Friday, July 05, 2013

Belief and English language deficiency

By Mathew Goldstein

Many people have recognized that English vocabulary is sometimes deficient and some have tried to add words, usually without success.  For example, many of the world's languages do not have gender-specific pronouns. Others, however – particularly those which have a pervasive system of grammatical gender (or have historically had such a system, as with English) – have gender-specificity in certain of their pronouns, particularly personal pronouns of the third person.  Problems of usage arise in languages such as English, in contexts where a person of unspecified gender is being referred to, but the most natural available pronouns (he or she) are gender-specific.  Michael Newdow tried to encourage us to substitute re, rees, and erm for gender non-neutral he, his, and him.

There is a similar, but more subtle, problem with the words belief and proof.  The word belief is broad, it encompasses both justified and non-justified beliefs.  The word proof is narrow, it designates an established fact.  The problem is that we lack a good noun for properly justified belief that falls short of proof.  

One symptom of this vocabulary deficiency is that some people overuse the word proof.  If you see a link to an article with a title like "proof of existence of god" or "disproof of existence of gods" the best course of action is likely to not click on that link.  Another result is that some people refuse to utilize the word belief on the grounds that they do not want to taint their well justified beliefs with the unjustified beliefs of the hoi polloi by sharing the same noun.

I do not know of any efforts to coin a new word that is synonymous with justified belief.  The obvious problem is that the same hoi polloi will misuse the new word much like they already misuse the word proof.  The goal of avoiding a "guilt by association" type of taint by utilizing a more obscure vocabulary also has a cost.  Using a different word implies a different entity, but the entity itself is the same here. Belief is not the problem to be avoided.  The problem is holding beliefs that are poorly justified.  

There are some people who go so far as to claim that belief is the problem.  I strongly disagree.  A belief is what we have whenever the available evidences overall have a favored direction.  I keep encountering people who claim that atheism is about having no beliefs.  Yet I can no more not have a belief about the existence of gods than I can not have a belief about the existence of Leprechauns.  The evidences do speak on these existence questions, the evidences are not neutral, and therefore the corresponding belief follows. We can expect one set of evidences if those entities existed, and a different set of evidences if they do not exist.  

With an ultrasound we can detect pregnancy.  That is proof.  With Leprechauns, as with gods, as with the supernatural more generally, we can only infer. It is still proper to utilize the word proof in contexts where conclusions are inferred provided that there is a consensus of the experts that the conclusion is true. Without this usage restriction the word proof becomes too political and loses much of its meaning. There is a sense in which we arguably do have such a consensus -  scientists de-facto abandoned supernaturalism several centuries ago. Unfortunately, many scientists are unwilling to acknowledge that this constitutes a consensus answer to this question.

Evidences can speak loudly by being consistent and pervasive, which is the case here. We do not need proof to have properly justified strong beliefs. Mind is a natural emergent property of particular physical configurations of matter-energy, matter-energy is not a supernatural product of a non-physical mind - so I believe.


Gary Berg-Cross said...

Yes, there is a technical idea of proof and a more amorphous, common sense idea of proof used in ordinary language. That's a problem with most concepts such as truth.

Explicit Atheist said...

It is proper to utilize the word proof in contexts where conclusions are inferred, provided that there is a consensus of the experts that the conclusion is true. Once we go outside a restriction like this on what qualifies as proof, the word because too political and loses much of its meaning. There is a sense in which we do have such a consensus here - scientists de-facto abandoned supernaturalism several centuries ago, but many scientists are not willing to acknowledge that this constitutes a scientific consensus on this question. So we are on our own and must argue from the perspective that this is a debatable question, not a fact.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

Proof is of course also used in mathematics with Euclid's geometry being a classical case. We can speak of logical proofs that follow from prmises and are not just consensus validations of claims.

Don Wharton said...

There are two problems with this post. One is the preference that many of us have to not use either belief or faith to describe our support for propositions that we support. The use of these terms includes propositions with no evidence whatsoever. I will give myeself permission to use these terms in a political environment where my goal is to minimize the confidence I have in a proposition.

The second major problem is that there is no clear way to define the experts who should be respected. The Wall Street Journal Editorial team would assert that they have examined the evidence and have a right to have their views included in a discussion on global warming. I would like to disagree with this. Of course, the right wing would assert that I am picking my experts and they would prefer to pick their experts.

Explicit Atheist said...

There is an issue with identifying experts because this is imterdisciplinary so we would arguably need a broad consensus. Obviously, journalists are not experts here because this about the functioning of our universe, not about economics or news. We have a broad consensus that leprechauns are fictional, that is not a controversy like naturalism is. Some people call metaphysical naturalism a worldview, and that is OK also. But saying atheism is about not having beliefs is bad, that comes close to playing into a negative stereotype that atheists are nihilists who believe in nothing, and as a description of atheism it is simply false.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

Faith based belief is a problem but not belief as a cognitive phenomena.
Here is a bit of what Robert Ingersoll said about his beliefs, which many of us would stand up for:

I believe that all actions that tend to the well-being of sentient beings are virtuous and moral. I believe that real religion consists in doing good. I do not believe in phantoms. I believe in the uniformity of nature; that matter will forever attract matter in proportion to mass and distance; that, under the
same circumstances, falling bodies will attain the same speed,
increasing in exact proportion to distance; that light will always,
under the same circumstances. be reflected at the same angle; that
it will always travel with the same velocity that air will forever
be lighter than water, and gold heavier than iron; that all
substances will be true to their natures; that a certain degree of
heat will always expand the metals and change water into steam;
that a certain degree of cold will cause the metals to shrink and
change water into ice; that all atoms will forever be in motion;
that like causes will forever produce like effects, that force will be overcome only by force; that no atom of matter will ever he
created or destroyed; that the energy in the universe will forever
remain the same, nothing lost, nothing gained; that all that has
been possible has happened, and that all that will be possible will
happen; that the seeds and causes of all thoughts, dreams, fancies
and actions, of all virtues and all vices, of all successes and all
failures, are in nature; that there is in the universe no power
superior to nature; that man is under no obligation to the
imaginary gods; that all his obligations and duties are to be
discharged and done in this world; that right and wrong do not
depend on the will of an infinite Being, but on the consequences of
actions, and that these consequences necessarily flow from th nature of things. I believe that the universe is natural.

Don Wharton said...

My preference to no use the terms faith and belief are mypersonal preference only. No one should assert that this personal choice represents a general property of atheism in general. Beyond that a high confidence in the findings of science and deep passion for the ethical good is radically inconsistent with being a nihilist. The asserted conclusion from my personal position on this simply does not follow.