I. Prologue / The Nature of the Problem and Questions Presented
The aphorism “people only believe what they want to believe” is a common description by proponents of an observation or argument of their opponents’ beliefs — proponents and opponents in a relative sense, this aphorism is often said simultaneously by all parties having opposing descriptions or beliefs regarding the same sense experience, theoretical dispute, or “fabric” made of both. What usually occurs, as exasperation sets in, is that proponents and opponents battling over the truth of their respective claims of knowledge often end their disputes by stating this aphorism of each other as a final means to dismiss the opponent’s beliefs as not justified in any epistemic, normative, nor even in a rational sense but as simply an irrational act of will immune to reason. In such arguments, though it is assumed that truth is the goal of belief, the method being used seems to reduce epistemology to a “search for methods that yield verdicts that one oneself would accept”. As a philosophical observation in Western Philosophy of how beliefs are sometimes justified, this aphorism goes as far back as the Ancient Greeks and is formalized in modern psychology as “confirmation bias”. Furthermore, as a matter of practical reality, in our modern Technological Society in which the average individual is flooded and bombarded by wanted and unwanted information almost every waking minute, it is a necessity to have a reflex or intuitive process of deciding between “junk beliefs” and beliefs with value in order to make it through the day. Except for those whose occupation it is to produce ideas, for most people, moments allowed for deductive or other logical contemplations of beliefs are few and far between. However, this aphorism historically is not a creation of modern technology sound-bite wordgames and polemics or relativism nor solely a trait of Clifford’s “den of thieves” but describes an epistemic voluntarism not limited to the uneducated or unenlightened. The Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy having spent his life among the ruling classes wrote:
I know that most men—not only those considered clever, but even those who are very clever, and capable of understanding most difficult scientific, mathematical, or philosophic problems—can very seldom discern even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as to oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions they have formed, perhaps with much difficulty — conclusions of which they are proud, which they have taught to others, and on which they have built their lives.
As William James observed, a will to believe despite a lack of facts or even in contradiction to the facts is often a necessary condition for rational, benevolent, social action, “[a] government, an army, a commercial system, a ship, a college, an athletic team, all exist on this condition, without which not only is nothing achieved, but nothing is even attempted.” In refutation of Clifford’s patrician views of thieves and as I have experienced in life, as James notes, often “highwaymen” exhibit a better appreciation of the need to believe in a value in order to achieve it. On the other hand, a will to believe is also the most devious of propaganda tools: “I’ll tell you what’s at the bottom of it, … If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” — President Lyndon Johnson.
This aphorism implicitly brings up the issue of Moore’s Paradox. In the actual wordgame of belief just as in its logical form, though they seem to be an absurdity, there is no contradiction in stating an assertion of what is and a contradictory belief of that same what is; i.e., “it is snowing, but I do not believe it is snowing” or “it is snowing, but I believe it is not snowing”. In fact, many times such statements act as statements of morality or for aesthetic meaning. For example, “Trump is President but I do not believe he is President” is a common expression these days as another would have been if 2016 election results were different: “Clinton is President but I do not believe she is President”. These statements make sense if taken as a normative act of will rejecting present sense experience; these statements of belief serve as statements of what ought to be when we disagree with what is. Despite their apparent inconsistency in meaning between the evidence for a belief and the belief itself thus giving the appearance of absurdity and irrationality, such statements often are the foundation for epistemic evaluation of beliefs. Such statements at least exhibit a concern for evaluative norms. A nihilist or an amorality would not bother with caring about what is or what ought to be but deal solely with assertion. There may be something “epistemically good about the person who irrationally gets true beliefs”.
But, how far do the aphorism and its implications go as epistemology or as norms in epistemology? That is, can an act of will by itself through which one believes what they want to believe be a meaningful norm that can be analytically studied in logical form for describing not only what we believe ought to be but also for describing what we ought to believe?
