Introduction


This second edition represents a major revision of the earlier version. Substantial amendments, corrections and additions have been made which, hopefully, result in greater clarity and easier access. The main thesis and intention of the book remains unchanged.

Philosophers in every age reflect the concerns of their time and we can see in this process a progressive understanding of what we think of as the human condition. The questioning of our beliefs, of our ideas of ‘truth’ and ‘reality’, as expressed for example in the scepticism of the early Greeks, can be seen as a search for a secure grounding for our views of ourselves and the universe. This search for certainty fired the Enlightenment’s interest in ideas of rationality and empiricism and can now be seen to have led, paradoxically, to views which question the very nature of that certainty.

We can see, at least in Western thought, that science and the scientific method have played a central role in this process of enlightenment: from Bacon to Newton; Galileo to Einstein; Darwin to Watson and Crick. We can note, in the history of ideas, the progressive discarding of mystical, supernatural explanations of our universe and a continued questioning of the status of our beliefs about it. Scientific knowledge and the scientific method now conditions much of our thinking and informs much of our culture.

This historical process, together with recent advances in genetic engineering and the neurosciences, has led to a renewed questioning of the nature of human nature and a re-evaluation of the content of our cognitive processes. Our neuroscientists are laying bare the physical basis of consciousness, and our geneticists are rejigging the human genome. Meanwhile, our postmodern philosophers tell us we can believe anything (or, what amounts to the same thing, believe nothing).

Consequently, it seems to many, we no longer know who we are or what to believe. This book seeks to identify a philosophical basis for a practical answer to the question: how can we believe anything?

The book is addressed to those who are prepared to approach ideas concerning ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ with interest, openness and imagination at a general philosophical level, and think what we believe about belief matters. Previous knowledge of philosophical matters is not essential – although a nodding acquaintance with some philosophical issues would help.

It will be necessary to venture into the dark heart of some fundamental philosophical questions. To do this we must examine some traditional philosophical ideas and the views of some significant philosophical writers. Be brave! If the works of the philosophers are to have significance, if they are ‘to change the world’, it must be possible for their views to be (made) accessible to those interested and concerned.

Some basic philosophical concepts will, then, need to be addressed but the language used is as straightforward and direct as this writer can muster. However, it will be necessary to use traditional philosophical terms where they carry a weight of meaning, an authority or historical significance, which cannot be otherwise easily expressed. An explanation of these terms, as used here, is given as we go along.

Reference is made to the views of individual philosophers and philosophical schools in order that the ideas expressed can be located in the tradition of philosophical ideas. All the issues addressed concern matters raised within canonical philosophical thought – even if this author does not always recognise or acknowledge their genesis.

As always in philosophy, the topics ‘ontology’ (what we understand by ‘being’) and ‘epistemology’ (what we understand by ‘truth’) are the most significant and the most difficult, and the chapters ‘Belief and Ontology’ and ‘Belief and Epistemology’ might be challenging to the uninitiated. These central philosophical issues are addressed here head-on. Nevertheless, readers are encouraged to take heart, and the football fantasy in the chapter ‘Belief and Epistemology’ might be found to give easier access to the more difficult technical discourse.

The perspective advanced here can be described as anthropocentric (human-centred) subjectivism or qualified postmodernism (or possibly, for the cultural theorists, post-postmodernism). This postmodern perspective is understood here as a view which denies supernatural explanations, rejects transcendental revelations and privileged holy texts, and accepts the full consequences of our species subjectivism. The methodology used is discursive and within the traditions of analytic philosophy.

This book seeks, then, first to recognise the profound impact on our thinking of the postmodern perspective – to explore and accept the full consequence of our unavoidable subjectivity. We cannot, it is argued, escape the confines of our subjective human condition. Consideration is given as to how our use of language, reason and bivalent logic, has resulted in philosophical (and social) problems concerning our account of truth and reality. The philosophical status of these concepts, within a qualified postmodern perspective, is then considered.

The book goes on to identify the possible philosophical structure of a universal belief system which takes full account of human subjectivity but which, at the same time, acknowledges more recent developments in philosophy, science, cultural theory and the lessons of history. The possible content of such a universal belief system is then considered.

The central thesis of this book is that an instrumentalist subjectivist stance allows us to identify a secure basis for a revisable system of universal human beliefs and behaviour, a universal monoculture, upon which our individual multicultural beliefs can be safely located.

It is argued that, notwithstanding our obvious differences, we can think there is something it is like to be human and go some way in showing what that is. Paradoxically, this will mean having to acknowledge that any philosophical account of the human species must incorporate the view that it is not possible to say definitively, existentially, what the human species is.

The book follows a linear narrative and is better read as a whole, but each chapter is designed to stand fairly independently. This, it will be noted, requires some repetition and the central ideas are presented in different ways as we go along.