Decisions & Subjectivity
September 10, 2012 7:25 PM   Subscribe

What sorts of things should a person take on faith versus having to make sense of it for themselves?

Perhaps this is part of the graduate school process, but my worldview has changed substantially in the last several years. If there is any one thing that additional education has taught me it is that life is extremely complicated and there is only a finite amount of time to dedicate towards all of our obligations including our hobbies and interests.

I've been told by others that human beings are always in a state of movement and that we are rarely if ever static and not moving. That being said, when I re-read a book or article that I had read previously, or I watch a movie that I had seen years before, I find the meanings to be very different than when I first thought I had an understanding of them.

If our understanding of concepts and life in general changes with time, it would seem wise to not necessarily have an opinion on anything?

The opposite extreme of this is that a person could just say that they don't know and that they haven't thought about a particular topic long enough to have an opinion.

Lately, I find myself questioning whether the beliefs that I have will even remotely look like the ones that I initially formed when thinking about a particular topic. e.g. I find that religion can be a source of inspiration and hope for a lot of people, but I have a hard time with how it divides people into "us" and "them". Will this be the core issue for me ten years from now?

I am doing a horrible job of articulating my question, but I guess, what I am trying to ask is that if we are constantly undergoing change, and going through a particular process, doesn't that make our perceptions and beliefs somewhat biased?
posted by nidora to Religion & Philosophy (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
This doesn't feel like a solid question, but you might find help figuring out what your question is if you visit the philosophy department of your institution.

Philosophy of mind is the area I think might interest you.

See also: Hegelian Dialectic.
posted by bilabial at 7:36 PM on September 10, 2012

If I understand your question, part of it is related to what philosophers call the ethics of belief: under what conditions ought we to believe something? On that question, check out William Clifford's "The Ethics of Belief," and responses by William James and (much later) Peter van Inwagen.

There's also part of your question that seems to me more broadly to relate to the connection between belief and evidence more generally. I don't have any good recommendations for reading there---usually I'd recommend the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, but I don't much like its entry on evidence.
posted by voltairemodern at 8:28 PM on September 10, 2012

The dirty little secret is that we're all just making it up as we go along.

You have an opinion. It's reinforced by observable evidence. Then you learn, you grow, you get new info. Maybe your original stance needs modifying. Maybe you need to trash the whole thing and start over. Maybe you were right all along.

Of course we're biased. We're all prejudiced, all clannish, all distrustful of the Other. That's why we keep learning, keep growing, keep incorporating more and more of the reality of the world into our understanding of the world. (Cuz that view of the world you have? Yeah, that ain't reality. Ever. Believe that.)

Does that mean everything is relative? Far from it. It means that there's so much that you can only grab a corner and hang on!

You will never have the answers. So phrase good questions.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 8:32 PM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think you just have to be okay with the fact that you believe X today, even though you used to believe Y, and tomorrow you may believe Z but nobody really knows. It doesn't make your belief in "X" any less meaningful. It just is what it is. You can have opinions, just with the knowledge that everything is impermanent. The cells you had 10 years ago aren't the cells you have now, but you still have your cells. It would be silly not to have cells, but you're not too attached to each particular one.
posted by bleep at 8:39 PM on September 10, 2012

I forget who said it, but someone once said that life is the art of drawing sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises. And that sums it up pretty well. The more you learn, the less you know.

You have to have an opinion on some things, though not on as many things as the cesspool that is contemporary media wants you to think. Nothing wrong with having an opinion--in fact, opinions, taken broadly, are indispensable--but the main thing is not to be too attached to any particular opinion. Your most fervent belief today may turn out to be an ill-founded belief tomorrow.

I taught logic and intro philosophy for several years as a grad student, and one opinion I came away with, which I have not yet had reason to jettison, is that people really need to be somewhat less sure of themselves. Too many people are killed, literally, every day, in the name of some ridiculous and unfounded opinions.

From a less epistemological and more literary angle, it might be worth acquainting yourself with the concept of negative capability.
posted by bricoleur at 8:45 PM on September 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

I think in terms of "my current best mental models", which leaves room for things to grow and change. I also seem to have an abnormally high tolerance for ambiguity. For example, I believe in reincarnation and I believe I have past life memories. But I am okay with the possibility that such "memories" are merely a psychological construct which gives insight into how I see myself. I don't really think it is critical gor me yo have The Answer about such things.

"Zhwang Zhu dreamed he was a butterfly and when he awoke, he wondered if he was a butterfly dreaming he was Zhwang Zhu" and all that.
posted by Michele in California at 8:52 PM on September 10, 2012

Dur, that should say "for me to have The Answer..."

Sorry 'bout that.
posted by Michele in California at 8:54 PM on September 10, 2012

It's best to use examples. I think the quality of sex that your parents may have could be an example of something best taken on faith rather than trying to make sense of on your own. But maybe not? This could be complicated, but probably isn't complicated.
posted by oceanjesse at 9:12 PM on September 10, 2012

You have to take it on faith that your senses are genuinely reporting what's going on around you.

You have to take it on faith that the world really exists, and that your life isn't a solipsist nightmare.

You have to take it on faith that other people are self-aware. They aren't puppets or androids, or figments of your imagination.

And there's perhaps the biggest question of all: Is there anything after you die, and if so, what?
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:16 PM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

I take most science on faith. I believe totally in science, but I have replicated very few experimental situations on my own. Just enough, added to the voluminous documentary evidence and convictions of people I respect, to make the comfortable assumption that it isn't usually bullshit.
posted by Miko at 9:25 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is an issue I struggle with myself, and I can't claim to have a full answer, but here are a couple of criteria that I use in thinking about prioritization.

1) Is there a well-established scientific consensus on this matter? If so, investigating it for yourself may be less necessary.
2) Is this a question to which there could exist a conclusive--or at least a useful--answer?
3) To what extent will your choices and actions be affected by your opinions?

As for when you have enough information to voice an opinion, it's true that it's harmful to spout off an opinion without any supporting evidence or logic. However, it's also not helpful to your growth, or that of the people around you, to hold back on having or speaking an opinion on anything until you have a perfect understanding of it. If you are aware of some evidence for a position, however incomplete, articulating it as, "From the evidence I'm aware of, it seems that....", with an openness to learning and to being wrong, to do so is often more productive.

And while it's important to be open to being wrong, it's also important not to be paralyzed by imperfect knowledge. I find Katarzyna Weiglowa's reputed last words on the importance of "stand[ing] loyal to the truth as one is given to know it," comforting, for in the absence of absolute truth or perfect information, the truth as we are given to know it, to the best of our ability, in this moment--however imperfect, however open to change--is the best that we have to live by.
posted by beryllium at 9:31 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: After thinking about this question a little bit more, I think part of the confusion lies in our understanding of cause and effect. A lot of people (myself included) prefer the scientific method based on the idea that empiricism makes sense. As some of the behaviorists have said, if it can't be measured than it doesn't exist. While I don't agree entirely with this last statement, I understand that we have to quantify and have an objective way of measuring things.

The problem that I keep running into is that our understanding of cause and effect can be vastly different from others. While I may have have a very simplistic understanding of cause and effect, there could be a much larger picture going on with regards to understanding the bigger picture and how the systems that makeup that bigger picture actually work. So, in my overly simplistic way of looking at things, I might understand a very very basic cause and effect relationship while someone else really understands this at a much higher level and how the systems interact.

Does this make sense to anyone or I am just overthinking this?
posted by nidora at 9:53 PM on September 10, 2012

It makes complete sense, but is there a question in there?
posted by Miko at 9:57 PM on September 10, 2012

But complex cause and effect relationships are expressed as combinations of simpler cause and effect relationships. That doesn't make the simple/basic model different from the complex - not truly - if it were, I'd say one or the other is wrong.

Or. Another way of looking at it. Our model of the world changes over time, but old models only need to be discarded when they're no longer useful. Like, we say the world is a sphere; that is not strictly true (it's slightly thicker around the middle, not a perfect sphere) but the spherical model of the world is good enough, so we keep it.
posted by Xany at 1:34 AM on September 11, 2012

complex cause and effect relationships are expressed as combinations of simpler cause and effect relationships. That doesn't make the simple/basic model different from the complex

It's not different, but to the OP's question, if you don't understand the collection of more complex relationships and perceive/understand only the simplest level of relationships, you are taking the more detailed explanation of the relationships "on faith."

I often discuss the history of thought. People have understood simple cause/effect relationships for a long, long time: if it rains for three days, it's going to be windy the day after it clears. If there's lightning, there might be fires. If you plant seeds and water them, they usually grow. But we would not say that these represent a sophisticated, detailed, micro level understanding of those processes. To believe that there was such a level on which these things could be understood, and that the explanations offered by those who have investigated are accurate, is to have some faith.
posted by Miko at 6:28 AM on September 11, 2012

Best answer: I'm not entirely sure I understand your question, so if I've guessed wrong, my apologies. That being said, part of your premise seems to be that since you accept empiricism and the belief that many things (if not all) can be tested or evaluated in some way, you're wondering what comes next? While I'd personally agree with empiricism myself, and also subscribe to the same school of thought, ultimately for most of humanity- this line of thinking is still very much in the air, and is not 100% accepted. After all, the premise of most world religions are based on things that require belief, so when comparing and evaluating causes, effects, interpretations of events from others, its good to keep that in mind.

So, it sounds to me like you're trying to ask that since you can understand the connections between why things happen some ways sometimes and not others, and there are those who appear to understand things better than you, if there is some kind of testable, underlying system or explanation for the complicated things that happen universally.

