I believe in the big bang

January 18, 2010 at 4:37 pm 2 comments

Alright, the other day I spotted an article on the internet in which the author said that, when asked whether he believes in the big bang, he responds no. He mentions how shocked people are at this answer, and goes on to explain that he thinks that the big bang was highly probable, appearing to assume that “believing in” must be something like religious faith. So he thinks that it happened, but does not believe in it.

Why insist that the phrase “believe in” have only this one meaning? I’ve always thought of statements like “I believe in the big bang” as saying exactly the same thing as “I think that the big bang happened”. One might object, saying that thinking that something is the case is more provisional than believing in it. I don’t see why – belief comes in degrees, so why can’t “believing in” also come in degrees, as in “I believe in the big bang to some degree”? If I suspect that a claim is true, then I believe it (or believe in it), a little.

So why not just say that one’s beliefs ought to be apportioned to the available evidence? The other approach doesn’t add anything as far as I can tell, and it encourages people to think that the phrase “believe in” has only one meaning, or at any rate that this phrase indicates a disconnect from evidential considerations. Such is not obvious to me, and why go into this linguistic issue at all when what we really care about is whether evidence is guiding the way people think?

In the critical thinking classes that I’ve taught and co-taught, I always define “believing P” or “believing in P” as “thinking that P is the case” for the purposes of the class. I explain that the meanings of words and phrases are often context dependent, and that it is helpful to have an explicit definition of key concepts that will be used in discussions. Perhaps the phrase “believe in” has some strong emotional connotation for people like the author of the article that I mentioned. Well okay, but such associations seem far from universal to me.

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Entry filed under: General.

Want a falafel ball? Что я делаю?

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. leigh  |  June 14, 2010 at 2:05 pm

    “Do you believe in evolution?” is usually taken as a question similar to “Do you believe in God?” (My usual response is to ask if the person believes in molecules, since the evidence is similar in interesting ways.) I prefer to say that I accept both.

    Reply
  • 2. Geomodal  |  November 7, 2010 at 8:35 pm

    I miss you Leigh.

    Reply

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