Why belief can't be the product of an assessment of truth

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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 can't be the product of an assessment of truth, contrary to the common understanding, because an assessment of truth is instead dependent on belief. The article then counters a possible objection, and explains the origin of this common misunderstanding.

1 Introduction


Why do we believe what we believe? The answer may seem obvious: we believe what we've assessed to be true. However, there's a surprisingly basic logical flaw in this theory, as the following chain of reasoning shows.

2 The relationship between belief and an assessment of truth


  1. According to the common understanding, to believe claim X is, in itself, to believe that X is true.
    • For example, according to this understanding, to believe that 'there are eggs in the fridge' is to believe that this claim is true.
    • Indeed, the Oxford English Dictionary defines the relevant sense of 'believe' as 'to consider to be true'[1].
  2. However, to believe that X is true is to believe the claim 'X is true'.
  3. And whereas the subject of the claim 'X is true' is X, this is of course not true of X itself.
    • In the example, whereas the claim 'There are eggs in the fridge' simply refers to the presence of eggs in the fridge, the claim 'The claim "There are eggs in the fridge" is true' refers to a claim about the presence of eggs in the fridge.
    • The exception to this point are self-referential claims, like 'This is a sentence' and 'This claim is true'. However, our belief of such claims, while possible, obviously has no utility, and so we normally don't store them in our long-term memory. And the existence of such claims doesn't undermine the logic of this chain of reasoning regarding non-self-referential claims.
  4. Therefore, the claims X and 'X is true' are different claims.
    • That is, they merely directly imply each other - they're merely 'logically equivalent'.
    • In the example, if there are eggs in the fridge, then the claim 'There are eggs in the fridge' has the property of being true, and vice versa.
  5. Therefore, to believe X isn't, in itself, to believe that X is true.
    • In the example, believing that there are eggs in the fridge merely implies that we would conclude that the claim 'There are eggs in the fridge' is true, and believing that the claim 'There are eggs in the fridge' is true merely implies that we believe that there are eggs in the fridge.
    • Indeed, if to believe X was, in itself, to believe that X is true, then to believe that X is true would be, in itself, to believe that the claim 'X is true' is true, and so on, indefinitely.
    • Also, regarding claims that are generated by our own reasoning, we, by definition, belief these upon them being generated by our own reasoning, whereas we can only assess whether a claim is true after it has entered our thought processes.
    • Therefore, the Oxford English Dictionary is wrong to state that to believe is to consider to be true, even if the latter is a very obvious logical implication of the former.
    • Indeed, the reason why claims X and 'X is true' can seem to be saying the same thing is that they each follow so obviously from the other that we don't notice that logical step separating them.
    • The definition of 'believe' should instead be something like 'for the content of a claim to exist in our mind as reality'.
  6. By definition, the claim 'There are eggs in the fridge' is true if, and only if, there are eggs in the fridge.
  7. Therefore, in order to conclude that this claim is true, we must first believe that there are eggs in the fridge, even if that belief was only formed immediately before reaching that conclusion.
  8. Therefore, in order to conclude that X is true, we must first believe X.
  9. And if our conclusion that X is true is dependent on us first believing X, then the reverse can't also be the case.
    • Indeed, if our belief of X was dependent on us concluding that X is true, then believing that X is true would in turn be dependent on us concluding that the claim 'X is true' is true, and so on, indefinitely. Belief-formation would therefore be impossible, and yet we obviously do form beliefs.
  10. That is, belief can't be the product of an assessment of truth.


3 An objection


It might be objected that there are at least some occasions when a belief is evidently the product of an assessment of truth. For example, if we believe that there are eggs in the fridge, but then someone says that there aren't, then this may lead to us assessing the truth of these contrary claims, which may then lead to us changing our belief - and that new belief would therefore be the product of an assessment of truth.

However, in such a scenario, what happens is as follows. In the example, in assessing the truth of these contrary claims, we consider what evidence exists regarding the presence of eggs in the fridge - which may include considering what led each of us to our contrary beliefs, or considering if it's possible that someone removed the eggs from the fridge without us noticing, or simply looking inside the fridge. Upon, for example, seeing that there are no eggs in the fridge, we thereby form the belief that there are no eggs in the fridge - and the formation of this belief also obviously constitutes the end of our belief that there are eggs in the fridge. After forming this new belief, we can conclude that our original belief was false, and that the contrary claim, which we now believe, is true.

Therefore, although the formation, and ending, of beliefs may occur during an assessment of the truth of the claims in question, it nevertheless always occurs before the conclusion of that assessment, and so isn't a product of it. Instead, the conclusion of the assessment is dependent on that change of belief.

4 The origin of this misunderstanding


There are several factors that contribute to the common understanding that belief is the product of an assessment of truth. As explained:

  1. We wrongly think that to believe X is, in itself, to believe that X is true.
    • As explained, the claims X and 'X is true' each follow so obviously from the other that we don't notice that logical step separating them, and therefore assume that they're saying the same thing, and don't notice that our belief of the former precedes our belief of the latter.
  2. Assessing whether a claim is true can stimulate the formation of our belief of it, but we forget that the belief actually formed before the conclusion of the assessment.

Also:

  1. Given the certainty of belief, we forget that our beliefs are indeed merely beliefs, and think, when we're assessing the truth of a claim, that we're comparing it directly with reality, and then forming our belief accordingly.
  1. We know that our belief that X is true implies our belief of X, and we then commit the logical error of confusing correlation for causation - that is, we conclude that the latter follows from the former causally, when it actually only follows logically, with the causal relationship actually being the reverse.




5 Sources

  1. believe, v., definition 4a, 2015, OED Online, 3rd edition, Oxford University Press, viewed 25 May 2015.


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