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:
- Take the difficulties as an indication that it is wrong, and amend it.
- 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.