What I believe

Belief is a strange word. It’s often taken to have religious connotations, as in the Nicene Creed: ‘We believe in one God, the Father and Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible’ (penned at the Council of Nicaea of 325 CE). I would like to take the word belief in a slightly different direction, before returning to the question of religion. I would like to consider belief from the perspective of philosophy.

The Council of Nicaea.

What is philosophy? Philosophy is the way of understanding the world by constantly questioning it — just as, to understand a person well in the early stages of friendship, you might ask each other questions about your upbringing, tastes, hobbies, work, etc. So while the kind of questions a friend would ask to a friend are questions about what we like to do in this world, the philosopher will ask questions like, ‘what is justice?’, ‘what is goodness?’, or ‘what is love?’ A good friend will practise these things. A good philosopher will reflect upon what these things mean.

Because philosophy is quite separate from the real world of action, it’s conventional to see it as something that’s not particularly useful. I certainly have these worries sometimes — when I’m doing philosophy, am I really in touch with the world? But philosophy isn’t the only thing that makes us go beyond, or ‘transcend’, the situation in which we find ourselves. Religion also considers abstractions that go beyond what is immediately present in the world around us. Romantic music will take something in the world, like attraction or affection, and hold it up as a transcendent value across all time and space. Romanticism, in this way, is a this-wordly philosophy or religion. While philosophy and religion consider things from an other-worldly perspective, romanticism considers things from a this-worldly perspective. What these points of view have in common is the focus on what is not immediately present before our senses — what, in other words, is transcendent.

Transcendence is an important value. If we stay stuck in the present all the time, with no thought for the past or future, we’ll be forever stuck on an eternal treadmill. We’ll never get out of our situation. We’ll stay forever in an eternity of the present, never going beyond ourselves. We’ll never really move at all. We’ll be walking, but we won’t be moving. We’ll live, without ever living.

But equally, transcendence has its limitations. Trying to transcend our situation won’t get us out of it. Transcendence, you could say, makes us think we’re out of the present, when we’re still really in it. ‘I love Big Brother’, says the lead character in Orwell’s dsytopian novel 1984 at the book’s conclusion, after being tormented by an authoritarian police state led by a dictatorial figure known only as ‘Big Brother’. He says this after falling in love with a fellow citizen of this despotic regime, and nearly escaping his situation, only to find himself even more imprisoned than he was before, after falling for a pseudo-revolutionary movement known as ‘the Brotherhood’ (the name kinda gives the game away, don’t you think?). Transcendence narratives can keep us locked in a kind of Stockholm syndrome, where we fall in love with our prison guard because we can’t bear to look at ourselves. Is philosophy equally problematic?

Philosophy differs a bit from these transcendence narratives. Philosophy is never dogmatic. It’s always asking questions. If we’re philosophers, we won’t accept any regime for long without questioning it. Indeed, Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates was executed for ‘corrupting the youth of Athens’ with his constant interrogation of existing values. Socrates’ successor, Plato, developed a critique of democracy after he witnessed how even a ‘free’ state can behave in the most authoritarian of ways. The upshot: we can never be truly free on this Earth. Only in philosophy, in the limited transcendence of our situation through constant questioning of it, can we be truly free.

It’s not too hard to see how this might lead to the contrast in Christianity between the city of God and the city of man (as Augustine put it). The separation between morality and politics goes back to Plato’s contrast between ‘the realm of appearances’, this physical dimension, and the ‘realm of the forms’, the purely abstract dimension of true morality, anchored by ‘the form of the good’—which shines like the sun upon all that is transcendent. Iris Murdoch, a twentieth-century novelist and philosopher, suggested a similarity between the concepts of ‘God’ and ‘Good’, though she follows Plato in placing a priority on the Good over God.

One reason for this move consists in the problems with anchoring morality in a divine commander, such as the question of whether that divine commander knows any better than an earthly commander. ‘Divine command theory’, as it is sometimes called, fails. Socrates once asked whether we do what is good because the gods say it is so, or whether the gods say it is so because it is good. Of course, maybe both statements are true — we might follow what God says because we think God has a privileged access to knowledge about what is good. This does, however, rely on our having some introspective knowledge on the mind of God — otherwise, how would we know that God knows best? This kind of knowledge is hard to ascertain without either a rigid dogma or, alternatively, philosophy: constant questioning of what is false until we find a rock-solid foundation for belief.

As a philosopher, it’s hard for me to say what I believe. I don’t really believe anything for certain, as I don’t think we can have certainty in this world. I do think, however, that it is worth trying to get at what is rock solid. I remember once arguing that, even though we can’t be sure what the foundations of knowledge are, we can be sure that there are foundations. Knowledge is belief that is true, and one way we can ascertain whether a belief is true is by asking whether it is justified. That justification has to come from somewhere. It can come either from the way beliefs fit together, or from the fact that beliefs are founded upon even more secure beliefs, the truth of which we can be more-or-less certain. That approximate certainty seems quite far off. So does the notion that we can form systems of belief that are coherent. But the quest for knowledge continues. I think it is a worthwhile endeavour. That, perhaps, is what I believe. This, then, is my creed:

I believe in the pursuit of knowledge through the discipline of philosophy — in the discovery of answers through the posing of questions. When we find right reasons for belief in the good and the true, we can apply this knowledge to the world. When we follow the light of philosophy in the practice of politics, we cannot fail. We must not fail. We will prevail.

A philosopher’s creed

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