Superphysics Superphysics
Section 7

The Nature of Idea or Belief

by David Hume Icon
9 minutes  • 1765 words
Table of contents

A Belief is a Strong Idea that Gives Ideas More Force

The idea of an object is an essential part of the belief of it, but not the whole.

We conceive many things which we do not believe.

Let us consider the following to discover the nature of belief.

A matter of fact is the existence of objects or of their qualities.

All reasonings from causes or effects end in conclusions about a matter of fact.

The idea of existence is not different from the idea of any object.

After we have a simple conception of anything, we do not add nor change our first idea.

When we affirm that God exists, we simply form the idea of such a being as is represented to us.

The existence we give him is not conceived by an idea which we:

  • join to the idea of his other qualities, and
  • can again separate from them.

The conception of any object’s existence is not an addition to the simple conception of it.

The belief of the existence joins no new ideas to those which compose the idea of the object.

When I think of God as existing, my idea of him does not increase nor decrease.

There is certainly a great difference between:

  • the simple conception of an object’s existence, and
  • the belief of the object.

Since this difference does not lie in the parts of the idea which we conceive, it follows that it must lie in how we conceive it.

Suppose a person asserts to me that:

Caesar died in his bed, silver is more fusible, than lead, and mercury is heavier than gold.

Despite my incredulity:

  • I understand his meaning.
  • I form all the ideas he forms.

My imagination is has the same powers as his.

It is impossible for him to: conceive any idea which I cannot conceive, nor conjoin any idea which I cannot conjoin. What then is the difference between believing and disbelieving any proposition?

The answer is easy for propositions proven by intuition or demonstration. In this case, the person who assents, conceives the ideas according to the proposition. He is necessarily determined to conceive them in that way: immediately, or by the interposition of other ideas. Whatever is absurd is unintelligible.

It is impossible for the imagination to conceive anything contrary to a demonstration. But this absolute necessity cannot take place, as in: reasonings from causation, and matters of fact. The imagination is free to conceive both sides of the question. Where is the deference between incredulity and belief? Since in both cases, the conception of the idea is equally possible and requisite. We cannot answer that a person, who does not accept your proposition, immediately:

conceives it in a different way, or has different ideas of it. This answer is unsatisfactory because it does not discover the truth at all.

Whenever we dissent from any person, we conceive both sides of the question. But as we can believe only one, it follows that the belief must make some difference between: that conception to which we assent, and that conception from which we dissent. We may mingle, unite, separate, confound, and vary our ideas in 100 different ways.

But in reality, we have no opinion until there is some principle which fixes one of these different situations.

This principle:

  • does not add to our precedent ideas, and
  • can only change the way we conceive them.

All the mind’s perceptions are of 2 kinds:

  • Impressions
  • Ideas

These differ from each other only in their force and vivacity.

Our ideas:

  • are copied from our impressions, and
  • represent our impressions in all their parts.

When you vary the idea of an object, you can only vary its force and vivacity.

If you change it, it represents a different object or impression. The case is the same with colours.

A shade of any colour may acquire a new liveliness or brightness without any other variation.

But when you produce any other variation, it is no longer the same shade or colour.

Belief only varies the way we conceive any object.

Belief can only bestow an additional force and vivacity on our ideas.

Therefore, an opinion or belief may be most accurately defined as a lively idea associated with a present impression.

There is a very remarkable error frequently inculcated in the schools, that:

  • has become an established maxim, and
  • is universally received by all logicians.

This error consists in the vulgar division of the acts of the understanding, into conception, judgment and reasoning, and in our definitions of them.

Conception is defined as the simple survey of one or more ideas. Judgment is the separating or uniting of different ideas. Reasoning is the separating or uniting of different ideas by the interposition of others. This interposition shows the relation of the ideas to each other. But these distinctions and definitions are faulty.

It is not true that we unite two different ideas in our every judgment. The idea of God, or any other idea that regards existence, is not a compound idea combined with the idea of existence. We can create a proposition which has only one idea.

