WHAT IS BELIEF? (1996)

Ken Wais

 


  

Introduction


Belief is indeed an inscrutable conception, or though it may seem. In this short essay, I will explore the concept and its applications in many aspects of our lives. I hope to show it is more than just a conception, but the bedrock of far-reaching notions in modern philosophy and science. Though the title of this essay seems to indicate it's all about belief, what we really consider could just as well be entitled: What Is Knowledge? The two ideas are so intertwined.

The Philosophic notion

Belief is an idea that is virtually inseparable from our everyday lives. It is not necessarily the result of perception, though, it can be, as when I look at a chair and believe it to exist, because of the visual perception of it. Ordinarily, I claim to know it exist because of seeing it. Silly though it sounds, the question--what if it's an illusion?--was raised and answered by philosophers in the past. The general consensus in the last century was that perception was a very special kind of belief and it must be classified as the source of all reliable information we derive from our environment. Going back to the chair analogy, I see the chair and believe it to exist because my visual perception tells me so. Most beliefs are the result of this kind of phenomenon. We perceive something, and from that perceptual experience we come to have certain definable ideas about the experience. This process is called ideation. The importance of this process is in its result: Belief. That is, conceptual belief. I mean by this that we come to hold ideas which go well beyond the scope of what our sensate experiences have conveyed. For example, a person exposed to a cold winter day can form an idea of what it means to lack heat. This idea of 'cold' after this experience can then be applied in numerous other ways. One can form an idea of cold objects, cold places, cold times of the year, intensity of cold, etc. Thus, 'cold' becomes a concept of which one has a well-defined picture. He needn't experience 'cold' to invoke the concept. He now has developed a belief of what it means to be cold, and what in the abstract 'cold' is. This would be called a rational belief. Rational, because it, (the belief) has gone through a process of abstraction and then it has been generalized to apply to a universe of experiences, ideas, and logical constructions. Most beliefs are of this form, but as we shall see, some are quite the opposite.

As I mentioned earlier, belief does not have to come directly from our perceptions. In fact, many rational beliefs are not the result of our experiences at all. This is most evident in the beliefs that are attached to scientific pursuits. Yes, it seems strange to apply the word 'belief' to anything having to do with science, but actually as it was framed above, that is just what many elements of the most basic sciences are! However, they refer to them as hypotheses. With this said, I note, there is a popular misconception that belief implies something unprovable or just plain unsubstantiated. Not true. All that a rational belief lacks is absolute proof. That is to say, it canít be established that a rational belief is true in every possible construction. Actually, most concepts can not be shown to have this kind of endurance. Even some of the most simplistic notions we have. For example, take the mathematical concept of infinity. It was believed by most mathematicians well into the 19th century to be absolute truth. This idea was tacitly understood by the public to be something that could not be exceeded. Until, Georg Cantor, a man virtually unknown outside of mathematical circles of the 19th century, proved the existence of sets of objects bigger than infinity. He also helped to establish the special field of set theory in the process. But here again, we are faced with a belief. You see, in this case as with so many having to do with science, the belief is nothing more than a consensus to accept truth based on a systematized structure, which is agreed upon by all involved. Here's how they do it. First, their luminaries have a convention of minds. This association establishes whatís okay and what's not. If your investigations, research, looking-into-things, whatever it might be called are within their agreed upon criteria, well, then you are accepted, published, heard and seen by many. You can even become famous. Does this sound at bit partial to you? Well it should because guess what, it's still only a belief. With this said, it should be clear that an absolute belief can never be established.

Rational belief from deduction

One way that science does differ from our perceptual source of belief is in its notion of deductive proof. Here we have a belief that results not from some experience, but from certain assumptions we make based on a formal set of rules. With this system of belief we need not experience the conclusions to give credence. Relativistic physics provides an example with the General Relativity Principle (GR). One conclusion of GR is that the universe is curved. This conclusion is not the result of someone traveling throughout the cosmos and finding it curved. Rather, it is the product of a series of rational abstractions based on a few assumptions. An exposition of GR is well beyond the scope of this essay, but an oversimplified example should suffice for our purposes. The principle of Equivalence in GR leads to the assertion that gravity and matter, are in continuous non-discrete relationship known as the space-time continuum (which by the way, sets up a big problem for it with quantum mechanics). Each affects the other. Matter deforms space or better put curves space: the larger the matter, then the larger curvature. If we have one large piece of matter, and another smaller one, the larger curves more space, and the smaller is forced to travel in this curved space around the larger, i.e. orbits it. We also know this as gravitational attraction. If this idea is expanded to a universal scale, and we consider what all matter would do to all space, it's not hard to see that universal matter would cause a universal curvature. Whether space is infinite by the way is irrelevant since the result would be the same. There it is. The universe is an immense ball, and if you travel in a straight line throughout it, you'd eventually end up where you started.

(Note: There are some works I recommend for readers without a technical background interested in a more complete description of GR, Max Born's Einstein's Theory of Relativity is an excellent source. It requires nothing more than a knowledge of elementary algebra to understand all the topics within the theory. For more advanced readers, Einstein's collaboration with Lorentz, Minkowski and Weyl in the Principle of Relativity should suffice. This work is a collection of the author's memoirs, and is constructed with a fine precision that covers all aspects of GR. Though, the translation from German at some points gives the non-mathematical text a touch of ambiguity. For those interested in the philosophic implications of this strange theory, Hans Reichenbach's Space and Time is a delight. With little mathematical treatment, Reichenbach touches upon some of the unintuitive conclusions that result from GR. )

Now, this hypothesis required no perception of any kind to derive. It was solely based on deductive reasoning from a set of agreed-upon assumptions. Yet, it is still a belief. It can change if the data are in contradiction to it. Scientific beliefs are not only deductive (in most cases actually inductive), but rational. They follow a set of conventional rules that allow for revision. But there is another form of belief that is not so mutable. This kind of belief is ever-popular and sometimes pernicious: irrational belief.

Irrational belief: Religion and Politics

What of beliefs that are irrational? This is an issue of great concern in our worldwide socio-political conflicts. There are many examples.

An interesting point here is that the irrationality of belief is a reversal of the usual logical progression I outlined above. Ideation can turn back to affect perception. The belief, once formed can direct and control how one perceives. Our senses make for ideas, and those ideas once formed give rise to our beliefs, all quite clear. But, when our ideas then determine what we see, feel and think, they've gone too far. They are irrational and possibly dangerous, to us and others. Religion serves as a good example. Though most well-defined religions are not injurious to its believers, there are occult sects that use this very same principle of irrational belief to cause undo harm. Recent examples: Om Shinrikio, Heavens Gate, an older one would be the Jim Jones tragedy in Guyana, South America. These are examples of how demagogic influences can easily turn this powerful form of belief into a malicious and destructive social force.

The religious term for irrational belief is faith. The origins of faith are obscure. To modern thinkers, its roots are buried in the rise of religious dogmas, which were themselves derived from pre-existing mythologies. It's here that we get to the perceptual root of irrational belief. The dogmas themselves in many cases resulted from the perceptual experiences of select individuals, whom in turn became the sole interpreters of their experiences for their followers. Thus, there were such persons as Christ, Muhammad, Bhudda, Confucius, and others, undergoing profound personal revelations and espousing their belief in these ideals to a gathering multitude of followers. These followers in turn, spread the faith in codified rituals and practices to others and a cascading process ensued. The process eventually became more coercive. True believers required that new converts dispensed with reasoning to accept the tenets of their religion. . The faithful accepted their beliefs without questioning their veracity. It is not a matter of substantiating the content of the prophetic figure's beliefs to his believers, but how one adheres to them. They practice their respective beliefs without doubt. It is not a question of being correct for the faithful, but being true to their beliefs. This is the major fault of irrational belief. It provides no room for doubt. There is not way to question the validity of their beliefs.

