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Posts Tagged ‘Knowledge’

“The X-Files” is a popular television series that was originally aired from September 1993 to May 2002. It was produced by Chris Carter for the Fox Network. While I did catch an occasional episode or two when it was first aired, it’s only now — almost two decades after the series began — that I’ve started watching “X-Files” religiously, i.e., in a dedicated, deliberate fashion. At the time of this writing, I am somewhere in the middle of season 3.

In this post, I am concerned neither with the mythology of “X-Files” nor with any of its specific stories or characters. Rather, I want to explore the meaning of one of the two slogans that became iconic in American culture thanks to the series’ popularity—“The Truth is Out There” and “I Want to Believe.” I’d like to tackle the latter slogan first, leaving the former for another day.

Throughout the series, or at least in the episodes I’ve watched so far, one of the protagonists — FBI agent Fox Mulder (played by David Duchovny) — frequently expresses his desire/ambition to “believe.” He does so both verbally and through his actions. Mulder even has a poster hanging prominently in his office that depicts a hovering UFO or alien spaceship, with bold letters proclaiming “I Want to Believe.” The slogan appears to be intended by the creators of “X-Files” to serve as a quick description of what motivates this particular character to engage in a relentless, even obsessive, struggle to track down aliens, observe paranormal phenomena, and expose government conspiracies designed to cover up the first two — even at the cost of endangering his life.

The question I want to explore concerns the value of adopting “I Want to Believe” as one’s goal or purpose in life —  something akin to what Stephen Covey calls a “personal mission statement.” The slogan appears to suggest that believing is some sort of virtue that ought to be cultivated for its own sake, that it is something all of us (or at least the noblest and the most ambitious among us) should aim for. The assumption is that the vast majority of us don’t believe —  most of us are either inherently incapable of believing or we have recently lost the ability to believe; and this general lack of belief is precisely what makes Mulder a lone warrior, a “cry in the wilderness” type of prophetic figure, who insists on continuing to believe even when the evidence is either scanty or ambiguous. What makes him a hero is that he goes on believing in extreme possibilities despite all the pressures of a skeptical culture and despite all the eye-rolling of his partner Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson). And yet, Mulder seems to be fully aware of the difficulties involved in maintaining a practical commitment to his beliefs, as there are powerful forces attempting to discredit his theories and findings. Given that he regularly comes up with hypotheses that are too fantastic from the viewpoint of his peers, Mulder needs all the support he can get in order to persevere in following his hunches. Since that support is hard to come by from other people, the poster in his office appears to function as a surrogate. Presumably, the poster is a constant reminder of what his life’s purpose is supposed to be, a reminder that he must take his own hypotheses seriously even if they appear silly or unscientific to everyone around him.

To keep one’s commitment to believe intact in the face of opposition and ridicule clearly represents an act of exceptional courage. Either that, or it is a sign of delusional schizophrenia. There is a fine line separating genius from madness, a line that is far too easy to cross. Because of the possibility that one may have lost one’s mind, to believe against the collective pressure of society is to take a tremendous risk. There is safety in believing what everyone else believes and denying what everyone else denies. More than safety, there is considerable wisdom in accepting what has become established as true after centuries or millennia of collective human experience; there is, after all, no need to reinvent the wheel. At the same time, there are occasions when it is worth going out on a limb — when it is worth believing and proclaiming a truth that is neither commonly acceptable nor currently provable — simply because one has an intuitive sense of having caught a glimpse of some aspect of truth. But then again, one’s own sense of confidence that one sees what others can’t or won’t see is no guarantee that one isn’t delusional. There is no dearth of highly confident individuals in mental asylums, folks who are absolutely convinced of the truth of whatever they happen to believe. While risking one’s position in society for the sake of one’s convictions is very often the cause of real human progress, a complete lack of doubt in one’s own private thoughts reveals a deficiency in self-awareness and cannot be a very healthy condition. Some form of objective, external confirmation of one’s hunches or visions is therefore necessary for gaining a relative assurance that one’s feet are firmly planted on this side of the genius-madness boundary.

Assuming that one hasn’t gone crazy, it is no doubt highly noble to maintain one’s commitment to believe what one personally knows to be true, especially when that commitment doesn’t provide any obvious, material advantage but is actually detrimental to one’s social status and approval ratings. In other words, believing what’s true is a virtuous act, especially when performed in the face of opposition or ridicule. But this raises the possibility that one can also believe what isn’t true—one may believe what’s actually false. Clearly, believing what’s false may or may not be a vice, but it cannot be a virtue. It follows that there is nothing noble or virtuous in believing as such.

