Belief: what’s in a word?
A conversation with a good friend of mine on the subject of belief in god evolved into a conversation on the subject of belief generally. This opened my eyes to the fact that much of the argumentation among intelligent people regarding atheism, agnosticism, belief in god, scepticism, open-mindedness, and all the varying degrees of adherence or diversion from theism can be put down to the ambiguity of a word. I have always been bewildered by otherwise rational people who profess a belief in the irrational, i.e. god. I now suspect that the reason for this is that we use the words “belief” and “believe” in different ways, and that if we were clear about the meaning of those words, or at least agreed upon a shared definition, much of the difference among viewpoints would vanish like smoke in the wind.
If someone says “I know there’s no rational evidence; I know that the notion of god’s existence is self-contradictory; I have no empirical evidence for such a belief; and the authorities that support this belief are shaky at best; nevertheless, I believe in a personal god”, I am – or was – utterly baffled. And yet this is the position taken by countless perfectly rational people. I think this schism between two different viewpoints is explicable as a linguistic misunderstanding.
Belief is defined in a variety of ways by different dictionaries and is understood differently by different people. Moreover the word is used differently by any one person in a number of different ways depending upon the context. It turns out that a rational friend who makes the above statement does not differ as much as I thought from me, despite espousing a position that I had thought absurd. It is because of our differing understandings of the appropriate definition of the word “believe” in this particular context.
I take the view that one can say that one believes if one is utterly and irrevocably persuaded or convinced of the truth of a proposition. (Call that meaning:*) I believe* in a personal god, for example, if I am utterly and irrevocably persuaded and convinced of the truth of the proposition that “there exists a personal god”. Simple, straightforward; but it renders the original statement regarding that belief in god despite a lack of evidence and in the face of counterevidence absurd.
Unless to “believe” means something else…something like, “there is insufficient evidence or sufficient counterevidence to leave doubt about the proposition, but I accept it with hope, and I feel much better about things if I accept the proposition as true”. (Call that meaning #). Then the original sentence regarding a belief# in a personal god makes some sort of sense.
I can believe# in the existence of life on other planets, for example. There are many here among us who feel that life elsewhere is but a joke, but also, there are many who feel that to disbelieve in extraterrestrial life, given the mathematical likelihood and despite the absence of empirical evidence, is unnecessarily dogmatic and narrow-minded. Those people are certainly right, if they employ the second (#) definition of “belief”. In that frame of reference, I will be happy to profess my belief# in life in other parts of the universe. I know there is no direct evidence whatsoever for such a belief, but there exists the mathematical probability, there is the known existence of the necessary materials and conditions for its occurrence, and moreover, I feel much better accepting the proposition that the Earth is not unique in having developed life in the universe. I therefore believe# in extraterrestrial life.
So if one want to claim a belief# in an infinitely good, omniscient, infinitely powerful creator who takes a profound interest in the smallest detail of our lives, fair enough…as long as one is clear that it means that the proposition is accepted despite its shortcomings and because it just, well, feels better. If one professes a belief* on the other hand, the version of the definition of belief that means utter conviction, it is reasonable for someone else to ask what evidence or argument or authority persuaded him. In other words belief* is open to evidential scrutiny; belief# is not…it can be defended simply by responding that the believer# just accepts the proposition because it feels better. Einstein said on many occasions in different ways that he believed# that “god doesn’t play dice with universe”; this was a straightforward expression of his dissatisfaction with the mounting evidence that, at the quantum level, randomness was the rule, and causality is a matter of probability; that subatomic particles just jump in and out of existence and that uncertainty underlies the fabric of the universe. This, of course was entirely different from his belief* in the mathematics that demonstrate the truth of quantum mechanics. (Contrary to the claims of some theists, Einstein was a committed and outspoken lifelong atheist).
Since belief# isn’t open to scrutiny, once a person has established that he or she believes# in god, it’s best to end the conversation there. The simple truth is that since it is the relative comfort that the belief# provides that is the deciding factor, no evidence or argumentation will have any effect; the truth simply doesn’t matter.
The opposite is true about belief*.
Since it is founded upon persuasive argumentation, reason, and evidence; discussion is a possibility. Moreover, it is possible to see a person who believes* in a proposition actually shift positions if a better argument, sharper reasoning, or more persuasive evidence is introduced.
It’s best to treat the true believer# like any other crackpot who isn’t open to reason. Smile, nod, and get the hell out. The inclination to find reason and evidence unpersuasive, to take a
firm position for its comfort value, to accept as true that which is absurd, is clear evidence of mental aberration and it is best to stay clear.