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, which is 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 our belief of something – that is, the psychological state – or to something believed – that is, a believed claim. 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 psychological state. 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 unique arrangement 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 currently involve a mental state, we continue to hold it because it’s stored in our memory, where it exists only as a brain state.

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 state.

Indeed, although our emotions revolve around belief as I explained in chapter 1 the psychological state of belief isn’t itself emotional. 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 states, although they could lead to the arousal of certain emotions.

I mentioned above that when a belief that isn’t involved in our current thinking this psychological state continues because it's stored in our memory. However, although our experience of an emotion can be stored in our memory, that doesn't constitute the emotional state continuing. That is, the emotional state ceased when our direct experience of it ceased.

Perhaps Allen was thinking solely of core beliefs, given that such fundamental convictions are often influenced by our emotions, and often arouse strong emotions.

We can believe X without 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, if claim X is a straightforward implication of some of our beliefs, then this constitutes believing X. Therefore we can believe X without actually thinking X or even thinking about the subject of X.

However, the above excerpt is referring to belief in the sense of the psychological state. And 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, once belief X has formed we can continue to hold this belief when we're no longer thinking X. But because X was a straightforward implication of some of our beliefs, our belief of X can seem to have been inherent in those other 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 refers to belief in the sense of a believed claim, whereas the third turns to belief in the sense of the psychological state. 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. This 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 in a psychology dictionary would refer to belief in the sense of a believed claim before belief in the sense of the psychological state. Also, it refers to the latter sense as being a more general sense than the former, when they're actually equally general senses.

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 involves, by definition, believing that Kate is lying. And knowing that Kate is lying involves, by definition, believing that Kate is lying. And this in turn means that the claim Kate is lying is a belief in the sense of a believed claim even if it's a baseless opinion or an item of knowledge.

This error is due to the terms baseless opinion and knowledge normally being used instead of belief to refer to these extremes of belief, to communicate their nature, which has led to the false idea that they're different from belief, and that belief is therefore what exists between them.

The idea that belief is between 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 involves 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 on Spinozan belief formation ‘How Mental Systems Believe’, which I mentioned in chapter 1. 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 doesn’t necessarily constitute knowledge. A false belief obviously doesn’t constitute knowledge. And even a true belief doesn’t necessarily constitute 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, if 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, a belief that’s true not by accident but because the believer has a sound justification for the believed claim.

Second, a belief also isn’t necessarily enduring. It could be argued that a core belief must, by definition, be at least somewhat enduring. But, as I mentioned, not all beliefs are core beliefs. And a belief can exist for any length of time, however short. For example, I may form a belief about the time upon looking at my clock, but then cease holding this belief a moment later upon remembering that the clock is faulty.

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 about objects or events.

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

In the second edition of Psychology 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 a belief is necessarily enduring. And 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, whether by accident or design, the definition now refers to knowledge in the sense of the psychological state of knowing something, rather than something known. That is, grammatically, although something known can be referred to as ‘knowledge about ...’, it can't be referred to asa knowledge about ...’ – or in this case ‘an assumed knowledge about ...’ – whereas the psychological state of knowing something can be referred to as ‘a knowledge about ...'. Therefore, whether by accident or design, the definition now refers to belief in the sense of the psychological state, rather than in the sense of a believed claim.

However, the claimed assumption of the believer that their psychological state is knowledge is actually a belief about their psychological state. That is, it's a belief about their belief, and therefore a separate psychological state. Therefore this assumption isn’t a defining aspect of the psychological state 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 definition now includes the previously mentioned falsehood that belief is below knowledge. And it 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, and quoted 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 general unawareness of this within academia. But whether or not someone is aware that belief is the centre of human psychology, it's 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 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-level textbooks. The blurb for the best-selling, 992-page, 2.7-kilogram paperback – Psychology, by Richard Gross, states that it’s an ‘… essential introduction to psychology, covering all students need to know to understand and evaluate classic and contemporary topics’. But belief isn’t listed in the index, and the book doesn’t define it anywhere, even briefly. And this is also the case for both the best-selling, 838-page, Cognitive Psychology‘… [it] has been designed to help students develop a thorough understanding of the fundamentals of cognitive psychology’ – and the best-selling Philosophy of Mind‘… [a] guide for students with little or no background in philosophy to central issues of philosophy of mind’.

Even some books that are specifically about belief fail to define it. For example, the 2011 book The Believing Brain, by researcher and 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.

This omission by 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 how often belief is misdefined, 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.

As I stated in chapter 1, a belief, however fundamental or mundane, involves a specific claim. For example, we may believe that killing is wrong, or that there's no milk in the fridge. And although a claim can be about anything, all claims are ultimately about one thing: reality. Reality consists of:

    • physical reality – the physical world

    • mental reality – our mind and other minds

    • 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.

And claims can be about the physical and mental reality of the past, present and 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 ethics and politics. Also, note that the content of someone's imagination is part of reality in the sense that it's part of mental reality. Also, although it might be thought that false claims aren't claims about reality, given that their content doesn't match reality, even a false claim is indeed a claim about reality – it's just that this claim about reality is false.

Given that all claims are ultimately about reality, believing claim X involves the content of X being our understanding of part of reality – and this leads to the following starting definition of belief:

An understanding of part of reality.

This definition doesn't make any of the above eight errors. Also, the wording applies equally to the psychological state of belief and something believed, given 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 2021 suggested that this specific sequence of words didn’t appear on any public website, and only appeared in one book that was searchable via Google Books. And these words appear in that book, which is a work of general philosophy that was published in 2009, simply as part of a sentence, rather than being presented as a definition of belief.

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


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