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Believing in knowing and a bit of knowing to believing

Willard Van Orman Quine was a philosopher of the analytic tradition (meaning he applied empirical logic — science — to his thinking). Quine was associated with Harvard University, first as a student and then as faculty in philosophy. He wrote several books and his influence became such that he is regarded to be among a handful of the most influential philosophers of the last century.

One of the books Quine wrote is titled The Web of Belief. He wasn't talking about a spider web that catches poor, innocent people in sticky deception. He wasn't talking about religious beliefs or cults. He was talking about what makes for cogency, persuasiveness, and confidence that one's findings in science are justified. The web of belief refers to how the totality of a person's beliefs interconnect and form a single, coherent view of reality. This is related to what is called the coherentist view of warrant, and warrant is understood as the justification that supports any given theory.

In my office I am known as “the voice of doom.” That is because I believe it is warranted to be cognizant of the weather during hurricane season. Bermuda has a history of damage during direct hits of previous hurricanes. Every year you can watch the low pressure systems develop into waves that further develop into tropical storms and then become hurricanes, and you can watch them as they sail across the Atlantic from the coast of Africa into the Caribbean, onto the east coast of the United States, or across the Sargasso Sea down the “bowling alley” which is a corridor skirting the Azores high, leading them straight to Bermuda. I have endured tropical storms and hurricanes here myself. The touch points in my web of belief include the science of weather forecasting, previous history of the island of Bermuda, personal experience of enduring hurricanes here, and personal experience watching the pressure systems and predicting the paths of these storms. I am the voice of doom, but not without warrant.

In psychology a solid web of belief that is coherent and provides warrant for any given practice of psychotherapy also relates to several touch points. It emerges from a method in outcomes research that includes systematic observation of any particular phenomenon, mathematical assessment of data produced in that observation, and critical thinking with regards to the implications of the results. That is the scientific method in psychology.

Warrant with regards to any approach to psychotherapy does not rest on one part of that method alone. For instance, observation and mathematical assessment produces evidence, but evidentialism alone is not sufficient for warrant, because ultimately we only have partial knowledge, degrees of confidence, and human error. Observation and critical thinking produces theoretical systems largely based on the foundation of philosophical arguments, but foundationalism alone is not sufficient warrant, because if we base our confidence on a principle and that principle is suddenly deemed wrong, then our whole system crumbles. Foundationalism requires an infinite regress, always pointing to the next thing by which to back up one's theories. Foundationalism is a house of cards.

In the world of psychotherapy outcomes research it is interesting to note that cognitive-behavioural therapy enjoys a large support base in evidentialism but largely lacks coherency because it doesn't have much of a philosophical foundation. Gestalt therapy, on the other hand, enjoys a huge foundation in continental philosophy but largely lacks an evidence base in its own research tradition. In reality, neither is superlative with regards to the other, because both lack a coherent warrant.

This is why I believe more of a discussion needs to take place with regards to the issue of evidence-based practice. Right now the justification for any given procedure is based on evidentialism, and that can only provide partial justification. Furthermore, people act as if having evidence proves that something is true or right. It doesn't. Certainty is a phantom pursued in the mist of relative confidence. We don't have absolute certainty, and so we actually do need multiple touch points to create more of a coherent warrant.

And while I'm at it, that relates to the issue of belief versus knowledge. Some people polarise religion or spirituality against science along this false dichotomy between belief and knowledge. They would claim that knowledge is not based on belief, that knowing is not the same as believing, that believing is a hoping when there is no basis in knowledge, a kind of hope against hope, but knowing relies on some kind of support, some evidence or some foundation. Belief is faith or trust, and knowledge is justified belief. But see how circular all that is? There is a bit of believing in knowing and a bit of knowing to believing.

We trust what we know to some degree. If I step out on a balcony, I trust that it will hold me up and keep me from falling to the ground. I know that balconies are constructed according to building codes. I know that other balconies have held. I also know that some balconies have failed, but I know that the numbers of failed balconies are miniscule compared to the number of balconies that have not. I may also have investigated the actual process of building this particular balcony in question. When I step, I trust, knowing with a degree of certainty that balconies in general, and this balcony in particular, is worthy of trust.

This is also how faith in Jesus works. I step out and put my full weight on Who Jesus is and what He has done, and I am warranted in doing so. When someone says, “I know that my Savior lives,” it is a statement of faith based upon a knowledge of God. The warrant for such belief is just as much a coherent web as is the warrant for the practice of psychotherapy. The coherent web of belief in Jesus is based on historical record, testimony of other people in Biblical history, exegesis of scripture and resulting theology, the evidence of changed lives among those whose trust has yielded results, and subjective assurance — that “touch” from God that results in a person knowing that they know. One can be just as rigorous regarding the phenomenological investigation of Christian faith as one can be regarding the scientific observation of psychotherapy. Certainty is a myth in both domains, but justified belief is possible.

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Published August 20, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated August 19, 2013 at 2:57 pm)

Believing in knowing and a bit of knowing to believing

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