On the Irrelevance of Assertions


In a previous article, I explored the view that to believe in something is to act in a way consistent with that something being true.  This was to be contrasted with assertions, which were simply claims of something being true.

For example, if I think I should be nice to everyone, that is an assertion.  If I am nice to everyone, then that is a belief.

As can be seen, assertions can contradict beliefs. I want to explore this a bit.

Assertions = Mental Gas?

Assertions may not (always) be related to belief.  This is implied by studies that suggest many of our emotions, intentions and thoughts (including “beliefs”) are post hoc. That is, they are rationalizations that are created AFTER we already decided to act.

In this view, assertions — and much of our thought — are analgous to intestinal gas. That gurgling and rumbling in my gut is a byproduct of what’s  really going on.  Ditto with thoughts which are every bit as caused… and meaningful.

Yet our mental gas differs from our intestinal gas in one key way: we identify with our mental gas. We take pride or shame in it, think it says something important about us, and generally cling to it as identifying us.  The idea that it is often meaningless is hard to swallow.  Because of this, we often go great lengths to explain this gas and its inconsistency from one moment to the next.  In fact, this attachment to thought goes further.

We are so attached to mental gas that we make it our metric for judging others and reacting to events. For example, say X and Y give to charity.  X does so out of ulterior motives, while Y does so out of altruistic ones. We often regard Y as better than X because of Y’s mental gas; never mind the physical facts of the situation are identical.  If X and Y tell an untruth, but X knows it’s a lie and Y doesn’t, we often regard Y as more ethical because of Y’s mental gas — again, despite identical physical facts. If X hurts people out of malice and Y because of clumsiness, Y is often judged superior — again, due to mental gas.  In fact, even the law recognizes the importance of mental gas and judges people by intent.

Not Even Qualified to Be a Belief?

It gets worse because our assertions are often about things that wouldn’t even qualify as objects of belief — like any assertion about things that are unverifiable and that would not lead to a change of behavior. Here’s a personal example: The earth is round.

The earth’s roundness does not even qualify as a belief for me because it is immaterial to my actions.  I act and live the same as someone who believes the earth is flat.

But wait, isn’t there one thing I do differently? Don’t I state that the earth is round instead of flat? Wouldn’t this be a product of a belief?

Yes, but it’s not a product of a belief the earth is round, but rather the product of a belief that certain assertions are beneficial in some cases.    For example, I’ll agree the earth is round if I’m with a group of people and I wish to avoid mockery. I would just as easily assert the earth is flat if everyone around me believed so — and for the identical reason.  So really, what’s driving my behavior is the belief that asserting a certain thing in public is beneficial.

This is reinforced when I reflect on how I learned about this in school.  See, school never taught me the earth is round.  It taught me that I need to regurgitate this assertion if I wanted to pass my tests. In fact, most of what school taught me was of the form of social assertions to be regurgitated at the right occasion.

So often an assertion of X is actually a belief that asserting X is beneficial at certain times.

Conclusion 1

If we take belief as meaning a disposition to act, then we realize many of our assertions are meaningless.  This forces us to reevaluate the importance of much of our thought and what we take to be ourselves.  What’s more, analyzing assertions reveals that the objects of many of our assertions could not possibly qualify as beliefs.  In the end, we’re left with a cynical-sounding view that assertions are simply social maneuvers.

Conclusion 2

I need to stop the gastrointestinal analogies.

20 thoughts on “On the Irrelevance of Assertions

  1. I have several comments. First, (unless I missed something) this post seems self-referentially problematic. The post looks like one big “assertion.” If so, it is, according to you, no more meaningful than intestinal gas. This raises the question of why one would bother to write it, or why I should read it- incidentally, I did so on the grounds that I regard thought, including mere “assertion,” as more important than flatulence.

    It also seems relevant to say that if one’s thoughts are just as determined and meaningless as gas, then the idea of thinking responsibly vanishes- how could anything without significance be prosecuted responsibly or irresponsibly. This seems ironic, given the title of the blog.

