We declare beliefs as though they were things we possess, things that are with us constantly. “I have a belief” is commonly treated as equivalent to “I have a nose.” Even sophisticated psychologists talk like this. When they summarize research with “74% of Americans believe that heaven is real,” they don’t get specific about what they mean, but the implication is much the same as that of “74% of Americans have brown eyes.”

For all the thought that has gone into epistemology (the philosophy of knowledge-what it means to know or believe something) it’s amazing how little has gone into understanding what people are really doing when they know or believe.

It can’t be quite like having a nose. You have only one nose, and it’s on you all the time. To believe something can’t mean having only one idea that is on you all the time, even though attempts to think about only one thing 24/7 have been made. Mohammed taught that your to-do list should have only one item: you should think of Allah constantly. In practice, however, a Muslim is required to pray to Allah only five times a day. The problem with regarding beliefs as 24/7 possessions is that consciousness is quite small. If belief meant holding one thought always, no room would be left for thinking.

Instead, we might try treating beliefs as similar to policies, so that when we say, “I believe that the government should bail out the banks,” or “I believe in God,” or even “I love you,” in effect we’re declaring that every time a topic comes up, we apply a certain policy to it.

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup


Policies are not fickle. If policy states that you pay a toll when you cross a certain bridge, then you always pay the toll when you cross that bridge. Believing in God would therefore mean that every time God comes up, you always assume that he’s real. Believing that the government should bail out the banks would mean that every time bank bailouts come up, you’re always in favor of them. Saying “I love you, John” would mean that every time John comes to mind you always want to support and protect and please him.

Policies can be conditional. Pay the toll-but only during rush hour. You could love John-but only when he’s not drinking. Still, given the conditions, they remain constant and not fickle. In fact, all policies are conditional. They take the form “If X then do Y,” where X is the condition. Pay the toll, but only when going onto this particular bridge.

Policies can be changed, and so can beliefs. That’s what it means to “change your mind,” though Plato (quoting Socrates) points out a problem with learning or changing one’s mind. It’s known as Meno’s Paradox or the paradox of learning, and applied here it goes something like this: If beliefs are like 24/7 constant policies, how can they ever change? If every time bank bailouts come to mind you are completely in favor of them, or every time John comes to mind you are full of love for him, how can the alternative policies-that banks should not be bailed out, or that John is a bum-ever get a foothold?

Plato’s solution is to claim that all learning and change in belief must be simply recollecting things you already knew and believed. To him, learning what to believe is not a matter of exchanging one belief for another but of peeling back layers of confusion and getting down to what you always already believed. If this were true, rather than ever conceding in a debate you could just say a snide, “Yeah, I know that already.”

This solution to Meno’s Paradox is precarious. It leads Plato into some confusing assertions, like that before we were born, we knew absolutely everything. We then made a mistake and forgot it all.

How did we come to know everything in the first place? He vacillates here, sometimes claiming we learned it over many lifetimes, sometimes claiming we just were perfect.

In other words, the old boy can’t make up his mind.

And neither can we sometimes, which suggests a far less sweeping solution to Meno’s Paradox and the development of a practical understanding of what it is to believe.

Beliefs are neither things like noses or policies like bridge tolls. They are thoughts that have some probability of coming to mind when triggered, thoughts that have a greater or smaller number of triggers, thoughts that are in greater or lesser conflict with other thoughts. In other words, they are habits of greater or lesser strength.

Our everyday reference to belief incorporates some of what it means to think multiple things on the same topic. We say, “Part of me thinks X” or “I’m of half a mind to believe Y,” “I’m of two minds about this,” or “I’m ambivalent,” or “I love you but I don’t trust you.” But while we can access this interpretation of beliefs, we’re as likely to allow them to be treated as things or policies.

OK, occasionally a belief can become like a nose, at least for a while, always right in front of your eyes, staring back at you. This is less like belief and more like obsession, a thought pattern triggered by practically everything and not contradicted by other beliefs. For instance, that’s what happens in the temporary state of being madly anxiously in love, believing you need this one special someone to make you whole. I’ll end this week with what to me is an exquisite depiction of this rare, glorious, often disastrous state of true belief or obsession. Some other time, when my habit of thinking about beliefs orbits back around, I’ll talk about the dynamics of typical beliefs.

I Say a Little Prayer
Lyrics by Hall David

The moment I wake up
Before I put on my makeup
I say a little prayer for you
While combing my hair, now
And wondering what dress to wear, now
I say a little prayer for you

Forever, forever, you’ll stay in my heart
And I will love you
Forever, forever, we never will part
Oh, how I’ll love you
Together, together, that’s how it must be
To live without you
Would only be heartbreak for me

I run for the bus, dear
While riding I think of us, dear
I say a little prayer for you
At work, I just take time
And all through my coffee break-time
I say a little prayer for you

Forever, forever, you’ll stay in my heart
And I will love you
Forever, forever we never will part
Oh, how I’ll love you
Together, together, that’s how it must be
To live without you
Would only be heartbreak for me