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This article is about the general concept. For other uses, see Belief (disambiguation).

Belief is a state of the mind, treated in various academic disciplines, especially philosophy and psychology, as well as traditional culture, in which a subject roughly regards a thing to be true.[1] "Dispositional and occurrent belief" is the contextual activation of a belief system in specific thoughts or ideas.

Venn diagram of Belief, Knowledge, and Truth

Knowledge and Epistemology[edit]

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)[2] and Goldman (1967),[3] have questioned the "justified true belief" definition.

As a psychological phenomenon[edit]

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.[4]

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.

Philosopher Lynne Rudder Baker has outlined four main contemporary approaches to belief in her controversial book Saving Belief:[5]


To "believe in" someone or something is a distinct concept from "believing-that." There are at least these types of belief-in:[6]

Belief-that, delusion[edit]

As exemplified in the defining sentence on Belief (disambiguation), 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[8] (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.


We are influenced by many factors that ripple through our minds as our beliefs form, evolve, and may eventually change

Psychologists study belief formation and the relationship between beliefs and actions. Beliefs form in a variety of ways:

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.[14]

Justified True[edit]

Justified true belief is a definition of knowledge that is most frequently credited to Plato and his dialogues.[15] 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:

  1. P is true
  2. S believes that P is true, and
  3. S is justified in believing that P is true

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.[16] 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.


There are several techniques to change personal or group beliefs, or raise consciousness.[17][18]


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.

A copious literature exists in multiple disciplines to accommodate this reality. In mathematics probability, fuzzy logic, fuzzy set theory, and other topics are largely directed to this.


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.[19]


Philosopher Jonathan Glover warns that belief systems are like whole boats in the water; it is extremely difficult to alter them all at once (e.g., it may be too stressful, or people may maintain their biases without realizing it). [19]

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".[20]


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.[19] 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.[19]

Glover maintains that any person can continue to hold any belief if they would really like to[19] (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.[19]

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."[19]

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.[21][19]

Occurrent and Dispositional[edit]

In the philosophy of empiricism, dispositional belief refers to a belief that is not currently being considered by the mind, but is stored in memory and is recalled to conclude in occurrent belief. Occurrent belief refers to a belief that is currently being considered. It can be contrasted with the concept of dispositional belief.

In the philosophy of rationalism, the term dispositional belief is holding something in one’s attention that may or may not be true, and keeping it there, putting it up for comparison’s sake with all else that is in one’s sphere of attention, to see how it holds up (in German, vorstellen). For a belief to gain strength, and footing, and gradually to approach closer to certainty, it must be consistent and harmonious with whatever else is held in one’s attention. And so there are levels of belief, for a belief starts as an imagination, a conceptualization, an idea. The belief firms up when it becomes an inspiration, you breath it in with enthusiasm, it harmonizes not only with your thoughts, but with your feelings. Of course, for the most part, feelings are dreamily semi-conscious, so to raise a belief to an inspiration, one has to become conscious of one’s feelings, one must be able to attend to one’s feelings, one must be able to hold one’s feelings at the center of attention in a fully conscious way. A person must know his feelings, which is harder than knowing one’s thoughts, as feelings are normally colored by one’s social setting, by, so to speak, one’s prejudices. And finally, belief may reach the level of intuition when it is fully in accord and harmonizes with the entirety of the world of being a human being, which is all that we can know, but for this to happen, it must harmonize, be in accord with one’s willing nature, which is, for the most part, fully unconscious. Willpower, one’s willed directives, intentions, motivations must become fully conscious in order for a belief to become an intuition. Since becoming fully conscious, particularly of the will, is a matter for the distant future, beliefs, by nature, always retain the quality of being less than fully clear. This is why beliefs always have the quality of coloring one’s disposition, mood, demeanor, and are never fully occurrent. And this is in contrast to other pneumatological activity, that is, technique, science, poetry, and recognition.


