This blog is my exploration of what belief is. I find that belief is multifaceted and admits of gradations. The philosophical study of beliefs comes under the field of study called epistemology (theory of knowledge), which is just one aspect of what makes up knowledge. Knowledge is usually defined as justified true belief. There are plenty of issues with this definition, but most epistemologists use some version of it in their explorations of what knowledge is.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy starts its article on belief with: “Contemporary analytic philosophers of mind generally use the term ‘belief’ to refer to the attitude we have, roughly, whenever we take something to be the case or regard it as true.”¹ The Oxford English Dictionary defines it foremost in terms of religious belief, using words such as “faith” and “trust.”
I am mainly concerned with the philosophical side of belief; although, the religious and other meanings are important as well. Other uses include how the word is used in the field of psychology. So, I am going to concentrate on the philosophical side, but I will touch on the religious side a bit and will say something on the psychological side.
I believe that beliefs come in degrees. I have four categories of belief; although, only the last two come up to what would be called justified. A justified belief is that which you have some form of evidence and coherent reason that warrants the belief. If your belief is in any degree about the physical world, the evidence must include the empirical kind. I will leave what is empirical evidence for another time. Coherent reason cannot contain any apparent contradictions. I say apparent contradictions here because a contradiction that is not recognized would not figure into a person’s justification of a belief.
I will approach the stages of belief that I have developed one at a time. The first stage I call a “feeling.” This is the intuitive stage. When I say I feel that something is so, I have not yet begun to reason about it. There must be some rational thought about a feeling, or we would not be able to ascertain the feeling. And of course, the intuitive mode of belief does not exclude any cognition at all, but the serious business of belief formation has yet to occur. I will discuss this further when I explore the second level of belief.
First, a word or two more about intuition. The first Dictionary.com definition of it is: “is
At one time I thought that intuition arose through a three-step process. The three steps are sensing, feeling, intuiting. This is probably more in line with the dictionary,com definition given above. Intuition begins with a sensory perception, which we gain a feeling of, to which then leads to the intuition. I never fully developed this scheme, but I think it maybe basically correct.
Now feelings are not felt in the absence of thought. So again, a feeling is a more descriptive term than intuition. Matter of fact in neuroscience studies it is rarely found that feeling and thought happen without the other occurring at the same time. So when I have a feeling about a belief, I have a certain sense of what something is or is like, which is strongly felt with some, but usually with a minimal, amount of thought. For me feeling is a belief that occurs at the beginning of inquiry or exploration about something.
I will also use “feel” when I am stating a belief about someone. The major reason for this is when ascribing feelings and thoughts to someone, I think that it can never have the degree of certainty that other beliefs may attain. Of course, some of our beliefs about someone else can be pretty certain, especially with those we know well. But, I think it is usually wise to verify directly with the person who is the focus of the belief in question.
The next level of belief is when I state that I “think.” This phase of belief is where the hard work is put in. I go from an idea or concept and will start to form my arguments augmented with whatever evidence I can find or have available. Sometimes, of course, the evidence my lead me to abandon my exploration, adjust it, or overcome it. Overcoming here is not a willful ignoring, but to continue to seek more evidence when I have come across evidence that does not jive with the belief I am trying to form.
The thinking stage of belief is like a way station. And, sometimes a belief at this stage stays at the station for sometime. And, sometimes it gets put in the dumpster at the station into the oblivion of my mind. Although, I have to say I do not lay aside a belief at this stage easily, though I would hate you to think I stubbornly hang on to beliefs that have no support for them at all. I sometimes reach a place with a belief where it seems to go nowhere, but is not worth dumping completely, so it gets stored in a locker in my mind at the station.
Now comes what I would call “belief” proper. With this kind of belief I feel justified in holding it. For the most part when I have formed this level of belief I will no longer actively search for more confirming evidence; although, if I come across any, I will incorporated it into this belief, which could lead to further arguments in support of it as well. At this stage the belief could be considered fully formed. At this point I state that I “believe” something.
When I talk about this level of belief, I talk about a belief as if it is true. I also deem these beliefs action worthy. In a sense you could say that these beliefs are those that are beyond a reasonable doubt, which is the same standard used in the United States for a criminal conviction. I am that sure of these beliefs, that it is like convicting myself. Matter of fact, conviction’s number one definition at dictionary.com is “
But, I have another meaning for a belief. They are “firm beliefs.” These are beliefs I hold so secured that I cannot imagine them being overturned. This does not mean that they are beyond revision, only that I have looked at these beliefs in enough depth, that during my exploration, I have not come across anything that gives me any reason to be concerned that these beliefs are not true. You could say I considered them to be very true.
