The best way to conceptualize “belief”, I think, is that to believe something is to steer one’s way through the world as though it were true. And although reaching explicit judgments about things is an important part of steering one’s way through the world, much else is even more important. Suppose, for example, that you are disposed to say, in all sincerity, that all the races are intellectually equal. You will argue for this claim against all comers and really feel that you believe it in your heart of hearts. It doesn’t follow that you really do steer your way through the world as your egalitarian utterances would suggest. You might really be incredibly biased. You might really always treat people of a certain race as though they were stupid. In that case, I don’t think we should say that you really, fully believe in the intellectual equality of the races. Instead, I think, you’re in a mixed-up condition in which it’s neither quite right to say that you believe the races are intellectually equal nor quite right to say that you fail to believe that. I call this an “in-between” state of believing. It’s in-between but it’s not at all like being uncertain. You might still feel unshakeably certain.
I think such in-between states are very common for the attitudes we regard as most central to our lives. Do you really believe that God exists? Do you really believe that family is more important than work? Let’s not look just at what you sincerely say to yourself and others but at how you act and how you react. Let’s look at your spontaneous valuations of things. Often, the match between sincere words and in-the-world reactivity is poor. And I doubt we have very good self-knowledge about any of this.
It might help repair our ignorance about such matters if we had good knowledge of our stream of experience. If I knew, for example, that I was frequently having angry thoughts about my children, or if I knew that I felt a kind of emotional soaring at the prospect of a new project at work and an emotional crash at the prospect of having to come home early to have lunch with the family – that might provide an important set of clues. But we don’t know such things about ourselves, and in fact we regularly fool ourselves in such matters to protect our self-conception.
One of the more wearying tropes I’ve encountered over the years while reading blogs is the bizarre obsession with what some outrageous public figure says and whether they really “believe” it in their heart of hearts, or whether they’re just putting on a cynical show for the money and power. As if it’s that straightforward. Half of the things we profess to believe are things we’ve accepted provisionally while attempting to talk ourselves the rest of the way past our doubts. The drive to obtain objective truth for its own sake has to compete against the drive to cultivate and defend our sense of self as well as the drive to feel secure and adequate within one’s social group, just to name a few. “Belief” is a deceptively simple term that often encompasses knowledge, hope, and fear, all at once, in an unstable mixture.