Just wrote a fun short essay for a Philosophy class about belief in things we can't prove. Just a first draft, but I thought I'd post it here, since I found the subject matter rather interesting.
The Importance of Assured Belief
So much of the human experience is structured around systems of organization that require a firm belief in causes and concepts we will never be able to definitively prove to all people in the most literal sense of the word. Skeptics, cynics, and nihilists rail against broad notions of right and wrong, preferring instead moral relativism, and certain persons -even those in positions of great social influence- may not understand or even believe in certain aspects of higher medical science that are required for much of modern medicine. However, most modern societies are only able to function because, in the broad strokes, most people in a society share certain ideas of right and wrong, and believe in various dictums of modern science even if they don’t fully understand them.
In his paper Is It Wrong Everywhere, Always, and for Anyone to Believe Anything On Insufficient Evidence? Peter van Inwagen discusses the issues of belief and justification for one’s beliefs. Inwagen’s essay is a response and a rebuttal to a paper by William K. Clifford entitled The Ethics of Belief which argues strongly that it is immoral and unethical to firmly believe anything that one cannot definitively and empirically prove, and that one must constantly question one’s beliefs if they are brought under even the slightest doubt. Inwagen voices a strong contention with the central premise of Clifford’s essay, and uses a number of examples to argue the following counter proposition: That it is vital and necessary to firmly believe what you believe, even if it is something that can never be definitively proven, as most philosophical theses are.
The first example Inwagen explores involves inevitably unprovable philosophical beliefs, as they are the most likely to come under the doubt cast by “the evidence as [is] before [us]” as described in Clifford’s essay. He discusses the fact that a multitude of very learned and intelligent philosophers will likely disagree on many fundamental questions of philosophy, despite having identical access to, and understanding of the available evidence and arguments regarding those topics. Given this broad disparity in firm belief among the experts in such an established academic field, Inwagen acknowledges the temptation we may have to become “Philosophical Skeptics”; refusing to commit to one side on any given thesis since there doesn’t seem to be any incontrovertible evidence that definitively points to one conclusion or another. This skepticism would seem to be a state of mind that Clifford would encourage, but Inwagen disagrees. He argues that it is just as important to hold firm to your belief in matters of philosophy as it is when discussing more materially investigable matters such as “geological or medical or historical propositions” (Inwagen). He discusses how people may indulge in “comprehensive and general skepticism based on philosophical argument” (Inwagen) because they feel that -unlike one’s beliefs in science and history- belief or lack thereof in these more esoteric topics cannot have a meaningful impact on society. He counters this point by mentioning how the philosophical beliefs and associated rhetoric of many great figures such as Marx and Locke have had a profound impact on both the shape of society and the course of history.
Next Inwagen tackles the slightly more perplexing issue of “Political belief”, wherein theses that can in fact be definitely proven in a manner similar to that of medical or historical theses, still produce a disparity of opinion among learned and intellectually honest experts. He uses the idea of Political belief to create a rhetorical middle ground, connecting the far more cut and dry empirical fields of science and mathematics, and the theoretical and academic realm of philosophy. By drawing this connection, he further argues for the importance of firm belief even in the absence of empirical proof, and the danger of simply refusing to accept anything as solidly provable and attempting to remain non-committal in regards to important propositions.
Having come to the conclusion that it is not only reasonable, but important for one to have a firm and confident belief in various foundational philosophical theses -since it impacts our decision making, and more broadly, the shape and soundness of our society and culture- Inwagen moves on to discuss how he can possible feel such confidence given the admitted disparity in opinion between equally learned and intellectually honest persons. After a bit of hemming and hawing over the details, Inwagen eventually settles on the following conclusion:
“I am inclined to think that I must enjoy some sort of incommunicable insight that others, for all their merits, lack. I am inclined to think that the evidence and arguments I can adduce in support of my beliefs do not constitute the totality of my justification for these beliefs. But all that I am willing to say for sure is that something justifies me in rejecting […] skepticism, or at least that it is possible that something does.”
That last statement about the relevance of simply acknowledging the possible existence of an incommunicable justification for belief is an interesting clarification, and is important when evaluating his stance on the matter.
In my own personal evaluation of Inwagen’s argument I would be inclined to agree with his conclusions, especially given the aforementioned statement. I believe that it is extremely important to society that people be confident in their beliefs even when those beliefs involve topics that are beyond our ability to prove or disprove. In terms of forming an intellectually honest basis for the justification of one’s beliefs, I agree with the idea that it is sufficient to acknowledging that firstly, it is possible that a correct answer to a given proposition exists, and secondly that it is possible for me to have a certain incommunicable insight that gives me the edge over other learned thinkers when coming to my conclusion about a topic that has no empirically defensible answer.
As I have already touched on, my reasoning for agreeing with his conclusions has to do with the fact that firm belief in empirically unprovable propositions -such as those involving morality or the more unexplored areas of science- is crucial for the growth and stability of society. Countless times across the course of human history we have had strongly held beliefs that in retrospect were provably false and perhaps even misguided. However, these admittedly incorrect beliefs were necessary intellectual stepping stones towards more accurate propositions; they formed a temporary foundation that kept society standing until we could replace it with sounder one, even if that foundation in turn ended up also being a temporary stepping stone towards greater understanding. The point is that if no one ever held a firm belief in anything that couldn’t be conclusively and empirically proven, it would have been impossible for humanity to progress past the most primitive forms of tribalism. Our deep understanding of the world, and all of our great accomplishments in science and art, are facilitated by our ability to have firm and passionate belief in many things that we will never be able to hold as incontrovertible fact.