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.