Friday, August 13, 2010

Don't use the words "belief" and "believe" & Belief is about truth, not feelings.

source: The Brights August Bulletin, Originally posted to HASSNERS blog 1st August, reposted 13th August with Guardian article by Ophelia Benson.

From Mike (Suffolk, UK): "I recommend that we no longer use the words "belief" and "believe". When in discussion with religious friends and I am asked what I believe, my answer never includes these words. I say that 'my understanding of the world is...' or that 'my observation and/or experience and/or reason lead me to think...' When my understanding is less robust, I may say that 'in my opinion...' And, when I don't know, I say so!"

"Even in everyday conversation, I have trained myself not to use these words. For example, ordinarily I wouldn't say, 'I believe it's going to rain tomorrow.' I'd say, 'I think it's going to rain' or maybe 'according to the weather forecast, it looks like it's going to rain.' With a little care it is possible to avoid 'belief' and 'believe' in most cases."

Posted 13th August 2010

Belief is about truth, not feelings - Guardian

The question: Can we choose what we believe?
Ophelia Benson, Friday 6 August 2010 10.00 BST Article history
Belief isn't a wormhole to knowledge about God – it's a cognitive function that should be flexible and open to correction

The answer to this question has to be: yes, of course we can, and the idea that we can't is a recipe for credulity and passivity and helplessness before authority.

The important issue isn't how we acquire a belief so much as how we test it, question it, evaluate it. Belief isn't a straight yes or no thing, or at least it shouldn't be. Once we're past childhood (and assuming we've had a decent education), we should know better than to believe whatever we're told.

We're offered potential beliefs all the time, in news reports and advertising and conversation. We don't accept them all; we reject some, we doubt others, and even those we accept we may be prepared to change or reject if we learn more. We know perfectly well – or if we don't, we should – that it's not sensible to believe everything that turns up.

The one major exception to this rule, of course, is religious belief. But the fact that it is an exception is a mix of tradition and social pressure, which means it's extraneous to judgment of the actual quality of the beliefs. There is a strong taboo on evaluating religious beliefs in the same way one would evaluate a news report or an argument or a box of quantum crystal detox foot powder.

Most religious believers are born into and brought up in their religion. Their religious beliefs are handed down by authoritative adults, and asking questions about the beliefs is often discouraged or just plain forbidden. The special arrangement religion has, whereby it's considered wrong to apply normal scepticism to religious beliefs, means that many people simply hang on to the beliefs implanted in childhood (while many more have various levels of doubt but don't say so because of the taboo).

All this means that it's misleading to talk about generic beliefs as if they were all on the same level. They're on a continuum, instead. Some are just routine and the product of ordinary knowledge and experience; some are secondary, the product of other people's research and reporting, and they may be very contested, as with global warming, war crimes, genocides. Contested beliefs may become as taboo as religious beliefs, and then one gets "crimes" such as "insulting Turkishness", and free inquiry becomes impossible.

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.