Therefore, we can reason:

  • without using more than two ideas, and
  • without needing a third idea to serve as a medium between them.

We infer a cause immediately from its effect.

This inference is:

  • a true species of reasoning,
  • the strongest of all others, and
  • more convincing than when we interpose another idea to connect the two extremes.

These three acts of the understanding:

  • all resolve themselves into the first.
  • are just ways of conceiving our objects.

The act of the mind does not exceed a simple conception, whether we:

  • consider an object or several objects,
  • dwell on these objects, or
  • run from them to others in whatever form or order.

The only remarkable difference occurs when we:

  • join belief to the conception, and
  • are persuaded of the truth of what we conceive.

This act of the mind has never been explained by any philosopher, so I am free to propose my hypothesis on it:

Belief is only a strong and steady conception of any idea, approaching to an immediate impression. [Footnote 5]

Footnote 5

When we infer the existence of an object from the existence of other objects, some object must always be present to the memory or senses to be the foundation of our reasoning, since the mind cannot run up with its inferences to infinity. Reason can never satisfy us that the existence of any one object implies the existence of another. When we pass from the impression of one object to the idea or belief of another object, we are not determined by reason, but by custom or a principle of association. But belief is somewhat more than a simple idea. It is a way of forming an idea. The same idea can only be varied by a variation of its force and vivacity. It follows that belief is a lively idea produced by a relation to a present impression, according to the foregoing definition. This operation of the mind which forms the belief of any matter of fact has been one of philosophy’s greatest mysteries.

No one has suspected that it would be difficult to explain. I find it difficult to explain it. Even when I think I understand the subject perfectly, I am at a loss for words to express my meaning. I conclude that an opinion or belief is just an idea different from a fiction, not in the nature or the order of its parts, but in the way it is conceived.

But when I explain this manner, I cannot find any word to fully answer the case. I am obliged to have recourse to every person’s feeling, to give him a perfect notion of this operation of the mind. An idea assented to, feels different from a fictitious idea presented to us by the fancy alone. I try to explain this different feeling by calling it a superior force, vivacity, solidity, firmness or steadiness. This variety of terms seems so unphilosophical. It is only intended to express that act of the mind, which: renders realities more present to us than fictions, causes realities to weigh more in the thought, and gives realities a superior influence on the passions and imagination. Provided we agree about the thing, it is needless to dispute about the terms.

The imagination has the command over all its ideas. It can join, mix, and vary them in all the ways possible. It may conceive objects with all the circumstances of place and time. It may set objects in their true colours, just as they might have existed. But it is impossible for the imagination to ever reach belief.

Thus, belief does not consist in the nature and order of our ideas. It consists in how our mind conceives and feels them. I confess that it is impossible to explain perfectly this feeling or manner of conception.

We can use words that express something near it. But its true and proper name is ‘belief’. It is a term that everyone understands in common life. We can only assert that belief is something felt by the mind, which distinguishes the ideas of the judgment from the fictions of the imagination.

Belief: gives ideas more force and influence, makes ideas more important, infixes them in the mind, and renders them the governing principles of all our actions. This definition will conform to everyone’s feeling and experience.

The ideas which we assent to are stronger, firmer and more vivid than the loose reveries of a castle-builder. If one person reads a book as a romance while another reads it as a history, they receive the same ideas in the same order. The incredulity of the one and the belief of the other does not hinder them from putting the very same sense on their author. His words produce the same ideas in both. Though his testimony does not have the same influence on them. The person who reads it as a history, has a more lively conception of all the incidents. He enters deeper into the concerns of the persons. He represents to himself their actions, characters, friendships, and enmities. He even goes so far as to form a notion of their features, and air, and person. The person who reads it as a romance, gives no credit to the author’s testimony. He has a more faint and languid conception of all these particulars. He can receive little entertainment from it, except from its style and ingenuity.

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