Belief and Commitment

by Dave Maier

Belief, as Aristotle might say, is said in many ways. This would be okay, except it can lead to some annoying, and I think avoidable, muddles. Here I try to pick a way through the minefield.

Let's jump right in. When I say

(1) I believe/don't believe in Bigfoot.

I express my view on whether the “footprints” are fake, the famous film clip is a hoax, etc. For the negative form at least, we might say instead

(1a) I don't believe that there is such a creature as Bigfoot is supposed to be.

This is a statement of the form “I don't believe that P”, where P is some proposition with a truth value. I would say this is true for the positive form as well, but it sounds funny to say

(1b) I believe that there is such a creature as Bigfoot is supposed to be.

even if that is in fact what you believe. In any case I will mostly use the positive and negative forms arbitrarily, unless the difference really seems relevant.

How about this one?

(2) I believe/don't believe in God.

Taken in one way, this sounds like (1). Its negative form can be paraphrased in the same way:

(2a) I don't believe that there is such a being as God is supposed to be.

The context for this reading of (2) might be a conversation in which we were trying to decide whether the force of moral principles derives from divine command. If there exists no divine being to issue these commands, then whatever force morality has cannot come from divine command.

But (2), unlike (1), can also be used to mean

(2b) I am a religious believer; in particular, an adherent of a monotheistic religion such as Christianity.

Here I don't simply assert the existence of some entity, but also indicate the nature of my attitude toward it, which amounts in this case to, among other things, an existential commitment to be a certain type of person. In fact (if I am not particularly orthodox) I may not care very much if “God” is taken to refer to an entity at all, existent or not.

Compare the similar

(3) I believe in Jesus Christ.

Here too it seems that there has to be an epistemic claim of some sort. Yet it can't just be that the named person (the “historical Jesus”) did indeed exist. (3), like (2b), is usually also, or even primarily, an expression of religious commitment. As such, it's the equivalent of such locutions as “Jesus is Lord” or, naturally, “I have faith in Jesus Christ”. Similarly, a “creed” indicates both doxastic and existential commitments in this sense.

Returning to the sublunary world, if I say

(4) I believe in John Farrell.

John Farrellthis time there's no question of John Farrell's existence. He definitely exists (note photo); the question is whether he can restore the Sox's confidence after last season's fiasco, and in uttering (4) I indicate that I believe he can. (Of course I also believe that John Lackey might win 15 games after coming back from Tommy John surgery, so what do I know.)

Here too – although I do not worship him! – I might say instead

(4a) I have faith in John Farrell.

Yet this says nothing about my reasons for my attitude, which may be perfectly objective, if not conclusive. If asked to justify my “faith”, I may say: he's a great guy, he handles pitchers well, and he already knows half their staff. Or I may instead simply shrug, granting that my feelings are subjective.

Now consider

(5) I believe in evolution.

Surely the speaker believes certain matters of empirical fact: e.g., that contemporary apes and humans share a distant common ancestor. But the “believe in” formulation bears a suggestive similarity to (2); which has led to some unfortunate muddles. For example, evangelist Ray Comfort (of “the banana: the atheist's nightmare” fame) tells us that “[i]f you ask most atheists if the theory of evolution has anything to do with a belief […] they will tell you that it doesn't. It's not something that has to be believed. It is a 'fact'.”

Clearly Comfort and the unnamed atheists he cites here (not that he's making it up – Richard Dawkins, for one, has indeed said something like this somewhere) — are not using the term “believe/belief” in the sense of (1a). To believe that P in this sense just is to take P for a fact. So what's going on here?

To answer this, let's look at some more examples. So far we've only distinguished the type of commitment – doxastic or existential – one expresses by speaking of belief or faith. As we've already seen, this is not the same as the degree of certainty and/or warrant one claims in so speaking. Yet, confusingly, we use the same terms to make distinctions of this sort as well.

For example, we can use the term “believe” – even in its plainly doxastic sense – to indicate not, well, that I believe something, but instead the opposite. Imagine the following uttered by the butler in a plummy British accent (Downton Abbey maybe?):

(7) I belie-eve that Master is in the drawing-room.

Here our man is denying the degree of certainty – that is, enough for what we've so far been calling “belief” in its doxastic sense – that he would express in saying instead

(7a) Master is in the drawing-room.

If the butler says (7) rather than (7a), and I go looking for Master in the drawing-room and he isn't there, I am less puzzled than if he had said (7a). In saying (7), the butler implied that he wasn't entirely sure. Maybe he thought that his information might be out of date: he saw him there reading the newspaper ten minutes ago, but since at that time Master asked for his riding breeches to be set out, the butler knew that Master might have left the drawing-room by now to go change his clothes. (7) communicates the appropriate level of certainty, while discreetly leaving unmentioned the (delicate, for all he knows) matter of the riding breeches. Of course that implied unsurety may be entirely rhetorical, as he may utter (7) instead of (7a) even when he knows for damn sure where Master is. Wheels within wheels!

In another example, one I've mentioned here before, in debating Daniel Dennett re: the existence of God, Dinesh D'Souza intoned:

(7b) I beliee-eeve that God exists, but I don't knoo-oow that he does.

Here he draws a contrast between belief and knowledge, the implication being, I take it, that he is not claiming to be justified in his belief. This makes (7b) sound like (2b); yet the whole point of the debate was whether God exists or not, not whether one should make a religious commitment, making the justification for believing such a thing pretty clearly relevant.

This brings up the issue of epistemic fallibilism. If I believe something, how certain am I that it is true? Typically, to express certainty in doxastic matters is ipso facto to claim to know. But if I can express a properly doxastic commitment at the same time as denying knowledge, then maybe I can have it both ways. I can say, “I believe it, but it might not be true.”

I don't like to do this, for a number of reasons we can't get into here (basically, in so speaking one equivocates between first- and third-person conceptions of belief). But maybe we can get away with putting aside the matter of the different kinds of “certainty”, the uses and abuses of Bayesian probability, and so on. In any case we should be able to say that (7) – (7b) are like (1b) in indicating some degree of doxastic commitment to a certain proposition. How strong is that commitment? Qualified in some way perhaps, but surely enough to fit my recommended stipulation that

(8) To believe something is to take it to be true.

If I ask D'Souza whether God exists, he'll say yes. If I ask the butler whether Master is the drawing room, he may once again qualify his answer (“I believe so, yes”), but in any case the level of commitment expressed in these cases brings them into the properly doxastic sphere, and thus subject to rational evaluation.

We distort both the phenomenon of doxastic commitment/inquiry into the truth and also that of religious faith, and existential commitment generally, both by assimilating one to the other and by treating them as entirely separate matters. We may distinguish them even while recognizing their complex interrelations.

Consider the Augustinian formula “faith seeking understanding”: I have a (let's say newly acquired, in a religious conversion) existential commitment, and I'm not sure how to express that commitment doxastically, and thereby open it to rational criticism. For example, if I find myself saying that I “believe” that holy scripture is the word of God, what does that mean? I don't answer these questions for myself simply by making that religious commitment. Even to say “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” is to address that issue, however dogmatically.

One attitude toward these matters is fideism, which shields belief from criticism by assimilating it to faith: I don't need “evidence” for my beliefs when I have faith, considered as a purely existential phenomenon. But this can't be right. However acquired, religious faith must be manifested doxastically or it hasn't had any impact at all on how you act, or indeed, on what you believe. But in order to count as a belief at all in this sense, it has to be related to your other beliefs inferentially. (Indeed, on some accounts that set of inferential relations is all there is to something's being a belief.) And this opens them to potential rational criticism; and after all you yourself are trying to get clear on what implies what.

My religious “beliefs” better have truth values at some point (that is, take the properly doxastic form of 1a), or I won't be able to use them in justifying my actions, either in recommending them to others or in figuring out what I should do in the first place; and if this happens I make hash of the idea of even my existential commitment to being a certain sort of person.