Given the omnipresence of this aphorism in various forms including in learned company, it should not be casually dismissed as epistemic foolishness. If there is any truth in this aphorism as so many claim there is, it may be more than a simple statement of cynicism, nihilism, or skepticism; it raises many questions for many areas of philosophy including language, metaphysics, and epistemology — in particular any epistemology of norms. For anyone who wants an epistemology naturalized to science, if this aphorism truthfully or has some truth describing the reality of beliefs as simply an act of will then does not epistemology become simply Quinean engineering analytically and critically analyzing, rationally criticizing, and creating logical constructs for what individual or groups of individual value and how they reason to get it? Engineering is a noble profession as old as the Pyramids and older and is not something that epistemology should be afraid of becoming. Or, would such naturalized epistemology commit the “fallacy of conceptual retrospection” by assuming that since in hindsight a normative reason can be given for all beliefs and any resulting acts when questioned than there must have been a rational reason for the belief in the first place. For general epistemology and its language and concepts of epistemic norms, the most obvious questions the aphorism presents are: 1) at what point in rational discourse does a belief start or stop being rational instead of being an irrational act of will; 2) in what sense if any does it make sense to talk about having a justified and even true belief that is purely an act of will, rational or otherwise; 3) the self reference problem of whether my or anyone’s belief that “people only believe what they want to believe” is knowledge about reality or is it itself simply a belief that I or anyone who believes it wants to believe? Does any of this make sense or am I just playing with words to create a wordgame with nothing other than aesthetic meaning?
These epistemic questions bring up related questions of language: 1) why is not this description phrased or is it the same as saying, “people only know what they want to know”; 2) why does everyone, except perhaps for a nihilist, only apply this aphorism to the beliefs of others with which we disagree but never to ourselves or to those with which we agree: why not say “I only believe what I want to believe” or “I only know what I want to know”? Even a nihilist would say such of themselves only as an exhilaration or rejoicing of the ability of the will to overcome or negate reason and thus by doing so admit there is something they believe or want to believe need be overcome and negated. Does the meaning of this aphorism describe a permanent duality or a crevice between “justified true belief” and “knowledge”?
I will start with a contemplation of the initial issue: are there any meanings in this aphorism useful for contemplating epistemic rationality? I will argue there are and that they serve as a beginning foundation for answering Kvanvig’s question of whether understanding (what to believe based on rational intuition) comes first with knowledge based on “good evidence being a derivative idea”. My answer is that understanding comes first. In our present point in history, once an individual reaches the point of being self-conscious enough to rationally contemplate the experience constantly impinging upon their senses, there is already intertwined with that sense experience an already convoluted Quine’s fabric of knowledge and beliefs including an uncountable and incomprehensible amount of junk and clutter.
Thus, as unpleasant as it may appear to be at first, in order to avoid being stuck in a Buridan’s Ass situation of spending most of one’s daily life having “to suspend judgment … [t]hat is, in which [n]either belief or disbelief is permitted” on almost all evaluative or normative questions and even on basic empirical questions, one often must begin any rational questioning of any present fabric of knowledge and beliefs by a leap to belief equivalent to existentialism’s leap to faith through a “search for methods that yield verdicts that one oneself would accept” — that is to believe what one wants to believe and then see what happens. Does it lead to happiness or meaning in one’s life; to a better peaceful and prosperous society? If not, why not? Even the instrumentalist philosopher John Dewey argued that ultimately the search for knowledge is a search for happiness. Not as skepticism, but as a naturalized understanding of epistemic rationality, any holistic concept of belief or knowledge — a concept that is rationally unavoidable in our modern world — must include a will to believe, rationally or irrationally, as a norm at the beginning of any process of epistemic rationality as a means to avoid circularity.
II. Epistemic Truth in “People only Believe What They Want to Believe”
Truth and knowledge regardless of how one defines them and the epistemic means of reaching them are not necessarily the same wordgames. As Elgin describes the wordgame of science, all things considered, there is no contradiction in using sentences that state a contradiction and outright false statements (that she calls fiction) to reach scientific truth defined as predictive meaning. It may well be the case that “snow is white” is true if and only if snow is white, but how do we know snow is white so as to satisfy this biconditional is a different problem going back to Plato’s Meno and Theaetetus contemplating the difference between and the value of true belief and knowledge and how they are justified. If someone tells me, “it is snowing now, but I do not believe it is snowing”, even as a complete nihilist, nominalist, or relativist, at a minimum I have truth and knowledge that there is something wrong going on that needs investigation by me before I act on this statement. Modern philosophy has — at least for now — given up on the foundationalism of Plato or Descartes seeking to know truth directly and to define knowledge descriptively through the language of ideas and logical theory that cannot be doubted because all language will contain doubt. It has also — at least for now — given up on any empiricism seeking to define knowledge based solely on the language of sense experience or of logical constructs based on sense experience because the language of all sense experience is laden with the language of ideas and theory and thus doubt. Epistemology is thus left with seeking to define knowledge in normative and evaluative terms such as justified beliefs seeking whatever definition of truth the epistemologist accepts from the purely pragmatic to the purely normative. At one end, naturalized epistemology seeks the truth defined and provided pragmatically or instrumentally by the scientific method thus abandoning epistemic norms; while at the other end, epistemology seeks the normative truth of ethics thus becoming entirely norms.
