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Unbelievable: why we believe and why we don't - Book Review

Review of Graham Ward's book, Unbelievable: why we believe and why we don't
Rowan Williams - Master of Magdalene College Cambridge, January 2015

 

 

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Not many serious books about culture and epistemology begin with a ghost story from a Cambridge college – a narrative exemplary in both atmosphere and inconclusiveness. But the point of this unorthodox opening is not to make us wonder whether ghosts exist so much as to wonder what makes such a story believable. What are the different questions asked by observers with diverse agendas? This opens out into a wide-ranging discussion of what we understand by “belief ”. As Ward observes, the history of words related to “belief ” in philosophical discussion is complex: the Greek word implies a degree of confidence; yet from Plato to Kant and after, “belief ” has regularly been understood as at best an inferior form of knowing, disreputably involved with “opinion” and “desire”. This sets up an unreal picture of what genuine knowing is, and blocks off discussion of the sheer diversity of the actions/engagements we call knowledge. And Ward argues that it ignores how belief actually works in human perception, how fundamental and pervasive it is. 

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