instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

It depends on what your definition of credo is

I could use a taxonomy of beliefs.

I know, I know: Who couldn't? But I've noticed a few types of belief recently that I didn't have ready terms for.

A belief, let's say, is an affirmation that a thing is true without direct knowledge of its truth. (Let me set aside the question of direct knowledge.) There are lots of ways and causes of beliefs.

One way of classifying beliefs is by the means by which the belief is achieved. A believer can reason his way to a belief, which might then be called a judgment. The belief might, for all practical purposes, simply pop into a believer's mind fully formed; I'm not sure what to call such a belief -- maybe an axiomatic belief -- although they are as common as noses.

Faith is, to use the old formula, the participation in the knowledge of another. If I have a belief due to faith, my affirmation that a thing is true is anchored in my faith in another person. A religious faith as a set of beliefs is the mapping of one's faith in God (or someone else) onto a set of affirmations believed to have been made by God (or someone else).

Another way of classifying beliefs is by the means with which they could in principle change.

There's a kind of belief that is, for the believer, irrevocable. The believer interprets the world in terms of this belief. If an interpretation of an event exists which supports that belief, it is taken to be the true interpretation. If no such interpretation exists, the event is an anomaly and may be ignored. I think I'll call such a belief a conviction.

If conversation with someone who holds a conviction inevitably turns, as the dawn the day, toward that conviction, it's the believer's hobbyhorse (i.e., a topic the believer is always riding). A believer with a hobbyhorse is a bore.

Many beliefs assert the truth of things that are unknown but, at least in principle, empirically knowable. I might believe my wife is picking up the kids; I might believe a certain candidate will win an election. I might call such a belief a guess, and I ought to at least be aware that it's possible for new information to come to my attention that proves my guess was wrong.

Yet another classification of beliefs is by the content or nature of the belief.

A belief regarding a concept that isn't well-formed or empirically knowable -- e.g., who was the best football player ever, or the "best" of any group that has no single definition of "best" associated with it -- might be called an opinion. (I am of the opinion that this definition could stand some tightening up.)

If the belief regards the secret motivations or actions of one or more people, then I think it might be called a conspiracy theory, although admittedly it may not be a particularly elaborate theory. Also, not all conspiracy theories are far-fetched, and some are even true. (Note that, since by definition the motivations or actions are secret, a conspiracy theory is also a guess.)

If the belief affirms that every member of a particular group or population possesses the same quality, when that quality is not possessed by those in the group or population by definition, the belief is a prejudice. A believer can, of course, be prejudiced for or against a group. A believer whose prejudice against a group amounts to a conviction is a bigot.

There. It's not complete, and it's not as well organized as it could be, but I think it's a good working draft. Have at it.