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Series II

Lecture 4: Half-Belief

Lecture Note1

The concept of half-belief has not been much discussed by philosophers. But it is familiar to all of us. We quite often say of another person that he half-believes such and such a proposition though he does not wholly believe it. Sometimes we even say such things about ourselves, usually in the past tense. ‘I see now that at that time I only half-believed what he told me.’ I did not quite believe it, but I did not disbelieve it; and yet I was not in a state of suspended judgement about it either. My attitude was one which came fairly close to believing and yet did not go all the way; or it had some of the characteristics of believing, but lacked others. Again, when we make the too-familiar accusation ‘He does not really believe what he says he believes’, it would sometimes be more accurate, as well as more charitable, to say that he does half-believe it.

Let us begin by distinguishing half-belief from two other attitudes with which it might possibly be confused. The first is believing mildly, with a relatively low degree of confidence. The second might be called ‘believing half of…’.

With regard to the first, I assume, as before, that Locke and his followers are right in maintaining that there are ‘degrees of assent’. (Essay Book IV chapters 15, 16 and 19.) As we have seen, the lowest degree is traditionally called surmising or suspecting, and the highest degree is called conviction. Between these two extremes there are the various degrees of opinion, most commonly expressed by saying ‘I think that…’. I do think that it will be a fine afternoon though I am by no means sure about it. Or again, I am nearly sure that it will be fine, but not quite sure.

The image we have here is of a graduated scale, where 0 is suspense of judgement and 10 is absolute conviction. We need some such picture if we wish to say, as Locke in effect did, that there are two questions (not just one) which we must ask when we are considering whether a particular belief is reasonable First, we must ask whether the believer has evidence for the proposition believed. If he has none, his belief is obviously unreasonable. But his belief may still be unreasonable even though he does have some evidence for it. We must also consider the degree of his belief. He may believe more firmly than his evidence warrants. For instance, he may be in a state of absolute conviction, when his evidence is only sufficient to justify a moderately confident opinion. Indeed, this is probably the commonest form of unreasonable belief. We do not so very often believe on no evidence at all, but we quite often believe more firmly than the evidence warrants.

Now suppose I believe with only a moderate degree of confidence that I shall get a reply to my letter by to-morrow morning's post. I think it will come, but I am not by any means sure. There is nothing partial or ‘half-ish’ about this attitude of mine. For example, I do not show the symptoms of belief in some circumstances and those of disbelief or doubt in others. My attitude of mild confidence remains the same throughout the day, unless or until the evidence alters. Of course I should lose it, or at any rate it would be diminished in degree, if I learned at tea-time that my correspondent was in bed with influenza. But then I should have acquired a new and relevant piece of evidence.

It must, however, be admitted that such a moderately confident opinion could be called ‘half-belief’ or ‘mere half-belief’, if we rejected Locke's doctrine of degrees of assent, as Newman did (Grammar of Assent, ch. 6).2 If belief is a matter of all or nothing, and we are not allowed to say that you believe unless you are in a state of total conviction, it does of course follow that opinion is not believing. It would only be a kind of second-rate or partial approximation to that much admired state of absolute conviction, and someone might call it half-belief to show what a poor thing he thinks it is. But this is not the ordinary usage of the term ‘half-belief’. Moreover, it seems quite clear that there are degrees of something in our acceptance of propositions, whether we call them degrees of confidence or not. We do not have to choose between absolute conviction on the one hand and hopeless agnosticism on the other. We can accept propositions with moderate confidence on evidence known to be less than conclusive, and make use of these propositions, for what they may be worth, for the guidance of our thoughts and of our actions. Locke's doctrine of degrees of assent, and the ‘Ethics of Belief’ which goes with it, was no arbitrary invention, as Newman seems to think. Locke was merely codifying the principles which reasonable men have always followed ever since history began.

