Believing things into existence

Patricia asked:

If Y is the sole necessary and sufficient conditions for X

And if there are no other necessary conditions for X,

And if there are no other sufficient conditions for X,

And if Y is always the entirely subjective belief of any given individual, not susceptible to justification,

Then in what sense can X be said to exist? Or in what sense can the word which is a marker for X be said to have any meaning?

I hope I have phrased this in a way that makes sense. I’m not an expert logician by any means!

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Thank you, Patricia, for your beautifully formed question. I would not change a single word of it.

First, I am going to tell you what immediately comes to mind with regard to this ‘X’ (and was probably on your mind too) and then talk about a rather different case which you may not have considered.

What immediately comes to mind? Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations para. 258 which begins:

“Let us imagine the following case. I want to keep a diary about the recurrence of a certain sensation. To this end I associate it with the sign “S”…”

From around para. 200 onwards, Wittgenstein has been leading up to this, his case against the notion of a ‘private language’, a language that purportedly refers to subjective ‘objects’ such that ‘a definition of the sign cannot be formulated’. This last bit is crucial, because although we normally consider things like pains and tickles to be subjective or private, these events exist in the arena of public discourse, with repeatable and recognizable causes and effects.

‘S’ is different. Apart from my writing ‘S’ in my diary, nothing physical changes in me to prompt the writing of ‘S’ nor is there any characteristic external behaviour for S, nor any physical event that can be observed to cause me to write ‘S’.

By the end of para. 258 the argument is already over. Game, set and match. (I’m not going to go over this here, books have been written about it.) All that follows are objections that Wittgenstein bats away with ease. The idea of ‘belief’ is the very first thing he considers, in para. 260:

“Well I believe that this is sensation S again.” — Perhaps you believe that you believe it!

What is it to ‘believe’ something, or ‘believe in’ the existence of something? Our first thought is that ‘I know what I believe’. The fact that I believe that P, or believe in the existence of X, is self-validating. I know what my beliefs are, a priori. So what, exactly, is it that presents itself to my mind when I have a belief that P, or a belief in the existence of X?

There are things one can say about many beliefs that are not true of all beliefs. For many beliefs, there is evidence that one would point to; but not for all beliefs (e.g. the belief that the universe has existed for more than 5 minutes, Russell’s famous sceptical hypothesis). For many beliefs, there are actions that are appropriate if you have that belief, but not for all beliefs. Let’s say that (for whatever reason) I believe that Donald Trump will be remembered as one of the great American US Presidents. There is nothing that I can do to show that I have this belief other than asserting that very statement, or repeatedly Tweeting it, or saying (in 8 years time after Trump’s second term) ‘I told you so!’

This ‘sensation’ that I’m having now, which I call ‘S’ is one I ‘believe’ I’ve had before, when I first gave it the name ‘S’. What makes this a case of belief? We’re all familiar with that feeling you get when you recognize something or someone. ‘I’ve seen that car before, what is it?’ ‘It’s a Pagani Zonda.’ ‘Ah!’ Problem is, the ‘feeling’ I get when I ‘believe’ I am having S again is just another incorrigibly subjective feeling, like S. Maybe I’m just imagining it all. What is the difference between ‘belief’ and ‘imagination’? Like cases of deja vu, where you really can’t say exactly what is in your mind or what you’re thinking.

In short, the appeal to belief doesn’t help. It doesn’t go a single step towards weakening the case that Wittgenstein has made in para. 258.

— Now, I want to consider a seemingly very different case, or rather cases, of your ‘X’.

Here are two examples. I believe that I have a guardian angel. I also believe that I have a virtuous soul.

Because I have a guardian angel, whatever bad things may happen to me will not be as bad as they would have been had I not had a guardian angel. If I break my arm, then I can console myself with the thought that were it not for my guardian angel, I would have broken my arm and my leg.

