Thursday, September 28, 2006

Reflections on the possibility of a method

Finding the actual beliefs of people is of great practical importance. Whether or not questioning and searching for them is a profoundly difficult or relatively easy activity is of course vital, though I will presume to take the latter until the former rears its head. I think it’s more worthwhile to get some grasp on the beliefs of people as far as practically possible than to worry in the first instance where those beliefs will probably escape our grasp.

On any account it must be admitted that many of the beliefs people in the same society hold are shared between them objectively, and that in the defence of the view that beliefs can be uncovered with relative ease it must be admitted that we have a very special and important affinity with each other when we share ways of life. It is not difficult to infer what a person believes given some imagination (in particular the ability to see yourself in someone else’s shoes) and a set of data about their experiences etc. This is because whatever meaning our world has it is necessarily an objective meaning (we can demonstrate with ease that it must be non-subjective). Telling apart useful ‘beliefs’ from actual beliefs should involve on the ground level honesty in reflection on what things actually do mean, since it is here that we are bound together. What has thus occurred to me as being crucial to excavating beliefs is that the systems of meaning we must employ constitute in themselves basic shared beliefs. This I hope puts the lie to mixing everything up and formulating problematics in the first instance, since without this information the attempt to uncover true beliefs threatens to fall into psychological mumbo jumbo.

That we have two instances of the word ‘belief’, and that we have a belief that useful beliefs are in fact beliefs (if you catch my drift), has struck me since the beginning of my questioning as an example of where the meaning of a word is shifting. If such shifts are objective (because the meaning of words is objective), does this mean that the old use of the word belief has ceased to be an objectively shared meaning and thus has lost its meaning?

This cannot be the case because the old definition is still there behind the new definition; convincing people that we believe what we do not believe, if I can put it this way, requires the old definition. Indeed, the new use of ‘belief’ is parasitic on the old and would not be effective (remembering that the new definition is in essence effective) without it. So I would conclude thus far that we are not seeing a shift in the meaning of the word ‘belief’, but the existence of two words that sound the same precisely in order to conflate their meaning.

With this in mind, how do we properly define pragmatic belief?

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Telling them apart

Beliefs cause problems.

Those of different religions, and those differing within religions, have before - and could again - kill to assert supremacy. And religion will affect social and political policy, and only those who believe will agree with it.
Those of different political views will pull and push and distend the workings of the world around us. And the world will flux and please no-one, because no-one is able to get the total mandate necessary to shape the world in the way they think best.
Those of different moral beliefs will pour distaste and scorn, they will privilege the rich and condemn the poor, or they will demand that there is a standard of behaviour that must be kept. And there will always be some who, by no fault of their own, are branded as the outcast.

Beliefs condemn us to an eternity of incomplete revolutions, because so much hinges on belief, and belief will always be fought tooth-and-nail by those contrary.

This is the case because beliefs are not solely based on evidence, or reason, or otherwise there would be much more agreement.
Consider a morally and socially conservative family, who discover a son or daughter to be gay. After much wailing and gnashing, they come to accept the son or daughter and, therefore, homosexuality in general. Not through evidence, but through familial necessity and strength of emotion.
Consider an atheist who, in middle-age, decides that the empty rotting death of the unbeliever is not a fitting ending. Human life is too precious, so there must be more, and there must be a God to guide us. Not through reason, but through the desire to find spiritual life (and death) insurance.
Consider the businessperson who has disavowed previous ideals - socialist, communist, Leninist, anarchist - and is now part of the conservative status quo, arguing that 'I have to protect my position'. Is this through evidence? Is this through reason? Yes, it would seem so - but used for selfish ends. It is the belief of 'what suits me right now'.

Contrast this with the philosophical use of beliefs, which we might typify as attempts to uncover the truth as much as possible and base action upon it. Commitments to ideals that are the only measures to ensure the future of humanity. Argued over, decried as assumptions, taken as slippery but indispensable, criticised and the focus of attention.

It seems that some people talk about what they believe, but they don't care about the evidence behind or logic within their statements. They do not believe out of truth, but out of some other reason. Are all these things beliefs? Are there two or more types of beliefs that we must differentiate? Are there infinite gradiations of beliefs, starting from the noblest and truest to the most grovellingly self-serving?
Is believing just an action, something you do, regardless of why? Or is the intent of it important too? Perhaps I make the mistake of labelling beliefs that lead to conclusions we do not endorse as false, just to suit my own pretensions. If beliefs aren't trustworthy, I am not even sure how to trust my own.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Fascist Juice

A main advantage of the kind of thinking that my last post explicated a little is that we no longer need to seek beliefs that underlie our everyday ‘functional beliefs’, in order to contain them somehow. To be sure, whatever the ‘functional beliefs’ are they are the effects of all sorts of real beliefs, but the abstract movement, which makes putting the question to concrete instances of ‘belief’ in order to find some grander belief scheme invalid (in the sense that these functional beliefs cannot yield the qualitatively different true beliefs), is a rather useful movement in that it suggests that pretty direct access to true beliefs is possible.

