Lately I’ve been thinking about epistemology (the study of knowledge); and more specifically, how we build on presuppositions in order to form our beliefs. I came up with a basic list of what I call ‘pragmatic beliefs’; those presuppositions necessary for a person to live with any form of sanity. Here is the basic outline I came up with. Each presupposition builds on the previous one:

1) I exist.

I have yet to decide whether I believe this to be a presupposition, or an absolute truth. Frankly, I don’t think it matters in any practical sense. No one seriously doubts their own existence; and I can’t imagine what anyone would do with such a useless skepticism if they did. Although I do consider myself very skeptical of any sort of Cartesian/Platonic dualism; that is a separate matter. Our own existence, whether purely physical or partially metaphysical, is about as close to an absolute truth as humans can affirm.

2) There is an external reality independent of my existence.

This is where a philosophy known as solipsism diverges from contemporary thought. The solipsist makes the argument that it is impossible to know if reality is not an illusion created by the self; from there they might argue something like “I am the only mind which exists,” or “My mental states are the only mental states.” What makes this tricky is that people who hallucinate are experiencing illusory sensory experiences; which means that it is possible for even our senses to be deceived. It’s a kind of Matrix-style take on the problem of perception. This makes solipsist beliefs pretty much unfalsifiable.

There are two problems I see with solipsism. First, I don’t know how one could attempt to positively prove that there is no external reality, and secondly, the belief seems to have no practical benefit, and could lead to strong forms of nihilism or egoism if taken to it’s logical conclusion. After all, if no one else exists, no one else matters but yourself. However, I don’t presume solipsists necessarily embrace nihilism or egoism.

It seems to me that all a solipsist can do is point out that there is no way to positively prove that there is an external reality. I think it’s safe to say that presupposing an external reality independent of our existence is a beneficial and natural belief.

3) My sensory inputs supply me with reliable information (empirical data) about reality.

Another aspect of the problem of perception is that we can’t know for certain that our sensory inputs are relaying accurate information to our brains. This means that empirical evidence can, in theory, be misleading.

Accurate information is information that corresponds with, or helps us understand reality. Every human assumes  that their senses are reliable until proven unreliable. A good example of this is when, after a mental episode, a patient in a mental hospital recognizes that his or her senses were misleading (as in the case of a schizophrenic.) In that case, the patient uses reason to infer that his or her brain was not accurately translating the empirical data; but this can only be realized after the fact. This is not an instance where the sensory data itself was inaccurate, but rather the data was not being interpreted correctly by the brain. I suspect this is the usual cause of illusory sense perception; but there may be ways in which the senses themselves are dysfunctional.

4) My mind uses reason to form reliable hypotheses and theories of reality based on the empirical data obtained from my sensory inputs. These allow me to make probability-based predictions that have pragmatic value.

This is where much of the battle lies. I am convinced that a person cannot disconnect reason from responsible belief. Yet anti-intellectualists, and some religious leaders, encourage people to ignore reason; usually to believe a specific proposition being promoted. There is a strong current of this in some strains of Christianity.

Insanity is defined by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as: “something that is very foolish or unreasonable.” Notice that “unreasonable” is a part of the informal definition of insanity. Reason is a sign of intelligence, and a part of being a responsible human. Abandoning it would literally be insane.

To quote the 18th century Quaker/philosopher William Penn:

Truth never lost Ground by Enquiry, because she is, most of all. Reasonable.

Nor can that need another Authority, that is Self-evident.

If my own Reason be on the Side of a Principle, with what can I Dispute or withstand it?

Reason, like the Sun, is Common to All ; And ’tis for want of examining all by the same Light and Measure, that we are not all of the same Mind : For all have it to that End, though all do not use it So.

It is worth noting that it is circular to validate reason by using reason. But it is a self-evident truth if there are any, that being reasonable and logical is beneficial to humanity. It could be viewed as the truthmaker, fully beyond scrutiny, as it is the sole mechanism that scrutinizes.

Diagramming Pragmatic Belief

I put together a basic diagram of this concept here:

Chain of Pragmatic Belief

As you can see, self-existence is the first foundational presupposition, followed by belief in an external reality. After that, we presuppose the reliability of our sensory receptors to convey empirical data, and we could add our brain’s reliability in interpreting it. Last we have reason, which organizes all of the empirical data and forms probability-based hypotheses and theories about reality that enable us to make better predictions. This skill of making probability-based predictions helps us make wise choices.

If we are to make good choices, it would help to have reliable beliefs. If we believed for example, that all people want to kill us, we would perhaps never leave our home, or move to the wilderness. This sort of belief would be considered irrational, and unbeneficial. Yet, someone who believes this may feel they have an intuitional basis for such a belief; and for that reason it is justified. This brings us to our next consideration and the sticky issues that accompany it.

Incorporating Intuitional Beliefs

Intuition is a controversial concept in philosophy. What exactly is intuition? I will refer to Merriam-Webster’s again for the definition:


: a natural ability or power that makes it possible to know something without any proof or evidence : a feeling that guides a person to act a certain way without fully understanding why

: something that is known or understood without proof or evidence

There are several ways we could attempt to incorporate intuition into this scheme. These vary depending on how you imagine intution in relation to empirical data and reason; or even if you acknowledge intuition as a relevant factor at all. This tension can be clearly seen in the rationalism vs. empiricism debate.

Since intuition is viewed as something understood without proof or evidence, the implication is that it fully bypasses reason, since reason demands evidence. You can’t really call a belief intuitional if it passes rational scrutiny; it has then become a reasonable belief. Reason would have to be out of the picture for intuition to make sense. The way I imagine a typical person seeing intuition is as an option alongside of reason. Let me illustrate:

Chain of Typical Belief

The person who believed intuitively that all people wanted to kill him is an extreme example of intuition disconnected from reality. This alone shouldn’t make us distrust intuition entirely. There is certainly a case to be made for intuitive thinking in the proper contexts. We are not emotionless, purely rational beings; we rely on intuition more than we would like to think.

That being said, every belief can and should be scrutinized appropriately. We don’t live our lives assuming that gut feelings are fully reliable. Intuition should be considered as evidence, but be wary of trusting it in situations that demand accuracy. Imagine if you were on a jury and someone said ‘I just believe he’s guilty,’ or ‘I have faith in the defendant’s innocence,’ and then proceeded to act as if the case were closed without examining the evidence. Surely that would be foolish, irrational, and irresponsible to the highest degree. If your intuition is not supported by evidence, reason should make the final call after weighing all the different factors.

Now reasoning can be done poorly, regardless of how strongly we believe it to be correct. Poor reasoning is often intuition in disguise. This is why many unjustifiable beliefs are popular. What appears to be a well-reasoned argument may be built on one or two tendentious presuppositions that the hearer has failed to identify. A highly skilled orator can sell almost anything if it serves to confirm the biases of an audience. A skilled logician can make a case with substance, but when the biases of an audience are exploited, reason almost inevitable takes a back seat.

And that’s the problem with intuition. Intuition looks just like bias. When intuition is presented in the absence of evidence, the probability of deception is significantly greater. Intuition could be correct, but there is no objective way to know.

Critical thinking has been described by some as a defense mechanism. It is a way we can protect ourselves from intellectual exploitation by raising our standards for what constitutes a good argument. If there are no good arguments for a belief, it is likely a product of bias or propaganda.

Learning the difference between intuition and reason is important. Here are a couple of very interesting articles about intuitive thinking if you want to do some further reading on the subject:

Thank you for considering my perspective. Your opinion matters to me, and I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

10721328_278062212388486_378808137_nMy name is Zach Van Houten and I am a secular Humanist with progressive values who enjoys good discussions with intelligent people. I was a passionate conservative Christian from childhood until I found intellectual freedom in November of 2014. I take an interest in Humanism, general philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, eastern religious philosophy, atheism, politics, Biblical studies, and most importantly, the life cycle of sea turtles. Email me at if you’d like to offer tips on how I can make myself less boring or start up a convo about the weather.

© Zach Van Houten and, 2014-2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Zach Van Houten and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Image by Dan McCay on Used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

14 thoughts on “A Rough Examination of Pragmatic Belief

  1. Hi a great post!

    I was looking at an old (from 2002) BBC Horizon documentary yesterday. The documentary looked at religion and the brain and noticed that there was a part of the brain, the frontal lobe (i think) that seemed associated with religious experience. What I found interesting is that there is a spectrum of receptivity in this part of the brain across the population. This made me wonder if this was why some people seemed more ‘spiritual’ than others.

    The Bible actually has a suggested logic test within it. Jesus said if you want to know whether or not my words are true then put them into practice, John 7:17. The Bible also says that a true prophet can be discerned by whether their predictions come to pass.

    Now these tests might seem straightforward to apply. But in reality when the Bible promises don’t seem to come true a person of faith will usually explain it away thinking they had somehow not met the conditions., perhaps their faith had not been strong enough.

