What Does It Mean to Believe?

by  Edward W. H. Vick

Philosophy coverThe question is: What does it mean to believe?

 The following sentences express some themes of the thirteen chapters of the book.

Ask yourself these questions:
What do I believe?
Is it the same as what I say I believe, or think I believe?
Is my belief reasonable?
Is it justifiable?
Is it true?
Are these three different questions?
Have I accepted what I believe without thinking about it?
Can I believe something I do not understand?

 You will agree that some beliefs are rational and some are not.

When you accept something as true (Is that what you mean by ‘belief’?) you may or may not have considered whether it is rational, whether you understand what you believe, why you are believing it, or to what extent you are being reasonable about your belief.

Before continuing to read, you might like to take a specific example or two, preferable of a topic discussed in the book and ask some of the above questions about it, for example, miracles, self deception, identity, personal Identity, survival.

Now you have had an opportunity to ask yourself serious questions about belief and believing. If you have already given yourself answers to questions about what and why you believe you are on the verge of or have already been doing philosophy. So if you are interested you can be even more serious by looking at specific topics and by examining them at greater length. Be warned that you will need to master the vocabulary appropriate to the topic in view, and should not always be content with simple answers.

Philosophy for Believers addresses various issues in thirteen chapters, each one dealing with a particular subject of belief. What we shall now do is to take one of these topics for consideration.

Here is a representative statement of belief: I believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting.

Certain considerations immediately arise. To consider whether our dealing with them will be reasonable, we must ask the following questions:

What assumptions am I making?
How do I understand the key terms I am using?
Is the language I am using, understood in the way I understand it, adequate for the explanation I am trying to achieve?
Are the steps in my reasoning logical, i e., is the reasoning valid?
In particular: Does the conclusion I draw follow from my reasoning?

To return to our statement of belief: we notice at once that it is very short and because it is so concise it invites various interpretations. The ordinary believer says and remains content with the simplicity of the confession and holds to the restatement:

I believe we shall be given new life and that life will be never ending.

The questions that arise from this simple creedal statement give rise to a multitude of philosophical problems. Our task is to specify which of the interpretations we can reasonably consider.

Start with your initial assumptions, among them possibly answers to the following questions:

How shall we conceive the idea of resurrection?
What evidence do we have that resurrection is possible?
What do I have to believe to accept that it is possible?
What sort of life is eternal life and how is it related to my present life?
Will I be the same person in the hereafter as I am now?
Same person? So what constitutes identity, personal identity?

Now let’s take examples of a process by which you reach your conclusion.

You will note that some terms are in italics. These are the basic terms that require detailed consideration and definition. Only then will constructive and consistent argument be forthcoming and leading to a reasonable conclusion.

Example 1: I believe in the immortality of the soul

bodies do not survive,
souls may survive,
the soul constitutes the person
God is active in the process.

the constituent of the self
the soul is inherently immortal
connect the idea of immortality with the idea of the self

The life everlasting is the life of the immortal soul. The soul survives eternally.

Explanations required:
Concerning the source of the assumptions, and how they are to be justified
How to justify speaking of the soul as the constituent entity of the self
How to conceive of the soul as immortal
How to conceive of the possibility of retaining identity in the after life
How to think rationally about eternity

We now consider an example of a different interpretation of the same initial creedal statement.

Example 2: I believe in the resurrection of the body.

The idea of the soul is misconceived
It is not needed to give an account of what constitutes a person
It is therefore not needed to account for personal survival
Speak of the body to conceive the survival of the person, i.e. of resurrection
Search for a rational way of conceiving the identity of the surviving person with the original person
God is active in the process

[A hidden assumption (and all that it implies) may well be that the idea of bodily resurrection is what is taught in Christian Scripture and so should be the proper subject of rational explanation. However the philosophical treatment must stand on its own rational feet.]

The idea of survival is to be connected with the concept of the body
The concept of bodily survival can be conceived rationally
This is achieved by introducing the idea of personal identity, continuing after death though resurrection
The concept of replication achieves the desired result
Resurrection of the body to eternal life is a reasonable belief

You will note that some terms are in italics. These are the basic terms that require detailed consideration and definition. Only then will constructive and consistent argument be forthcoming and lead to a reasonable conclusion.

Explanations required:
Assumptions should not be taken for granted. Since we are engaged in a philosophical exercise, even if a primary source of a key assumption is that it represents the teaching of Christian Scripture, the argument will rest on the validity of the reasoning involved, i.e., the validity of the logic by which the conclusion is reached.

We have taken the theme of chapter 11 as our subject. There are thirteen chapters altogether, each one dealing with an interesting theme of both general interest and also of interest to Christians. These chapters are supplemented with tutorials and Work Sheets. This makes the book suitable for use in the classroom, as well as for individual study.

Having considered the above explanation I propose you attempt an answer to the following question:

How does philosophical discussion affect the understanding of your belief?


  1. make some general statement(s).
  2. take a single belief that is important for you and examine it.