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A Word About Beliefs

In common parlance, to talk about someone's beliefs is often taken as to be talking about their religious, political, or social convictions. In modeling we are using the term in a much wider way, one that might more readily be conveyed by the term "premise" (a proposition from which other propositions, ideas or conclusions flow). The content of premises can stretch from the mundane to the metaphysical. However, the term premise tends to be confined to philosophical discourse. So we are left with the term "beliefs" which, for all its awkwardness, is much more readily understood.

In modeling the beliefs we are interested in are those that form the structure underlying someone's particular ability. People generally express their beliefs as some form of equivalence relationship ("What something is") and/or causal relationship ("What leads to what"). These are the two ways that people express their beliefs about "Meaning."

About such matters of Meaning passions can run high. For instance, the beliefs of many people of a fundamentalist religious persuasion do not lie in the domain of Meaning; these beliefs are considered to be facts, if not absolute truths. They are seen, not as matters of opinion or of belief, but as matters of Reality. They are held to be true whether or not we recognize it and whether or not we like it. Ultimately, however, claims for absolute truths (and for the ontology and specific architecture of spiritual worlds) lie as much inside the realm of experience as any other belief.

The essential point is that modeling is about the structure of experience. In the context of modeling, it is important to recognize that even such high-level beliefs such as those about religious and spiritual matters - rest on the same structure as all other beliefs: they are either equivalence or causal relationships. On their veracity, modeling is silent. Such matters are a matter of personal conscience and conviction.

In fact, in the context of modeling, the absolute veracity of any belief is a matter of personal conviction. For example, a particular person has beliefs about what a "friend" is and, though we can argue plenty with that person over what it really means to be a "friend," there is no ultimate way of saying who is right or wrong. Each person's opinion is simply what each person believes.

However, while the "real meaning" of what it is to be a friend cannot be nailed down, this is not to say that all ideas about friendship are equal when it comes to their consequences. A particular individual's idea of what a "friend" is may or may not serve that person well in their close relationships. They may, for instance, have the idea that a friend is someone who "treats me well no mater how I treat them." It is easy to see that there might be potential difficulties with such a definition of friendship.

So, even though belief seems to float on a sea of relativism, that sea does not drown choice. It does not preclude a choice being made for or against any particular belief. It is only that, within the domain of experience, a belief cannot be ultimately grounded as an unarguable fact. That is why a claim for a belief being so grounded is, in effect, a claim that whatever is being believed lies outside the realm of human experience.

That is also why the choices of beliefs we make are also ethical choices. They are ethical choices in that they have consequences in our behavior, which in turn affect the experiences of others. This remains so whether or not we are aware of having made a choice. And, usually, we are not. We often come to our beliefs as givens, as simple representations of the way the world "is." However, this no more removes the ethical dimensions of our actions than it removes their legal dimensions (though in law, the question of our responsibility for our actions is, in some cases, qualified).