Belief and (Personal) Truth

from Richard Ostrofsky of Second Thoughts Bookstore (now closed) November, 2010 What does it mean to believe something? Under what conditions should one believe (rather than disbelieve, or doubt)? These questions are urgent today, and anyone trying to live consciously needs to ask them: First, because so many distinct belief-cultures are now in play – sniping at each other, rather trying to make collective sense amongst their disparate viewpoints. Second, because so many questions of public policy turn (or appear to turn) on questions of belief, so that beliefs are political weapons. Third, because (as Nietzsche and the post-modernists insisted), diverging interpretative strategies always lead to disparate patterns of emphasis and belief. And finally, (for all these reasons), because the accumulation of scientific knowledge has not reduced either the number or the intensity of conflicts between alternative belief-systems. If anything, modern science has increased both the frequency and the intensity of such conflicts – clashing with religious and social tradition in a number of areas, while creating new possibilities for human intervention in areas that formerly could only be shrugged off (or wept or prayed over) as 'acts of God.' Then too, the accumulation of knowledge has made it impossible to review the evidence and argument for most of our beliefs. There is just too much of both, and the issues involved are too complex, so that most of our beliefs must be taken second-hand either from persons that we trust to have done the homework for us, and/or from groups whose acceptance we seek.This is the case even for scientists outside their narrow (and narrowing) areas of specialty. We live, all of us, by personal beliefs – worldviews and working assumptions – that we hold, in the end, on little more than faith. Does this mean that one faith and worldview is just as good as another? That there can be no grounds for reasoned criticism or argument between one worldview and another? No, it does not. Critical reason and dialogue remain feasible for any persons who prefer civil discourse to intellectual chaos and violence. The problem today is to be pluralist (respectful and tolerant of alternative cultures and their worldviews) without falling into the nonsense of complete relativism. We must and can judge rationally between the cultural suggestions on offer. In trying to do so, however, we will not always come to the same conclusions. For that reason, it becomes necessary to accept that not all truths are public, in the sense that they must be true for everyone if they are true at all. We hold,

and are entitled to hold, our different cultural and personal beliefs. We live, (truth be told) much more by personal or cultural truths than by public, universal ones. Once this is accepted, we must recognize two very different kinds of affirmation, and two distinct epistemologies – philosophies of valid knowledge. The grounds for claiming something as a public, universal truth will be much stricter than those for claiming it as a personal truth – a belief one intends to live by. Classical epistemology, recognizing no margin between truth and error, deals only with the justification of public beliefs and truth claims. What should we say about the private kind? A first point might be that people are entitled to their private beliefs and (in the last resort) need no special justification for holding them. Philosophers of knowledge can suggest that a private belief is superstitious or wishful or held on deficient grounds, and they can disagree and argue about such questions. But fundamentally, we have no jurisdiction. Philosophy itself is ultimately a thinking person's personal belief – belief about the promptings of reason on issues for which the evidence is scant, or its interpretation not universally agreed. By contrast, religion is about the promptings of faith and hope. That much declared at the outset, I can advance a few beliefs of mine on the validity of personal beliefs: First, I think that valid ones still need to be distinguished from sheer fantasy. This requires, in general that public knowledge be accepted, though specific exceptions can be made as needed. But then the burden of argument will always be on those who doubt what the experts and most people believe. Obviously, this can change over time, and from one society to another. But consider the implications for the evolution battles, for example. A second point is that superstitious and wishful beliefs are to be avoided as best one can – for the pragmatic reason that both usually reduce the quality of life. Superstions are constraining and potentially very costly. Wishful thinking is liable to be mugged by reality, at some inconvenient time. Both fail a more general test that I would call 'Matthew's Microscope' (by analogy with 'Occam's Razor') after the saying in Matthew 7-16: "By their fruits ye shall know them." The fact is that cultures and beliefs are not equal in their consequences. People can and do judge between them with reference to their usual or likely results. A third point is that genres need to be respected and kept straight to avoid confusion. In particular, fiction and myth should be distinguished from factual report. Their roles are different; they are not believed or deployed in the same way. Myths are fictions that encode and propagate some feature(s) of a collective or personal culture. Often, they serve as banners to rally a collective or personal identity. Recounted, heard and upheld in this spirit, they are harmless, and may serve an important function. Confused with fact, however, they invite the challenge of critical

reason, and are bound to suffer and inflict considerable damage in the conflicts that follow. As great myth, the religions (best considered as separate systems of belief) offer much to chew on and much to teach. But not when they put themselves in competition with science. I agree with Santayana that we all live by a kind of faith – if only that the sun will rise tomorrow, that we can drive to work without getting killed, that earthquakes may happen elsewhere but not to me or my family, tonight. Thus, I'm willing to embrace a version of faith that helps me get through my days and nights without painful anxiety, but I also enjoy being right rather than wrong. A final point: Much of the difference between good faith, intellectually respectable faith and superstition can be understood through the distinction between truth and existential commitment. If a woman feels that her baby is the most beautiful in the whole world, she means that he is so for her – but presumably not for her next door neighbor who has a baby of her own. In general, respectable faith accepts that existential commitments are deeply personal, and not to be confused with public truths. There seem to be people – many of them – who feel their identities deeply threatened when it turns out that their private commitments are not shared by everyone else. There are groups that have set themselves the project of converting the whole world to their way of thinking. (In this respect, Americans and Islamists have much in common.) Santayana is correct that we all need existential commitments to get through a day and through our lives. But most of these, certainly including people's ultimate worldviews, are personal ones. You can suggest your own commitments to others, you can even use Matthew's Microscope to argue their benefits, but that is really as far as you can go. In the end, good faith can only be a matter of intention. To attempt with sincerity to think and live in good faith is actually to do so.

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