Believing is superfluous

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.

  1. The religious Right has made faith a criterion of truth, such that ‘I believe’ means a commitment to vouch for a truth the believer wants you to accept. Belief in Darwin’s theories is said to be equivalent to belief in God and immortality. Perhaps that may account for many reactions to any discussion of “belief” in the contemporary world. To ‘believe’ in this fashion is meant to convey authority to any proposition, and makes you a member of a camp.

    • You are completely right, Albert, and it is that kind of usage that also has confused me a lot, since it seems insincerity cloacked in sincerity. That is why I say (and am convinced of it too) that a religious person does not have to believe in God to be able to pray or try to live a good life. Nor does a scientist has to believe in, say, electricity, to study it or develop technologies to work with it.

  2. Lee said:

    In one way, I agree with the thrust of your thesis here. Swedenborg states that the highest angels do not use the word “faith,” but simply speak of truth. When confronted with some statement, they don’t debate it. They simply say, “That is true” or, “That is not true.” Or more simply, they say only “yes” or “no.” That is because they have direct experience and perception of the realities of things. So “having faith” or “believing” are nonsensical notions to them.

    However, lower angels do commonly discuss and debate whether things are or are not true, and they do speak of “faith” and “belief.” That is because they do not have such a clear perception of reality, and even their experience of things tends to be more indirect, and even second-hand.

    It seems to me that there is a place for both perspectives.

    One simply takes life as it comes, and perceives reality as it is, to the extent of our capacity to experience and accurately perceive reality.

    The other makes suppositions and posits theories of which we are not entirely certain, and then discusses and debates them, and tests them against reality.

    In short, I see room both for the position that belief is meaningful and useful and for the position that it is neither meaningful nor useful.

    • Thanks, Lee, for another thoughtful comment inspired by your study of Swedenborg. I have been reading in his work lately as I was writing an article (in German) on James, Kant and Swedenborg. I am convinced that he greatly influenced the thoughts of Kant, although this does not mean that Kant took over his ideas, he developed his own in reaction to him. It might be interesting if someone (anyone out there looking for a PhD subject?) researched how Kants ideas on reason and autonomy related to what Swedenborg wrote on this subject…

      As to the believing and doubting – reading more comments to my post I would add: doubting and believing is something we do all the time, but it concerns ideas and theories – our own human conceptions of things. Someone or something with which I am in a relationship is not an idea or a theory. Agreed?

      • Lee said:

        Hi Angela,

        Whenever you finish your paper, I’d suggest sending a copy of it to the Swedenborg Foundation in West Chester, PA, and perhaps to the Swedenborgian House of Studies in Berkeley, CA. They might have an interest in your researches and conclusions.

        Quite a lot has been written about Kant and Swedenborg, and also about James and Swedenborg. Some of the more recent writing can be found in Studia Swedenborgiana, the scholarly journal of the Swedenborgian House of Studies, formerly edited by my father. You can find a searchable version of Studia Swedenborgiana here:

        You may find some articles of interest to you in your own researches.

      • Lee said:

        Hi Angela,

        You say, “Someone or something with which I am in a relationship is not an idea or a theory. Agreed?”

        Honestly, I have to say, “Yes and no.”

        In terms of common sense, of course if I’m in relationship with someone or something, that someone or something must exist. However, reality doesn’t always abide by the rules of common sense.

        There is a school of thought that would not accept your assessment. That school is the solipsistic wing of philosophical idealism. From that perspective, the “other” with which we are in relationship is in fact an idea or a theory in one’s own mind.

        I’m not a solipsist. But there is a weaker version of solipsism that rears its ugly head quite commonly in our relationships with others. It can be especially pronounced in romantic relationships, but can and does exist in many other types of relationships as well.

        What I’m referring to is the phenomenon of our relating, not to the other person or people as they actually are, but relating to them as if they were the person or people we think they are. This causes all sorts of disconnects in many different kinds of relationships. It’s a common case of the “someone or something with which I am in relationship” indeed being “an idea or a theory,” rather than an existing reality.

        So although I want to agree with you, and in general do agree with you, I would not be ready to make a hard and fast, universal statement to that effect. It seems to me that there are gray areas that prevent us from making this too strong and fundamental a principle.

        In the Bible, the classic expression of this gray area of being in relationship with someone (or something) and yet having doubts is found in the context of a story of Jesus healing a boy with an evil spirit found in Mark 9:14-29. In Mark 9:24, the boy’s father says, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

  3. Thanks so much for the link, Lee. I will surely think of getting into contact with the journal about my paper.

    And then, your remarks on the idea of a person are surely right, psychologically – that it sometimes stands in between a person and his real relationship with another. I could say to that of course ‘well, then it is not a real relationship’, and I think you could agree to that too. Levinas stressed that when one does not let another be ‘other’, one sees him not as a person, but as a thing to be manipulated. There is the dynamic, or diachronic perspective again, which I notice so often in your remarks – one should always keep it in mind that we can develop our understanding, and also our relating…

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