    Third, your description of how knowledge is socially communicated does not do the phenomena justice. You really actually believe that the earth is round. You (hopefully) did not merely assert it in school in order to pass a test, and you do not merely speak it today to avoid disapproval. For a variety of reasons (I admit the passing down of knowledge socially is a complex occurrence), you have come to firmly and truly hold the belief that the earth is round. If you met a flat-earther, I imagine (call me crazy) that you would think that person mentally unstable or derelict in their epistemic duties. School really did teach you that the earth is round, and rightly so.

    Also, I reject your distinction between “belief” and “assertion,” in part because the distinction seems far more context-dependent than you acknowledge here. I cannot think of a single “assertion” that may not qualify as a “belief,” given the right circumstances. Knowledge that the earth is round is not relevant to my day to day behavior. But it is very relevant to the huge numbers of people who will sail or fly from one “side” of the earth to the other.

    Finally, the distinction you draw between “belief” and “assertion” fails to do justice to the importance of our cognitive states. This is clear, I would say, if we consider the importance of epistemic responsibility. It is even clearer in the moral realm. Suppose, for example, that a person held these two propositions in their noetic structure:

    1) Non-white races are inferior in dignity.
    2) All humans, regardless of dignity, ought to be treated similarly- at least for pragmatic reasons.

    These two propositions are not contradictory- a person could theoretically hold both of them.

    Also, these beliefs do not dispose toward harmful external acts. The behavior of the person who truly believes both of these propositions, and acts in accord with them, would be indistinguishable from yours or mine.

    Nevertheless, we would be quite right in regarding anyone who holds these beliefs as guilty of a moral failing. Our epistemic and moral lives include, profoundly and inescapably, even our private mental lives.

    1. Wow, now that is a comment!

      First, the notion of relevance is with respect the the view of beliefs as a disposition to act, so everything is to be understood in that context. Not everyone would agree with that definition of belief of course.

      Second, whether my post is relevant depends on whether it produces a change in action. So really, the relevance must be determined on a person by person basis. For some, it is merely mental gas.

      Third, assertions do play a valuable role, which is the subjec of a follow up article I am planning.

      Fourth, school taught me to parrot things which I did to pass tests. My school experience was largely as cynical and vapid as my post made it seem. If I met a flat earther, I would not judge him or her simply because the proposition of a round earth is utterly irrelevant to me.

      Fifth, I never claimed that the assertion/belief dichotomy was universal. One person’s assertion is another person’s belief. In fact, this is why I stated the roundness of the earth was a personal example. In fact to see the dramatic difference between assertion and belief over the same subject, just look at people’s religious views. Some assert, and some believe by living it.

      Finally, regarding the morality issue, the point of mental states was to note the incoherence of it all. THis is not to say that I still do not judge by intent, but I recognize that my own ethical views are incoherent and doubt I coud give a satisfactory accounting of them.

      Great comments, thank you!

  2. Hi BR!
    It may sound cynical, but I agree with what you said about the way you were taught in school. That it’s best to agree with the teacher and say so when asked, instead of finding out for yourself.
    Thinking about what you write here, there’s an awful lot of gas about. Same goes for thought and jumping to conclusions.
    Like when I ‘liked’ your article, just now, even when there’s lots of information that could make one feel uncomfortable when really thinking it through… 🙂

    1. It sounds cynical, but it is true. So many people act like mindless dogmatism is a product of religion, but it really is how our world runs at large. Nowhere is this more obvious than in what passes for education.

      All this stuff is disturbing because it basically implies that much of what we value is nonsense, and this includes ourselves.

      1. You don’t mince words on this one, BR. I like your point about religion. It’s easy to blame what goes wrong on religion and it’s a great way to assert ourselves as atheists without looking in the mirror.
        “Much of what we value is nonsense” is a sweeping statement. Do you mean we’re nonsense? Or are we about nonsense? Or do we spend too much of our time thinking nonsense?
        I am trying to read as many improving books as I can, but sometimes I do get tired and need a nonsensical walk to clear my head… 🙂

      2. I mean both. In fact, what we think, what we value, and our identities are all related. Undermine the foundation that leads to a valuation of thought, and you automatically undermine all these.

