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The terms belief and knowledge are used differently in philosophy.
Epistemology is the philosophical study of knowledge and belief. The primary problem in epistemology is to understand exactly what is needed in order for us to have knowledge. In a notion derived from Plato's dialogue Theaetetus, philosophy has traditionally defined knowledge as "justified true belief". The relationship between belief and knowledge is that a belief is knowledge if the belief is true, and if the believer has a justification (reasonable and necessarily plausible assertions/evidence/guidance) for believing it is true.
A false belief is not considered to be knowledge, even if it is sincere. A sincere believer in the flat earth theory does not know that the Earth is flat. Later epistemologists, for instance Gettier (1963) and Goldman (1967), have questioned the "justified true belief" definition.
Mainstream psychology and related disciplines have traditionally treated belief as if it were the simplest form of mental representation and therefore one of the building blocks of conscious thought. Philosophers have tended to be more abstract in their analysis, and much of the work examining the viability of the belief concept stems from philosophical analysis.
The concept of belief presumes a subject (the believer) and an object of belief (the proposition). So, like other propositional attitudes, belief implies the existence of mental states and intentionality, both of which are hotly debated topics in the philosophy of mind, whose foundations and relation to brain states are still controversial.
Beliefs are sometimes divided into core beliefs (that are actively thought about) and dispositional beliefs (that may be ascribed to someone who has not thought about the issue). For example, if asked "do you believe tigers wear pink pajamas?" a person might answer that they do not, despite the fact they may never have thought about this situation before.
This has important implications for understanding the neuropsychology and neuroscience of belief. If the concept of belief is incoherent, then any attempt to find the underlying neural processes that support it will fail.
To "believe in" someone or something is a distinct concept from "believing-that." There are at least these types of belief-in:
Insofar as the truth of belief is expressed in sentential and propositional form we are using the sense of belief-that rather than belief-in. Delusion arises when the truth value of the form is clearly nil.
Delusions are defined as beliefs in psychiatric diagnostic criteria (for example in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Psychiatrist and historian G.E. Berrios has challenged the view that delusions are genuine beliefs and instead labels them as "empty speech acts," where affected persons are motivated to express false or bizarre belief statements due to an underlying psychological disturbance. However, the majority of mental health professionals and researchers treat delusions as if they were genuine beliefs.
In Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass the White Queen says, "Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." This is often quoted in mockery of the common ability of people to entertain beliefs contrary to fact.
Psychologists study belief formation and the relationship between beliefs and actions. Three models of belief formation and change have been proposed:
When people are asked to estimate the likelihood that a statement is true, they search their memory for information that has implications for the validity of this statement. Once this information has been identified, they estimate a) the likelihood that the statement would be true if the information were true, and b) the likelihood that the statement would be true if the information were false. If their estimates for these two probabilities differ, people average them, weighting each by the likelihood that the information is true and false (respectively). Thus, information bears directly on beliefs of another, related statement.
Unlike the previous model, this one takes into consideration the possibility of multiple factors influencing belief formation. Using regression procedures, this model predicts belief formation on the basis of several different pieces of information, with weights assigned to each piece on the basis of their relative importance.
These models address the fact that the responses people have to belief-relevant information is unlikely to be predicted from the objective basis of the information that they can recall at the time their beliefs are reported. Instead, these responses reflect the number and meaning of the thoughts that people have about the message at the time that they encounter it.
Some influences on people's belief formation include:
However, even educated people, well aware of the process by which beliefs form, still strongly cling to their beliefs, and act on those beliefs even against their own self-interest. In Anna Rowley's book, Leadership Therapy, she states "You want your beliefs to change. It's proof that you are keeping your eyes open, living fully, and welcoming everything that the world and people around you can teach you." This means that peoples' beliefs should evolve as they gain new experiences.
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Many motives may be manifestations of a more general one: to construct a perception of oneself and one's world to equip an individual with the ability to cope with life situations and ultimately lead a happy and successful life. Examples of motives include:
This motivation refers to the degree to which people are motivated to construct an accurate perception of themselves and their environments. This motivation may also be related to people's desire to make quick judgments or decisions, thus the desire for quick judgment compromises the accuracy of one's beliefs.
People are generally motivated to think well of themselves and the people they care about. Scholars postulate that people usually wish to maintain a positive view of themselves and the world in which they live. Consequently, people may be more likely to assume that positive events will occur and undesirable events are unlikely.
Studies suggest that people are motivated to believe that they possess favorable attributes and, therefore, are better able to cope within the world in which they live. For example, participants read a case in which a person was the victim of rape. Half of the participants were shown nonsexual, aggressive images before reading the case, images that should provoke the idea of an unjust world (lynchings, dead soldiers, etc.). After viewing these images, the participants in this condition were more likely to claim that they believed the rapist was apprehended and that the victim was partly to blame (as opposed to participants in another condition who did not view the aggressive images).
Consistency refers to the desire to maintain an initial consistency among one's various beliefs and opinions. This belief may be related to the motivation of constructing an accurate representation of the world. This motive may be conceptualized in multiple ways. It may be conceptualized in regards to the degree of compatibility of beliefs with constructed propositions that compose an implicit theory. This motive may also be conceptualized as a motive that only arises when cognitive inconsistency occurs and people recognize it.
Justified true belief is a definition of knowledge that is most frequently credited to Plato and his dialogues. The concept of justified true belief states that in order to know that a given proposition is true, one must not only believe the relevant true proposition, but one must also have justification for doing so. In more formal terms, a subject S knows that a proposition P is true if and only if:
This theory of knowledge suffered a significant setback with the discovery of Gettier problems, situations in which the above conditions were seemingly met but that many philosophers disagree that anything is known. Robert Nozick suggested a clarification of "justification" which he believed eliminates the problem: the justification has to be such that were the justification false, the knowledge would be false. If so we can say belief becomes knowledge (accepted reality) when it is justified.
