Philosophical Problems

Are there any remaining?  I’m not sure what counts as one any more.  I’d very much like anyone to proffer something just to provoke some thought.

I stumbled upon a list of ‘logical’ paradoxes not so long ago and I thought I would pluck one that I was unfamiliar with in order to see how I would address it.  One such paradox was: 


“The Paradox of Latent Belief

Belief is a cognitive state; believing something is a matter of having a certain kind of positive mental attitude towards it, of thinking that it is true. There are, however, numerous propositions that we believe to be true even though we have never entertained them. Paradoxically, it seems that belief is independent of thought.

Take, for example, the proposition “I have more nostrils than noses.” You know this proposition, and have known it for a long time (and, as the tripartite theory of knowledge explains, belief is necessary for knowledge). However, until you read this page you had never entertained it.

This shows that belief is independent of thought, that you do not need to think a thing in order to know it. You have never engaged in any mental activity that could be described as assenting to the idea that you have more nostrils than noses, and yet you have long known that proposition to be true.

The same can be said of many other propositions: “flamingos have fewer feet than elephants”; “42 has two fewer digits in it than 1966”; etc.
If you are tempted to suggest that before reading this page you did not know these propositions, then consider the following:

You now know that you have more nostrils than noses, that flamingos have fewer feet than elephants, and that 42 has two fewer digits in it than 1966. This page did not teach you any of these things. Therefore, you must already have known them.
It seems that you can know things without ever having entertained them; belief is possible without thought.”


I am sure, and would hope, that most will be aware that something queer is occurring here. On the surface, we have what looks to be a relatively well formed and well argued point. The difficulty, of course, surrounds the use of the words ‘belief’ and ‘knowing’. As anyone unfortunate enough to have read any of my earlier ramblings here will know, I am very interested in the [philosophical] grammar of these words and the confusions they cause. In this instance, like with many sophistic constructions, issues arise immediately with the premise:

“Belief is a cognitive state; believing something is a matter of having a certain kind of positive mental attitude towards it, of thinking that it is true.”

This definition conforms to a limited number of language games; it would apply very well, for instance, to a belief in a ‘God’. Another such application could be in such a situation:

“Gary: I’m not sure I can do this.
Jon: Of course you can, I believe you can do it!”

Already a difference in this example from the first could be that Jon in fact doubts that Gary can do it but is expressing these words to encourage him, to be positive, a good friend etc. because, in fact, he lacks the belief. It could be that he hadn’t given any thought as to whether Gary could do it but, put on the spot and made to think about it, Jon reasons it through and comes to the belief that, yes, Gary just might be able to do it. The examples go on.

If you want to see all the different kinds that could apply to ‘know’ you can look back to my first post. In any case, the crux of the problem is that this ‘paradox’ suggests that ‘knowing’ and ‘believing’ are very much active processes, as if the verbs operate in the same way as ‘skiing’ or ‘shooting’. The grammar is different. It is common sense that we are aware we have two nostrils along with only one nose; then why does this paradox have any weight at all then? Why does it seem convincing? Because it is plucking our use of the word ‘belief’ out of all of the contexts from which it has its meaning, trying to give it a single, acceptable definition. ‘Knowing’ and ‘believing’, like all other words, gain their meaning from the cumulation of contexts, of language games.

Now consider these two examples of mine:

Your mother could tell you that your father is waiting in the kitchen to speak with you. Having been told this, you proceed to the living room to find no-one is there. Your mother tricked you. She now says: “You believed me, didn’t you!” And of course, you did.

Now, when you were told the information by your mother, did you ‘actively’ believe her? Were you suddenly overwhelmed with a sensation, a recognisable one, of ‘believing’? Or was there a change in your mental state? Be careful with this last one– I mean, in particular, did you ‘start believing’ in the same way that you ‘start swimming’? The word ‘believe[d]’ here is the recognition that you acted in a certain way, in response to a certain stimulus– her lie. This is what governs the use of the word. I chose a mundane and arbitrary lie on purpose, one that wouldn’t elicit a lot of excitement or response in general, in order to demonstrate that nothing need ‘go on’ inside a person for an example of ‘believing’ to occur.

To take a more black and white hypothetical example: Imagine a man who has lived in a cabin by a lake, remote and isolated from any society, for the last fifty years of his life. Every single day of those last fifty years, he has got up each morning at the exact same time to go for a morning swim in the lake. One day, he wakes at the usual time and walks to the lake only to discover it has completely dried up. Now, speaking to this man, (let’s call him Tim):

“Why did you get up this morning?”
Tim: To swim, of course.
“But the lake has dried up. So why did you get up?”
Tim: Well, I didn’t know that at the time. I just presumed it was the same as ever.
“So you ‘believed’ that the lake was still full of water?”
Tim: Yes, absolutely.

Did Tim ‘believe’ every morning as he got up during the last fifty years that the lake was still going to be there? Actively? He positively put himself in that frame of mind as he set off from the cabin? Or, by this time, had it just become an unthinking habit?

My idea here is supposed to demonstrate that our use of the word ‘believe’ has various meanings and, in these two instances, show that we use the word in acknowledgement of how a person conducts themself.*

Language is organic, this must be borne in mind at all times for, when it isn’t, that is when contrived, ‘logical’ constructions cause difficulties. By extracting words from their natural homes, from their various contexts that give them their meanings, and arranging them artificially, puzzles are formed.


Somewhat related: some of my favourite thoughts of W.’s on belief, knowledge, certainty:

“… I did not get my picture of the world by satisfying myself of its correctness; nor do I have it because I am satisfied of its correctness. No: it is the inherited background against which I distinguish between true and false.” (94 O.C.)

“If a blind man were to ask me ‘Have you got two hands?’ I should not make sure by looking. If I were to have any doubt of it, then I don’t know why I should trust my eyes. For why shouldn’t I test my eyes by looking to find out whether I see my two hands? What is to be tested by what?” (125 O.C.)

“I should like to say: Moore does not KNOW what he asserts he knows, but it stands fast for him, as also for me; regarding it as absolutely solid is part of our METHOD of doubt and enquiry.” (151 O.C.)

“I do not explicitly learn the propositions that stand fast for me. I can DISCOVER them subsequently like the axis around which a body rotates. This axis is not fixed in the sense that anything holds it fast, but the movement around it dertermines its mobility.” (152 O.C.)

* There’s an interesting parallel to be discussed here that, now at 1am, I will have to return to in a later post.