The phrase believing in your beliefs was first coined by philosopher William Dennett. However, as you will see, he uses the term in a more limited way than the way I use the phrase. Eliezer Yudkowsky describes Dennett’s meaning in a July 2007 post on the Less Wrong website. Here is an excerpt:
Depending on how your childhood went, you may remember a time period when you first began to doubt Santa Claus’s existence, but you still believed that you were supposed to believe in Santa Claus, so you tried to deny the doubts. As Daniel Dennett observes, where it is difficult to believe a thing, it is often much easier to believe that you ought to believe it. What does it mean to believe that the Ultimate Cosmic Sky is both perfectly blue and perfectly green? The statement is confusing; it’s not even clear what it would mean to believe it – what exactly would be believed, if you believed. You can much more easily believe that it is proper, that it is good and virtuous and beneficial, to believe that the Ultimate Cosmic Sky is both perfectly blue and perfectly green. Dennett calls this “belief in belief”.
And here things become complicated, as human minds are wont to do – I think even Dennett oversimplified how this psychology works in practice. For one thing, if you believe in belief, you cannot admit to yourself that you only believe in belief, because it is virtuous to believe, not to believe in belief, and so if you only believe in belief, instead of believing, you are not virtuous. Nobody will admit to themselves, “I don’t believe the Ultimate Cosmic Sky is blue and green, but I believe I ought to believe it” – not unless they are unusually capable of acknowledging their own lack of virtue. People don’t believe in belief in belief, they just believe in belief.
A December 2007 post The problem of believing in belief by vaughanbell on the Mind Hacks Blog discusses the implications of a study conducted by author Sam Harris while a doctoral student at UCLA. The study is better described in an a Time Magazine article, What Your Brain Looks Like on Faith by David Van Biema which was published the same month and refereed to in the post. The full article as a PDF can be gotten from Sam Harris’s website here.
The psychology experiment looked at the neurological reposes of 14 adult subjects as measured by brain-scans using MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) when read a series of 360 statements.
The statements were assertions chosen from seven categories: mathematical, geographic, semantic, factual, autobiographical, ethical and religious. These assertions met the philosopher’s definition of propositional attitudes. More simply put, each expressed a belief.
Examples of these statements (one from each of the seven categories):
62 can be evenly divided by 9.
Wisconsin is on the West Coast of the United States
“Devious” means “friendly.”Most people have 10 fingers and 10 toes.
You were born in New York.
It is bad to take pleasure at another’s suffering.
While in the MRI scanner, each of the subjects was shown each of the 360 belief statements. The subjects were allowed to read each of these statements at their own pace and then to indicate the truth value of that sentence by pushing one of three buttons. The buttons were labeled “true”, “false” or “undecided.” The considered a press of the true button as “belief” and the false button as “disbelief” whereas the undecided button was taken as an expression of “uncertainty.”
The questions were presented to the subjects in grouped clusters of sets most likely to be judged in a particular category. During this sequence, the subjects were scanned with the MRI seven times.
Although there were some patterns to the physiological responses to these statements and subjects in general were quicker to respond to true statements than false ones. In the sets of questions categorized as related to ethics and mathematics. the study was able to find specific brain patters which correlated to the subjects belief or disbelief of a statement. So he has developed a fairly expensive lie detector
The Time Magazine notes that Harris, who has also written a popular book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason plans to do his next study on religious faith. He hopes to use the MRI like a lie detector to see if religious people who indicate they believe statements of religions faith which fly in the face of common sense, by pushing the true button, demonstrate brain patterns consistent with belief in the statement.
Besides demonstrating our almost complete lack of understanding of how the human brain works and the presumptuousness of psychological experiments, thee study point to the current hopes of neuroscience for understanding correlates between brain and the human through process.
Faith could be defined as the belief that you need to believe that a proposition or set of propositions is true, even though you know that each of these is most likely false. Faith is sometimes called belief and so when Daniel Dennet uses the phrase “belief in belief” he might better have put it, belief that you need to have faith.
The title of this section is, When you believe that must believe refers to something different, a different and perhaps broader sense of the phrase. When you belief that you must believe, it is that you assume that beliefs, things which you believe in which you also assume are true, should be considered true.. Most people are believers in believing in this sense of the term. How could we possibly live without any beliefs.
Many people are members of the faithful and worshipers of an unnamed religion that says we must believe in things. We have faith in the necessity of belief.
Most of us can remember things that we once believed in but which we no longer believe in. Those beliefs most likely were replaced with new beliefs.
As we go through life, there tend to be more and more of these kind of things.
At age 63, can look back to earlier in my life and remember beliefs that I considered core beliefs, fundamental to who I am, meant to guide me through my entire life. Except that now I do not have them anymore.
If most of the things I believe in now I will later replace with different beliefs, I should treat every belief I have as just working hypothesis. But like everyone else, I usually don’t.