Similarly, I may have done some despicable things in my life, but I believe that because I have a virtuous soul, these were aberrations, the result of ethical misjudgement, rather than reflections of my true character. Were it not for my virtuous soul, I would have done far worse things.

I believe that I have a guardian angel and a virtuous soul because I really do have a guardian angel and a virtuous soul. I have these gifts because I believe it and only because I believe it.

Moreover, unlike the case of ‘S’, these beliefs definitely have consequences. Because I have a guardian angel, I am prepared to take risks that I otherwise would not have taken. Because I have a virtuous soul, I am prepared to put myself in moral danger that I would not otherwise have put myself in.

Wouldn’t this be a case that fits your schema? We can go further and generalize. I could believe these things about you. Because you have a guardian angel, your question was more cogent and logical than it otherwise would have been, etc. (So this isn’t, as one might have first thought, merely a case of ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’.)

Over to you.

3 thoughts on “Believing things into existence

  1. Thank you so much for your kind and substantial reply. I can follow the explanation about Wittgenstein, but I’m on shakier ground with the guardian angel, possibly because the example I was working from in my mind was different.

    I was doing necessary and sufficient conditions with my students (I’m a high school teacher) and, more by accident than by design, we stumbled onto the question of what are the necessary and sufficient conditions for being a woman. The wide ranging discussion included the suggestion that the ONLY necessary condition for being a woman was that one believed one was a woman, and that this alone was sufficient to actually be a woman. But if the only necessary condition is an entirely subjective belief, and if this belief is on its own sufficient, then what does the word “woman” actually mean?

    That’s where I was coming from.

    I need to think about this a bit more.

    Thanks again!

    1. Speaking as a logician and semanticist rather than a gender theorist (an area of philosophy about which I have at best only opinions rather than knowledge) the claim that it is necessary and sufficient for being a woman that one ‘believes oneself to be a woman’ makes sense — up to a point.

      Consider two superficially similar cases, where a person who is white self-identifies as ‘black’, or a person who is non-Jewish self-identifies as a ‘Jew’.

      In Alan Parker’s movie ‘The Commitments’ (1991) about a struggling Dublin soul band, the saxophone player Dean Fray declares to a group of youngsters who are watching the band rehearse in the open air — much to their bafflement — ‘I’m black and I’m proud!’ We, the audience, know that he isn’t claiming to actually be ‘black’, he is asserting his love of and identification with soul music and the great soul musicians of the 60s.

      In the movie ‘The Real Lebowski’ (1998) starring Jeff Bridges, Jeff Lebowski’s friend and bowling team-mate Walter Sobchak angrily claims that he is Jewish and therefore not able to ‘bowl on Shabbat’ on the ground that his late wife was Jewish. We, the audience, see the humour in this — one doesn’t simply ‘become’ Jewish by marrying a Jew. You have to convert. It’s not that difficult to do, but you have to study and pass the exam and then you are a bona fide Jew. If you haven’t passed the exam, you’re not Jewish and that is that.

      You can’t become a Jew merely by self-identifying as a ‘Jew’, and you can’t become black merely by self-identifying as ‘black’. The problem that you wrestled with in your class is that once we discount biology, there no longer seems to be any external handle on the concept of womanhood, in the way there is on the concept of being Jewish or being black.

      I don’t see that as an obstacle, because there is an understanding — which may be culturally relative or ideologically slanted but that’s not an insuperable objection — of what it is to ‘be’ female in one’s attitude towards others and towards the world. If you were born a man but want to be treated as female then, relative to certain cultural expectations, there are certain things you need to do. As to the law regarding such matters, this can be lax or very restrictive depending on where you live.

      Or, alternatively, you can silently and invisibly enjoy your ‘womanhood’ in the private and inviolable confines of your own mind.

  2. This is what Immanuel Kant wrote:-

    Critique of Pure Reason( A383): Cf. Kant ‘—– if I were to take away the thinking subject, the whole corporeal world would have to disappear, as this is nothing but the appearance in the sensibility of our subject and one mode of its representations.

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