I have to write an essay which counts a considerable amount of my final mark on "A belief is what you
think is the truth".
Unfortunately I have not only problems with the English language but also with this question as I have
no idea how to tackle it. I would be extremely grateful if you could help me with giving me some
basics/ initial ideas.
I'm guessing that you are a Theory of Knowledge student in the International Baccalaureate (I teach
ToK). I also have problems with this question, I have to admit. It isn't obvious to me how to go about
writing a good answer, though I guess I could have a stab if I had to. If you are an IB student, then
since you have a list of ten topics to choose from, why not choose one that you like better?
I will have a go at answering the question.
A belief is something which has content.What that means is that to have a belief is always to believe
thatso-and-so. The content of a belief is given by a sentence which can be true or false, depending
on how things are. For example, the content of John's belief that it is dark now, is given by the
sentence, 'It is dark now.' His belief can be true or it can be false, depending on whether or not it is, in
I am using the words 'true' and 'false' in the ordinary sense. Someone says something you agree
with, and you say, 'That's true.' Someone says something you disagree with, and you say, 'that's
false'. In other words, truth with a small 't'.
Another point about usage: In ordinary conversation, 'think' is used in two ways. You can say 'I
think...' where you have definitely made up your mind. But you can also use 'I think...' to imply that
you are not sure. 'Is it true what I heard on the radio, that the match is cancelled?' 'I think it is true.' To
convey the sense of our question, it would be better to say, 'A belief is what you holdto be the truth,'
or, 'A belief is what you hold to be true.' I will take the question in this sense.
Not all attitudes with content are what you hold to be true. Hope is another example of an attitude with
content. Mary's hope that it is sunny in Perth has the content, 'It is sunny in Perth'. The sentence, 'It is
sunny in Perth' can be true or false, just like the sentence, 'It is dark now.' But the sentence, 'It is
sunny in Perth,' is not something that Mary holds to be true. As Mary looks out on the Sheffield night
sky, she doesn't have any idea whether it is sunny in Perth or not. She hopes that it is, for her friends
who are on holiday there.
A third group of attitudes with content are used when you know that the sentence which gives the
content is definitely false. For example, if Mary wishes that she was in Perth, this implies that she is
not in Perth. Wishing is not always like this. You can wish for things in the future, and then it is like
hoping. In wishing that I will win the National Lottery, I don't know whether the sentence, 'I will win the
National Lottery' will turn out to be true, or not.
So what? What follows from that?
There are several things that follow from this, but one issue stands out. One often hears people say,
'Everyone is entitled to their own belief. In expressing my belief, I don't mean to imply that your belief
is false. My belief is true for me, yours is true for you. Let's agree to differ.' — Of course, people who
are unable to resolve their argument have to agree to differ. No-one is disputing that. But one thing
the logic of belief forces you to say is that if John believes that XYZ, and Mary believes that not XYZ,
then Mary mustbelieve that John's belief is false, otherwise she is contradicting herself, and John
mustbelieve that Mary's belief is false, otherwise he is contradicting himself. There can be differing
beliefs, but what they aimat is one and the same truth.