Believing Again

Aristotle and Plato engage in philosophical discussion.

To say that the human mind is complex is a vast understatement.  Cognitive functions such as believing, hoping, and desiring are intertwined and interrelated to such an extent that each resists reduction to simple explanation.  The relationships between these processes are at times unilateral, and at times multilateral; parallel at times and perpindicular at others.

Further complicating matters is the nexus which forms between multiple disciplines when  studying the workings of the human mind.  The principles of philosophy, psychology, sociology, logic, and linguistics all come to bear with equally convincing force upon the subject.  Notwithstanding these and other limiting factors, the concept of belief is explored.

Defining Belief
According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a belief is “the attitude we have, roughly, whenever we take [a proposition] to be the case or regard it as true.”   Hence, a belief is often referred to as a propositional attitude.  Depending on the subject and the proposition, attitudes will vary.   For example, Joe [the subject]  might believe [the attitude] that there exist other Earth-like planets [the proposition]; Jane might hope that there exist other Earth-like planets; and still John might want there to be other Earth-like planets; and so on.  Of all the mental processes, contemporary considerations of belief hold it as the first and foremost of the propositional attitudes.  Beliefs are what provide the foundation and form the support for other cognitive and affective mental activities. Therefore, understanding the nature of believing and how it gives rise to other thought processes and behaviors is imperative in effecting a positive mental attitude and outlook.

The Relationship Between Belief and Knowledge
Epistemology is the philosophical study of the relationship between knowledge and belief.  The two concepts are related to such an extent that discussion of one would be incomplete without consideration of the other.  Classical philosophy defines knowledge as justified true belief.  In general, a belief is justified if one has good reason for believing the proposition to be true.  The relevant implication of this definition is that, in the absence of knowledge, it is possible to believe a proposition that is not true, that is not justified, or that is neither justified nor true.

Example 1:  Justified True Belief (Knowledge)
Jim believes that birds can fly.  The justifier is his belief in his own powers of perception (his having observed that birds do fly).  Because the proposition is justified and true, Jim knows that birds can fly.
Example 2:  Justified False Belief (Misapprehension)
Joe believes that he can swim from the boat to shore.  The justifier is Joe’s belief that he is a good swimmer.  Unfortunately, when he tried to swim to shore, Joe drowned.  Joe did not know that he could swim to shore, even though he justifiably believed it.
Example 3:  Unjustified True Belief (Chance)
Andrew has a terminal illness.  The medically accepted prognosis is that he will die within three months.  Andrew believes that he will live for another twelve months.  If Andrew lives for another twelve months, it could not be said that he knew this fact.  Even though his belief was true, it was not justified in light of the persuasive medical evidence to the contrary.
Example 4:  Unjustified False Belief (Delusion)
Sal believes that intelligent life exists on Mars.  This belief is based upon inference to another belief — that the markings on the surface of the planet could only have been made by Martians.

Methods of Justification
In Example 4, Sal’s belief that intelligent life exists on Mars is not justified because the inferential belief — that the markings on the surface of the planet could only have been made by Martians — is not itself justified (there is no logical reason to believe that the surface markings could only have been made by Martians given the compelling empirical evidence to the contrary).  Beliefs must be justified to operate as valid  justifiers of other beliefs.  In other words, A is justified by B only so long as B is justified by C.  The question thus arises as to what methods or processes may be reasonably relied upon to justify beliefs.  Two common methods are perception and logic.

According to the Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science, perception is “the process of attaining awareness or understanding of the environment by organizing and interpreting sensory information.”  Sensory information is derived from the interaction of our sense organs with the physical environment.  Take, for example, a tree in the yard.  The tree is referred to as the distal stimulus.  Light from the tree enters the eye and strikes the retina.  Neural signals are then generated and transmitted to the brain in a process called transduction.  These neural signals, referred to as the proximal stimulus, are processed and interpreted by the brain and form a mental recreation of the distal stimulus.  This mental recreation is referred as a percept.  Through the process of perception, the subject believes that there is a tree in the yard.  Under some philosophical theories, perceptual beliefs are justified without further inferential support and therefore are foundational.

Unlike perceptual beliefs, some beliefs rely on inferrential support for justification.  When logically related to one another, these inferrential beliefs take the form of a precondition, a rule, or a conclusion.  Inferrential beliefs are derived by deduction, induction, or abduction.

