Sunday, February 17, 2008

Do Beliefs Exist?

Contrast two competing models of belief:

(A) [Full-blown existence.] Beliefs are something like sentences in the head, written in the language of thought, and physically located in one's "belief box" -- a special area of the brain, perhaps.

(B) Beliefs are more like useful fictions, patterns (Dennett compares them to centers of gravity), or projections that track certain dispositions. So they do not have any independent existence. Rather, S's believing that P is reducible to its being correct to ascribe or attribute this belief to S -- where the correctness conditions for this ascription make no further appeal to beliefs as such.

One may initially be tempted toward the first view on the grounds that it better captures the distinction between explicit and implicit beliefs. Explicit beliefs are literally there in your belief box, whereas one implicitly believes whatever can be easily inferred from one's explicit beliefs (for some appropriate standard of 'ease').

But this doesn't work at all, as Stalnaker points out in 'The Problem of Logical Omniscience, I'. What we want is a distinction between accessible and inaccessible information, but this is independent of the explicit/implicit distinction given to us by the belief box view. After all, just because some information is etched in our brains doesn't necessarily mean (given our search and computational limitations) that we will be able to find this information when we need it.

Imagine the phonebook man (I forget whose example this is), who has memorized the entire phonebook, ordered alphabetically. This way of storing the information means that, given a name as input, he can easily find the number that goes with it. But the reverse is not true: given a random phone number, Phonebook Man has little chance of finding the corresponding name in any reasonable period of time. So it would be misleading to say that he knows (or believes) that #555-5555 belongs to John Smith, even though this information is explicitly stored in his belief box.

On the other hand, he clearly does know the equivalent proposition that John Smith has phone number 555-5555. (He can look up John Smith and get the answer, no trouble.) The dispositions which underlie "belief" are thus relative to a question or probe. This seems to contradict our common-sense notion of belief.

How are we to resolve this puzzle?


  1. I don't think this quite exhausts our options. "Useful fictions" radically underplays the role beliefs play in constituting things like knowledge, justification, truth and rationality -- concepts we must take to be of more than strictly heuristic value under almost any philosophical system.

  2. I think belief doesn't exist, I think presumptions do. I presume the following 3: the universe exists; i exist; predictive models are better than non predictive models of reality.
    Calling something a belief confines you to a box, example:
    A) I say I put a cat in that box (you didn't observe this in anyway).

    Now regardless of how many conclusions can be foreseen here, let's say theirs 2, either I did or didn't. Saying "I believe" either makes you take a position on "A", but theirs no reason to, making the statement an irrational statement to begin with. I would class someone who said they believe as making a presumptions based off many factors, trust, reliability, beneficial, interest, comfort the list of personal wants goes on; so its formed from the individuals desires and not out of complete irrationality. Hence why we eat and suffice ourselves, we can't prove the universe or ourselves exist but we do this out of self desire/ biological programming. In conclusion we presume we exist and this it what we mean when we say belief, it's the ability to think or something without being able to articulate it rationally. Once we articulate it rationally it becomes a presumption. Presumptions can vary in depth confined to our knowledge. I wouldn't bother rationalizing my action of holding a cup based upon quantum mechanics haha. Belief, why take a irrational option when you should be looking to find out what option is more rational then choose that option. If you come to a point where you can't make a decision, you don't have to make one, wait for more evidence or try to find some but don't choose one that best fits your interest. So I don't think belief exists as I think when anyone says "they believe" what they mean is I presume this option as I don't want to presume the alternative option as they are gaining some kind of self interest/desire from it. Saying I belief implies you're aware of the unknown. This is the turning point, if you acknowledge you don't know, then you acknowledge possibility, proving you're choosing one option over another for a reason, turning your "belief" into at best a presumption (one which you can withdraw from) or worse case a purposeful manipulation where you believe something to hide the truth for self desire. I don't trust people who say they believe, their either not thoughtful or dangerous.

    P.S I've only had this thought this evening, not much time to develop a clear understanding, so if you can criticise what I said , please do.

  3. I would like to add to my earlier thought: Beliefs are facts which are supported by no evidence.
    So if you class your thought as a belief then you don't believe it for the above reasons, however if your thoughts aren't supported by evidence and you truly say it's fact without a doubt then it's a belief.
    So if you think god is truth, fact, undeniably right you're saying all other possibilities are impossible then it's a belief in this case. Aside from that it's a presumption, hope, desire, want, social norm and so on.
    I've never met someone who truly beleves; each acclaimed belief is different and requires specific reasoning to prove wrong, extraordinary claims must have extraordinary evidence otherwise it can be proven wrong. I think all beliefs can be proven wrong or at least reduced to a presumption, unless they're mentally ill perhaps.


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