Belief and Non-belief

I often find myself debating questions of belief in various contexts.

A stumbling block that often comes up is the false equivalence between lacking belief in a claim, and believing the claim to be false.

At first it seems they are the same thing right? (Surely you either think something is true or not?) But a closer look reveals an important and powerful difference.


Say you tell me you believe in Bigfoot. If I say "I don't believe in Bigfoot", that's not the same as me saying "I believe Bigfoot does not exist".

For me to reasonably assert that Bigfoot does not exist I would have to show evidence for that. (Very difficult to prove - Bigfoot may be very good at hiding). The burden of proof would be on me to justify that claim of non-existence.


But if I simply say, I don't believe Bigfoot exists, that's simply the same as saying I am not so far convinced that the evidence provided (anecdotes of sightings etc) is sufficient to warrant belief. This is very different. A more nuanced position which doesn't carry the same burden of proof.


It's a little like the jury in a trial. Juries don't deliver a verdict of 'Innocent' if they feel the case against a defendant has not been made enough to convict. They say, 'Not guilty'.

They are not saying they're convinced the defendant is innocent, but rather they're saying that the evidence is not strong enough to convict.


So if you find yourself considering a claim someone is making, take a moment to consider that there are actually three positions :

You can accept the claim (believe it's true).

You can say you believe the claim is false (essentially that you believe the opposite of the claim).

Or you can say you simply lack belief in the claim.


This last position is one many people overlook, and is actually a more reasonable position to take in the absence of strong evidence.