Beliefs: Counter-Intuitive Views

Your Partitioned Mind

Your Partitioned Mind

Words are tricky.  Words are great tools, but they are also great weapons.  The subtlest danger of words is how they deceive even the speaker.  We are often give ideas more substance, just because there is a word for the idea.  It is like yelling “child molester”, even if a blatantly false accusation, it is hard to stop thinking negatively about the person accused.  “God” is just such a word — many folks can’t imagine how there can’t be some sort of “god”, because after all, we have the word.

“Belief” is also such a word.  This post links to other posts I have done to expose some of the illusions conjured by the word “belief”.  But let’s start with an introduction.


“Correct belief” is at the center of many religious dialogues.  But our common-sense understanding of “beliefs” is often incorrect.  Thus, before debating the accuracy or truth behind religious beliefs, it can be helpful to see if we really understand exactly what a “belief” is.

At the bottom of this post I list some of the important counter-intuitive phenomena which show that our everyday understanding of “beliefs” is wrong.  In fact, if you agree with this list, I think you will become uncomfortable with the notion of “belief” altogether.

Many Selves

Your Fluxing Selves

For many religions, correct belief is required to belong: Belief in a certain deity; Belief in the authority of a founder or scriptures; Belief in some theological position or purported past or future event.  These beliefs may not only be crucial for belonging but may even be necessary even for eternal life.

Some religions stress that action is more important than belief — but even for them, often an action is felt to be non-efficacious without correct belief behind it: Being good is not good enough if you don’t believe in Jesus, for instance.  Prayers are felt to be inefficacious without correct theological beliefs.


So it is no wonder that many debates about religion center on the coherence of beliefs. Yet in religion, most of the debated beliefs are beliefs that can not be empirically tested.  And so the debates are frustrated from the very beginning.

But is “belief” what we think it is?  Perhaps it is important to try and understand the very nature of belief (the functions of beliefs) before we argue about their truth, coherence or logic — especially if these religious beliefs can’t be tested in the first place.  I actually use a multi-layered metaphor approach to wrestling with the word “Belief” because the word is deceptive.

See what you think of my list which illustrates the tricky idea of “belief”. Do you have any corrections or additions?

Counter-Intuitive Belief Principles

  • All of us are inconsistent: We all hold incoherent, inconsistent, illogical, unreasonable and even contrary beliefs.
  • Our minds are partitioned/compartmentalized: Everyone’s mind is partitioned. [Compartmentalization]
  • We have Many Selves: Our “selves” is fluid, fluctuating, inconsistent — as if we have multiple selves. [Many Selves]
  • All our beliefs are linked to emotions: All beliefs come with emotional weighing — no beliefs are pure logic without emotion.
  • Our beliefs are Multi-Valent:  We hold beliefs at various strengths.  Beliefs are not on or off. [Spectrum of Belief]
  • Beliefs don’t disappear:   [Spectrum of Belief]
  • Beliefs serve as more than truth function: Many beliefs are not used as cognitive maps, but as signals, manipulation, meaning-glue or …. To expect a person to actually believe what they say, may show that you misunderstand how people actually use beliefs. [Tooth Fairy: sacrificing reason, Believe: truth vs function, Bursting Beliefs]
  • Our minds often make our beliefs, we don’t:  Beliefs are often made after the fact — after the mind has changed.  The brain forms beliefs, in complex interactions with others to accommodate its desired effect.
  • What we confess and what we do are often different:  This insight is common sense.  Sometime it is because we are lazy or hypocrites or deceptive manipulators or … sometimes it is because of the complex issues listed above. [Most Christians Don’t Believe]
  • Inconsistency can be adaptive: all the characteristics of belief listed above most likely serve some beneficial evolutionarily adaptive advantage.  Since truth is often not the primary function of belief, having inconsistent beliefs may not be as dysfunctional as we imagine.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

14 responses to “Beliefs: Counter-Intuitive Views

  1. I doubt that there are such things as beliefs. Note that I am questioning the noun “belief”, not the verb “believe”.

    Beliefs exist as entities in a not-very-good theory of mind and a not-very-good theory of knowledge. There’s no more reason to assume that beliefs exist than to assume that phlogiston exists or that the luminiferous aether exists.

  2. “I doubt that there are such things as beliefs.” That’s a nice belief there Neil.

    I just had a conversation with a guy at the library. He was talking about how Obama is going to put chips into people on medicaid/medicare (he kept switching cause he didn’t know there’s a difference). He saw my skepticism and said at the end of the convo, “They have already done this in China, you know.”

    Now, in light of Sabio’s post… and maybe I’m wrong here… the issue isn’t Obama putting chips in. That “belief” can be disproved pretty quick through a Google search. What the real belief is distrust in governments. It’s a feeling as well as a reason.

    What’s interesting is this guy is also a “gnu atheist.” So he distrusts religion too. Yet he does belief in the power of the human mind and the power of Science with the capital “s.” I bet he would say belief doesn’t exist either… but it does. And it’s in play all the time and it’s extremely hard to track. So he distrusts institutions as long as their governments and/or churches, but not if it’s a university. Nevermind that the university is funded by the government and established by a church… Inconsistent beliefs.

  3. Neil Rickert,
    I probably agree with you. But having conversations about beliefs with folks only familiar with non-technical stuff is tough. Soooooo …
    (1) If you assume, for the sake of argument, that there is such a thing as beliefs
    (2) then acknowledge the counter-intuitive insights I offer here in this post
    (3) then your new understanding of “belief” can come close to those who believe there is no such things as beliefs.

