Explanation, Belief, and Reality


This essay is motivated by a class studying the origins of psychotherapy that I began today, where we are looking back to Mesmer and others who were associated with what we might call today: miraculous cures. The discussion found itself involved with important ideas about belief, reality, science, religion, and so on. I came home with a very unsettled mind and, as I usually do to put it in order, sat down and began to write about these various topics. I have discussed parts of this in my books and blog posts. The most direct connection is to the assertion that unsustainability is, in large part, an unintended consequence of the excess, hegemonic use of science to explain complex phenomena for which it is methodologically not equipped to do.

There is something about human beings that makes them curious. Curious is a word mostly related to the desire for explanation. Even as infants, we begin to ask “why” questions long before any other. Other than rhetorical questions that one asks oneself or some invisible audience, “why” questions are directed at someone else. The choice of the basis of the explanation is left to the answerer. Over the history of humankind, this kind of response has taken many forms.

The earliest responses created explanations that invoked mysterious or mystical causal origins. Mundane phenomena were explained by invoking some magical force or being. The grew from early, local shamans and gods to the expansive Abrahamic traditions of today. In terms of current linguistic usage, all of these would be classified as spiritual or religious in nature.

As the period of the Enlightenment began, some exceptionally curious men (always men at that time) noticed inconsistencies in the then extant religious explanations, and sought to explain what they observed by using their reasoning powers. As their successes in explaining things grew, so did their methods for gathering the information that fed their reasoning. This process came to a head with Descartes who laid the ground for what we call science today. He invented reductionism, the idea that we could explain a objective, mechanical universe by examining one separate piece at a time.

He hit the jackpot in terms of creating a way of knowing that has become dominant in the West, but not exclusively so. The explanations of both religion and science are bodies of beliefs, that is, truth about how the world works. Before moving on to illustrate other ways of explaining such phenomena, I have to talk a little more about beliefs. Beliefs are those explanations that individuals and cultures hold as basic to design actions and give reasons, if asked, why that action and not something else. The founder of pragmatism, C. S. Peirce, defined beliefs as intimately related to action.

And what then is belief?

First, it is something we are aware of;

Second, it appeases the irritation of doubt; and

Third, it involves the establishment in our nature of a rule
of action, or, say for short, a habit.

A belief established a habit for action, and as long as our beliefs were settled, we were disposed to act as they dictated. Doubts unsettled beliefs and disposed us to eliminate it in order that we might settle back into belief. Inquiry, broadly construed, was the struggle to attain a state of belief by eliminating the irritation of doubt.

The essence of belief is the establishment of a habit, and different beliefs are distinguished by the different modes of action to which they give rise.

Beliefs, in philosophy, have a lot to do with “truth,” but I am not going there in any depth. Beliefs are deemed to be true to the believer, but not necessarily to others, as what constitutes truth is subject to philosophical and practical disagreements. I am writing only about the place of beliefs in explaining both natural phenomena and intentional human actions.

There are other ways to explain observed phenomena that are neither religious or scientific in nature but are very important in human affairs. For lack of a better term, let me call these pragmatic. Pragmatism, following the same Peirce, developed into a method to explain worldly happenings. Explanation is again at the root. Science is severely limited when asked to explain how big systems, like the economy of the US works, and to answer ancillary questions, like what caused the crashes of 1929 or 2008. It is problematic, at best, and inappropriate, at worst, to employ the “scientific method” in such cases of complex phenomena. The system being queried is complex in these cases and cannot be fitted into the tightly controlled context of a scientific investigation. Human beings in action are similarly complex, making scientific explanations equally problematic. This does not stop scientists, both natural and social to make “scientific claims” about the behavior of both human and non-human entities that can and do produce significant unintended consequences.

Pragmatism is built upon inquiry methods aimed at understanding how such complex systems work by observing them them in their actual worldly context over time, while often interacting directly with them by perturbing the system. To the extent that such actions seem to “cause” the system to behave in the desired way, pragmatists would say that some sort of understanding has been generated by the inquiry. Where scientific inquiry is objective, that is, scientists have no interest in the meaning of the outcome beyond clearing up a gap in knowledge, pragmatists always care about the outcomes and their understandings. When we say someone has a green thumb, we are acknowledging the understanding that person has acquired about tending, that is, caring for, their gardens.

The beliefs created by these three distinct categories explanation-seeking means of inquiry are identified by different names although everyday use blurs these differences all the time. Beliefs from religious inquiry are called faith; from science—knowledge or facts or truths; and from pragmatism—understandings. The blurring of these distinctions leads, as I note below, to all kinds of disagreements and conflicts.

