Beliefs About Beliefs: Why Beliefs Cause Psychological Ill-being and How Philosophy Can Help

Beliefs About the World

Epictetus stated, now famously, that we “are not disturbed by things, but by the views which [we] take of things.” Hume states this in other words: “A passion must be accompanied with some false judgement in order to its being unreasonable; and even then it is not the passion, properly speaking which is unreasonable, but the judgement.” It is thus not the passion or emotion we form which is problematic but rather the false judgement about this. The Pyrrhonians state this in relatively the same way: the appearances are not the problem; it is rather the beliefs we form about the appearances which are problematic. Various psychological therapies adopt this very notion, especially Epictetus’s famous quote I opened this post with: we cannot change the world (in a loose sense), but we can change our beliefs about the world (in a loose sense). This is a good way to “see” the world, i.e. we cannot change the world, or there are not a lot of things in our actual control, but what is in our control is our beliefs about the world. But the Pyrrhonians, using philosophy in a very peculiar way, may have a better response to this problem of our beliefs.

Socrates, Aristotle, Epicurus and the Stoics: Hume’s Answer

Socrates states that to know what constitutes as good, will allow one to be good, why would you not be good when you know what the good is? The problem then is what is the good? We form beliefs about this good, which might be true, but this can still go wrong. Aristotle states that our beliefs and emotions need to be educated to be in line with the good life, we should thus form a habit in line with the good life in order to achieve the good life. One might state that this is a belief in itself: we have the belief that good habit forming will help us educate other beliefs. Epicurus states that we should form argumentation and reason in order to drive out these false beliefs (i.e. disturbances of passions or illness of the soul). The Stoics held a more radical view: we need to get rid of emotions. We cannot change the world; as Epictetus states, it is only our view of the world that creates the disturbances. Why not then get rid of these emotions? But, I think, Hume states this elegantly and which links to the Pyrrhonian Sceptics: our emotions are not the problem, it is rather our judgements.

The Pyrrhonian Answer: Withhold Assent and Discard Beliefs

The Pyrrhonists claim that our beliefs cause us suffering. This is a simple but insightful claim. Let me explain. The belief about something adds an extra “layer” on that thing. Take the following preposition: Honey is sweet (i.e. I believe honey to be sweet). One might state in a Kantian sense that there is the noumenal sense of this sweetness. We cannot experience this sweetness of honey; it equates to the objective sense of the proposition that honey is sweet in itself (or the nature of honey is that it is sweet). On the other hand, we have our subjective experience of honey being sweet. This equates to the honey being sweet to me when I tasted it that moment. The Pyrrhonists claim, like others, that the honey is sweet, but they have a different meaning to these words. When they claim that honey is sweet, this “is” equates to “appears to me at this moment”. The Pyrrhonist says the following: It appears to me at this moment that the honey is sweet. The Pyrrhonist’s insight is then the following: claiming that the honey is sweet in itself (or by nature) is a claim we cannot really establish, but what difference does this make if we can establish it? Will this change how honey tastes? Not necessarily, because honey will still appear to taste sweet to me irrespective of the nature of honey’s “real” taste.

How will this then, firstly, improve on what the other ancient Greeks said about beliefs and emotions, and, secondly, how will this ensure that we might gain some wellbeing? Firstly then, most ancient Greeks held some notion of using philosophy to help form a sense of wellbeing. Epicurus famously held the notion that the words of philosophers which do not heal the soul is vain, Socrates held that philosophy as being the love of wisdom in itself shows us what it is to be good. But the Pyrrhonists held that to philosophize actually brought about suffering. Philosophy, left unrestricted, will undermine philosophy itself. When we reason and argue and philosophize enough, we will undermine the very thing we use to help us gain the good life. This will cause suffering. Simply stated, philosophy will show its own inadequacy to help us see the good life. The Pyrrhonists states thus we need to get rid of philosophy and dogmatic beliefs, this will ensure psychological health.

Secondly then, this notion of discarding beliefs and philosophy will ensure our psychological health because we won’t need to have proof that beliefs will ensure our wellbeing. Take the following example. We can have a belief of the world that we cannot change which causes us suffering. Some of the ancient Greek philosophers state then that we need to change the belief so that it is more positive and this will help us achieve wellbeing. The Pyrrhonian answer to this is to get rid of the belief you held in the first place and live according to the appearance. If I believe that honey being sweet equates to the good and honey not being sweet equates to the bad, then honey not sweet will bring suffering. But if I did not have this “layer” of belief in the first place, I will not suffer.

How practical is this? Some will lay the charge that we will not be able to live life without beliefs. But this is not true. We first have appearances or impressions of the world, and this is not by nature good or bad, it just is. We then assent to something non-evident and this causes suffering. The Pyrrhonian sceptics saw this, but no one listened to them because most held the notion that we need beliefs about the world in order to act in the world. But this is not true. Discarding beliefs will ensure psychological health because we will not hold any false beliefs, nor will we need to defend this position.