A Typology of Beliefs

1. Introduction. The goal of this essay is to analyze the cognitive structure of beliefs. While beliefs vary tremendously, from sacred beliefs that are codified in texts to scientific hypotheses about the cosmos, I want to understand the structure of beliefs as encoded in the common sense of various human cultures. For that purpose, I focus on the kind of everyday suppositions, inferences, judgments and expectations that transpire during the process of living a life in a given social context. These beliefs are often tacit and effortless, without any overt reasoning or reflective analysis.

Suppose you are leaving home for work and while walking to the subway station, you notice that everyone is carrying an umbrella. You might want to head back home and get your own umbrella. Here, the belief that rain might be in the offing dictates your actions via an unconscious inference about the link between umbrellas and rain. Beliefs can also guide action without any mediation from inference. When your mother comes and tells you that your friend is at the door, you believe her and walk to the front of the house. There is no need for inference; your trust in your mother’s testimony is enough. Similarly, consider the following two sentences that might equally well inform our beliefs about John being late:

  1. While John was driving to his house, he remembered that he was supposed to be at a meeting and he immediately turned around and drove back to his office.
  2. While John was driving to his house he got stuck in a traffic jam behind an old red Honda.

The first statement has an inferential form of the type “I should be at work, but I am heading towards my house, therefore I should drive back,” but what about the second? It only has a temporal order, and there is no sense in which “there is an old Honda” follows logically from “John was caught in a traffic jam”. Yet, most of our oral and written communication (and spoken and written language informs most of our beliefs) is of this form. Importantly, while the second sentence does not have an inferential structure, it does have a recognizable narrative structure and sounds plausible enough to our ears, unlike the third sentence below.

  1. While John was driving to his house, he turned into a dragon and ate a couple of pedestrians.

What makes the first two beliefs acceptable in ordinary discourse, while the third isn’t? I believe that the answer to that question has to do with the cognitive structure of beliefs. This essay is an attempt to develop a theoretical understanding of the cognitive structure of beliefs in the form of a typology of beliefs, which I believe to be a first step towards a far reaching analysis of beliefs. An adequate typology is a precondition for any explanatory account, for it delineates the phenomena that need modelling. This essay bases its typology of beliefs on a series of interrelated claims:

  1. The production and comprehension of beliefs lies at the foundation of cognition.
  2. The structure of beliefs has two aspects: a ‘production structure’ that dictates which beliefs that are generated and a ‘comprehension structure’ that dictates which beliefs are understood. Both the production and comprehension structures are further sub-dividable.
  3. The logical/inductive structure of a belief (if there is one) is a subset of the structure of production and comprehension of a belief. In particular, the production structure consists of narrative patterns more general than the inferential patterns normally studied.
  4. Further, and most importantly, beliefs are fundamentally tied to a social context, with tacit assumptions about the size of the community to which the belief is addressed.

Each one of these factors — potential narratives, the social community, the degree of acceptability, the perceived value — is fluid and changes from context to context. The religious fundamentalist who insists on a strict interpretation of a sacred text and enforces social relations consistent with that interpretation, is often more than happy to call his friends on their cell phone to tell them about his understanding of the same text. So when is a belief change acceptable and when is it not? Some new beliefs and actions are so egregious that the originator is rebuked, ostracized or worse and others are embraced as the next new thing. Indeed, beliefs wouldn’t change if someone didn’t come along and say something different, but, as we all know, some changes are more acceptable than others. Is it possible to study beliefs theoretically and computationally in a manner that’s sensitive to the circumstances in which beliefs (or as is more likely, a cluster of beliefs) are altered? A good place to start would be a definition; after all, we need to delimit the phenomena we want to model.

2. A Preliminary Definition. I want to define the theoretical notion of beliefs with daily life activities in mind. Consider eating practice. In most western cultures, people eat with a knife and fork, with the fork on the left of the plate and the knife to the right. In India, in most places, people eat with their right hands. Both of these eating practices are beliefs. What is common to them (and to all beliefs in our account) are three things — they are acts that are shared across a community, they are remarkably stable over time (compared to the time scale of the act of eating) and they come in tightly coupled clusters (for example, in western cultures, the decision to put the fork to left and the knife to the right is paired with other decisions about where the soup spoon goes etc). In general, I define a belief as follows:

Definition. A Belief is a guide to a stable social act directed towards a community such that:

  1. Generically, the Believer wants the community to share the contents of that belief
  2. Generically, the community wants to accept that belief.
  3. Beliefs come in clusters, a modal combination of acts that are interrelated within a larger frame (say eating).
  4. The goal of the community is to make sure that each cluster of beliefs is transmitted successfully across time.

