How Belief Works

Chapter 2: What Is Belief?​

The definition, and misdefinition, of belief​

The concept of belief is one of the most basic concepts of human psychology. Also, as I explained in chapter 1, belief is the centre of human psychology. And yet this concept can be difficult to define. Indeed, most of the formal attempts that I've read fail in some way. Therefore it's necessary to be especially careful to begin this analysis of the psychology of belief with a starting definition that correctly captures the essence of belief. Also, the term belief has different meanings, and so I first need to clarify which is the main subject of this book.

From fundamental to mundane

The term belief is often used to specifically mean a core belief, a fundamental conviction, whether religious, moral, political or scientific – as when we refer to our, or someone else’s, ‘beliefs’. However, the subject of this book is belief in general, from core beliefs to mundane ones. Examples of the latter are my current beliefs that I’m sitting on a chair, that it’s Tuesday morning, that it’s sunny outside, and that my first name is Derrick.

Believing something versus something believed

The term belief can refer either to the psychological state – believing something – or to a believed claim – something believed. For example, in the first sense, my belief that Earth is round is different from your belief that Earth is round, because they’re separate psychological states existing in separate minds. But in the second sense they're the same belief – that is, that Earth is round.

The subject of this book is belief in the first sense the primary sense. This psychological state involves the mental state of believing something and the associated brain state. The mental state of believing claim X involves thinking X. For example, the mental state of believing that Earth is round involves thinking 'Earth is round'. And the brain state of believing X involves a collection of neural connections somewhere in the brain. When one of our beliefs in this sense isn’t involved in our current thinking, and therefore doesn't involve a mental state, it exists solely as a brain state in the memory area of the brain.

Eight ways to misdefine belief

As I mentioned, most of the formal attempts to define belief that I've read fail in some way. Consider the following examples.

Belief is an emotional state

Penguin Books’ The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology, edited by psychology professor Rhianon Allen, defines the term belief as follows:

Generally used in the standard dictionary sense of an emotional acceptance of some proposition, statement or doctrine.

However, no other dictionary that I’ve checked, whether for psychology, philosophy or English in general, including the Oxford English Dictionary, states that belief is an emotional mental state. Indeed, although, as I explained in chapter 1, our emotions revolve around belief, the mental state of belief isn’t itself an emotional mental state, being a purely intellectual mental state. For example, my current beliefs that I’m sitting on a chair, that it’s Tuesday morning, that it’s sunny outside, and that my first name is Derrick, aren’t in themselves emotional mental states. However, given the speediness of the brain, which works on the timescale of milliseconds, a belief can arouse an emotion so quickly that these two mental states can seem to be the same mental state. Perhaps Allen was thinking solely of core beliefs, given that such fundamental convictions are often influenced by, and often arouse, emotions.

As I mentioned above, when one of our beliefs isn’t involved in our current thinking the psychological state of belief continues, albeit solely as a brain state in the memory area of the brain. However, although our experience of an emotion is stored in our memory, that doesn't constitute the psychological state of emotion continuing. That is, our emotional state ceases when our direct experience of it ceases – although, our subsequent recollection of what aroused the emotion can lead to the emotion being aroused again.

We can hold belief X without actually thinking X or even thinking about the subject of X

Oxford University Press’s philosophy encyclopedia The Oxford Companion to Philosophy has an entry for belief that was written by Stanford University philosophy professor Fred Dretske. Part of it states:

Even if you never consciously thought about whether turtles wear pyjamas, it seems right to say that you none the less believed they did not wear pyjamas before your attention was ever called to the fact.

That is, we can hold belief X without actually thinking X or even thinking about the subject of X, because X simply being a straightforward implication of some of our beliefs constitutes believing X.

However, the above excerpt concerns belief in the sense of the psychological state. And, again, the psychological state of believing X involves the mental state of believing X and the associated brain state, and the mental state of believing X involves thinking X. Therefore even if X is a straightforward implication of some of our beliefs, we can't believe X without thinking X. Although, again, once belief X has formed we can continue to hold this belief when we're no longer thinking X. X being a straightforward implication of some of our beliefs can seem to constitute believing X because we can, given the speediness of the brain, infer X so quickly from those beliefs that our belief of X can seem to be inherent in those beliefs.

