you really know what “fullness” is? Of course our brains are more complex (& larger too) than those of rats. Does this mean that one’s potential to become “awakened” depends on the neural structure of one’s brain? If it does, and you seem to imply that it does, then is *anything* else necessary for such “awakening”?… Read more »

Frank Luke
Guest
Frank Luke

Hello Carl, re: “that my own “belief” in the non-duality of the world is based on both the accumulation of scientific evidence that everything is connected and interdependent in countless ways” As the sages through the ages propound, duality is errant, that reality is not dualistic. But that I believe is an Enlightened view of reality, as your statement is. I don’t think we can simply ignore that a dualistic view of existence is common with those who have not come to a realization that all dualities are negated, synbolized in the emblem of Yin/Yang, a synthesis of all opposites… Read more »