In the next few sections, I flesh this definition into a typology of the structure of beliefs. Our account of beliefs is based on a “structural level” of analysis, which assumes that human beliefs are not primarily created and acted upon for rational reasons, but they still have some underlying structure. The structural level of analysis makes the following key assumption:

Between the biopsychological levels of unconscious processing and the rational agent of economics and international relations lies an autonomous level of tacit, shared beliefs and acts that are socially enacted, communicated and justified using narrative structures.

Our goal is to elucidate the structure of this level. As I have mentioned before, the structure of beliefs can be divided into two: production structures and comprehension structures. The production and comprehension structures operate against the background of three kinds of constraints: sociality, narrative/ritual structure and normativity.

3. A Typology of Beliefs: Sociality, Narrativity and Normativity.

(a ) Sociality : Every belief comes with a (perhaps tacit) community that is a potential audience for the belief. When you ask your wife whether she has seen your favorite coffee mug and she replies that it is next to your computer in the study, you are both sharing a belief that has the family (where, for example, everyone knows the identity of the favored coffee mugs) as its tacit community. When talking to a stranger on the train about the death of Michael Jackson, you are sharing beliefs that bind almost everyone on earth. These beliefs are mostly traded back and forth in informal social networks that belie whatever formal affiliations we might have. For example, nation states have many formal institutions and hierarchies. For example, during the periods when Pakistan is a democracy, the chief of army staff (COAS) is nominally subservient to the elected Prime Minister. However, as we all know, practice and precept are not quite the same in this case. More commonly, we are all aware of the power wielded by a Director or CEO’s personal assistant, a person whose official position in the hierarchy can be quite low. Informal connections go beyond the subversion of official hierarchies. They also reflect networks of patronage or friendship that stem from personal or community history. Once again, let us turn to Pakistan. We know that as a feudal society, much power is wielded by a relatively small number of landed families. These families have members in the army, bureaucracy and party politics and exert power without any explicit conspiracy to do so. The very fact that there are relationships of trust is enough to create influence.

To be more precise, a formal network captures the official link s between nodes/agents occupying (typically hierarchical) positions in a network of institutions while the informal network captures the relationships of trust, power and influence based on personal connections and shifting loyalties that mark actual human conduct. I think that each person is a member of a few (say, not more than seven) ‘typical’ set of social networks: family, friends, work, religious affiliation, hobbies/sports, city, state, nation. Sociality is primarily a constraint on the production of beliefs, i.e., the producer of a belief has the intended community in mind.

(b ) Narrative structure . In formal networks, we can model the patterns of influence using game theory, i.e., in terms of explicit bargaining between institutional actors. Explicit goals and strategies with explicit payoffs dominate the analysis of formal networks. Informal networks on the other hand may not be so concerned with payoffs as much as they are constructed around various forms of story-telling. As anyone who goes to a South Asian bazaar knows, bargaining is itself ritualized and part of an elaborate narrative structure. One can think of the narrative structure of beliefs in terms similar to the Gricean axioms for language use, i.e., a pragmatics of belief propagation with the following principles:

  1. Communities share a common narrative. These narratives are non-accidental features in the sense that the story is a highly unlikely belief in the space of all possible beliefs which is why they are easy to remember and propagate quickly through a community.
  2. Small sub-communities are the locus of change. In other words these sub-communities are the people within the community who hold the communal narrative explicitly, and they are also standard bearers of this communal narrative. The common narrative flows from them to the community and back.
  3. Most communities replicate their communal narrative in each generation, mostly without change. However, within communities that are under stress, these small groups can have in-group pressure to compete with each other since they all share the same beliefs. This may lead to the production of additional narrative elements or of a radical revision of the common narrative.

An important reason for the power or narratives in informal networks is the density of connection s. In formal networks, agents do not know much or share much with other agents in the network. Everything that they know about each other is from painstaking and explicit fact finding. The Cuban missile crisis is a good example of a situation where the cultural and political distance between the two sides was such that there were no established stereotypes or patterns of engagement. The India-Pakistan situation is rather different. The two sides share a long and contentious history, ways of thinking and other commonalities that make the gestalt laws of behavior far more applicable. Here, political narratives about ‘us’ and ‘them’ are as important as explicit goal setting.

