Friday, January 21, 2005

In Which Yours Truly Sinks Into the Abyss of Definition...

At first, I thought that I would just look into the things people believe and why they believe those things. But, as usually happens, matters are a little more complicated than that. I should have known; after all, the philosophers have gotten hold of knowledge, which includes belief, as a category for inquiry. They even gave this study, as philosophers are prone to do, a ten-dollar name: epistemology. Not to be confused with eschatology which, in Christian theology (and perhaps in other theologies as well), is the study of matters related to the end times. That is a matter of belief, but not related to the study of knowledge or belief. I mention it because, when I was at university, I got those two words confused for the longest time.

Yes, I’m wandering. It’s easy to do when dealing with belief, since almost anything you can think of can be a matter of belief. But wait. There is even a school of thought in philosophy, fueled by neurobiology, called eliminative materialism. This school of thought holds, as I understand it, that consciousness does not really exist at all and that therefore things like belief are illusory. (Thanks to Wikipedia for that.) I’m in the process of tracking down more information on this theory, but it frankly sounds a little bit too reductionistic for my taste.

Be that as it may, I have a habit of starting out a project like this by looking for definitions. When I say I’m interested in looking a belief, for example, I figure it’s a good idea to have some guidelines for the type of thing I’m dealing with. This is especially important in this case, as it turns out, as belief seems to be a fairly elastic concept. From the definitions I’ve seen so far, it seems like there is a sort of hierarchy of knowledge/belief that revolves around how much confidence the individual has in the thing believed. Which in turn is very elastic, as what one person would say is a matter not only of faith, but of blind faith, another person would claim as a matter of sure knowledge. We’re looking at quite a wide gulf between the two, faith and knowledge, sometimes.

Anyway, the progression, as I’ve been able to classify it so far, goes something like this, at least as far as general definitions run: knowledge, opinion, belief, faith.

First, there is knowledge, which The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (New York: The Macmillan Company & The Free Press, 1967) defines as “justified true belief” (vol. 4, p. 345). This definition assumes that knowledge is, indeed, a species of belief. There are apparently some who would argue “that knowledge cannot be a kind of belief…because they exclude each other” (p. 346). According to Anthony Quinton, the author of the Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on “Knowledge and Belief”, this argument is based on a notion that belief implies not knowing. Quinton dismisses this argument as absurd, and I tend to agree. So, I think, it is justified to call knowledge the most secure form of belief. It is a belief that has lots of facts to back it up.

It might be a toss-up as to whether the next level of belief is “opinion” or the general understanding of “belief” itself. The definition of “opinion” in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Eleventh Edition, 2003) differentiates them this way: “Opinion implies a conclusion thought out yet open to dispute….Belief implies often deliberate acceptance and intellectual assent” (p. 870). That sounds to me very much as if opinion implies belief on a more factual basis than belief requires. In fact, the second definition of “opinion” is that an opinion is “a belief stronger than impression and less strong than positive knowledge” (p. 870).

Merriam-Webster defines “belief”, in the first instance, as “a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing” (p. 111). The third definition calls belief a “conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon esp. when based on examination of evidence.” I suppose that the caveat “based on examination of evidence” might be seen as putting opinion and belief on approximately the same footing. On the other hand, it seems to me that “evidence” does not necessarily imply hard fact. I guess I’ll have to look that up, too – but not now. For the moment, I’ll work on the assumption that the progression can legitimately be considered to run with opinion having more bearing of fact behind it than belief has behind it.

This brings us to faith. I think it is fairly clear that faith would rank after belief when ordering the species of knowledge based on how much reliance on proven fact they each imply. As a synonym of belief, Merriam Webster says: “Faith almost always implies certitude even where there is no evidence or proof” (p. 111). That same dictionary’s definitions of “faith” run from “belief and trust in and loyalty to God”, to “firm belief in something for which there is no proof”, to “something that is believed esp. with strong conviction; esp: a system of religious beliefs” (p. 450). There is also something in there about loyalty as a general concept, but that is beyond what is being considered here. That is one of the beauties and frustrations of the English language: one word can have widely different meanings and implications. Aside from that, the point here is that, as a species of belief, faith has the least to do with proven fact. It is also abundantly clear that faith is the species of belief that has the most to do with religion, although it can have much to do with other objects of belief as well.

