Belief in its general acceptation, denotes a persuasion or an assent of the mind to the truth of any proposition. "In this sense belief does not relate to any particular kind of means or arguments, but may be produced by any means whatever: thus we are said to believe our senses, to believe our reason, to believe a witness. Belief, in a more restricted sense, denotes that kind of assent which is grounded only on the authority or testimony of some person. In this sense belief stands opposed to knowledge and science. We do not say that we believe snow to be white, but that we know it is white.
In the original structure of our mental constitution, a firm foundation has been laid for the perception of truth. We set out in our intellectual career with believing, and that, too, on the strongest of all evidence, so far as we are concerned-the evidence of consciousness. Dr. Reid, in his Inquiry into the Human Mind, seems to think that we have been endowed with two original principles-a principle of veracity and a principle of credulity-both of which he regards as original instincts. The first of these is a propensity to speak and to use the signs of language, so as to convey our real sentiments. "When I reflect upon my actions most attentively," says Dr. Reid, "I am not conscious that, in speaking truth, I am influenced on ordinary occasions by any motive, moral or political. I find that truth is always at the door of my lips, and goes forth spontaneously if not held back. It requires neither good nor bad intention to bring it forth, but only that I be artless and undesigning. There may, indeed, be temptations to falsehood which would be too strong for the natural principle of veracity, unaided by the principles of honor and virtue; but, where there is no such temptation, we speak truth by instinct." That there is such an original tendency both to speak the truth and to believe, we readily admit; and it is the possession of such a principle which fits us for appreciating evidence and feeling the force of argument. If by the word instinct be meant an original principle of our nature, we are not disposed to object to the use of the expression by Dr. Reid in speaking of our tendency to believe; but there seems to be no necessity for the assertion of two original principles, the one leading us to speak, and the other to believe the truth. It is enough, surely, that we set out at first with a tendency to believe dogmatically and firmly, and are thus far unacquainted with doubt or error. If such be the original framework of our constitution, truth will ever, while we retain our nature, be our native element, and therefore always more familiar to us than falsehood. There may be temptations to forget this characteristic element of nature, and to transgress the boundary of truth; but in doing so we are violating the original law of our mental structure, and the moment that the unnatural pressure is removed, the mind will return to its former tendency to speak truth rather than falsehood. Thus formed, we are prepared to believe, in the first instance, every thing indiscriminately; but when reluctantly compelled to admit the existence of falsehood, we do not, because we cannot, part with the original tendency to believe. Hesitation and doubt are introduced, not so, however, as to destroy our nature; but, still retaining our partiality for the truth, we come precisely into that situation which is the best fitted for balancing probabilities, and weighing the evidence for and against any statement which is presented to us. We still incline decidedly toward the truth, and yet we are aware of the existence of falsehood, and to some extent, therefore, guarded against it. There is no necessity, however, for an original principle of credulity in opposition to that of veracity. It is sufficient that truth is the rule, falsehood the exception; and if the inclination preponderates in favor of the rule, we require no more than a simple knowledge that there are exceptions. Thus it is that man has been provided by his Creator with a standard by means of which he may judge of the truth and reality of things. And while, therefore, we define belief to be the agreement or disagreement of objects and qualities with this state of things, it must be borne in mind that the primary laws of consciousness, the ultimate conditions of thought, are the means according to which this agreement or disagreement is ascertained. The standard of truth lies deep in the constitution of man, and if he fails to judge rightly in reference to any statement, the error is to be found, not in the standard, but in a perverse misapplication of the standard. And herein lies the difference in the opinions of men. They are each of them provided with an unerring standard in so far as they are concerned. They do not, because they cannot disbelieve the primary laws of thought or self- consciousness; but in the application of these they commence a system of error, and therefore of doubt, leading at length to disbelief. The original belief is certain, because the standard is certain on which it is grounded; and could all other facts and events be brought back to the same standard, the judgment, as to their truth or falsehood, would, so far as we are concerned, be unerring. Now the great design for which, in every case of doubt or disputation, evidence and arguments of every kind are adduced is, that the appeal may be carried through a variety of different steps to this, the highest, the purest, the most certain of all earthly tribunals-the reason, not of an individual man, but of humanity. This is the common platform on which men of all characters, of all sects, of all opinions, may meet in cordial agreement. The principles are the common property of the race in general; they are the conditions in virtue of which they assert their position in the world as rational and intelligent creatures. Without such common principles all evidence would be powerless, all argument unavailing. Without an original standard of truth in his own breast, this world would have become a state of universal scepticism; nay, rather, for such a state of things is impossible, there would have been no ground for either belief or doubt, affirmation or denial" (Gardner, Cyclopedia). On the relation of the will to belief we cite the following from Hopkins (Lowell Lectures, 1844). "It is true within certain limitations, and under certain conditions, and with respect to certain kinds of truth, that we are not voluntary in our belief; but then these conditions and limitations are such as entirely to sever from this truth any consequence that we are not perfectly ready to admit. We admit that belief is in no case directly dependent on the will; that in some cases it is entirely independent of it; but he must be exceedingly bigoted, or unobservant of what passes around him, who should affirm that the will has no influence. The influence of the will here is analogous to its influence in many other cases. It is as great as it is over the objects which we see. It does not depend upon the will of any man, if he turns his eyes in a particular direction, whether he shall see a tree there. If the tree be there he must see it, and is compelled to believe in its existence; but it was entirely within his power not to turn his eyes in that direction, and thus to remain unconvinced, on the highest of all evidence, of the existence of the tree, and unimpressed by its beauty and proportion. It is not by his will directly that man has any control over his thoughts. It is not by willing a thought into the mind that he can call it there, and yet we all know that, through attention and habits of association, the subjects of our thoughts are to a great extent directed by the will. It is precisely so in respect to belief; and he who denies this, denies the value of candor, and the influence of party spirit, and prejudice, and interest on the mind. So great is this influence, however, that a keen observer of human nature, and one who will not be suspected of leaning unduly to the doctrine I now advocate, has supposed it to extend even to our belief of mathematical truth. 'Men,' says Hobbes, 'appeal from custom to reason, and from reason to custom, as it serves their turn, receding from custom when their interest requires it, and setting themselves against reason as oft as reason is against them, which is the cause that the doctrine of right and wrong is perpetually disputed both by the pen and the sword; whereas the doctrine of lines and figures is not so, because men care not, in that subject, what is truth, as it is a thing that crosses no man's ambition, or profit, or lust. For, I doubt not, if it had been a thing contrary to any man's right of dominion, or to the interest of men who have dominion, that the three angles of a triangle should be equal to two angles of a square, that doctrine should have been, if not disputed yet by the burning of all books of geometry, suppressed, as far as he whom it concerned was able.' 'This,' says Hallam, from whose work I make the quotation, 'does not exaggerate the pertinacity of mankind in resisting the evidence of truth when it thwarts the interests or passions of any particular sect or community.' Let a man who hears the forty-seventh proposition of Euclid announced for the first time trace the steps of the demonstration, and he must believe it to be true; but let him know that as soon as he does perceive the evidence of that proposition, so as to believe it on that ground, he shall lose his right eye, and he will never trace the evidence, or come to that belief which results from the force of the only proper evidence. You may tell him it is true, but he will reply that he does not know — he does not see it to be so. So far, then, from finding in this law of belief, the law by which it is necessitated on condition of a certain amount of evidence perceived by the mind, an excuse for any who do not receive the evidence of the Christian religion, it is in this very law that I find the ground of their condemnation. Certainly, if God has provided evidence as convincing as that for the forty-seventh proposition of Euclid, so that all men have to do is to examine it with candor, then they must be without excuse if they do not believe. This, I suppose, God has done. He asks no one to believe except on the ground of evidence, and such evidence as ought to command assent. Let a man examine this evidence with entire candor, laying aside all regard for consequences or results, simply according to the laws of evidence, and then, if he is not convinced, I
believe God will so far forth acquit him in the great day of judgment. But if God has given man such evidence that a fair, and full, and perfectly candid examination is all that is needed to necessitate belief, then, if men do not believe, it will be in this very law that we shall find the ground of their condemnation. The difficulty will not lie in their mental constitution as related to evidence, nor in the want of evidence, but in that moral condition, that state of the heart, or the will, which prevented a proper examination. 'There seems,' says Butler, 'no possible reason to be given why we may not be in a state of moral probation with regard to the exercise of our understanding upon the subject of religion, as we are with regard to our behavior in common affairs. The former is a thin, as much within our power and choice as the latter.'" On the relations of Belief to Faith, SEE FAITH.