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Freedom from Belief

Liberating the Mind from Restrictive Thought Patterns

It is possible, desirable and liberating to dispense with belief. This is not a new thesis. Bertrand Russell, one of the most quotable of philosophers, said "I do not believe in belief". That is the attitude of an inquiring mind, an attitude that leads to discovery and advancement.

What is Belief?

When Russell said "I do not believe in belief" he was referring to this common definition of belief: accepting as fact something which cannot be proven. He illustrated this by saying - no-one speaks of believing two plus two make four, because it is not in question. We only speak of belief where there is doubt, where there is no proof. Thus, a Christian may believe in the virgin birth, but he knows when he has a boil on his nose. In other words, the virgin birth is an open question which he chooses to close by belief, while the boil is an observable fact. Russell's contention is that it is simply unnecessary to close the open question. The story will not go away, but closing the question is irrational and limits both debate and growth.

Russell & Bishop Berkeley

Russell also acknowledged that there was simply no answer to Bishop Berkeley's 'Idealism'. Roughly stated, Berkeley had proposed (not for the first time; the idea had currency in ancient Greece) that there was no such thing as matter, that everything is an idea in the mind of the beholder. The problem with this, as Russell pointed out, is that while it is logically irrefutable, it is also a blind alley. It's going nowhere. In his critique of Berkeley's idealism, he seems almost to have anticipated the work of Karl Popper and, given Russell's formidable intellect, it is quite surprising that he didn't make that leap, but more of that later.

Russell & David Hume

Where Russell did run into problems was with David Hume's Problem of Induction. Since the time of Francis Bacon, induction had been held to be the heart of Scientific method. The idea is that if experiments repeatedly give the same result, the hypothesis under test can be claimed 'proven'. Thus, from Bacon's time, scientific knowledge was believed to have been established as true. Hume killed that notion by stating that just because the sun has risen every day until now, that does not prove that it will rise tomorrow. This effectively destroys induction, or more accurately 'proof by induction', and puts nothing in its place but uncertainty.

Russell (together with Whitehead) was the mathematician who unified Mathematics and Logic (this remains his greatest achievement). It is therefore not surprising that he did not like Hume's overturning of the status of Scientific 'truth', but he could neither deny nor refute it.

Russell - Quick Recap

Russell showed that belief without proof is unjustified. It may answer a psychological need, but it is better to overcome this and simply leave the questions open. He would have liked to establish Scientific knowledge as truth, but was unable to do so, having no answer to Hume's Problem of Induction.

Karl Popper

Popper was the 20th Century's greatest philosopher of Science. He solved Hume's Problem, not by showing that Induction works after all, but by showing that it had always been a red herring. How exactly did he do that?

Popper & Falsifiability

According to Popper, any scientific theory has an uncountable number of inevitable consequences. I.e. if the theory is true, this, this and this must happen. Therefore if 'this' doesn't happen, the theory must be false. A theory cannot be proven true, because it is impossible to test every single predicted outcome everywhere and for all time. Thus Popper shifted the onus from proof (which is impossible) to falsification. By this system, Scientific knowledge is 'that which has been postulated, tested and not yet falsified'. Clearly, there is no room for belief with this ethos. Either we know something is false, or we don't. It is irrational to believe a theory true - it's only our best guess yet!

Popper & Demarcation

Having established falsification as Scientific method, Popper further proposed his Criterion of Demarcation between Science and non-Science. To qualify as Science, a theory must be falsifiable, i.e. it must make testable predictions, any one of which kills the parent theory if proven false. By this Criterion, the huge class of non-Science includes religion, politics and a plethora of pseudosciences. He did not equate non-Science with nonsense, and he acknowledged the worth of many non-Scientific fields, but he strongly challenged false claims to Scientific status from such quarters.

How does this help us?

First, I make no apology for citing these great thinkers. They are among the leaders of Western thought in recent times. What they have done, collectively and progressively, is free us from the tyranny of belief, if we only take the trouble to understand them. They have shown us:

Social spin offs from these principles are:

At least, that's what I believe (!)

Postscript on Popper

I had intended to close with these social spin-offs, but have decided to add a little more detail about Karl Popper, who deserves to be better known than he his.

Before Popper, Science was thought to proceed by empiricism - observation, measurement and analysis. The implication, almost, was that scientific grafting would yield understanding of the world. (It doesn't!) But under Popper's model, the hypothesis becomes the driving force. This should not be underestimated. Popper put the scientist, creativity and inspiration back in the driving seat. He also demonstrated that great scientists such as Newton had always been there - creating hypotheses. Creating, not deriving.

If you are interested in reading Popper, I would suggest starting with his autobiography 'Unended Quest'. In it, he summarises and contextualises all his major works, making it a very good introduction. If you prefer to plunge straight into his scientific philosophy 'Conjectures and Refutations' is the one I'd recommend. He also wrote some very influential political and social critiques, most notably 'The Open Society and its Enemies' containing, among other things, devastating criticisms of Marxism and totalitarianism.

And finally, Popper enthusiasts might also enjoy this light-hearted tribute to his life and work.

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