Testing Basic Beliefs


Jim Leffel

We all have a set of basic beliefs—a world view. Everyone is a philosopher in this way. In this chapter, our concern is to provide criteria that distinguish a good set of basic beliefs from a poor one. This seems overwhelming perhaps. But in fact, it is a natural process, and one that we are involved in all the time. Whenever we take action, form an opinion, or consider other's views, we are testing a belief system—either ours or someone else's. So our present task is to make explicit what we naturally do by providing a framework to assess world views.

Basic beliefs as hypotheses

We will consider a basic belief as a hypothesisA hypothesis is an idea or a set of ideas we form in order to understand or explain something. We use hypotheses in all forms of reasoning, from the most simple process of everyday decision making, to extremely complex scientific discovery. By understanding the nature of hypothetical reasoning, we will be able to get a handle on how to assess basic beliefs.

Every day we make countless decisions based on hypothetical reasoning. And if we look closely into this reasoning process, we find we are actually testing some of our basic beliefs. Recently, I flew in an airplane. As the aircraft taxied down the runway, I felt my heart beating more rapidly. "Why am I nervous?" I thought to myself, "I've flown many times before." With that thought, I began to relax. This is an example of how we naturally use hypothetical reasoning without even being aware of it. What went into the self-reassuring reflection, "I've flown many times before?" Consider the following thoughts:

  • This airplane is like the others I have been on.
  • Airplanes rarely crash.
  • The laws of nature that got me airborne before are still in operation.
  • Therefore, this ride will be safe.

And of course, the safe trip to Atlanta helped to further confirm the truth of these beliefs. My basic belief in the stability of natural law and the belief that statistical odds are a reliable guide to action enabled me to enjoy the trip. I adjusted to the situation based on my deeply imbedded conviction that these root hypotheses were true and sufficient. Like these ideas, many of our basic beliefs are deeply embedded. We do not always consciously interact with them, even though they provide the foundation for our decision making.

Let's look at another example of how hypotheses work. Consider a detective faced with a violent crime scene. Suppose a woman has been murdered in her apartment. The detective enters and begins to survey the grounds. Everything in the apartment is a potential clue at first. The dwelling appears undisturbed, but he notices empty wine glasses on the coffee table, he finds a small container of cocaine on the floor, a car key on the kitchen counter, and so on. To begin the crime solving process, the detective must formulate a hypothesis: The key on the kitchen counter fits the murderer's car. This hypothesis may not be right, but the detective must start with some kind of assumption. Otherwise, there is no way to proceed with the case.

From this hypothesis a number of implications are drawn. Suppose the key fits a late-model Mercedes. Further, if the key is the only one the murderer had with him (how many of us carry around two sets of keys?), it follows that the car may be parked nearby. In his haste, the murderer may have left on foot. A third implication is that the murderer's name may be on the record of a local Mercedes dealership or registered with the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. To test these implications, the detective conducts a search of the streets in the area and contacts the local Mercedes dealers to get a list of recent buyers.

We note three things about this hypothesis. First, the hypothesis was imposed on the evidence, not derived from it. A hypothesis is a belief used to unveil the reality beneath the surface of our observations. Basic beliefs are not discovered like a new species of fish, they are mental constructs, ideas, we apply to our experience of the world. For example, naturalists do not discover that the universe is a closed system of cause and effect by observing the cosmos. This belief is applied to the observable data. As we discuss basic beliefs as hypotheses, it will be important to keep this in mind. Data and interpretation of the data need to be carefully separated if we are to remain objective.

Second, we note that a hypothesis directs the search for evidence. Without a hypothesis, all evidence is of equal value. The temperature of the room or the day of the month is as relevant as the key on the counter without the presence of a hypothesis. World views act like hypotheses in this way too. Forming basic beliefs is the way we try to make rational sense out of life.

