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Why do we Believe?

Updated on February 13, 2011

Belief  is a commitment, either intellectual or emotional, or both, to something such as a proposition, a position, a procedure, or a person.

In the scale of attitudes it is located above surmise or conjecture and below knowledge. On a scale in which the number 1 represents absolute certainty, belief ranges from a subjective probability of over 1/2 to the level of great confidence, just short of 1. Belief is one of the key concepts in the borderland between philosophy and psychology and has frequently been grossly oversimplified by leaders of reform movements in both fields, such as introspectionists, behaviorists, idealists, and empiricists.

The concept of belief has aroused particular interest because it has seemed possible to analyze the concept of knowledge in terms of belief.

For example, knowledge has been defined as justified true belief-a definition that has been proved faulty. Another interesting aspect of belief is its close connection with religious or political partisanship. In this role, belief is sometimes defined as synonymous with faith and sometimes as a weaker version of faith. From this definition it has been argued that belief is immune from any need for a rational basis, It is true that belief can be well founded without being founded on any process of rational inference, this is a different point. Individual perceptions provide immediate knowledge without any intervening process of inference, and long experience may train our perception (or intuition) until it is entirely rational to rely on it. But this does not show that untested intuition is of any value in achieving real knowledge, however strong a belief it may engender. Reason is the only safe path to knowledge or sound belief, although it is not a guaranteed route. The mystic's slogan "I believe because it is absurd" may be honest, but it is not logical.

Although it can generally be said that a person believes what he knows to be true, the category of absolutely certain knowledge has' been held to constitute a special case. It would seem odd to say that we "believe" that men usually have a head, or that 1 + 1 = 2, or that we are awake as we read this. But this is presumably because we feel that the term "belief," as opposed to knowledge, involves too little commitment to the certainty of what is believed. We can say "I believe this, but it may not be true"; on the other hand we cannot say "I know this, but it may not be true,"

In the realm of psychology, belief has great effects on our bodies as well as on our minds. It is the power behind the placebo effect, faith healing, and other forms of psychosomatic-therapy.

It is also a factor in the success of heroes and great leaders of men. We do not have immediate voluntary control over our beliefs, but many people unconsciously adjust their beliefs to their convenience-whether personal convenience, as in blind loyalty, or social convenience, as in antiliberalism. Extreme forms of rationalization illustrate the control of belief over reason. Recent research, supplementing the historic psychoanalytical hypotheses of Freud, has begun to illuminate the effect on belief of such nonrational mechanisms as subliminal advertising, hypnosis, cognitive consonance, brainwashing, psychedelic drugs and suggestibility phenomena in general.


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    • WhoWhatWhereWhen profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      What comes first, the emotion or the belief?

    • sdy53 profile image


      7 years ago

      Some of the people that "believe" the strongest kill abortion doctors or fly planes into buildings. Enjoyed your article along with your distinction between beliefs from the heart and a priori beliefs.


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