The True Disbeliever

“Disbelief”. Image by Stephen Smith

December 17, 2020

“I’ll believe it when I see it” could be the motto of the empiricist.

His not unreasonable belief is that reasonable belief in an idea should be governed by tests that give results which can be sensed. His concern is that beliefs not anchored to what is sensible can’t be distinguished from beliefs that are fictional.

But with a little empirical investigation, the empiricist will see that the converse is also true: “I’ll see it when I believe it.” Our perceptions are largely influenced, often determined, by our beliefs. Seeing and believing are Siamese twins joined at almost every organ. The sense we make of our sensations follows the ideas that usher our sensations to a seat in our sensibilities.

Furthermore, testing is a tool of selection: from among several ideas proposed as solutions to a problem, a well-designed test can select the best. But testing can’t generate the ideas. Conjecture must come first. Insofar as beliefs empower perception, the suppression of what could be called “conjectural beliefs” impairs perception. Imagination, the mind’s eye, is as much an organ of perception as our physical eye.

In addition, the logic of testing dictates that only refutation is certain. Confirmation provides no guarantee that a better solution won’t come along tomorrow, especially when continued investigation discovers unexpected facts and ideas that transform the problem.

Hence, the reasonable belief based on sensible tests is at best provisional. It must always be vulnerable to the speculations of new dawns.

Having seen this, the empiricist will recognize that his concern over non-sensible beliefs must be matched by a symmetrical concern over sensible disbeliefs. The greatest obstacle to discovery is the contrapositive of his motto: “I won’t see it as long as I disbelieve it.” With scientific discovery, as with a novel, the key to new insight is the suspension of disbelief.

To believe one thing with certainty, we must disbelieve everything that raises doubt about it. The empiricist who slips over the line and believes his knowledge is “for sure” must close his eyes and mind to contrary insights. Conversely, if we disbelieve everything that raises doubt about one thing, we effectively believe that thing. The empiricist who knows something is impossible effectively believes that what makes it so is absolutely true.

Eric Hoffer noted in his 1951 essay, “The True Believer”:

“It is startling to realize how much unbelief is necessary to make belief possible. What we know as blind faith is sustained by innumerable unbeliefs.” It requires “a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world …. Strength of faith … manifests itself not in moving mountains but in not seeing mountains to move.”

Because conception and perception are so inseparable, both belief and disbelief are fact-proof screens that obstruct discovery of novel understandings. The true believer, who possesses ultimate truth, is a cognitive twin to the true disbeliever, who possesses ultimate truth by default. In the sciences especially, where a history of empiricism has raised sensitivity to the dangers of true belief, blindness comes most readily from true disbelief. Scientists who are reluctant to claim certitude for their knowledge are reckless in claiming impossibility for rival ideas. The empiricist interested in discovery must adopt the additional motto: “Don’t disbelieve what you don’t believe.”

Mel Acheson

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