Beyond Belief


It’s the age of alternative facts and inescapable fantasies holding the reins of power. Many, many people consistently confuse fact with fantasy, and that’s certainly bad enough. But in addition, people get very muddy about the terminology they use to describe things that are not facts — or which they at least think are not facts. “Belief”? “Opinion”? “Theory”?

Actually opinion seems to be the default designation for anything that people don’t want to believe. I can’t tell you how many times people have responded to the information I present with “that’s just your opinion”. People say the same, of course, about climate science, evolution and the fact that the Forty-Fifth White House Occupant lies like a two-bit whore.

But all of the different types of convictions people allude to are designated at some time or other as beliefs, which are perceptions of how reality operates. And it’s perhaps unfortunate that the word is so broadly applied, because maybe there should be instead distinctly different terms for the different varieties.

Let’s see if we can untangle the semantic knots a bit and concur on some useful designations.

Conviction of principle is one type of belief. When people say “I believe in racial equality”, they are not making an assertion that they expect to be substantiated or discredited; they are saying that they are committed to treating all races equally. While this type of belief may be stated as a factual proposition (e.g., “Honesty is the best policy”) it is not necessarily with the expectation that its validity can be universally established. It is, rather, a manifesto of personal values and principles.

And then there are other types of belief that do involve propositions.

Faith is one example. If you have faith in a person or thing, that means you believe that person or thing will be reliable. And of course, you can also have faith in yourself, which is essentially another way of saying that you are confident you can perform successfully or even splendidly. These types of faith are healthy provided they are not misplaced. But all too often, there is a blind faith that totally detaches itself from reality — many people have faith, for instance that God will take care of them even if they make no effort to take care of themselves — and if they have shown themselves unworthy of such divine intervention.

Belief of proposition (for want of a better term) is something that theoretically could be either proved or disproved. People once believed the earth was flat — indeed, many people still do. But that belief has been disproved (which doesn’t keep people from believing it anyway).  They once believed that women had an extra rib, because of the Genesis thing. That belief was disproved, quite readily.  People believed that valerian root had a tranquilizing effect long before this was confirmed by science.

Sometimes the category can get a bit nebulous, though. Some people believe in life after death. It’s theoretically possible to prove or disprove that to yourself — by dying. But even if you prove it to yourself, how can you then prove it to other people who are still living? (Unless you do some really heavy duty haunting.)  Some people believe that time travel is possible; theoretically that could be proved or disproved, but in practical terms such a test may never be possible. Do we lump beliefs like this together with other types of belief that have a conceivable practical test? And if we don’t, what else would we call them?

I make it a policy to avoid beliefs of this type as much as possible. My rule of thumb is: strive not to believe something until believing it becomes inescapable for a sane and rational person. This admittedly puts me in a distinct minority; the great majority of humans, it seems, rush to believe and, once a belief has calcified in their brains, it remains there forever, no matter how much it is bombarded by facts.

Prediction is what people often mean when they say belief.  “I believe the Patriots will win the Super Bowl” really means “I predict the Patriots will win the Super Bowl”. Of course, the person making such a statement might have some insider intel that would cause him or her to prognosticate thusly. Some people, however, make such projections merely on the basis of hunch or wishful thinking: e.g., “I believe there is intelligent life on Mars”. One of the most universal of human follies is to commit to steadfast belief in a proposition merely because one wishes it to be true.

A theory can be either (a) a wild hunch or (b) a logical conviction based on the evidence. Either way, it doesn’t carry a feeling of absolute certainty the way other types of belief so often do. Instead, it is a suspicion or a projection of probability or possibility — which may or may not have the potential to be tested. While in practice “I believe the butler is guilty” is used interchangeably  with “my theory is the butler is guilty”, they are, in the strictest sense, quite different. Note, however that the word theory as a scientific term is another matter. Many people make the mistake of assuming that because scientists refer to the “theory of evolution”, that means the reality of evolution isn’t certain. It is — as certain as the theory of gravity.

Opinion, broadly speaking, is a proposition that is more or less entirely subjective, and thus cannot be either proved nor disproved. If you say that vanilla ice cream is superior to chocolate or the Rolling Stones were better than the Beatles, that’s an opinion. (And you’d better be prepared to fight me!) Because there are no absolute objective standards by which to make such a determination — it’s mostly a matter of personal judgment. Of course, there are standards of musical quality and skill, but even those are sometimes subjective enough that we can preclude the possibility of declaring definitively that either the Beatles or Stones were better.

There is nothing wrong with having opinions. But many, many people make the mistake of confusing opinion for fact, and vice versa. And of having overriding opinions about matters for which opinion is irrelevant.

An argument is not in itself a form of belief, but a systematic arrangement of beliefs, facts and logical steps (however sound or unsound). In our time, we are accustomed to thinking of an argument as a heated dispute — contemporary Americans really, really love their confrontations.  But more traditionally, an argument was simply the essence of a lengthy scholarly or literary work. See, for example, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s long narrative poem Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which he prefaces with an “argument” that summarizes the plot of the story in a short paragraph.

