How much should we value beliefs?

How much should we value beliefs? August 12, 2020

Hardly at all, I would contend.

Why not?

Well, beliefs can be false for a start. We’ve all met that. We’ve all experienced something like, ‘I believe this soup is cool enough to drink’, ‘I believe I can park the car in that gap’, ‘I believe I can jump over that big puddle’, and we’ve been wildly wrong.

Men have covered themselves in feathers and leapt from heights in the belief that they would be able to fly. Having trust, faith or confidence in a belief can be a fatal mistake. There is no necessary correspondence between a belief and the truth. The fact is, those people were merely choosing, without the benefit of evidence, to adopt an idea as if it was true.

The reason that ‘believing’ is given an, often undeserved, value in English is because we also use the word in another way: to mean merely accepting a proposition. As well as applying to silly beliefs, this usage can be applied to things that are undoubtedly true, where, I would argue, belief is actually unnecessary. Take the force of gravity, it’s simply an item of evidential information. No-one in their right mind disbelieves it, and nobody needs to go to the trouble of actively believing it. Believing requires effort – constant reiteration, nightly prayers; the force of gravity doesn’t – one encounter is enough. Fire is the same, believing in it is just redundant.

That opportunity for, possibly unintended, equivocation ruins the word ‘belief’ because none of us can tell whether the user means an item of solid evidential information or merely an irrational, unjustified personal preference.

We actually need two words.

And the Ancient Greeks had two words! They had ‘doxa’ for propositions that had become accepted merely as popular opinions and ‘pistis’ for honest and reliable aspects of the issue under discussion.

I’ve been arguing that we need to re-evaluate the word ‘belief’ for a decade, but what has brought all of this to the top of my mind once more is something that Professor Lee Cronin said in my recent Skeptics in the Hub show that he was the guest on.

He said, “Belief starts where falsification ends.”

I thought, I’ve found a kindred spirit! 

I told him that my version of that has been, “Belief is an opinion about the unknown!” 

Watch the video to see his reaction!


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