Beliefs, Desires and Coming Up with Reasons

A normal logical inference looks something like the following: (1) C leads to A, (2) C leads to B, (3) A and B are present, so (4) C might be true. In other words, you have got reasons – (1), (2) and (3) – for believing something, and these reasons make you think that something else – (4) – might be true. This is an example of an inference to the best explanation. But do we always act so rationally? Do we always come up with reasons before we come up with the conclusion that is supposed to follow from the reasons? Or do we – sometimes – come up with the conclusions first and then start searching reasons for validating these conclusions? Like, when we really want to buy that television and then start reasoning why it would be good for us to have that television? Let’s take a look at that.

There’s a difference between having beliefs that are based upon reasons (like ‘I see rain dropping of the window’ + ‘I see people wearing trench coats’ so ‘It must be raining outside.’) and longings or desires (like ‘I want a television. Period.) Where we need reasons to believe the beliefs, the desires are just there. What we can see here is a difference in the chronological order for coming up with reasons for a belief or desire: in case of beliefs we come up with reasons before getting at the belief, and with desires we have desires s and then start coming up with reasons for why we should give into that desire.

But there is another difference – beside the difference in order – between ‘belief reasoning’ and ‘desire reasoning’. The belief reasoning eventually leads up to an idea, while the desire reasoning eventually ends up with an action (or not). The rational component – that is, the Ego – that has do deal with all the inputs or impulses entering our conscious and unconscious mind, is called for in different stages of the reasoning trajectory. Where the Ego is apparent in first stage of the belief reasoning – the part in which we’re thinking whether or not we consider a belief to be true – it becomes apparent in the desire reasoning only after the belief has settled.

So what? Is this a problem? Well, not necessarily: not if the two types of reasoning stay completely separated. Not for as long as beliefs are preceded by reasons, and not for as long as desires are – or are not – acted upon based upon reasons. It only becomes dangerous when the two become intertwined: especially when we just happen to believe something and then start coming up with reasons for why it is that we just happen to believe this something. Since unlike desires, beliefs aren’t something you just have. Beliefs are there solely because you’ve got reasons for them. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be beliefs, but merely desires.

So, what we can conclude from this? Well, a conclusion could be that you should watch out for those people that – in a discussion, for example – just seem to believe something and then start coming up with reasons for why it is that they just happen to believe this something. Since, if these people are confusing the notions of belief and desire, it can be very difficult – or even impossible – for you to change their (unreasonable) beliefs. After all, desires are just there, which is reason enough for having them, while beliefs require reasons. And if this isn’t realized, the discussion might get stuck at the level of implementation: the level at which is being decided how the belief should be implemented – that is: validated by society – instead of reasoning whether or not the belief is reasonable in the first place. And we don’t want that to happen, or that’s at least what I believe.

But what do you think?

The Humanities: Are They Truly Scientific?

What are the criteria for being called a “science”? Usually we seem to associate scientific thought with notions like “facts”, “the truth” and non-subjective enumerations of “the way the world works”. This “normal” interpretation of science often comes down to the idea of science as being able to describe and explain the universe according to a set of formal or natural laws. However, not each discipline that we normally consider to be a science seems to occupy such an “indisputably scientific” position; an indisputable position like physics or chemistry does. Not all the sciences are about the predictable domain of nature. Some of them handle about what might be the most difficult entity to capture in terms of laws: the human being and its utterly unpredictable behavior. Therefore the following question seems justified: are the disciplines that are trying to grasp this interpreting and subjective animal called “human” worthy of being called a science? That is, are the humanities truly scientific?

By humanities, I am referring to disciplines like history, literature and likewise disciplines having the human, or its creations, as its research object. In order for these disciplines to position themselves as being a collective of genuinely “scientific” endeavors, they could try to shed any accusations of subjectivism by adopting an empirical and falsifiable method of inquiry. Being “scientific” in this sense means having a positivistic stance of gathering data and inferring logical conclusions from this data; a stance that isn’t interfered by any introspective or intuitional attempts to gain knowledge. By choosing the positivistic route, no doubts about the objectivity (as being the counterpart of subjectivity) of the humanities’ claims can be made.

