Monday, 28 May 2007

Degrees of Confidence in Belief

We all hold beliefs. Even when we don't think about them, we still hold them. Getting up, having breakfast, and driving to work involves a massive sequence of beliefs, even if we do it semi-consciously. Putting on our clothes, for example, expresses a belief that there are external realities that we need to cater to -- environment and other people (who have standards of modesty that they expect us to meet). Having breakfast is an expression of the belief that our hunger will be sated by the funny-shaped pieces of sugar and starch we pour into a pool of white liquid. Driving the car requires, not only a significant skill-set, but a whole raft of beliefs, and substantial faith in our own skills, the reliability of our and others' vehicles, and others' skills and obedience to the road rules.

Anyone who claims that they hold firmly to no beliefs is lying to themselves. Without a firm belief in many things, from the laws of physics to the basic law-abiding attitude of others, they would never step foot outside their home.

However, we have varying degrees of confidence in our beliefs. This is appropriate. Don't let people fool you into trying to express all your beliefs as if you had either 100% or 0% confidence in a belief. This is most often used as a common argumentation trick to try to get you to express confidence in a peripheral belief, prove you wrong in that, and then call into doubt all of your beliefs. If you are not aware of the confidence you hold in your beliefs, you are vulnerable to this sort of attack. (And sometimes this sort of attack isn't malicious -- it may be that a cherished, or even foundational belief has been called into question by some circumstance, and because you don't understand the confidence with which you held that belief, you overreact by questioning all of your beliefs. This is actually quite a common occurrence, and is very unsettling.)

A definition

So what does it mean to talk about "degrees of confidence in beliefs"?

First, it does not mean how foundational a belief is. The foundationality of a belief speaks to how many other beliefs are based on a belief. A foundational belief is one that forms the base for other beliefs. For example, a belief in the validity of logic is one of the primary foundational beliefs in most people's worldviews (or frameworks of beliefs). A less foundational belief may be the belief in the inherent goodness of people, or the inherent badness of people. The degree of confidence you hold these beliefs in is independent of how foundational they are. (However, the more foundational a belief is, the more difficult it is to change it, since it has wider ramifications. Thus, if you are a responsible thinker, you will tend to have tried to build your confidence levels in your foundational beliefs so that your worldview is an accurate reflection of reality.)

Second, it does not mean how important a belief is. For example, your belief in the competence of a particular surgeon is more important than your belief in the best word to use in a particular email. But that has nothing to do with how confident you are in either of those beliefs. However, the more important a belief, the more likely you are to seek to ensure that you have a high level of confidence in it.

Third, it does not have anything to do with the type of belief. You can be more confident in metaphysical beliefs (such as the belief in the validity of logic) than in physical ones (such as the belief that your favourite socks are currently in your top dresser drawer). Equally, you can be more confident in an historical belief (WWII was initiated by the Germans under Hitler) than a personal memory (you met Fred in 1987).

Fourth, it has nothing to do with the history of your belief. Beliefs that you have held all your life are not necessarily those that you have more confidence in than beliefs you started to hold yesterday. The longevity of a belief may simply be related to its lack of importance to you, or the fact that you hold the belief for reasons of convenience rather than trust in its truthfulness.

So, what is confidence in a belief?

It is a measure of how close you think a belief is to reality. Remember the discussion about accuracy and precision? The degree of confidence you hold in a belief is the extent to which you believe it is accurate (ie. close to reality). This is independent of the precision of a belief (ie. how well-formed or descriptive it is). So, for example, you may have great confidence in your belief that spiritism is bunkum without having a precise understanding of the nature of spiritism. And the corollary is true, too: you may have very detailed beliefs on the character of movie stars without having great confidence in those beliefs.


This definition shows that some beliefs deserve more confidence than others. For example, the more foundational a belief is, the more we would like to have confidence in it. (Otherwise we have a lot of work to do if the belief turns out to be wrong.) The more important a belief, the more we would like to have confidence in it. (Otherwise we are likely to be seriously hurt by an incorrect belief.)

Also, the definition implies that it is possible to do something about the degree of confidence we have for a belief -- we can increase it through some activity. This is fortunate, because it allows us to address the more important and foundational beliefs.

What is that activity? Well, that depends on the type of belief.

