As I write this, there is an elephant in the room with me.
You believe me, don’t you? Is there a reason you shouldn’t?
Many years ago, in a corner of old England, I saw a ghost. That is, I believe I saw one. Quite unexpectedly (in broad daylight, in fact) I clearly saw a stooping old man with a limp walk across my lounge and disappear into a broom closet. Surprisingly, I didn’t find this event at all frightening. In fact, my first thought was to wonder why the ghost bothered – surely, after all, if it really were possible for spirits to return to the living world after death, ghosts ought to have something rather better to do than waste time hiding in closets.
So I began to consider: did I really believe what I believe I saw? If I had never seen a ghost, would it make a difference to my present belief – or disbelief – in ghosts? For that matter, if I had never seen a real elephant, would I actually know elephants truly existed, or would I merely believe to know?
The trouble, of course, comes from the very word ‘belief’ itself, and quite what we take it to mean. Given the question ‘do we believe in ghosts,’ most of us would consider intelligently, sift the various arguments, and come to a general, non-binding conclusion. But if we then pause to think further, we realize that this state of existence (or non-existence) has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not we believe in it. Either such things exist, or they don’t – and this fact is altered in no way at all by a simple act of belief (or for that matter, non-belief.)
This seems to me to be a good thing. After all, science would be a much happier field, and scientists much happier people, if we simply believed everything they told us, instead of insisting upon all that tedious proof. Proof, or at least the burden of proof, is fundamental in our understanding of truth. Without an ‘empiric’ philosophy – “Seeing is believing” – which insists that no theory or belief can be held to be fact unless proven by actual observation, facts are facts no longer, and merely become a matter of opinion. Isn’t it better to doubt a theory of relativity, a theory of planetary motion, or a theory of evolution, and have it prove itself a demonstrable fact, than simply believe it because we are told to?
My sad little supernatural encounter caused me to consider very deeply what I believe. And what I believe is that it’s not enough simply to ‘believe’ in anything at face value. There must always be room for reason, empirical thought and cold analysis. Without it, there is nothing to stop us believing in ghosts, Bigfoot, flat earths, ethnic cleansing or, well, anything.
By the way – does anyone have a bun I can give to this elephant? You do believe me, don’t you?
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