We all have beliefs of many different kinds, some held strongly and others of an everyday nature. The investigation of the nature of belief has been a pre-occupation of philosophers as far back as the Greeks and it can raise questions of general interest.
We must first distinguish belief as a mental state – believing something to be the case – from belief as a proposition – what is believed. As a mental state, believing can vary from what is strongly held to what is implicit or half-believed, or even unconsciously believed. On the other hand, what is believed – the proposition – can be true, false, probable, or unlikely.
We believe much more than we realise. If I were to ask you: Was Singapore once part of the British Empire? You would probably answer 'Yes, I think so', even although you had never explicitly thought of it. The point is that we all have a huge store of beliefs and they can be tapped into when needed. Our beliefs – in the propositional sense of what we believe – are dispositions which can be activated when required. Analogously, salt has the disposition of being soluble in water, but it is activated only when you drop it in water.
One interest of philosophers throughout the ages has been the relationship between belief and knowledge. On this question, I must refer you back to the distinction between belief as the mental state of believing, and belief as a set of propositions – the content of what is believed.
The propositional side to belief – what is believed – becomes knowledge when it satisfies assorted tests. These can be the rigorous tests which would be used in an exact science to the much less rigorous tests we use in everyday life. In this way, a huge body of belief has been refined over the years. Some beliefs are added to knowledge in different spheres, whereas other beliefs are discarded as erroneous. The passing of rigorous tests turns beliefs in the propositional sense into knowledge.
Even if a belief fails the rigorous test required by science, it might still be highly probable and useful in the conduct of life. There is an analogous distinction in the law. For criminal cases, a jury is required to be convinced 'beyond reasonable doubt' if they are to return a 'guilty' verdict. This is comparable to the test for knowledge which a scientist might employ. In civil cases, however, the test is 'within the bounds of probability'. This test suggests the probability of belief.
These tests apply mainly to what I have called the propositional side to belief, to what is believed. Do the same sort of distinctions apply to the mental state side to belief – to believing rather than to the propositions believed? People speak of believing very strongly. But if we say 'I know X to be the case', it is not that our mental state is a few degrees stronger than it was when we said 'I firmly believe X to be the case'. The words 'I know' in this context are not used to indicate a mental state but to offer a guarantee – 'You can count on what I have claimed'.
An analogy might help to explain this point. We can imagine a scale which goes from 'I might some day do X', through 'I hope to do X this year', through 'I intend to do X this year', to 'I promise to do X this year'. But the linguistic function of 'I promise' is not to indicate an even more definite form of intention; rather it is to offer a guarantee – you can count on me. I have, as it were, pinned my self on the future and a failure would result in a loss of self-respect. In a similar way, to say 'I know it to be the case' is not to signal a strong mental state (although I may have one) but to give a guarantee.
Our beliefs are part of what makes us the persons we are. Socrates reportedly recommended a radical policy of examining our whole belief system. He is reported as saying that the unexamined life is not worth living. That seems to me a bit harsh. It is no doubt a good thing from time to time to have a look at yourself. New Year is the traditional time for this. But how radical and how permanent changes in our belief system can be is open to doubt.
How do we acquire our beliefs? The obvious first answer is that we acquire them as they come through the more or less rational filters of schooling and higher education. Beliefs acquired in these ways are considered to be well-founded, or based on accepted wisdom. But we are also caused to hold beliefs by a constant bombardment from many sources such as social media, politicians, newspapers, radio and TV, and what 'they' are saying in the pub or at the coffee break. In other words, we can both be given reasons to hold many beliefs but we can also be caused to hold them.
It is easy to think of being caused to hold beliefs as a matter of sinister brainwashing, but, as I said above, the fact is that in contemporary society we are bombarded with sophisticated messages which are intended to shape our beliefs. Some of them may, in fact, be subliminal – below our consciousness. Advertisers are well aware of human weaknesses and fear. They therefore direct their advertisements in a form which will exploit our frailty, usually with the aim of commercial profit. They are aware that an
important feature of our beliefs is that they frequently lead to action.
A philosopher who started discussion on the ethics of belief was William Clifford in the 19th century. Clifford was emphatic that ethics required that our beliefs should be evidence based. To make his point he told a story. The story is that of a shipowner who sold tickets for a transatlantic voyage. The owner was aware that his ship was rickety, but knowing that repairs would be costly and cause delay, the shipowner managed to push these worries aside and form the sincere belief that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy. He collected the insurance money when the ship went down in mid-ocean.
Clifford goes on to cite our intuitive indictments of the shipowner as grounds for his principle: 'It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence'.
The philosopher/psychologist William James offered a much more permissive approach to belief. He allowed that there are some contexts in which it is fine to form a belief even though we don't have sufficient evidence for it. In fact, James and many of his 'pragmatist' followers point out that sometimes we are obliged to form beliefs on insufficient evidence, and that it could be a failure to do otherwise. As we might say: 'I believe it will work but I haven't been able to test it very thoroughly, but since it is an emergency, I think we should try it'. Perhaps that was the case with vaccines.
Debate over the ethics of belief is relevant also to 'believing in'. The expression is used mainly but not exclusively to believing in a person. For example: 'I believe in my doctor'. Presumably, believing in my doctor has two components: I believe that he/she is a good doctor, and I am happy to commit myself to his/her care. A similar sort of analysis would apply to 'I believe in regular exercise'. 'I believe in God' requires a more complex analysis than I can offer here.
Do I always know what I believe? This question should be considered both by those who claim to believe in God and by those who claim not to believe in God. More simply, I may claim to believe that we ought not to give money directly to beggars, but then I do so. Am I inconsistent or is it that I don't really know what I believe? I don't know what I believe till I see what I do.
In general, however, I think philosophers have a tendency to be too heavy and literal about belief. There is a concept better known in artistic than philosophical circles – the willing suspension of disbelief. We don't always need to be looking for evidence. Like most of my generation, I was/am a fan of ABBA. There is an ABBA song called I Believe in Angels
. When things are working out, I can go with that.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow