First person, present indicative of "To believe falsely"


There is a Wittgenstein quote I've been thinking about ever since going through AI to Zombies:

If there were a verb meaning 'to believe falsely', it would not have any significant first person, present indicative.

Would "confusion"/"I am confused" not be such a first person, present indicative? Or am I confused about the meaning of the Wittgenstein quote?

e.g. "I believe X, but I also believe Y, and X implies not Y, therefore I am confused".


Posted 2020-04-15T07:30:24.010

Reputation: 111

IMO, it means that if I believe... than I believe, and thus I cannot assert "I believe falsely" but this would be that I do not believe. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA – 2020-04-15T08:53:47.823


Being confused is not the same as firmly believing a thing, and, at the same time, firmly believing that that same thing is false. That would be a symptom of schizophrenia. An example favored by Wittgenstein was the Moore sentence:"It is raining, but I do not believe that it is". Sentences like"I am dead" or "I am asleep" have the same quality, the act of asserting them truthfully contradicts what is asserted. Which does not prevent people from uttering them anyway, and even attaching some non-literal meaning to that.

– Conifold – 2020-04-15T09:13:28.203



To 'believe' is to assert the truth of something. Or perhaps better put, a 'belief' projects a subjective understanding onto the world as an ontological fact. Thus:

  • "I believe in God" asserts that God is an ontological feature of the world.
  • "I believe in evolution" asserts that the principles of the theory of evolution work as expressed in biological development.
  • "I believe the Earth is flat" asserts that the Earth is factually flat.

Saying "I believe falsely" in the present indicative would be tantamount to saying "What I assert as subjectively true is subjectively false", which is mere nonsense. You could say "I used to believe X" or "I will believe X" or even "I want to believe X", and it makes grammatical sense for you to know that X is false. But it makes no sense to simultaneously know that X is false and assert belief in it.

This goes back to Wittgenstein's intuition that truth is always (at some level) a matter of convention. If we think about his discussion of a meter (Philosophical Investigations #50), we can know that something is a meter long by measuring it with a meter stick, and we can know that a meter stick is a meter long by measuring it against the standard measure for a meter (at his time a standardized bar in Paris; now the distance travelled by light in a fraction of a second). But we only know that the standard measure is one meter long because we assert it to be so. We all agree to believe that this distance is exactly one meter. That belief establishes the length of a meter as an ontological fact.

Ted Wrigley

Posted 2020-04-15T07:30:24.010

Reputation: 9 139

I can see how this is what Wittgenstein was saying, however I do not see how it denies the use of the word "confused" to represent the state you're describing as nonsensical. That said, "cognitive dissonance" appears to be an already existing and widely used term for the same state (holding contradictory beliefs), so I may have just reinvented the psychological wheel… – BenRW – 2020-04-17T20:46:40.823

1@BenRW: 'Confusion' is not a state of belief. If I am confused about the existence of God, I have doubts, and cannot be said to have belief in God. If I firmly believe in the existence of God, and firmly believe that my belief in God is false, I am not confused. I'm not even schizophrenic; I'm merely contradicting myself. – Ted Wrigley – 2020-04-17T20:57:46.653

Hm. This feels like a difference of terminology. It sounds like you're saying that "belief", as used as a term of art in philosophy, represents a category that follows the same rules as logical statements? I don't believe human beliefs work like that, as humans do demonstrate mutually contradictory beliefs. However, it would be useful for me to know either way — I don't want to make the same category error as people who dismiss evolution by saying "it's just a theory" having totally misunderstood how science uses the word. :) – BenRW – 2020-04-26T14:12:27.770

1@BenRW: You're right, it's perfectly possible for people to have contradictory beliefs. But what that means is that they believe two things to be 'true' without recognizing that they are contradictory. They don't believe either one of them is false. A friend might say to them "you're confused (second person); you can't believe both", and the then person might actually be confused, in which case one or both of his beliefs will change. This isn't logic; it's psychology. Holding contradictory beliefs produces cognitive dissonance which must be resolved. – Ted Wrigley – 2020-04-26T15:04:29.873

If someone says: "I am deluded" (about something other than being deluded) then this might form a counter-example to Wittgenstein. Someone might possibly realize that their thinking about a particular subject derives a self-contradictory conclusion, yet not have any insight into the source of the error. – polcott – 2020-05-17T22:54:48.270

1@polcott: You're basically positing that someone will say to themselves: "I acknowledge that I am deluded, but I am going to continue believe that what I believe is true, despite knowing that it is deluded." That strikes me as an extremely problematic position. Who would think like that? I mean, lets make it concrete... "I have come to understand that throwing children into a volcano to soothe the volcano god is deluded; it never has any effect. Yet I still firmly believe that throwing children into a volcano is the best way to stop an eruption." C'mon, no one is that dumb. – Ted Wrigley – 2020-05-17T23:10:38.077

Someone may have some vague insight that their thinking is incorrect about some subject and can thus say: "I am deluded", truthfully and correctly. With categorically exhaustively complete deductive inference, incorrect conclusions are impossible. – polcott – 2020-05-17T23:27:24.390

@polcott: But if one believes one is deluded, then one does not believe in that which one is deluded about. If you have a dark night of the soul, then you question your beliefs. If you question your beliefs, you do not believe them (at least until your questions are resolved). – Ted Wrigley – 2020-05-18T00:24:13.740

2@polcott: it's a language artifact, like saying: "I have an empty glass of water". If it's empty, what makes it a glass of water? To believe means to hold something as true; if you don't think it's true, you cannot be believing it. – Ted Wrigley – 2020-05-18T00:29:06.963

"it's a language artifact, like saying: "I have an empty glass of water". If it's empty, what makes it a glass of water?" Yes. I was testing the subtle nuances of the limits of semantics. To the extend that one is certain that they are deluded they are not deluded. Generally deluded means totally clueless about being deluded. The possible middle ground might be where someone suspects that they may be deluded. They only have a slight intuition that they are deluded and not any rational basis. – polcott – 2020-05-18T00:55:30.530


Grammatically the response is easy. It would have a first person, present indicative: 'I believe falsely (that p)'.

Logically any such answer misconstrues the concept of belief since belief is the attitude appropriate to truth; in oratio recta or direct speech the use of the statement 'I believe falsely (that p)' shows that the speaker misconceives the nature of belief or at least the nature of belief common to our 'form of life'.

'I believe that p and it is possible that I believe falsely (that p)' does not show any misconception so far as I can see but this 'embeds' the statement in a way the question presumably does not intend.

Geoffrey Thomas

Posted 2020-04-15T07:30:24.010

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