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Ways of Believing

May 23, 2012

When I ask what is true, I am implicitly asking of what it is that I might be convinced. In so far as I see myself as part of a community, I must shift that first person singular to the first person plural. Of what can we be convinced? To discover this, to discover what is true, we must spread ourselves out across possible beliefs, adopting a diversity of beliefs, taking varying degrees of risk in terms of our divergence from current understanding. Since Adam Smith, we have understood that the future wealth of a nation is best served by an amorphous network of competing and cooperating individuals all with different ideas of how present wealth should be allocated. And at least since Thomas Kuhn, we have understood that acquisition of scientific knowledge is best served by different scientists responding to current evidence in a diversity of ways, some more rebellious, some more traditional. But somehow, outside of science, in deciding what is true we feel forced to choose between a rigid absolutism and a flimsy subjectivism. This is most adamantly insisted upon by those who are terrified of being convinced of anything they don’t already believe. The middle that this dichotomy would exclude us from is truth as an ecosystem. Life does not come to the world by the world having a rigid formula for what life is, nor by responding to all life on equal terms.

Just as life is served by different species taking on certain broad roles in their relationship to the ultimate source of their energy (the sun), so too is truth served by different broad types of belief. There seem to be three such basic types, all inter-dependent with one another.

Visionary belief: All understanding begins as an act of imagination, corresponding to the idea of intellectus in medieval philosophy, and the concept of divergent intelligence in contemporary psychology. Though ultimately constrained by the most rigid of rules, even in mathematics all conjecture and definition begins as an act of metaphor or metonymy (see Filosofia e Matematica by Carlo Cellucci). How we choose between visions depends upon the domain, and these domains can be roughly organized by how formalized and externalized these choices have become. In programming, the rules have taken physical manifestation in the form of the computer, and the validity of a program is determined by how it rides the rails of that machine. At the other extreme is poetry, where the reading of a work at a particular time by a particular reader is its proof or disproof. A visionary might like to command the world with the power of her vision, but a vision is a system of figures, and like all rhetoric, it is as likely to lead us as we are to lead with it. If language is a mobile army of metaphors, it is one no human can truly command.

Minimalist belief: Corresponding to the idea of ratio in medieval philosophy, the minimalist is a skeptic who accepts the least amount needed to survive. Minimalism holds on to Occam’s razor or any of its variants. In epistemology, it has converged upon science. In morality, it tends toward some form of utilitarianism. Its most precise manifestation is as Computational Statistics, where we see clearly the inevitability of our dependence on assumptions – how do we decide whether a model is more or less complex? Minimalism consumes vision, and too often we dismiss vision that isn’t of immediate use to minimalism as being of no use at all. This is especially true today, when we are drunk on the recent and important successes of science. With minimalism, we maximize are ability to anticipate the world, and therefore are ability fulfill desire. But our desires will be quite bland if accurate predictions is all we let our imaginations keep. Even if one does believe that ultimately the only valid form of belief is minimalist, the history of science demonstrates that the most radical progress in science has often relied on beliefs that were for decades, centuries, or millennia not empirically grounded but mere speculation – mere vision. Perhaps the most disconcerting for such dogmatists is the cascade of influences that leaves Bacon and Descartes in Homer’s debt. Anyone dedicated to the long-term success of science must be committed to the present endorsement of non-scientific beliefs.

Pluralistic belief: If minimalism is a kind of intersection operator, then pluralism is a union operator. The pluralist struggles to make our diversity of beliefs mutually intelligible and appreciable. The constant danger is that the possibility for authentic experiences of different beliefs will disappear when they come in contact with each other, and more frightening still, we won’t even realize this has happened. Some (like Richard Rorty) believe this necessarily will happen; vocabularies are either identical or incompatible. I’m far more optimistic, and that is precisely the position I’m trying to argue against. Pluralism is what all historians and critics must fight for. To the extent that there is an allegiance to a particular vision, the critic’s work is reduced to propaganda or mimesis. In the Common Era, what wonderful cultural innovation has come about by the constant variety of attempts to synthesis different aspects of the very different Greek and Hebrew traditions. And again, a pluralistic attitude is often what a science needs to progress, as when a problem is ultimately resolved not by choosing between two competing models but discovering some way of framing them in a compatible way.

If we’re convinced of the importance of a diversity of beliefs, the question that remains is what should our attitude be toward someone who disagrees with us. Among our many options are friendly competition, moral outrage, and avoidance. The answer will depend on the domain and our objectives. Certainly (certainly), we will need to begin from a basic set of universal ethical principles in order for culture to thrive. This is analogous to certain constants in the environment of all life forms – the same earth going around the same sun in the same way, year after year.


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