In everyday English, believe means (1) to have confidence or trust in a person; (2) to give intellectual assent to, or accept the truth or accuracy of, a statement, doctrine, etc. The dictionary doesn’t say that in order to believe one must be justified in one’s convictions, or that one’s convictions must, in fact, be true. The concept of truth is not part of the concept of belief. All people—including delusional schizophrenics—do believe something. The really interesting issue therefore is not the fact of belief but the content of belief. It is a trivial point that people believe; the non-trivial question concerns what they believe, and whether or not what they believe is, in fact, true.

At first sight, the slogan “I Want to Believe” appears to be incomplete, for it lacks an object for the main verb. If the slogan is taken out of its narrative context and presented before a group of people unfamiliar with the television series, they would probably wonder about the missing object—“believe what?” Of course, this is not a problem for the audience of “The X-Files.” They are fully aware that, within the mythology of the series, the kinds of statements and reports that people find incredible concerns extraterrestrial aliens, paranormal phenomena, and government conspiracies, and that these are most likely the sort of things that Mulder “wants to believe.” Indeed, the “The X-Files” mythology never suggests that there has been any decline in the human ability to believe as such; rather, the decline is only in the human ability to believe certain kinds of statements and reports, and in their ability to give credence to certain kinds of interpretations of observed events or data. It is in the face of this very specific sort of incredulity that Fox Mulder wishes to believe otherwise.

I would like to emphasize that believing as such is not a virtue, partly because everyone believes something just by being human and partly because of the possibility of believing what’s false; and that only believing what’s true can properly be seen as virtuous, especially when a person goes on believing despite facing opposition and ridicule. People who are delusional—as well as those who are confused, mistaken, uninformed, misinformed, brainwashed, deceived, and so on—can be extremely certain and steadfast in their beliefs; they may be so convinced that they are willing to kill other people or sacrifice their own lives. Yet, no one thinks of their commitment to whatever they believe as particularly virtuous. It seems that people do not associate virtue with belief unless they are convinced that the belief in question is, in fact, true. This seems to suggest that humanity, in general, does not have a high regard for believing as such, but only for believing in a truth—especially an unpopular truth. For all practical purposes, what matters is judgments like these is people’s perception of whether something is true or false; they would respect a person’s commitment to what they take to be true and not what they take to be false. Leaving aside the epistemological question, it seems to me that this is indeed the right attitude.

Let’s return to the poster in Fox Mulder’s office that says “I Want to Believe.” What kind of believing does this slogan advocate? When the slogan is taken out of context, it seems to suggest believing as such, without any reference to the content of what is to be believed. But we have seen that the absent object in the sentence “I Want to Believe” is not really missing, for it is implied by the overall mythology of “The X-Files.” Apparently, the slogan refers to believing in the plausibility of particular kinds of scenarios — scenarios that are likely to be seen by the mainstream of society as having little or no probability of being real.

The wanting part is obvious, for Mulder approaches every perplexing situation with a strong bias towards the most fantastic and least probable hypothesis, and is visibly disappointed whenever a mundane explanation wins out (which is relatively rare). He is not open-minded, in the sense of someone who is receptive to all possibilities. For this reason, and as Scully keeps bringing it to his attention, Mulder demonstrates a tendency to pick and choose only that evidence which suits his pet hypothesis in any given case, revealing the depth of his commitment to believe. In real life, this tendency will be normally seen as a violation of the scientific spirit; within the narrative framework of “The X-Files,” however, it is depicted as Mulder’s extraordinary ability to identify the most relevant clues in a given case.

Every now and then, it appears that Mulder’s issue is not believing per se; rather, it is finding concrete evidence for what he already believes intuitively. In this respect, he is not all that different from most of us, including scientists. Yet, the fact remains that in real life intuition can both guide and misguide, depending on how it is interpreted.

At the same time, the poster in Mulder’s office proclaims believing to be the object of his heart’s desire, rather than confirming his beliefs. If he already believes, what’s the point of saying that he wants to believe? Or is the poster referring to the degree or intensity of his belief? It would seem that Mulder’s belief in extreme possibilities is rather fragile, always about to fall apart, and so he constantly needs reassurances in the form of concrete evidence; what he really wants to believe is that he has not invested his life in pursuit of something illusory. He constantly needs, from this perspective, external validation that he is not living a meaningless life.