The reality of epistemology is that its search for knowledge and truth may not involve knowledge and truth with this distinction giving the benefit that these searches do not necessarily involve the circularity of using their goals to define their norms. I may need false beliefs and even false knowledge to begin the search for knowledge and truth. Words that state a contradiction are useless for stating truth and knowledge but not for the epistemic norms and means of achieving either. Equating truth and knowledge does not describe how we get to knowledge nor truth nor what either is. Often, stating a “belief” that is an apparent absurdity or statement of contradiction (i.e., ‘not P and I believe P’ or the equivalent) is the only means to a justified true belief and knowledge of truth. I do not state this as skepticism, cynicism, or nihilism nor to degrade truth. I claim it is perfectly possible for us to state a belief in a proposition that is false. I begin by bringing out this difference not by a contemplation of fictional stories seeking to bring out intuitive clarity but by contemplation of real life differences in the use and usefulness of “truth” and “knowledge” and the wordgames known as the Gambler’s Fallacy and Moore’s Paradox to bring counterintuitive clarity.
An empirical example of the aphorism irrationally achieving knowledge and truth at least in a pragmatic sense is the “50/50/90″ belief used or at least once used by me and other Navy electrician mates while operating and repairing electrical machinery aboard US Navy submarines. The “50/50/90″ belief states that whenever you have a 50/50 chance of making the right or wrong choice you will have a 90% chance of making the wrong choice. This belief does have an empirical basis. The electrical power system on Navy ships is a 3-phase system meaning it is distributed through three power wires. Thus when connecting a rotating electrical device to the system such as a motor, we had in our limited circumstances, no way to tell whether it will rotate clockwise or counterclockwise; we simply made a random choice on which three power wires to connect to which of the three motor wires. Thus there was always a 50/50 chance the equipment would rotate the wrong way. If it rotated the wrong way, one had to disconnect two of the three power wires and switch them. Based on our experience, we knowingly and intentionally believed there was a 90% chance we would guess wrong and so planned the preparation, necessary material, time allotment, and safety work based on this “50/50/90″ belief. “The belief that fire will burn me is of the same kind as the fear that it will burn me”.
Did we believe this “50/50/90″ belief to be true? No. Regardless of how stupid civilians believe sailors to be, we were smart enough to understand numbers and that despite Wittgenstein’s Rule Following Paradox, we understood that 50/50 odds and machinery do not have personal grudges resulting in their changing just to make life miserable for us. Were we seeking the truth? Not really. We would admit that if someone actually did an empirical statistical study of the situation, it would probably show that just as with coin tosses there was a 50/50 split in the rotations. Our 50/50/90 beliefs were “really rules for action” and in fact this belief is often stated as the “50/50/90 rule”. This 50/50/90 voluntary belief was also not a skeptical, cynical, or nihilist rejection of reason and truth. It was a rational rule for action making life less miserable by essentially always preparing for the worse and thus when the worse happened we could deal with it both physically and otherwise. One might say it was the equivalent of acceptance of Pascal’s Gamble to believe in God without evidence for His existence except that we were not accepting the two choices given but adding a third option. We were dealt an empirical deck of cards with house rules stacked against us and created new rules in an attempt to beat the house. We believed what we wanted to believe because we valued our lives. (Given the recent collisions this past Summer of two Navy destroyers and the resulting loss of life and ship damage, perhaps the modern new school Navy of rational decision theory should look into our old school irrational rule.) This is an empirical example of Susan Rinard’s Equal Treatment of norms for belief and action. This is not an example of Harmon’s practical reasoning as distinct from theoretical reasoning, it is simply reasoning; furthermore, it is not circular.
