Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Contra Fidem

People have a tendency to talk about their “beliefs”. When analyzed, what this means is that they are describing what they assume to be the inherent essence of things. Unfortunately, this is not the best way to describe the world. Essences are not, as near as we can tell, inherent to anything. As the philosophers say, existence precedes essence.

When an event happens, we experience it as a set of sense impressions. We can use those sense impressions to develop a model of the event that allows us to make predictions about similar events. For instance, we note that objects tend to be attracted to the ground. Over time, several models were proposed to explain this attraction, the most successful of which is the theory of gravity. We have had such success with gravity that some people accept that it is a true model of the events described by the theory. They begin to believe in gravity so strongly that they look for a mechanism of it. Now, there is no observation to date of anything that could serve as a mechanism of gravity, but the belief that there must be one is strong, so a lot of effort is spent on looking for it. Perhaps one day there will be found a way to observe a mechanism of gravity, or perhaps there is no “mechanism” in any observable sense. We don't know either way, and we can't know until such a mechanism might be observed.

Similarly, other observations become the subject of various beliefs. We might believe that because a particular book includes claims of divine authorship (or because someone has made such a claim based on spiritual insights they have experienced) that the book was then inspired by or even directly written by some divinity or another. We might believe that the only things that exist are the interactions of “particles” and “fields” through the exchange of a mysterious substance we call “energy”, even though we cannot observe these alleged “particles”, “fields”, or “energy” except indirectly. We might believe that fairy beings cavort in our gardens because we saw with our eyes what appeared to be a little man dancing in the moonlight by the foxglove one night. I could spend all day recounting various possible observations about which we can make beliefs and clothe those beliefs with an aura of factuality.

Beliefs are neat. They allow us to make predictions about future events, and so allow us to navigate our environment with more or less success through the application of our minds. We believe that things will tend to fall toward the ground if they are not supported above it, which allows us to keep from falling or dropping things by maneuvering our bodies in particular ways. If we're smart, we continue to modify our beliefs to reflect further observations. For instance, in the case of gravity, we might note that birds and flames do not tend to fall to the ground, which causes us to modify our sense of what gravity is, and to modify how it works in our belief-models. From that, we might figure out how to build a helicopter or hot air balloon, which then can be observed to allow us to further refine our beliefs about gravity. Similarly, we might do the same about spirits – we could either dismiss them because we can't repeat our observations about them on demand, or we could note that many people report observations of spiritual beings in various ways, correlate those observations with the ones we have had ourselves, and develop a model of those beings that might allow us to interact with spiritual beings.

Whatever model or system of models we are using, though, we need to remember that they are not the actual events themselves. Even though the models of materialism (the idea that the only things that exist are particles, fields, and energy, and that all things that can occur can be described as interactions of those three types of entity) have been relatively successful in certain ways, giving us computers and CD players and airplanes and rockets, they have been relatively unsuccessful in explaining what occurs in a haunting, remote viewing, telepathy, or artistic creation. To believe in those models in a naïve sense, then, would seem to be a mistake. At the very least, it would seem to be a case of clothing those models with an aura of factuality that can't be maintained through logical argument, but only through assertion.

Belief, then, is a failure to allow for future experiences in favor of experiences which have already occurred, combined with dismissing any experiences which don't match those beliefs. Not all experiences need to be firsthand ones. After all, I strongly doubt that any of my readers have been on the surface of the Moon. Yet, I would submit that most of us certainly believe the reported experiences of those who claim to have been there, and that it does exist as a real place to which we could, at least in theory, visit. That is not, of course, necessarily true, but it exists as a belief that we have based on a combination of the reports of others and our theories about the nature of the world around us. If we were to discover, though, that the Moon was an image projected in the sky by a machine in the center of the Earth, and that those who claimed to go there were lying (which latter is a claim made by some people, who are good at interpreting evidence to support their belief), then it would turn out that our long-held belief about the Moon being a real place that we could theoretically visit would have been wrong. This is, of course, unlikely in the extreme, but it is not impossible.

Applying this to polytheism, I note that a number of particular beliefs have shown up, which are held up as necessary to those who participate in our practices. For instance, some people say that we must believe that the gods are real, that they are not aspects of our own psyches. I don't know. I know that when I interact with entities that I call “gods” (or, more usually, “déithe 's andéithe”, in keeping with my Gaelic tendencies), I experience them in ways that are similar to the experiences that occur when I interact with other people. That is to say that their actions and reactions are only partly predictable by me in the same way that the reactions of people are only partly predictable by me. I interpret this as indicating that the déithe 's andéithe are independent of my psyche in some way. However, someone else might interpret the very same (or at least broadly similar) data as indicating that the entities are expressions of archetypal “forces” within his own mind. Me, I don't care either way, so long as the results of those beliefs are similar. If we both, the archetype-guy and I, participate in feasts at particular times of year, if we both engage in werewolf practices, give sacrificial offerings, and so on, it doesn't matter to me what he believes about the underlying “reality” of those practices and the events that inspire them. “Belief”, in fact, can prove to be an unnecessary wedge between us if it is used in that way.

Now, we might discuss our relative beliefs in the underlying mechanisms that we clothe with an aura of factuality, but so long as he doesn't deny me my right to choose an explanation that I feel is appropriate for whatever reason, and I don't deny him the same, then we can both participate in the same community. It is (at least in part) by denying to others the right to choose their own explanations for events that we fracture community. It is only by claiming for our beliefs an absolute authority which we deny to any other system of beliefs that we begin to oppress our neighbors and open the doors for persecution. For that matter, when we claim such an authority for our current beliefs, we deny to ourselves the ability to include future experiences in our explanations, staying stuck in a rut of what had happened up until the point we had formulated those beliefs.

So away with Belief! Let Belief be damned and cast aside in favor of our current best model. Let us no longer clothe beliefs with an aura of factuality that exceeds actual events. Let our cry go up, “CONTRA FIDEM!”


  1. Or, as we say in the Ekklesía Antínoou, Non Credo Nosco, which can be translated "I don't believe, I know," or "I don't believe I know," or "I don't believe, I don't know"--each of which means something slightly different! And by "know," of course, one means experiential knowledge (i.e. gnosis in the most original sense).

    But anyway, yes.

  2. That's a good motto. I love ambiguous language, and I also love how different things can be ambiguous in different languages.