Practical Expression in Action

‘And what, then, is belief? It is the demi-cadence which closes a musical phrase in the symphony of our intellectual life. We have seen that it has just three properties: First, it is something that 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. As it appeases the irritation of doubt, which is the motive for thinking, thought relaxes, and comes to rest for a moment when belief is reached. But, since belief is a rule for action, the application of which involves further doubt and further thought, at the same time that it is a stopping-place, it is also a new starting-place for thought. That is why I have permitted myself to call it thought at rest, although thought is essentially an action. The final upshot of thinking is the exercise of volition, and of this thought no longer forms a part; but belief is only a stadium of mental action, an effect upon our nature due to thought, which will influence future thinking.

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. If beliefs do not differ in this respect, if they appease the same doubt by producing the same rule of action, then no mere differences in the manner of consciousness of them can make them different beliefs, any more than playing a tune in different keys is playing different tunes. Imaginary distinctions are often drawn between beliefs which differ only in their mode of expression; — the wrangling which ensues is real enough, however. To believe that any objects are arranged among themselves as in Fig. 1, and to believe that they are arranged in Fig. 2, are one and the same belief; yet it is conceivable that a man should assert one proposition and deny the other. Such false distinctions do as much harm as the confusion of beliefs really different, and are among the pitfalls of which we ought constantly to beware, especially when we are upon metaphysical ground. One singular deception of this sort, which often occurs, is to mistake the sensation produced by our own unclearness of thought for a character of the object we are thinking. Instead of perceiving that the obscurity is purely subjective, we fancy that we contemplate a quality of the object which is essentially mysterious; and if our conception be afterward presented to us in a clear form we do not recognize it as the same, owing to the absence of the feeling of unintelligibility. So long as this deception lasts, it obviously puts an impassable barrier in the way of perspicuous thinking; so that it equally interests the opponents of rational thought to perpetuate it, and its adherents to guard against it.’

Charles S. Peirce, How to Make Our Ideas Clear.

‘After the pope John Paul II was shot in 1981, he was rushed to the emergency room of the Gemelli clinic, more precisely the Agostino Gemelli University Polyclinic, where he met a collection of some of the most skilled doctors —modern doctors— Italy could produce, in contrast with the neighboring public hospital with lower quality care. The Gemelli clinic became a designated destination for him and his successors upon hyperventilation, accelerating heartbeat, appearance of sweat in his forehead or similar potential harbingers of risk to his health and the Catholic church. At no point during the emergency period did the drivers of the ambulance consider taking John Paul The Second to a chapel for a prayer, or some equivalent form of intercession with the Lord, to give the sacred first right of refusal for the treatment. And not one of his successors seemed to have considered giving precedence to dealing with the Lord with the hope of some miraculous intervention in place of the trappings of modern medicine. […]

One of the most potent ideas economists have left us is the notion of revelation of preferences. You will not have an idea about what people really think, what predicts people’s actions, merely by asking them. Words don’t count, only deeds do. Words are cheap unless people take actions for them. What matters, in the end, is what they pay for goods, not what they say they “think” about them. People cannot predict their own actions. The same applies to belief. Or what we call belief. And in this case what is called “religious” belief. It doesn’t appear to matter during emergencies. Try to imagine a powerful head of an “atheist” sect, equivalent to the pope in rank, suffering the same health exigency. He would have arrived at Gemelli (not some second rate hospital in Latium) at the same time as John Paul. He would have had the same cloud of “atheist” well-wishers come to give him something called “hope” (or “wish”) in their atheistic language, with some self-consistent narrative about what they would like or “wish” to happen to their prominent man. The atheists would have been less colorfully dressed; the vocabulary would have been a bit less ornamental as well, but actions that require immediacy during crises and emergencies would have been nearly identical.

There was a period, the Albigensian crusade, during which Catholics were engaged in the mass killing of heretics. The killed indiscriminately, heretics and nonheretics, as a time saver and complexity reduction approach. The motto was that it did not matter, since “The Lord would be able to tell them apart”. These times are long gone. Most Christians, when it comes to central medical, ethical, and decision-making situations (like myself, an Orthodox Christian) do not act differently from atheists. Those who do (such as the Christian scientists sects) are few. Most Christians have accepted the modern trappings of democracy, oligocracy, dictatorship of sort, all these heathen political regimes, in place of theocracies, confining the “belief” to matters that would make their decisions for central matters indistinguishable from those of an atheist. So we define atheism in deeds, or secularism, in how much one’s actions differ from those of an atheistic person, not his beliefs and other decorative and symbolic matters, which we insist do not count. And further, we should not worry about people’s religions but their tolerance: it is not my business (nor that of any government, any ruler, any authority) what people “believe”, what matters is what they do to others.’

Nicholas Nassim Taleb,

‘Most religion in England now, says Newman, is mere notional assent, and involves little beyond correct behaviour, pious sentiments, and a decent reverence for ‘sacred scenes’. It is one thing, then, to accept a notion, and quite another to realize a fact; one thing to acquiesce to in an abstract truth, and quite another to give it ‘practical expression’ in action. A ‘real’ assent is one which is ‘felt in the heart, and felt along the blood’, one which affects the imagination, and impels the will toward relevant action. Notional demonstrations cannot produce these results, and real assents therefor – religious beliefs above all – cannot be their outcome. Religious assent has always been enjoined upon us by revelation or by authority: ‘it never has been a deduction from what we know; it has never been an assertion of what we are to believe.’ It cannot be emphatically stated, however, that Newman builds revealed religion upon the foundation of natural religion; the primary assumptions of religion are supplied by the Conscience. […]

A real assent to the truths of natural religion then, will lead to a real assent to those of revealed religion, and our sense of probability, our ‘illative’ sense (which judges degrees of truth), will further lead us to acknowledge the Church to which, under His divine guidance, God has committed the task of preserving and interpreting the revelation. To reach this ultimate certainty, and the ‘triumphant repose’ which it brings, we have but to begin obeying conscience; if we persevere – one step at a time – the kindly light will lead us on.’

Basil Wiley, Nineteenth-Century Studies: Coleridge to Matthew Arnold, ‘Newman and the Oxford Movement.’


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