Not only can believing what one wants to believe, even if they are false beliefs, be rational but it would also be rational to act on experience and intuition that is contradicted by both evidence and knowledge — in fact arguments of ultimate value might require such will to believe as a moral exercise of free will. For example, regardless of how many times a fair coin is flipped and the results, the clearest of possible truth consisting of mathematical truth is that the odds of it coming up heads or tails at any toss logically remain the same at 50/50. These probabilities total one and thus their acceptance in any reasoning is also undisputed; this type of mathematical knowledge is as good as one can get in terms of rational or logical “truth”: in all possible worlds, as long it is a fair coin and the mathematics remains the same, without doubt every flip will have an equal chance of being either heads or tails. The past history of the coin toss by all known empirical evidence, logic, or by any other rational description and interpretation of the evidence does not affect its next outcome. Thus, the logical Gambler’s Fallacy goes, if a coin comes up heads ten times in a row, a gambler is not justified in believing and it is epistemically irrational to believe it is now more likely to come up tails the eleventh time and therefore one ought not to believe otherwise and bet your mortgage money on tails for the eleventh toss. The rational person appears epistemically to be stuck in a Buridan’s Ass, Incommensurability Thesis, or Acceptance situation of not being able to believe either that the next coin toss will be heads or that it will be tails and thus rationally ought to withhold belief or any epistemic judgment on what to believe.
Or ought we? What if the coin taken from your own pocket and tossed those ten times in this mathematical reality is tossed by the demonic Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men and the next eleventh coin toss will now decide your living or dying? At least one philosopher, the esteemed Spinoza, has used such facts to conclude there is no rational choice of belief that can be made here and thus the individual is left to his or her deterministic life or death fate:
[I]t may be objected, if man does not act from free will, what will happen if the incentives to action are equally balanced, as in the case of Buridan’s ass? As for the fourth objection, I am quite ready to admit, that a man placed in the equilibrium described (namely, as perceiving nothing but hunger and thirst, a certain food and a certain drink, each equally distant from him) would die of hunger and thirst. If I am asked, whether such an one should not rather be considered an ass than a man; I answer, that I do not know, neither do I know how a man should be considered, who hangs himself, or how we should consider children, fools, madmen, etc.
Such a Buridan’s Ass situation does empirically arise in modern electrical engineering when designing digital circuits that only have two possible inputs of 0 or 1 for deciding their output. Because of the existence of ever-changing inputs, there is a possibility of the inputs being in a random in-between state and thus the digital circuit stuck in an indecisive state for an undeterminable length of time causing malfunction or complete breakdown of the circuitry. How do engineers avoid such? They add an additional circuit to input a random 0 or 1 or a specific 0 or 1 if possible thus forcing a decision that is better than no decision at all.
Therefore, on a coin toss to save one’s life, are a rational person’s only epistemic options either to withhold belief and accept their demon fate or to become a machine making an equally fatalistic irrational random guess of heads or tails? Should reason be abandoned to perhaps glory in the same nihilist gamble of the demon, give up on rationality and its beliefs, and to randomly guess heads or tails by perhaps doing one’s own separate coin toss to decide what to call?
If one values life as a rational person or at least their own life and reason and thus want to live and want to give value to living as a rational person, does this value require us to believe in the value of our understanding that eleven heads in a row are not likely in life and thus believe, regardless of the true odds, that the next toss will be tails and choose tails — not randomly or as a gamble but as a required epistemic belief based on the value of a life that values epistemic rationality over the power of demonic randomness? Going even further, should the rational person morally be required not to be a nihilist gambler with their life but to choose knowingly and intentionally tails as the only rational epistemic option despite this belief being an act of will containing a logical fallacy? If I value living as a rational being not as a prisoner to the fate of a coin toss, should I not believe what I want to believe that there is some rational order in life (just or unjust) regardless of whether the evidence justifies its truth or leads to truth? Without doubt, the logically necessary truth of Descartes that “I think, therefore I am” is also an epistemic truth; but, epistemic truth also includes the additional existential truth that “I am, therefore I think” leading to norms requiring and justifying what I ought to believe when the only other option is no belief. It appears people rationally can and it can be said they epistemically ought — and perhaps even morally ought — voluntarily to belief what they want to believe when the only other options only create a Buridan’s Ass situation on the ultimate value of one’s morality.
[[[ Recently, it appears the intuitive “fallacious” understanding of experience may in fact be supported by reality. Some statistics and economics is not arguing there is no fallacy if viewed from the perspective of the gambler “exhibiting this behavior may not be increasing a wager in response to a fallacious increased conditional probability of a marginal outcome occurring in a series of wagering opportunities (events), but instead wagering on the correct probability of a series of outcomes occurring.” Thus, the unjustified intuition or understanding to choose tails based on a holistic perspective of one’s life experience may in fact be the epistemically rational choice despite not knowing nor having a justified belief that it is. Nyman, John A. Is the Gambler’s Fallacy Really a Fallacy? https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=944573. University of Minnesota Division of Health Policy and Management, 2006. ]]]
Thus, there is some epistemic rationality and even an epistemic understanding that proceeds the evidence expressed in the aphorism “people believe only want they want to believe”, but how far does this voluntarism go? Believing what one wants to believe is rationally seeking knowledge when it is a path to pragmatic or instrumental truth and when the only other options are a rejection of the ultimate value of one’s life; however, can one epistemically will any belief irrespective of the truth of that belief? If it is snowing, can I believe it is not snowing?
III. Moore’s Paradox
Whether the aphorism at issue describes a reality that must be accepted substantively in modern epistemology as a rational normative attribute of beliefs or just an occasional event that serves a rational purpose is equivalent to asking whether it is absurd to assert the truth of “P and NOT(I believe that P)” or “P and I believe that NOT-P”. Can I assert as epistemically true, “it is snowing, but I do not believe it is snowing” or “it is snowing, but I believe it is not snowing”? Can I will epistemic truth into a belief despite asserting it is neither true nor seeking truth?
Moore’s Paradox was contemplated by Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations, Part II, §X, through his method of considering the contemplation of language being a “form of life” analysis. It is not clear what Wittgenstein meant entirely by “form of life” given the various uses he made of this term in the Investigations (as he probably would have admitted and predicted would be the case). What is clear is that he wanted this phrase as with the entire Investigations to be a warning that language is often its own wordgame reality that may or may not clarify actual reality and whatever truths, if any, there are of which we can speak; “[p]hilosophy is a struggle against the bewitchment of our understanding by the resources of our language.” Just as one can fabricate the games of chess, baseball, and basketball simply by fabricating rules for them without ever actually playing chess, baseball, or basketball, one can fabricate wordgames simply with words whose use and usefulness are their aesthetics. Just as one can fabricate the games of chess, baseball, and basketball without anyone actually ever playing these games in which case the rules and words of these games will have no empirical use or usefulness other than playing with their rules and forms, we can fabricate wordgames simply with words without any further meaning or sense experience other than simply the words — for aesthetic meaning. I am not making an analytic/synthetic distinction; I am making a distinction between using words solely for aesthetic uses and usefulness and those that have descriptive, normative, or interpretive use and usefulness. The meanings of some words are simply the aesthetics of hearing them, i.e., Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky. “If the texts seem incomprehensible, it is for the excellent reason that they mean precisely nothing.” Catherine Z. Elgin called it making “the world safe for postmodernist claptrap”.
If the statement “it is snowing, but I do not believe it is snowing” or “it is snowing, but I believe it is not snowing” were made by someone other than oneself, whatever absurdity exists is not an epistemic problem regardless of whether or not these statements exist in something called a “mental state”. Taking these statements as the sense experience they are, we have two options epistemically. If we accept the principle of non-contradiction and that these words exist in a mental state asserting both that it is snowing and that it believes it is not snowing, these statements are useful to give us justified true beliefs at a minimum and arguably knowledge that the other person was: 1) lying; 2) delusional; 3) ill to the point of interference with language ability; 4) trying to be funny; or 5) simply in error. At worse, the words are epistemically equivalent to hearing another person say, “I have a terrible memory, I never forget anything”, meaning that they are satire and the absurdity can be passed on to aesthetics for contemplation. Thus, the question of whether the other truly perceives that it is snowing while also believing that it is not snowing is epistemically a meaningless question even if we assume “belief” is expressing the other’s private mental state of belief. We have gained justified true belief and even knowledge consisting of (1) – (5) simply from the sentences. This is also true of the “50/50/90″ belief; to a civilian unfamiliar with the empirical work involved, at a minimum, such civilian solely from the words would conclude the sailors live a life of uncertainty.
These justified true beliefs (1) – (5) are contingent upon us accepting the principle of non-contradiction and the existence of a mental state in which lies both assertion and belief. Giving the skeptic is due, we only believe the principle of non-contradiction because we want to believe it but this only further justifies the aphorism at issue as rational because without a belief in the principle of non-contradiction everything is justified and not justified and we are left with the contradiction of having an epistemology stating we know absolutely only that we do not know anything absolutely; as Boghossian and Putman have successfully argued, if such rule-circular argument and contradiction do not bother the skeptic, it should not bother us. There is no prospect of silencing the “skeptical doubts … with respect to matters that are as basic as logic and principles of justification.” Because we believe what we want to believe, consisting of the principle of non-contradiction, we can rationally make justified true beliefs (1) – (5).
If we reject any use or usefulness for the word “mental state”, the statements taken together simply mean that a person who asserts “it is snowing” also has a belief that it is not snowing. What is the problem with this? This is allowed by the grammar or form of life of our language and is allowed by logical form just as saying “I have a terrible memory, I never forget anything” is allowed. At a minimum, we have satire in which the person is trying to state existential meaning that goes beyond the limitations of language grammar. The language of satire may be an issue for aesthetics but it is not a problem for epistemology.
This assumption and the problem it raises are better brought out by my saying these expressions in the first person: “it is snowing, but I do not believe it is snowing” or “it is snowing, but I believe it is not snowing”. Can I somehow make both these statements epistemically true; can I rationally have a justified or even a true belief that both are true at the same time? Can I will both to be true statements without being delusional or irrational? Is there a mental state distinct from my physical sense experience state that can control my beliefs about my sense experience? Are these statements when made together simply an absurdity from a delusional person? Though it is almost intuitive that one cannot be mistaken about one’s own beliefs, this is not really so if we view language as a form of life. Again, here is Tolstoy describing a common human experience:
At first Anna sincerely believed that she was displeased with him [Vronsky] for daring to pursue her; but soon after her return from Moscow, having gone to a party where she expected to meet him but to which he did not come she distinctly realized by the disappointment that overcame her, that she had been deceiving herself and that his pursuit was not only not distasteful to her, but was the whole interest of her.
If we cannot be mistaken nor fool ourselves about our beliefs, how does it make sense to say Anna was able to deceive herself as to her beliefs? Why does the above description make sense and we know exactly what is meant by it because it has happened to us even though it clearly should not make sense and should not happen since we cannot be mistaken about our mental state and its beliefs? Does it make sense to be an observer of one’s own beliefs so as to be deceived of what they are or to be mistaken about them in the same way we can observe or make epistemic sense of another person’s statement of belief that seemingly contradicts an assertion of sense experience so as to conclude beliefs (1) through (5) above?
The problem lies in the assumption that the word “belief” references a real thing or mental state that is belief.
Let us assume we do have this private mental state that is belief, how do I know what it is or that I am in it? For sure, by saying the words, “I believe …”. Now, let me have this mental state without saying these words. What is the difference between this silence and the silence of not saying any other words? How do we have unstated beliefs? Let us for this moment have unstated beliefs. How is this silence of unstated beliefs any different from having an unstated anything else? None that I can tell. How are my unstated beliefs any different from unstated wants, desires, wishes, or intentions? Again, no difference that I can tell. They may be there but unknown to me? That may be true but unless they become known to me, they will remain unknown; when they become known, they are no longer unknown but known. Sure, we can talk about unstated and unconscious beliefs, wants, desires, wishes, and intentions but only once they are stated and we are conscious of them. The meaning of the “mental state” of belief, knowledge, intention, and many other words that do not involve action are completely dependent on the words used and useful; without the words there is no mental state of which we can talk. There is no need for the words “mental state” other than as a shorthand for a family of words that do not involve action. “Mental state” is Wittgenstein’s beetle-in-the-box that everyone has, has a word for, but no one knows what it contains other than words.
Words are as real a sense experience on their own with or without associated other sense experience. It is tempting to assume that the words must involve something other than being said but there is no reason for this assumption. The grammar of the statements “it is snowing, but I do not believe it is snowing” or “it is snowing, but I believe it is not snowing” are the same regardless of whether they are made by me or by someone else. However, there is a difference in meaning. When I say it, I can have no doubt as to what I believe and am asserting, just as I can have no doubt I exist while I am thinking. We someone else says it, I have no clue as to what they believe or are asserting other than the words used. In both cases of myself saying it or of someone else saying it, the words and grammar of the sentence are the same. The absurdity results from the fact that I cannot use a private language to describe that of which I have no doubt but only the form of life that is language. “When I think in words, I don’t have ‘meanings’ in my mind in addition to the verbal expressions, language itself is the vehicle of thought”. “For if I need a warrant for using a word, it must also be a warrant for someone else”. “It is no more essential to the understanding of a sentence that one should imagine something in connection with it than that one should make a sketch of it”. Also, the following is from Wittgenstein’s Investigations:
510. Make the following experiment: say “It’s cold here” and mean “It’s warm here”. Can you do it?—And what are you doing as you do it? And is there only one way of doing it?
511. What does “discovering that an expression doesn’t make sense” mean?—and what does it mean to say: “If I mean something by it, surely it must make sense”?—If I mean something by it?—If I mean what by it?!—One wants to say: a significant sentence is one which one cannot merely say, but also think.
512. It looks as if we could say: “Word-language allows of senseless combinations of words, but the language of imagining does not allow us to imagine anything senseless.”—Hence, too, the language of drawing doesn’t allow of senseless drawings? Suppose they were drawings from which bodies were supposed to be modeled. In this case some drawings make sense, some not.—What if I imagine senseless combinations of words?
Voluntarily believing what is false is not nonsense: that is, it is not undefinable words that cannot state a logical possibility — “mere sound without sense”. Such statements make sense especially in the area of the most important epistemic norms: those dealing with knowledge of ultimate value. I can make a leap to belief that “rape is wrong” while fully acknowledging this statement may never be proven to be true nor that it is true.
Though philosophy has at least for now given up on the positivist attempt to translate sentences that reference material objects into logically equivalent sentences about sense data, this occurred because the sentences are unavoidably intertwined with something that is outside our consciousness. Epistemic rationality is purely a human creation of sentences about sense data; at least as to beginning premises, its norms are dependent on value and desire as Street, Kornblith, and others argue. Just as “[j]ustification by experience comes to an end, [i]f it did not, it would not be justification”; it also must have a beginning. I am not advocating skepticism. At a minimum, even if it is solely by act of will, “[w]hat people accept by justification shows how they think and live”. Applying a Wittgensteinian “form of life” analysis to the statement “people believe what they want to believe” leads to the opposite conclusion: acknowledging that one and one’s opponents ultimately will believe what they want to believe acknowledges the holistic nature of belief that is not limited solely to Kim’s holistic norms of rationality. Belief is not solely the result of rationality but also of voluntary choices of ultimate value and of aesthetics and probably above all action. Everything is words until there is action — serving a holistic epistemic rationality for achieving knowledge and truth.
It is not the start of skepticism to say that I can voluntarily believe something false to be true or the converse. Acceptance of such appearance of absurdity in language is not contradicting epistemic rationality nor is it the start of skepticism but the start of a naturalized epistemology that in turn sets a foundation for rational and analytic argument as to truth and value norms. “Our beliefs are really rules for action”. As rules, just as the rules of basketball or of the scientific method, they are not knowledge in themselves nor are they norms in themselves nor are they true or false in themselves but they are the methodology or “form of life” by which all of these epistemic concepts and any ultimate valuations of these concepts are determined. To the extent we want something, by necessity we must value that something that we want at least to the extent of getting what we want. Once we make that leap from amorality to belief, we are stuck: there may be an infinite number of possibilities by which we can live without getting what we want thus allowing for epistemic nihilism but without doubt given our mortality not only are there only a limited number of ways by which we can get what we want but we know there is always opposition to getting what we want — even for the most powerful, there is their mortality. Thus, universally for anyone who believes what they want, there are epistemic true norms.
The meaning of “belief” is not its use and usefulness for expressing the existence of private mental states, intentions, or any other beetle in a box but as a warning of the existence empirically and the “understanding” needed to solve the empirical problems of rational uncertainty and indeterminacy expressed by philosophical problems such as the Open Question Argument and Hume’s Law. Epistemology and The Will to Believe of William James are not so much two sides of the same coin but the latter is the opening weave for the Quine’s fabric that becomes the former and the opening stitches of any repairs to the fabric that is the former. Get those initial weaves or opening stitches wrong and the entire fabric will eventually fall apart — this failure unfortunately may be the only way to know the rules or norms of the initial weaving or stitches need to be changed. Kelly’s Neurath’s Boat analogy is correct; we are sailors repairing a ship at sea. However, in reality, such sailors believe what they want to believe when necessary.
Boghossian, Paul. “How Are Objective Epistemic Reasons Possible”. Philosophical Studies, Vol. 106, pp. 1-40 (2001).