Recently, a gun enthusiast commented on one of my essays about the Second Amendment that “you have no argument”. I gently responded that I wasn’t really trying to make an argument; I was merely presenting facts. But as I thought about it, I realized that, yes, it is indeed entirely possible to construct an argument (in the classical sense of the word) entirely of facts. That is, in fact exactly what I’m always trying to do here.

Note that in addition to different varieties of belief, there are different degrees or shades of belief. There is literal belief — that something is true exactly as worded (e.g., that God created the universe in 6 days, beginning with the all-important planet His worshipers just happen to live on). But there are other levels of belief as well. If I say that I believe in Santa Claus, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I believe in the existence of a plump senior citizen who travels all over the world in one night delivering toys by squeezing down chimneys. It might mean that I believe the historical person on whom the character is based actually existed. Or it might mean that I believe neither of these things, but still approve of the symbolic implications of the cultural icon. This is, in other words, a form of meta-belief, which involves believing in a belief’s usefulness rather than its veracity.

And one might say that one believes in a particular body of ideas even if one believes in only a significant chunk of it. I must confess that many years ago, I enjoyed reading the Seth books of Jane Roberts. I found that even if one rejects her claim that the material was dictated to her by a disembodied being named Seth, and even if one rejects many of the tenets of the books’ ideological framework (e.g., reincarnation), there is still a great deal of content worth contemplating. Couldn’t I have said, then, that I believed in the Seth books, even if I considered many of their declarations to be nonsense?

Now you may not find the above taxonomy of beliefs to jibe exactly with your own perceptions — you even might have an altogether different system of classification. But the important things are (a) to realize that such distinctions do exist, and (b) to avoid at all costs allowing your beliefs to bleed into the facts.

(Related posts: Matters Of Opinion; Opinion — What It Ain’t; Singular Proof; More On Singular Proof; and Shades Of Subjectivity.)


  1. I understand that plenty of ideas held by human beings cannot be proven, but that isn’t always so bad anyway. When one says he or she believes deeply in something that is beyond reason’s realm to confirm, for me its just knowing intuitively that Jesus, at the very least, was not an ordinary run of the mill charlatan. The four Gospels in the New Testament were not actually written down formally for more than a hundred years after his crucifixion, but I would think that if one was a disciple of a guy that walked on Water and turned it into wine, that one would take great pains to record the details of this person’s teachings via a verbal record—kind of like the tribal elder that Alex Haley listened to for hours as he named ancestors from many generations in the past, before coming to Kunta Kinta. So, although there are some different accounts of Christ’s teachings in all four Gospels, there is also a remarkable similarity between how each disciple recorded his miracles, parables, and the chronology of his life. I am trying here to find an argument that although impossible to prove, might make some intuitive sense, and that may confirm my own personal beliefs concerning Christ’s exceptional deeds and completely loving persona. I also know that both science and religion have discovered some pretty amazing stuff, like that which prompted Einstein to say, “God does not play dice with the Universe.” Consider the quote below taken from this website:

    “Just to give a practical example, if we think about the tiniest car possible (e.g. the nano cars, made of atoms, that are being developed in the nanotechnology sector), and we know the position of the car, we cannot know its momentum – whether it’s going fast or slow and vice versa. Nothing can be certain according to Quantum Physics. We can only predict how probable an event is to happen (like how many probabilities are there for six to come out when we throw dice). It was this uncertainty that Einstein disagreed with. In his opinion, every event and the physical properties of each individual particle can and must be measured with high precision. Quantum physics does not allow for that; it tells you how probable it is for a system of particles to behave in a certain way, but it will never tell you how each individual particle belonging to that system will behave. Einstein could not accept this level of randomness and uncertainty in nature and the universe and he expressed his opinion in the sentence “God does not play dice”.

    Here we come to a second source of inspiration: Einstein’s views about religion. “Much has been written and speculated about this point. Some people are convinced that Einstein was an atheist and others believe that Einstein was religious but not in the orthodox way. Einstein wrote a lot about science and religion, so why don’t we ask him? Einstein was Jewish by birth and after a period of deep religiosity in his youth he did not practice Judaism.”

    “However, Einstein was not an atheist as he said himself in an interview in 1929. Einstein had his personal views about religion, and he believed in what he called ‘cosmic religion’ where God’s presence was evident in the order and rationality of nature and the universe in all its aspects and expressions. Chaos and randomness are, therefore, not part of nature, and “(God does not play dice).”

    “According to Einstein, ‘cosmic religious feeling’ is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research. In his opinion, the goal of a scientist should be to try to begin to understand the universe. Einstein had a deep feeling of awe in front of nature and the universe and he believed that “strenuous intellectual work and the study of God’s Nature are the angels that will lead me through all the troubles of this life with consolation, strength, and uncompromising rigor” (letter to Pauline Winteler, 1897). “

    So this is my way to name drop one of the most intelligent and respected physicists this world has ever known to bolster my own—what might be called merely, a metaphysical belief.

