Monday, October 16, 2006

Alice and Beliefing

I'm teaching Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass in my first year seminar this semester and we were having an interesting conversation Friday that led to a question I'm not sure I have a good answer for.

In Through the Looking Glass, Alice and the White Queen have the following exchange:

"You needn't say 'exactually,'" the Queen remarked. "I can believe it without that. Now, I'll give you something to believe. I'm just one hundred and one, five months and a day."
"I ca'n't believe that!" said Alice.
"Ca'n't you?" said the Queen in a pitying tone. "Try again: draw a long breath and shut your eyes."
Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said: "one ca'n't believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

The part that sparked discussion was the Queen's command "try again."

On the one hand, there are beliefs -- most of our beliefs, I would think -- that we have that we passively acquire, that is, we come to believe them without forming a desire, an intention of believing them. At the same time, there are some things that we want to believe; some of them we do believe and others we don't. For the act of trying to believe something, we coined the delightfully awkward term "beliefing" which seemed to fit the Lewis Carroll-like spirit of the conversation.

The White Queen demanded that Alice belief that she is over a century old and claimed that with enough practice, one can believe propositions that one has beliefed. Is this true?

On the one hand, there is self-deception. We have all at sometime or another fooled ourselves into believing something we knew was wrong. In such cases, did we really knowingly form a false belief or just give ourselves room to ignore the inconsistency?

On the other hand, believing does not seem like other sorts of doing. If a man with a gun said, "Believe that my great-grandmother's maiden name was Johnson or I'll kill you," I'm not sure I could do so. I could say I believe it. I could act the way someone who believed it would act. Under the circumstances I certainly would belief it, but I'm not sure that even the intense beliefing would give rise to actual believing.

Lindsay at Majikthise brought up Quine's argument (which was also in Poincare, Duhem, and Reichenbach before him) last week that we can consistently add any idea at all to our set of beliefs if we are willing to tweak, twist, and jettison other parts of our web of interrelated beliefs. But this is the logical question of whether one could consistently believe any given proposition. The question here is not the logical one, but the psychological claim whether belief can be intentional. Can the desire to believe, that is beliefing, be enough to generate authentic belief? If so, given that there are lots of things we want to believe but don't, under what circumstances does it work?