Disambiguating Belief

Ophelia Benson counters a common and deeply misleading equivocation (one I counter often, but most specifically addressed here and here):

Belief is about truth; it equates to”it is true that X”. It is thus cognitive rather than emotive. It seems odd to me to ask if it would be better to believe the things I do with more feeling. No, it wouldn’t be better, for me or for anyone. Feeling is orthogonal to truth. Feeling can’t make a belief true (except perhaps a belief about one’s own feeling). Suggesting that one should hold one’s beliefs with more feeling is like saying one should increase one’s level of cognitive bias. We naturally have feelings about some beliefs, and that can be harmless or even beneficial, but it can also collapse into wishful thinking. Holding one’s beliefs with more feeling just sounds like a recipe for dogmatism.

The whole subject is probably confused by the fact that “belief” can mean “religious belief”, and then a whole special set of rules comes into play. That’s just a mistake. Belief is much broader than religious belief, and it shouldn’t be blurred with ideas about holiness and piety and specialness. Belief isn’t spooky or magical, and it isn’t a wormhole to knowledge about God; it’s just a cognitive faculty we have, that helps us function. It should be reasonable and flexible and open to correction.

Belief isn’t the same thing as faith, and the words aren’t interchangeable. Faith can mean just trust, including reasonable trust, but it can also mean trust or belief without evidence or contrary to evidence. The two have different overtones, or ethical nuances. If one says, “Maggie believes that rock will get up and dance a gavotte”, Maggie sounds crazy. If one says, “Maggie has faith that that rock will get up and dance a gavotte”, Maggie sounds like a follower of a religion you haven’t heard of before.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://outofthegdwaye.wordpress.com/ George W.

    This subject is becoming nearer to my heart as I continue to discuss religion with a Christian over at my blog. She always seems to come back to faith as “intuition”, almost admitting that her God concept is not logical but nonetheless true.
    How do you counter that?
    I’ve tried following her arguments to their logical conclusions, and this has helped a bit. But she freely admits that it comes down to feeling and intuition, and I am constantly facing a logjam.

  • Clint Warren

    I am not sure that this is in line with James, for whatever that is worth… for James, and Dewey in fact, suggest that our dealings with present tense reality are informed by emotionally colored remembrances and expectations about the future. This would suggest that emotion has a great deal to do with defining meaning and meaning organizes our truths. They suggest that so long as one’s truths avoid contradiction in action they are to be considered pragmatically true… meaning true inasmuch as they bond stock truths with novel truths… and insomuch as one is willing to be swayed by contradiction. Thus, feeling and intellect work together to make truths fit subjectively… whether those truths will catch on depends on how well they run the gambit of consilience amongst differing points of view and verification in action. So more feeling could make a belief more true pragmatically, subjectively that is… but I would agree that one’s feeling will not aid a truth candidate in reaching consilience. But I suppose my point is moot… assuming that consilience is implicit in your thinking… since what the hell good is a personal, subjective truth anyway? And James and Dewey always make sure that slip in comments to clarify that such subjective truths are merely true ‘inasmuch’… which basically means they are bottom basement truths. We can do better… but it takes consilience.

  • http://www.examiner.com/apologetics-in-san-francisco/faith-101-do-we-need-less-faith-or-is-faith-strengthened-as-evidence-increases Maryann Spikes

    Because it ‘is’ faith, subjective certainty (excluding absolute certainty, which is unattainable by finite minds) that is strengthened despite counter-evidence is bad and blind, just like bad and blind faith. Bad faith ‘is’ blind subjective certainty, and blind subjective certainty ‘is’ bad faith. Any level of subjective certainty below absolute certainty ‘is’ faith. The more subjective certainty is strengthened, the less the weaker levels of subjective certainty are needed, just like faith is only needed when absolute certainty is lacking. The stronger the level of good subjective certainty, the stronger the good faith—because they are the same and are strengthened with strong evidence and weakened by counter-evidence.