For example, surely neither

(9) I believe that Jesus rose from the dead, but that's not true.


(9a) I believe that Jesus is my savior, but there isn't anything of the form “Since Jesus is my savior, it follows that I should _________ (or that _________ is the case)” that I am willing to accept.

makes any sense.

I should stress that in order to see yourself as accepting such things (i.e. of the form “Since Jesus is my savior, _________”), you don't have to have fully worked out the argument for it, on pain of irrationality. These too may fall partly under the umbrella of faith. It's just that you can't make the distinction between “faith” and “rational inquiry” into an absolute. The two types of commitment are conceptually interconstitutive. This blurring, in fact, is the virtue of referring to one's religious commitment(s) as “religious belief” in the first place, when we do.

Yet of course blurring of distinctions can lead to equivocation. (I was about to continue, “… which is what we see in Comfort's case”, but if you check that link you'll see that he doesn't even make an argument of any kind, not even one subject to the fallacy of equivocation. It's just a bunch of dissociated assertions, to no apparent point.)

If we admit that the two are not entirely separate, conceptually speaking, it can seem that to admit that one's claims about the world have a subjective component in this sense is thereby to admit that they are not sufficiently objective to maintain them in the face of disagreement. This is the point of Dawkins's otherwise odd insistence that evolution is not a belief but instead a fact. If “belief” means “faith” and “faith” means “subjective leap without sufficient evidence”, then we lose the very real distinction between scientific inquiry and religious commitment. “Belief in evolution” — which conflicts with certain religious dogmas — can then look like it may do so in the same sense in which dogmas of different religions conflict with each other, i.e. as matters grounded in and expressive of properly existential commitment, and (supposedly) thus not subject to rational debate.

So here's my sympathetic elaboration of Dawkins's point, as paraphrased by Comfort. The theory of evolution is a scientific theory, not a religious doctrine. It is supported by empirical evidence, not divine revelation or ecclesiastical authority. It is the result of rational inquiry into the objective world, and does not require a “leap of faith”. When creationists say that “evolution is (only) a belief,” they mean to put it on the same epistemic level as creationism. They imply that rather than being a matter of evidence, it's a matter of previous non-rational commitment to a particular worldview or even mere personal preference. Thus the reply: “evolution isn't a belief, it's a fact.”

Although I get the point, I don't like this reply. In the relevant sense, in our context anyway, evolution is not a “fact”. It's a scientific theory, which is an intricately structured amalgam of particular facts, abstract ideas, and explanatory strategies, produced for the purposes of understanding, prediction, and control. The common descent of apes and humans is an empirical fact, which the theory of evolution helps to explain; but on the other hand one of the best reasons to believe in common descent in the first place is that we have a well-worked-out scientific theory to explain the possibility, and indeed actuality, of such a thing.

As such this theoretical amalgam of fact and explanation does indeed resemble a “worldview”, if on a smaller scale. But by the same token, commitment to a worldview in this sense is precisely not a non-rational matter; but it is not a matter of purely objective inquiry either. The two are interrelated, just as are the various formal elements of the theory itself.

For more thoughts in something like this vein, although in the interest of making nice he pulls his punches in both directions, see Gary Gutting's NYT Opinionator post here. I myself would be much more pointed than Gutting is in condemning the fact/value (subjective/objective) dualism in which both (many) scientific “skeptics” and religious apologists indulge, and argue that that dualism reflects the underlying fundamental agreement on metaphysical matters which both sides loudly deny, their disagreement merely concerning the surface form the dualism takes, or which side of it is to be preferred and which decried.

That, rather than evolution (which as a scientific theory I suggest we leave to the scientists) is the bigger fish here, and is more easily seen in calmer and more boring waters than these, so I'll have to come back to it some other day. (For some hints or reminders see my other posts here here here). As I've said here too, though, the trick is to understand better the conceptual interrelations, as manifested in so much of what we say every day, between our beliefs about how things are and our conceptions of who we are and what we are doing. And why it is so darn difficult to understand what we say every day.