Perhaps it seems counterintuitive to define ‘disbelief’ before defining ‘belief’. Yet, in this case, approaching things ‘from behind’, can allows a definition of what does not constitute belief. Since belief is such a complex matter, it may, in fact, be effective to define ‘disbelief’ first so as to better focus on the different concepts we all lump together as ‘belief’.
Disbelief is simply ‘absence of belief’.
If I were to present you with the statement: ‘my great-grandmother’s eyes were blue’, and if you would have no way of knowing if it is true or not (no facts are supplied along with the statement and there are no means for you to obtain the facts/you do not dig for the facts). You would now be faced with two choices:
Having read some of what I have written, you could conclude that I am a reliable source and that if I say that ‘my great-grandmother’s eyes were blue’, then they truly were. While this particular belief may not alter your life to any significant degree, you invest your trust into me and accept the statement at face value.
You believe that at least one my great-grandmothers indeed had blue eyes.
You may find that even though there is no reason for my statement to be false, without any supporting evidence, there just is not enough there for you to believe the statement.
The following sub-categories of ‘disbelief’ are in not somehow official, scholarly, or in any way learned from any source. Please, do not consider these divisions as somehow ‘authoritative’ or based on any specific philosophy (something I chose never to train in – but that is tangential to the issue….) – they are just my way of looking at the principle of ‘disbelief’. Yet, I hope they will help to clarify the concept of ‘disbelief’, because it seems to me to be terribly misunderstood in current popular culture.
- Tentative acceptance (conditional acceptance)
You may decide that the information came from a credible source, so it is likely to be true. You have no reason to doubt it. Yet, you reserve committing to belief in the veracity of the statement: if more information were to come along (like, say, a statement from several people who knew my great-grandmothers, or some other unforseen event which provided contradictory data), you would have no problem changing your mind on the matter.
On an intellectual level, in the absence of further evidence, you tentatively accept the statement as true, but you do not putt any emotional investment into its veracity. Were you to learn that the statement is false, you might change your opinion of me as a source of information, but it would not greatly trouble you. Though, for now, you may behave as if the statement were true, the absence of any ’emotional investment’ in its veracity means you disbelieve it.
This is why I contend that Pascal’s wager does not constitute belief, but tentative acceptance. Therefore, in my never-humble-opinion, it is a form of disbelief: it is an acceptance on an intellectual level, but not on an emotional one. The emotional investment is, in my opinion, necessary to constitute ‘belief’.
The tentative/conditional acceptance is what, in scientific terms, is termed a conclusion. It is similar to belief, but not quite there. It asserts that according to the best information currently available, this seems likely – it is the best conclusion from currently available information – yet, this conclusion is open to ammendment as additional information comes to light. This is as close to belief as science ever gets….and, irritatingly (to me, anyway), many scientists refer to their conclusions as beliefs. In reality, when a scientist replaces conclusions with beliefs, they cease being a scientist!
- Possibility/probability assessment
Here, instead of believing the statement, or tentatively (conditionally) accepting the premise pending further data as truth, you may entertain its veracity as a distinct possibility. Perhaps you might even give it a ‘probability rating’ – whether scientific or subjective. Whether this probability is 1% or 99%, it is still a probability assessment – not a belief.
Back to scientists: if a scientist assesses a conclusion to have a high probability of being true, they may express this. Again, this is not in any way the same as belief: it is a probability assessment, without the emotional investment necessary to cross the boundary between possible or probable on the one hand and belief on the other. Irritatingly, many people (including scientists – most of whom are not really all that up on liguistics and the nuances of expressions, and many of whom are rather deaf to ‘social nuances’ to start off with) erroneously lump this position in with belief when they speak about it – yet they do not, in any way, imply belief in the religious sense..
- Absence of opinion
You may read the statement, file away in your mind that I had made it, but make no conclusion about its veracity. You simply do not care enough to believe it. It’s there, you can recall that this statement had been made, but that is really the end of it for you.
- Belief in the opposite
OK, I admit it: I am uncomfortable including belief in the opposite into the category of disbelief. Why? Because unlike the other positions, listed above, it involves holding a belief. Not a belief in the statement itself, but rather, a belief in the opposite of the statement in question. What would be the opposite? Here, you might believe that my great-grandmother’s eyes were green or brown, so long as you believe they were not blue.
This is disbelief=withholding belief with respect to the statement in question, even if it is not general disbelief.
- Belief in unknowability
Again, I am not happy to include this positive belief in the category of disbelief, but, it must be included because it constitutes disbelief with respect to this statement. The positive belief held here is that there is no way of finding out whether or not the statement is true: that the veracity of the statement is unknowable.
This is not a perfect division – and I am aware that not everybody will agree with the lines I have drawn up to distinguish belief from disbelief. Yet, I have attempted to apply logic consistently throughout. I would welcome any and all comments which would help enrich this discussion.
If you are interested in a great documentary on the topic of disbelief, I would recommend ‘Jonathan Miller’s Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief’. While I am not sure if I agree with everything he says (I’ve only been pondering it for a little over a year – and I am a slow thinker), it is interesting and thought provoking. It is available for sale, or order over the internet in various places.
Alternately, the 3-hour series can be found many places on the web… YouTube has many channels which feature it. One of them has broken it up as follows: