Reasons for Belief

There’s an oft-repeated response to supernatural claims that everyone has heard come out of a skeptic’s mouth: “Show me the evidence. I can’t be expected to believe that without evidence.”

While I don’t disagree at all with this response, I think the word “evidence” can be problematic. It’s technically the right word to use, but in common language it conjures up images of CSI investigators and people in white lab coats. The word has physical, material connotations, so it immediately triggers protest from someone with a metaphysical stance. The true definition of the word accommodates both physical and rational convincers, and it’s perfectly appropriate to come to a belief through reason alone; many argue this is the only way one comes to a belief.

So what these people are asking for is simply a reason to believe.

This isn’t a lot to ask. In fact, this is demanded by me, you, and everyone else when introduced to a new idea.

Try as I might, I can’t think of a single occasion where something is ever believed without reason. The process of adopting the belief may happen so quickly and automatically that the reason for it never bubbles up into conscious awareness, or the belief may have a vast web of reasons behind it and a single one can’t be pinpointed. But a reason is always present. The birth of a belief always occurs on the effect side of the equation rather than the cause. It comes from somewhere; it’s a result.

So until someone shows otherwise, I feel comfortable making the following statement:

1. No one ever believes something without a reason.

The quality of a reason can vary a great deal. I can believe something because it has overwhelming evidence supporting it and zero evidence against it. I can believe something because it makes me feel good. I can believe something because my friend’s sister’s coworker remembers reading about it in the paper a few years ago. Good or bad, valid or invalid, these are all reasons to believe.

In other words:

2. Some reasons to believe something are better than others.

The truth of these two statements seems self-evident to me, or nearly so. They may come across as so elementary and obvious that they aren’t worth mentioning, but it’s when these things are forgotten that the trouble starts, and they’re forgotten often.

When you’re no longer aware of your reasons for a particular belief, that belief is at risk of turning into dogma. A belief you know the reasons for can be changed suddenly in the face of new and contradictory reasons. It remains open to future development or dissolution, as any belief should be. But a belief that you believe without knowing or remembering why can appear (falsely) to have an existence external to you. It can become something that you feel you can’t help but believe; believing it is outside of your control.

I can remember a lot of conversations I’ve had in the past about personal beliefs where this “reason-blindness” presented itself. My beliefs would be criticized for owing their existence to reason, because any one of the reasons in the chain could be weaker than I realized and would break under the stress of future information. I had no problem with this criticism because that’s exactly how belief should work. To me belief is merely a step beyond speculation. All beliefs are subject to change.

What was odd was that the arguers were apparently unaware that their own beliefs suffered the same affliction mine did. They often seemed to be genuinely ignorant of what happened in those moments between having the lack of the belief and having the belief. Not remembering their reasoning, the belief floated free of any sort of undergirding or support in their minds, which was ultimately what gave the belief its power. They were tricked into thinking that because of this independence the belief somehow transcended reason. Its own buoyancy would protect it from the danger of ever being cut down. It had become untouchable.

If it’s true that no one ever believes something without a reason, then we’ve identified an intellectual trap. Losing sight of their own reasoning rendered the foundations of their beliefs invisible and consequently frozen in time — in other words, dogmatic.

My point here is, if you have a belief that’s without reason, how do you even know you believe it? Again, it’s a simple notion, but often forgotten.

In my opinion, this is the boiled-down definition of a skeptic. Any human being (by default) needs a reason to believe something. A skeptic needs a good reason to believe something.

Which leads me to my third statement which is much harder to demonstrate the truth of and I’ll only be able to scratch the surface of it in future entries:

3. The quality of any given reason to believe something can be evaluated to a sufficient degree.

This is really the point where knowledge comes into the discussion. Belief graduates to knowledge when the reasons supporting it are sufficiently (a relative term) robust. Some would argue that all knowledge is really belief masquerading as something more concrete. Whether or not this is the case is the problem being tackled in the field of epistemology, and greater strides have been made in this effort than most people realize. I don’t claim to have a wholesale answer to this problem, but I can’t recommend doing some epistemology research highly enough. There are many resources out there relevant specifically to the contemporary forms of occultism, and I’ll post what I’ve found in time.


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