However, applying this empirical method of inquiry, and presupposing an attitude of “just sticking to the facts”, might hollow out all that is the humanities. And although the humanities might not be objective in the sense that physics or chemistry are objective, they still seem to be able to contribute valuable insights to our shared pool of knowledge. Therefore, it might be more reasonable for us to make a distinction – within the humanities – between: (1) descriptive inquiries and (2) hermeneutic inquiries.

By making this distinction, full clarity can be provided about (1) the areas within the humanities that are striving to represent “the facts”, and thus should be interpreted to provide an objective description of any state of affairs, and (2) the research that strives to come up with reasonable interpretations of historical events, texts and any other product of human creativity. By explicitly separating these two types of research from each other, we might be able to get the best of both worlds: on the one hand (1) we can satisfy our need for “objective data”, and on the other hand (2) we are still able to come up with interpretations of human constructs. This would provide us with the completest picture the humanities would be able to offer us.

So let’s wrap things up. You could say that the humanities provide us with interesting reflections on what might be going on in those creative minds of our ancestors. However, we should not expect the humanities to adhere to the rules of scientific investigation as they are laid down by positivism. In order to avoid the harmful trap of condemning all of the humanities to the realm of subjectivism, we could try to come up with a sub-domain within the humanities that is confining itself to empirically verifiable facts. However, on a holistic scale, the humanities should be respected for the unique contribution they make to our system of beliefs; even though it might not be possible to capture their insights in terms of laws, and even though a certain part of the scientific community might have problems with calling the humanities “true” sciences.

But what do you think?

The Leap of Faith: The Creative Element of Science

Scientific realists are known to have a positive epistemic attitude towards the content of our best scientific theories and models. The exact interpretation of this philosophical tenet can, however, differ dramatically between each of its proponents. Some of them base their idea of the truthfulness of scientific realism upon the seeming success of the reference of its theoretical terms to the things in the world. Others refer to the scientific method of inquiry as making science an adequate system for capturing reality. Here, I’ll interpret scientific realism not so much in terms of the truthfulness of its terms or a method of inquiry, but in terms of the faith one puts in the ontology of scientific theories. …Or, as the objective interpretation of scientific realism goes, in scientific theories as giving an adequate representation of a mind-independent world. However, isn’t there something fundamentally wrong with this representation of a “mind-independent” world? To see this, we first of all have to understand what science and its purpose within our society is.

Science is involved in the production of knowledge. It does this by gathering large lumps of data and extracting what are the seemingly underlying structures responsible for the phenomena being detected. Usually, on an “objective” interpretation of science, we think of science discovering the way the world works. Science is involved in writing down whatever kinds of regularities are being detected in the world. However, is this truly the manner in which knowledge is being created?

I believe that one crucial element is being left out of this picture, and it is this element that is responsible for the progression and the advancement in science as we experience it on a daily basis, and the seemingly never-ending accumulation of facts in which it results. I am talking, of course, about the element of inference. The notion of inference has been well discussed by philosophers ever since Hume pointed out the incomprehensible problems associated with it. However, apart from Hume’s ideas about the indeterminacy of scientific theories and the problems it causes, in what way does the inferential relationship – which is present in every logical system consisting of premises and conclusions – manifest itself in the daily life of a scientist? And what is its role with regard to the production of facts?

Let’s take a look at an example. Imagine a scientist who has made the following observation: (A) human skin gets agitated when it gets in touch with a deadly nightshade (which – apparently – is a type of plant). Furthermore, the scientist believes to know that (B) a poisonous plant makes one’s skin agitated. Therefore – and let’s assume that this was unknown up till that point in time – the scientist claims that (C) deadly nightshade must be poisonous. Or, to put it more formally, (A^B) –> C. Given that the scientist has enough data to back up this claim, he or she has just created what we consider to be a fact.

But what would have happened if the scientist would have went home after making the observation responsible for premise A? Then no fact, and thus no new knowledge, would have been produced. That is, the scientist would have remained stuck at the level of observation, a level that can be reached by each and every one of us and therefore would not create any scientific value, a.k.a. knowledge. It is only because of the scientist being a person who has studied botany for years, who has confidence in his or her own capabilities and who has a basic sense of logic, that the step from mere observation to fact can be made. And it is by making this step, the step represented by the “–>” symbol in the logical formulation, that the scientist adds value to the “knowledge-producing factory” called science.

