Some Remarks about the Concept of ‘Belief’

By | June 19, 2010

The Spanish Philosopher Miguel de Unamuno once described his approach to philosophy as trying on a glove in different ways, even inside-out, to see how many different ways the glove could be worn. It is in this spirit that I offer my somewhat disconnected thoughts on the concept of ‘belief’: I trying out different perspectives to see how they fit.

William James wrote a well-known essay “The Will to Believe,” in which he defended certain religious belief as compelling even if not rationally grounded beliefs; for example, the decision to belief in God as a vital choice that many persons make, despite lacking good rational grounds to support that belief. We will to believe in God.

In one sense of the term “belief,” what James contends may strike us as being absurd. For in ordinary circumstances our belief that something is such & such (e.g., that it will rain today, or that my car has enough gasoline to get me home) is not a matter of choice or of our willing it, but rather a case in which we base the belief on supporting evidence. Here making a decision to believe irrespective of the evidence could get us in trouble. To the degree that we operate intelligently in the world, we believe that it will rain today based on relevant evidence (heavy storm clouds moving in, or a reliable weather forecast). We believe that the car has enough gasoline to make it home because the fuel tank gauge indicates the tank is half full, and we know that home is only twenty miles away; and half a tank of gasoline is good enough for 150 miles travel. The notion of “will to believe” or freedom of choice with regard to what I believe does not apply here. To operate well in the world, we strive for beliefs that conform to reality. (There is not much room here for “will to believe” or choosing to believe.)

However, Mr. James probably had in mind another sense of the term “belief” when he wrote his famous essay. This is ‘belief’ in the sense of faith or conviction, in which notions of “the will to believe” or “deciding to believe” do apply. The area of religious faith is an obvious case; but first let us try to approach the subject indirectly.

No one has knowledge of what will happen in the future, although sometimes we have some basis for highly probable inferences. Yet we never know for sure, and sometimes don’t even have a clue as to how things will turn out in the future. But we often need to assume a belief (or beliefs) as to what will happen, or at least assume beliefs as to the general pattern of future events. Sometimes we must make a choice as to how we “see” the future. If we tend to be optimists, we choose optimistic beliefs concerning the future; if we tend to be pessimists, we choose less positive beliefs.

In our daily routine, we may come in contact with hundreds of people. We don’t know most of them and really have no evidence for thinking that they are decent, law-abiding people. But in order to carry on with our daily routines and not become paranoid, we work with the belief that, like ourselves, they are decent, law-abiding people.

Sometimes opting to believe one way or another comes by way of a “working hypothesis”; at this time we have no evidence to support any belief, but we must make a choice in order to get on with what we’re doing.

Suppose we use the terms “faith” and “objective belief” to distinguish between these two kinds of belief. Faith involves the will-to-believe; objective belief does not.

This may help some in our effort to sort through the concept of ‘belief’ in its various uses; but let’s not jump to the conclusion that this distinction tells the whole story. For we must allow that emotion, the desire or will to believe that something is true, sometimes occur with regard to our “objective beliefs”; on the other hand, some people of strong religious faith will find the notion of ‘will to believe’ foreign to their experience of faith, holding instead that they have no choice in matters of religious faith.

In religion, opting to believe [in God, for example] may or may not be analogous to adopting a working hypothesis. Blaise Pascal may conceive of belief in God as taking the “rational” option; but many other theists will argue that their experience (religious and existential experience) is such that they have no choice on the question of God’s reality.

However, this gives us pause: most people did not originally make a conscious choice to adopt the religious belief they hold. They were born into a “world” of people holding, teaching, and imparting such religious beliefs, and never examined or questioned those beliefs. The religious beliefs just became part of their view of reality.

Nevertheless, for many people religious belief does seem to be in a different category from belief in other contexts. In a religious context, the term “belief” is used more like the term “conviction” or the related term “faith.”

Here the “belief that X” may express a strong conviction (or as some people put it: “a rock-solid conviction.” My belief that X here is not understood as a peripheral claim (tentative, subject to reexamination). It is certainly not a weak epistemic claim, made in place of a stronger claim to know that X. Here my claim that “X is true” functions much like a basic principle that defines and controls my existence. (Let “X” stand for “Jesus is the divine redeemer.”)

Here we might think of an analogy with Thomas Reid’s Principles of Common Sense. Our very existence as social beings demands the reality of the external, material world, even if the skeptic (D. Hume) demonstrates that from a subjective perspective we cannot prove that this belief is true.

Another way of stating it: In the religious context, belief functions at a primary level —much like a principle or rule of action. It does not function like a weak epistemic claim that needs supporting evidence. The call for supporting evidence is seen as irrelevant.

It is in this context that a proponent of religious faith will say that rational skepticism is “out of order.”

Here one is more likely to “believe in something or someone” as opposed to “believing that such and such.” An example could be “belief in the goodness of human beings.”

Much of what I believe comes from other people. People whom I admire or whom I recognize as knowledgeable authorities advance arguments and establish certain conclusions, which I accept as my beliefs. (“The belief strikes me as a reasonable one, so I adopt as my belief”).

