Beliefs: A Disposition to Act?

In a previous article, I argued against a common view of reason as standing above desire, and instead suggested an alternate model of decision making based on following the strongest desire. Times of weak or strong “will” were simply changes in the relative strengths of desires, caused by the typical fluctuations of life.

In this article, I want to look at things from the perspective of belief.  In this view, a desire for X can be redefined as a belief that X is good to have or achieve.  Here, good can mean any of the full range of meanings assigned to good such as pleasure, ethics, or that which promotes a happy future.

Very well, but what does it mean to believe? There are many definitions for belief, and not all are mutually exclusive. Rather than go through a full inventory — which would greatly lengthen this article — I will focus on one definition and draw out some implications. This is the definition of belief as a disposition to act. So a belief in X is a disposition to act in a way consistent with X.

Some clarification is necessary. It is possible to act consistently with X without believing in X. For example, if X = the importance of helping the needy, one can help the needy without thinking it important (e.g.: out of ulterior motives). To avoid confusion then, assume no other motives exist that could generate this act.

So in this view, a desire for X would be a disposition to act to achieve X. For instance, if I desire love, this means I will exhibit behaviors consistent with trying to gain this love. Likewise for any object of desire.

As attractive as this view is, it has difficulties. Namely, there are cases where I may claim a belief in X, yet act inconsistently with it. How can this be explained? There are a few possibilities…

I can argue that I do not really believe X. This view is attractive as it restores to belief the seriousness that makes it mean something. In this day and age where people simply utter claims and expect them to have some sort of power, it is tempting to have a litmus test, and to treat apparently insincere claims with the dismissal this view implies.  But is this fair?

Take the example of a diet. I am on a diet and see a brownie. Do I eat it? Well, if I am on a diet, it reasons that I believe dieting is important, which implies I will not eat the brownie. Yet, as anyone who has been on a diet knows, all too often we eat the brownie. If I eat it, does this mean  I suddenly believed the diet was unimportant or that eating the brownie was a better choice? How do I analyze this?

One way is to recall that beliefs do not occur in a vacuum. In fact, since this is just a rewording of desire, the same things that apply to desire apply here. Circumstances can change and competing beliefs can arise. As such, the belief that motivates the diet may not be as simple as a belief that dieting is good, but something more complex like the importance of adhering to it at this time, and even belief in the strictness to which it should be adhered. Thus this belief is part of a network of beliefs which can change.

One change can be that a competing belief (Y) can arise. As in the case of desire, we can then assign strengths to beliefs and argue that they shift in response to changing life conditions.  Superficially this is true; after all, a belief about eating a specific food isn’t likely to arise unless confronted with that food, and the competing beliefs that happen to be active.  We can even go further and introduce a new belief (Z) which is a meta-belief that relates X and Y.  It can be a belief that one is to be preferred over another, or even a rationalization that states that X and Y are not mutually exclusive.  For instance, X can be the belief that dieting is good, Y the belief that it is good to eat the brownie, and Z the belief that a single brownie won’t destroy my diet.  With this view, Z can be seen to shift.

If beliefs are conscious, then suspending them can simply mean I put them out of my consciousness.  In this sense, I can easily suspend belief in anything I’m not dealing with, and the idea that a belief is some free floating, permanent entity that must hold at all times can be dispensed with.

But am I over-simplifying by treating beliefs as things I must be conscious of? In this view, I believe X or Y depending on which is in my consciousness as the true state of affairs.  However, if a belief is a disposition to act, then it’s clear that I often act out of motives that may not be in my consciousness — perhaps habits or reflexes.  Is it accurate to call those beliefs?

Belief is a disposition to act, but it is also said that action affects belief. If I act consistently with X to reinforce a belief in X, then don’t I already believe in X? Why else would I do it? Is this circular?

Then come the questions about affecting my beliefs.  Can I create new beliefs? Can I look at belief suspension as not dismissing a belief from consciousness, but simply not being attached to it (e.g.: simply seeing it as a thought)?  Can attachment be seen as a meta-belief?  But are we getting circular now? Is clinging to X reinforcing a belief in X and letting go the opposite?

My purpose was philosophical/spiritual/religious beliefs. Unfortunately, it easy to dismiss these if we fail to live up to them. Therefore, I used a diet example to drive the point home. Not only is the importance of eating right uncontroversial, but diets are structurally similar to these paths, offering the promise of greater rewards in exchange for a sacrifice of transient pleasures.

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4 thoughts on “Beliefs: A Disposition to Act?

  1. Question. In your opinion how does it benefit (or indeed does it benefit) a human being to hold a particular belief (moreso of a philosophical,/spiritual.religious nature than in something more tangible)?

    Follow-up question: should one’s Prime belief be discarded in favour of some other form simply because we fail to fully live up to the demands of the belief ourselves?

    1. Excellent questions.

      First, not every philosophical/spiritual/religious system would confer benefits from believing in it. In fact, I’m considering a follow-up post where I might touch upon some of these things. But other systems do provide payoffs from these beliefs. For instance, holding a belief that letting go relieves pain could make my life less painful by encouraging letting go which may very well relieve pain or by a placebo effect of believing that by letting go, I did something good and finding some pleasure in getting something I believe to be good.

      The second question is a tough one; this post is my attempt to come to term with beliefs and what they imply, so there’s uncertainty in my views. If I don’t fully live up to the demands of a belief, does this mean I really don’t believe, or is belief not as black or white? Maybe I’m not living up to the belief at all, but the belief itself is giving me comfort, or maybe my belief that somehow I’m living up to this belief is. I would say that as long as my belief is benefiting me (even if I fail to live up fully) that I should retain the belief.

      As you can see, my view of beliefs is more “pragmatic”, namely that I’m less concerned about their truths than their impact on our lives.

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