The Meaning of BeliefThe term “belief” originally referred exclusively to one’s loyalty and affinity, such as when people say that they believe in a sports team, which clearly carries an emotional and competitive connotation. William Cantwell Smith points out in his Belief and History (1977) that it has only been since the Enlightenment, when knowledge became more theoretical, that the word “belief” started to be used to refer to acceptance of a theoretical proposition, such as natural selection. Now in the post-truth era, we are witnessing a reversion of “belief” to its original meaning, partially I feel as a reaction to scientists, particularly in the field of evolution, often forgetting the spirit of perhaps the most important five words in the scientific revolution:

. . . but I could be wrong.

Here is an example that will also serve to introduce a core concept in evolutionary science. British evolutionary biologist William Hamilton demonstrated in the 1960s that altruism in insects is proportional to the degree of their relatedness (kin selection). This kind of nepotistic altruism within blood relatives is caused by shared genes “selfishly” helping replicas of themselves to survive in others. In The Selfish Gene (1976), Richard Dawkins points out the far-reaching philosophical implications of the idea of selection at the level of the gene, as opposed to at the level of the individual. However, from between the lines of this brilliant book exudes a triumphalism, sadistic in its intensity.

The Meaning og BeliefI will attempt to paraphrase the patently emotional undercurrent of this popular scientific treatise, rightly considered an evolutionary classic:

For the entire four hundred years of the Enlightenment, we scientists have relished puncturing all your prideful, self-centered little fairy tales. No, the earth is not the center of the universe. No, you and it were not created by God. Yes, you are just another animal like all the others. And that beast that you have been reduced to, well, actually it’s really just a “vehicle” to cart around the real source of replicating life, namely, the selfish genes inside you. Your genes are not about you. They are all in there competing for their own survival.


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2 Comments on “The Meaning of Belief”

  1. John, you state that a belief is the “acceptance of a theoretical proposition.” I’m not sure what “acceptance” means in this context. In epistemology, knowledge is defined as “justified true beliefs.” I think both assertions are vague. In my view of things, the meaning of “belief” and related terms depend on context. If a friend tells me that he is going to start going to the gym, I might say, “I believe you.” If I’m reading a research study and agree with the authors’ conclusions from statistical analyses of empirical data, I might say, “I believe that the authors’ conclusions are correct.” Or a Christian might say, “My core belief is that there is an Almighty God.” The word “belief” means different things in these three statements. I think what you’re referring to is “belief” in the context of physical reality, the study of which came to the forefront during the Enlightenment. In my view, there are different realities (physical, social, psychological, and spiritual), and the meaning of beliefs/truth/validity vary in each. What I find interesting in your work is your exploration of mental illness and mental health at three different levels of reality: physical (evolution theory); social (group dynamics in tribes and other social structures); and psychological (feelings of belonging to a group or being rejected by it).

    1. Mark, Wonderful analysis of epistemology.And you really do get what I am about here. I would say that I am trying to point out what you call psychological reality (feelings of belonging to a group or being rejected by it). I guess I am trying to point out what I think W.C.Smith thought was the pre-Enlightenment meaning of belief in the sense of rooting for a sports team, like “I believe in the Red Sox.” The claim is meaningless in the absence of other teams, who you don’t believe in. Isn’t competition in a zero-sum game the basic predicate of belief here. The Sox may be a horrible, corrupt, & all losers, but you identify with them, they are your proxy to beat the guy next door. This person also believes in a narrative; he looks at the world, and says: “It’s a tough world and I/we have to win;” but the next guy looks at the exact same world and says, “It’s a wrong world and I/we have to set it right.” So it’s win-lose, or right-wrong. But if these two narratives clash, the win-lose narrative forces the right-wrong narrative on the defensive, because, even if they win, they are dragged “down” into the win-lose narrative. Maybe that’s about where we are at now?

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