There was an article in yesterday’s copy of my daily newspaper, The Guardian, by Daniel Dennett, on the subject of belief in belief.
Belief in belief is a phrase that Dennett uses quite frequently, and which I first came across in his excellent book, Breaking The Spell.
It’s an expression that irritates me somewhat, I have to admit, and I wish he’d stop using it – or at least I wish he’d use different words to express it.
Maybe it’s just me, but I find the expression unnecessarily confusing. It’s the way that it uses the one word – belief – twice, each with a slightly different meaning. Philosophy’s confusing enough without it being made even more so by what is possibly meant to be a light-hearted piece of wordplay.
To take the two uses of the word belief in reverse order, the second use of the word has the meaning of conviction in the factualness or truthfulness of something. In the context that Dennett is using it in, the word is used for the conviction in the truth of the existence of God. Belief in God.
The first use of the word belief is different. It means (I assume) appreciation of the value or merit of something.
So, for instance, everybody on the planet believes in the existence of nuclear weapons, because they clearly exist. That’s the second use of the word belief. However, not everyone believes in nuclear weapons (as a sensible type of weapon with which to wage war). That’s the first use of the word belief. So if you were to say “I believe in nuclear weapons” it’s pretty obvious that you don’t mean “I think that there’s a strong possibility that they exist.” It means “I think that they’re a very good idea, and I strongly approve of them.”
The phrase belief in belief has echoes of “The Meaning of Meaning”, the title of a book by C K Odgen and I A Richards, first published in 1923. I first came across this book approximately forty years ago in a secondhand bookshop. I liked the title so much that I had no option but to buy it, even though I hadn’t got a clue what it was about.
The phrase meaning of meaning doesn’t suffer from the definitional confusion that is brought into play in the phrase belief in belief, as both uses of the word meaning have the same… (add whatever other word that you can think of that has the same meaning as meaning).