The web of belief: Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, Quine and mysticism
It is ridiculous to treat everything as if the System were complete, and then to say in the end, that the conclusion is lacking. If the conclusion is lacking at the end, it is also lacking in the beginning, and this should therefore have been said in the beginning.
Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments
I've spent my life looking for the systematic explanation of, well, life. As it turns out, every systemic solution is inherently flawed. This is a philosophical analog to Gödel's incompleteness theorems, which essentially state that any system strong enough to explain things is inherently contradictory. (For a layman's introduction to this concept, I suggest the book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid.)
Wittgenstein, after an exhaustive analysis of the logic of philosophic statements, concludes this:
The correct method in philosophy would really be the following: … whenever someone else wanted to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had failed to give a meaning to certain signs in his propositions. Although it would not be satisfying to the other person–he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy–this method would be the only strictly correct one.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico Philosophicus
One reaction to this revelation is to adopt a totally cynical view, wherein you spend your life essentially saying “Pfft! That's not right” to whatever is said. This is both an easy and a hard approach – easy in that it's easy to prove, but hard in that it's a hard way to live. Consider Wittgenstein's statement:
Skepticism is not irrefutable, but obviously nonsensical, when it tries to raise doubts where no questions can be asked. For doubt can exist only where a question exists, a question only where an answer exists, and an answer only where something can be said.
Ludwig Wittgenstein (ibid)
This “things that cannot be said” is the essence of God, mysticism and life. Wittgenstein himself admits this in the last lines of his book:
My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.
Ludwig Wittgenstein (ibid)
And then concludes, famously:
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
Ludwig Wittgenstein (ibid)
Wittgenstein went on writing for his entire life, although he never published another thing during the thirty years between writing the above quote and the day he died. From my point of view, this was because he knew he couldn't publish in sequential form (e.g., a book) something that is by its very essence multidimensional. Wittgenstein didn't have access to hypertext, but if he did, he would have used it. He wrote in fragments and aphorisms, which pretty much drives the systematic philosophy people crazy. They claim that you can pick and choose parts of what Wittgenstein wrote to demonstrate anything you want to prove. Have I just done that? I don't think so.
Many people throughout the ages have come to the same conclusion as Wittgenstein. Some have chosen silence, some have tried to communicate anyway, using analogy and metaphor. This is the essence of poetry and all mystical writing.
But can we have beliefs without a systematic superstructure? If our beliefs are unsystematic, isn't that the same thing as saying they're wrong? Not at all.
Not a lot of people outside of academic philosophy know the name W. V. Quine, but he is a very well-respected analytic philosopher of the 20th century, and by one poll the fifth most influential philosopher of the past two hundred years. I highly recommend his book The Web of Belief as a good non-technical introduction to his work.
It seems fair to say that any statement is entitled to at least some increment of credibility from the mere circumstance that it would, if true, explain something for which we have no other explanation.
W. V. Quine and J. S. Ullian, The Web of Belief
According to the coherence theory of truth, a proposition (a thought or idea) is more likely to be true if it coheres with all of the other related propositions known (or believed to be) true. What this means in practice is that if a person has a stable, consistent set of beliefs then, when a new potential belief comes along, it is accepted or rejected based on how well it fits together with the stable set of beliefs.
We see therefore that there can be mutual reinforcements between an explanation and what it explains. Not only does a supposed truth gain credibility if we can think of something that would explain it, but also conversely: an explanation gains credibility if it accounts for something we suppose to be true. Sometimes an explanation has no evidence at all to support it apart from the fact that it would, if true, explain something we want explained; and it can draw high credibility from this source alone.
W. V. Quine and J. S. Ullian, ibid
Given a new fact in front of your face (so to speak) that doesn't hook together with your existing belief set, you have two choices: Reject the new fact or reorganize your entire belief set. Changing your entire belief set incurs what is called a high cognitive load and thus people are disinclined to do it. So, it will matter how important it is to you as to whether or not you'll be willing to reshuffle major portions of your beliefs in order to incorporate this new fact.
A good example of this happens with folks who believe that the Bible is infallible. When presented with example after example of flat out contradictions within the Bible, a fundamentalist can either ignore the new data, try to explain it away, or change his or her beliefs.
Another good example is someone who has been brainwashed by scientism and/or postmodernism into dismissing their own spiritual needs as mere “epiphenomenon.”
So, what does this mean for us? It means being willing to challenge the beliefs you were brought up on, or acquired during the public re-education camps you were forced to attend. If you are after the truth, you have to look at the facts in front of you. These can be found in Christianity.
Changing your beliefs is hard. Ignoring the facts is easier. It depends on how important it is to you.