Believers

No, not that new song. Or people of faith. It’s all of us.

Every human holds beliefs, and a big reason two individuals might not like each other is that they hold conflicting ones. So, who’s right in these cases?

“Right” isn’t really the right word — when it comes to beliefs, a lot of it is intangible. No one can be right about certain things, but we can set up ways of thinking to arbitrarily create right an wrong. Then, we have to justify why we set it up that way.

Let’s take a big belief as an example: a higher power. If you do believe, maybe you have a feeling that such a power exists, maybe you’ve just been told one exists and that’s enough. Perhaps you use some form of Pascal’s Wager to justify belief. In any case, we’ve already outlined every way I can think of (and have been able to look up/converse about) to justify a belief. It’s these three things: a feeling, authority, or logical/knowledgeable understanding.

A feeling can be more than just an emotion. Let’s think about it like a data type in programming. If you don’t know about data types, think of the difference between a number and a word, they’re elements of different languages with different rules. There’s also a difference between words and letters, where letters follow rules to make words and words follow different rules to make sentences; it follows that data types specify slightly different kinds of information. Same thing with feelings; they describe the high-level conscious experiences we have such a hard time explaining.

Take the sky being blue, and we’ll assume we the observer have sight without color-blindness for the example. You probably know it’s blue one way because you see that it’s blue. You might know it’s blue another way, via science. The former justifies your belief about the sky with fully convincing internal evidence; the latter is understanding why the sky is blue.

By measuring wavelengths of light in the atmosphere with precise instruments, we can verify the color of the sky. We can then know the sky is blue because we measure an observable (light), and we measure it specifically to be within the narrow band of wavelengths we define as blue. So information from light waves (in this case the wave itself) becomes knowledge about the color of the sky, and in turn this knowledge fits into a scientific framework from which we can understand why the sky is blue, and logically this implies we understand why it is not any other color.

On the other hand, we have the prima facie knowledge that the sky is blue. Again, I call this a feeling, of which all senses are a subset. We can’t justify a feeling any other way, we can only take it at face value. While this particular feeling leads us to correctly conclude the sky is blue, it does not give us any insight as to why. Because the feeling of seeing does not tell us why anything is the color it is, there is no logical reason why anything should be the color it is. Thus we cannot achieve a real understanding through this belief alone — understanding requires a set of connected, correct knowledge about a topic and a recognition of what is not in the set of correct knowledge.

To wrap things up, we have the idea of beliefs and knowledge as distinct, somewhat parallel processes of deriving truth. Knowledge, as I’ve described it, must come from a logical operation on information — such as a scientific experiment. Beliefs tend to come from our emotional side, and can often be set or reset during times of extreme emotion be it positive or negative. However, beliefs can also change slowly over time, if the assumptions that underly that belief change over time, and then the belief is re-examined. In this way, someone can change their belief from whatever prima facie boolean value they had it set to, to what a framework that leads to deep understanding necessitates that belief to be.