We Believe Only What We Carry Into Practice

If we believe something, we act as if it were true. If we don’t act as if it were true, then we just don’t believe it, no matter what we believe about whether we believe it.

It may seem that there are some beliefs that cannot affect how we live, but not so. Beliefs that cannot affect our lives – i.e., not just our outward acts, but our acts of intellection – cannot be entertained in the first place. What can’t be believed can’t be thought of at all. What cannot possibly be believed is strictly inconceivable. We might labor under a misapprehension that we are able to entertain a concept that cannot possibly be true, but at most all we can do is refer to it: we can say that 2 + 2 = 5, but there is no way to think it.

In the final analysis, impossible concepts cannot therefore anywise exist. When we express the notion that the square of 2 is 5, we refer to something that is not real.

Such thoughts can gain no purchase on the economy of our being, whether outwardly or inwardly, in that what cannot possibly be believed cannot possibly appertain to life as actually lived, to thinking as actually thought.

If we can possibly think of a thing, then it can affect us (even if only in our thinking acts – these being, after all, the bases of all our acts whatever (whether consciously thought, or not)).

Take for example the belief that 433 is prime. It might seem that whether or not we think it true, or whether or not we think of it at all, could not possibly affect our lives. But if we believed it false that 433 is prime, why we’d have to come up with some other sort of number theory altogether, together with a new arithmetic; and we’d have to jettison and replace the entire edifice of mathematics that we use and depend upon for everything from rocketry to walking. So likewise with any of the metaphysical truths. Delete any one of them, and the whole shooting match would collapse; then thought as such would be impossible; and, ergo, action of any sort.

All thought must exemplify the metaphysical truths – all of them (for all are implicit in each; Truth is integral). This is why they are so often so difficult to ascertain. How does one pick out what is common to everything?

If we live, we employ and enact the metaphysical truths. No matter what we do, we carry them into practice implicitly.

So then, “carry into practice” must be construed quite broadly. To carry a belief into practice is only to act as if it were true. And we do this constantly with respect to notions we have never consciously considered, one way or another. Whatever we do, e.g., we carry into practice the notion that 433 is prime, at least implicitly. To be at all, then, is implicitly to agree that 433 is prime. How could we do otherwise?

[Brief tangential excursus: Likewise also with the existence of God. Some of us might think that they can behave as if God does not exist, but that’s only because they have not thought things through carefully enough. You cannot behave except under a supposition that behavior makes sense, which can be true only if the world makes sense; and this can be so only if the world is God’s creation, so that its contingent order is founded in an absolute order, and is therefore truly orderly.]

When we believe in a false theory, we have only two sorts of ways to deal with the difficulties that will inevitably arise as we try – and fail – to carry it fully into practice (which we will do only on the condition that we do truly believe it; unprincipled exceptions bewray disbelief) and it reveals its contradiction to truths, to reality:

  1. Take the difficulties as an indication that it is wrong, and amend it.
  2. Deform other, perfectly satisfactory beliefs instead, until our system of beliefs as a whole somehow settles down to a tolerable level of cognitive dissonance, or anxiety, arising from felt contradictions between principles.

The second option can seem reasonable, and is ever therefore undertaken, only when we believe that the problematic theory is fundamental to our entire weltanschauung, so that changing it will force an earthquake in our superordinate paradigms, with unpredictable and therefore quite dangerous consequences for the assets and habits we have established for ourselves. If I have a theory that it will soon rain, and it turns out wrong, no big deal. But if I have a passionately held theory, say, that the reason my life is a mess is that some set of men (other than the sort I see in the mirror when shaving) are mucking it up, so that my pet theory is the only thing standing between my precious little life and a catastrophic recognition of my own culpability, why then I am more likely to interpret all my experiences under the terms of my theory than vice versa. And that will keep me “safe.”  

The most common method of effecting the second option these days is to recur to the belief that contradictions between our beliefs don’t matter. This method is available in practice only to the skeptic, or the nominalist, or the relativist, or the solipsist, or some other variety of madman (all insanity amounts to some sort of solipsism). No other sort of person – no sort of realist – can quite bring himself to buy it. To believe that contradictions among our beliefs don’t matter, and thus quiet our anxiety about such contradictions so that we can relax, and leave off troublesome work at resolving them, we must believe that beliefs can’t be quite true in the first place.

This is a self-refuting belief, but no matter: those inclined to it are loath to examine their beliefs too carefully in the first place, or they would not be attracted to it; so they don’t notice its autophagy. That does not of course mean that such men do not suffer their intellectual disease, for they do: as anxiety, dread, horror, and in its extremity an insanity that renders the practice of life impracticable.