So, I’ve got a tentative definition of terms that will give me an idea of the sorts of things I want to look at as a part of this project. Thus far, I’ve been trying to avoid too much philosophy. Reading philosophy tends to give me a headache. I doubt I’ll be able to avoid it forever. I just hope that when I do get into it, it won’t confuse me too much. Meanwhile, I’ll just continue to follow up on what I’ve found and will continue to find in light of this hierarchy of belief. At least it gives me a structure to start with. I just wish I didn’t have this fear that someone has already gotten there first and already constructed the same hierarchy. Well, if they have, I’ll find it eventually.


JP said...

Whether or not someone else has already drawn the same conclusions, I look forward to following your new intellectual quest.

'On the other hand, it seems to me that “evidence” does not necessarily imply hard fact. '

Why do you say that? I'm guessing that by 'hard fact' I can assume that you mean recordable, quantifiable facts, rather than hearsay. On the other hand, anecdotal evidence, usually disregarded in studes that have any pretensions to scientific worth, is a form of evidence, too. Perhaps there'a second hierarchy of evidence too?

lma said...

Thanks for bringing that up, JP. That's exactly the kind of thing I hope to encourage on this blog. I can ruminate all I want on this stuff, but it helps to have people comment on and question the ideas I come up with and the conclusions I come to. Like I said in my first post, writing is a lonely business. But sometimes, especially dealing with writing other than fiction, I beleive that the writer - any writer - needs someone, even lots of someones, looking over their shoulder and commenting on stuff. Keeps the writer on her toes.

Perhaps I should have said someting more like "What some people claim as evidence might not necessarily be hard fact." It's like the church I used to attend. On testimony Sunday, one of the most common things people close their testimonies with is the declaration, "I know that Jesus is the Christ, and I know this church is true." But one of the things - one of the main things, in fact - that they use as evidence of this "knowledge" is what they characterize as a "burning in the bosom." Well, they might feel that sensation. That is a "hard fact" to them. But it is very much up in the air what that sensation is evidence of. It might be, as they claim, the Holy Spirit testifying to them that what they believe is true. It also might be last night's pizza coming back to haunt them. I don't mean to sound snarky about that but, at bottom, it is a subjective experience.

Personally, I'm uncomfortable with the idea that anecdotal evidence is considered by some folks to never, ever be of any worth. Perhaps one anecdote standing alone does not count for much in a formal study, but a collection of anecdotes that lead to the same conclusion certainly points to something valid, at least. I've got a book out of the library currently that I haven't read yet, but have seen excerpts from. One of the things the author seems to say in those excerpts is that no one should ever expect their word to be taken for much of anything. Well, yeah, people sometimes stretch the truth, sometimes lie, and sometimes just don't know what they are talking about. But it seems like kind of a bleak existence to never believe anything anyone says.

The use of ancecdotal evidence, of course, is not helpful much in the hard sciences, except perhaps as a starting point in observation. But in the social sciences (another concept that I'm not sure I'm completely comfortable with, but that's another discussion altogether), it seems to me that sometimes anecdote is mostly all there is. Some things just can't be quantified, can't be controlled for, can't be replicated for experimental purpopses.

SquirrleyMojo said...

epistemology is a social contruction based on the negotiations of power; my question would be, how can we ever escape our own epistemologial framework in order to analyze the origins of our knowledge???

lma said...

Actually, Squirrley Mojo, I wouldn't be surprised if it isn't possible. Origins are very difficult things to get to. In the final analysis, we don't know that much about most categories of origins, for example, of the universe, life, civilization, or culture/specific cultures. I'm not sure I even believe in origin events as concrete events in time or space. I tend more to believe that everything happens on a continuum, and that it is very difficult to ever find a hard and fast border between is and isn't. Maybe that's not the best way of explaining it, but that's the best I can do right now.

Anyway, origins aren't what I'm interested in here, really. I'm much more interested in where we are in terms of belief, both singly and as communities of one sort or another, how we got here, and what the practical implications of those beliefs are.

I'm not sure I really answered your question or addressed your concern, but I'm glad you raised this issue. It gives me something interesting to think about, which is always a good thing.

JP said...

I was rather epistemology would come into this - is it naive to ignore all that and merely wade in armed with common sense and, at most, a good dictionary?

JP said...

I was rather _afraid_, that is.

lma said...

It probably is rather naive to jump into all this without a good grounding in epistemology, I suspect. And I'll probably get to that eventually. But I'm going to have to sneak up on it, I think, because very often anything even remotely approaching philosophical theory just pisses me off. Or, maybe it's just the philosophers who irritate me. *grin*

On the other hand, most people construct their personal belief systems without a knowledge of formal epistemology. Maybe that means that there is some way of understanding those belief systems without getting too deeply into it. I guess I'll have to figure all that out as I go. That's half the fun of it.