THE CLAIM: BELIEF IS BINARY
A few days ago on The Atheist Experience, a host named Jen said “belief is binary.”
I opposed this absurd notion in a a blog post that Matt Dillahunty, another host of The Atheist Experience, responded to in the comments, and seemed to affirm that belief was indeed discrete and did not fall on a continuum. He made the following statements.
1. “My point is that if belief is the state of accepting something as true, one either believes something or one does not.”
2. “Tending to believe, kinda believing, almost believing, kinda-sort believing…it’s all sloppy thinking at a meta-level.”
3. “It is, therefore, possible to ‘barely believe’ something (to use the colloquial) but that still means you believe it.”
4. “Once you DO believe a claim, you can believe it to varying degrees of certainty (or even disbelieve it to varying degrees of certainty) but whether or not (look at that language…whether or not) you accept the position is, in fact, binary.”
I intend to clearly demonstrate this position to be nonsensical.
THE ACCUMULATION OF EVIDENCE: NORMALLY GRADUAL
Consider George who comes up to you one day and claims to be able to inerrantly predict the outcome of any coin toss. You set up an experiment in which the toss is truly random, and let George begin to substantiate his claim. The chart below shows a smooth linear accumulation of evidence for George’s claim upon each consecutive correct prediction.
(Technically, the X axis should be exponential.)
Note that, in this simple example, for each consecutive correct prediction, the evidence builds linearly. There is no demarcation between “sufficient” evidence and “insufficient” evidence. The evidence at every point on the line provides only a probability between 0 and 1 on the claim. What does this tell us about warranted belief?
WARRANTED BELIEF: MAPS TO THE ACCUMULATION OF EVIDENCE
If belief is to be warranted, it must map to the evidence. This is not very emotionally satisfying, but this is the obligation of the scientific mind. The following chart illustrates the human predisposition towards emotional belief or disbelief. Note that it does not very well map to the evidence, and is therefore unwarranted.
This notion of a more emotional belief insufficiently constrained by the evidence does seem to map to Matt Dillahunty’s comments, but it is not warranted belief. Consider the illustration of warranted belief below.
The epistemic agent is obligated to restrict the degree of belief to the degree of evidence. As evidence accumulates gradually, so also warranted belief increases gradually. It is in no way binary. There is no point on the continuum of warranted belief that could constitute “sloppy thinking” as Matt stated in comment #2 above.
It is clear from this that warranted belief is not binary. To the degree that evidence arrives piecemeal to slowly accumulate towards high probability for a given proposition, to this degree warranted belief is not binary. To the degree that the evidence is available for a given proposition, to this degree must belief follow if we are to claim it is warranted.
THE ARGUMENT FROM LINGUISTIC USAGE: I TEND TO BELIEVE…
Matt seems to be playing linguistic games when he says “It is, therefore, possible to ‘barely believe’ something (to use the colloquial) but that still means you believe it.” Belief is a real emotional state, not a stipulated linguistic category. Language, if it is to have any potency, must reflect reality. The reality of epistemic states existing at every point along the continuum of warranted belief has generated a large assortment of phrases that are able to reflect those states. Let’s call this semantic resolution and consider the short list of 9 phrases below that provide a modest amount of semantic resolution.
Why would anyone want to reduce the linguistic resolution of any concept of belief by forcing it into bivalent categories that distort or remove its essential quality of gradience? An essential quality of belief is that it is an emotion that can be held at various intensities. An essential quality of warranted belief is that in most epistemic contexts such as in our coin-flipping context above, the emotion must fall at times in the middle of a continuum.
Belief is an emotion. It is a level of confidence in a proposition that can fall at any point along the epistemic continuum. Saying “I am uncertain about ‘X'” is not only legitimate, it is required given certain evidential conditions if the belief is to remain warranted. There is no room for the word “binary” here.
So, Matt says “Tending to believe, kinda believing, almost believing, kinda-sort believing…it’s all sloppy thinking at a meta-level.” This is absurd.
Stating “I believe ‘X'”, and stating “I slightly believe ‘X'” are not even close to equivalent. To say that, because the second statement also contains a word in the first statement, they are therefore equivalent is a foolish choice of low semantic resolution at best, an attempt at distortion at worst, and certainly reflects a misunderstanding of semantics.
Jehovah is not magically made tolerant simply because his fits of low tolerance yet have some small fraction of a percent of tolerance.
Likewise, I don’t magically become confident in “X” after stating that my confidence in “X” is waning.
These are linguistic games unbecoming of rational thinkers.
Belief is an emotion, that if warranted, must at times map to evidence that uncomfortably hangs in indeterminacy. Evidence for and against various gods most generally arrives to the individual mind in degrees. There will be times when this evidence requires a level of belief that fully legitimates the statement “I don’t know whether I belief in god ‘A'”. This is neither slopping thinking nor an invalid position on the epistemic continuum of belief. It is, in fact, the only honest position in some cases.
CONCLUSION: BELIEF IS IN NO WAY BINARY
Once in a while I tag myself an atheist. The only reason I occasionally opt for this low semantic resolution tag is to quickly establish some common ground when I’m not actually interested in engaging in dialog. On my Facebook profile page, I offer the following higher semantic resolution description.
“The Abrahamic god is illogical, a personal god improbable, and an Einsteinian god not certain.”
My degree of belief/disbelief for each of these versions of god varies, and are not equivalent. I don’t need someone reducing the semantic resolution I’ve carefully employed to accurately reflect my beliefs by having them absurdly claim they are equivalent because belief is binary.
- Belief is not binary.
- Warranted belief legitimately falls on a continuum.
- Uncertainty is not only legitimate, but obligatory in certain evidential contexts.
- Intentionally reducing the semantic resolution of the statements and positions of others has no place in honest dialog.
It must be said that Matt is spot-on in much of his commentary on religion. I recommend The Atheist Experience for anyone hoping to hone their critical thinking skills.
Comments are highly encouraged.
Update: A link to a discussion on this topic.