To what extent does community effect that which the people believe to be true?
I think there are three ways of looking at this question. Firstly there is what I call a 'surface' answer
which a lot of liberal arts students espouse and it goes like this. It is quite tempting to think that we
passively imbibe some of out moral and metaphysical beliefs from our conditioning. For example,
perhaps my deep hatred of credit cards owes to the fact that I was brought up in an anti-credit card
holding family, and I was always told that they were an evil (I actually hate credit cards because I
think using them is irrational, which my family never suggested.) Or perhaps many people find moral
subjectivism distasteful because of the Christian heritage we passively imbibe at school and on
television teaches that there are ethical absolutes. Perhaps some of Christianity's fundamental
commitments came about because early Christians were influenced by the works of Plato — and so
This approach only goes so far. Anybody with even a small amount of intellectual independence can
think themselves out of their conditioning or out of the vulgar and dominant beliefs in their time. I
suppose there is a sort of truth in the generalisation that people uncritically believe what their
community or upbringing teaches, but I suspect the issue is usually a lot more complex than that.
The next approach surrounds the notion of the paradigm shift. Roughly, scientific method works by
holding some hypothesis to be true until a new hypotheses shows it cannot be true. So there will be a
number of fundamental scientific commitments (belief in quarks, say) which most of the community
believe to be true for the duration that the hypothesis is useful. The discovery that some scientific
beliefs are not 'true' in the sense of 'indubitably certain' should not mean that we must abandon those
beliefs, only that we abandon a belief about science.
I think there is another sense to your question which is more interesting and it touches on a number
of important philosophical issues: solipsism, meaning and certainty among them. This approach
originated with the philosophy of the later Wittgenstein. I wonder whether this is what you were
Wittgenstein's idea, roughly, is that language is an irreducibly public form of life which is only
encountered in social contexts; every natural language contains an indefinitely large number of
'language games', each governed by rules which, though conventional, are not arbitrary personal
fiats; the meanings of words are their publicly accessible usage in the language; to wonder, to be
certain and to doubt — perhaps even to think — is to utilise language in a particular way, to play a
particular kind of public language-game. You couldn't do this without a community from which you
learned the language. It is impossible to invent a logically private language for yourself.
So the solipsist's proposition 'I am the only mind', say, makes sense only to the extent that it is
expressible in a public language, and the existence of this language — with its conventions for
picking out objects, naming them and picking out their qualities implies the existence of a social
context. Hence the silliness of the solipsist who wondered why so many philosophers argue against
solipsism! A non-linguistic solipsism is inconceivable, and a conceivable solipsism is necessarily
linguistically based. In fact solipsism presupposes the thing it to denies: the very fact that solipsistic
thoughts are thinkable in the first instance implies the existence of the public, shared, intersubjective
world — the community — which solipsism purports to doubt.
There are a number of interesting conclusions one can draw out from this line (if it is right). Perhaps
you would like to give them some thought!