Contradictory and Justified Belief

Most of us walk around with a sense of certainty about what we know about the world that has never been questioned or examined at any level.

Someone can know something and change their opinion and will always say they used to believe that thing, but they won’t say they used to know it. If someone once knew that their father was born in 1965 and then found out it was actually 1964 they would say, “I used to believe my father was born in 1965 but now I know he was born in 1964”. But what if they then found out their father was born in 1963? They might say, “I used to believe my father was born in 1965, and then I believed he was born in 1964 but now I know he was born in 1963”. This could go on forever. So what does this say about our actually knowing things? We only know what we know until we learn otherwise and then we know something new and believe something old. Yet upon examination somehow this doesn’t seem right. How can we replace an opinion with a certainty when the opinion was once a certainty itself?

Saying we used to believe something implies that we merely chose to believe it even though at the time we had 100% confidence in it being true. This is incongruent. One way to resolve this could be to accept that fundamentally everything must be a belief. We justify our belief or “knowing of things” by coming up with reasons that are based on good evidence. Yet at any moment these reasons may become redundant, forcing us to change what we know to something we used to believe and replace it with the new thing we know. And what can we make of the fact that we often believe many incompatible things simultaneously? We think we know what it is to know something but all of us have things we know about the world that conflict with other things we know or believe. Maybe you believe all human life is valuable and deserves to live, but given the power you would condemn a murderer or rapist to their death. You can’t believe that all human life is valuable and deserves to live, and believe not all human life is valuable and doesn’t deserve to live. Can you know that one human deserves to live while knowing that the other does not? Perhaps you love animals and think golden retrievers are the cutest animals on the planet and would never harm or eat one, but eat cow for dinner when you get burgers. Can you love all animals and not love all animals? Do you think dogs deserve to live but think cows do not?

It’s interesting to look at how inconsistent we are with what we believe but it’s concerning to look at how we might act on our inconsistent beliefs. I have seen many men over the years come to my gym and tell me that the best way to build muscle is to do multiple sets of 8-12 repetitions of each exercise they perform. It’s common to see these same men go to the bench press and try to get a new 1 rep max record every time they come to the gym. This is called cognitive dissonance. We believe something while also acting in contradiction to it. A more concerning example is the amount of politicians we’ve all witnessed over the years touting the importance of peace while simultaneously engaging in war. You may be inclined, as I am, to feel animosity towards the actors in this example. But if we all do this on some level and on a regular basis then how can we be certain they acted with full conscious awareness and autonomy? And if cognitive dissonance is a normal human trait what can we do about it?

If you have realised that you hold contradictory beliefs and decide to rid yourself of one of them, the problem you have now is that the one you choose to keep will always be the one that fits in with your current biases the easiest. Not necessarily the one that is most justified or true. So we must accept that if we are to believe something then we cannot know it. And if we are to know something then we will always know it incompletely.

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