I wonder if, I suspect, I believe, I know
Every thinker must have moments where one wonders if some bizarre idea that one has never thought of before could actually be true. Sometimes the notion is quickly forgotten and dropped, perhaps sometimes it stays in her mind for a while. The possible number of metaphysical or theological ideas that are of this type must be enormous, especially to those who do not adhere to any particular religion. I recall that the late Stephen J Gould commented somewhere that anyone could think of a dozen different plausible religions “before breakfast”, and I think that is true for some people with active and questioning minds.
I want to suggest that the title of this post represents a sort of spectrum of thoughts about the absolute nature of things, ranging from the willingness to briefly consider an idea up to “knowing” that some idea is true.
Let me plunge ahead into an example that will illustrate what I mean. Take the supreme question that dogs all of serious human thought, that of whether there is a God. (Let’s not worry for the moment about whether such a question refers to a coherent being). We know that humans in the western world generally have a high degree of belief that there is such a transcendent being. Many would defend or justify their belief as being based on a “faith” that such a being exists, and many would feel that the significance of their lives is centered on this “faith”, even going so far as to say that they have an actual personal relationship with this God.
No doubt there are some---perhaps an extreme minority--that might say they only “suspect” that some kind of a being fitting the generally accepted notion of “God” exists, stopping far short of an actual belief in it. Or, some (atheists and agnostics) might at times “wonder if” there could be something to the idea.
I am pretty sure that a sizable percentage of those professing belief would even go so far as to say they “know” that such a being exists. But I want to say that they really do not “know”, while admitting that it would be reasonable for some to say that they “believe” that God exists.
In much the same way, there are those of the mirror image who (1) insist that they know that there is no such being, or (2) believe that there is no such being, or (3) suspect that there is no such being, or (4) wonder about there being no such being. This last category might refer to a person who was raised in, and continues in, some religious tradition, but has occasional doubts that flit through his or her mind.
I was in a small gathering of philosopher friends a few days ago, and I floated the idea that consciousness is so mysterious, and seemingly so deeply imbedded in the universe (e.g., as suggested by quantum mechanics), that perhaps, as far as we know, ones consciousness continues in some unimaginable manner upon death. One of my friends insisted that no, oblivion follows death of a human. Now from where I sit, this certainly could be true, and it would very likely be the belief of the majority of people in the Western world that are professional scientists or philosophers. But of course this is not an issue to be decided by majority vote.
I insist that none of them really “know” that oblivion follows death. (it is such an odd thing that they would only “know” the truth of the opposite if, when they die, they find their consciousness somehow still intact).
I think it will be clear from what I have written above that I do not deem “faith” to be a valid way of acquiring knowledge, or of validating ideas. Faith, if it has an rational meaning at all, refers to a way of trying to make ones belief a constant mental attitude in spite of the vicissitudes of happenings in actual life.
One could cite examples of things we can say we “know” are true. For example, the fact that the sun rises in the east. But this is not known only as a result of experience, but is strongly supported by the model of the earth in an orbit around the sun. In other words, there is a highly coherent model that super-cedes the mere observational fact, and makes it virtually certain. To doubt this fact would really be proof of insanity, assuming that one has some minimal level of exposure to the idea of the solar system.
So as we humans go about our lives, we necessarily have to hold certain beliefs, although with varying degrees of certainty. Without such a set of beliefs, it seems unlikely that we could act or accomplish anything. Some of these beliefs are no doubt often of a metaphysical, or a religious kind, and hence are beliefs about an unseen world. I suspect that many of these might be better described as hope or fears. Probably many of these beliefs are not essential to our lives, and perhaps not even consciously examined to any great extent. Many of them will change over the course of our lives.ß