    However, just because we cannot answer a given question now, and in many cases, cannot answer many questions about a particular property of the universe correctly, and beyond doubt, does not mean that some cosmic pattern of unfolding energy in the cosmos cannot reveal it. Have I got rational proof of this? Absolutely not, but what I do have is an appreciation for just how awesome the Universe is? And I strongly believe that Jesus Christ came from what can only be described as some divine source. Not necessarily born of a virgin, but surely a being whose love and wisdom knew no bounds.

    To me the four gospels are not only about the beautiful teaching and examples set forth by Jesus but are inspiring and incredibly moving also.

    There is a definition of faith that states, “Faith is a reason to believe that which cannot be proven by reason.” Thus when we discover new aspects of the Universe these require logical explanation, but those things which we cannot currently explain might inspire us to hold life and the universe in awe.

    Don’t worry though, I accept the fact that geology and physics prove that the earth is approximately 4 billion years old and has evolved life in a very awesome way. But I also don’t understand why the ways that the cosmos has formed, and how the DNA molecule has evolved mysteriously from fundamental atomic particles, are not both considered astounding miracles which may never even have existed without some process divined by a loving God of the Universe.

    Jesus also said unless we see miracles we will not believe, but here are a couple of Bible passages concerning the three day long crucifixion of Christ, that come to mind, passages that, for me, help cement my faith. One is about the Roman Soldiers that gambled for the clothes of Jesus, while cruelly taunting him as the King of the Jews and mocked him by saying if you are the son of god come down from your cross. But when Jesus commended his spirit to God as he was dying, according to the gospels (I’m not sure it was in all four of them) but at least one says, there was a terrible sound and a storm that made one of the soldiers quake in fear and say in amazement, “Truly this man was the son of God!” As for Christ’s feelings about these soldiers, he famously said, “Forgive them father, they know not what they do.”—Talk about incredible compassion!

    Another touching portion of the Bible’s depiction of the crucifixion included the fact that Jesus was hung on his cross between two criminals, one of whom taunted him saying, “If you are the son of God come down from your cross and help us too,” But the other criminal said, “Be quiet! We deserve the fate we are suffering, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then Jesus assured this common criminal who must have done some heinous crime, saying. “verily I say to you, this day you will be with me in paradise.”

    Forgive me if these quotes are not word for word accurate, but I believe they express the essence of what the Gospels say.

    I know that, as scientific knowledge presently stands, these events are considered impossible, and that many skeptics only see them as absurd lies that are part of a fictional account. However, to me they are much more meaningful than that. They give me reason to believe that which cannot be rationally proved, and they unite the feelings of a great scientist who did not believe that God played dice, with those of an incredibly beautiful light in this world, who said, “Verily I say unto you, not a sparrow falls without your father in heaven knowing,” and, “Even the hairs on your head are numbered.”

    As far as I’m concerned, you just can’t make stuff like that up!

  2. All attempts at objectivity are plagued by, and philosophically contaminated with, the insertion of value judgments into formulas, or by subjecting formulas to values altogether. Ontology – a.k.a. known reality – consists of a web of competing bureaucracies and, like all bureaucracies, they are out to perpetuate themselves, to make money, to fight heresy, to accumulate political clout and the perks that come with it. They are by no means disinterested and objective parties, which, in my book, renders them automatically suspect.

    P.O.P. posted: ” It’s the age of alternative facts and inescapable fantasies holding the reins of power. Many, many people consistently confuse fact with fantasy, and that’s certainly bad enough. But in addition, people get very muddy about the terminology they use to d”

    • This is the second attempt you’ve made to post a comment here, and both have been truncated. Not sure what is happening here.

      • Are you addressing the above comment to me? I have been the victim of cyber crimes lately, and someone may have been manipulating my posts. I am now using security options more often. it may take a little time to secure all of my accounts!

      • It was addressed to someone called Tom K. He made two partial comments, stopping in the middle of both.

    • Perhaps a predilection to rely on absolute objectivity also involves personal value judgements. And, not all subjective beliefs come out of thin air, many are the result of years of experience as well very entertaining completely possible scenarios. Those who claim they rely only on reason often ignore the value of intuition and have not yet been proven to be unassailable by those who believe that pure reason should not aways be applied. Because we are individuals, we often differ from others who seem to have different idea about what constitutes pure reason.

      Isn’t it the way that reason is applied that makes it reliable, or not? Real human beings are prone to act on emotions and instincts like everyone else. So before we commit to the idea of “pure reason,” let’s understand the many other ways of ensuring peace and equality first.

      Those who proffer pure reason as a way to solve any and all problems, are almost as consistently naive as those who only accept religious doctrines as the only valid ways to solve all of mankind’s ills. Pure reason itself has never succeeded in preventing wars or provided axiomatic ways to deal with human emotions like resentment and greed. So the idea of perfect reason may possibly be a subjective illusion, and therefore we need to be skeptical about those who claim they are beyond emotions or value judgements. Many extreme right wing dogmatists constantly claim to be driven only by logic, not emotions–yet they are usually exceedingly prone to express self-righteous anger when questioned by others who do not share their beliefs.

      • Objective reasoning works only if each side starts with the same premise, and across all the different nations, cultures, and societies, starting with the same premise is often hard hard to do.

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