On Philosophy

August 22, 2006


Filed under: Mind — Peter @ 12:13 am

Defining exactly what belief is can be a difficult task. Today I am going to examine the consequences of defining belief to be a disposition to act as though a statement were true. This is certainly not my original invention, but it does fit well with a strict materialist account of the mind.

Belief, defined in this way, has obvious consequences. For example if someone believes that “there is a table in front of me” they won’t try to walk through it. This probably seems self evident enough when it comes to simple physical beliefs, but there are more abstract beliefs, such as beliefs about theorems in mathematics, and it isn’t necessarily obvious how those beliefs would be captured by the definition that we are working with. This confusion arises from a limited interpretation of “act”. In animals of course actions are usually simple movements, but people can act in ways that are far more complicated, for example speech acts and “proof acts”. Thus the definition captures more abstract beliefs, because if someone believes in some abstract statement, say a certain theorem, they will be disposed to say that it is true and to use that theorem as a premise in other proofs.

Another interesting consideration is the possibility of believing one thing while doing another. For example a person might believe that giving money to charity is the right thing, but may stop themselves from actually giving their money away because they need to pay the rent too. How does the dispositional definition of belief deal with cases such as this? Well there is another kind of act that people can engage in, thought acts. Thus the belief disposition is expressing itself in the thoughts of the person who thinks “giving money to charity is good”, even if they can’t afford to give anything yet.

This raises the question: which are more accurate reflections of belief, actions or thoughts? I would say that often thoughts are more reliable guides to belief, since there may be many other reasons not to act in a certain way, but there are rarely reasons not to think in a certain way. There are of course exceptions to this. When people place great value on a certain attitude they can compel themselves to think in ways that agree with the preferred attitude, but their actions may reveal that they actually possess contrary beliefs. For example, some people may know that racism is wrong, and thus rarely have a racist thought, but their actions may reveal a pattern of discrimination. In this case their actions show that they do actually have racist beliefs, but that the expression of these beliefs in their thoughts has been suppressed. This may make you wonder “what do I really believe?” Obviously I’m not a psychiatrist, but it would seem most profitable to examine the beliefs that would cause you to be upset if it turned out that you didn’t actually have them (those which you are emotionally invested in). Then ask yourself “I think I believe X; are my actions consistent with X?” If they aren’t then it is possible you really believe something else, and only assert that belief in order to feel good about yourself.

The possibility that we may not be aware of all of our beliefs, and may in fact be wrong about some of them, reveals that beliefs are unconscious, and that they are only revealed to our consciousness through the thought acts that they encourage. This is actually a problematic statement for some philosophies of mind, because beliefs are often intentional (they are about one or more objects in the world). However, some philosophers assert that intentionality is a defining aspect of consciousness, and clearly this can’t be the case if many beliefs are unconscious. They are still part of the mind though, so philosophers like Brentano are safe, for the moment.

Finally, I would like to note that although beliefs may not be conscious themselves it is hard to imagine how we could be conscious without them. It is possible that we might have some kind of perceptual experience, but without beliefs that allow us to experience our visual field as vision of something (beliefs about what tables, chairs, ect look like) it would certainly be unlike any sensory experience we are used to having. More importantly, without beliefs we wouldn’t have thoughts at all, since if we have a thought there must be some unconscious disposition that is responsible for us having that thought, in other words a belief. And following this line of argument it would appear that many of the functions of the mind fall under the broad umbrella of belief. For example, a memory can be seen as simply a belief that at some time in the past you were in a certain situation. If this is true then belief certainly warrant further study in connection with the philosophy of mind.

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