Two noteworthy implications follow from this observation. The first is that facts about the world around us are, whether we like it or not, constructed on a very fundamental level. There is always a human being needed in order to take the last step and create the knowledge: to take the observation and the knowledge at hand, and make an inference leading to the creation of new facts. And it is because of this inference, which is an activity that has to be performed by us human beings with our minds and our souls, that objectivism, with its proclaimed access to mind-independent knowledge, is untenable.

But watch it: It is explicitly not being said that the observed regularities in the world did not occur before the scientist came along and used the data about these regularities in producing our so-called facts. No claims are being made about any causal relationship between the domain of knowing (epistemology) and the domain of beings (ontology). What is being said is that what happens within the domain of beings is completely irrelevant to us human beings, since we will never be able to access the domain of beings – from a mind-independent point of view – in order to know what would be happening there. All that we know is that, after the scientist has finished its research, the fact is there.

A second implication of this plea for constructivism is that, on the most fundamental level, science does not seem to differ from religion – or from any other system of beliefs for that matter – in any fundamental manner. Both of these domains are dominated by people who believe in the truths of the ideas brought forth within these domains. None of the ideas produced within these domains will be true – at least not in a sense of being true independently on the human mind – unless they are believed to be true. And it is this believing that is an inherently human, and thus mind-dependent, ability which provides us access to the only realm of truth we will ever know: the realm of beliefs.

So the question is: is knowledge being constructed by scientists as an outcome of a fact-seeking process? Or are facts existing somewhere out there in the world, true whether they are discovered or not? And, if so, true in what sense?

Note: an adaptation of this article has been published at

The Randomness of Life: Who has Chosen our Families?

I have got a confession to make: I love my family. I love my father, I love my mother, I love my brother and I love everyone else who is part of my bloodline. But why is that exactly? Because they are family of course! That’s true, but then let me ask myself the following question: what if I would have been born in a different family? What if I, let’s say, would have been born two streets away from the actual place I was born? Would I then still have loved my family? Or – to put it more boldly – would I have even known about the existence of my family (read: my “this life” family)? Of course I would, only then it would have been a different family which I would have known and loved.

Life is full of randomness. And one of the many examples in which this randomness shows its face is in the “choice” of who becomes your family. Because think about it: why is my mother the woman who gave birth to me? Why wasn’t it the woman in the grocery store that I say hello to every day? There seems to be no reason for either of these options, besides the fact that the former “just” happens to be true and the latter “just” happens to be false.

But, when you think about it, the situation is even more absurd than “merely” this innocent little sense of randomness. Because imagine that the woman in the grocery store would indeed have been my – or your – mother. Would I – or you – in that case have known about the existence of my “real” (read: “this life”) mother? Probably not. And you know what? I most certainly wouldn’t have cared one single bit about this. After all, why would you care about not having met someone – my “true” mother in this case – whom you don’t even know exists?

As far as I’m concerned, we only live once. And by “we” I am referring to the “yous” – plural of “you” – reading this article: the collections of hair, brains, thoughts etc. A consequence of this presumption is that all what’s happening in our lives is, whether we like it or not, our truth. But although our truth is in fact what is happening in our lives, we have to realize that it might have easily been otherwise. It would have made just as much – or just as little – sense for the woman in the grocery store to have been my mother, instead of the woman that truly “has become” my mother. Thus, although we can describe our “truths” objectively and in utter seriousness, we shouldn’t forget that the reason why our truth is the truth is completely and utterly random: it “just” happens to be so.

But back to the idea of our mothers and families. In our lives as we know it, our families – often – play a hugely important role. And since this is “just the way it is”, and since this is “our truth in this life”, it isn’t unreasonable for us to love them with all our hearts, right? Because although it might be an utterly random state of affairs, it is still our family and it is still our truth, right? So let’s appreciate our truth, and love our families.

But what do you think?