A System Of Beliefs Essay, Research Paper
By D.C. Burch
Before I can go on to lay out the foundations of my belief system, I think it would be helpful to shed some light on the playing field in which these ideas are to be considered. This playing field is constructed of words and statements, of course, but the precise meaning of “words” and “statements” is often left unclear. I will begin by defining these things as I intend to use them. I will also make a cursury attempt to explain the different types of statements we will encounter, the importance of falsifiablity and the role of faith, in addition to a smattering of other definitions that will become important as we proceed.
The ultimate building blocks of any philosophical system are statements. A statement is an attempt to communicate that which is true (or perceived to be true) through the symbolic code (words) of a language.
All symbols are, of course, inherently limited. There exist various properties in a symbol’s object of reference which cannot be contained within the symbol itself. An obvious example of this is the property of real existence. We may discuss in detail the various properties of a horse and of a unicorn. Considered only from a linguistic standpoint, a horse and unicorn can be assumed to be virtually synonymous. However, the object of the symbol horse possesses the property of real existence while the object of the symbol unicorn does not. The word/symbol horse, though, cannot convey this property because it cannot be contained by the symbol. True knowledge of this property can only be obtained by finding a real horse and touching it, riding it, getting to know it.
The consequence of this is the understanding that there exist incommunicable properties of all real objects. These incommunicable properties are no less real than their communicable counterparts. They simply cannot be conveyed by symbols. Knowledge of these properties can only be obtained by direct experience with the object itself. These properties will hereafter be referred to as existential properties.
Please note, however, that acknowledgment of such existential properties does not negate the reality or real importance of those properties which can be contained and conveyed by the object’s symbol. All real objects contain both communicable and existential properties and to disparage consideration of either category is to limit the degree to which we can understand the nature of such objects.
Literal and Analogical Symbolism
Statements will always be either a form of literal symbolism or analogical symbolism. The former occurs when the statement is referring directly to a real object encountered in nature. The latter occurs primarily in religious statements in which the object of reference is a thing outside of nature (supernatural). In such statements we understand that the symbol is drawing a helpful analogy between a natural object and a supernatural object which is neither wholly like, nor wholly unlike the natural object. We understand that, while the two objects are not identical, there are genuine points of similarity. For example, when we say that God is a Father, we do not mean that he is biologically responsible for our existence nor that he is exactly like our own fathers. What we mean is that he is analogous to our fathers in that he is responsible for our existence and that he loves and provides for us in a fashion that is similar to the majority of human fathers.
A Priori vs. Reasonable Statements
Any given statement may be either a priori or reasonable. a prior statements are those statements whose truth value is not dependent on the validity of a logical deduction from other statements. We do not reason to a priori statements. We reason from them. There are no premises which give rise to them. Rather, they are the premises upon which all other deductions are ultimately dependent. Since such statements are not the product of deductive reasoning, their truth value cannot be logically determined. The only method by which we may establish (though never conclusively) the truth value of an a priori statement is by assessing the degree to which reality seems to correspond with valid deductions from such statements.
Reasonable statements, on the other hand, are those statements which are the result of a logical deduction from two or more other statements. These premise statements may be a priori and/or reasonable. The truth value of a reasonable statement is dependent on the validity of the logical deduction and upon the truth value of the premise statements.
At first glance, the unassailability of a priori statements might seem to be a form of intellectual escapism. A closer look, however, will reveal the absolute necessity of admitting such statements. There is no system of thought nor method of inquiry, which does not ultimately find itself confronted by at least one statement that has no more basic premise. If we disallow these statements, then we bereft ourselves of the right to consider any of our conclusions as valid.
However, we should be extremely cautious in positing statements which are a priori. There exist only two categories of a priori statements: mathematical and epistemological (how we know). All other statements are reasonable statements by virtue of the fact that they are ultimately dependent on the premises of our epistemology.
Falsification and Meaningfulness
Any statement which is not a priori must allow for the grounds on which the statement may be proven false, even if such grounds are only theoretical. If the statement is formalized in such a way that no possible grounds for its falsification are conceivable or, if it is formalized in such a way as to disallow consideration of the only conceivable grounds, then the statement is meaningless. This statement about falsification and meaning is a priori and therefore cannot be proven. However, it can be assessed by its correspondence to reality.
