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Thinking hardly
or hardly thinking?

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Major trains of thought
The good, the bad,
and the brain fart
Come to think of it
Therefore, the word "belief" can for this majority not mean "perceiving the truth of something" but can only be understood as "taking this as the basis for life." One can easily understand that this second kind of belief is much firmer, is much more fixed than the first one, that it can persist even against immediate contradicting experience and can therefore not be shaken by added scientific knowledge. The history of the past two decades has shown by many examples that this second kind of belief can sometimes be upheld to a point where it seems completely absurd, and that it then ends only with the death of the believer. Science and history can teach us that this kind of belief may become a great danger for those who share it.
—Werner Heisenberg[1]

Belief is an equivocal term referring to (usually willing) acceptance of an idea.[note 1]

Belief comes in various flavors:

  • Synonymous with "favorable view", as in "I don't believe in winding electrical cords too tightly."
  • Result of "seeing is believing", e.g. where someone believes in regular sunrises.
  • Assessment of likelihood: "I believe you can understand this."
  • Trust of another person: "I believe you did put my check in the mail."
  • From a deep place within: "I believe my spirit guide is telling me to lay healing hands on your boo-boo."
  • Utter staring delusion: "I believe I am being told to cleanse the world of evil."
  • Pragmatic self-interest: "Well, a man’s got to believe something, and I believe I’ll have another drink."[2]

In philosophy[edit]

Philosophy often contrasts belief with knowledge. Philosophers usually define belief as the acceptance of a propositional statement[3] or of a propositional attitude. Knowledge is defined — in terms of belief — as "justified true belief", per Plato. (Figuring out just what "justified true belief" entails is a whole 'nother can of worms.) However, various models attempt to explain how belief operates:

  • Representationalism: Beliefs are stored as (or as something akin to) propositional statements in memory.
  • Dispositionalism: Beliefs are the equivalent of having behavioral dispositions that correlate with holding some propositional statement to be true. Comparisons to theories of behaviorism are often drawn here.
  • Interpretationism: Similar to dispositionalism, but the belief is not necessarily interpreted as something interior to the person or to the agent itself. A classic example of interpretationism is Daniel Dennett's concept of the intentional stance,Wikipedia in which an agent's beliefs are projected onto it through an interpretation of its actions.
  • Eliminativism: "Belief" is too mushy of a concept to be useful and should be thrown out. This position is usually associated with the broader position in philosophy of mind known as eliminative materialism, which takes the position that all the concepts of folk psychology are inadequate for a scientific examination of the mind.[4]

In psychology and other social sciences[edit]

The slipperiness of the term "belief" has led to a number of technical distinctions in the social sciences (although some, i.e. the aforementioned eliminativists, would prefer to do away with the concept entirely). A number of distinctions and definitions have been proposed by various psychologists, cognitive scientists, anthropologists, and philosophers. A few of them include:

  • Daniel Gilbert's argument that to understand a concept, one must first truly believe in it. Everything that is understood is believed in some sense, and only later discarded or disbelieved.[5]
  • Dan Sperber's distinction between intuitive and reflective beliefs, where the former is a basic type of belief that is not propositional and the latter is akin to a representationalist model of belief. Sperber also includes the concepts of "half-understood" and "semi-propositional" beliefs in his system.[6][7]
  • There is also the problem of explaining the divergence between behavior and professed belief (often called "hypocrisy" in common parlance). Eric Schwitzgebel calls these "in-between cases of belief."[8] Slavoj Žižek, in reference to ideology, makes a distinction between two types of manifestations of ideological belief. He first cites a classic conception of ideology as defined by Karl Marx: "[T]hey do not know it, but they are doing it." (Cf. false consciousness.) He distinguishes this from a definition given by Peter Sloterdijk in which an ideological belief is held and acted on in a cynical fashion: "[T]hey know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it."[9]

See also[edit]


  1. This definition of the hi-falutin concept of "belief" could serve almost equally well as a definition of "intuition" or of a common-or-garden "hunch". Compare: "'What is a "hunch"?'
    'Eh? It's a belief that something is so, or isn't so, without evidence.'" Robert A Heinlein: The Puppet Masters Caezik (1951) 2003, Rockville, Maryland. ISBN 978-1-64710-046-9. Page 187.


  1. Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science by Werner Heisenberg, p. 204 (1958).
  2. Peter de Vries
  3. See the Wikipedia article on Proposition.
  4. See the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on belief for further detail.
  5. Daniel T. Gilbert. How Mental Systems Believe. American Psychologist, vol. 46, no. 2, Feb. 1991
  6. Dan Sperber. Intuitive and Reflective Beliefs. Mind and Language 12 (1) (1997). pp. 67-83
  7. Dan Sperber. Culturally Transmitted Misbeliefs. Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2009) 32, 534-535
  8. Eric Schwitzgebel. Acting Contrary to Our Professed Beliefs, or the Gulf Between Occurrent Judgment and Dispositional Belief. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 91 (2010) 531–553
  9. Slavoj Žižek. Cynicism as a Form of Ideology. Excerpt from The Sublime Object of Ideology, pp. 28-30