Third, hypotheses can be assessed, which is our main concern here. The most obvious way to evaluate a hypothesis is by seeing whether or not its implications turn out to be true. In our example, the detective may find his hypothesis was wrong, because the key fit the car belonging to the victim. In this way, the hypothesis failed, or was falsified. But what if the key did fit a Mercedes parked close to the apartment? And further, it had been purchased recently by someone who knew the victim? Does this prove that the owner of the car was the murderer? Clearly not. The hypothesis is too general to establish a murderer, even though some of the implications may turn out to be true. The car could have belonged to the victim's mother, who left an extra set of keys with her daughter in case she lost them. So hypotheses, like world views, can be a bit tricky. We need a closer assessment of hypothetical reasoning if we are to have the skills necessary to effectively interact with basic belief systems.

Testing hypotheses

As this illustration indicates, confirming a hypothesis is more difficult than determining it's falsity. In the realm of world views this is especially true. In this section, we will present four rules for the acceptance or rejection of a hypothesis and show how they relate to the assessment of basic beliefs.

1. Adequacy

A hypothesis is adequate when it explains all of the relevant data. If a hypothesis meets the criterion of adequacy, we "tentatively" accept it. Tentatively, because the hypothesis is confirmed or disconfirmed only after all four tests are applied. When a hypothesis explains some, but not all of the relevant facts, it is either false, or insufficient. By insufficient, we mean that it is at best partially true. Adequacy concerns the comprehensiveness of the hypothesis. The more comprehensively a hypothesis explains the data, the higher the degree of confirmation. When two competing hypotheses are being considered, the one explaining the most data is preferred.

Let's assume the victim's brother owned the Mercedes and on the detective's hypothesis, was charged with the murder. Further, suppose that the brother's finger prints were found on one of the wine glasses, and he had a reputation as a desperate cocaine addict. Friends of the family also testified that the brother was violent with his sister when she refused to give him money for his addiction. So far, the detective's hypothesis seems to be well supported by the evidence. But on further investigation, two friends surface and testify that the brother had been out of town visiting them during the week of the murder. The hypothesis is now in jeopardy because it cannot reconcile all of the relevant data.

Optimistic humanism is based on the belief that humans are progressing toward the perfection of our species. Eighteenth and nineteenth century humanists confidently asserted that with time and knowledge, man's goodness would blossom into a utopian culture. But the devastation of World War I crushed this belief. Humanists could not reconcile their confidence in the progress and perfectibility of man with the fact that the most advanced civilization in the world was capable of such barbarism. The inadequacy of optimistic humanism gave rise to pessimism in the decades after the "war to end all wars."

2. Internal Coherence

The criterion of internal coherence is the most basic test of a hypothesis. It states: a hypothesis is internally coherent if its component ideas are rationally interconnected. If a theory or a world view contains self-contradictory ideas, then it is false. The principle of internal coherence is based on the logical law of "non contradiction." The law of non-contradiction is the foundation for all rational thought. It means that if a statement is true, then any statement contradicting it is necessarily false. For example, if it is true that the earth revolves around the sun, it must be false that the sun revolves around the earth. Reason demands we reject contradictory assertions. The internal coherence criterion differs from the other three tests. These criteria "tentatively" confirm or disconfirm a hypothesis. Confirmation of a hypothesis can change in light of new information. But a hypothesis that fails the internal coherence test can never be accepted. No amount of evidence can make a contradictory statement true.

Let's go back to our illustration. The brother's alibi is that he was out of town visiting friends at the time of the murder. Thus, the prosecution's hypothesis appears inadequate. Let's further imagine that the friends the accused was purported to have been visiting are giving testimony. One friend, George, confidently asserts that the brother was visiting him 500 miles away from the crime during the week of the murder. But the other witness, Martha, stated that the accused did not visit them until the week following the murder. Both swear they are telling the truth. What can members of the jury do? They must either believe George or Martha is lying, or that both are mistaken. But they cannot accept both testimonies as true. To believe both testimonies is to accept the thesis that the brother was 500 miles away and not 500 miles away at the same time. Such contradictory evidence is incoherent. There may be reason to believe Martha over George, but both cannot be believed.

