The certainty of belief

From credulism.com
Jump to: navigation, search

This article is part of the 'core reading' series of articles:

The certainty of belief > Why belief can't be the product of an assessment of truth > The theoretical argument for credulism > Objections to credulism > The evidence for credulism


Summary: This article shows that, as a matter of logic, belief is certainty, contrary to our apparent experience of believing with different levels of confidence. The article then counters several possible objections, and explains the origin, and endurance, of the concept of uncertain belief.

1 Introduction


'The certainty of belief' is a counterintuitive new theory about the nature of belief. It's commonly thought that we can believe with different levels of confidence, that we can have different degrees, or strengths, of belief. For example, Google searches for the phrases 'I believe, but I'm not certain' and 'I'm not certain, but I believe' produce almost 300,000 results combined[1]. And yet a basic analysis of the concept of uncertain belief shows that it doesn't make sense:

The definition of the relevant sense of 'believe' given by the Oxford English Dictionary is 'to consider to be true'[2], and that given by the American Heritage Dictionary is 'to accept as true or real'[3]. However, to be confident, but not certain, that something is true is, by definition, not to consider it to be true, however confident we are. That is, something that exists in our mind as an uncertainty doesn't, by definition, exist in our mind as a truth.

The following chain of reasoning shows that, as a matter of logic, belief is indeed certainty.[4]

2 Belief is certainty


  1. The term 'uncertain' can refer to either sub-certain confidence - as in 'She's uncertain' - or sub-certain probability - as in 'It's uncertain'.
  2. The content of a belief is a claim, whether profound - such as 'There's an afterlife' - or mundane - such as 'There are eggs in the fridge'.
  3. By definition, the conscious mental state of being uncertain about claim X consists of regarding X to be uncertain.
    • It might be thought that the conscious mental state of being uncertain about claim X doesn't necessarily consist of regarding X to be uncertain. For example, even if we're uncertain about the claim 'It rained in Edinburgh last Tuesday', we'll likely also know that this claim won't be uncertain, given that it will have been recorded whether it rained in Edinburgh last Tuesday, and many people will also remember. However, the probability of a claim isn't an objective attribute of the claim, but is relative to the person judging that probability. Therefore, while the above claim will indeed not be uncertain to those who know whether it rained last Tuesday, it will be to those who don't, even while they're conscious that the claim won't be uncertain for others.
  4. And, by definition, the conscious mental state of regarding X to be uncertain consists of being uncertain about X.
  5. Therefore, the conscious mental state of being uncertain about X, and that of regarding X to be uncertain, are the same thing.
  6. However, if we're uncertain about X, then we're certain that X is uncertain.
    • Again, even if we know that X will not be uncertain to others, who have more knowledge than us about the subject of X, X will still be uncertain to us. And our uncertainty indeed implies that we'll be certain that X is uncertain to us.
  7. And the descriptions 'uncertain about X' and 'certain that X is uncertain' refer to different levels of confidence about different claims: X and 'X is uncertain', respectively.
  8. And, contrary to point 5, a conscious mental state that involves a particular level of confidence about a particular claim cannot, by definition, be the same thing as a conscious mental state that involves a different level of confidence about a different claim.
  9. Given that all of the previous points are undoubtedly true, point 8 constitutes a paradox.
  10. The only solution to this paradox is that one of the descriptions in point 7 is actually merely an alternative way of referring to the content of the other, rather than referring to a different level of confidence about a different claim.
  11. The concept of sub-certain probability is undoubtedly a genuine, meaningful concept.
  12. And we undoubtedly can be genuinely certain that a particular claim has such a probability.
  13. Given points 11 and 12, we undoubtedly can be genuinely certain that X is uncertain.
  14. However, it's at least possible that our apparent uncertainty about X is actually certainty about X’s uncertainty.
  15. Therefore, the description 'uncertain about X' must be merely an alternative way of referring to being certain that X is uncertain.
  16. Therefore, our apparent particular sub-certain level of confidence about X is actually certainty about X’s particular sub-certain probability.
  17. Therefore, our apparent belief of X with sub-certain confidence is actually our belief of the claim 'X is likely' with certainty.
  18. Indeed:
    1. By definition, our apparent belief of X with sub-certain confidence consists of regarding X to be likely, but not certain.
    2. And if we apparently believe X with sub-certain confidence, then we're certain that X is likely, but not certain.
    3. Therefore, our apparent belief of X with sub-certain confidence is actually our belief of the claim 'X is likely' with certainty.
  19. Therefore, as a matter of logic, belief is certainty.


