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.
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.
I need to stop the gastrointestinal analogies.