Since the enlightenment, if not before, philosophy has belonged to the abstract and the ideal. Terms, concepts and categories have been defined by abstract properties, and the language used have been in a sense platonic – speaking as if these concepts exist in themselves. In later years, most thinkers have left the cave, and instead of gazing far away into worlds beyond, the focus has changed to the immediate and the internal. Instead of looking to the stars for moral and religious answers, we have admitted ourselves as the source of such ideas, and the study of these concepts is moving more and more into the fields of psychology and biology. However, while the focus has taken a sharp turn the way of speaking has remained much the same; we study concepts in a new way, but still separate concepts along the same old lines. Is it safe to think no information is lost this way?
Imagine all materials were categorized only by colour. The chemist would not study the magnetic properties of metals, but of, say, yellow materials, and would have to analyze the plastic wrapping of my chocolate bar along with gold and sunflower petal leaves. Clearly, we should be glad chemists do not have to work within categories as defined by painters. To study elements in the context of a particular field, the separation between the elements must be done according to relevant properties.
Consider now how beliefs are studied and discussed. Commonly, the categories here are determined by the content of the belief; their abstract properties. A belief is religious if it contains supernatural elements and political if it concerns how to govern society and economy – and these are therefore different things. But if one considers belief as a psychological concept, are political beliefs necessarily different from religious beliefs? Does similar content of beliefs imply that the beliefs are held similarly from a psychological standpoint?
Whether one studies it for practical or theoretical purposes, such questions are of the utmost importance. If a food product is found to have made some people sick, it would be a bad move to simply ban the product. It could be that illness occurred only when combined with a particular product, or in people with certain allergies, or that the illness was caused by an ingredient found in other products still on the market. In cases like this, it is “obvious” that one has to determine the root of the problem, and there is little reason why it should be less “obvious” in the case of e.g. beliefs.
Let us consider an example from the modern “conflict” between religiousness and non-religiousness that takes place in the west. Many are against religion with the argument that religious beliefs are dangerous for society and/or the individuals that hold. Now, if this is their concern, they should ask themselves if containing a deity or supernatural force alone makes a belief dangerous. Maybe the element that makes it dangerous can also be found within the belief that religion is dangerous.
If one is interested in for example how or if certain beliefs should be encouraged/discouraged, or we want to conclude something about the people holding them, as we often are interested in, one must consider how different beliefs are formed and how they can change. If one categorizes certain beliefs as “better” or “worse” by criteria that do not play the greatest role in how and why the beliefs are formed, or which individuals cannot be expected to be able to objectively measure, one would be naive to hope that arguments relating to the criteria will have any practical effect on people’s beliefs.
Often, truth is taken as a criterion for belief: if what is held as true really is so, it is called knowledge, not belief. This is a road with many pitfalls. If we think about the komsomol children being taught about communism’s great history, the gulags not mentioned, we say that they believed in what they were told. When our children pass their history exams today, we say that they have knowledge about the history of communism. For the pupil, however, it looks the same in either case; the information comes from a textbook which states this and that as a fact, and teachers doing the same.
The presence and weight of arguments and evidence is the same in either case, and the basis for accepting the information is the same; the individual cannot be able to differentiate between the categories true and false. This kind of “knowledge” is therefore attained in the same way as a kind of belief is, and there can be no internal criteria, concerning relation, behaviour, attachment and so on, to separate between knowledge and belief. And this kind of knowledge can only be attained through belief; by believing that the teacher or book says the truth – and this belief can never be knowledge.
Thus truth in the philosophical sense is a meaningless criterion in practice. At best it can be replaced with “established truth”, but as the example above illustrates even this criterion is useless in many practical cases. What is considered true is, except perhaps when it comes to mathematics and certain parts of the natural sciences, dependent on consensus and trust in what other people say – which carries the foundation of truth and knowledge back to belief.