Consider the following scenario. You are learning a difficult argument for the first time, but your prior beliefs disagree with the conclusion of the argument. It takes you significant effort to parse the argument. But once you finally understand the argument, must you necessarily believe the conclusion until you can refute it with your prior knowledge? Does a complete understanding of the argument, which you have not yet refuted, constitute belief? It seems that it should not be so, but how, if you have followed the reasoning of the argument, understood it, and not refuted it?

Edit: Suppose that you've understood the argument in question. You cannot find any flaw with it, and your logical evaluation fully supports it. However, your emotional evaluation still rejects the argument, for some reason. Perhaps it strongly conflicts with your values. Does this conflicted understanding/evaluation of the argument constitute belief? Wouldn't it be irrational not to believe? If you do not believe, how do you resolve this conflict?

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    I'm always hearing cogent arguments that sound good at the time but I later find cause to disagree with.. in humour this inability to formulate a good response at the time is called 'staircase humour'. You don't have to 'believe' anything simply in order to understand it. Most fiction and humour would be useless if you did. As a natural skeptic I live my life in a churning pot of ideas I haven't yet decided on.
    – Richard
    Commented Nov 25, 2018 at 1:20
  • Following an argument is about understanding how the structure lends to the believability of an argument. Belief in an argument's conclusion can only happen with a prior belief in its premises. One concerns logical form, the other acceptance of facts.
    – christo183
    Commented Dec 28, 2018 at 18:50

2 Answers 2


Mature human beings possess a theory of mind. They model other human beings' beliefs without holding them. Starting from about four, a child can tell you what someone else believes, at least about simple things like food and colors and what is fun or disgusting, and he can decide whether they agree.

If you had to believe an argument in order to understand it, how would you ever refute it? How, without alternating refutations, would philosophical traditions ever move forward?

Even if you find a proof fully logically compelling, if your more general emotional evaluation is different, you can pry at the premises, recast the deductions and sift through it for what part of the overall picture leaves you emotionally unsatisfied. Only then can you really add to it, or decide on an alternative theory in a fair and reasonable way.

Thought is a holistic process, and logical assent is based in finely tuned emotions. We feel something is right and complete, or we don't. That is not a metaphor. The experience of assent is an emotional reaction.

The place this is least true is mathematics. And as people like Lakatos have made obvious, it remains true even there. Take a look at 'Proofs and Refutations' some time, or read the history of the foundations of Real Analysis, as it slowly figures out what 'infinitesimal' actually means.

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    If your logical and emotional evaluations are at odds, and after reexamining the argument you cannot decide on an alternative, is it reasonable to assent to the argument, even if your emotional evaluation strongly deputes it? How does one resolve this emotional and logical conflict? For example, if you consider the conclusion of the argument immoral or absurd, should you still accept it if you cannot refute it? Wouldn't it be irrational to do otherwise?
    – Jon
    Commented Nov 25, 2018 at 2:12
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    @Jon Two emotions could always be at odds. Since logical assent and our needs for simplicity and consistency internally and with our peers are really just emotions, a 'logic vs emotion' conflict is an emotion vs emotion conflict. You resolve it the same way you resolve a fear vs anger conflict or a disgust vs attraction conflict, by figuring out at a deeper level what is really going on, and ultimately deciding which impulse is deeper, more productive, or more consonant with your other values. But that is not a philosophical position, just psychotherapeutic one.
    – user9166
    Commented Nov 25, 2018 at 2:26

It is usually taken that a belief requires an explicit or tacit commitment, that does not need to accompany understanding. Bain's definition of belief, paraphrased by Peirce, was "that upon which a man is prepared to act". Just because one followed an argument and found no flaw in it does not mean they are prepared to act on the conclusion. Bain elaborated on it in his book Emotions and the Will (quoted from the Information Philosopher article):

"It remains to consider the line of demarcation etween belief and mere conceptions involving no belief - there being instances where the one seems to shade into the other. It seems to me impossible to draw this line without referring to action, as the only test, and the essential import of the state of conviction even in cases the farthest removed in appearance from any actions of ours, there is no other criterion."

There are standard ways to distance oneself from committing to the conclusion even if one is committed to the premises and sees no flaw in the reasoning. People are pretty good at compartmentalizing, and "getting into someone else's shoes" without committing to their beliefs, think of the shrinks or police officers. Most of us acknowledge our own fallibility, so we always allow for a chance (however small) that something was overlooked, or that our mind was tricked. Consider the famous All-Triangles-Are-Isosceles fallacy. The reasoning is very persuasive, pretty much no one spots the flaw on the first go, but it hardly makes anyone believe the conclusion even for an instant. People rather feel tricked, and sometimes curious to find out how.

Apparently, compartmentalization and the difference between understanding and belief have practical consequences in the psychology of learning that teachers have to be mindful of, as discussed e.g. in Distinguishing between Understanding and Belief by Chinn and Samarapungavan:

"We provide an illustration showing that teachers' interpretations of what students have learned can be seriously in error when they do not consider both understanding and belief... It is easy to think of instances in which students understand - or at least partly understand - an idea learned in school while believing a completely different idea. Creationists studying evolution may arrive at a good understanding of evolutionary theory but still believe creationism.

[...] Students are often viewed as constructing a single knowledge structure; they are either tacitly assumed to believe this knowledge structure, or belief is ignored altogether. By contrast, when we distinguish between understanding and belief, we assume that students learning a new topic in school may construct at least two separate conceptual structures. One structure is their understanding of the ideas they are being taught; the other structure is the set of ideas that they themselves believe."


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