Belief is between baseless opinion and knowledge

Oxford University Press’s A Dictionary of Psychology, by psychology professor Andrew Colman, defines belief as follows:

Any proposition that is accepted as true on the basis of incomplete evidence. A belief is stronger than a baseless opinion but not as strong as an item of knowledge. More generally, belief is conviction, faith, or confidence in something or someone.

The first sentence concerns belief in the sense of a believed claim – something believed – whereas the third turns to belief in the sense of the psychological state – believing something. Therefore the claim in the second sentence that a belief is 'stronger than a baseless opinion but not as strong as an item of knowledge' is a reference not to different levels of confidence – which are associated with belief in the sense of the psychological state – but to different strengths of justification. Indeed, ‘an item of knowledge’ is knowledge in the sense of something known, as opposed to the psychological state of knowing something. Whereas the same item of knowledge, X, can exist in different minds, my psychological state of knowing X is different from your psychological state of knowing X because they’re separate psychological states existing in separate minds. The second sentence is therefore referring to an opinion in the sense of something opined, rather than the psychological state of having an opinion.

It's odd that a definition of belief, especially one in a psychology dictionary, would only define belief in the sense of the psychological statethe primary senseafter defining belief in the sense of a believed claim – the secondary sense. Also, it refers to the primary sense as being the more general sense, but each sense is actually equally general – that is, any belief in either sense is, by definition, associated with a belief in the other sense.

But the fundamental problem with this definition is that it wrongly states that a belief in the sense of a believed claim is between, and therefore distinct from, a baseless opinion and an item of knowledge, with the false implication that a belief in the sense of the psychological state is between, and therefore distinct from, the psychological states of having a baseless opinion and knowing something. Having the baseless opinion that, for example, Kate is lying constitutes, by definition, believing that Kate is lying. And knowing that Kate is lying constitutes, by definition, believing that Kate is lying. And this in turn means that both the baseless opinion Kate is lying and item of knowledge Kate is lying are beliefs in the sense of a believed claim. This error will be due to the terms baseless opinion and knowledge normally being used instead of belief to refer to these extremes of belief, in order to communicate their nature, which has led to the false idea that such extremes are different from belief, and that belief is therefore only what exists between them.

The idea that belief is between, and therefore distinct from, baseless opinion and knowledge is also stated in the entry for belief in Pan Books’s A Dictionary of Philosophy – edited by philosophy professors Antony Flew and Stephen Priest – despite this dictionary’s entry for knowledge stating that there's general agreement within philosophy that knowledge constitutes belief.

Belief is knowledge, or assumed knowledge, and enduring, and only about an object or event

One formal definition of belief makes three false claims about belief, and despite being only ten words long. It also commits an error of omission. It appears in the first edition of the best-selling university-level psychology textbook Psychology. One of the co-authors is Daniel Gilbert, the Harvard psychology professor who wrote the 1991 paper, which I mentioned in chapter 1, ‘How Mental Systems Believe’, on Spinozan belief formation. The other three authors – Daniel Schacter, Daniel Wegner and Bruce Hood – are also Harvard psychology professors. They define belief as:

An enduring piece of knowledge about an object or event.

First, although a piece of knowledge is a belief, a belief isn’t necessarily a piece of knowledge, given that it can also be a baseless opinion or something between these extremes. Indeed, a false belief obviously isn’t knowledge. The obviousness of this fact makes this error, by four Harvard professors, particularly remarkable, and inexplicable. Even a true belief isn’t necessarily knowledge. For example, if someone believes that their lottery ticket will win the jackpot, and it then does, then their belief was true. But it couldn't be correctly said that they knew they'd win, given that the outcome of the draw was unpredictable, assuming it was a fair draw. It could merely be correctly said that they believed they'd win, and happened to be right. That is, their belief was merely a baseless opinion, albeit a true one. Knowledge is specifically justified true belief – that is, belief that’s true not by chance but because the believer has a logical justification for the belief.

