Why believe a thing when you can’t say why you believe it?

I’ve been reflecting in recent posts about how I often feel as though I’ve forgotten why I believe a thing, even things that I believe very strongly, and that the best justifications I can think of for my beliefs seem to fall short of the reasons that I feel I once had but have forgotten.

It occurred to me that someone could very reasonably ask me why I still bother believing something that I don’t currently have a good reason for. Surely it would be a superior option to jettison such beliefs and just be agnostic about the questions they address until I find a better reason, or replace my beliefs with some ready-made system that I can work with and feel confident everything is rationally derived from some acceptable set of first principles.

It’s a fair question, and I thought it might be worth setting out some of the answers that initially occur to me when the question first comes into view.

For one thing, perhaps least convincingly but most importantly, these things I believe are what motivate me to be the person I am, to act in the ways I try to act, to strive to become the person I’m trying to become. And I’m very happy with who I am currently, and with the ways I spend my time, and with the person I’m working to become. I don’t take that for granted. I don’t think it’s always been true. Where I’ve come to be has come about through long and arduous efforts, and it does feel somewhat fragile. I don’t want to risk all that too hastily. So I continue to weigh and evaluate those beliefs, and to shift them as I find need or reason to, but I do feel it would be irresponsible to tear it all down without having made a real effort to test and examine them first.

Furthermore, I have many good reasons for the things I believe, even if I feel that the deepest reasons and the strongest coherence is eluding my ability to articulate. As I said about martial arts, there are no shortage of more superficial reasons to appeal to, and they are all true and good as far as they go. None of my beliefs are entirely reasonless, and all seem eminently justifiable and preferable to the alternatives for reasons I can state. What I’m looking for is not reasons, but the best reasons, the truest, the ones that really move me most profoundly.

I also don’t know that there is a better alternative available. Of the available alternatives it might seem hard to choose, without some starting place from which to judge, which is exactly what I would be giving up by jettisoning what I currently possess.

And if I did accept an alternative that someone else had thought through more carefully, I suspect I would not be as good, at least not for a long while, at scouring its depths and recognizing the strength of its arguments and of its structure.

And lastly, there is always already a good dose of agnosticism present in the conclusions I hold. Even where I feel that there are good reasons, remembered or forgotten, I never take for granted that I must be right. That is precisely why I search to recover the reasonings that have guided me, and to think through other views that are not my own to see what value might be found in them.

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