At another level, however, what is not always clear is why Mulder wants to believe. Whether one has a hunch or one is in doubt, in either case it is worthwhile to inquire and investigate until one discovers the truth of the matter. But finding or figuring out what’s true is not the same thing as believing whatever one wants to believe. Isn’t finding out the truth better than proving one’s beliefs? Take, for instance, the issue of extraterrestrial aliens visiting the earth and abducting humans for experiments, a theme that “The X-Files” writers find particularly attractive. In fact, alien abduction is a pivotal theme for the entire series. Depending on the viewpoint of a given character and the specific narrative frame of a given episode, this scenario can be either true or false. But regardless of whether or not alien abduction turns out to be factual within a specific context, it seems to me that trying to cultivate a belief in its factuality would be a pretty useless enterprise. Whenever I see the poster, I want to give Mulder a piece of my mind: You should be aiming at knowing, Mr. Mulder, not believing.

What is intriguing is that he does know. The FBI agent is fully aware that extraterrestrial aliens have been abducting humans for experiments, and he knows this on the basis of his own countless experiences and encounters. At a personal level, he has no reason to doubt that alien abduction is a factual phenomenon. Since he knows that the scenario is true, what he clearly needs to do is to demonstrate its factuality before the wider public, thereby defeating the government conspiracy to keep this a secret. And this is precisely what motivates him in episode after episode of “The X-Files.” Given that Mulder knows, I am troubled by the poster in his office that says “I Want to Believe.” For if Mulder truly knows, I don’t understand why he still wants to believe.

In an earlier post on “Faith and Belief,” I quoted Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s observation that, in contemporary English usage, the word “belief” is frequently used in a way that implies its sharp contrast with respect to the word “knowledge.” Generally speaking, when people say “I believe” they’re indicating that (1) they are not completely sure, and/or that (2) there is legitimate room for disagreement. On the other hand, when people are completely sure that what they believe is true, so much so that no rational and informed person could possibly disagree, they would simply say it in a matter-of-fact fashion, without bothering to preface it with “I believe.” Thus, it makes a great deal of difference whether a person says “It is raining” or “I believe it is raining.” The former sentence implies, but usually does not include, the phrase “I know.”

In everyday English usage (as opposed to academic language), a tenacious belief does not attain the status of knowledge unless it happens to be true. A wrong belief, no matter how firmly or confidently held, can be seen as a mistake, a confusion, a misunderstanding, etc., but it is never seen as knowledge. In other words, knowledge is not simply a belief about which a person is completely sure. In addition to subjective certitude on the part of the believer, the belief itself must be objectively true for it to qualify as a piece of knowledge. (How do we know that a belief is true is besides the point.) Consider the following examples, slightly modified from Smith.

The above examples demonstrate the following features of beliefs: (1) beliefs can be true or false, (2) a person can be certain or uncertain about the truth of a given belief, and (3) a belief amounts to knowledge only when it fulfills two conditions, i.e., subjective certitude and objective truth. Out of the four statements, Smith contends that only the last one, “I know that Washington DC is the capital of the United States,” would qualify as knowledge.

These simple observations lead us to the following axiom: The more we know, the less we believe. Or, as knowledge expands, beliefs shrink.

What, then, is the value of the slogan “I Want to Believe” as a personal mission statement? Not a great deal, I would say. Since the word “believe” usually implies a feeling of uncertainty, and since even a strong feeling of confidence does not guarantee that a given belief is objectively true, it seems to me that knowing is a much higher goal to pursue than mere believing.

I would like to see Mulder’s poster proclaiming a different goal: “I want to know.”

