How I Believe

believe belief think rationalBelow are 21 statements that form the basis for my own epistemology: how I believe. I’ve tried to avoid technical, philosophical language wherever possible, but it might still sound clunky to some readers. The sub-points, also numbered, offer something like an example of the claim. (Omitted from this post, for the sake of space, is any discussion about updating beliefs based on new evidence.) If you love this topic and want to go deeper, click the links.

Here’s the challenge: Read all the statements, see if you disagree with any of them, then tell me why. Refer to sub-points as “6.1 or 14.3.” Let’s avoid technical nitpicking and focus on substantial differences. I’m open to suggestions for revision. I think these can have important implications for what you believe and helping us clarify how we talk about our beliefs, regardless of your worldview.

  1. A claim is expressed by a descriptive sentence like, “Bananas are fruits,” or “Triangles have three sides,” or “Unicorns do not exist.” (Philosophers like to call these ‘propositions.’)
  2. It is irrational to believe a claim without any evidence to support it.*
  3. If my overall evidence is strongly against a claim, then it is irrational to believe it.
  4. If my overall evidence strongly supports a claim, then it is rational to believe it.
  5. If my evidence for and against a claim is (roughly) even, then the most rational thing is to remain undecided (or “suspend judgment” or “withhold belief”) .
    1. The evidence for and against Jake’s guilt is even, so I don’t know what to think.
  6. If I have no evidence for or against a claim, then the most rational thing is to remain undecided.
    1. I am undecided whether polar bears enjoy raspberry sorbet.
    2. I am undecided whether there is a largest prime number.
  7. believe belief think rationalIf I’m undecided on a claim, then I think the chances of it being true or false are roughly even.
    1. I’m undecided on whether this coin will land on heads or tails.
    2. I’m undecided on whether there are twelve ants on that plant.
  8. I can believe a claim without being 100% convinced it is true.
    1. I believe that my car will last another 2 years.
  9. I can disbelieve a claim without being 100% convinced it is false.
    1. I disbelieve that I will be in a car accident today.
    2. (It is more common to say “I don’t believe that I will be . . .,” but for clarity, we’ll say ‘disbelieve.’)
  10. If I’ve never thought about a claim before (or if I hear a claim that I don’t understand), then I neither believe it, disbelieve it, nor remain undecided. I have no position on it at all.
    1. Prior to typing this sentence, I had no position at all on the claim that there are twelve ants on a plant in my front yard.
    2. I have no position on whether all blorgs are quazzies.
    3. If I have no position, then I have no idea whether there is evidence for or against the claim.
  11. Believing that a claim is false is equivalent to disbelieving that it is true.
    1. I believe that “Tom is a kangaroo” is false. I disbelieve that Tom is a kangaroo.
    2. I disbelieve that triangles have four sides. I believe that “Triangles have four sides” is false.
  12. If I am rationally undecided about a claim, then I neither believe it nor do I disbelieve it.
    1. I am undecided whether the number of stars in the universe is even. Thus, I do not believe it, and I do not disbelieve it.
  13. Having a certain belief means that I believe in a certain claim.
    1. I believe that green is a color. I have the belief that green is a color. I lack the belief that green is a number.
  14. If I lack a certain belief, then either (i) I have never considered the claim, (ii) I disbelieve the claim, or (iii) I am undecided on the claim.
    1. Prior to typing this sentence, I lacked the belief that my dog understands Klingon. I had never considered whether he did or not. Now I disbelieve that he understands Klingon.
    2. I lack the belief that green is a color. I disbelieve that green is a color.
    3. I lack the belief that the number of stars in the universe is even. I am undecided about this claim.
  15. My experiences are a part of my evidence.
    1. My experience of seeing the legal pad as yellow is evidence for the belief that it is yellow.
    2. My experience of Cassie being friendly is evidence for the belief that she is friendly.
    3. My experience of my own thoughts is evidence for the belief that I exist.
  16. conversation testimony believeThe testimony of others is a part of my evidence.
    1. Clark telling me that his shoes fit well is evidence for the belief that Clark’s shoes fit well.
    2. Julia telling me that she ate toast for breakfast is evidence for the belief that Julia ate toast for breakfast.
    3. Montgomery-Smith telling me that there is no known solution to Goldbach’s conjecture is evidence for the belief . . . (you get the idea).
  17.  My memories are a part of my evidence.
  18.  My perceptions are a part of my evidence.
  19.  My inferences are a part of my evidence.
    1. My belief that it will probably rain is supported by other beliefs (there are dark clouds outside, the temperature has suddenly dropped) and a logical inference that is made from them.
    2. My belief that every human has a mother is supported by my beliefs about human reproduction and a logical inference that is made from them.
    3. My belief that all triangles have three angels is supported by my belief that all triangles have three sides and a logical inference that is made from it.
  20.  Evidence can be misleading.
    1. Sometimes we remember incorrectly, misunderstand testimony, make faulty inferences, or have perceptual hallucinations.
  21. We should trust our evidence unless we have a good reason to doubt it.
    1. A good reason to doubt my evidence is either (i) that there was a problem the source of the evidence, or (ii) an independent reason to think the evidence-belief is false.
    2. frog evidence perception believeMy experience of a frog in front of me is evidence for the belief that there is a frog before me. A good reason to doubt my evidence is that I recently took LSD, which makes perception unreliable. (It’s possible that there’s still a frog there.)
    3. My daughter telling me that the door is locked is evidence for the belief that the door is locked. A good reason to doubt this evidence would be that I tried the door myself and found it unlocked.
    4. Note that it would be circular reasoning (or mere contradiction) to claim that my evidence for the frog is bad because there is no frog in front of me, without an independent reason to think there is no frog.

* Some philosophers have argued that if a belief is formed automatically by my brain in an appropriate way (the way brains should work), then that belief is a good one, even without anything that resembles evidence in the usual sense.

2 Replies to “How I Believe”

  1. I would dispute Claims 2 and 17, though I suspect that my disputing #17 is mostly semantic.

    Regarding #2, I agree with James that, under certain conditions, one may rationally believe a proposition even though there is no evidence for that proposition’s truth. There is compelling psychological evidence that believing, say, “I will get the promotion” will enhance my chances of actually getting said promotion, even if I have no evidence in favor of the claim “I will get the promotion.” (Such cases are known as healthy illusions or positive denial.) Given that I want the promotion and my believing that I will get the promotion makes getting what I want more likely, it seems rational to believe that I will get the promotion.

    Regarding #17, I think that if you want to say that your memories can be mistaken (as you say in #20), it would be best to think about what you describe in #17 as “seeming memories” or something similar. I don’t know if it’s right to describe falsely remembered things as genuine—though mistaken—memories, and subsuming them under the general category “seeming memories” seems to remove that worry.

    1. Hi Jake — Always love hearing from you. My post won’t stand up to the scrutiny of professional philosopher, but I’m glad you raised these points. I’m using ‘rational’ roughly to mean ‘epistemically rational.’ Sloppy, I know. But you’re right — I think it is practically rational in many cases to believe something without evidential support. Regarding memories, yes, you’re right again. Memory is tricky to talk about. What you’ve suggested seems good. I’m trying to keep it simple without sacrificing too much precision. Andrew Moon had a bit to say about the memory category as well. Thanks!

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