Sunday, June 13, 2021

Is-believing vs. Ought-believing

Epistemic status: provisional. I haven't fully tested this idea.

I read through some old notes from 2016 and 2017, and I'm struck by how much I lived in the world of "is" back then. There was a lot about how we don't really know anything, we just trust; how there isn't any ought, things just are; and there was quite a lot of me talking about whatever psychological state I was in, under the assumption that truth can be found by looking to the "is" of psychology and diaristic lived experience, rather than the "ought" of philosophy or religion.

I find myself now more on the side of "ought". This blog, while still somewhat "formulaless", still aspires, at least overall, to talk about truth the way truth ought to be, according to topics, building up a knowledge-base.

I am aware that according to "is", there is no such thing as knowledge. There's always a way, imaginable or not, that we could be wrong. There is even a way, imaginable or not, that what is likely to be true is false, despite the unlikeliness of the alternative view. There is infinite possibility and only the bare given, and any concepts we apply to the given, we have no proof of having anything to do with its real nature. We generally ignore all that and believe things as though there is knowledge, and we all more or less approve of each other doing that. So we don't question all the way down.

But is reality something that fundamentally is, or is it something that fundamentally ought to be? It seems like some "ought" creeps into most people's thinking, to avoid the profundities of "is"'s nihilistic agnosticism. That things are as they should be allows us to interpret them, to take them as meaningful, to be able to process them with our minds in an intelligible way. And while I could argue that this is merely a "practical epistemology", that is, we bring in "ought" for practical purposes, I think we are often not aware of that potential motive, and didn't decide to think that way for that purpose. What I have called "descriptive epistemology" concerns itself with things that, with effort, a person could still disbelieve, out of a diehard commitment to "is". But we know them nonetheless. The foundations of knowledge have to include some "ought", and maybe this is just the way knowledge is, and unbridled "is" is not the fundamental principle of reality.

(After writing this and coming back to it, I see that a reader might still not grasp what I mean when I say "is" and "ought". Maybe it is helpful to think of "is" as "that which just is" and "ought" as "what ought to be". In our materialism bias world, we think that "ought" is "patterns that humans impose on reality, or wish to find in reality". But in a "less-traditional modern society" (not as materialism-biased), we could say "ought itself has its own being and its own deserving (the ought equivalent of is's "being"), which ultimately derives from a non-human source".)

If "ought" is part of reality, then can we "ought-believe"? Or are we stuck in "is-believing"? "Is-believing" is when you are in your natural state, using the flesh of your brain, going with your gut, using the rational faculties that are given by evolution or (fallen?) created biology. "Ought-believing" is when you see that something is justified but the difficulty in considering it to be knowledge ("justified true belief") comes in the "believing" part. If something makes sense but feels unnatural to believe, we find ourselves sketched out, edging away from the belief, simply forgetting the issue and going on with natural believing. But ought-believing is a disciplined believing. Is-believing is the way of being pulled this way and that by moods and spirits, which sprout in our natures, while ought-believing is the way of freedom from all that.

What is "faith"? Faith may be is-believing, where the "is" is provided by God. Or faith may be ought-believing, where we grip onto a piece of wood to save ourselves, rather than hoping in the ocean liner of "is".

Aside from faith, I can think of three examples where I find I can believe according to ought-believing, but less so or not at all according to is-believing: 1. The notion that there is no such thing as knowledge because we can never know anything -- there is always a possibility of us being wrong for reasons we can't imagine. I can't is-believe this. In this case, ought-believing is needed to fully apply "is". 2. Most of Berkeley (at least, his basic immaterialist project), I find is-believable, but his insistence that an idea is inert and its being is to be perceived, and a mind is just that which perceives and acts on ideas, and anything else is inconceivable (or, the way I could put it a little differently, nothing beside consciousness can contact us metaphysically) I find possibly ought-believable, but less so is-believable. (A similar formulation that I definitely find ought-believable, and strangely only equally is-believable, though it is a weaker claim, is "All we know exist are minds and ideas. Everything else is doubtful.") 3. To some extent, I can find the following statement is-believable, but to some extent, only ought-believable: "That which is must ought to be, and ought to be absolutely; absolute ought comes from incontrovertible legitimacy; only a person (or set of persons) who was disposed to experience the full burdens of reality could ought to have founded all of what absolutely is and ought to be; such a person (or set of persons) exists and is legitimacy". I feel most comfortable affirming this statement, of the three, according to justification and according to a basic sense of trustworthiness. But if I remain in "is"-believing, I can't believe it fully.

Is ought-believing trustworthy? We could ask "Is is-believing trustworthy?" Is ought-believing affirmed by is-believing? Is is-believing affirmed by ought-believing? Ought-believing (or the mindset and truthset that go with ought-believing) would find is-believing incomplete or insufficient. Is-believing would not affirm ought-believing, but should we care what is-believing thinks? I can see that ought could be a substantial realm of reality. So why should I limit myself to "is"? (It is as though to fully explore "the way things ought to be", I must leave the areas where "is" and "ought" overlap, and ought-believing is the way to do this.)

Someone who can see (and isn't colorblind) can know from experience that flowers are colorful, and needn't be worried when a blind person objects that according to touch, there is no such thing as color. Certainly many of us have been disappointed before, and of course we all have the biological slavery to survival, and I can see how that could inhibit belief, but why not believe not according to the "is" of your own pain and fear, and instead according to the "ought" of "seeing whatever is out there just to see it"? Certainly "is" is understandable, but if we are seeking truth, then "ought" is better-justified. Ought-believing goes along with ought-thinking, which is a more disciplined (and thus in some ways saner) way to think.

I think ought-believing can turn into is-believing. I've experienced this. If you try on a thought enough, you start to see the world that way. So if you try on thoughts that you ought to, with ought-believing, you may eventually be able to believe according to is-believing.

I would contrast ought-believing with the "beauty" of Destruction and Beauty in that (speaking as the author, privileged to know what I meant when I wrote it), the "beauty" in it is something which, like much beauty, is very "is", is a powerful pull on natural tastes. Otherwise, you could find a degree of analogy between "beauty-believing" and "ought-believing".

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