The move between the two abstract definitions of belief should allow us to look at the world and see what beliefs people actually do have. But this idea brings with it many problems. For instance, it isn’t the case that we can throw away socially inflicted beliefs by the truckload if they can actually really be beliefs, and this is still very possible. The difficulty consists in sorting out which beliefs belong on which pile – which belong on the pseudo-beliefs pile and which on the beliefs pile. My last post said that we betray our feelings when we adopt the pseudo beliefs, so it could be from this natural tension that true beliefs can be sorted from pseudo-beliefs, by a process of rediscovering our feelings about the world.

Of course, such a search is in itself affected by the beliefs of the investigator. For example, much theory tells us that it is in learning to suppress, deny and reinterpret our feelings about the world that we become socialised creatures, adopting in this fashion the requisite inflections (of both body and mind) that characterise people of a particular society. Thinking this true, we might accept that there is a necessary tension set up between people’s true feelings on the one hand and certain psychologically alchemical processes on the other (strange way to express ‘learning’!). If we go back this far, as these processes certainly happen in childhood, then we are in danger of only accepting beliefs consistent with the ‘genuine’ feelings before the character is formed, although of course we could feel quite happy with this. This is an entirely different way of doing things than if we affirm that whatever a person genuinely feels at the moment of questioning is what they believe. The difficulty, as with the former example, is in discovering what the genuine feelings are (and, indeed, separating the results from the affecting method of asking leading questions etc).

My question to readers is this: If finding our true beliefs requires recognising our genuine feelings/attitudes toward the world, then how is a reliable recognition possible?

Monday, September 11, 2006

Old beliefs, new beliefs

The main area of reinterpretation that I want to argue for is around belief, something that has been on my mind regarding my forthcoming Masters degree, in which it features pretty centrally, as well as regarding my understanding of people in general. In the past I have had issues with people’s odd beliefs and life practices and wondered at how monumentally stupid (though I loathed to admit it) they had to be to adopt and continue them. My resulting position considered the failings of the educational system to be chiefly at fault for suppressing independent thought and honesty with one’s position. I still think that this is central to explaining our current disposition, but the difference now is that it does not give rise to the beliefs and practices that I observed as starting points. Recently I have come to reinterpret the world differently, seeing belief as something quite rarified and covered over, despite the fact that it is the main concept at large in the world today. To believe something is to think that it is true. Holding this to be the case causes a huge revaluation of people’s alleged ‘beliefs’, and it must first be admitted that people sometimes (or oftentimes) do not belief what they proclaim to. It must be the case, in extension of this, that they can fully believe that they believe something, that they do not in fact believe. In strictly logical terms this is impossible, but the difference between the two instances of belief – the social use of ‘belief’ and the proper use of belief as thinking that something is true – should be highlighted. We fully believe, in the sense that we have a subject position to the effect that, x is the case, without actually believing that ‘x is the case’ is true.

I suppose my position is that utilitarian beliefs are impossible, and we only believe that x is likely or useful when we think that ‘x is likely’ or ‘x is useful’ is true. A belief is complete in itself, and cannot be provisional nor suspended. For example, if our belief is that ‘it will rain’ is true, and are told that it will only rain if the cold front moves a few miles north, then, providing we think this correction appropriate and true, we no longer believe that ‘it will rain’, but rather than believing to some degree that ‘it will rain’ we rather now believe, quite absolutely, that ‘it will rain providing that the cold front moves a few miles north’. An encounter with Bayesian theory recently left me feeling more than a little disgusted.

With this all said, it is my opinion (belief, indeed!) that the almost total definition of belief in terms of social etiquette and subject positions constitutes manifest dishonesty. People are so utterly unfamiliar with what they in fact believe that this social usage of the term has hijacked the authority of legitimate belief – and of course, this is the reason why social belief is so powerful and proliferate. So what is this dishonesty if we aren’t acting consciously against the true definition of belief (that I think, only a philosopher would these days really contemplate)? Granted that belief is a naturally occurring state that everybody understands on the level of intuition, our dishonesty must lie in a conscious denial of our very feelings.

I’m sure I should give these thoughts more of a chance to come out into the open, but as it stands this is the revolution in my thought that has caused me to reinterpret current life. As far as this blog is concerned, I am happier than ever not to have an ‘overarching belief’ about it. How can I, when legitimately questioning whether any such belief can be at all meaningful?