Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Three Meanings of "Believe"

In current English usage, the phrase “I believe in [X]” has at least three distinct meanings.

1)The Positive meaning: “I think [X] exists”
2)The Normative meaning: “I think [X] is good”
3)The (until I find a better term) Trust meaning: “I trust [X]”.

Much can be hidden behind this ambiguity.

Sometimes context makes the intent obvious. For example, “I don’t believe in pre-marital sex.”. Since only someone completely out of touch with humanity could think it doesn’t happen, the statement is clearly normative: it isn’t good.

“I don’t believe in perpetual motion machines” is probably a positive statement – the speaker (writer, whatever) doesn’t think perpetual motion machines exist (or can exist), though there is an outside chance the speaker doesn’t like them.

If a rock climber says “I don’t believe in this rope” he can’t mean it in the positive sense – the rope obviously exists; he might mean it in the normative sense – he doesn’t think the rope is “good” for the particular use, though he may think it is fine for another use; but he probably means it in the Trust sense: he doesn’t trust it.

This last sense is close to the Latin word “credo”, “I have faith”. For example, the Christian Nicean (or Nicene) Creed begins “Credo in um Deum…”, normally translated as “I believe in one God…” but a better translation might be “I have faith in one God” or “I trust in one God”.

As usual, however, writings can be complex, so the intended Latin meaning was probably a combination of Trust and positive meaning: the Latin verb credere evidently covers both.

Consider the Milton Friedman quote in an earlier post on this blog:
‘A major source of objection to a free economy is precisely that it ... gives people what they want instead of what a particular group thinks they ought to want. Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself. ‘

What did Friedman mean by the last sentence, particularly “lack of belief in freedom itself”.

I think he meant “belief” in the Trust sense: “Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of [trust] in freedom itself.”

But some oppose free markets, or say they don’t “believe” in free markets, either in the normative sense or in the positive sense. There is the value that free markets are simply bad and immoral, and there is the point of view that free markets can’t exist – that they are impossible – in the world in which we live.

While the idea that free markets are not possible has been plainly expressed, defenders of liberty seem to have ignored or dismissed the arguments. A mistake, IMO. Future postings will address the nature of the belief that liberty and free markets are impossible and how this derives from Manichaean religious thinking.

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