If you have not already done so, you may wish to read the
Introduction to Gnomica.
Saturday 28 July 2012
Read gnomica 1-50 here!
“I don’t believe in an afterlife,
so I don’t have to spend my whole life fearing hell,
or fearing heaven even more.
For whatever the tortures of hell,
I think the boredom of heaven would be even worse.”
Isaac Asimov (2 Jan 1920 – 6 Apr 1992)
If, as I do not believe, there is an afterlife after I die, the closest thing I can approximate it to is my prelife before I was born: and I don’t remember that! QED … on those premises!
But I do not know if there is an afterlife – there might be. I just don’t believe it.
I enter these thoughts not because I wish to offend anyone’s beliefs or religious sensibilities, whatever they may be among the many bewildering options available. Indeed, my own notions here are themselves a belief. And therefore I cannot prove them!
And – very important to me – belief is by definition not subject to rational analysis, has as it were no genuinely epistemological foundation. In my very personal opinion, or belief if you will, one of the most common mistakes tolerated – and even indulged in — in the modern world is the confusion between ‘believe’ and ‘know’. Though invariably treated as synonyms, they are not; nor, I would add, are they antonyms – any more than ‘see’ and ‘hear’ are opposites: the latter in their way, like ‘believe’ and ‘know’ in theirs, are just different modalities of apprehending and understanding the phenomenological world to the extent that it can be understood and apprehended.
I believe we encounter much difficulty as both individuals and collectives because all too often we do not very clearly differentiate between the two types of percipience, whether it is ‘see’ and ‘hear’ or ‘know’ and ‘believe’. It is a very old confusion, and Plato (427-347 BCE) did try to address the crucial difference between what he called δόξα doxa ‘opinion, belief’ and ἐπιστήμη epistēmē ‘knowledge, comprehension’ – his resultant ontology is undeniably an intellectual thing of beauty to be sure, but — at least in my opinion — ultimately not all that persuasive in any practical sense.
I do not argue that one is wrong, the other right – merely that they are truly different. There are many things I – like all people – believe, but not that many that I know. And know I don’t want to confuse them.
While what I know is logically and rationally analyzable, what I believe is something pre-rational and not, in my view, susceptible to reasoned dissection. It just is, and it is very real to me, but I do not confuse it (or at least hope I do not) it with something that I know.
Take one recent, unhappy example.
The American campaign into Iraq, for example, was premised on a belief that the country had WMDs stored away, and that belief was confused (or at least claimed to be confused) with the certainty of knowledge that there were WMDs in play. Obviously, as it turned out, that was indeed merely a belief and not knowledge – and it turned out to be a demonstrably incorrect belief. How many American, Iraqi and allied lives and how many billions of people’s tax dollars went and still go in the pursuit of acting on what in the end was a mere belief? It’s kind of outrageous.
When anybody – especially a politician – trumpets that she or he knows this or that, I know that I for one just don’t believe it.