“An illustrated book about birds” makes no claim of fact. There is no way to prove it false and it is not meaningful. “I have an illustrated book about birds,” however, provides the grounds on which the statement may be falsified. I might not actually possess such a book. Since the grounds for falsification is carried by the statement itself, the statement has meaning. Meaning is simply another way of saying that the statement has an actual value of truth or falsehood whether that be complete truth, complete falsehood, or some degree of both. “I have an illustrated book about birds that has no visibility or mass” disallows the only grounds by which the statement might be falsified and therefore is not a meaningful statement. All of these examples, of course, do not “prove” the original premise about falsifiability and meaningfulness. They merely show that our experience with reality corresponds to the logical deductions of that premise.
Since mathematical statements do not promise to figure significantly in this little jaunt of mine, I will not devote much time to them. I will say, however, that my decision to accept them as a prior is not without reservation. It seems plausible that all mathematical statements are actually reasonable by virtue of the fact that they are dependent on the truth value of our epistemological statements. At the same time, however, mathematical statements are not products of a chain of logical deductions and on these grounds I admit them as being a priori.
Of much greater interest to me are the a priori statements which compose an epistemology. We are always faced with the rather thorny problem of how to formulate such statements. We must go about the process with an eye towards ensuring that our epistemological statements correspond to observable reality. But to which elements of reality must our statements correspond? For that matter, which elements are actually real and not just imaginary products of our perception? There are no easy answers to such questions, but it is clear that we must have some method of limiting and shaping the a priori statements which serve as the cornerstones of our epistemology.
Limiting A Priori Statements
Descartes pioneered a method of limiting a priori statements which is known as Cartesian Doubt. Descartes, following the rule of Cartesian Doubt, rejected all statements which he did not know to be true beyond any and all doubt. He posited that the resulting few statements would then serve as the foundations for an all-encompasing epistemology. This approach led him to acknowledge that the only thing of which he could be absolutely sure was the existence of the doubt itself. From this he inferred that there must also exist an ego, a self, which could entertain such doubts. This, in turn, gave rise to what is probably the most well-known philosophical statement of all time: “I think, therefore I am.”
The fundamental difficulty with this approach is that we can easily question (or doubt) the validity of Descartes’ inference of a self. If Cartesian Doubt is our litmus test, then we must reject the inference of ego, simply because we can doubt the validity of the inference. So, Cartesian Doubt only allows us to accept the existence of doubt itself. Nothing more. Cartesian Doubt simply does not provide us with an adequate foundation on which to establish an epistemology.
Having turned a critical eye on Cartesian Doubt, I now backtrack a little and say that I think Descartes was headed in the right direction. Descartes’ mistake was simply in insisting on too strict a standard by which to allow for the validity of a priori statements. If nothing is allowed which can be doubted by some insistent skeptic, then we are left with no basis for further progress. Therefore, I advocate a kind of Optimistic Skepticism in which we allow only those things which are absolutely necessary for rational progress.
The approach is skeptical in that it allows as a priori almost nothing about which any doubt exists. It is optimistic in that it recognizes and accepts a few basic a priori statements as valid simply because, for want of a better phrase, they must be true if we are to proceed any further. Admittedly, this is not a terribly satisfying rational for accepting such statements. I do so, however, out of an optimism that we tend to perceive these statements as being “sensible” because our experience with them has given us an awareness of their truth.
These are statements with only one property, i.e. that of real existence, which is incommunicable. (In the case of “things,” real existence refers to physical reality whereas, in the case of “ideas,” real existence means metaphysical truth.) The real existence, or truth, of such statements cannot be communicated by statements, but only attained by direct interaction with the statement itself. In this case, such interaction takes the form of accepting and building upon the a priori statements and thereby coming to know their truth value.
This optimism, which allows us to take the step of beginning an interaction with these statements before their truth value is known absolutely, will be recognized as a kind of faith, a being confident in that which we hope for, but cannot necessarily see our way to logically. If it will be agreed that all a priori statements are ultimately accepted on the basis of this optimism, then it will become clear that faith is an integral part of epistemology.
The Importance of Faith
Faith, contrary to popular opinion, is not intellectual suicide. It is an integral part of the process of knowing. Without the optimism which leads us to begin direct interaction with an object, be it a thing or an idea, we cannot come to know whether this object possesses the property of real existence. I must agree with Anselm who says, “I believe that I may know.” Faith is an act of commitment to an idea and provides the foundation for reflecting on the nature of the idea. If this direct experience shows the idea to be false, then it may be abandoned without further concern. If direct experience, on the other hand, shows the idea to be true, then one can proceed onward with confidence. The function of reason in all this is to grasp and reflect on the nature of the direct experience and, in so doing, determine the truth value of the idea in question. All such definitions of faith and reason are most significant when concerned with metaphysical statements, but they remain fundamentally true in regards to all statements, and, furthermore, in regards to all objects.