Solipsism of one sort or another is enormously alluring, because it gets us off all philosophical hooks. If it is true, then there are no such hooks: contradictions are only another sort of personal illusion. Nothing matters, then. We can just coast.

Such is the post-modern attitude. Just coast, gently, softly down the slope.

It can work out OK, until eventually it doesn’t. Which, inevitably, it must: reality is not solipsistic.


7 thoughts on “We Believe Only What We Carry Into Practice

  1. Pingback: We Believe Only What We Carry Into Practice – CHRIST THE MORNING STAR

  2. It is a failure of epistemic duty to permanently believe contradictory propositions, but reason does not require us to reconcile our beliefs the moment a contradiction appears. Contradictions are often only apparent and the weight of new evidence does not always fall on only one side of the balance. A reasonable man must be prepared to change his mind, but he must also exhibit what C. S. Lewis called “obstinacy in belief.” His opinions must be flexible, but not fluid.

  3. How do you account for the tenacity of sin? As Augustine wrote non possum non peccare. Sin is at bottom acting as though God does not exist, if only for a brief time. I may sin every day, but it would be a stretch to say I don’t believe in God when I do so, even though I’m acting as though there is no God.

    • Exactly. For a faithful Christian, it’s a daily torment. The more faithful, the more acute the agony.

      I can’t say I have an answer for you, but I get a glimmer now and then. As only a glimmer, it is not yet completely thought through, but I’ll tell you what glims in the darkness.

      There is conversion of the intellect, and then – much more difficult – there is conversion of the heart. The intellect can be convinced in the twinkling of an eye, by simply suddenly *seeing.* The intellect can (in principle) see straight through things to eternity. The heart cannot see, so it is much more obstinate, stiff-necked (and – this is the compensating benefit – ardent and loyal). Purity of heart – which as Kierkegaard said is to will one thing, the Lord – is horribly difficult to attain. And here’s the thing: we *absolutely cannot* do it under our own steam, if only because we are constantly assaulted by the 10,000 things of mundane life, each of them baying at us, “no, no, attend to me, worship me!” The *only* one who is competent to master the 10K things is the Lord and Creator of them all. It is only through him that we may ever see how all the 10K things are arrayed as they should be under heaven, so that we need no longer attend to them, except via the King of Heaven, who has all things in subjection under his feet.

      So long as we keep willing not to sin, and try to fight the battle under our own steam, we will sin. So the key thing is not to try, but instead to just keep throwing ourselves down before the altar. Practice, practice, practice. Pray constantly. It does work.

      In those few periods when I have combined regular confession with the daily office, I have from time to time entered a strange and wonderful region of life where temptation rolls off me like water off a duck’s back. It’s incredibly peaceful, and serene, and – complete, *full.* Until it began happening, I had no idea that mode of living existed. I had thought that all was battle. And it is. But it was as though I was suddenly a master swordsman, who defeats all the enemies who attack him while hardly moving. Or like a duck, floating in the water, with rain pouring down on him. Is he concerned about the water? No.

      Is my heart wholly converted? No! Can I yet say then that I am completely a Christian? No! I’m still a beginner, God help me.

      And that’s the ticket: “God, help me,” ceaselessly.

      • Always good advice.

        By the way, have you ever considered publishing your arguments for God/philosophical speculations in book form? Some of them I’ve honestly never seen before apart from this site.

      • Thanks, Jim. But you do me too much honor. My own experience, again and again, is that a thought or argument will burst in upon my awareness, charged with important unlooked for implications. It will seem new to me, and I’ll get all excited. Then – often only a few days later – I’ll find it in a Doctor or Father or Classical philosopher, tossed off in passing, and soon I will see that it has been well and widely understood for a thousand years. This is both humbling and reassuring; on the one hand it means I’m not too far off the beaten track, and on the other it shows that I’m not coming up with much of anything new.

        All this stuff is there in the most basic texts, staring us right in the face. Indeed, I suspect that what is often happening with these delicious intellectual epiphanies that erupt into my life from time to time is that I’m unconsciously working through the implications of something I’m reading. I think that’s why I so often encounter them in print a few days later; they were implicit in what I’d been reading about lately. So the epiphanies are like what happens in fiction sometimes, when you just know what will happen next, and the story takes on an inexorable logic. A sort of déjà vu, as it were.

        It’s nifty when that sort of thing happens, but it rather saps any confidence I might have that I have something original enough to be worth publishing.

  4. Pingback: Lightning Round -2016/03/30 | Free Northerner


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