We don't have to turn to religion to see this phenomenon in action. Political concepts are more often than not irrational. Especially if the subject is about the body politic. Here's an example. A few days ago, I had a conversation with friend concerning the U. S. constitution. During the course of great dinner at an elegant restaurant (we hadn't seen each other since college and lived and worked in different cities), we discussed everything from sports to politics. Near the end of our third Martini, I mentioned that the U. S. Constitution was a document that may have outlived its political utility. I followed this comment with the suggestion that it was an outdated document and should be rewritten or even totally scrapped. My friend couldn't have disagreed more. He stated that the constitution was the basis for the American state and to disengage it would mean something tantamount to. . . he said after sallowing a mouthful of Martini. yeah "National political suicide". I went on to cite that the constitution somewhere in there provided for its own disengagement. I wasn't sure of this, but what the hell, I'd heard it did somewhere, and thank God he didn't challenge it. To tell you the truth, I don't think I've ever read anything in the Constitution beyond the 1st Amendment, that 19th century prose is mind-bending. Anyway, he retorted that wasn't the point, the Constitution was all that this nation had to claim its existence, it couldn't be revoked. Such an act would destroy the raison d'etre of America. We went on like this for another round of Martinis. With no resolution in sight, we changed the subject to more important things like whose child support burden was heavier. Later that evening, after getting home, it occurred to me, that Paul's stance in this debate was irrational.

Irrational disbelief

Another point to keep in mind with respect to irrational beliefs is that they do not have to be positive. That is, you can just as well disbelieve something irrationally as believe something irrationally. Intuitively, I suspect this kind of belief is probably more common than its opposite. A personal example of this sort of belief comes in the form of a disagreement I once witnessed between a close friend and his girlfriend. My friend, Muhammad has long since left this country, and his girlfriend, Sheila, I've haven't seen in a number of years. Nonetheless, one evening in the fall of 1978, I was invited to a dinner at their apartment. While we passed the evening recounting stories of Muhammad and myself in various escapades, Sheila at some point made mention of Muhammad's irritating habit of talking in his sleep. I thought nothing of the remark and changed the subject. Muhammad, however was more than a little irked by Sheila's off-color comment and launched into what I knew would be an unpleasant argument Here is the exchange to the best of my recollection:

 

Sheila, I don't talk in my sleep!

Yeah you do, and in Somali no less too!

You're crazy, Roble (my middle name, by which he always called me), you hear that, She doesn't know what she's talking about. I wave my left hand back and forth, indicating not to involve me in their quarrel. Okay, if I talk in my sleep, what did I say?

I told you it was in Somali, how da hell I know whatchu was sayin'. You know I don't speak your language.

This only strenghtened Muhammad's disbelief.

Oh, come on, see she can't even tell me what I said, maybe YOU were dreaming, or better yet, maybe you're lying!

Why I got to lie about this, Muhammad, man, you so silly. You were mumbling about somethin because it woke me up.

Mumbling? Now it's mumbling! I thought you said I was talking in my sleep.

Sheila at this point became thoroughly disgusted with Muhammad's reaction, cursed and excused herself from the table. This gent, being a argumentative type pursued her into the bedroom, where it eventually ended up with her ordering him to leave the apartment. A command he had to oblige since it was her place after all. Having experienced many a lovers spat between these two, I have already donned my sport coat, when Muhammad says to me:

Robleh, would you like to go to that bar on the west side? I'll buy.

This sort of refusal to believe an aspect of our behavior is not uncommon. Just think of a time when you've heard of someone's drunken behavior at a party and that person is astonished when his performance is recounted later. What is common to Muhammad's stubborn irrational disbelief and those nursing hangovers is the fact that neither perceives their actions directly. As I stated above, what we believe is often interconnected with what we perceive. The same applies to disbelief. This is particularly true when, credence must be applied to us. Muhammad's irrational denial wasn't only due to a disagreeable, argumentative nature, but a belief, that if he didn't hear it, see it, and feel it, he couldn't have done it. No matter how much objective confirmation you give him, to believe he did something, his senses can't confirm was unthinkable, which, of course is again irrational.

The Limits of Belief

We have belief in two forms: rational and irrational. We know it is singular as when I believe in a notion, conception or ideal, and plural as when a group of people embrace a conception or philosophy. Furthermore, we know that beliefs are not limited by our desires or perceptions. Therein lies a far-reaching question in its scope and near unanswerable in its depth: Why do we have belief? Some would be quick to answer this question with a modern brand of relativism. They would counter with self-assured cool--Beliefs depend on the environment from which they spring and to which they apply. Likewise, their validity is predicated on the context in which they apply. There are no beliefs which can be applied outside their respective context. As may be obvious now, there are others that would argue just the opposite, stating that there must be a universal context for at least some beliefs. Religionists would say this of moral values, scientists would say that of certain laws (particularly those with reference to physics). The list of opposing views can be enumerated ad infinitum, but let's make a simple dichotomy here. In the former group we have one of the 20th century's most prominent schools of thought: Existentialism. In the latter, we have a host of philosophies that may diverge within themselves, but affirm the universality of belief, they include to name a few: scientific theory, theologians, and political economists. However at the bottom of this towering mountain of thought is one 18th century philosopher, that proposed a different answer to the question: Why do we have belief?