Internal coherence is the most decisive test for a set of basic beliefs. We need to carefully examine the relationship between world view categories. If statements about the nature of reality contradict assertions made about human nature, truth or values, then the world view under investigation is incoherent. One of the two (or both) of the contradictory components must be rejected. Because metaphysics is the most basic world view category, we find incoherence most often in the relationship between it and the other three categories. When naturalists believe in objective moral standards, their world view is incoherent. It is not possible to derive a statement of value in a valueless universe. Naturalists must abandon either belief in materialism, or in the possibility of making objective value claims. This dilemma, termed the "naturalistic fallacy" will be discussed in greater length in our section of fallacious reasoning.

Incoherence in a world view is identified most frequently when a basic belief that can only be explained in one system is brought over into another system. We refer to this transaction as "borrowed capital." True beliefs are often (unconsciously) included in world views that are by definition, rationally inconsistent with the imported belief. Theistic beliefs about human nature and values are commonly borrowed by naturalistic and pantheistic world views.

3. External Consistency

A hypothesis is externally consistent when it conforms to other well-established bodies of knowledge. This is common sense. When a hypothesis is consistent with beliefs that are widely accepted based on overwhelming evidence, it gains plausibility. This is the kind of hypothetical reasoning I appealed to in dealing with the flight to Atlanta mentioned earlier.

Hypothesis inconsistent with other well accepted hypotheses are not necessarily false. But the "burden of proof" is on the hypothesis that contradicts other well grounded ones. The theory inconsistent with well established hypotheses needs to both explain the same data and show why it is more adequate than the others. The history of science is replete with examples of theories that were rejected because they failed to conform to wider, well confirmed hypotheses. Sometimes the doubted theory replaces or causes revisions in formerly well-established hypotheses. Two of the most significant examples in science are the Copernican Revolution and Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. Both were accepted only after close assessment, but radically changed the way we view nature.

World views that are strongly counterintuitive have a burden of proof. Where basic beliefs contradict universal human experience, we have reason to doubt their truth. The pantheistic doctrine of maya is one such example. Denying the reality of the material world violates universal human experience. That does not prove that pantheism is false, but it puts a great deal of pressure on the pantheist to account for this illusion.

4. Fruitful

A hypothesis is fruitful when it suggests further directions for application. When a scientific hypothesis not only explains an initial problem, but directs the way to new insight, it is fruitful. Newton's theory of universal gravitation is an example of a fruitful hypothesis. It was originated to solve the problem of falling bodies, but it also explained such things as the ebb and flow of tides, the orbital motion of the moon and planets, and the fluctuations in planetary motion caused by a planet's interaction with other planets.

When a theoretical hypothesis such as a world view is fruitful, it provides a meaningful framework to address practical issues. Fruitfulness in this context is termed "livability." Fruitful basic beliefs can be lived out consistently as new dilemmas and decisions present themselves. By contrast, when basic beliefs can not be consistently lived out, we have reason to doubt them.

Fruitfulness turns out to be more of a practical way to confirm world views than purely conceptual or theoretical. In this way fruitfulness differs from the other three criteria for testing hypotheses.

Testing Hypotheses: A Summary

Adequacy: A hypothesis is adequate when it explains all of the relevant data.

Internal Coherence. A hypothesis is internally coherent to the extent that all of its ideas are logically interconnected. Hypotheses with contradictory concepts are false.

External ConsistencyA hypothesis is externally consistent to the extent that it conforms to other well established hypotheses.

Fruitfulness: A hypothesis is fruitful when it can be successfully applied, and suggest a direction for future application.

We can draw some conclusions from what has been discussed. First, everyone has a world view. Regardless of the context of belief, everyone is a believer. In this way, we all have faith. Second, standards exist to assess the rational merits of our beliefs. These standards, embodied in the hypothetical method, are presupposed in all reasoning processes. It is possible to demonstrate that some belief systems are rationally incoherent, and consequently false. But there is no "ultimate proof" for world views that pass the test of internal coherence. To have absolute certainty, or knowledge beyond a shadow of doubt that a belief system is true requires an infinite mind. Since our minds are limited, the best we can do is hold beliefs that are true beyond a reasonable doubt. True beyond reasonable doubt means that our basic beliefs are internally coherent, that they explain the data of human experience and observation, and provide an applicable guide to life.

Copyright by Jim Leffel, 1994