Bratman, Michael. “Practical Reasoning and Acceptance in a Context”. Mind, Vol. 101, pp. 1-15. (1992).
Chisholm, R. “Firth and the Ethics of Belief”. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research Vol. 51. No. 1, pp. 119-128 (1991).
Clifford, W.K. “The Ethics of Belief”. Lectures and Essays, Vol II. (1879).
Elgin, Catherine. “True Enough,” Philosophical Studies, Vol. 14, pp. 113-21 (2004).
Feldman, Richard. “The Ethics of Belief”. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research Vol 60, pp. 667-95 (2000).
Feldman, Richard and Earl Conee. “Evidentialism”. Philosophical Studies, Vol. 48, pp. 15-34 (1985).
Firth, Roderick. “Chisholm and the Ethics of Belief”. Philosophical Review, Vol. 58, pp. 493-506 (1959).
Friedman, Jane. “Junk Beliefs and Interest-Driven Epistemology”.
Fumerton, Richard. “Epistemic Justification and Normativity”. Knowledge, Truth and Duty: Essays on Epistemic Justification, Responsibility and Virtue, ed. Mathias Steup. Oxford, pp. 49-61. University Press (2001).
Harman, Gilbert. “Practical Aspects of Theoretical Reasoning”. A Companion to Epistemology, Jonathan Dancy, Ernest Sosa, and Mathias Steup, editors, pp. 152-56. Wiley-Blackwell (2010).
Hunter, J.F.M. “Forms of Life” in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. American Philosophical Quarterly, Volumne 5, Number 4, October 1968.
James, William. “The Will to Believe”. The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1896).
James, William. Pragmaticism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc. (2003 edition).
Kelly, Thomas. “Epistemic Rationality as Instrumental Rationality: A Critique”. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 66, pp. 612-40 (2003).
Kelly, Thomas. “Quine and Epistemology” in version by Harman and Lepore (eds.) to appear in The Blackwell Companion to Quine.
Kim, Jaegwon. “What Is Naturalized Epistemology?” Philosophical Perspectives, Vol. 2. pp. 381-405 (1988).
Kornblith, Hilary. “Epistemic Normativity”. Synthese, Vol. 94. pp. 357-376 (1993).
Kvanvig, Jonathan. “The Value of Understanding”. Pritchard, Haddock, and Millar (eds.), Epistemic Value, pp. 95-112. Oxford University Press (2009).
Kvanvig, Jonathan. “Knowledge, Understanding, and Reasons for Belief”. The Oxford Handbook of Reasons and Normativity, ed. D. Starr. Oxford University Press (2017).
Putnam, Hilary. “Why Reason Can’t be Naturalized”. Synthese Vol. 52. pp. 3-23 (1982).
Moyers, Bill. “What a Real President Was Like: To Lyndon Johnson the Great Society Meant Hope and Dignity.” The Washington Post, November 13, 1998.
Nyman, John A. Is the Gambler’s Fallacy Really a Fallacy? https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=944573. University of Minnesota Division of Health Policy and Management (2006).
Quine, W.V.O. Pursuit of Truth. Harvard University Press (1990).
Quine, W.V.O. “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”. Philosophical Review, Vol. 60, Part 1, pp. 20–43. doi: 10.2307/2266637 (1951).
Quine, W.V.O. Word and Object. Cambridge, MA : The MIT Press. new edition edition (2013).
Rinard, Susanna. “No Exception for Belief,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research XCIV, pp. 121-143 (2015).
Sokal, Alan; Jean Bricmont (1998). Fashionable Nonsense. New York: Picador (1999).
Spinoza, Baruch. Ethics Part 2, Of the Nature and Origin of the Mind Propositions 48-49, at Prop. 49 Corollary Note [III.B.(iv)]. Published in 1677. Available at http://www.faculty.umb.edu/gary_zabel/Courses/Spinoza/Texts/Spinoza/e2g.htm
Street, Sharon. “Evolution and the Normativity of Epistemic Reasons.”
Tolstoy, Leo. What is Art? (Translated by Alymer Maude). New York: Funk & Wagnalls Co. (1904).
Tolstoy, L.N, Anna Karenina. Translated by R. Pevear and L. Volokhonsky, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1954.
Williams, Bernard. “Deciding to Believe”. Problems of the Self. Cambridge University Press (1973).
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations, at Prop. 473. Translation from the German by G.E.M. Anscombe. Wiley-Blackwell, 4th edition 2009.