  3. But you can see the horizon of the sea is curved! Just as you can see the unlighted part of the very new moon by earthlight so proving it had not been destroyed.
    As far as intestines are concerned, I would be grateful if you could look at my most recent blog. I know its not about Spinoza, but that’s how it came out..Is it intestinal or cerebral gas?!

    1. It never looked curved to me… Until someone said it looked curved. Of course this same critique could be applied to this point which is the point.

      One person’s mental gas is another’s belief; it is relative. For me, it is irrelevant. It may not be irrelevant for others. What could even qualify as belief would not only differ from person to person, but even within a person at different times.

      1. One reason for the post was to clarify my mind in the process of writing it.,.
        A second was to share ideas giving others an opportunity to contribute,, criticize and comment.
        What does it mean for my actions? Well it is one of the many posts on my blog, one that was difficult to write and which I took most care over. It has led to this dialogue with you..

      2. True. It might also alter your perspective to where some of your other acts may change. For that matter, maybe your post was a reflection of a deep, equivalent belief?

        I have a follow-up post planned wherein I explain things a bit more, and actually defend “mental gas”. I actually have a reason for using that apparently pejorative term, which will become clear with that post.

      3. What do you mean by a ‘deep equivalent belief’ ?
        I look forward to the mental gas post. Sydney Brenner used to say that the brain is a gland that secretes thoughts. Just as a salivary gland secretes saliva. He still is active and worth reading if you have not already done so. ATB.

      4. Actually, just a belief as defined by a disposition to act. An assertion can sometimes mirror a belief, but the direction of causality is in question. If the assertion is a reflection of a belief, that that consciousness of it is not the cause, hence it could still be regarded as ‘mental gas’.

        I like the thought gland quote. I will look up Sydney Brenner. Thanks!

  4. You must have had a terrible experience with education. Mine was pretty bad, but understanding was definitely encouraged above regurgitation. I am more than a little shocked by your statement about the Earth being round not being a belief. Have you ever taken an international plane? If so, were you worried it would fall off the edge of the Earth? If you weren’t, I’d say your assertion is more like a belief.
    Another question: you speak about beliefs being determined by a drive to act. But how do you define actions? Aren’t words actions? If I say “the Earth is flat” isn’t that an action and not just an assertion? It is far from inconsequential, since it may bring me no few repercussions. How do you define actions? Are assertions only mental?
    This whole article reminds me of the behaviorist approach to psychology, of which to be honest I’ve never been a fan. For example, consider a totally paralyzed person in bed who has no way to communicate or move, but is able to think. Beliefs, assertions? Is their whole life mental gas? Should they just not bother?

    1. Would a plane flight require a round Earth? Imagine the Earth were flat like a map, and you can see how you can fly to and fro without worrying about falling over the edge 😀

      Yes, the issue of acts becomes a problem because where do acts stop? Is a word an act? A mental reaction? That definition is fuzzy enough that it should give reason for pause. In my post I implicitly assumed physical acts beyond words, but why should this be so?

      Also keep in mind that I was discussing one definition of beliefs. Do I believe that definition? Hmmmm, I think so, but I’m not 100% sure. In a way, I’m trying to come to grips with what belief is.

      Yes, my post has a behaviorist flavor to it, and I’m a pretty big fan of that school, although I think it also has to come down to how one defines behaviorism. I’ve seen behaviorism defined as everything from analyzing mental states via behavior to denying an inner life (!).

      I’ve got a follow-up which I hope will clarify some things and show that “mental gas” is not as dismissive as it sounds.

      1. As for the Earth being round… it isn’t so much that I “believe” or “dis-believe” it as that it’s something that’s never been important enough for me to think about.

        Of course if you really want to know if I believe the Earth is round, put me in a life or death situation that depends on me deciding whether or not the Earth is round. Then we’ll both know what I believe 😀

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s