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Philosophy

The problem of not believing

The problem of not believing

Recently there seem to be a small, but notable uptick, in the number of people telling me that they do not believe that I exist. Despite the obvious possibility it could affect my psyche leading me to some type of existential crisis, I believe I exist. In fact, I know that I exist. One thing that we all know for certain is our own existence. It is other minds that we all must presuppose exist. Of course one could argue that “reality” is merely a dream or we are a “brain in a vat” (a modern day version of Descartes’s demon), but if that really was the case then so what?

Our perception of reality (our “map”) is how we interpret and interact with the physical world (the “territory”) and regardless of the actual “territory” (be it a dream, or a “brain in a vat”) our “map” wouldn’t be any different than it is now. It appears to me that it holds no cognitive value to bloat one’s ontology with things that have no possibly of resolution since we will always have our “map”, but we never will ever be able see the actual “territory” directly. That (the “territory”) is forever outside of our epistemic vantage point, what ever the naive “territory” of reality may be. Given that, then I feel that I am justified to believe I exist and also that I am justified to say that I know that I exist.

Now that I have established, at least to my satisfaction, that I exist then I have to wonder why a number of people do not believe I exist. Out of those people who do not believe I exist, a group of them also will also say they don’t know I exist. Strange as it sounds to me, it is consistent with any tripartite theory of knowledge. In order to say one knows something, a certain set of three generally accepted conditions must be met, and while one of the conditions can vary between theories of knowledge, two are consistent among all that “p is true” and “s believes p”. Where “p’ is the proposition being evaluated, and “s” is the subject and “believes” is the propositional attitude towards p This means that in order to say “I know” or “I know p is true” is that the proposition is true (what it means for something to be true is a topic for another time) and that “I” believe p to be true. Notice here this means knowledge entails belief such that believing something is true is a necessary precondition to knowing something is true. As odd to me as that may be, someone who doesn’t believe I exist, while perhaps being irrational is being consistent in saying that they also don’t know they exist.

So what about the other group who believe I exist while at the same time saying that they know I exist. This presents a pretty significant epistemic problem to me. Since knowledge is a subset of belief, and it requires belief to claim to have knowledge then it follows that someone cannot rationally claim they know that I exist without first meeting the necessary precondition of believing I exist. This second group (Group B: not believing I exist, but knowing I exist) appears to me to be holding to an even more irrational position then the first group (Group A: not believing I exist, and not knowing I exist) since the first group is potentially irrational1, but is consistent with established theories of knowledge.

Rational

Consistent

Group A

No1

Yes

Group B

No

No

Group C

Yes

Yes

Group A here to me appears to be on slightly more epistemically justifiable footing merely since the position is consistent with theories of knowledge, as whoever holds that they do not believe I exist would not meet the necessary precondition to also hold they know I exist. In other words, if they do not believe I exist then it follows they do not know I exist. Members of Group B however claim they know I exist, but at the same time do not believe I exist. Since knowledge is a subset of belief, it seems untenable to hold to the knowledge that I exist with out in addition believing that I exist. The inescapable conclusion here I draw is that it is more rational for someone to not know that I exist if they insist they do not believe that I exist. Once again, this is indicative of a solipsistic position of someone who is unable to justify holding that they know other minds exist. Specifically here in reference to mine.

This solipistic trap would then be completely avoidable if one actually believes that I exist. Since, if one believes that I exist, they then can hold that they know I exist if they choose to hold to that knowledge position (Group C). So what prevents someone from Group C from saying that they believe I exist? That I do not know, but I believe it is because they for whatever reason feel the word “belief” is a theological ladened word often equivocated with the word faith. Even though “belief” is a very well defined word in epistemology (what we hold to be the case or what we hold to be true) including even an entire field of logic dedicated to the reasoning of beliefs (doxastic logic), but some have stigmatized it to the point that they find it almost bizarre to think that they even have any beliefs. But as noted prior, beliefs are our map to reality. Our beliefs are what we use to navigate that terrain of reality we never can directly view. Without beliefs, we have no map and we are lost in the epistemic woods so to speak.

Group C then, by believing that I exist, is merely mapping the territory of reality that in their web of beliefs they hold the belief I exist. From that it follows they could of course also then claim to know that I exist given sufficient justification. Here I think straight evidentialism and empiricism would prevail as epistemic justification such that if they are having a conversation with me then it is reasonable to say they know that I exist. This to me then would be the most rational position in regards to the question of my existence. That if I am having a conversation with you or you are reading my blog, then you are justified to hold to both the belief and knowledge that I exist. Otherwise it would be irrational to have a belief act (treating me as if I exist) while simultaneously not believing that I exist.

If a person reading this does not believe that I exist, then why are they reading any of this in the first place? Did they not presuppose I existed before they starting reading this? Presuppositions are beliefs. So if they are willing to presuppose I existed before they started reading this, then they have already implicitly acknowledged that they have beliefs. So if someone still, after reading all this, does not believe that I exist…then all I can say is that I believe they simply do not understand beliefs.

1 “Potentially irrational” as the actual determining if not believing I exist is rational or not would require a greater analysis. I will therefore just appeal to the normative epistemic value that believing other minds exists as a precondition to intelligibility.
(Thanks Aszneth for editing the first section.)

 

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