Re: Definition of belief (was Re: virus: atheism and agnosticism)

Vicki Rosenzweig (
Mon, 15 Apr 1996 16:51:00 -0700 (PDT)

There's a lot going on here. I just want to throw in a couple of ideas
related to knowledge and uncertainty.

The first is an idea I got from a novel, _The Left Hand of Darkness_
by Ursula Le Guin. One of the characters tells another (roughly)
"If it were proven that there were no God, there would be no religion...
But if it were proven that there were a God, there would be no religion.
What is the one thing that we know, for certain? That we shall die.
The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable
uncertainty." (Apologies to Ms. Le Guin for inevitable misquotes;
I'm working from memory.) The point being that religion isn't about
what we know for certain: there's no need to build a religion around
the fact that the Earth is a spheroid, or that humans need oxygen.

Conversely, that doesn't mean that we don't know anything for certain.
It's true that the "solar system" model of the atom was wrong, or at
best inexact: but the experimental data it was based on didn't have to
be thrown away. Scientific theories change as we collect more data,
but while we can now analyze an apple's fall using Einstein's theories,
it falls in the same way as an apple did when we were using Newtonian
physics, or for that matter in the same way as an apple fell before
Theories are alterable, but they describe something real.

Disclaimer: This is Monday. Catch me some other day of the week and I
might be prepared to explain that there is no such thing as a solid, or that
reality is just a matter of consensus.

From: owner-virus
To: virus
Subject: Re: Definition of belief (was Re: virus: atheism and agnosticism)
Date: Monday, April 15, 1996 9:42PM

On Mon, 15 Apr 1996, David McFadzean wrote:

> >In fact, belief is only possible AS LONG AS there is no possibility
> >of knowing. If we could KNOW whether there is a God, we would no
> >longer have to BELIEVE; indeed -- belief would be no longer an option.
> I'm not sure if I agree with your definition of belief here (that certain
> knowledge is different from and obviates belief). Let me know if my own
> (admittedly informal) definition differs from your idea:
> To hold a belief X is to act as if X is true.
> The reason I like this definition is that it encompasses unconscious
> and dispositional beliefs as well as explicit beliefs.

I like your definition *a lot*, and it surely is more formal than mine
(since mine was only a definition-by-negation, if that). However, as
we are trying to speak more precisely, we need to make distinctions
between meanings, or shades of meaning, of the very word "belief" --
more on that 10 lines below...

> In a previous message you said:
> ... I believe [handy English phrase for "I think I know"...]
> that what we "know" to be true are but fuzzy approximations ...
> This statement seems to use "belief" in a manner more consistent with my
> definition than your latest one (hence my confusion).

And you were right to be confused :) because of *my* confusing use
of 'belief'! When we began talking about atheism, most of us, I think,
restricted its use to "belief in God", *not* to "belief" as in "Yes sir,
I believe this *is* Trafalgar Square we are at now." While your definition
does encompass both meanings, certain statements may be true about one
but not anout the other. (One difference may be in the likelihood we
would ascribe to each; another, harder to pinpoint, may lie in various
connotations with which our 'beliefs' are charged.)

But I have to admit that my own confusion runs deeper. I still
find it valid to distinguish between belief (in the "strong" sense,
as in "belief in God") and knowledge. I think we could see the
difference if we tried to imagine that God's existence was proven,
that we had unshakeable evidence for it -- and then imagined how
this would change our lives, private and social. I think it would,
immensely, though the details deserve a separate thread... First
of all, we would no longer have an option, a choice -- and perhaps therein
lies the greatest difference: belief is a matter of choice (under
normal conditions, ie you haven't been brainwashed, you're open-minded
enough to at lrast consider dissenting voices, etc) -- but knowledge
is not optional. (Which doesn't mean you cannot behave as if the knowledge
was false or invalid -- you could, but the knowledge remains and you're
behaving "irrationally", for better or worse.)

At the same time, I *also* feel that there is no KNOWLEDGE possible,
meaning: no absolutely certain knowledge. I developed this idea in
one of my recent posts and no-one hit me for it then (I thought
someone would :) -- I'd be glad to debate it further. Basically,
it seems to me that everything we "know" is ultimately based on
something which is taken for granted, an axiom -- no matter how sensible
it may appear -- plus our scientific knowledge has often been very
mistaken. This is not to denigrate science, which, as far as I can tell,
has embraced the concept of incompleteness -- it is always open for
corrections, and always but an approximation. (An unsubtle example:
we used to present atoms as little 'solar systems', knowing they
are not *really* 'solar systems' -- but that it was a workable model,
a level of approximation.) So I thought we could legitimately say that
all knowledge is, at the last instance, belief, too. Hence
my above distinction gets blown to dust.

Here's how I think the two above paragraphs might be reconcilliated:
There exist two systems of belief. (Could anyone suggest a
different word for this? This is becoming the third usage of
'belief' in this one single post.) One of them we call knowledge and
it is based on the observation of the phenomena in our universe (and
relations between them) and on 'rational' thinking (binary logic,
true-false). The other system of beliefs (religious beliefs) are
based on <fill in the blank> (transrational experience? observation
of phenomena 'knowledge' fails to address or sufficiently (for the rational
mind) explain? divine inspiration?) Ultimately all is belief in the sense
that absolute, final knowledge is unattainable; but these two paradigms
-- the 'scientific' and the 'religious' -- behave in radically different

Maybe the very capacity for belief would be useless, evolutionally
speaking, if Final Truth was within human grasp?

Yours truly,
getting radical by the minute :)

Marek Jedlinski