Belief And Certainty

This article covers the relationship between belief and certainty.

Belief is the state of mind in which an individual is convinced of the truth or validity of a proposition or premise regardless of whether they have adequately proved or attempted to prove their main contention. Certainty is the state of mind in which an individual is convinced of the validity, truthfulness, or evidence of a proposition or premise. While believing is possible without a warrant or evidence, certainty implies having valid evidence or proof.

There is a degree of belief and certainty. While faith often includes commitment and it is used in religious contexts, belief is a general concept. People almost always have certain beliefs with or without realizing them, which include the continual and consistent existence of the world and the principles of existence, identity of people around one, some trustworthiness of social practices, and others. Edmund Husserl argued that belief (Husserl called the fundamental belief “ur-doxa”) underlies one’s framework of thinking and it exists at the deeper level of consciousness without one realizing what it is. Some philosophers consciously cast doubts on whatever is commonly held in order to find the secure point of departure in philosophy. A well known example is Descartes’ methodic doubt.

Belief and awareness

There is a degree of awareness of what one believes. Some beliefs come to the foreground of thought and one is fully aware of the fact that one believes in certain matters. Some beliefs, however, go to the background of thought and constitute the framework of thinking. People believe in them without realizing that they have those beliefs.

Philosophy is, in a certain sense, a series of attempts to disclose unjustified or unsound beliefs his or her predecessors held without realizing what they were. A new approach of philosophy emerges when unrealized presuppositions are brought into the foreground and the so-called paradigm changes. The radical paradigm shift often involves examination and realization of what predecessors took it for granted.

In religious practices such as Zen Buddhism, practitioners are asked to reflect upon oneself to realize one’s beliefs that are held blindly. Zen teachings shed light on those beliefs that are held blindly and teaches that that those beliefs are unsound causes of worry and suffering. Zen’s teaching of “non-thinking” or suspension of thinking is an attempt to allow the practitioner to realize the unsoundness of his or her blind beliefs and see from the perspective of Buddhism.

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Methodic doubt

Some philosophers consciously used doubt in order to secure a foundation of thought. Descartes’ methodic doubt is a typical example. He cast doubt on everything dubitable, the existence and identity of people and things he perceived in the external world, consistence and validity of rational principles, and others. Through a series of thought experiments, Descartes claimed to have reached the indubitable truth that his existence is certain as far as he is doubting something. The well known phrase “Cogito ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”) indicates the point Descartes was convinced to be indubitable.

Augustine, who preceded Descartes, also discussed the intricate relationship between doubt and the certainty of self-existence. Augustine pointed out that one’s existence is certain as far as one doubts something.

Early Husserl also used a similar method of doubt in order to find the secure point of departure. Referring to Descartes, Husserl called his method the “Cartesian path.” Husserl, however, later realized the problem with his earlier path and changed his approach to philosophy.


In a general sense, “skepticism” or “scepticism” (Greek: skeptomai, to look about, to consider) refers to any doctrine or way of thought denying the ability of our mind to reach certainty.

Originating in the human tendency to question the reliability of any statement before accepting it, skepticism has taken on a variety of forms. It can refer both to an attitude in ordinary life and to philosophical positions. Skepticism is often contrasted with dogmatism, the position that certain truths can be reached by the application of an appropriate method. Epistemology, the inquiry into the conditions for certainty in knowing, has led practically every thinker to adopt, at least temporarily, some form of limited skepticism in one regard or another. And some of the greatest philosophers, such as David Hume, have come to the conclusion that certain knowledge is essentially unattainable. By its very nature, skepticism is unsatisfactory as an end result. Whether it is ultimately embraced or rejected, thus, depends in great part on one’s general outlook of life, pessimism being generally associated with the skeptical option. In any case, however, skepticism has played an irreplaceable role as a catalyst in the history of philosophy.

Belief as a psychological theory

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 rigorous 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 and whose foundations and relation to brain states are still controversial.

Beliefs are sometimes divided into core beliefs (those which one may be actively thinking about) and dispositional beliefs (those which one may ascribe to but have never previously thought about). For example, if asked, “do you believe tigers wear pink pajamas?” a person might answer that he does not, despite the fact they may never have thought about this situation before.

