Dr Ben Holloway, Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

When we say the apostle’s creed, we are saying something about our beliefs. The subject of the verb, believe, is “I” (credo). We say, for example, that we believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead.

Consider the difference between saying it is true that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and saying we believe it. To be sure, when we say we believe it, we are saying that we think it is true. But there is a difference between saying something is true and saying we believe it. If we say it is true that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, we are saying something about the proposition and its relation to the world. As I talked about in the last post, the relationship is correspondence. A proposition is true if and only if it corresponds to a state of affairs in the world. Hence, it is true the Jesus Christ rose from the dead if and only if he really did.

When reciting the apostle’s creed, we say that we believe it. What we are claiming to be true is that we believe the statements found in the creed. When we say it in church, we are reporting out loud to others and ourselves our mental attitudes towards a set of propositions.

By introspecting on our beliefs, we can discover whether we do indeed believe the propositions listed in the creed. If we do, then we can say the creed with honestly and confidence. If not, we shouldn’t say it. Doing so is to intentionally deceive others.

Although we often talk about true and false beliefs, there is a difference between belief and truth. Suppose someone says, “I believe pigs fly.” The statement is true if and only if the person who says it thinks that the proposition pigs fly is true. Whether pigs fly isn’t relevant to the truth of the statement uttered. Since people can believe false propositions, it can both be true that people believe them and that what they believe is false.A pig with wings, flying through the sky

In sum, whereas truth is a relation between propositions and the world (correspondence), belief is a kind of mental state we have toward propositions.

More specifically, belief is a kind of attitude toward propositions (a propositional attitude). An attitude is a mental state directed (or about) something in the world. For example, having a bad attitude toward work is to desire not to do any. Longing to eat brussels sprouts is a kind of attitude toward an object in the world. Similarly, a belief is a kind of attitude toward a proposition.

There are two kinds of attitudes toward propositions. The first is similar to the attitude we might have toward brussels sprouts. They are related to our desires, affections, or other emotional states. These mental states are satisfied by the truth or falsity of a proposition. In other words, they are satisfied (or not) by the way the world is. We might hope, fear, or wish for a proposition to be true (or false).

In contrast, propositional attitudes such as belief are directed at the truth of a proposition. We might believe it (accept it as true), disbelieve it (deny it, believe its negation), or suspend judgment (withhold belief). In having such attitudes, we aim at getting the world right.

We can have multiple attitudes simultaneously. Consider the attitudes we have when reading the statements from the apostle’s creed. In addition to belief, we might delight in the resurrection of Christ, hope in our future resurrection, or fear the coming judgment.

Sometimes propositional attitudes go wrong. For example, believing a proposition only because one desires it to be true and without a reason is wishful thinking. We discourage wishful thinking because we can see the difference between propositional attitudes being truth-aimed and satisfaction-aimed. Thinking that something is true because one wants it to be is to believe wrongly. Nonetheless, some people become governed by interests apart from truth. Doing so thwarts the purpose of the attitude and leads us to become irrational.

There are other propositional attitudes that don’t quite fit our categories. For example, when reading a work of fiction, we can entertain a proposition by holding it before our minds. Sometimes we merely take pleasure in propositions. Sometimes we dislike or detest them. An author of fiction isn’t lying to the reader nor is the reader being duped. The author isn’t asserting a proposition. Instead, she exhibits propositions for the reader’s entertainment.

Another attitude occurs when we wonder whether a proposition is true. We consider it. To consider a proposition is to temporarily withhold judgment while we complete an enquiry into its truth. At some point, we form a belief, a disbelief, or we find the evidence on both sides to be roughly equal and thereby withhold judgment more permanently.

Belief Matters

It is important to check on our beliefs. At times, people nonchalantly recite creeds without a care for whether what they are saying is true, namely that they believe them. We have a kind of duty to look after our beliefs, to manage them correctly.

Apart from making sure that we believe what we say we believe, how else do we ‘look after’ our beliefs? After all, we don’t seem to have much say over them. I can’t help but believe that I am looking at my computer screen and try as I might, I see little hope in becoming a flying pig believer.

Nonetheless, we can be criticised for mismanaging our beliefs. We can resist them too little or too much, or we can hold on to them too lightly or too strongly. In the eighteenth century, Issac Watts warned about four bad belief managers. He wrote,

The credulous man is ready to receive everything for truth that has but a shadow of evidence… The man of contradiction stands ready to oppose every thing that is said…the Dogmatist believes all [his opinions] with the same assurance that he does a mathematical truth…The Skeptic believes nothing and is afraid to give assent to anything. (Isaac Watts, 1775, quoted in Richard Feldman, Reason and Argument).

To avoid becoming credulous, contradictory, dogmatic, or skeptical, we should be considering the status of our beliefs. Managing our beliefs requires us to consider their rational status. Considering their rational status requires us to consider a further question under the domain of epistemology. Epistemology is the study of the nature, scope, and source of knowledge.

For example, though belief in the resurrection of Jesus is vital, we should ask if we can go further. Can we say with similar confidence that we know that Jesus Christ rose from the dead? To answer that question, we need some analysis of knowledge itself. For it to be true that we know something, what exactly must be true of us?

We have part of the picture already. For us to know a proposition, we must at least believe it. I can’t claim to know that Jesus Christ rose from the dead if I don’t think it’s true. However, it can’t merely be a matter of belief either. Otherwise, a person who believes that pigs fly would also know that pigs fly. So, knowledge must require that what a person believes is true. Hence, we have two components for an analysis of knowledge: belief and truth.

To simplify the analysis, I am going to use the letter S in upper case to represent anything that is capable of knowledge. You can just think about any human being. If it helps, use a name such as Sam or Sarah. I will also use the letter p in lower case to represent any proposition. If you need a particular proposition for the examples, just provide your own. I tend to call upon Jesus Christ rose from the dead as my example. It is after all one of the more important propositions out there (1 Cor 15)!

Here is the beginning of an analysis of the concept of knowledge:

S knows p if and only if S believes p and p is true.

So far so good. But notice that we’ll need some additional conditions for our analysis. Just believing something true won’t amount to knowledge. It is quite possible that someone believes something true by luck, but we wouldn’t call that knowledge. The missing ingredient has something to do with the rational status of the belief. Often, we might hear about having a good reason to believe it. It is to this we will turn next.