CAN A BELIEF BE FALSE?
HOW CAN A BELIEF BE FALSE?
D. R. Khashaba
The second chapter in Dr. Geoffrey Klempner’s doctoral thesis (The Metaphysics of Meaning, 1982, Kindle Edition 2016) is titled: “How can a belief be false?” That of course is the question thrashed in Plato’s Theaetetus and the short answer is that a belief is never false, or better put, the question of truth or falsehood is not relevant to belief. [This paper does not discuss or comment on Klempner’s text. I wrote the following on glancing the title, an inveterate habit of mine.]
The little Princess in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale believed the moon was the size of her thumb and was made of silver. Her belief was pragmatically justified: the Princess got the moon she wanted which she could not have got on the learned Counsellor’s notion of the moon.
A Catholic or Orthodox Christian believes he receives the body and blood of Christ in Holy Communion and their belief gives them comfort and satisfaction.
A belief is a state of feeling (an emotive condition) – even such a paltry belief that my laptop battery needs change – and does not admit truth or falsehood. Only when turned into a judgment is it liable to being true or false. Thus in the Theaetetus we find that Protagoras’s ‘Man the Measure’ is admissible on the plane of perception (or rather sensation) but not on the plane of judgment.
Andersen’s Princess had no occasion to turn her belief into a judgment. The Catholic or Orthodox Christian has the judgment inextricably mixed with the belief and that is why we non-believers can tell them their belief is false, but of course neither they nor we can prove or disprove either position because in this case there is no physical object out there as in the case of the moon that can be checked to validate or falsify the judgment. In the case of my laptop battery my belief is effectively a judgment; even so, to say that my ‘belief’ is true or false would be a strictly improper way of speaking; it is the implied judgment that is either true or false.
What about metaphysical pronouncements — Leibniz’ Monadology or Spinoza’s dues sive natura? As I see it, a metaphysical statement is neither a belief nor a judgment. It is a vision. Leibniz, Berkeley, or Schopenhauer says “This way I find reality intelligible.” They are poets. They give us imaginative intrinsically coherent visions, intelligible worlds. Shakespeare gives us an intelligible world in The Tempest. The Tempest world is real inasmuch as it is meaningful, this being the metaphysical criterion of reality. But Shakespeare would be insane if he said that the Tempest reports actuality. Sadly, our great creative metaphysicians – all but Plato – have fallen into this insanity: they assumed their imaginative pronouncements were factual judgments. Only Plato confessed he was giving us myths, meaningful myths that give us intelligible worlds to live in, real worlds in the only metaphysically significant sense of the word real, as opposed to the illusory ‘reality’ of the objective world.
The question “How can a belief be false?” only seems perplexing because of the ambiguity of the term ‘belief’. When re-formulated as “How can a judgment be false?” we have the question examined at length in the Theaetetus. I do not intend to go further into that at this point.
Cairo, August 15, 2016.