The idea that a belief is a mental state is much more contentious. While some philosophers have argued that beliefs are represented in the mind as sentence-like constructs, others have gone as far as arguing that there is no consistent or coherent mental representation that underlies the common use of the belief concept and is therefore obsolete and should be rejected.

This has important implications for understanding the neuropsychology and neuroscience of belief. If the concept of belief is incoherent or ultimately indefensible, then any attempt to find the underlying neural processes which support it will fail. If the concept of belief does turn out to be useful, then this goal should (in principle) be achievable.

Philosopher Lynne Rudder Baker has outlined four main contemporary approaches to belief in her book, Saving Belief:

  • Common-sense understanding of belief is correct—Sometimes called the “mental sentence theory,” in this conception, beliefs exist as coherent entities and the way people talk about them in everyday life is a valid basis for scientific endeavor. Jerry Fodor is one of the principal defenders of this point of view.
  • Common-sense understanding of belief may not be entirely correct, but it is close enough to make some useful predictions—This view argues that people will eventually reject the idea of belief as it is used now, but that there may be a correlation between what people take to be a belief when someone says, “I believe that snow is white” and however a future theory of psychology will explain this behavior. Most notably, philosopher Stephen Stich has argued for this particular understanding of belief.
  • Common-sense understanding of belief is entirely wrong and will be completely superseded by a radically different theory which will have no use for the concept of belief—Known as eliminativism, this view, (most notably proposed by Paul and Patricia Churchland), argues that the concept of belief is like obsolete theories of times past, such as the four humours theory of medicine, or the phlogiston theory of combustion. In these cases, science hasn’t provided a more detailed account of these theories, but completely rejected them as invalid scientific concepts to be replaced by entirely different accounts. The Churchlands argue that the common-sense concept of belief is similar, in that as philosophers discover more about neuroscience and the brain, the inevitable conclusion will be to reject the belief hypothesis in its entirety.
  • Common-sense understanding of belief is entirely wrong; however, treating people, animals, and even computers as if they had beliefs, is often a successful strategy—The major proponents of this view, Daniel Dennett and Lynne Rudder Baker, are both eliminativists in that they believe that beliefs are not a scientifically valid concept, but they don’t go as far as rejecting the concept of belief as a predictive device. Dennett gives the example of playing a computer at chess. While few people would agree that the computer held beliefs, treating the computer as if it did (e.g. that the computer believes that taking the opposition’s queen will give it a considerable advantage) is likely to be a successful and predictive strategy. In this understanding of belief, named by Dennett, “the intentional stance,” belief based explanations of mind and behavior are at a different level of explanation and are not reducible to those based on fundamental neuroscience, although both may be explanatory at their own level.

Delusional beliefs

The God Delusion

The God Delusion

Delusions are defined as beliefs in psychiatric diagnostic criteria (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.

Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and a number of other critics of religion have proposed the idea that many (if not most) faith-based religious beliefs are actually delusional beliefs. Some critics of atheism disagree with this view of religious beliefs. John P. Koster (The Atheist Syndrome), R.C. Sproul (If There is a God Why are There Atheists), Ravi Zacharias (The Real Face of Atheism), Alister McGrath (The Twilight of Atheism), and Paul Vitz (The Psychology of Atheism) have all argued the contrary to one degree or another.

In Lewis Carroll’s Alice 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.

Limiting beliefs

The term “limiting belief” is used for a belief that inhibits exploration of a wider cognitive space than would otherwise be the case. Examples of limiting beliefs are seen both in animals and people. These may be strongly held beliefs, or held unconsciously, and are often tied in with self-image or perceptions about the world. Everyday examples of limiting beliefs:

  • That one has specific capabilities, roles, or traits which cannot be escaped or changed.
  • That one cannot succeed so there is no point committing to trying.
  • That a particular opinion is right, therefore there is no point considering other viewpoints.
  • That a particular action or result is the only way to resolve a problem.

Adapted from New World Encyclopedia

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