Second, beliefs also aren’t necessarily enduring. It could be argued that core beliefs must by definition be at least somewhat enduring – which is presumably the kind of belief that the authors had in mind. But, as I mentioned, not all beliefs are fundamental convictions. And those that aren't are often not enduring. That is, when we replace one such belief with a contrary belief this event can occur any length of time, however long or short, after the formation of the first belief. And given the speediness of the brain the time gap can be less than a second. For example, upon concluding that Kate is lying we may cease holding this belief the next moment, upon remembering something that means that Kate isn't lying.

Third, beliefs aren’t just about objects or events, because they can also be about concepts, ideas, theories, rules, norms, and conventions. Such things can concern objects – including people – and events – including actions. And they’re stored via physical objects, such as paper, computer memory or brains. And their involvement in our thinking, or appearance on a screen, is an event. But they aren't themselves objects or events, being instead abstract. In the case of concepts, ideas and theories concerning mathematics and logic, they aren’t even themselves abstractly about objects or events.

The definition's fourth error concerns not something that it states, but something that it fails to state. It refers to a ‘piece of knowledge’, which, as for the phrase 'item of knowledge' in the previous definition, is knowledge in the sense of something known, as opposed to the psychological state of knowing something. Therefore this definition concerns belief in the sense of a believed claim – something believed – but not in the sense of the psychological state – believing something – and even though the latter sense is the primary sense and this definition is in a psychology textbook.

In the second edition the definition of belief has been revised. It now only commits one of the above four errors, but it also commits two new ones. The definition is now:

An assumed knowledge about an object or event that is not proven.

The definition no longer states that beliefs are necessarily enduring. Also, it now states not that belief is knowledge, but merely that it’s assumed to be. The definition presumably means that this assumption is made by the believer, although it should explicitly state this. Also, given that the definition now refers to just 'knowledge' rather than a 'piece of knowledge', it now can be referring to knowledge in the sense of the psychological state of knowing something, although it also can still be referring to knowledge in the sense of something known. Therefore the definition can now be of belief in the sense of either the psychological state or a believed claim.

However, the wording 'an assumed knowledge about' is ungrammatical for either sense of knowledge. For example, knowledge in either sense that Kate is lying can be referred to as knowledge about Kate, or my knowledge about Kate, or his knowledge about Kate, and so on, but can't be referred to as a knowledge about Kate. And, likewise, assumed knowledge in either sense that Kate is lying can be referred to as assumed knowledge about Kate, or my assumed knowledge about Kate, or his assumed knowledge about Kate, and so on, but can't be referred to as an assumed knowledge about Kate.

Also, the claimed assumption of the believer that this psychological state or the believed claim – is knowledge is actually a belief about their belief. Therefore this assumption actually can't itself be a defining aspect of belief. And it isn’t even possible for us to make this assumption about every belief that we hold, given that doing so would require the generation of an infinite series of beliefs about beliefs.

Also, the 'not proven' part means that the definition now includes the previously mentioned falsehood that belief is below knowledge. And the definition still restricts belief to being about an object or event.

So this revised one-sentence formal definition of belief, in this best-selling university-level psychology textbook, written by four Harvard psychology professors, still makes three false claims about beliefalthough now in twelve words instead of ten.

One way to avoid misdefining belief

Some reference books avoid misdefining belief by failing to even attempt a formal definition even though one is clearly required. I explained in chapter 1 that belief is the centre of human psychology, quoting the philosopher Bertrand Russell: ‘Belief … is the central problem in the analysis of mind. … Psychology, theory of knowledge and metaphysics revolve about belief …’. I also mentioned in chapter 1 the strange unawareness of this within academia. But even for someone who's unaware that belief is the centre of human psychology, belief is obviously a major aspect of human psychology. And yet the academic editors of the following reference books didn’t think that belief warranted even a short entry: Oxford University Press’s encyclopedia The Oxford Companion to the Mind, edited by psychology professor Richard Gregory, Wiley’s Concise Encyclopedia of Psychology, edited by psychologist Raymond Corsini and economist Alan Auerbach, and Penguin Books's The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy, edited by philosophy professor Thomas Mautner.

This bizarre omission is also committed by some university textbooks. The blurb for the best-selling, 750-page, Psychology, by psychology professors Peter Gray and David Bjorklund, states that it's a 'rigorous ... introduction to psychology'. But the glossary doesn't have an entry for belief, and nor is belief defined anywhere else, even briefly. And for the following textbooks belief isn’t even listed in the index, and nor is it defined anywhere, even briefly: the best-selling, 992-page, 2.7-kilogram (paperback), Psychology, by psychology writer Richard Gross – blurb: 'It is the essential introduction to psychology, covering all students need to know to understand and evaluate classic and contemporary topics’ and 'Richard Gross is the foremost author of Psychology textbooks in Britain' – and the best-selling, 838-page, Cognitive Psychology, by psychology professor Michael Eysenck and cognitive science professor Mark Keane – blurb: ‘… [it] has been designed to help students develop a thorough understanding of the fundamentals of cognitive psychology’ – and Cognitive Psychology: The Basics, by psychology writer and lecturer Sandie Taylor and psychology professor Lance Workman – blurb: '... [it] provides a compact introduction to the core topics in the field, discussing the science behind the everyday cognitive phenomena experienced by us all' – and the best-selling Philosophy of Mind, by philosophy professor John Heil – blurb: ‘… [a] guide for students ... to central issues of philosophy of mind’.

Even some books that are specifically about belief fail to define it. For example, The Believing Brain, by researcher and science writer Michael Shermer, ‘… synthesizes [his] thirty years of research …’ on the psychology of belief, and the index states that belief is defined on pages 5 to 8, but these pages actually concern how beliefs form, and don't attempt to define belief, even briefly.

This omission by the above authors who are academics is also ironic given that one of the most common reasons academics give for deducting marks when assessing students’ writings is a failure to define key concepts.

A starting definition

As I stated in the introduction, given that most of the formal attempts to define belief that I've read fail in some way, it's necessary to be especially careful to begin this analysis of the psychology of belief with a starting definition that correctly captures the essence of belief.

Although a claim can be about anything, all claims are ultimately about the same thing: reality. Reality consists of:

    • physical reality – the physical world

    • mental reality – the content of our mind and other minds, including concepts

    • mathematical reality – for example, 2 + 2 = 4

    • logical reality – for example, a logical implication of the claims Vegetarians don’t eat meat and Pork sausages contain meat is Vegetarians don't eat pork sausages.

Note that:

  • claims can be about the physical and mental reality of the past, present or future

  • the interactions and relationships between people, and the creation and effects of rules, conventions, and norms, involves a combination of the above aspects of reality, and includes the theory and practice of ethics and politics

  • even something that exists solely in someone's imagination is part of reality, in the sense that it's part of mental reality

  • even a false claim is a claim about reality – it's just that this claim about reality is false

  • even the claim that something has a particular sub-certain probability is a claim about reality: although the claim is stating that the thing in question is a mere possibility, the claim that that thing is possible as opposed to impossible, and has sub-certain probability P as opposed to some other sub-certain probability, is a claim about reality.

Given that all claims are ultimately about reality, believing any claim involves its content being our understanding of part of reality – which provides a starting definition of belief:

An understanding of part of reality.

This definition doesn't make any of the above eight errors. Regarding the mental state of belief not being emotional, an understanding is indeed in itself a purely intellectual mental state. Also, the wording applies equally to the psychological state of belief – believing something – and a believed claim – something believedgiven that the term understanding can refer to either the psychological state of understanding something or something understood. Surprisingly, a Google search that I conducted in 2022 for this specific word sequence produced no results.

Of course, this definition raises the question of how to define an understanding. But it sufficiently expands on the term belief to be a useful starting definition.

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