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Belief and Practice
July 14, 2008, 12:02 pm
Filed under: Philosophy | Tags: , , , , ,

Belief and practice are very much intertwined.  

It seems to me that you believe P (for any proposition, P) if you act on the truth of P.  

I believe that my chair is a safe place to sit.  This belief consists (at least in part) in my acting as though my chair is indeed safe.  I sit down on it and don’t worry about it.  And so I believe in the trustworthiness of my chair.

I don’t believe the chair is safe if I refuse to sit on it (out of fear for my safety). My refusal to engage in the practice of sitting down constitutes unbelief–it doesn’t merely reveal it.  

But what about a chair in Steven Harper’s house?  I have no way (right now anyway) of acting on the truth of the safety of the chair in Steven Harper’s house.  Does this mean that it impossible for me to believe in its safely?  After all, I can’t act on the truth of its being safe, right?

This seems wrong.  I can believe in the safety of Steven Harper’s chair even if I can’t act on its truth.  But if do truly believe in it, I’d be willing to act on its truth, given the opportunity to do so.

So you believe P (for any proposition, P) if you are ready to act on the truth of P when an appropriate opportunity to do so arises.  


One interesting feature of this account of belief is that one doesn’t have to explicitly consider (consciously think of) P in order to believe it.  (Notice that, when you sat on the chair you’re presently sitting on, you didn’t give its safety a thought, right?)  To believe something all you have to do is act on the truth of it.  

I say we can (and must) act on the truth of things which we cannot explicitly state or explicitly think of.  Our most interesting beliefs are of this type.  They are ineffable for us, either temporarily or permanently.  Our most basic beliefs will be permanently ineffable for us.  When we try to uncover our basic beliefs, all we can do is examine our practices to see what truths we are acting on.  But, again, this is not always possible in a formalizable way.


In the midst an enquiry (whether scientific, criminal, historical, theological or whatever), we find ourselves believing that specific clues will lead us out into some deeper unknown reality.  When these clues are uncovered we step out in the belief that they will lead us on.  But we must believe (at least to some degree) that these apparent clues really are clues, and not meaningless background noise (at least in terms of our present enquiry).  

Interestingly, we won’t know they really are clues until we have relied on them as clues and used them to encounter a deeper reality.  But we must believe they are clues before we have encountered this deeper reality and discovered them to be clues, for otherwise the enquiry wouldn’t get off the ground.


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