We have shown that a belief in the reality of the existence, both of
mind and of matter, as _causes_, is one of the implanted principles of
mind. Some philosophers have claimed that there is nothing in existence
but mind, and that all that is called matter is simply _ideas_ of things
in the mind itself, for which there is no corresponding reality. Others
have claimed just the opposite: that there is no such existence as an
immaterial spirit, but that soul is the brain, or some other very fine
organization of matter.
In both cases, the assumptions not only have no evidence to sustain
them, but are contrary to the common sense or reason of all mankind, and
never can be really believed.
When _perceptions_ are called into existence by the agency of the
senses, we can not help believing that things _are as they appear to
us_, unless we have some evidence of deception either from disordered
sensation or some other cause.
But in regard to our _conceptions_ we have two classes. One class is
attended with the belief that they correspond with realities, or the
things they represent. The other class is not attended with this belief.
For example, we can conceive of a house of a color, form, and details
such as we never saw, and this conception is not attended with any
belief of the reality of such an existence; but when we conceive of the
home of our childhood, this conception is attended with a belief of the
reality of the thing conceived.
This illustration furnishes the means of defining “_truth_” as “_the
reality of things_.” We _conceive_ the truth when our conceptions
represent correctly the reality of things, and we _believe_ the truth
when we feel this correspondence to exist. We believe falsehood when we
have a conception attended by a feeling that it represents the reality
of things when it does not.
All our comfort, success, and happiness depend upon _believing the
truth_; for just so far as our belief or faith varies from the reality
of things, we shall meet with mistakes, disappointment, and sorrow.
Our beneficent Creator has so formed our minds and our bodies that, in
their natural, healthy state, our _perceptions_ correspond with the
reality of things uniformly, while, as before stated, our belief or
faith also thus corresponds.
It is very rarely the case that disease or other causes prevent this
uniform correct perception and belief in regard to all things that come
within the reach of our own senses.
It is only in regard to that knowledge that we gain from the _experience
and testimony_ of others, or from the _process of reasoning_, that we
become liable to a false belief.
Men often impart their conceptions of things to us, and we find that
they do not correspond with realities.
We also, by a process of reasoning, often come to conceptions of things,
and a belief in them, which we find to be false.
_Evidence_ may be defined as all those causes which tend to produce
_correct_ ideas of truth or the reality of things.
Inasmuch as we find by experience that human testimony and the process
of reasoning do not uniformly conduct us to right conceptions of
realities, we find that there are different degrees of belief according
to the nature of the evidence presented.
The highest kind of evidence is intuitive knowledge, which is a uniform
result of the constitution of mind and its inevitable circumstances.
This is called _intuitive knowledge_ or _intuitive belief_.
All other evidence is gained by _experience_ or by _reasoning_. The
experience of other minds we gain by testimony. This is called the
_evidence of testimony_.
Belief differs in degrees according to the nature and amount of evidence
perceived. The highest kind of evidence produces what is called
_certainty_. It is the kind which is felt in reference to the intuitive
truths. There are all degrees of faith, from the highest certainty to
entire incredulity or unbelief.
This fact lays the foundation for a distinction in practical matters
which it is very important to recognize. It is often the case that there
is an amount of evidence that produces a conviction which rests in the
mind, but does not produce its appropriate _practical_ result. For
example, a man in feeble health has read enough on the subject to be
convinced that a daily bath in cool water would tend to restore
strength, and yet the belief does not secure the practice. But on a
review of the books which produced the conviction, or on hearing some
lecturer on health, the conviction becomes more powerful, and leads to a
Now, in reference to the fact that there are multitudes of convictions
which are inoperative, which, if vividly realized, would become
principles of action, there is a distinction made, in common parlance,
between a dead or ideal faith, and a living or practical faith. Still
more is this distinction recognized in matters of religion, as will be
The question whether faith or belief is under the control of the will,
or whether it is necessary and inevitable, is one of very great
importance both in regard to our happiness and our obligations.
If belief is not under the control of the will, it must be because
either the mind has not the power of directing its attention to
evidence, or because it is so made that, when it perceives the truth, it
can not distinguish it from falsehood.
In regard to the first alternative, the control which the mind has over
its own train of thought has been definitely pointed out and described
in the articles on attention and on the will. It appears that _the will_
is the regulating principle, which governs all mental operations by
selecting the modes of happiness which the intellect shall be employed
in securing. Whatever mode of present or of general happiness is
selected, immediately all conceptions which the judgment discerns as
having a fitness for accomplishing this object become vivid and
distinct, and recall their associate conceptions. Thus it is the choice
of any mode of enjoyment by the will which determines the train of
When, therefore, any question is brought up which demands attention to
evidence, if the mind has some desire to gratify, and the intellect
discerns that the conviction of this truth will interfere with this
chosen plan of happiness, the will refuses attention to what is not in
consonance with the leading desire of the mind. Where conviction of any
truth is foreseen to interfere with some plan of enjoyment already
chosen, the only way by which attention can be secured is by exhibiting
some evil that will follow inattention which will more than
counterbalance the good to be gained. In this case, the mind may choose
to attend, and run the hazard of losing the particular mode of enjoyment
sought in order to avoid the threatened evil from inattention to
This is the method men pursue in all their intercourse with each other.
They find that their fellow-men are unwilling to believe what is
contrary to their own wishes and plans. But when they determine that
belief shall be secured, they contrive various modes to make it appear
either for their pleasure or their interest to attend to evidence, or
else they exhibit some evil as the consequence of neglecting attention.
The only mode by which mankind are induced to give their thoughts to the
concerns of an invisible world is by awakening their hopes of future
good to be secured, or by stimulating their fears of future evils. It
thus appears, from the laws and operations of the mind of which every
person is conscious, and also from the conduct and recorded experience
of mankind, that the mind _has_ the power of directing its attention to
The other alternative which would establish the principle that belief is
not under the control of the will is, that truth, when seen by the mind,
can not be distinguished from falsehood. But this, it can be seen,
involves a denial of the principles of reason and common sense. It is
saying that the mind may have the evidence of the senses, memory, and
all the other principles included in the laws of reason, and yet not
believe it; for every process of reasoning is, in fact, exhibiting
evidence either of the senses, memory, or experience, that a certain
truth is included under a primary truth.
The only position which can be assumed without denying the principles of
reason and common sense is, that belief, according to the laws of mind,
is exactly according to the _amount_ of evidence _to which the mind
gives its attention_.
In order to belief, then, two things are necessary, viz., _evidence_,
and the _choice of the mind to attend_ to this evidence. When both of
these are attained, the belief of truth and the rejection of falsehood
The influence which the will and desires have upon our belief accounts
for the great variety of opinions among mankind on almost every subject
of duty and of happiness.
There are two ways in which the desires and wishes regulate belief. In
the first place, by preventing _attention_ to the subject which would
lead to the belief of truths that are inconsistent with the leading
desires of the mind. This, in a great measure, will account for the
great variety of religious belief. Religion is a subject which is felt
to be inconsistent with the leading desires of most persons who are
interested in the pursuit of other enjoyments than those resulting from
obedience to God in the discharge of the duties of benevolence and
piety. It is a subject, therefore, which receives so little examination
that opinions in regard to it are adopted with trifling attention.
The second cause of variety of belief is the effect which _desire_ has
in making vivid those conceptions which most agree with the leading
purpose of the mind. When the mind decides to examine the evidence on
any subject, if the decision involves questions which have a bearing on
some favorite purpose, all those arguments which are most consonant with
the desires appear vivid and clear, and those which are contrary to the
wishes are fainter and less regarded. This is a fact which universal
experience demonstrates. Men always fasten on evidence which favors
their own wishes, and but faintly conceive the evidence which is
opposed. This is a cause which operates most powerfully in regard to
religious truths whenever they interfere with the leading desires.
This view of the subject exhibits the importance of having the mind
directed to proper objects; for if the mind is earnestly engaged in the
pursuit of duty, it will be pleased with every development of truth, for
truth and duty are never found to interfere. _Truth_ is another name for
“things as they are,” and it is always the duty and happiness of man to
regulate his conduct by seeing things as they are, rather than by seeing
them in false relations. That man is best prepared to discover truth who
is most sincerely desirous to obtain it, and to regulate his feelings,
words, and conduct by its dictates.
There is nothing more obvious, from experience and observation, than
that men _feel_ their ability to control their belief, and realize both
their own obligations and those of their fellow-men on this subject.
They know that every man must act according to his belief of right and
wrong, and thus that the fulfillment of every duty depends upon the
nature of our belief. And the more important are the interests involved
in any question, the more men perceive their obligations to seek for
evidence, and obtain the knowledge necessary to enable them to judge
The estimation of guilt among mankind, in reference to wrong belief, is
always proportioned to the interests involved and the opportunities for
obtaining knowledge. In the minute affairs of life, where but little
evil is done from false judgments, but little blame is attached to a man
for believing wrong. Neither is a man severely judged if the necessary
knowledge was inaccessible or very difficult to be obtained.
But where a man has great interests committed to his keeping, and has
sufficient opportunity for obtaining evidence of truth, the severest
condemnation awaits him who, through inattention or prejudice, hazards
vast interests by an incorrect belief. If an agent has the charge of
great investments, and through negligence, or indolence, or prejudice
ruins his employer, his sincere belief is no protection from severe
condemnation. If the physician has the health and life of a valued
member of the community and the object of many affections intrusted to
his skill, and from negligence and inattention destroys the life he was
appointed to save, his sincere belief is but a small palliation of his
guilt. If a judge has the fortune and life of his fellow-citizens
intrusted to his judicial knowledge and integrity, and, through want of
care and attention, is guilty of flagrant injustice and evil, the plea
of wrong belief will not protect him from the impeachment and just
indignation which await such delinquencies.
There is no point where men are more tenacious of the obligations of
their fellow-creatures than on the subject of belief. If they find
themselves calumniated, unjustly dealt with, and treated with contempt
and scorn from prejudice or want of attention, the reality of belief is
little palliation of the guilt of those who thus render them injustice.
They feel the obligations of their fellow-men to _know the truth_ in all
that relates to their interests, honor, and good name; and often there
is scarcely any thing which it is so difficult to forgive as the simple
crime of wrong belief.
The only modes by which men attempt to justify themselves for guilt of
this nature are to show either that the matter was of small consequence,
or that the means of learning its importance and of obtaining the other
necessary information was not within reach.
It may be laid down, then, as a long-established axiom in regard to this
subject, that men estimate the guilt of wrong belief in all matters
relating to the welfare of mankind in exact proportion to the value of
the interests involved, and to the opportunities enjoyed for obtaining
Inasmuch as all our success and happiness depends upon our belief of the
truth, we have two of the principles of reason and common sense to guide
us. The first is, that we are to consider that to be right which has
_the balance_ of evidence in its favor; and the second is, that nothing
is to be assumed as true unless there is _some_ evidence that it is so.