My latest post Believing in Existence aroused quite some discussion, the most of which can not be seen here, as it appeared on discussion fora where I posted. This did and did not surprise me. It did for the sense or nonsense of believing in existence is perhaps the most abstract theme I addressed in my blog up till now. It did not, as it relates so strongly to our everyday use of language, and the way we use that language to continually construct our world to make it comfortable, familiar, and fit for doing things in it. The reactions were either philosophical, countering my doubt that we normally ‘believe’ things or persons we are in relation with ‘to exist’. Yes we do, readers reacted. Belief that someone or something exists is the presupposition of being in relation to it. Other reactions were theological, supposing that I had claimed there to be no life after death (as we can only experience the effects a life leaves behind), and answered that we can trust there to be such a life in the knowledge and memorisation of every individual by God.
Well, I started that post by recounting my confusion at the questions that were posed to me about my belief in the existence of ghosts. I also sometimes get the question whether I believe that God exists, a question that confuses me similarly, as I also think ‘believing in existence’ misses the mark when it comes to being or not being in relation with God. As the comments that came to me after writing my post just tended to confuse me a bit more I wondered how to repair an apparent break in communication. I decided to return to the theme, now focussing especially on the question of believing.
In my adult life I never liked the way the word believing is used. When I was a rather devout church-going teenager I perhaps used it without much reflection, but after having had my philosophical training I understood that I used it back then in a way that is entirely different from the common public use – which is much influenced by modern epistemology. Before modernity, believing was not a problematic thing – it meant that you trusted something or someone to behave in a certain way. The concept denoted that you actually surrender to this thing or person without any distrust or doubt. You would care for it or him/her, sustain it/him/her, and expect it/him/her to behave according to it’s/his/her known unique or common essence.
This all changed when trust became existential, in modern times, as exemplified in the famous doubt by Descartes regarding the existence of everything. The only really trustworthy thing – with regard to existence – remained cogito ergo sum: I think, or I doubt, therefore I am. From that time on the rest of all existence came under the suspicion that it had to be confirmed by belief. And that changed the meaning of ‘believing’. Had it referred before to trust and surrender, it now expressed rather distance and having preservations. Now it expressed something like thinking: allright, I believe things and persons to exist, but in the end only because I can rely on the certainty of my doubting ability. The Cartesian way to see things of course went along well with the curious attitude of modern science, the ‘I do not believe anything untill I can measure it’. It is to me a completely strange view where living relations are concerned. When I interact with something or someone (be it my food which I prepare, my child which I help with something, or my God which I turn to in despair) there is no point in doubting it’s/his/her existence, and therefore it would be silly to state my belief in their existence. William James suggested that, in religious matters, doubt is a sign of a depressed soul. It is even more so when one starts doubting the existence of one’s children, or of one’s bread. And my point is that when one expresses one’s belief that they are, one has already implicitly admitted one’s doubt to that regard.
While I interact with the world, doubting it’s existence is nonsensical, and so believing in it is superfluous. Just this morning I watched the Dalai Lama on television, explaing Buddhist philosophy like this: we cannot reach absolute certainty, and nihilism is to be avoided – everything is relative. There are facts, but they are relative. The joyful feeling that I understood what he was saying came over me, as William James’ idea of the ‘strung-along’ universe came in my mind. We cannot find an absolute foundation for our knowledge, but this does not have to lead us to doubting it. It is strung along, shows enough coherence for us to act upon it. We do not have to believe anything, as our experience is enough.