Traffic Light Epistemology

Let me playfully illustrate one way I think about my beliefs — a multivalent traffic light.

Most people have very simple and wrong notions of beliefs. Indeed, much of religious thinking is based on these mistaken notions of belief.  Sometimes, rather than arguing religious doctrines, I find it most productive to just illustrate this “common sense” mistaken notion of beliefs.  Indeed, wrong views of belief can affect politics, sex and much more.

So, contrary to the common view of belief, I have come to see that:

  • on any given issue, we can hold multiple contrary beliefs
  • we use exchange our beliefs depending on which of our many-selves we are fluxing between
  • beliefs and emotions are always bound together. no belief is free of emotions
  • beliefs are not as simple as “yes” or “no”

So though I find the notion of “belief” problematic at a deep level, when I do think of beliefs or stances using my points above, I also like to think of them as having at least four possible levels of commitment. I visualize each belief as having 4-colored traffic light attached to it.  The color lit on a light indicates our level of commitment to that belief.

  • Green:   Committed (little doubt)
  • Red:   Rejected (little doubt)
  • Yellow:  Doubted
  • Grey: Suspended from consideration

Grey light beliefs are more common than we imagine.  We put things in the grey light category because believing or disbelieving in them gives us so many perceived benefits that we have decided to protect them from scrutiny. With grey light objects we may have many doubts but we are not questioning the belief.  I wrote a short post once on how my son did this with the Tooth Fairy call “Sacrificing Rationality“.  I recently talked with a friend who did this with a relationship he was in. Grey lights permeate our mental geography.

And to make the model more cumbersome (but more accurate), I actually visualize 3 other variant lights in my traffice light model.

Something we doubt but we are leaning toward believing.

Something we doubt and we are considering rejecting.

A Grey Light (suspended doubt) that we are now considering to start doubting.

I find this lay (not professional) epistemology of mine to be helpful in thinking about both my own and others’ beliefs.  How about you?  What is your model of beliefs?



Filed under Critical Thinking, Philosophy & Religion

15 responses to “Traffic Light Epistemology

  1. monarc7

    Are you sure bloggers don’t read the real philosophy? I’m not speaking about those who have read these. I speak of the lay philosophers still, cos a number of ideas are integrated in all sorts of media in an explanatory way or experimental way.

    If so, wouldn’t you say the lay actually do read?

  2. Excellent points, Monarc7 – thank you ! I have edited my post to accomodate the caveats you have illuminated. Let me know if I now captured your corrections.

  3. Al

    I expect there are a lot of road signs that would be appropriate in our ongoing journey of belief.

    Things like left and right curves within the same color–still believing (or doubting, on not believing), but with a degree of variation.

    Or rough road ahead.

    Or a Y or T intersection where a direction choice is imperative.

    Or stop, slippery, detour, yield.

    Thanks for some great imagery!

  4. geoih


    I think you should give yourself more credit. I think calling this “lay philosophy” is unnecesarily deprecating. Personally, I think all philosophy could be considered “lay”, with the only differences being how obscure the vocabulary used to describe it. Just because a person can’t readily quote Hegel or Sartre, doesn’t mean their points aren’t valid.

  5. Al Excellent. I love your additions !

    geoihWell, thanx. But I was not trying to be falsely modest at all. But you do make me think that I will change the phrase in an upcoming post where it will captures others besides myself. What should I make that adjective? “Casual Philosopher” “Hobbiest Philosopher” …? What do you think?

  6. Boz

    in this model, where would you place a belief about an issue that a person has not explored? That is, having no opinion due to having almost no information. (e.g. for me, this would be the situation between Burma’s military junta and Aung San Suu Kyi)?

    What are some examples of grey-light beliefs that you have?

    good post

  7. geoih

    Based on my reading of your posts, I don’t think you really need an adjective. If you insist, how about “non-professional”.

  8. Does the designation really matter? Whether ‘lay’, ‘real’, ‘casual’, they just are means of communicating ideas. Deprecating? I don’t think so. Like I said in my ‘Jacks and Kings‘ post, these things aren’t of much value. They end up being obliterated anyway so…

    But, for you, Sabio, you have bakground in philosophy so you won’t exactly be accurate there. Maybe other bloggers but not you. But still, again like I pointed out in the aforementioned post; we all end up as ‘lay’.

    Yeah, and your new renderring of your points is better. It does capture those others.

  9. CRL

    I’m thinking of using your idea for a post of my own. Mind if I borrow your illustration?

  10. @ CRL — Sure. Just give me an “HT” ! 😉

  11. @ Boz:
    Well, in this model, the lights are with things that normally carry beliefs. So I’d say that with no opinions, there are no lights — careful driving in those neighborhoods ! 🙂

    Grey-light beliefs that Sabio has? Well, I tend to be a person who persues ideas so that few remain grey. But I imagine the closest I could imagine is that I have a grey-light on “love”. I am committed to it and am really not willing to question it even though I can imagine strong doubts.

    @geoih Thanx for the other idea. Hey, what is your website?

    @ monac7 I linked up you site and post. Thanx for the comment.

  12. Boz

    good example sabio, thanks for the reply.

  13. geoih

    No web site. I’m strictly a troll.

  14. When I pulled up this blog and saw that traffic light, I said to myself, “That’s funny!” Funny, because the traffic light is a very common element used in navigating the world in which we live, yet not truly analogous to how we think and act. By adding the gray light you presented all of the strangeness that is being human. It was a profound image, saying much without any words at all!

    Yours is an interesting place. I shall follow.


  15. Wow, thanx Mike — for you, the images seem to have the done what I intended. I am happy. Welcome.

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