Four parts of belief

A little bit of prodding suggests that beliefs are not so simple as they seem. Consider for example Tamar Gendler’s concept of an Aelief– a kind of belief-like state. An Aeliefper Wikipedia is:

“…an automatic or habitual belief-like attitude, particularly one that is in tension with a person’s explicit beliefs.

For example, a person standing on a transparent balcony may believe that they are safe, but alieve that they are in danger…”

Of course there are other ways of dividing things up. When I was a wee undergraduate philosopher my lecturer gave the following case study. Young Catholic men claim to believe that the sin of self-abuse risks their immortal souls. Yet they engage in it with great enthusiasm. Traditional accounts of belief and rationality have difficulty making sense of this. There are, my lecturer suggested, three possible explanations:

A) They don’t really believe that self-abuse will send them to hell (though they believe that they believe this.)

B) They are acting incredibly irrationally.

Or, his preferred option C) Belief is not a single thing. It consists in a complex of behaviours, thoughts and feelings which can be separated out from each other.  In this case, two parts of what belief normally is -acting consistently with a belief that X and sincerely asserting that X- come apart.

To speculate a little further, the brain is made up of a bundle of systems which are not as well integrated as we might imagine. Thus it is at least possible that the seeming hypocrisy of these young catholic men arises different mental systems having different models of the world.

I am reminded of the two streams hypothesis– viz, that there is evidence of strong segregation between the brain pathway involved in visual awareness of our environment and the brain pathway involved in visual action guiding through our environment.

Here is a list of the separable components of belief I’m aware of. If you can think of any others, let me know in the comments.

1. The non-verbal action component

If I believe it is raining outside I instinctively grab an umbrella on the way out. If I believe the price of oil will fall tomorrow I don’t buy oil now. An important subcategory here is betting behaviour, it may lie somewhere between 1&2.

2. The sincere assertion component

This component of belief is the ability to assert with real sincerity that P is true or that you believe P to be true. As in the case of the young catholic men we described above, it can come apart from the non-verbal action component- especially in matters of sacred belief.

3. The feeling component

Often, someone with an anxiety disorder can assert that something they fear is not true. Their non-verbal actions may also reflect this apparent disbelief, to varying degrees. Yet they are still very distressed by some troubling possibility as if they believed it were true or going to come true. We might call this the feeling component of belief. This is primarily what the concept of aeliefs gets at.

4. The commitment component

This one (owing to Kieran Latty) is a bit less well defined than the others. It consists in a determination to believe X, in the sense one or more of the modalities of belief listed above. Suppose for example that I have no real belief that humanity will survive the next hundred years, but I consider it strategically important that I believe such a thing. I might be committed to make myself act, sincerely speak and feel as if it were true that humanity will survive.

One thought on “Four parts of belief

  1. Interesting. I would be happy to go along with most of that. But I have a few comments and queries.

    First, what are components of belief? Could they also be described as types of belief?

    Second, it seems as though as a matter of empirical fact, we are often looking to integrate these components of beliefs. This makes me think that there is something right about describing them as components of belief: when components are suitably integrated, we might say that we have a Belief with a capital ‘B’.

    Third, and following on from that, it is unclear to me how a commitment can be a component or type of belief. It seems related to the integration ambition that I just mentioned, insofar as we instantiate at least one of the other types of beliefs. Insofar as we instantiate none of them, then I would just say that we are committed to believing such-and-such, rather than that we belief such and such (in some sense). But that’s not a big issue (perhaps it is a semantic issue only).

    On a personal note, this schema makes lot of sense to me, introspectively. Much of the irrationality I see in myself relates to discrepancies between components of belief. And more generally I am often at some level dismayed by the gap between my sincere assertions and my propensities to feel and act in ways that would appear appropriate to those assertions.


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