Believing Half Of…

We may now consider ‘believing half of’. We believe not only single propositions (e.g. ‘it will go on raining all day’) but also sets of propositions. Do you believe what William said? Yes, I do. But what he said consisted of a large number of propositions, a long story perhaps; and I believe the whole lot. Someone else, however, or myself in a cooler hour, might believe some of those propositions and disbelieve others, and entertain still others neutrally, neither believing them nor disbelieving them. In that case he might perhaps say that he half-believed William's story. But it would be more accurate to say that he believed half of it or part of it. (Throughout our discussion the word ‘half’ must not be taken with strict arithmetical literalness.)

A more important case, perhaps, is the one where the set of propositions in question is not just a series, but an organized or systematic body of propositions, a theory of some kind. For example, it is said that there are, or have been, people described as Christian Communists. It would be misleading to say that they half-believed the Marxist world-outlook; and if we said that they ‘partly’ believed it, we should have to mean that they wholly believed some parts of it (e.g. Marx's economic theory, his theory of social structure, his economic interpretation of history) but wholly disbelieved other parts of it. Since they were also Christians, we must suppose that they altogether disbelieved Marx's Atheistic metaphysics, and his materialistic theory of human personality. Whether their attitude was a reasonable or self-consistent one is of course another question. The more tightly organized and systematic a body of propositions is, the more difficult it is to accept some parts of it and reject others without falling into a logical inconsistency somewhere. But clearly this attitude of ‘believing half’ of does exist, and it is psychologically possible to hold it (though perhaps logically reprehensible) with regard to a systematically organized body of propositions.

It is worth while to add that just because half-believing and ‘believing half of’ are different, they can be combined. I may half-believe the first half of William's story, but disbelieve the second half altogether. Someone might half-believe Marx's theory of social classes, but reject all his other doctrines completely.

Some Examples of Half-Belief

So much for what half-belief is not. First, it must be distinguished from believing mildly, and secondly from ‘believing half of…’. If we wish to understand what it is, the best plan is to consider a number of examples. Half-belief is a fairly common phenomenon. We may have half-beliefs about many different subjects. Some of these subjects are of great importance and others are trivial.

Let us begin with the most important case of all, religious half-belief. Here is a man who half-believes the basic propositions of Theism. (We will suppose that he half-believes them all, in order to avoid complications about ‘believing half of…’.) What makes us say that he only half-believes them?

The position seems to be that on some occasions he acts, feels and thinks (draws inferences) in much the same way as a person who does believe these Theistic propositions. But on other occasions he acts, feels and thinks in much the same way as a person who does not believe them, or even as a person would who had not heard of them at all. For instance, it seldom occurs to him to say his prayers except on Sundays. He does not usually forgive people who have wronged him, and he hardly ever turns his other cheek to the smiter. Yet when he is in Church on Sundays it is very different. He not only behaves outwardly as a pious person would. He also assents inwardly to what is said or sung, and really does have the appropriate emotions of reverence, contrition and thankfulness. Indeed, when those positive symptoms occur in him (including the private and introspectible ones) they may well be symptoms not of a mild belief but of a strong one. Perhaps they occur on other occasions too, for example when he is reading a book of popular theology in the evening, or arguing about its contents with an Agnostic neighbour who has come in to have coffee with him.

It would not be fair to describe this man as a hypocrite, someone who pretends or professes to believe what he actually disbelieves or doubts. Nor would it be fair to say that his religion is just a matter of outward conformity. He resembles a hypocritical conformer in some ways, but not in others. For he really does assent to these theological propositions on some occasions; and then he not only behaves outwardly, but also thinks and feels inwardly, as a genuinely religious person would. His religious attitude is not just a pretended one. But it is, so to speak, a part-time one. It is operative only in some parts of his life but not in others. He is seldom in it except on Sundays.