If the belief is a simple physical one, we can increase our confidence in it by a physical investigation. For example, if we are unsure of the type of liquid in a bottle we can read the label, smell it, taste it, feel it, and so on. Important beliefs are often physical ones, but not always.

If it is an historical belief, we can seek independent sources to validate it, and we can seek sources that would invalidate the belief. We can measure such a belief by the number and quality of sources that attest to it, and the lack of sources that attest against it. For example, the Holocaust is very well attested by many, many quality sources (including numerous primary sources, ie. people that experienced it), and there are very few sources that attest against it (ie. good alternative explanations from reliable sources for all these reliable primary and secondary and tertiary sources claiming it is true).

If the belief is a metaphysical one (such as the belief in the validity of logic, or a belief in the relativity of truth), then it can only be measured by how strongly the framework it is capable of supporting is reflected by reality. This can also be expressed as its level of coherence in a framework that has a strong correspondence to reality. (For example, logic supports a framework that includes experimental science, which is tightly bound to reality, and it also supports cause and effect, something commonly seen in reality. On the other hand, the relativity of truth insists on a framework where cause and effect, along with physical laws, varies from person to person -- a good reason to have very little confidence in such a belief.)

Holding multiple, competing beliefs with varying confidence

Finally, is it possible to hold multiple, competing beliefs with varying confidence? Look at your belief system, and you'll see that the answer is a qualified "yes".

Depending on the foundationality and importance of the belief, it is possible to hold multiple, competing beliefs. However, once a belief becomes even slightly foundational or important, we will tend to collapse our beliefs back down to the belief we have the most confidence in. For example, if there is a bottle of green liquid in the fridge, we can entertain several competing beliefs about it: it's ant poison, it's soft drink, it's lime cordial, it's medicine. Our confidence in all these beliefs will be very low. However, as soon as we need to do something about the bottle (throw it away, drink it, store it somewhere other than the fridge), we will automatically attempt to increase our confidence in our belief about the contents of that bottle, and collapse our belief into the smallest range possible. For example, we may open it and smell it. If we are considering drinking it, and it smells like poison, we will collapse our beliefs down to the belief that it is poison. We probably won't bother trying to increase the precision of the belief (what sort of poison it is), unless we want to label it, or use it.

For foundational beliefs it is even more important to hold only one. The more competing foundational beliefs we hold, the more separate sets of dependant beliefs we need to hold. (For example, if I can't decide whether Fred is honest or not, I need to entertain beliefs in his behaviors that include his honesty as well as his dishonesty. This is the sort of problem that investigators deal with, and it is such hard work that we simply can't maintain it for everyday life.)


So, you can see how important it is to be aware of the confidence of your beliefs. And you've also had a glimpse into other areas of discussion on beliefs (such as types, foundationality, importance, etc.). If you are serious about your life, you need to think about your beliefs. Most people don't -- they simply accumulate them like postcards on a pinboard. But accumulated, unevaluated beliefs will inevitably lead to failure and pain.

  • Identify your foundational beliefs (here are some of mine: logic is valid, my mind is capable of thinking logically and recognising reality with some degree of accuracy, reality exists independently of me, other humans are independent agents, God exists and is an agent who has revealed himself through the Bible)
  • Evaluate how confident you are in these beliefs, and why
  • Work on building your confidence in beliefs that you don't have much confidence in (note: this may involve discarding those beliefs and replacing them with alternatives that you can have more confidence in -- this is painful, but critical)
  • Identify beliefs that are important to your current life situation (for example, my job is the right one for me, I should spend such and such an amount of time at work, my hobbies are productive and compatible with my family, the way I treat my family is constructive, and so on)
  • Evaluate how confident you are in these beliefs, and why
  • Work on building your confidence in these beliefs (once again, this may involve discarding them and replacing them with more accurate beliefs -- indeed, it is more likely at this level to do so)
  • Start work on evaluating your whole framework of beliefs. Every time you make a statement, whether it be out loud or in your thoughts, think about why that is true -- how much confidence can you have in that, and why? A consistent worldview that reflects reality is the single best attribute that you can have. (And I can say that as a Christian because I believe that such a worldview includes obedience to God.)
  • Realise that you can never be 100% confident in any of your beliefs, so be humble, and be gentle with others.

No comments: