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What is Belief?

August 3, 2011

In my last post, I tried to show that it is not unreasonable to suppose that there may be such a thing as an ethics of belief. Let’s suppose that this has been established, and that we’re not barking up the wrong tree. An important next step is to ask a simple question: what exactly is a belief?

What do we mean when we say that we believe something? For the purposes of this discussion I want to step away from the simple use of the word in which the phrase “i believe that…” has the same meaning as “i think it may be the case that…”. In this phrasing belief is a matter of inclination: I am inclined to think that it is the case that P (where P is some statement that may or may not be true, such as “It is raining” or “The window is open”). But do you really believe P? This meaning just doesn’t capture what it means (or what I think it means) to believe something.

In Beliefs own Ethics, Jonathan Adler presents a way of talking about belief that adds something substantial to the potential definition above. He asks us to look at belief from a first person perspective. What does it mean for meto believe something? If I say “I believe that P”, surely it is natural to suppose that I would also be willing to say “It is true that P is the case”, which is just the same as simply asserting “P” (i.e. asserting the statement that P represents). So, I believe something if I would assert it as true.

There’s an important point to note here, which is that not all our beliefs are conscious beliefs. I didn’t have a (conscious) belief about the number of pens in my pen holder until I just counted them, but it is safe to say that I believed it to be less than 100 (it’s a small pen holder). It is only when I attend to this belief, that is, pay attention to it and think about it, that I am in a position to assert it.

So, Adler says that we can safely say that someone believes P if, when they attended to their beliefs they would assert P as true. This fits much better with my intuitive definition than then tentative definition above. It’s important to note that this definition does not imply knowledge of P. I hold a belief because I think I have sufficient reasons to hold that it is true, and I would therefore hope that I know P, but this in no way implies that I know P. To know something I have to believe it, and it also has to be true (and justified, plus some other criteria to overcome the Gettier problem, or something else altogether that isn’t justification… but that’s a subject for another post). The aim of belief (presumably, but just typing this I’m wondering if this is the case) is to arrive at true belief, but that doesn’t mean my beliefs are true…

…which reminds me of a cool Plato dialogue, the Meno, in which Socrates is arguing about the value of knowledge. Does knowledge of the route from one city to another have any value over partial belief that the same route will get you there? Both work, and if the value of knowledge is that it is true, partial belief has the same to offer. Socrates suggests that it is the strength of knowledge that counts – if the person holding only partial belief in the route was to follow it and it suddenly veered away from the direction the city was in, they would doubt the route. The person with knowledge would not. So is it the more rigid, fixed nature of knowledge that is of value? But, that’s a digression away from belief. Next post, hopefully sooner this time, I’ll try to look at some arguments for evidentialism.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Justin permalink
    August 3, 2011 2:05 PM

    I just read Meno not too long ago! Classic Plato/Socrates.

  2. August 3, 2011 2:11 PM

    Meno is the starting point for most of the papers on the value of knowledge that I’ve read, it is indeed a classic. Not quite up there with Euthyphro though.

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