We may also have half-beliefs about much less important matters. All the same, such trivial half-beliefs are interesting both to the philosopher and to the psychologist. For example, there is the half-belief that it is unlucky to walk under a ladder or to start a journey on a Friday. ‘Unlucky’ is presumably to be interpreted as a probability-word. Walking under a ladder is supposed to increase the probability that something disadvantageous will happen to one within—say—the next twelve hours. Again, there is the very common half-belief that 13 is an unlucky number, for example that evil consequences of some kind will probably follow if you spend a night in a room or a house whose number is 13. In some British hotels the room between No. 12 and No. 14 is called ‘12A’ I recently heard of a block of new flats where the flat between No. 12 and No. 14 was called ‘57’ (presumably because 5 + 7 = 12, and No. 57 was regarded as a kind of variant for No. 12). Another example is the curious superstition about touching wood. ‘Have you ever had trouble with the brakes of this car?’ ‘No, touch wood’ the driver replies. Some people do actually touch wood when they say this, or fumble about in their pockets to find a pencil, and they feel quite uncomfortable if there is no wood within reach. They have a half-belief that if wood is not touched, the disadvantageous event which has been mentioned is more likely to occur. Again, someone may have a half-belief that the churchyard is haunted. He does not mind walking through it in daylight or in company, but he avoids walking through it alone on a dark night.

Aesthetic Half-Belief

We may perhaps find examples of rather a different kind if we consider activities which are not wholly serious, such as reading novels or watching plays or cinematograph films. To put it more technically, let us consider one very familiar form of aesthetic experience and ask whether half-belief is an element in it.

There are of course several different types of aesthetic experience, and perhaps aesthetic theorists have sometimes overlooked these differences, which may account for some of the rather extraordinary things they have said. I cannot see that half-belief plays any part at all in the experience we have when we enjoy a landscape painting, or when we enjoy an actual visible landscape in the physical world. Perhaps it plays no part in a very musical person's appreciation of music, and he just enjoys a very complex pattern of sounds. But certainly there are aesthetic experiences which have a propositional character, experiences in which the entertaining of propositions plays an essential part. The propositions are conveyed to us by means of spoken or written words, or sometimes by means of pictures, as in a silent film, or by means of visible actions or gestures, as in a pageant.

What is out attitude to these propositions? Is it at least sometimes an attitude of half-belief? Sometimes it does seem to be a belief-like attitude, which has at any rate something in common with half-belief, though ‘near-belief’ might perhaps be a better name for it.

It would be generally agreed that if we are to appreciate a novel or a play there must be what Coleridge called a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. But one may suspect that there are some people for whom this suspension of disbelief is not enough. For them, it is only the first stage, and they pass through it into a more positive attitude: not quite an attitude of belief, but something near it. In their case, there is indeed a voluntary suspension of disbelief when they open a novel and begin to read Chapter I, or when the curtain goes up at the theatre. But afterwards, when they have become absorbed, as we say, in the novel or the play, the state they are in is not merely an absence of disbelief, but something more, and something more positive. It is a state in which they almost believe (for the time being) that the events narrated by Sir Walter Scott did really happen as he described them, or that Hamlet's father really was murdered by Hamlet's uncle. They do not quite believe it, but neither do they just refrain from disbelieving it.

Of course, we must not suppose that everyone who goes to a theatre or reads a novel gets into this attitude of near-believing. No doubt there are highly civilized and highly intellectual persons who do not. Probably they do not get beyond suspension of disbelief, and do not need to. For them the neutral state of neither believing nor disbelieving may well be sufficient to enable them to follow the story with interest and attention.

But there are others, more naive or less hard-headed, for whom mere suspension of disbelief is too cold and too neutral an attitude, and if they remained in it they could not enjoy the story they are reading or the play they are seeing. These people get ‘carried away’, as we say, by the story or the play: carried away into a state which does resemble belief, though it is not complete belief.

There are other ways of describing this state of mind: for example, ‘while Tommy is reading a novel or when he is at the cinema he isn't in the real world at all’. This is a rather picturesque way of saying that he is in the state of near-belief we are discussing, a state of near-belief with regard to propositions which do not correspond to actual facts. Again, one of the many things we might mean by calling a person ‘imaginative’ is that he has a tendency to slip into belief-like states of this kind. The trouble with Tommy is that he is such an imaginative boy.

To turn to examples of a rather different kind, let us consider what is called ‘make-believe’. The reader will remember the child who plays bears in Professor Ryle's Concept of Mind (p. 258). We will suppose that the game is to pretend that the fur rug on the drawing room floor is a bear. At first there is not even a suspension of disbelief. There is only acting ‘as if’. This is how I interpret Ryle's statement that ‘the child… knows, while in the well-lit drawing room that he is only playing an amusing game’. He disbelieves the proposition ‘that is a bear’ though he does his best to behave as he thinks a person would who believed it. But later he goes off to a solitary landing, and now he ‘feels faint anxieties’. A suspension of disbelief seems to have occurred on the way, though not exactly a willing one. And finally, ‘in the darkness of a passage’ he ‘cannot be persuaded of his safety’. Apparently he has ended by half-believing that there is a bear in the house. Or perhaps when he got as far as the landing, he was already in a state of half-believing, and by the time he reached the dark passage he fully believed. As Ryle himself points out, ‘make-believe is compatible with all degrees of scepticism and credulity’.

It may be added that half-belief seems to occur sometimes when a person is dreaming or hallucinated, though not of course always. (Usually there is full belief; and occasionally there is full disbelief—the man is quite sure that the experience is ‘only a dream’ or ‘only a hallucination’.)

One might also suggest, though with hesitation, that some mentally disordered persons (not all) are in a state of half-belief about their own ‘fantasies’ or ‘delusions’—the curious and complicated sets of propositions, often ordered in a surprisingly systematic way, which they enunciate to anyone who is willing to listen to them. No doubt such a person does not disbelieve the propositions he asserts. He is not just a liar. And certainly he goes beyond entertaining them in a neutral manner, neither believing nor disbelieving. Yet perhaps he does not wholly believe them either, though he comes a good deal nearer to full belief than the novel-readers and play-goers mentioned before. Possibly a similar state or half or three-quarter belief may also occur in the lighter stages of hypnosis, though not in the deeper ones.

Discussion of these Examples

If I am right so far, there are many examples of this queer state of half-belief, and we can find them in several different departments of human experience. What are we to make of them?

Perhaps it will, be suggested by someone that what I have called half-belief is after all just belief, though it may often be belief of an unreasonable kind. For instance, it might be said that the rather unsophisticated or over-imaginative novel reader just believes what he reads in the novel. We should have to add, of course, that his belief is only temporary. It ceases, or quickly fades away, when he shuts the book or when a visitor comes to see him. But many beliefs are short-lived, and this does not prevent them from being perfectly good beliefs while they last. For a time I believed that the train would arrive punctually. But I ceased to believe so when it had taken an hour to cover the first 20 miles.

Again, it might be suggested that the man who avoids walking under ladders does just believe (however unreasonably) that walking under ladders has bad consequences, and the man who touches wood does believe that touching wood averts misfortune.

After all, these people act as if they believed, and they often go to considerable trouble in consequence. They step off the pavement into a muddy street or even into a street full of traffic, to avoid the ladder; they hunt about in their pockets in order to find a pencil or other wooden object which they can touch, or go a very long way round to avoid walking through the churchyard in the dark. Moreover, they show the emotional symptoms of belief, for example discomfort or unrest if there is no wood within reach or no way of avoiding the ladder. Our novel-reader or playgoer shows them too. He is moved to tears, as we say, and quite often this is literally true; tears do actually run down his cheeks.

Of course, these people will not admit that they do believe these propositions; not even to themselves, and still less in public. Such an admission, in a scientific age, would be too disreputable, and is only to be expected of someone who has almost heroic candour and strength of mind. But one may hold beliefs, permanent or temporary, without admitting even to oneself that one holds them.

This proposal to dispense with the concept of half-belief altogether (for that is what it comes to) can be made to look plausible, because there really are people who wholly believe what most people only half-believe. No doubt there are some who do wholly believe that their chances of suffering misfortunes are increased if they walk under a ladder or spend the night in room No. 13: they wholly believe it, though they will not admit that they do. And there may be a few who are in a similar state of complete belief when they are reading a novel or watching a play, though they would not admit it either.

But I do not think that this is the usual situation. Let us consider the man who is watching a play. His emotions and his behaviour are in some ways like what they would be, if he believed that the events represented on the stage were really happening. So are his intellectual activities too. He asks himself questions about what he sees and hears (‘Can it be that the private secretary was the murderer after all?’) or he considers what inferences might be drawn. (‘It looks as if Hamlet had studied metaphysics when he was at the University of Wittenberg.’) But though the man's emotions, behaviour and intellectual activities are like what they would be if he believed, the likeness is not complete. He is in a state resembling belief. But he keeps this state of his in a watertight compartment, as it were. When the heroine falls into the clutches of the villain, he does not rush out of the theatre and ring up the police. He is emotionally moved, and perhaps strongly moved, but not quite in the way he would be if the events witnessed were taken by him to be ‘real life’ events. His emotions are genuine enough. He does really feel them and is not just pretending. All the same, they are not wholly serious. And his intellectual activities—the questions he asks himself and the inferences he considers—are not wholly serious either, though he may put quite a lot of thought into them. (A parallel case is the literature on the early career of Sherlock Holmes.)

Again, the ordinary person who avoids walking under ladders does not seriously believe that walking under ladders does any harm, or at any rate he does not believe it with complete seriousness. We notice that if it is very important for him to get to his destination quickly (for example, he will miss a train if he does not hurry) he does not seem to mind the ladder at all. He sees it—there it is, in front of his nose—but he goes straight under it without hesitation. He himself, if he thinks about his experience afterwards, will be able to notice that he felt no qualms at all about doing the thing which he ordinarily avoids so carefully. It is the same with the child who was playing bears. You go and find him in the dark passage and inform him that Christmas presents are to be opened downstairs, and his fear of the bear vanishes away.

A half-belief, then, seems to be something which is ‘thrown off’ when circumstances alter. In some sorts of contexts one is in a belief-like state with regard to a proposition, but in others one disbelieves it or just disregards it. Or perhaps we should say that in some contexts to which the proposition is relevant one is in a belief-like state about it, but in other contexts to which it is equally relevant one disbelieves it or disregards it (‘There is a bear in the hall’ is very relevant if one has to go downstairs). In both sorts of contexts, the evidence for the proposition—if there is any—remains the same, and the probability of the proposition is as great, or as little, as it was before. But with the change of context your belief-like attitude to the proposition disappears. It may return later when the context changes back again. This is what happens to the religious half-believer discussed earlier.3 Next Sunday his belief-like attitude will revive.

Is Half-Belief Unreasonable?

Finally, we may ask whether it can be reasonable to hold a half-belief. We commonly use two criteria for deciding whether a belief is reasonable. First, there is the evidential criterion, the one which Locke emphasized in his ‘Ethics of Belief’.4 A belief is reasonable if it is supported by the evidence which the believer has, and if the degree of his belief corresponds to the strength of the evidence. Secondly, there is the consistency criterion. In a reasonable man, any belief which he holds during a given period is consistent with all the other beliefs which he holds during that period.

Now some of the half-believers we have discussed have no evidence, or only very weak evidence, for the propositions which they half-believe. There is not really very much evidence that spending a night in bedroom No. 13 is likely to lead to unfortunate consequences. To be sure, I may have a puncture when I continue my journey next day. But the frequency of punctures does not seem to be appreciably greater for drivers who have spent the previous night in a room or house numbered 13 than it is for drivers in general. Again, when we are watching Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and the actor playing the part of Caesar says ‘The Ides of March are come’ this is very poor evidence for the proposition ‘to-day is the Ides of March’; and the child in the dark passage has very little evidence for the proposition that there is a bear in the house.

Nevertheless, a half-believer might quite well have good evidence for a proposition which he half-believes. To judge from their conduct, many people only half-believe that exercise is conducive to health, or that one is less likely to do a good morning's work if one has gone to bed at 2 a.m. But there is strong evidence for both these propositions. Again, on a dark, cold, dreary day in mid January some people can only half-believe that five months hence there will be some days when the afternoon temperature will reach 70° F. Yet there is good evidence for this proposition. The case of the religious half-believer is a specially complicated one because it involves half-believing ‘in’ as well as half-believing ‘that’. He not only half-believes that God exists; he half-believes in God as well. But it would be rash to suppose that there cannot be any good reasons at all for holding either of these half-beliefs.

Half-believers, then, need not necessarily offend against the evidential criterion of reasonableness. But they do at first sight appear to offend against the consistency criterion. In some contexts, the half-believer acts, feels, and draws inferences as if p were true, and in other he acts, feels and draws inferences as if p were false, although the evidence for p (strong or weak) has not altered at all in the meantime.

But is this unreasonableness? It could equally be said, and perhaps better, that a half-believer is in some degree a dissociated or disintegrated personality. To put it very crudely, with one part of his mind, the part which is operative in circumstances A, B and C, he believes such and such a proposition: with another part of his mind, which is operative in circumstances D, E and F, he does not believe it or even disbelieves it. There is nothing very shocking in this suggestion. No one, perhaps, is a completely integrated personality in all respects and in all circumstances.

Even so, we might be inclined to say that half-belief is ‘a bad thing’, something dishonourable to human nature or unworthy of a rational being. No doubt we are justifiably ashamed of some of our half-beliefs. One should not even half-believe that it is disadvantageous to walk under ladders, if there is no evidence to support this proposition. But I cannot see that there is anything shameful about aesthetic half-beliefs, for example the half-belief that to-day is the Ides of March, although all the available evidence shows that it is the 9th of November. As to the religious half-believer, it is presumably a ‘sign of grace’ that he does at any rate half-believe that God exists, and moreover half-believes in Him. What he should be ashamed of is that he does not believe wholly.

Moreover, if we were unable to hold half-beliefs, it would be much more difficult for us to change our convictions. And surely it is sometimes a very good thing to change them. In order to be ‘converted’ from believing not-p) to believing p, it is almost inevitable for many people that they should first pass through an intermediate stage of half-believing p. This is most obvious where p and not-p are not just single and isolated propositions but organized systems of propositions (‘theories’ or ‘outlooks’). For then our belief is liable to influence a large part of our conduct and our emotional attitudes. But the same is true sometimes where the belief which has to be changed is of a less complex kind: for example my belief that So-and-So disapproves of me, if he is a person whom I have much to do with.

In such cases as these, it is no simple matter to give up one belief and change over to another, however strong the evidence is which suggests that such a change is called for. No doubt it is easy enough to give up the belief that it will remain fine all the afternoon. We do not need to pass through an intermediate stage of half-believing that it will rain before tea-time (though even here, we sometimes do). But this is not true of all changes of belief.

It would be a mistake, then, to say without qualification that half-belief is ‘a bad thing’, interesting only as a pathological phenomenon. There are occasions when it is a very good one.

  • 1.

    This lecture is a revised version of the orally-delivered Gifford Lecture on Half-Belief. It was read at the joint session of the Aristotelean Society and Mind Association at Reading in 1964 and printed in the Aristotelean Society Supplementary Volume for 1964. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of the Editor.

  • 2.

    See Series I, Lecture 6.

  • 3.

    See pp. 305–6, above.

  • 4.

    See Series I, Lecture 6.

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