Narratives themselves have a rather complex typology. A full typology of narratives is beyond the scope of t his essay, but I highlight five different narrative strategies that correspond to five different types of beliefs:

  1. Temporal narratives: These are narratives that consist of a sequence of events recited in temporal order such as “ This Sunday, I need to go shopping for shoes and I also need to make a trip to the grocery store.” In temporal narratives, there is no logic or overt cause connecting the different events in the narrative.
  2. Causal narratives: These are the narratives of causation in common sense as well as scientific reasoning, like “Mosquitoes cause Malaria.”
  3. Rational Narratives: These are narratives that adduce reasons for events being the way they are such as “He could not have murdered Mr.X since he was out of town that day.”
  4. Habitual/ritual narratives: These are narratives that recite how something is to be done because of an established protocol or because of cultural tradition. Recipes, ritual acts and daily routines fall under this heading.
  5. Analogical narratives: These are narratives of the form “X is so and so, because X is like Y,” for example, when you say “John has his fathers temper.”

The production of beliefs is determined by a combination of these narrative structures. Religious beliefs, for example, can be a complex combination of causal (god created the world in seven days), rational (thou should not) and ritual (going to Church on Sundays) narratives.

(c ) Normativity . If sociality and narrativity are about the production of beliefs, normativity is primarily about their comprehension. We are constantly evaluating beliefs according to tacit norms of conduct. Here, I single out three norms of belief evaluation: acceptability, certainty and sacredness.

  1. Acceptability: Every belief/act is evaluated for how acceptable it is in a given social context. Ties and shoes are important for best men but not on the tennis court.
  2. Certainty: We evaluate every belief according to the degree of certainty we grant to it. We are far more likely to believe that it will rain today than about winning the lottery today.
  3. Sacredness: Every belief is rated for its value to our general conceptual/emotional system. Some beliefs are entirely negotiable — whether it will rain today or not being one — and others are entirely non-negotiable — religious beliefs for example. Correspondingly, we might reason about beliefs using different patterns; we are utilitarian about commodities we buy in a supermarket, but very careful about our children’s education.

There are perhaps many other tacit norms that come into play in the evaluation of beliefs, but the general idea remains the same: beliefs are produced with a narrative structure and target audience in mind and evaluated with a battery of norms suitable to the context. So the macro-typology of beliefs as I conceive them looks like the figure below:

4. Discussion and Conclusions. Normally, beliefs are individuated according to their content so that the usual classification takes the form: religious beliefs, beliefs about nature, beliefs about social relations etc. Our approach is more abstract; beliefs are classified structurally according to abstract principles that are common to beliefs independent of content. For example, when evaluating the degree of sacredness of a belief, one person might concentrate on its religious foundation while another might look for secular values such as its environmental sustainability. Further, an inviolable value in a given context (such as brushing teeth before bed) might not generalize at all to other social contexts. Nevertheless, all of us evaluate a belief for its sacred value in a given context. Therefore, we can be confident that sacredness is part of a cognitive typology of beliefs. The same argument applies to the other structures: sociality, narrativity and normativity. All of these appear essential to the cognitive structure of beliefs.

Since beliefs are remarkably varied, our typology is only a first step in uncovering the cognitive structure of beliefs. A further refinement might involve the kind of action/knowledge guided by the belief. For example, beliefs guide daily rituals (you might always shower before going to bed, while another person might shower first thing in the morning), common sense knowledge (clouds of a particular color might be seen as rain bearing clouds), stereotypes (you might prefer one neighborhood grocer to another because of the perception that the preferred one gives you the best vegetables) and various preferences (for food or clothing, for example). Some of these forms are tied to knowledge (common sense beliefs), while others have no truth value even in principle (food preferences for example), some others are guides to action (such as daily rituals) yet others are dual encoding (stereotypes regulate knowledge as well as action). The outcome of a belief is a dimension that can be added to the typology in figure 1. While the details of the typology will change, the principles underlying the typology remain the same: the structural categorization of beliefs should be based on the regularities underlying daily life phenomena like eating food, driving to work, saying your prayers, making phone calls. The world hangs together just fine for most people most of the time since it is “deeply regular”. The science of beliefs should be about the study of these deep regularities, of which our typology is a first, rough analysis.

To summarize, the typology of beliefs outlined in this essay makes the assumption that beliefs are fundamentally social mental states The sociality of beliefs makes narrativity a crucial condition for producing a belief and normativity a crucial criterion for evaluating a belief. However, beliefs are not entirely social; they are also tied to knowledge and action in the world of physical objects. For beliefs tied to knowledge, truth is another norm. For beliefs tied to action, effectiveness is a relevant norm. The typology of beliefs raises some natural questions about the other norms that regulate beliefs such as “what is the relationship between acceptability and truth?” and “how do unacceptable beliefs become acceptable and vice versa?” These are questions that point the way to a larger cognitive and computational exploration of belief.

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