Having opened that door, I will now venture into even murkier territory: one thing which Optimistic Skepticism leads me to dispose of is the belief that I can begin with myself and reason outward until I have built a philosophical system which provides the basis for rationally dealing with every aspect of existence.
The assumption that my own reasoning can serve as the foundation for such an all-encompasing philosophy is not necessary for further rational progress. Formalization of this system might well be a process of apprehending something which is real outside myself rather than a process of construction.
Furthermore, since Optimistic Skepticism recognizes the need to accept a priori statements without prior proof, then we have already recognized the importance of foundational elements which have nothing to do with ourselves. We do not create a priori truths, we merely discover them. Our philosophical system, therefore, is founded as much upon these external a priori statements as upon our own reasoning and I become a participant in the process of discovery, rather than a creator of something new.
If I do not begin solely with myself to build a coherent system which provides the basis for understanding and dealing with every aspect of existence, then I am faced with only three options.
First, that such a system is unattainable which will eventually lead to philosophic despair. Second, that the concept of such a system is actually meaningless, because all knowledge is really only a result of direct experience with various particulars of reality. This is an extreme form of existentialism which ignores the real existence of communicable properties and thus limits itself too greatly in my opinion. The third possibility is that such a system is both meaningful and attainable, but only when something more basic than “I” serves as the foundation. Hence, the need to recognize and accept certain a priori truths which owe their existence to something which I cannot prove but must accept on faith if any further progress is to be made.
If “I” were to be the only foundation for a philosophy, then we would have the implicit assumption that everything which I encounter must be derived from myself. I suppose this could be the case, but, if it is so, then I am hard-pressed to explain the myriad of experiences which seem to be contrary to the desires of my self. (Pain, frustration, evil, etc…) No, a far better explanation for such things is that they are real in a way which is independent of me. They are real for the same reasons that I am real. Namely, that the reality of these experiences, or at least the sources of these experiences, and of I myself are dependent on an ultimate ground. This ultimate ground, of course, is independent of its consequents. To cut through this morass of unintelligibility, let us call myself, and all these other things which affect me, nature. That on which nature is dependent for its property of real existence, we will call supernature.
It is only possible to build an all-encompassing philosophical system when we take this supernature as our starting point. To do otherwise is an exercise in futility. If all things do not depend on me for their property of real existence, then it would be foolish to attempt to build any system of thought on myself. Such an attempt would be like trying to build the Empire State Building on men’s shoulders rather than the ground on which the men also must stand.
Of course, we are still faced with the questions about what this supernature is really like, but we will return to this later. For now, let us resume discussion of the a priori statements that must form the basis for an epistemology.
Foundational A Priori Statements
There are four a priori statements which must be true if there is to be any further progress.
1. I exist
2. Truth exists and is independent of me
3. My reason has the ability to deduce truth
4. The nature of truth is correspondence with an original
The real existence, or positive truth value, of these statements, of course, is ultimately dependent on the supernature. Beyond that, their common feature is that they must be true if we are to proceed.
If I do not exist, then my reason does not exist and cannot possibly reveal truth. If all truth were dependent on me, then I could never discover anything but truth and the very concept of truth is negated. If my reason is incapable of deducing truth, then all contemplation is meaningless and cannot serve as the basis for anything, much less a system of knowing.
The fourth statement warrants a little closer attention. If I say “I spoke to Shawn today,” the truth value of the statement is dependent on the actual fact of my having spoken to Shawn that very day. If I did, then the statement has perfect correspondence to the original object and therefore possesses positive truth value.
There is a profound implication in this definition of truth. The implication is this: There exist some statements which are true absolutely, for they are independent of time, place or individual preference. The two statements regarding truth itself listed above are examples. If they are true at all (and they must be if there is to be any further rational progress) then they are always true, for all times, places and individuals. Since the two statements about truth are metaphysical in nature, then we can hardly escape the conclusion that there exist metaphysical truths which are true absolutely. The only quibble is over which truths are absolute and which truths might change over the course of time (i.e. relative). To adhere to a position advocating that all metaphysical truth is relative is clearly absurd. Not the least so because such a claim is only meaningful if it is an absolute in the exact sense which it is denying to be possible.