What is "belief"?

MarkD

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Feb 2, 2021
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In the past I would have said a belief is (or should be) something one has reason to think is true. But now, after studying Iain McGilchrist's book The Master and His Emissary, that seems too narrow. Beliefs can arise on the basis of commitments as much as as on an examination of the facts (as one sees them). It really comes down to how we function and what we take ourselves to be. Perhaps we see ourselves as neutral investigators, checking out how propositions are or are not supported by what we discover in the world. But then we may find some propositions impossible to either rule out or completely support. Our sentiments will incline us to look harder to find support for some propositions than others. We are not blank slates but observers whose observing helps to shape what we observe, and not just in superficial ways which one might brush off with sufficient discipline.

I shared the following excerpt from that book on a Christian website I like. I shaved it down a little to avoid the TLDR response but I think the result is a still an accurate reflection. If you haven't yet seen it yet, this video was my initial introduction to McGilchrist's thought and help makes sense of the quote. As far as I've found so far, this is the only place in the book that he has anything to say directly regarding religion.


Believing is not to be reduced to thinking that such-and-such might be the case. It is not a weaker form of thinking, laced with doubt. Sometimes we speak like this: ‘I believe that the train leaves at 6:13’, where ‘I believe that’ simply means that ‘I think (but am not certain that’. Since the left hemisphere is concerned is concerned with what is certain, with knowledge of the facts, its version of belief is that it is just absence of certainty. If the facts were certain, according to its view, I should be able to say ‘I know that’ instead. This view of belief comes from the left hemisphere’s dispositions toward the world: interest in what is useful, therefore fixed and certain (the train timetable is no good if one can’t rely on it). So belief is just a feeble form of knowledge.

But belief in terms of the right hemisphere is different, because its disposition towards the world is different. The right hemisphere does not ‘know’ anything, in the sense of certain knowledge. For it, belief is a matter of care: it describes a relationship, where there is a calling and an answering, the root concept of ‘responsibility’. Thus if I say that ‘I believe in you’, it does not mean that think such-and-such things are the case about you, but can’t be certain I am right. It means that I stand in a certain relationship of care towards you, that entails me behaving (acting and being) towards you, and entails on you certain ways of acting and being as well. it is an ‘acting as if’ certain things were true about you that in the nature of things cannot be certain. … I think this is what Wittgenstein was trying to express when he wrote that ‘my’ attitude towards the other is an attitude towards a soul. I am not of the opinion that he has a soul. An ‘opinion’ would be a weak form of knowledge: that is not what is meant by a belief, a disposition or an ‘attitude’.

This helps illuminate belief in God. This is not reducible to a factual answer to the question ‘does God exist?’ … It is having an attitude, holding a disposition to the world, whereby that world, as it comes into being for me, is one in which God belongs. The belief alters the world but also alters me. … One cannot believe in nothing and thus avoid belief altogether, simply because one cannot have no disposition toward the world at all, that being in itself a disposition. Some people believe in materialism, they act ‘as if’ such a philosophy were true. …
 
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AgnosticBoy

Agnostic, Independent (politically)
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But now, after studying Iain McGilchrist's book The Master and His Emissary, that seems too narrow.
I've heard of the author and his books but I've never gotten around to reading them. I'll have to look more into it.

Beliefs can arise on the basis of commitments as much as as on an examination of the facts (as one sees them)...We are not blank slates but observers whose observing helps to shape what we observe, and not just in superficial ways which one might brush off with sufficient discipline.
This is very good insight. I also used to try to sharpen my thinking by learning to apply logic better. But as I experienced sharing my views with others, esp. in debates, I came to realize that psychology (as it applies to our beliefs and thinking), and not just critical thinking, plays a role in being a good thinker. Understanding this psychology is imperative if we are to improve our thinking.

Based on the excerpt you posted, it seems Dr. McGilchrist considers the psychological aspect of belief, and even gets into the neurology of it.
 
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