As I pondered what I would say about the topic of mysticism, which I suggested in a comment I would be writing about, it occurred to me that mysticism is but one source of beliefs among many. So I started to try to catalog them. I even tried to come up with diagram to show how they might be related.
This is off the cuff, and I considered looking up a William James quote to kick things off, but I didn’t bother. My catalog will be ordered based on the pervasiveness of the source in descending order. The various sources start out as concentric circles. Once we get a little deeper though, the circles start to overlap and conflict. I’m not making any epistemic claims in this. None of the categories that I came up with have any intrinsic priority of validity.
- The Background. This is the most fundamental source of beliefs and is in many ways non-linguistic. It includes a large portion of the cultural beliefs that are part of the “water we swim in”. In Heidegger terms it is that which is closest to us, but also furthest away since it is virtually undetectable. It is the source of the vast majority of our useful practices, but also of prejudices, useless practices (“Bless You” after a sneeze) and many other non-rational or at least non-scientific beliefs. These beliefs are very difficult to identify since they do not submit easily to a propositional calculus. It could even be argued that the term “belief” in this context is inappropriate simply because of their non-linguistic, automatic features. But under certain conditions, these beliefs can be discovered and articulated. So in some sense they exist as beliefs.
- Authority. This category is represented mostly during pre-adolescent childhood. It is different from the background since it includes the transmission of beliefs from parents, teachers, relatives and other adults in positions of authority. This is how children come to believe in the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus. Basic moral beliefs are also molded and shaped by authority. Tribal customs are another important example of this source. These beliefs can be rendered into propositional statements with definite truth values such as “Santa Claus is a real man who lives at the North Pole” or “No one will like me if I don’t brush my teeth.” Simple intuitional statements of value that seem to be innate in young children are also shaped and modified by authority. For example, most children from a very early age have a sense of “fairness”. The egoistic version of this “value” is shaped by authority to gradually include a concept of fairness that typically includes the feelings of other people.
- Reason. Overlapping and sometimes conflicting with authority is reason. For most people this human faculty becomes the source of many of our strongest held beliefs and is the category least likely to be subject to reinterpretation over one’s lifetime. Most reasoned beliefs are not controversial and tend to be universal. They may be inferred independently or introduced in the course of general education, but require that the subject conclude that the belief is valid based on valid premises. Reasoned beliefs expand and grow outward over the course of ones life and can become very complicated. Human beings are capable of having reasoned beliefs that are contradictory. For example a person may hold a reasoned belief that evolution is probably true because the theory makes the most sense, but at the same time believe that a supernatural force guided the selection based on the observation that animals are well designed.
- Expert Authority. In the absence of first-hand knowledge of the evidence to support a particular proposition, individuals will defer to other experts who presumably have come to a reasonable conclusion based on evidence in their field. Claims made by science are the obvious example, but a wish-fulfilling bias can lead many to hold false beliefs based on expert authority as well. Belief in the efficacy of a particular diet pill is a good example. Many mistaken beliefs originate from this category. Conspiracy theories, political beliefs, and even some supernatural beliefs (for example belief in ghosts) arise from a misguided reliance on expert authority.
- Revelation. Western religions are based on the principle that there are revealed truths that have been recorded and witnessed by individuals in history. The strength of ones susceptibility to beliefs of this type is greatly influenced by the strength in combination of all the prior sources of belief. Eastern religions tend to be disseminated based on a combination of ritualized practices, myths (accepted metaphorically and historically in many cases) and cultural practices. Beliefs from revelation vary greatly in strength and influence depending on the contextual level of authority, cultural value to the believer and other variables. They can be easily stated as propositions: “Jesus Christ is the Son of God” or “The promised Messiah will come.”
- Mysticism. Beliefs based on mysticism may be similar to those that come from revelation, but they are different in one key respect. The transmission of such beliefs is distinctly individual. A belief based on mysticism is one that is unique to the individual and is based on an experience of some kind. They have been variously described as visions, messages and insights into “deeper” or less accessible forms of knowledge. The belief that it is possible for someone to access this type of “secret” knowledge is itself NOT a mystically based belief, but rather originates from either Expert Authority or Revelation.
- Non-Religious Metaphysics. Last but not least, we come to philosophy. Ontological claims based in philosophical reasoning are different than any other type of belief on this list. It may be objected that these beliefs ought to fall under Reason, particularly since that is the only tool the philosopher has at her disposal. Nevertheless, because the object of study itself is beyond the scope of ordinary scientific style investigation, I would argue that this is a special case and is distinct from the other categories. It is also true that much of the work of philosophers will not result in any beliefs at all, but only more questions and skepticism. Reasoned objections and disciplined arguments can be a pastime in and of themselves and not result in specific beliefs. And given the disposition of philosophers–at least run-of-the-mill ones–very few are willing to assert positive truth values to philosophical propositions, at least metaphysical ones.
So there’s my list. Probably not exhaustive, but I think it covers a lot of the areas. I’m not sure what use it is, but it was enjoyable thinking about it.