Posted by: N.S. Palmer | December 10, 2014

Beliefs Aren’t Always Beliefs

By N.S. Palmer

Beliefs aren’t always beliefs, even if they look like them.

Suppose that you tell me:

“Abraham Lincoln was a circus performer before he became president.”

I then show you documentary evidence that he was doing something else before he became president. However, you still insist that he was a circus performer.

I ask you for evidence that he was a circus performer.

You show me a short story about Lincoln that was written 75 years after his death by someone who never saw him and who gets a lot of other historical details wrong. The story says he was a circus performer.

I point out that the story is poor evidence on which to base your belief, and that it is contradicted by all other known historical evidence.

You still insist that “Abraham Lincoln was a circus performer before he became president.”

We’ve discovered that no credible historical evidence supports your belief.

We’ve discovered that all known credible historical evidence contradicts it.

But you still insist on your belief. What does that tell us?

Well, what does it mean for something to be a historical belief?

  • It means that the belief asserts something about the past.
  • It implies that there should be at least some supporting evidence in the present.
  • It implies that any contrary evidence should at least be explicable in a way that preserves the belief.

If you make what looks like a historical assertion but it doesn’t satisfy those criteria, then in spite of appearances, you’re not making a historical statement at all. You’re doing something else.

The relevant logical principle is called Modus Tollens (“denying the consequent”). Suppose you know that if A is true, B must be true. Then as a result, if B is not true, it follows logically that A is also not true.

You might be speaking in metaphor. You might be signaling your belief in political principles associated with your belief: for example, that heads of state should come from the common people. You might be trying to encourage yourself in your own aspiration to become a circus performer. But when the plain meaning of a historical belief leads to things that you claim don’t matter, then you’re not making a historical statement.

A current example is the belief that “Officer Darren Wilson unjustifiably shot Michael Brown, who had surrendered.”

Most people who believe that, as well as most people who deny it, neither know nor care much about the evidence. To them, the evidence doesn’t matter because they are not primarily asserting things about Darren Wilson and Michael Brown. Instead, they are signaling their moral and tribal commitments.

One group wants to signal that they are not racists, while the other wants to signal that they support law enforcement. In this case, it’s the implicit rather than the explicit message that’s important. They seem to be contradicting each other, but they’re not. They’re mainly just shouting at each other to prove their various commitments, and to show off their moral goodness to other people who agree with them.

People who think of beliefs exclusively in cognitive terms find that kind of behavior utterly baffling.

The key is to understand that beliefs do a lot of things in addition to making assertions. Sometimes, the apparent assertions are almost irrelevant, and it’s the signaled subtext that really matters.

Copyright 2014 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL ( are included.


  1. A thoughtful and useful analysis. And a nice break from the shouting.

    • Thanks, Jim! I believe that your comment is much appreciated!

  2. […] My friend and colleague Scott Palmer shares a useful and rational analysis on the nature of belief, illustrated with an example from the recent Michael Brown shooting. Read Beliefs Aren’t Always Beliefs […]

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