A Problem about Belief

An experience (I hope) everyone has had: you have a strong opinion about a subject. Then you learn more about the subject and realize your initial opinion was hilariously immature. It was the opinion someone who was uninformed. The new knowledge you’ve acquired gives you hints as to how you might have to revise the original opinion. But, more importantly, it has humbled you. You now realize you’re unqualified in this area. Whatever new information you now have, you’ve been given something that supersedes it: the fact of your own limitations. You can take your new knowledge and form a new opinion, sure. But you can also project based on past experience. What would happen if you learned even more about the subject? Isn’t it likely that you’d realize that your new, revised opinion was also silly? It was, after all, still the opinion of someone who was relatively uninformed, even if less uninformed than before.

This has happened to me with philosophy. I used to have fairly strong philosophical convictions. The more philosophy I learn, the weaker those convictions become. Not because I’ve necessarily found convincing counterarguments. More so because, the more I learn, the more obvious it is to me how little I actually know. And I don’t even mean knowledge of facts or of particular arguments. It’s broader than that. The more I learn, the more I realize there are entire ways of analyzing issues that I don’t have access to because I haven’t learned enough.

One takeaway from this is: unless you’re a top expert in a field, you should assume that your opinions are wrong (or, if correct, for the most part accidentally so).

Now, add time to the equation, and not even being a top expert will help you. Knowledge is progressive. We, as a species, learn more as time passes. Thus Aristotle – arguably the most knowledgeable person in his time on the subjects of, say, logic, physics, and biology – was wrong on just about everything. Even if you’re an Aristotelian and you think Aristotle had the right instincts on many important issues, you’re likely to agree that literally speaking, most of his opinions were mistaken.

And so again, we may project. We, as a species, have much more to learn. So, it’s pretty safe to assume: even the Aristotle of any given field today is likely wrong on most things. At the very least, s/he is only accidentally right, as s/he has not had the chance to consider and deal with the many counterarguments to his/her positions that have yet to be conjured.

Conclusion: we should reformulate our attitudes toward belief. We should stop thinking of belief as actual assertions about the state of the world, and think of the more as posits made within a process. In other words, we should think of inquiry as a process we’re engaged in. The process involves positing positions and then testing them against evidence and counterarguments. We revise when the counterarguments and evidence compel us to. Until then, we consider the posit in some way “active”. But it would be silly to add on to that the factual assertion that the belief is thereby correct of the world. That would be to assume that there is no future discovery that will prove it incorrect. How likely is that?

Consider that my posit about belief. I just pulled it out of my ass while writing this post. I can only imagine how easy it would be to devise convincing counterarguments against it.

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