So this is my scheme or scale that I consider my beliefs to come under or on. To recap there are four levels of belief that I indicate with the following terms: I use “feel” when the belief is more intuitive, involving little or no cognition; I use” think” when the belief is in the cognitive exploration phase; I use “belief” when the belief has enough justification that I consider it to be true beyond any reasonable doubt; and finally, I use “firm belief” when a belief has become so strong that I cannot imagine any evidence or arguments that would dislodge it.
Now let me give some examples of these categories. Here are two uses of I “feel.” In Is Strong AI Possible? I wrote: “I have the feeling that language is actually a sense organ. But, instead of allowing us to sense things from without, it senses our thoughts.” Here I have yet to seek out confirmative evidence. The only thought that accompanies this belief is that it is similar to our internal sense of body position.* In What Did Aristotle Mean? I wrote: “I feel it is necessary for each individual to determine which virtues are important to her or him.” Here I take this as obvious, and it fits with my ethical presuppositions—a form of moral subjectivism.
Here are a couple of examples of my use of I “think.” In Is Strong AI Possible? I wrote: “I think it is at least possible that they [animals of the mammalian form] have a minimum amount of self-consciousness.” I included this in the think category because I base this belief on numerous observations of other animals in particularly Baxter, my cat. In What Is Philosophy? I stated: “One thing I think it [philosophy] includes is reflection.” This is a belief that is close to my regular category of belief. When I wrote this I was thinking my way through my topic at hand. Now, I would probably label it a “belief.”
Here are two examples of when I use “belief.” I wrote as a foot note in What Is Philosophy? “I am a materialist, so I naturally believe that the cause of the mind is the brain, maybe looked at from a different angle . . .” Part of this belief’s evidence is that we have yet to have a mind without a brain. “While I believe folk psychology does not explain thought, it is the way we talk about thought and behavior.” was written in reply to a comment to “Does Baxter Compute?” My reasons and evidence is based in part on my materialist views, but also in evidence from neuroscience studies.
And finally, here are two statements that illustrate my use of “firm belief.” In a reply to a comment on Why Are People Afraid of Their Brain? I stated: “I firmly belief that philosophy should be in agreement with science when it matters to the subject matter at hand.” This belief falls into place as part of my metaphysical naturalism position, which is a set of presuppositions including the belief that science is the best way to find out about the world. “My conclusion is there does not exist any god or gods. And, and this is my belief . . .” was written in Why Deism Is Not the Answer? I would now say that this is a firm belief. Actually, it has been for quite awhile. It now falls within this fourth category of belief, which I have only more recently worked out, hence this being part of this blog.
I will now briefly address belief in psychological terms. It is said that a belief involves a mental representation of some object. This is very basic; although, the object can be quite complex and does not have to be physical. It could be an idea or concept. For belief in psychological terms the belief need not be justified, nor need it be, like with the philosophical concept of belief, true.
I think there is a deeper level to psychological belief. I think that in order for an object to be in a state of psychological belief in a person’s mind it needs to be actionable. For a belief to have formed one must be willing to act on it.^ If I believe that there are no cars on the road, than for this to be a bona fide psychological belief I must be willing to step into the street. This is also why I said above that for a belief to be a belief proper it needs to be beyond a reasonable doubt.
Now, religious belief is a whole other animal. Its most common use is when a person has faith or trust in a god. With the religious aspect of belief one needs to jettison a belief needing to be justified. The hard line here is that religious belief cannot be justified because there is neither any evidence nor coherent argument to back up a belief in god, so the religious believer cannot have a justified belief in god and needs to fall back on having faith that there is such a god.
Of course, faith can move mountains. This is not to be taken as literal, but figuratively. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others’ faith in god enable them to push for civil rights for people of color, which while not yet being reached fully, did gain an awful lot of rights for people that lack them before. There was a big mountain to be moved in order for this to have come about.
So to wrap up, I will say that to me belief comes in four flavors. The first flavor in my kitchen of belief is the feeling or intuitive level with no or minimal cognition being involved. The second flavor is thinking. It is here were the majority of cognition is going on. In a sense it is an active mode of belief. The third flavor is what I call belief proper. Here I am justified in my belief. Finally, the last flavor is what are my firm beliefs. My atheism and mind/body materialism falls into this category. Again, firm beliefs are such that I cannot imagine any evidence or arguments that could upset them—except special orders, which always upset me :-).
* I plan on writing a blog to further my exploration of language, and this aspect will be delved into at that time.
^ I once had a therapist who claimed this. At the time I did not feel that this was so, and I never went back to him. At that time I was for some reason leery of cognitive therapy.