    Ironic, but true in a sense, I think.
    Do you follow?

    See my comment to Neil.
    Do you agree with my counter-intuitive caveats to beliefs?
    If not, which ones and why?

  4. Note to readers: I felt my introduction to this post was distracting and unfocused so I totally rewrote it. The bulleted list is the important part of this post and I left that unchanged. It is that list that I did not want to distract people from addressing. Thank you.

  5. Funny, the intro now only deals with theists. I liked it better before.

    I think this is the most telling line: “Yet in religion, most of the debated beliefs are beliefs that can not be empirically tested. And so the debates are frustrated from the very beginning.”
    -If it cannot be measured, it doesn’t exist. Engineering mindset, a product of the Enlightenment. It seems to me all you’re trying to do is a long drawn out effort to say, “Beliefs don’t exist because we can’t measure it.” (which seem to be what you said to Neil). If this is true, then I whole-heartedly disagree and will not comment on further posts. If not, then I will continue to seek clarity.

  6. @ Luke,

    I didn’t say “if it cannot be measure, it doesn’t exist’ — it just makes certain types of discussions difficult. Lots of things can’t be measured that we still act on. So you can’t put me in that little scientism box.

    Please explore the bullets. Stick to the point of the post, Luke. If you need to do a few more sidetracks before you get there, I don’t mind, but I will try to keep drawing your focus and attention back to the main issues.

    Concerning Neil’s point, Luke, for starters, go to the wiki article on “Belief” and see the short last half of the section entitled “Belief as a psychological theory”. There you will see the controversy Neil and I are referring to. But it has no connection to some nefarious plan of mine. BUT, realizing the nature of belief, was indeed part of the undoing of my connection with Christianity — but I don’t think it has to necessarily do that. Indeed, if you explored it, I suspect my conclusions and points will not affect your flavor of Christianity at all.

    But if you don’t want to read further, that is not threat to me. Stop any time you wish.

  7. “So you can’t put me in that little scientism box.”
    -Which is why I love you.

    I read the bullets just fine and don’t see any improvement on them. Really don’t have much to say, only awaiting a conclusion to them. I will check out the wiki article and explore the controversy. I was unaware. Thanks for the correction, I’ll most more after reading and researching if it’s applicable here.

  8. So, do you agree with the bullets? Do you have the same experience?

  9. I think I do. I don’t see any rub here, nor is it bound to theists or any particular denomination. Seems to be a good run down of the process of belief.

  10. Good. Progress. Now Luke — to still your paranoia. This post was primarily (90%) written to address atheists who I feel misunderstand “belief”. You were not even someone I was thinking about. You may actually like where this goes.

  11. I’m thinking I do as evidenced by the initial comment and the story I presented. When you get a story out of me, that’s usually a sign that things are going well.

  12. Ian

    I agree very much with the idea of the post. “Belief” (like most words, in fact) refers to a constellation of phenomena. And religions (and other things) play bait-and-switch on different facets of that definition. So at times belief is assent to a proposition, at other times it is acting in accordance with a proposition, at other times, it is pure signalling. And so on.

    But I wouldn’t assume religious folks have a naive common-sense view of belief, correct or otherwise. I’ve certainly been in several bible studies where people have struggled with the multifaceted concept. So I think the way it is used in religious circles is more complex also.

    What perhaps is more foundational, in Christianity of certain stripes, is the idea that words have a particular meaning, and that to figure out how one should be a Christian, one must figure out what the words mean. Belief, faith, love, hope, spiritual, I’ve sat through plenty of debates around those.

    Ultimately the take home is that no word means what you think it does. In fact words don’t ‘mean’ anything at all in that sense.

  13. Hey Ian,

    (1) Religious Folks Views on Belief
    I had to re-read this post, but I don’t see where I wrote something that would imply that I “assume religious folks have a naive common-sense view of belief”. Indeed, this post is actually written to correct the view of many atheists. So I agree that complex views exist everywhere.

    That said, “Believism” is a strong idea mixed in many religions. And if one understands the ideas I present here, I think Believism (see my prev. post), is untenable with those views.

    (2) Not a Word Phenomena
    This is not a post to illustrate the slipperiness of words in general. Though, as you know, I have done that often. Instead, I am trying to point out some counter-intuitive experiences that people may not have noticed.

    I agree that believers can often use the bait-and-switch thing with the word “belief” as they do with “faith”, “love” , “God” and more. I’ve seen other atheists do the same with “science” and “reason”. But I guess that is another conversation. This post is not about the philosophy of language or the strategy of bait-and-switch.

    Have you experience the items I bulleted?

  14. Ian

    Yes, some of them. Others don’t feel like what I would mean by ‘belief’, which is why I ended up at the problem of language. That this isn’t a problem with ‘belief’, as much as it is a problem of language essentialism.

    The first bit: I added ‘naive’ (which I routinely get into trouble with, admittedly because I rarely mean it pejoratively), but isn’t this entire post about the common-sense view of ‘belief’?

    The point about beliefism is well made, I think. Both atheists and believers tend to slip into the idea that religion is constructed of beliefs. I think this is a triumph of western evangelicalism mainly, in that I don’t see it in my more liberal or Indian friends. But it is pernicious.

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