An extensive amount of scientific research and philosophical discussion exists around the modification of beliefs, which is commonly referred to as belief revision. Generally speaking, the process of belief revision entails the believer weighing the set of truths and/or evidence, and the dominance of a set of truths or evidence on an alternative to a held belief can lead to revision. One process of belief revision is Bayesian updating and is often referenced for its mathematical basis and conceptual simplicity. However, such a process may not be representative for individuals whose beliefs are not easily characterized as probabilistic.
There are several techniques for individuals or groups to change the beliefs of others; these methods generally fall under the umbrella of persuasion. Persuasion can take on more specific forms such as such as consciousness raising when considered in an activist or political context. Belief modification may also occur as a result of the experience of outcomes. Because goals are based, in part on beliefs, the success or failure at a particular goal may contribute to modification of beliefs that supported the original goal.
Whether or not belief modification actually occurs is dependent not only on the extent of truths or evidence for the alternative belief, but also characteristics outside the specific truths or evidence. This includes, but is not limited to: the source characteristics of the message, such as credibility; social pressures; the anticipated consequences of a modification; or the ability of the individual or group to act on the modification. Therefore, individuals seeking to achieve belief modification in themselves or others need to consider all possible forms of resistance to belief revision.
Without qualification, "belief" normally implies a lack of doubt, especially insofar as it is a designation of a life stance. In practical everyday use however, belief is normally partial and retractable with varying degrees of certainty.
Different psychological models have tried to predict people's beliefs and some of them try to estimate the exact probabilities of beliefs. For example, Robert Wyer developed a model of subjective probabilities. When people rate the likelihood of a certain statement (e.g., "It will rain tomorrow"), this rating can be seen as a subjective probability value. The subjective probability model posits that these subjective probabilities follow the same rules as objective probabilities. For example, the law of total probability might be applied to predict a subjective probability value. Wyer found that this model produces relatively accurate predictions for probabilities of single events and for changes in these probabilities, but that the probabilities of several beliefs linked by "and" or "or" do not follow the model as well.
A "belief system" is a set of mutually supportive beliefs. The beliefs of any such system can be classified as religious, philosophical, ideological, or a combination of these. Philosopher Jonathan Glover says that beliefs are always part of a belief system, and that tenanted belief systems are difficult for the tenants to completely revise or reject.
The British philosopher Stephen Law has described some belief systems (including belief in homeopathy, psychic powers, and alien abduction) as "claptrap" and said that they "draw people in and hold them captive so they become willing slaves to victory... if you get sucked in, it can be extremely difficult to think your way clear again".
A collective belief is referred to when people speak of what 'we' believe when this is not simply elliptical for what 'we all' believe.
Sociologist Émile Durkheim wrote of collective beliefs and proposed that they, like all 'social facts', 'inhered in' social groups as opposed to individual persons. Durkheim's discussion of collective belief, though suggestive, is relatively obscure.
Philosopher Margaret Gilbert has offered a related account in terms of the joint commitment of a number of persons to accept a certain belief as a body. According to this account, individuals who together collectively believe something need not personally believe it themselves. Gilbert's work on the topic has stimulated a developing literature among philosophers. One question that has arisen is whether and how philosophical accounts of belief in general need to be sensitive to the possibility of collective belief.
Jonathan Glover believes that he and other philosophers ought to play some role in starting dialogues between people with deeply held, opposing beliefs, especially if there is risk of violence. Glover also believes that philosophy can offer insights about beliefs that would be relevant to such dialogue.
Glover suggests that beliefs have to be considered holistically, and that no belief exists in isolation in the mind of the believer. It always implicates and relates to other beliefs. Glover provides the example of a patient with an illness who returns to a doctor, but the doctor says that the prescribed medicine is not working. At that point, the patient has a great deal of flexibility in choosing what beliefs to keep or reject: the patient could believe that the doctor is incompetent, that the doctor's assistants made a mistake, that the patient's own body is unique in some unexpected way, that Western medicine is ineffective, or even that Western science is entirely unable to discover truths about ailments.
Glover maintains that any person can continue to hold any belief if they would really like to (e.g., with help from ad hoc hypotheses). One belief can be held fixed, and other beliefs will be altered around it. Glover warns that some beliefs may not be entirely explicitly believed (e.g., some people may not realize they have racist belief systems adopted from their environment as a child). Glover believes that people tend to first realize that beliefs can change, and may be contingent on our upbringing, around age 12 or 15.
Glover emphasizes that beliefs are difficult to change. He says that we may try to rebuild our beliefs on more secure foundations (axioms), like building a new house, but warns that this may not be possible. Glover offers the example of René Descartes, saying about Descartes that "[h]e starts off with the characteristic beliefs of a 17th-century Frenchman; he then junks the lot, he rebuilds the system, and somehow it looks a lot like the beliefs of a 17th-century Frenchman." To Glover, belief systems are not like houses but are instead like boats. As Glover puts it: "Maybe the whole thing needs rebuilding, but inevitably at any point you have to keep enough of it intact to keep floating."
Glover's final message is that if people talk about their beliefs, they may find more deep, relevant, philosophical ways in which they disagree (e.g., less obvious beliefs, or more deeply held beliefs). Glover thinks that people often manage to find agreements and consensus through philosophy. He says that at the very least, if people do not convert each other, they will hold their own beliefs more openmindedly and will be less likely to go to war over conflicting beliefs.
Religion, in most cultures, is ascribed, not chosen.
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