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In the previous post, I briefly discussed the contemporary meaning of the word belief. As Wilfred Cantwell Smith notes, the modern sense of believing essentially involves “the holding of certain ideas” in one’s mind. Furthermore, Smith shows that the modern usage of the word believing assumes and implies that it is some thing very different from what is normally called knowing.
According to Smith:
Modern “believing” . . . is placed in relation to, contra-distinction from, knowing. Let us consider this briefly, for everyday usage. For the man in the street, may we not say that knowledge involves two things: (a) certitude, and (b) correctness, in what one knows. To use quite unsophisticated terms, in ordinary parlance one knows whatever one knows when there is a close positive relation of one’s ideas both to the inner conviction and to objective truth. At this same level . . . there is the common-sense notion of believing. This is similar to knowing in that it is thought of as conceptualist, as in the realm of ideas in one’s mind (even, of propositions). It differs from knowing in that it involves one or other of again two things, and perhaps both: (a) lack of certitude; (b) open neutrality as to the correctness or otherwise of what is believed. (p. 35)

Notice that Smith is not presenting a philosophical analysis of the metaphysics of belief and knowledge. He is, on the contrary, telling us how these words are actually used by contemporary English speakers.

We can appreciate Smith’s insight by performing a simple exercise. Take any proposition and add the phrase “I believe” at the beginning; then say the sentences out loud and notice how the meaning changes. For instance: “Today is November 6” is a simple proposition, but “I believe today is November 6” contains rather significant elements of uncertainty on the part of the speaker, an acknowledgement of the possibility of error, and an openness to alternative possibilities. The first sentence is an expression of knowledge; one is saying what one knows to be true. The second sentence is an expression of belief; one is saying what one believes to be true. Even though the first sentence does not actually begin with “I know,” this phrase is tacitly implied due to the very straightforward and matter-of-fact structure of the sentence. When I am completely sure about something, I just say it without any qualifications; but when I am not completely sure, I qualify my proposition with “I believe.”

But what is Smith’s larger point? What is the purpose of all this linguistic hairsplitting? As suggested earlier, the modern meaning of belief is in sharp contrast to its premodern meaning. Smith wants us to appreciate how a disregard for this difference has contributed to a serious misunderstanding of the nature of religion and religious life.

Consider the question “Do you believe in God?” Given that the modern sense of the word “believe” involves the holding of certain ideas in one’s mind, the question seems to suggest the following sense: “Do you hold the idea of God in your mind?” Or, alternatively, “Do you think there is a God?” Either way, since belief is understood as a habit of thought, believing in God appears to be a matter of keeping a particular thought in one’s mind, viz., the idea that God exists.

Consider now the premodern meaning of belief. The word belief is derived from a West Germanic root which meant keeping something or someone in high esteem, to hold dear, to love. In effect, “to believe” used to mean “to belove.” The verb “belove” is now obsolete in the English language, having been replaced by “love,” though the past participle “beloved” is still in use. Simply put, the word belief originally meant love or endearment.

Notice the difference this makes. Today, believing is seen as a matter of having a particular thought, which is a mental activity. Before the seventeenth century, believing was understood as a matter of having a relationship, which is the activity of the whole person as well as a person’s state of being. In the premodern period, therefore, the question “Do you believe in God?” would have meant something like “Do you love God?” Or, alternatively, “Do you live a life of devotion and service to God?” The contrast between the two meanings is hardly trivial.

With this background, we can also appreciate that while the modern usage of the word belief suggests a significant distinction between believing and knowing, this was not the case in the premodern period. Since belief was understood in terms of love and loyalty, the issue of the existence or non-existence of God was irrelevant to the notion of belief. This is because the question “Do you love God?” has nothing to do with whether or not God actually exists; to ask about one’s relationship with God already presupposes God’s reality.

The shift from the premodern to the modern meaning of the word belief did not occur overnight; instead, it took place very gradually over a couple of centuries. But now that it has occurred, we can appreciate the rather stark difference between the two meanings by putting them together side by side. Smith writes:

The long-range transformation may be characterized perhaps most dramatically thus. There was a time when “I believe” as a ceremonial declaration of faith meant, and was heard as meaning: “Given the reality of God, as a fact of the universe, I hereby proclaim that I align my life accordingly, pledging love and loyalty.” A statement about a person’s believing has now come to mean, rather, something of this sort: “Given the uncertainty of God, as a fact of modern life, so-and-so reports that the idea of God is part of the furniture of his mind.”

In light of this quote, the main distinctions between the premodern and the modern meanings of the word belief (in relation to God) can be summed up as follows: (1) In the premodern period, the reality of God was accepted as self-evident; it was a presupposition that most people took for granted and never questioned. (2) In the modern period, it is no longer possible for most people to accept the reality of God as a self-evident fact; instead, it has become an open question that is to be argued about, contested, and debated.

