How do beliefs about the world, and beliefs about what is valuable, influence the pursuit of
First, beliefs about what is in the world will influence what Kinds of knowledge we pursue. For
example, if we believe that morality is a social phenomenon we will not try to formulate meta-ethical
arguments to prove that there is an objective reason why people should act morally. Or if we think
that reality is the product of God's handiwork we will not inquire into the processes that caused the
Big Bang. (Note that the Pope recently said that he does not mind scientists working on cosmology,
but that they should not research into the time before the Big Bang.) We would do none of these
things simply because it would never occur to us that they were required. The point is that facts and
values are mutually dependent. The fact that we value our children means that we want to know
which child-rearing methods provide the best results. We are interested in which mushrooms are
poisonous because people don't want to be poisoned.
Second the beliefs we have about how the world is will influence the actual process of acquiring
knowledge if we believe that the world is a certain way, e.g. that it is fully explainable in scientific
terms. Or if we believe that we can only understand the world phenomenologically or religiously then
we will consult the appropriate source when we want to know something.
If however, we are pluralists, in that we think that there is no one way the world is, no absolute
description of the world, then we will be happy to consult any number of sources: priests, scientists,
philosophers, house wives, TV show hosts. Each of which will be equally valid. Sartre, for example,
talks about a young man who is debating whether to join the resistance or to stay with his elderly
mother. The man went to Sartre because he knew (more or less) what Sartre would say. if he had
been a Catholic he would have gone to a priest, if he had been a utilitarian, he would have consulted
the works of Mill. The point is that we seek out in the world evidence for what we already believe.
There are no purely independent facts that describe the way the world is. Any basic statement about
the world can only be understood against a set of background assumptions and theories (this is a real
big Issue in the philosophy of science and the realism/ anti-realism debate).
But this leads to a third aspect, namely the important question of if and how our beliefs actually
influence what facts about the world there will be. If we thought about the world differently would the
world be the same or would it change? Would there still be elephants if we did not have the concepts
of animals, mammals, Africa?
Perhaps an initial answer would be that although the facts about the world remain the same, our
interpretation changes. But this would require more to be said about what constitutes a fact and how
we could identify facts as theory independent. However we approach the world, it is always with
presuppositions and background beliefs.
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield