Thursday, March 5, 2009

The problem with "believe in"

People sometimes ask me if I "believe in" evolution. My usual answer is that the question makes no sense. It's like asking if I “believe in” gravity. Gravity, and evolution, are out there, they don't need me to “believe in” them.

Maybe the problem is with the English language. Consider:
  1. I believe that Tolkien created orcs as characters in Lord of the Rings.
  2. I believe that orcs exist.
  3. I believe that orcs are ugly.
  4. I believe that orcs should be killed whenever we encounter them.
When anthropologists talk about non-material culture, we usually distinguish among these by referring to (1) and (2) as beliefs, (3) as a value, and (4) as a norm. Beliefs are propositions about what is true or false; values are about what is good or bad; and norms are about what is right or wrong. Although in English we can use believe to introduce all of these, only (1) and (2) are subject to empirical investigation. We can look for evidence that Tolkien created orcs; we can also look for evidence that they exist. We cannot look for evidence that they are ugly or that they should be killed whenever we meet them.

So no, I don't "believe in" evolution. Nor do I "believe in" trees, or rocks, or raccoons, all of which exist in the world independent of my "belief in" them. I take biological evolution to be a fact of nature, without which the history of life on Earth is incomprehensible.


  1. I believe I'll have another beer.

  2. My favorite example of this was the reporter who said, back during that Amish school shooting, that "the Amish don't believe in helicopters or mobile phones, but now they're depending on them."

    Of course they believe in them: they see and touch them. What they don't do is *approve* of them. Or *see the utility in* them, perhaps; I'm not Amish.

    The word "belief" is slippery, and its use in questions such as yours implies too much to answer using it. Atheists who don't believe in God are interpreted by theists as though they were like the Amish - admitting the existence, but rejecting the use, of God, instead of as not acknowledging the bare fact of existence.

  3. As Dan Dennett (I think) says, most beliefs are trivial and true, like the belief that my keys are in my pocket right now. People make a huge fuss over a tiny minority of all beliefs while neglecting their usual properties.

  4. Ron:

    I got in a bit late on this, but I once heard soe guy claim he didn't "believe in" the Internet! Yeah, English is a flexible language, all right. Perhaps a bit too lexible,?
    Anne G


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