In effect, belief no longer means love, loyalty, devotion, and service; instead, it simply means a thought in the head, especially a thought about which one is not entirely sure.

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In his book Faith and Belief (1979), the Canadian scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith analyzes these two terms from a variety of angles, including the history of their usage. Smith notes that many people use the words faith and belief in a more or less interchangeable manner, as if they were synonyms; yet, the two words have very different meanings in contemporary English.

Smith shows that the confusion surrounding these words has resulted from the fact that before the seventeenth century these words did carry rather similar or at least overlapping meanings, but that over the last three hundred years or so their meanings have undergone a gradual but very important divergence. Even though the modern meanings of faith and belief are quite different, some of us are either not fully cognizant of this difference or for some reason prefer to use them in their premodern sense, especially when speaking in a religious context. The resulting ambiguity has contributed to a major misunderstanding of the nature of religion.

Let’s begin with the word belief. In modern usage, Smith says, believing “is the holding of certain ideas” and, as such, represents “an activity of the mind.” At this basic level of denotation, the question of certainty or truth does not arise.

What does it mean to hold an idea in the mind? Upon introspection, we can easily notice that our mental life is always in a state of flux. Thoughts appear in the mind, give rise to other thoughts, and then disappear. The process, however, is not random. Whether or not we are consciously aware of them, certain thoughts tend to occur repeatedly over an extended period of time, until they establish themselves as tracks or pathways in the mind. These, in turn, form mental patterns along which most of our everyday thinking tends to flow. This suggests that while our mental world does not remain static from one moment to the next, in the long-run it does develop certain patterns that may be described as stable, if not permanent. With sufficient introspective skill, we can learn to notice these patterns, though it takes extraordinary effort to recognize the subconscious thoughts that are responsible for creating these patterns in the first place.

Insofar as our habitual patterns of thought allow themselves to be articulated as ideas, we may call them beliefs. In other words, a belief is an idea that we hold in our mind over an extended period of time. It is essentially a thought in the head, though a relatively stable one.

In addition to the denotative meaning of belief as an idea held in the mind, Smith demonstrates that the contemporary usage of this word suggests two significant connotations. When these connotations are taken into account, it becomes clear that the modern meaning of the word belief represents a concept that is in opposition to what most people think of knowledge. According to Smith, the commonsense meaning of the word knowledge involves both certitude and correctness, neither of which is part of the commonsense meaning of belief.

Consider the impression we convey when we start a sentence with “I believe,” as opposed to “I know.” In the former case, the speaker implies a lack of full confidence in what he/she is about to assert, while allowing that the audience has every right to disagree. In the latter case, the speaker is not only completely sure but also assumes that the truth of what he/she is about to assert should be obvious to other people. According to Smith, the phrase “I believe” is intended to give the impression of an “open neutrality as to the correctness or otherwise of what is believed.”

To reiterate, when I begin a sentence with “I believe,” I am implying one or both of the following qualifications: (1) this is my current opinion or position, but I may be wrong and I may change my mind in the future; (2) I am okay with the fact that there are many people who do not share my views, since the issue is open to multiple interpretations.

We should also keep in mind that the phrase “I know” is often left unsaid; for the very absence of “I believe” frequently implies “I know,” even when the latter phrase is not actually uttered. For example, notice the difference between “I believe it is raining” and “It is raining.” In the latter sentence, “I know” is tacitly implied.

To appreciate the significance of the difference between “I believe” and “I know,” consider the famous exchange between the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung and a BBC reporter that took place during an interview in 1959. John Freeman, the interviewer, asked: “Dr. Jung, do you believe in God?” Jung said: “Believe? I don’t need to believe — I know.”

This exchange nicely illustrates what Smith means when he emphasizes the modern distinction between believing and knowing. When faced with the question “Do you believe in God?” most people are likely to respond with “yes,” “no,” or “may be.” A philosopher or theologian may demand that the word “God” is defined before they can give an answer. Carl Jung, however, recognized that the most problematic word in the question was not “God” but rather “believe.” In effect, Jung gave an answer that offered much more than what the interviewer had asked (or hoped) for. Jung said, essentially, that we “believe” only when we do not “know,” and that if we “know” then there is no need for us to “believe.” What is called believing is merely an inferior substitute for those who don’t (or not yet) have the real thing, i.e., knowing.

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