Deduction (Determining the Conclusion):
When it rains, the grass gets wet.  It rained.  Therefore, the grass is wet.
Induction (Determining the Rule):
The grass has been wet every time it rains.  Therefore, when it rains, the grass gets wet.
Abduction (Determining the Precondition):
When it rains, the grass gets wet.  The grass is wet. Therefore, it may have rained.

Perceptual Bias
While rational beliefs may be formed by perception and logic, the reality is that both of these methods of justification are subject to human error.  Misperceptions and logical fallacy give rise to unjustified, irrational beliefs.  One such error in judgement is caused by perceptual bias.

Transduction of sensory information is a purely a “bottom-up” neurological process, but the formation of percepts involves a variety of other “top-down” cognitive  processes.  As such, the perception of the distal stimulus is often biased by prior  learning, memory and expectations.  Alternatively stated, while our perceptions shape our beliefs, those perceptions were ultimately based upon existing beliefs.

The contrast effect is a form of perceptual bias.  Observe the following image known as the checker shadow illusion first published by Edward H. Adelson, Professor of Vision Science at MIT:

Checker Shadow Illusion – Image One

In Image One, checker “A” and checker “B” appear to be different colors.  But is seeing really believing?

Checker Shadow Illusion – Image 2

In Image Two, a rectangle of solid color has been drawn connecting checker “A” to checker “B” proving that the two boxes are actually the same color.  The perceptual belief that the checkers are different colors is not true.  The illusion was induced by the expectations formed from prior experience observing checker patterns, hard and soft edges, and the casting of shadows.  These perceptual biases led to the formation of a false belief.

Additionally, the distal stimulus may itself be ambiguous and subject to multiple interpretations.  Take, for example, Rubin’s Vase which was developed by Danish psychologist Edgar Rubin:

Rubin’s Vase

Depending on whether the visual perspective is focused on the foreground, the background, or both; one might perceive a white vase, two black faces staring at one another, or both a vase and two faces at the same time.

Perceptual bias is not limited to optical illusions.  It also impacts how we see ourselves and others in a social context.  In social experiments, people who are primed to think of someone as being “warm” are more likely to perceive positive traits in that person than they are in someone whom they are primed to think of as “cold”.

Cognitive Distortions
Cognitive distortions are exaggerated and irrational thoughts and often times constitute logical fallacies in the chain of inferrential beliefs.  Overgeneralization, jumping to conclusions, emotional reasoning, and magical thinking are examples of common cognitive distortions.

Overgeneralization:  The belief that limited experience and evidence can be reasonably extrapolated into broad generalizations.  Use of words like “always”, “every”, and “never” is a good indicator that one is engaging in overgeneralization.  Types of overgeneralization include:

  • Mental Filter:  Negative details are magnified while anything positive is filtered out.  For example, John gives a presentation to his colleagues.  Many of them compliment his work, but one colleague is critical of it.  From this single criticism, John believes that he did a poor job.
  • Magnification/Minimization:  Insignificant results or events are believed to be significant (“making a mountain out of a molehill”), while significant results or events are believed to be insignificant.  For example, Jim uses illegal drugs.  He believes his drug use is no big deal because he is only harming himself.
  • All-or-Nothing Thinking:  Everyone and everything can be categorized as “black” or “white” with no shades of gray.  This cognitive distortion is typical of perfectionists.  For example, Jill is on a diet, but has a bite of cake.  She now believes that her effort at dieting is a complete failure.
  • Disqualifying the Positive:  Positive results and experiences are discounted for arbitrary, ad hoc reasons.  For example, Miranda compliments Jane’s hair.  Jane discounts the compliment and instead believes that Miranda is only trying to be nice.
  • Labeling:  The belief that specific behavior or events can be broadly characterized in negative terms.  For example, Alice lost her job due to reduction in work force.  From this event, Alice labels herself “a loser” because she doesn’t have a job.

Jumping to Conclusions:  The belief that a conclusion (usually negative) can be reached based upon little, if any, evidence.  Types include:

  • Mind Reading:  The belief that one has special access to the thoughts of others.  For example, Angie walks by Jim without saying anything to him.  Jim automatically believes that Angie is angry with him.
  • Fortune Telling:  The belief that one can predict outcomes before events take place.  For example, John believes that if his employer knew that he suffered from mental illness, he would be fired.

