Could you belive it? Should you believe it?

Way-back machine: this post was originally made on 9 Aug 2007 on
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No, the title is not the opening line from “The Most Amazing Show“, although I do have that song stuck in my head right now.

I have been involved a lot recently with Internet discussions about the Matter Orientation System (see previous post). Quite a lot on SADeveloper.NET forum and more passively on the Internet Infidels Discussion Board and MoonFlake’s blog.

But the question which I think comes up most often is one of belief. It may be phrased many different ways but boils down to this; “Why do you / do you not believe that this invention works?”

For this one I’ll get straight to the point (the conclusion) and then work back from there and hopefully you will agree with me.

I think that the word “believe” should never be used in a logical argument (it should only be permissible if it is the entire point of the argument – such as this one).

By way of example, have a read through the following questions and ask yourself what your position is on these topics.

  • Do you believe in evolution?
  • Do you believe that evolution has brought human beings to our present form?
  • Do you believe that terrorists are evil?
  • Do you believe environmental melt-down is imminent?
  • Do you believe the media has an agenda to deceive the public?
  • Do you believe the government (any government) is fast-tracking Big Brother legislation?

Besides being a shameless keyword-stuffing attempt ūüėČ using hot topics, I have selected discussions on which almost everyone has an opinion. The first sentence I phrased twice because the first time it makes the assumption that evolution is a belief system (something which can be believed in) whereas the second sentence more accurately poses the implied question from the first sentence. But why use the word “believe” in those sentences, why not ask if you “think” it is true? Read all the sentences and substitute the word “think” wherever you see “believe” (except for the very first sentence which you can ignore from now on and forever as an invalid question – because evolution is not a belief system).

Choose one and assert it – first as a belief, and secondly as a thought. Take “I believe that terrorists are evil” and “I think that terrorists are evil” for example. Does the second sentence appear weaker? Read the sentences again. Using the word “think” instead of “believe” definitely appears to weaken an argument, but why?

Here’s a bit of a thought experiment which you can use to entertain the notion of substituting the word “believe” with the word “think”. Imagine a scenario where a little girl is afraid to go to sleep because she is convinced that there is a monster which will eat her as soon as she falls asleep.

“Honey, why won’t you go to sleep?”
“Because I believe there’s a monster in the cupboard.”
[Opening the cupboard doors] “But see? There’s no monster.”
“But daddy, I believe there’s a monster in there.”

Even with evidence to the contrary, belief continues. If the child thought there was a monster and the doors were opened, the thoughts would be dispelled as wrong. This is a concept called falsifiability.

So what am I suggesting, that everybody just weaken their arguments? In a way; yes. But it isn’t a complete collapse of your point – you are not conceding a failure. It does still allow you defence in your argument. The falsification presented by the opponent may itself be flawed, or it may not be relevant to the point at hand or it may be attacking another point which is assumed to be important to your view. The list goes on.

Ultimately, all that I’m suggesting is that to reach a reasonable conclusion to an argument, you should stop using the word “believe” in arguments and in questions that you pose. I started this practice a long time ago when I started studying Critical Reasoning and Logic. Once you are at this weaker position, try to convince your opponent to take a weaker position by also abandoning the word “believe”. You will be amazed at how differently an argument can run its course when you do so.

By way of closing, read this popular folk-saying on belief and consider whether it is an attack on non-believers or an attack on believers.

“For those who believe, no explanation is necessary; for those who don‚Äôt believe, no explanation is possible.”
“For those who believe, no explanation is necessary; for those who do not, none will suffice.”
–¬†Joseph “The Amazing” Dunninger
 (more info here)

“No explanation is necessary”? Isn’t that worse than “No explanation is possible”?¬†



[Edit 16 Sep 2007: I have found that the closing quote has been attributed to Joseph Dunninger, a mentalist (mental illusionist or magician).  Does that put a differnt spin on the quote?  I hope you think so too.]


~ by James on 9 August 2007.

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