Definition of belief again (was Re: virus:Other Reality)

David McFadzean (
Tue, 14 May 1996 15:46:44 -0600

At 01:24 AM 14/05/96 -0400, Bill Godby wrote:

>The issue is not so much whether things can exist even though we haven't
>seen them but rather what we are able to say about them. There certainly
>isn't much you can say about postulated planets in other galaxies other than
>you think that they exist, or possibly you can formulate where they might be
>and what they might look like. However regarding existence it seems a priori
>that you must be able to offer something concrete about what it is your
>speaking about. Give me evidence.

OK, I agree we can't know something exists without evidence. But we can
say a great deal about the planets in other galaxies without knowing
if they exist, e.g. they occur naturally, are roughly spherical, are
composed of rock and metal, and orbit stars. We know this by definition,
which includes the essential characteristics of what is being defined,
and not whether they are observed or detected.

Maybe we've lost sight of the original goal of this thread which is to figure
out what is meant by the term "belief". I don't think existence or observation
should be part of the definition any more than for any other noun in the

Speaking of the dictionary, here is what Webster's has to say about "belief":

be.lief \b*-'le-f\ n [ME beleave, prob. alter. of OE gele-afa, fr. ge-,
associa]tive prefix + le-afa; akin to OE ly-fan 1: a state or habit of mind
in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing 2: something
believed; specif : a tenet or body of tenets held by a group 3: conviction
of the truth of some statement or reality of a fact esp. when well
groundedent to the truth of something offered for acceptance. BELIEF and
FAITH are often used interchangeably but BELIEF may or may not imply
certitude in the believer whereas FAITH always does even where there is no
evidence of proof; FAITH may also suggest credulity; CREDENCE suggests the
fact of intellectual assent without implying anything about grounds for
assent; CREDIT implies assent on grounds other than direct proof, usu. the
known trustworthiness of the source of what is proposed for acceptance SYN

I'm not sure what "groundedent" or "mean the ass" means but another web-based
Websters dictionary gives the same result:

For purposes of discussion on this list, I think we should avoid using
"belief" and "faith" interchangeably, reserving the latter to mean
holding something above and beyond criticism. Faith is a sin, whereas
beliefs cannot be avoided.

But even if we accept definition #3 from the dictionary, "conviction of the
truth of some statement or reality of a fact", it still leaves a lot of
questions. How do beliefs relate to knowledge (which was the original
question that started this whole discussion, see Are all beliefs memes
or vice versa? What does it mean to hold something as true?

It was this last question I was trying to answer with my proposed definition
of belief: "To believe X is to act as if X is true". But I recently read
something that causes me to back off from this proposal. It comes from
_The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy_ under the heading of "Philosophy
of Mind":

Logical behaviorism faces similar difficulties in translating
sentences about (what Russel called) propositional attitudes (i.e.,
beliefs that p, desires that p, hopes that p, intentions that p,
and the like). Consider the following sample proposal: one believes
that the cat is on the mat if and only if one is disposed to assent
to 'The cat is on the mat'. First the proposed translation meets the
condition of being purely behavioral only if assenting is understanding
purely in behavioral terms. That is doubtful. The proposal also fails
to provide either a sufficient of necessary condition for believing
the cat is on the mat. Someone may assent to 'The cat is on the mat'
and yet not believe the cat is on the mat; for the person may be
trying to deceive or may have misunderstood the sentence. A belief
that the cat is on the mat will dispose one to assent to 'The cat is
on the mat' only if one understands what is being asked, wants to
indicate that one believes the cat is on the mat, and so on. But none
of these conditions is required for believing that the cat is on the

The upshot is that logical behaviorism was discredited about 30 years ago
along with logical positivism and I don't see how my definition is any
different. It is certainly possible for someone to act as if X is true
even if they don't believe X, and to not act as if X is true even if they
do believe X.

David McFadzean       
Memetic Engineer      
Church of Virus