Emotional Reasoning:  The belief that the experience of emotion is an accurate reflection of reality.  For example, Bill is afraid of flying in planes.  He therefore believes that travel by plane is very dangerous.  Types of emotional reasoning include:

  • Should Statements:  The belief that there are ironclad rules that apply to ourselves and others.  When applied to oneself, “should statements” precipitate guilt.  When applied to others, “should statements” precipitate anger and frustration.
  • Personalization/Blame:  The belief that if something goes wrong, oneself or someone else is at fault.  For example, Betty notices that Kim is in a bad mood.  Betty thus believes that she did something to upset Kim.

Magical Thinking:  The belief that two events which occurred closely in time are related without reference to a causal connection.  For example, Mary crossed her fingers, made a wish, and soon thereafter won the lottery.  She now believes that crossing her fingers will bring her good luck.  Magical thinking is the source of superstition.

Irrational beliefs born of cognitive distortion negatively impact how we see ourselves, how we see others, and our overall world view.   Psychologists believe that cognitive distortions perpetuate disorders such as anxiety and depression and contribute to negative behaviors such as those exhibited by chemically dependent persons.  Beliefs born of cognitive distortion lack consideration of contrary evidence and result in denial of alternative belief possibilities.

The Edifice of the Mind
When conceptualizing mental processes, it is helpful to draw an analogy to a multi-story building.  Perceptual beliefs comprise the elements of the foundation.  The columns, beams, and the braces represent the chains of inferrential beliefs.  Perceptual and inferrential beliefs combine to form the foundation and skeletal support for the edifice of the mind.

Beliefs provide the foundation and skeletal support for the Edifice of the Mind.

The future Shanghai World Financial Center

However, the edifice would be incomplete without the installation of additional fixtures. Floors, ceilings, walls, staircases, doors, and windows are all attached to the skeletal support to achieve full functionality.  These superficial fixtures represent other propositional attitudes, such as hoping and desiring, as well as emotional responses.

Under ideal circumstances, the edifice is built upon a solid foundation of unbiased perceptual beliefs  which need  no further support.  The columns, beams and the braces are undistorted and have been formed with logical reasoning.  The inferential beliefs are fully justified.  In sum, the foundation would easily support the structure, and the structure would be assembled in such a way to provide overall stability and cohesion.  The fixtures are well-anchored and aesthetically pleasing.  Such an edifice would be impermeable to decay and unsusceptible to collapse.  It would be as structurally sound as a newly built, state-of-the-art skyscraper.

Unfortunately, in practice, the elements of the foundation include both unbiased and biased perceptual beliefs.  The columns, beams, and the braces are molded from both the steel of logic, and the paper of cognitive distortion and logical fallacy.  These biases, fallacies and distortions constitute structural weaknesses in the edifice of the mind.  The shaky foundation and fallacious, distorted structural support proliferate resulting in destabilization in other areas of the building.  If left undetected, what begins only as a defective support column could lead to the collapse of an entire side of the building.  The state-of-the-art skyscraper is thus reduced to rubble.

Inspecting and Repairing the Edifice
Given the reality of structural weaknesses in the edifice of the mind, it is important to consider how one might maintain what is in good order and restore what has gone to decay.  This is accomplished by replacing irrational and biased beliefs with objective, rational thinking.  Continuing the analogy to the building, the edifice must be inspected and repaired as follows:

1.  Look for superficial damage to fixtures.
Irrational beliefs, like a shifting foundation and defects in skeletal structure, are difficult to identify.  On the other hand, cracks in the plaster, collapsing floors, and windows that spontaneously explode are obvious signs of greater problems.  Like superficial damage to structural fixtures, undesired emotional responses the harmful behaviors which flow therefrom are readily apparent.  Noticing negative emotional and behavioral responses provides the opportunity for discovering and repairing the ultimate source of these difficulties — irrational beliefs.

Joseph notices that he feels very uncomfortable when he walks into a crowded room.  The undesired emotional reaction is anxiety.  The resulting negative behavior is isolation.

2.  Inspect the structural elements.
Replastering cracked walls and replacing broken windows will serve little purpose if defects in the structural elements are left undiscovered.  The superficial damage would eventually return.  Likewise, to effectively address undesired emotional responses and negative behaviors, it is necessary to consciously identify the underlying irrational beliefs.  To begin the process of identification, ask yourself the question “why do I feel this way?”.  Continue to trace the beliefs down the chain of inference.