Much of what we believe comes from familial and cultural conditioning. There is a vast body of beliefs (presuppositions) that forms the basis for our outlook on the world and our acting in the world. Most of us have never examined or evaluated these beliefs. (In what sense are these beliefs subject to choice?)

Intellectual growth and development toward some psychological maturity requires that we rationally evaluate these beliefs that we have inherited. Have we educated ourselves sufficiently to recognize the different features of our body of beliefs?

“I’ll believe what I please!” makes sense in some contexts, but not in others. And here too there will be a matter of degrees.

In some cases, beliefs are much like preferences, as in “I prefer coffee to tea.”

On the other hand, when we remark that “Based on the evidence, I think he did it,” or “I have good reasons for thinking he did it” we are in the realm of rational belief: I believe it because I have evidence or good reasons for the belief.

By “objective belief” I mean that type of belief that a person holds because evidence or rational considerations, such as perception, factual evidence, logical inference, compel him to hold the belief. Consider, for example, the case of my belief that it will rain because heavy storm clouds are moving this way and reliable meteorological forecasts have predicted rain for today. There’s a sense in which we don’t have a choice in what we belief.

The ideal here is that our beliefs all be well-grounded (rationally well-grounded, that is). The person consciously working to realize this ideal would try to limit his beliefs to those beliefs that are supported by the facts, rational inference or immediate experience. And in those areas where such beliefs are not found, he proceeds hypothetically and experimentally.

In this context, belief that such & such is a weaker epistemic claim than knowledge that such & such. For example, I don’t know that O.J. Simpson killed his wife (in the sense that I would know if I had seen him do it), but I believe he did it (in the sense, I have some evidence that points to his doing it, although it does not prove that he did it). And I believe this only because there is much evidence that points to this as highly probable.

Here we could set up a scale of epistemic weight:

1) I know that X. (We have full, undeniable knowledge)
2) I am sure that X. (I have every reason to believe X and nothing that stands against it.)
3) Probably X. (There is a strong case to be made of X.)
4) I believe that X. (I have some reason for thinking that X. I lean this way.)
5) Possibly X. (X may be true, but we have to look more.)
6) I doubt that X. (There are good reasons against X being true.)
7) I know that not-X. (We have knowledge that X is not the case.)

Only #1 and #7 represent knowledge. The other marks on the scale represent varying degrees of belief, all weaker epistemic claims. We fall back on some form of belief when we lack knowledge or objective certainty.

In this context, my desire or need to believe are irrelevant; the strength of my faith or conviction are irrelevant.

One attempt to define “knowledge”:
Knowledge obtains when one affirms P (some proposition, e.g., the U.S. is a democracy); and
a) the proposition affirmed (P) is true;
b) there is a rationally relevant basis for affirming ‘P’.

Of course, this applies to propositional knowledge; here we tend to analyze knowledge in terms of belief. However, this is not so obvious the way to break down ‘knowledge’ in cases of knowing by direct acquaintance (as in case of knowing that you’re here because I see you and touch you) or in the case of knowledge that applies when we ‘know how’ to do something. (I know how to ride a bicycle.)

Don’t let our ‘belief’ expressions mislead you to think that beliefs are independent entities, existing separately from all believers. We might say that a belief is something held by some person; but should not think this implies a special entity ‘belief.’ Beliefs don’t have existence. People exist who think this or that, and hold beliefs.

Thus, one way of dealing with beliefs leads us toward psychology: an examination of the believer.

We’re probably dealing with different personality types:

1) The rational/scientific type who feels that, as much as possible, our beliefs should be rational, well-grounded beliefs. The important things are acquiring knowledge, understanding, eventually gaining some truth about ourselves and our world, and operating intelligently in this world.

2) The religious type, who feels that the over-riding importance is that our basic beliefs reflect the highest values and convictions that we hold, and that we hold beliefs that will promote the spiritual, moral aspects of our existence. (The over-riding concerns are the kinds of lives we live and, in case of Christians, our personal salvation.)

What I directly experience compels me to assent. In other cases, an obvious rational inference from the factual evidence compels me to believe. Objective conditions push me one way or the other. In so far as we are conscious, intelligent beings, we are pushed (by objective conditions) to believe one way or another.

When these compelling objective conditions are absent, people respond in different ways, depending on their inclinations:
The rationalist, given to logical/scientific habits of thought, will suspend belief, at most allow himself very tentative hypothesis.
The religious type will adopt some kind of “religious belief,” belief in or faith that works despite the push/pull of objective conditions, or even works in opposition to the “force” of objective conditions.

It is in this context that some people say such things as “Science and rational inquiry do not give us complete knowledge; they leave many gaps. Therefore, we must turn to religious faith to get a complete picture of reality.” Or “Science and rational inquiry takes us only part of the way; to complete the trip, we need to turn to religion.”

It is likely true that everyone has some degree of faith, including the hardest scientists and the strongest skeptic. It is also true that some people use the term “faith” to cover the most irrational fanaticism or the most absurd fantasies. And we have many degrees and gradations in between.

But having faith need not imply that the person of faith embraces irrational fanaticism or childish fantasies.

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