An analogy can be drawn between these two types of belief by using the example of a computer hardware: What is on its hard disk might be like the dispositional belief, and what is on its screen might be like the occurrent belief. This analogy, however, does not complete the idea of dispositional belief. An analogy can also be drawn between these two types of belief by using the example of a simple mathematics: You believe the system of numbers, you know the definition of the numbers 2, 3 and 5, and even though you never have heard or seen it before you will understand that the combined value of the numbers 2 and 3 will equal the value of the number 5. Then you have used your occurrent belief of a system of numbers to get dispositional belief to occur to you. (That 2+3=5 is now occurrent belief).

Dispositional beliefs can be formed without ever having been an occurrent belief—for example, if a vehicle passes by whilst a person is engaged in conversation, it may become a dispositional belief that "a vehicle passed by" immediately, as the matter was never consciously considered. To extend the computer analogy, this could be seen as being like downloading files directly to the hard disk without opening them.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Schwitzgebel, Eric (2006), "Belief", in Zalta, Edward, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford, CA: The Metaphysics Research Lab, retrieved 2008-09-19 
  2. ^ Gettier, E. L. (1963). "Is justified true belief knowledge?". Analysis 23 (6): 121–123. doi:10.1093/analys/23.6.121. JSTOR 3326922. 
  3. ^ Goldman, A. I. (1967). "A causal theory of knowing". The Journal of Philosophy 64 (12): 357–372. JSTOR 2024268. 
  4. ^ Bell, V.; Halligan, P. W.; Ellis, H. D. (2006). "A Cognitive Neuroscience of Belief". In Halligan, Peter W.; Aylward, Mansel. The Power of Belief: Psychological Influence on Illness, Disability, and Medicine. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-853010-2. 
  5. ^ Baker, Lynne Rudder (1989). Saving Belief: A Critique of Physicalism. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-07320-1. 
  6. ^ MacIntosh, J. J. (1994). "Belief-in Revisited: A Reply to Williams". Religious Studies 30 (4): 487–503. doi:10.1017/S0034412500023131. 
  7. ^ Macintosh, Jack. "Belief-in". The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. p. 86. ISBN 978-0-19-926479-7. 
  8. ^ Delusions in the DSM 5 A blog by Lisa Bortolotti & Ema Sullivan-Bissett
  9. ^ Gelman, Andrew; Park, David; Shor, Boris; Bafumi, Joseph; Cortina, Jeronimo (2008). Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do. Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-13927-2. 
  10. ^ Argyle, Michael (1997). The Psychology of Religious Behaviour, Belief and Experience. London: Routledge. p. 25. ISBN 0-415-12330-5. "Religion, in most cultures, is ascribed, not chosen." 
  11. ^ Hoffer, Eric (2002). The True Believer. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics. ISBN 0-06-050591-5. 
  12. ^ Kilbourne, Jane; Pipher, Mary (2000). Can't Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel. Free Press. ISBN 0-684-86600-5. 
  13. ^ Rothschild, Babette (2000). The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-70327-4. 
  14. ^ Rowley, Anna (2007). Leadership Therapy: Inside the Mind of Microsoft. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 69. ISBN 1-4039-8403-4. 
  15. ^ Fine, G., "Introduction" in Plato on Knowledge and Forms: Selected Essays (Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 5.
  16. ^ Chisholm, Roderick (1982). "Knowledge as Justified True Belief". The Foundations of Knowing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0-8166-1103-3. 
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^ a b c d e f g h "Jonathan Glover on systems of belief", Philosophy Bites Podcast, Oct 9 2011
  20. ^ New Scientist (magazine), 11 June 2011 [1]
  21. ^ 'Philosophy, Beliefs, and Conflict' ,

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Category:Concepts Category:Concepts in epistemology Category:Critical thinking Category:Justification Category:Mental processes Category:Social philosophy Category:Social psychology Category:Socioeconomics Category:Sociological terminology Category:Sources of knowledge Category:Truth