3 Objections

3.1 Objection 1

It might also be objected that, contrary to points 3, 4, and 5, being uncertain about X merely implies that we'll regard X to be uncertain, and vice versa, rather than each consisting of the other, and therefore being the same thing. Therefore, contrary to point 17, believing X with sub-certain confidence is merely logically equivalent to believing, with certainty, that X is likely - and we can therefore switch between these two different mental states without fundamentally changing our belief.

However, being apparently uncertain about X indeed consists, by definition, of regarding X to be uncertain, and vice versa. If this isn't clear, try to imagine being apparently uncertain about a claim without this mental state consisting of regarding the claim to be uncertain, and vice versa - it isn't possible. Therefore, point 17 is also true. Indeed, as point 18 states, our apparent belief of X with sub-certain confidence consists, by definition, of regarding X to be likely, but not certain, which is to be certain that X is likely, but not certain.

3.2 Objection 2

It might also be objected that the conclusion that belief is certainty is contrary to our experience of believing with different levels of confidence and doubt. However, as point 14 points-out, it's actually possible that our apparent uncertainty about X is really certainty about X’s uncertainty. Therefore, it's actually possible that our sub-certain confidence about X is really certainty about X’s uncertainty, and that our doubt about X is, ironically, certainty, albeit about the different claim 'X is uncertain'. It's indeed surely not actually so obvious, from our experience, that our apparent belief of X with a particular level of sub-certain confidence isn't really our belief, with certainty, that X has a particular level of sub-certain probability. Although we refer to believing X more strongly than Y, we actually believe that X is likelier than Y. And what we refer to as having a degree of doubt about X is actually certainty that X has a degree of uncertainty.

3.3 Objection 3

It might also be objected that the endurance of the theory of degrees, or strengths, of belief is an indication of its truth. Indeed, the response to the previous objection leaves unexplained why we so often choose a false description of our beliefs over the true one. However, the history of science shows that the endurance of a theory is, of course, no guarantee of its truth - the most obvious example perhaps being the Earth-centered cosmological model[5], which was the accepted model in Europe from at least ancient Greece to the late 1500s. And section 4 explains the origin, and endurance, of this false description of our beliefs.

3.4 Objection 4

It might also be objected that if belief is certainty, then our entire personal set of beliefs would cease every time we considered our fallibility, and yet this obviously doesn't happen. However, first, our knowledge of our fallibility, as with any knowledge, doesn't mean that our fallibility is always, or even often, on our mind. And the certainty of belief itself means that our mind tends to be focussed on the apparent certainties that are content of our beliefs, but not on our belief of that content. Therefore, although our fallibility can enter our mind at any moment, it tends not to. Also, even when it does, our awareness of it will only end those of our beliefs that we consider in relation to it. And, even for those beliefs, we may at least conclude that the claim in question is almost certainly true - and our attention won't necessarily then turn from the content of this new belief to our belief of that content, and back to our fallibility. Also, our original belief may return soon after our awareness of our fallibility has passed, and possibly for the same reason that it originally formed.

4 The origin, and endurance, of the concept of uncertain belief


Certainty that X is likely, but not certain, is a belief that is positive about the truth of X, albeit less positive than certainty about X. Therefore, it can seem that the former is a weaker belief of X than the latter. And although this description is false, it does successfully communicate, albeit indirectly, our belief about the probability of X. This description may also be motivated by a desire to avoid our nonbelief of X being misinterpreted as disbelief - and we then end-up believing this description ourselves. And the second objection in the previous section, and its counter, explains why this description doesn't seem to be contrary to our experience of our beliefs.


5 Sources

  1. via Google UK on 16 November 2015: "i believe, but i'm not certain", "i'm not certain, but i believe".
  2. believe, v., definition 4a, 2015, OED Online, 3rd edition, Oxford University Press, viewed 25 May 2015.
  3. believe, v.tr., definition 1, 2014, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th edition, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, viewed 25 May 2015.
  4. This argument first appeared, in a less advanced form, in:
    Farnell, D., 2013, 'How belief works', Think, volume 12, issue 35, pages 39-60.
    An earlier version of the following, more advanced, form of the argument first appeared, along with earlier versions of other parts of this article, in:
    Farnell, D., forthcoming, 'The logical necessity of confirmation bias', Think.
  5. Wikipedia: Geocentric model


6 See also


This article is part of the 'core reading' series of articles:

The certainty of belief > Why belief can't be the product of an assessment of truth > The theoretical argument for credulism > Objections to credulism > The evidence for credulism