Returning to the example of Joseph who experiences anxiety upon entering a crowded room, consider the following diagram:

Notice that the underlying beliefs are preconditions, rules, and conclusions in the chain of logical (or, in this case, illogical) reasoning.  The preconditional belief  — “You won’t like me” — is fraught with overgeneralizations (all-or-nothing thinking, mental filter, and disqualifying the positive) and jumping to conclusions (mind reading and fortune telling).  The rule — “I am what you think of me” — is born of the distortions of magnification and magical thinking.  The conclusion — “I am not likeable” — is an example of labeling among the other overgeneralizations.  These distorted beliefs destabilize the edifice of the mind, proliferate throughout the structure giving rise to still other distorted beliefs.  The damage is often devastating.

3.  Inspect the foundation. 
Where perceptions are skewed by bias, the edifice has been built upon a sand foundation.  Before undertaking renovation and repair, it is therefore necessary to inspect the foundation. This is accomplished by analyzing perceptual beliefs.  While perceptual beliefs require no inferential support, the checker shadow illusion readily demonstrates that beliefs born of perception are not necessarily true.  Additionally, Rubin’s Vase serves as a reminder that an ambiguous distal stimulus is often subject to multiple interpretations.

Therefore, while it is generally safe to rely on perception in the formation of foundational beliefs, one must always be aware of the limitations imposed by perceptual biases.  Perception must be tested objectively to guage its reliability.  Remember that the biases inherent in learning, experience, and expectations can, and often do, distort the formation of perceptual beliefs.

4.  Make necessary repairs.
Now that the various sources of damage to the structure have been identified, it is necessary to make repairs to restore the edifice and to prevent further decay.  This involves replacing the distorted beliefs and logical fallacies with rational thoughts.  The process of restoration and repair begins by challenging the irrational beliefs and perceptual biases in an objective manner.  In essence, it is the process of moving from narrow-mindedness to open-mindedness; from pessimism to optimism; and from delusion to reality.

For example, Joseph should ask and answer the following series of questions to help remove the influence of perceptual bias and cognitive distortions:

What evidence do I have that __________?
Are there other explanations?  What are they?
Is the belief only true to a degree?  If so, to what degree?
Has my own behavior contributed to the problem?  How?
What can I do to make it better?
What is the worst thing that could happen?
What would I tell a friend if he said these things to me?
What effects are these thoughts having on me?
Is it reasonable for me to hold these beliefs?  Why/why not?
What cognitive distortions give rise to these beliefs?
What would happen if I changed these beliefs?
What would would I rather believe?

Whether or not to make repairs to the edifice is a decision the owner must make.  Having made a full inspection and considered all of the alternatives, action is required to effect any meaningful change.  Will the faulty structural elements and cracks in the foundation be repaired, or will the edifice of the mind be condemned due to blight?  If the choice is to make repairs, then it is necessary to actively replace distorted, irrational beliefs with those derived through the lens of objectivity and reason.  Ultimately, whether or not to hold onto old ideas or to adopt new beliefs is a matter choice.

5.  Consult experts in the field.
Sometimes repair projects are too complex for the run-of-the-mill handyman.  Good intentions can result in more harm than help when the necessary experience and skill is lacking.  If a multi-million dollar skyscraper needed major foundational and structural repair, the owner would consult experts in the fields of construction and engineering. Similarly, where cognitive restructuring demands major overhaul, professional assistance from psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists and/or counselors is often necessary.

As a practical matter, beliefs are held because the subject believes them to be true. Therefore, identifying irrational beliefs often requires a level of objectivity that the believer is lacking and which can only be provided by a neutral third-party with experience and expertise in restructuring the edifice of the mind.

Returning to the example of Joseph, with assistance he might learn to believe differently.  After objectively considering the evidence and reviewing his past in an unbiased way, Joseph might come to believe that people generally like him.  The irrational belief that he can read the minds of others and make predictions upon such a faulty premise could be expelled.  Furthermore, his need for validation from others is replaced by the belief that he can determine his own self-worth.  As a result, Joseph would no longer feel anxiety when entering a crowded room, and his isolatian would yield to positive social interaction.  With proper restructuring, the edifice of his mind is restored to splendor.

Zalta, Edward (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, The Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, 2011.

Coons, Dennis and Mitterer, John, Introduction to Psychology: Gateways to Minds and Behavior, Cengage Learning, 2008

Nadel, Lynn (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science, Vol. 3, London: Nature Publishing Group, 2003.

Burns, David D. M.D., The Feeling Good Handbook, William Morrow Publishing, 1989.

Beck, Aaron M.D., Cognitive Therapy and Emotional Disorders, International Universities Press, 1975.

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