    Likewise in regard to unfulfilled prophecy excuses are always made, perhaps they are yet to be fulfilled. Or if they are fulfilled a bit differently to how the Bible states (i.e. destruction of Tyre) that is ignored.

    So our biases tend to stop us even applying the tests of logic the Bible recommends.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What I should have added is that I have found that emotion tends to trump logic in debates. People are more likely to be persuaded by a logically flawed emotionally charged argument than a dispassionate logical argument.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Exactly. I tend to think most people do not actually think logically. Most people are intuitive. And intuition is a good thing, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not very easy to misapply intuition especially towards big issues. Generally, it’s an excuse to not study the issues and critically examine beliefs formed based on gut instincts. I let me intuition lead me, but reason is like the fact-checker. When we learn how to think critically we supplement our natural ability to think intuitively.


  3. Should pragmatic acceptance of the reliability of your perception precede acceptance of an external reality?

    Regarding the relationship between reason and intuition, suppose you reasoned through a scenario and as a result came to hold that belief X was strongly justified. The next morning, however, you wake up and find yourself strongly believing X but unable to recall the evidence and justification for it. Is X a reasoned belief or an intuitive belief? It would seem that it is both. Subjectively it is intuitive but objectively it is reasoned. I would suggest that our intuitions are largely formed in this way, through a constant sculpting process where the sculptor is a combination of experience and reasoning. So in that sense, intuition is prior to reasoning, with a feedback loop from reasoning to intuition. Practically speaking, we don’t have time to reason through everything. We have no choice but to rely on intuition in the vast majority of cases. We even rely on intuition when evaluate the validity of our reasoning. That feeling of certainty that you get when you connect the dots and arrive at a conclusion – that is effectively equivalent to intuition.

    So, as I see it, the problem comes not when we rely on intuition but when the feedback loop from reasoning is suppressed so that our intuitions cannot be updated by reasoning. This problem is further exacerbated when those intuitions reinforce themselves by influencing us toward filtering the empirical data so that we only encounter that which supports our current position. In a probabilistic sense, these behaviors are epistemic suicide and the cure is epistemic humility – to acknowledge that we may very well be wrong and to be vigilant against the sheltering our of intuitions. This is not an endorsement of extreme skepticism but rather of a pragmatism which values our current position as “that which has worked best so far” while equally valuing the possibility that something which works better may yet be around the corner. I even see that the “meta-beliefs” which are deeply coupled to our foundational beliefs – that I exist, that my perceptions are reliable and that an external world exists – are subject to revision through the same feedback loop. If someone offered me the red pill I may very well find all of those beliefs drastically transformed.

    Lastly, I’ll repeat something I said on one of your earlier posts, which is that I think this a valuable exercise, particularly once we open it up to scrutiny from others. And so I’ll point you toward my own attempt at unpacking my epistemology. I welcome any criticism or feedback you may have.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow! I love your thoughts on this Travis. I agree on the feedback loop beginning and ending with intuition (I think I had thought of a concept similar to that before but must not have taken note of it) I’ll check out your post on epistemology.

      I agree with you that epistemic humility is a frustrating reality we should embrace. It’s impossible to truly convince someone that something is absolutely wrong without their willingness to accept it on their own terms.

      I think my concept of reasoning included intuition, at the end of the feedback loop and that’s why I didn’t use the word ‘logic’ and instead chose ‘reason.’ If reason is defined more strictly as logic than the intuition at the end makes sense. It is a good way of grasping the concept to think of intuition bracketing reason.


    2. Maybe we could look at it this way:

      Reason = a priori intuition + logic + a posterior intuition

      I would think that reason would never be perfectly logical, otherwise it would just be logic. So this may be the best way of looking at it. We begin and end with our ‘storyline forming’ intuitions which help us to assimilate the information we gather; and this process of assimilation is not perfectly logical. I think it works in a more probabilistic manner with emphasis on heuristics. But many (if not most) people don’t add logic to the equation, and so they are more susceptible to biases and emotional manipulation.

      What do you think?


    1. I think that can be a positive and negative. All of us have intuition to a degree, but some of us are more logic-driven than others. I was surprised after taking a personality test last week that my personality (ENTP) is intuitive. I guess those of us who value logic may not realize that we also have good intuitive skills that probably led us to embrace logic in the first place. So it’s an intetresting dynamic. I think it’s good that you demand evidence before believing something. We all should do that to some degree. Thanks for reading.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s