This is the kind of motivation and pursuit that motivates scientists, to better understand the underlying principles of everything, in every field. But there's always a balance between what can be assumed or taken on faith and trusting ideas enough to push further on them, relying on them. Historically speaking, there is a sort of balance- those who have accepted ideas too readily without questioning them can lead to entire historical branches of science that were later invalidated. (Like Phrenology, for example) On the other hand, if you have to re-examine everything from scratch and prove it yourself, it literally would take multiple lifetimes to study and derive everything yourself.

I think it makes the most sense to choose your battles carefully. In every field, and every endeavor, there are plenty of unanswered questions and unknowns. In my personal opinion, I think the most practical method is to accept the basics, question the "recently established" and regard the newest, most unexamined as needing to pass at least a hurdle of at least basic scrutiny. I think you should never be afraid of asking stupid questions- even if they are something everyone else knows, you'll build up your own unique and valuable understanding of the thing. If you keep asking "why?" long enough, it can take you far. And I don't mean to literally ask someone why over and over- ask yourself why things are, and find answers that satisfy you. Start at the root of the assumption of the thing you question, and spread outwards to the smaller finer points of things.

The second thing that I'd like to point out is to always remember that the facts and the interpretation of the facts are actually separate things. A lot of times people like to paint things as being inevitable conclusions, but to truly prove that one thing caused another is a very difficult part of science (and academia in general). Sometimes the facts can appear to be pushing a person towards an unavoidable conclusion, but in reality it's still just an interpretation that would need to be examined, picked apart and proved bit by bit. And even outside of academia, it's very common for people to be found guilty based on weak or circumstantial evidence, and literally pay for crimes they hadn't committed. Even staples such as eyewitness testimony have been shown to be less than reliable in recent years, but the law often assumes a thing to have been proved even when it wasn't.

As to subjectivity- you ask that if people are in a state of constant motion, and that even rereading a book or article that you had understood or determined the meaning to be one thing, only to re-read it later and find your own understanding to be different the second time- that simply means that your perspective has changed. People change, and accumulate more knowledge and over time what they learn changes how they view things.

No one rereads a book and thinks the same thing as when they were a kid. And as many, many interpretations of literature and science show, a single book, or a single academic paper can be interpreted in many, many different ways depending on the person doing the analysis. Sometimes it even seems there are as many opinions that there are people- even if they all agree on some things, they won't agree about everything. But just because your understanding of something has changed, doesn't mean that you were wrong the first time. There is no perfect, singular understanding. There are specific interpretations and aspects that can be definitely be argued or proven to be more right than other interpretations, but there is no ultimate right answer that trumps all the others. At least, that is, in science a thing can eventually be proven beyond all possible doubt, in a very long and difficult process. But there is definitely no right answer for interpreting a movie or a novel.

Personally, I wouldn't suggest giving up and stop trying to figure things out. Even subjectivity of your own opinion can be valuable- if nothing else, figuring out for yourself what you believe and why is a valuable thing- it's a integral part of developing your own understanding of the world instead of just accepting someone else's. And keeping in mind how your opinion has changed over the years can be a valuable part of chronicling your own growth as a person.

(Sorry for the length- Personally I've thought a lot about this myself and am still thinking about it a lot. MeMail me if you want to talk about it ^^;;)
posted by Aliera at 10:34 AM on September 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

After thinking about this question a little bit more, I think part of the confusion lies in our understanding of cause and effect. A lot of people (myself included) prefer the scientific method based on the idea that empiricism makes sense. As some of the behaviorists have said, if it can't be measured than it doesn't exist. While I don't agree entirely with this last statement, I understand that we have to quantify and have an objective way of measuring things

It might be helpful to read Hume regarding our understanding of cause and effect. It is necessarily limited to what we've experienced.
posted by Laura_J at 1:49 PM on September 11, 2012

What I have come to believe is that everything I believe is taken on faith. I really 'know' nothing. to believe otherwise is to have a closed mind wherein i will cease to grow. Many times, that which society has taken as 'fact', has been shown to be an incorrect perspective. The more we delve into quantum mechanics, the more we wee that the subjective world is inescapable and is part of reality. If interested, check out this podcast. If it rings true, listen to the unedited interview found on the same page where this same issue is discussed.
posted by lake59 at 5:18 PM on September 11, 2012

Response by poster: I would agree that there is a lot more subjectivity to the world than what most people will admit. I have read several essays on the subjective versus the objective, but I think that this whole argument becomes even more complicated when they throw things into the mix such as thinking styles, tendencies towards thinking in a subjective fashion and morals. I tend to believe that there is a lot more subjectivity to a lot of issues than what meets the eye, but perhaps this could be explained by not having as well developed sense of critical thinking?
posted by nidora at 7:09 PM on September 11, 2012

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