Kant and Belief

In the middle of the 18th century, Immanuel Kant wrote an idealistic mammoth work entitled Critique of Pure Reason. While this work is difficult for anyone, even an expert in the field to decipher, in the 'Transcendental Logic' portion of this treatise, he made an understandable argument about the extent of human knowledge. For instance, he poses the question of knowing something, anything from our perceptions vis-a-vis the object being unperceived and thus unknown. What he eventually concludes is that knowledge and perception are not good bedfellows. That is, to know something is to be one step removed from it. Moreover, your knowledge of what you perceive is always incomplete. In order to really know something you must be that something. For example, I saw the keyboard before me as I wrote this sentence; I know it exists because I used my senses of sight and touch to experience the keyboard. Yet, I can never be sure that these perceptions through my senses are truly the keyboard. I must be the keyboard itself to know that! Of course, that I can't do. Nor can I be a glass, another person, or anything else other than myself. all my experiences are one step removed from me. I only know what my senses will permit me to know (or what contrived extensions of them will permit). I know reality second-hand if you will. This is a profound conception. It means there are things we can never know. Kant named this philosophic bombshell 'ding-in-sich', in English 'thing-in-itself'. This is the a priori that lies just beyond mortal reach. Of course, you might guess whose reach it did lie in.

How does this relate to belief? Quite simply, our perceptions are based on false notions of certainty. We think we're coming to know the true state of reality when in fact, this certainty is denied us by our state of being.

Belief and Mind

The above comments don't prevent us from using our knowledge of reality to do things. This is what we do when we apply scientific concepts to reality, e. g. technology. The application of our knowledge to affect the world in many different capacities is what technology does. However, even these accomplishments don't take us any closer to having certain knowledge of our reality. In fact, recent constructions in theoretical physics preclude the use of instruments to verify their conclusions. For instance, the quantum mechanical theory of the universe's origin rests upon the notion of non-existence before the commencement of a singular point of infinite density that leads to the Big Bang. This hypothesis (which is of course a belief) can't be verified by any empirical test. We certainly can't know it in the Kantian fashion I described above, that is, first order as if we were here prior to the beginning of the universe. In the end, this notion, while well founded is really just a conjecture.

What about our beliefs concerning our own sentience? The notion that we take for grant, that we are conscious, reflective beings. In general, people maintain certain common sense beliefs concerning themselves. They believe they are aware of themselves in a very intimate sense. A person takes for granted that he or she knows who he or she is. This assumption of self-awareness (with the exception of the mentally ill) is virtually universal, and again a form of belief. It may not be evident that we develop a belief about our own sentience and persistent sense of self. That is only because it comes about over a long time (i. e. over the course of our lives), and happens as a result of our interaction with an external world. The existential viewpoint actually challenged this notion several decades ago. It questioned the idea of self-awareness on several grounds, but the principal objection has to do with the Kantian idea of order of experience. When I reflect on some event of let's say a few days ago, am I not treating myself as an object of my reflection, thus removing my awareness of myself as the subject of my awareness. In this case the 'I' that's thinking is treating itself as if it weren't itself. In Kant's terms, I'm actually viewing myself second-order as if I were someone else reviewing my own actions. This paradox of self-awareness has been known to cognitive scientists for sometime and there have been many attempts to characterize it and even determine the source of the paradox.

Computer scientist, Douglas Hofstadter, in his Pulitzer prize winning work: Goedel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid explores the vagaries of this phenomenon, from a different point of view. He sought to establish what the self-awareness notion meant to the emerging field of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the early 1980s. Today, in the late 1990s the paradoxical everyday phenomena is still not completely understood. In fact, AI practitioners have actually fractured into different opposing schools (Strong AI vs Weak AI, Connectionists, etc), based in part, on how one defines self-awareness in machines. As a final word, Belief the noun or to believe, the infinitive verb are alike one special way. They are born and endure, when we haven't well-defined, demonstrable answers to our many questions about the natural world.

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