Monday, November 13, 2006

tacit assumptions, worldview and religion

As a human being, we are required to act (i.e. do something), most of the time in our lives. When we make a conscious, rational action, (such as opening the door upon hearing the door bell ring), the action can be said to be one which is motivated (i.e. not random or irrational). Perhaps, all voluntary action is motivated. But whatever the case, a motivated action could be said to be caused by beliefs, desires, or a combination of both. For example, upon hearing a doorbell, i believe that someone was behind the door, I also believe that when someone is at the door I should open the door and see who it is, hence I choose to act on these beliefs, and voluntarily opened the door. Another example: I am feeling hungry, and I believe there is food in the kitchen. So I walked to the kitchen to find the food to satisfy my desire to eat something. If we have no beliefs or desires we cannot act.

Desires, for the most part, are just impulses or appetites. But beliefs can be quite complicated. Beliefs can also be normative (suggest a preferred path of action). For example, I believe that when someone is at the door, I should open the door. In fact, a good number (all?) of the conscious decisions we make in life are based on our normative beliefs. But where do these normative beliefs come from? I am going to assume that all our beliefs come from the outside world, i.e. from what we detect from our senses. [Just a quick argument: if a baby is born without sight, sound, smell, hearing and touch, do you think he able to learn anything? think anything?]

Our most basic beliefs come directly from our senses: 'I see a bright object [the sun]", i feel something underneath my feet [the floor]". But our more complex beliefs, such as our normative beliefs, are usually taught to us, directly or indirectly. For the most part, it is our parents and our teachers (or whoever who had a hand in bringing us up) which imparts to us these beliefs, either through teachings or being a role model. Later on in life, when we develop a stronger cognitive ability, we form our own beliefs based on our previous beliefs and new data from our senses. Once in a while, we may even come across sensory data which seems so incoherent with our previous beliefs that we choose to reject one or more of our past beliefs.

Some (many) of our beliefs, are tacit. Meaning, we do not consciously think about them, or are aware of them. But we believe them anyway. For example, if you get to work every morning by driving a car. Do you check if your car has been rigged with a car bomb before you start the engine? Do you check if there is anybody hiding in the backseat? Probably these thoughts never crossed your mind. But somewhere deep in your motivational self, you must have believed that your car is free from car bombs or murderers hiding in the back seat, otherwise you would not have drove your car to work. Note that this belief is also an assumption, that you do not really have any evidence that your car was not rigged with a bomb, nor did you check if there was indeed someone hiding behind the back seat. You just assumed so.

I am going to propose, that we call the entire collection of all our beliefs (tacit or otherwise) our worldview.
And indeed, the collection of all our beliefs is indeed our view of the world. Everything we have ever experienced, seen or heard, was taught to us, what we inferred and deduced in our minds; this is what we perceive the world to be. I am quite sure, all of us, except for maybe Descartes, have never systematically considered ALL our beliefs. And even if we did, we probably could not be able to uncover all our tacit beliefs. Hence probably, we all have some beliefs which come into conflict with each other. Perhaps later when the conflict in beliefs is brought to our attention, we will choose to abandon one (or more) beliefs to maintain coherence. But I think it is safe to assume that nobody has a set of beliefs (i.e. worldview) that is 100% coherent with each other.

Now I am going to propose, that for our purposes, we equate the word "religion" to the word "worldview". Let me try to justify that proposition. Religion has a very muffled and confused meaning the way it is used in our society. My religion is either Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist or free thinker. We have very conveniently categorized religion to a point that we identity religion to be an institution, instead of it being a set of beliefs which propose to teach us how to live our lives. The belief "there is a god" is a religious belief, but the implications of such a belief would lead to other beliefs such as "I believe there is a heaven" or "I believe in reincarnation", and such beliefs in turn strongly affect the way we choose what actions we do in our lives. Note that according to this definition, all individuals have a religion, because all individuals have a worldview.

A rejoinder is that we may choose to declare ourselves a certain religion (because we were "born into" the religion), but we find that we don't really believe in what that religion says. Then my response is simple, your declared faith has little to do with what your real "faith" is, i.e. what are the set of inner-most beliefs which govern your daily behavior in life. For some religious people, their inner-most set of beliefs align very closely to the tenets of the institutionalised religion, but others align less closely. Many (most?) of us don't subscribe to a religious institution, so our religion/worlview is just based on what we have experienced, learnt and reasoned in life so far. Which, no surprise, varies greatly from person to person. In fact, I believe each and every one of us has a unique worldview. Each and every one of us have a unique "library" of sensory experience, and it is from this store of sensory experience which we derive our beliefs, and our worldview.

Now, here is the really important point I wish to make. Most (all?) of our beliefs, are assumptions. Take the belief "there is a god". A good number of people believe that to be true. But there is no way to know for sure, if there is a god. Incidentally, there is also no way to know for sure if there is no god (atheists might disagree with me here). At best, we have varying degrees of confidence in the belief of the existence (or non-existence) of a god. And therefore it remains an assumption. Take the belief that 'there is someone behind the door when you hear the bell'. You usually would not doubt such a belief. But there is no way you know for sure, if there is indeed someone who is behind the door. Perhaps it is a monkey who pressed the bell, perhaps there was a technical fault with the electronics of the device. There is no way you can know for sure, but you assume anyway. In fact, those of us familiar with Descartes or The Matrix, will know, almost everything we know and assumed to be true, could possibly been untrue. There is no way to know for sure.

To conclude, I want to separate different uses of the term "religion". The definition of "religion" which I am interested in, and which I believe is most pertinent when it comes to intellectual discourse, is that one's religion is one's worldview. A set of beliefs, including assertions about how we ought to live our life. I also claim that religion has a functional purpose. That religion is a necessary part of our life, or else we would have no intentional motivations, and we would fail to do anything, except perhaps to satisfy our desires (some people claim this is all we do anyway, but to deny that is a separate argument altogether). Lastly, I claim most of the set of beliefs which make up our worldview (and our religion) are assumptions. They may be beliefs we believe very strongly in, or believes that we have strong reason to believe in, but they are not beliefs which we can know for sure to be true.


Mr Wang Says So said...

Aha. Now Mr Wang will proceed to bend your mind.

In your framework of things (as outlined in your post), there are two elements:

(a) an objective reality (for example, whether there is or is not a person standing outside your door); and

(b) beliefs and assumptions about that reality (for example, "I believe/assume that someone is standing outside my door.")

and you have treated the two elements as separate and distinct.

This may not be the case. There is firstly the possibility of a strong argument that in fact there is no such thing as an "objective reality", it is always subjective. Secondly your subjective reality is created by your beliefs or desires or sensory perceptions (or if you like, repeated thought patterns in your brain).

For example, Mr Wang has just commented on your blog. If however you had never noticed Mr Wang's comment, then in your reality Mr Wang has never visited your blog.

However, suppose you look at your comment counter on your blog and you notice that there is one comment on your blog (a sensory perception). You then have the desire to find out what it is. You therefore click and find my comment. Thus your thoughts has created, in your subjective reality, the reality of Mr Wang visiting your blog and leaving a comment.

Now here is a mind-boggler for you. Since we all have our subjective realities, and all reality is subjective - therefore God exists for those who believe in Him/Her/It. Those who believe in God, have created God, therefore God is real.

What about those who do not, but inhabit the same world as those who do? Well, since all reality is subjective, first you have to choose the perspective. For example, a believer creates God in his subjective reality but he also creates the non-believer in that same subjective reality. The non-believer does not create God in his subjective reality, but he creates the believer who believes in something called God which doesn't actually exist in that non-believer's reality.

Therefore we are creating and being created all the time. An idea that may well be consistent with quantum physics.

Fearfully Opinionated said...

Mr Wang,

Yes, I do believe in an objective reality. The reason why I didn't defend that belief is because I assume it would be rather intuitive to most people that an objective reality is true. (Perhaps I was mistaken?)

Long before Schrodinger came up with his equation of probability waves, someone known as George Berkeley (the city in California is named after him), proposed that reality is entirely composed of our sense data, and ONLY our sense data. Not many people believed him, but his philosophy has been influential.

I don't have a quick rebuttal for your assertion that reality is subjective instead of objective. Just in the same way, I cannot rebut solipsism, or rebut that I am not indeed living in the Matrix. That's a problem with the philosophy of metaphysics. There are many things you just cannot deny for sure.

On quantum physics and especially the "Copenhapgen interpretation" claim that our observations directly affect reality. This is something very interesting which I have not fully thought through. I am not convinced that proves that reality is indeed subjective.

Take for example, the thought experiment of Schrodinger's Cat. Even if we agree that whether the cat died or not is directly DEPENDENT on whether or not we obsevered the cat die or not, does it seem fair to say our observations CAUSED the cat to die (or not die). Of course, if the whole concept of causality is another philosophical can of worms to open. =)

Thanks for reading my blog. Hard to believe Mr Wang is commenting on my rather clumsy attempt to talk philosophy.