What is Belief?
It is a simple question without a simple answer: What is belief?
We think we know what it means - something along the lines of
"Something one accepts as true or real; a firmly held opinion
or conviction." Actually I took that straight from a dictionary,
but that's about what we think when we talk about belief.
The problem is that in practice we do not always mean the
same thing when we say "I believe..." about various
propositions. For example, we do not really feel the same way
about morality concepts when compared to how we think about gravity.
This is clearly evident in how easily we stray from what we consider
"moral" beliefs, while we almost never stand at the
edge of a building or cliff and step off because we "might
get away with it this once."
It seems apparent to me that what we so casually call beliefs
are really a matter of varying degrees of strength of conviction.
Interestingly, the stated beliefs that are said to be most important
to people do not often pass the test of action. In other words,
we act according to what we believe most strongly and innately
at a subconscious level, not according to what our conscious
ideologies suggest we should act upon.
Do you believe that honesty is the best policy? It is doubtful
that anyone can follow that belief with action as consistently
as the we might act on the belief that lions are dangerous and
rocks are hard. In practice we find a natural believing that
arises from observation, experience and personal science (which
is the process of using the first two to understand the world).
The beliefs that come to us in this way are far more significant
and motivating than religious or ideological belief.
That may be a sad conclusion to some, but not to me. I see
this natural belief as an antidote to the kind of belief that
seeks to defend itself from any change or any challenge from
reality. Many beliefs are held tight to even in the face of experience
and truth that should demolish them (or at least cause us to
But without going deeper into distinction of "natural"
versus "ideological" belief, I want to answer the question
of what is belief with a new idea: Why not adapt our language
to the reality of varying degrees of conviction. Instead of saying
"I believe..." we might say "I believe1"
or I believe2" with a scale of 1-to-10 that signifies the
degree of conviction - 10 being the highest.
For example, I believe5 that the free market will almost always
do a better job than government for delivering what people really
need and want. I believe10 that the sun rose today, but I only
believe9 that it will rise every morning for the next thousand
Belief is something one accepts as real or true with some
degree of conviction. Expressing that degree makes communication