One more important category needs to be mentioned, that of intuition. Intuitive beliefs are those explanations given by someone, when asked why they did something (including saying something, also a form of action,) that come from some inexplicable feeling. As I learn more about how the brain works, I have an intuition (not enough experience yet to be an understanding) that intuition fits under the category of pragmatism with a key difference. Pragmatism usually refers to contemporaneous inquiry about some phenomenon still going on. Intuition, it seems to me, uses past experiences, stored in the autobiographical, plastic parts of the brain, as the basis of some intuitive belief by making a sort of metaphorical connection between the immediate experience and other experiences from the past. I find this consistent with Antonio Damasio’s model of the brain (Self Comes to Mind, Vintage press, 2010). This explanation also is consistent the work of Lakoff and Johnson and others on the place of metaphor in meaning (Lakoff, G. and M. Johnson (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago, IL, University of Chicago Press). Question to the reader, “What kind of belief is this one about intuition I am espousing?”

I should add yet one more class here, which I call as some do, WAG’s or wild-ass-guesses. These are explanations offered up, but with no attempt at grounding as in any of the ones above.

All of these types of explanatory beliefs have a very important feature in common. They are used to construct and explain action. Each of these has a different value as a legitimating ground for action, importantly including speech acts including argumentation, and therein lies the rub. The value of any one of these as an explanatory means differs from person to person and from situation to situation. Those that invariably use but one category to explain everything are called orthodox or, even extreme. That label springs from their use of only one of these categories as grounds for action and legitimation. The consequence of the incompatibility of these different kinds of explanatory beliefs is obvious, but I will stop short of any discussion of such consequences here.

The second important distinction mentioned in class today was reality. It is even a more troublesome word than belief. In general, reality refers to a body of beliefs that explains how the universe works, or, as some would say it, contains the truth about the universe. Those that hold to science as the way to generate true expressions would argue that reality is some assemblage of material things and processes that have been objectively explained to the satisfaction of the standards of science. Conversations about religious reality often beg the question by claiming that the way gods work is ineffable or inexplicable, and that to ask what is real is to ask the wrong question. Pragmatists might say that reality is the last explanation that we just expressed because it seems to work for the time being. So, we can say that reality as the body of beliefs that constitute it is as arguable as are those beliefs. I’ll end with a few statements about reality made by a philosopher and a scientist as food for further thinking. Both have made a big impression on me.

The late Richard Rorty, an eminent American philosophy, wrote the following about truth, but as related to “reality.” (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989, p. 4-5).

We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that truth is out there. To say that the world is out there, that it is not our creation, is to say, with common sense, that most things in space and time are the effects of causes which do not include human mental states. To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations.

Truth cannot be out there - cannot exist independently of the human mind - because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false. The world on its own - unaided by the describing activities of human beings - cannot.

The suggestion that truth, as well as the world, is out there is a legacy of an age in which the world was seen as the creation of a being who had a language of his own. If we cease to attempt to make sense of the idea of such a nonhuman language, we shall not be tempted to confuse the platitude that the world may cause us to be justified in believing a sentence true with the claim that the world splits itself up, on its own initiative, into sentence-shaped chunks called “facts.” But if one clings to the notion of self-subsistent facts, it is easy to start capitalizing the word “truth” and treating it as something identical either with God or with the world as God’s project. Then one will say, for example, that Truth is great, and will prevail.

Humberto Maturana, a Chilean bioscientist, wrote the following about reality (“Reality: The Search for Objectivity, or the Quest for a Compelling Argument.” Irish Journal of Psychology 9(1):25-82, 1988.).

There are two fundamental kinds or manners of listening for explanations that an observer may adopt according to whether he or she asks or does not ask for a biological explanation of his or her cognitive abilities. These two manners of listening define two primary, mutually exclusive explanatory paths that I shall call the path of objectivity without parentheses (or the path of transcendental ontologies), and the path of (objectivity) in parentheses (or the path of constitutive ontologies)…..In this (transcendental) path, an explanation operationally entails the implicit claim by the explaining observer that he or she has a privileged access to an objective independent reality, and that it is this objective reality that gives validity to his or her explanations. Due to this circumstance, any disagreement between two or more observers always takes the form of a dispute in mutual negation… In this explanatory path, a claim of knowledge is a demand for obedience.

Reality is an explanatory proposition that arises in a disagreement as an attempt to recover a lost domain of coordination of actions or to generate a new one.

In the first quote, Maturana was pointing to inherent conflicts created by invoking different categories of these legitimating arguments. His “path of objectivity without parentheses” is his way of pointing to science. In particular, he was pointing to the cultural hegemony of science in Western, modern societies. Pragmatism lacks the transcendental claim of religion or science and corresponds more or less to his “path of (objectivity) in parentheses.” The second quote ties the concept of “reality” or, as I would add, “belief,” to action.