Beware “I Believe”

I believe in trusting my intuition. 
I believe children are our future.
I believe Jesus will come again.
I believe humanity won’t survive the century.
I believe sex is beautiful and natural.
I believe myth is more potent than history.
I believe I can do anything I set my mind to.
I believe everyone deserves a second chance.

Why say "I believe X" instead of just saying X?  After all, we typically claim to believe most what we say.  Sometimes "I believe X" indicates you are especially tentative and open to persuasion about X, but that doesn’t seem to cover the above examples, nor the famous "This I believe" essays, on authors’ "rules they live by, the things they have found to be the basic values in their lives" and "the core values and beliefs that guide their daily lives."

These examples seem to be 1) clear value statements, 2) obvious truths few would dispute, which seem to represent values, and 3) controversial factual claims.  They all seem to indicate a strong emotional attachment, which might be can be fine for values, but is a rationality no-no for factual beliefs, especially controversial ones. 

If you feel tempted to say "I believe X" and can feel your emotions swell with the evil pleasure of attachment via belief, watch out!  Beware that road to rationality ruin. 

Added:  People rarely use "I value X" as a roundabout way to express a factual belief.  So their frequently saying "I believe X" as a way to express values seems to me further evidence that people often see values not as irreducible differing preferences, but as conditional values that we would share were it not for differing fact-like beliefs.  That is, we can imagine possible worlds in which the other values would make sense, but we believe we are not in those worlds.

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  • Cyan

    I usually use the “I believe…” construction as a hedge against being wrong. I prefer to make claims about my own state of information rather than the actual state of the universe.

  • Bo

    In English, I like to use “I think…” when talking about beliefs that most people would talk about with “I believe…”.

  • Jerome

    I believe can mean “i give assent to this thing without knowledge.” But if you listen carefully that is not what it actually means when people give statements of belief. “I believe” connotes “i am engaged with this in the way i lead my life” a statement of core values or operating principles.
    example

  • Jerome

    sorry, i did not read closely your essay, when i made my first reply (i would have liked to edit it), yes i would say those examples you gave are used in statements of values. But i don’t see the problem, the point is to display strong emotional attachment. That’s the point.

  • George Weinberg

    Sometimes it’s worthwhile emphasizing that others believe otherwise.
    I believe that children are our past. Think about it. Which seems more accurate, that we were children once but are adults now, or that we have always been adults, but someday will become children.

  • George Weinberg

    I should mention that I disagree with your ideas as to what is rational and what is evil. Being right is great, but nobody is right all the time, and I think it may be better to be make sure you’re right about the important stuff rather than simply maximizing the amount of time you are right. Being right when everybody else is wrong can be very useful, both to yourself and for the advancement of human knowledge. I don’t see anything wrong with taking some pleasure in the belief that you are right when everybody else is wrong. It’s only evil if you deliberately reinforce wrong beliefs in others.

  • http://occludedsun.wordpress.com Caledonian

    Robin, consider the Nicene Creed. Why would people find it necessary to not only indicate the things they believed, but state that they were asserted beliefs instead of merely asserting them?

    People want to convince others that they believe things. They also want to convince themselves. Things that we actually believe, we don’t try to convince ourselves we believe. It’s only the things we don’t really accept, but want to for some reason, that we tell ourselves we believe.

  • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    The really sad thing is that English doesn’t seem to contain a good substitute for “I believe” that means “I value”.

    “I believe in humanity.”

    Eh? You mean you think humanity exists? Or you think humans are trustworthy?

    “No, I just mean, I care a whole lot about humanity. So that doesn’t imply any picture of present human nature that’s different from standard science in evolutionary psychology and social psychology.”

    – But how do you just say that to begin with?

    “I care?” “I treasure?” “I protect?” None of these have quite the ring of “I believe in”. Does that only say something about English, or is it built into human psychology on a deeper level?

  • http://www.nancybuttons.com Nancy Lebovitz

    I believe it’s a really good idea to ask people what they mean instead of assuming everyone means the same thing by the same words.

  • Julian Morrison

    Eliezer, I’d be suspicious of that “ring”. “I believe in humanity” is nearly always a way to say “I harbor vague beneficent feelings towards persons in the abstract”. I’d be looking to name the component beliefs and say what I’d expect differently as a conditional result. Doing that might un-tongue-tie you, too.

  • http://occludedsun.wordpress.com Caledonian

    The really sad thing is that English doesn’t seem to contain a good substitute for “I believe” that means “I value”.

    Respectfully, Eliezer, you are incorrect. English contains a perfectly good phrase to encompass that concept.

    Unfortunately, that phrase is “I have faith in”.

  • http://www.nancybuttons.com Nancy Lebovitz

    I also believe that if you come up with a neat one-liner in a serious discussion, you should think about the implications before you post it.

    There are good reasons to think about what thoughts words might imply, so that you’ll know what questions to ask.

    However, “I know what you’re thinking better than you do” is fraught with peril.

  • http://www.southofstrange.com Matt Osborne

    Thank you! I’ve been studying the fringe for a while now, and come to the conclusion that all paranoia can be distilled into the X-Files poster of the flying saucer that says, “I WANT TO BELIEVE.”

    If you want to believe in aliens you will see them. If you want to believe in conspiracies, you will see them. What goes for ghosts goes for internet smears about political candidates. Rationality goes out the window, replaced by expectation. Our inner narratives create the universe in the image of our biases.

  • http://silasx.blogspot.com Silas

    Another possibility: Thoses statements include a self-reference for emphasis. To see what I mean, look at another context:

    “It wasn’t Mary that took the money.”

    Hey!!! Why didn’t you just say, “Mary didn’t take the money”?

    “Because they I would have to say, ‘Mary didn’t take the money, but someone else did.’ to prevent you from interpreting me as ‘Mary took something other than the money’.”

    Now, back to Robin_Hanson’s examples, take a sentence like, “Children are our future.” Well, as it stands, you can’t rearrange it to place emphasis on the speaker because the speaker isn’t in the sentence! So you have to “unnecessarily” add it so that you can emphasize it. An example:

    “Children are our future.”
    Response: Oh yeah, good point, gotta watch out for them.

    “I believe children are our future [as differentiated from others who don’t place a high significance on them].”
    Response: Oh, you’re one of *those* people…
    Alternate response: Good, I just upped my prior that your preferencees match mine.

    Make sense?

    Wait, never mind, that’s basically what Robin_Hanson said.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Caledonian, it is a bad rationality sign to be trying to convince yourself you believe something.

    Eliezer, I suspect we have short phrases that say “I value” but that they don’t have the “ring” because it is feeling that we *believe* it as if it were a fact that gives us the warm fuzzy feeling.

    Nancy, you lost me on that last comment.

  • http://danielhumphries.typepad.com Daniel Humphries

    I believe this is an excellent post, Robin!

  • Jeff Borack

    Is there a difference between saying “I believe” and “it seems”?

  • Jeff Borack

    “It seems” seems to indicate you are especially tentative and open to persuasion about X without indicating a strong emotional attachment, making it a good substitute for “I believe”, but still not a good substitute for “I value”. It also sets the sentence up for a “however” or “but” reversal. “It appears” also seems to indicate openness to persuasion without the emotional attachment, and with less of a “however” or “but” setup.

    It seems my intuition is correct.
    It believe that children are our future.
    It seems like Jesus will come again, but probably no time soon.
    It seems like humanity won’t survive the century unless we change.
    It appears like sex is beautiful and natural.
    It appears that myth is more potent than history.
    It would appear like I can do anything I set my mind to, but sometime I fail.
    It appears like everyone deserves a second chance, but we don’t all get one.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    “I believe” is short for “these are my strong opinions, and I know that other people have different ones on the subject”. With the extra ingedient of “I also know, from experience, that neither of us will be able to convince the other”. And a sprinkling of “I am emotionally attached to this, and will get angry if you try and push me too hard”.

    Mix, and bake, to get a most unpleasant cake.

  • http://occludedsun.wordpress.com Caledonian

    Caledonian, it is a bad rationality sign to be trying to convince yourself you believe something.

    Correct. I wasn’t advocating the technique, just suggesting a reason why people use it.

  • http://montclairsoci.blogspot.com Jay Livingston

    I recognize two of these (#2, #5) as they come from a source outside of religion or philosophy — popular entertainment. It’s possible that the “I believe” in #2 is there just to fill out two beats in a bar. You might as easily used “for every drop of rain a flower grows,” which also would be musically awkward without the “I believe.” Belief #5 is from a longer list of several beliefs intended as a comment on the whole idea of recitations of belief. You’ve truncated the statement. The full sentence reads, “And I believe that sex is one of the most beautiful, wholesome and natural things… that money can buy.” (http://snltranscripts.jt.org/79/79smono.phtml)

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