An intriguing problem in philosophy is the question “Why do we believe?” And then I don’t mean “believe” in a religious sense but in a psychological sense, for instance as it is worded in the Wikipedia as “the state of mind in which a person thinks something to be the case with or without there being empirical evidence to prove that something is the case with factual certainty”.
Many philosophers think that we have no reasons to believe our beliefs. Of course, we may produce reasons why we believe that something is the case, but finally such reasons are mere justifications. In the end we believe without having reasons for it: we just believe. Wittgenstein said it this way in his On certainty:
“173. Is it maybe in my power what I believe? or what I unshakeably believe?
I believe that there is a chair over there. Can’t I be wrong? But, can I believe that I am wrong? Or can I so much as bring it under consideration? – And mightn’t I also hold fast to my belief whatever I learned later on?! But is my belief then grounded?
174. I act with complete certainty. But this certainty is my own.
175. ‘I know it’ I say to someone else; and here there is a justification. But there is none for my belief.”
As Wittgenstein puts it: There is no justification for a belief. Even empirical facts cannot give it. Take the picture at the top of this blog. It’s the well-known Müller-Lyer Illusion. Someone who doesn’t know it will believe that the line on the top is shorter than the line under, while actually the lines have the same length. I can say to him: “Take a ruler and measure it”. But he replies: “I have done it but a devil makes my ruler longer each time I measure the line below. That’s why it looks as if both lines have the same length.” What then? I believe that there are no devils and that his ruler is reliable, but I cannot prove that his belief is false. Each “proof” by me can be “falsified” by another belief. It will not be difficult to construct a false belief, and if you believe it, you believe it. And why shouldn’t there be a deceiving devil that steers our beliefs? Until Descartes reasoned that his existence cannot be denied by such a devil and until Spinoza implicitly reasoned against the existence of gods that steer our lives, almost everybody in the world believed that nonhuman beings have a big impact on how we live and what we think. Despite many false beliefs man successfully survived more than three million years and led a happy or less happy life.
According to Andrew Newbert, this is the matter (as discussed by Jackson Preston King in an article; see “sources” below).The world around us is very complicated and very extended. We can know only a fraction of it, even if studying the world would be our main task. To quote from King’s article: “An individual person, living in a specific physical location on the earth, will never in the course of a lifetime encounter 99% or more of all the information and/or experience that is available on just this one tiny planet. We won’t read all the books. We won’t visit all the places. We won’t meet all the people. Most of the animal species on earth we won’t even see a picture of in our lifetimes, let alone witness in person.” Therefore, the only option we have is to construct images in our minds of how the world might be, based on our limited knowledge. We do this by forming beliefs and structures (“schemas”) of beliefs. Then such beliefs and schemas of structured beliefs help us to find our way in the world and to act: “Dr. Newberg’s explanation is that navigating the limited piece of physical reality we encounter in life, and remaining mentally and emotionally secure enough to survive, find mates, and propagate the species, requires an unquestioning, and when you think about it, strikingly unreasonable confidence in ourselves and in the world. Since full awareness of reality as-it-is was not an option for our ancient ancestors (as the overwhelm caused by so much data would have diminished, rather than enhanced, their chances of survival), evolution equipped them – and, as their descendants, us too – with brains capable of generating a convincing illusion of the reality of our own small words.” (ibid.) That’s why we have beliefs. They are like beacons in the sea that guide the ships passing by. Even if a beacon is on the wrong place or has gone adrift, it may hold its function, especially when we don’t know that it will lead us astray (which may be the cause of many problems). Without beacons we feel lost and so we construct them then in our minds – if necessary as illusions. Happily, enough of our beliefs are okay in the sense that they help us lead a life that avoids most obstacles.
We believe because our knowledge fails and because we need to act anyway. Fortunately most of our beliefs – correct or not – are effective and useful guides, and so, as Wittgenstein said “I act with complete certainty. But this certainty is my own.”
- “Belief” in Wikipedia, (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belief )
- King, Jack Preston, “Why Do We Believe Anything, Anyway?”, https://medium.com/@beyondtherobot/why-do-we-believe-anything-anyway-cbbceb5f8130- Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, http://prawfsblawg.blogs.com/files/wittgenstein-on-certainty.pdf