Thursday, 12 July 2012

On Belief

A constant little problem I run into is the question of belief.  A typical belief discussion goes a little like this:

magical believer (MB): Do you believe in God?
neopolitan (neo): No.
MB: What do you believe in?
neo: Nothing.
MB: What, you don’t even believe in your own existence?
neo: Well, it depends what you mean by …
MB: Why don’t you walk out in front of the next bus, since you don’t believe that they exist?
neo: Of course I’m not going to …
MB: Ha ha ha.  Your world view is logically inconsistent!
The problem, which seems to never be obvious to theists and other magical believers, is that there are two reasonably distinct meanings associated with “belief” / “believe”.  Let me rerun the first part of the discussion as I hear it in my head:

magical believer (MB): Do you believe in the magical entity, for which there is no evidence and which you have no personal experience in support of God?
neopolitan (neo): No.
MB: What magical entity, for which there is no evidence and which you have no personal experience in support of do you believe in?
The term “believe” used in these questions isn’t remotely close in meaning to the usage in the following question which relates to my own personal existence.  My own personal existence is the only thing about which I can confidently assert as a fact without having to refer to any other data – it is nonsense for me to seek external data to support the notion that I exist, since I would be utilising my existence to search for that external data.

As to that following question, regarding buses, I have experience with buses, there is evidence for buses and – Ms Frizzle notwithstanding – buses are not magical.  Throughout the exchange, my world view remains entirely consistent.  What is inconsistent is the definition of “believe”, which is changed midstride by the magical believer without any prior warning.

It should also be noted that “to believe in” is even more strongly correlated with “to have a religious faith” or “to be deluded” than the vanilla “to believe”.  If you say “do you believe in …” then I expect you to be asking whether I have any delusions or, possibly, whether I have a value judgment about something.  If you asked: “Do you believe in pets?”  I’d take that to mean: “Do you consider that pets are beneficial to your health?”  I could say yes to that.

So, in order to avoid these silly conversations, in the future I will try to steer the conversation this way:

magical believer (MB): Do you believe in God?
neopolitan (neo): No.
MB: What do you believe in?
neo: Keeping warm, lots of vegetables and fruit and a daily walk.
MB: What?  No, I mean, what do you believe?
neo: I believe you are trying to get me to express some sort of religious, or otherwise unsupportable, set of beliefs, but I don’t have one.
MB: Um, this isn’t going the way it should.  Um, why don’t you walk out in front of the next bus?
neo: Well, I don’t believe in an eternal life after death, nor do I believe in a magic sky faerie who will save me if I were to stray into the path of a bus.  But you do, so why don’t you walk in front of the next bus?
MB: Good point!  I’ll go try it.
Thank you, and good night.

(WLC7 is on it's way!  You might want to brush up on formal and semantic logic in preparation - including Kripke semantics.

I've also got a world view article half finished, so I will soon be able to provide a conveniently preprepared answer to the more reasonable question: "What do you believe?")

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