Thursday, September 10, 2015

Belief: Absolute Conviction or Probability?

I have long been thinking about the nature of the world, the nature of belief, knowledge, faith, etc. I have come to a conclusion that is both obvious and perhaps to some, scary.  This is one of those personal adventures, and it will take a little bit to explain.  It's also rather abstractly connected to testing, so if you are looking for how-to articles on testing,  I'd go looking here or even here instead.  You've been warned.

By modifying the definition of belief ever so slightly, my language in fact sounds completely reasonable, and I suspect that my version of belief is much closer to the reality of what a belief really is in a psychological sense.  In particular, I can say I have observed it with people who do scientific-like work.  Let's first start with dictionary definition of belief.

According to Merriam-Webster, a belief is:

1. a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing
2. something believed; especially : a tenet or body of tenets held by a group
3. conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon especially when based on examination of evidence

Knowledge in epistemology is well known to be a "True Justified Belief."  Effectively, the difference between belief and knowledge is that a belief may not be true and it might not be justified. You can only claim to know something when it is true and justified (although how much justification is still in question).  I have also done some informal consideration of justification, which can be valuable in justifying a bug.

In a World...

Imagine, if you will, a world where beliefs were held so tightly that they were in fact the way you ran your life with exact and precise calculations.  You might be like some of the Vulcans who dedicate themselves to pure logic, as described in Star Trek, except your dedicate would be to your own beliefs, not logic per-se.  If, for example, you believed in a set of development principles, you would never break any of these principles.  Assuming your principles were designed correctly to never have functional bugs, a functional bug would not exist in a code base you exclusively created because your beliefs would be personal law, with you never straying. The only possible remaining set of functional bugs are those which are not covered by your beliefs or areas where your personal mental model of your belief was not exactly in congruity with the actual statements of the guiding principle, which is just a form of misunderstanding.

For example, if you stated your belief was "No text box I create will have an injection attack possible.", but your mental model was only based upon SQL injection and did not consider command injections.  Then if you had a vulnerability to a command injection attack in your text box, is it the fault of your beliefs that no text box should be vulnerable to injection attacks?  I think not, because you either had a limit to your understanding of your philosophy (what you believe an injection attack to be) or the world (what injection attacks are known to the world).  However, a more subtle question and interesting question is, did you really hold the belief?  I think the answer is complicated.  Internally, the answer is yes, of course you believed.  However, from an external view did you hold the true belief?  Yes, you held the belief in your own way, however, it might not meet some external evaluator's view of how that belief should be held.  This is a communication problem people run into all the time when they define words differently.

Thus, your personal reality would appear to succumb to your beliefs, or your beliefs would say nothing about reality. That is to say you would ignore your own senses when you observed the natural world contradict your beliefs. This occasionally happens at a developer's desk when they say, "That isn't possible." as I demonstrate a bug to them.  Do they see the world shifting out from under them or are they ignoring it?  Do they see their belief ruined and their world is crashing down?  For some people, this Vulcan-like demand for the perfect belief, the idea of the world crashing down might come close to their view of life.  Then there are others who choose to doubt only the facts they don't like, so that their belief is maintained.  But do these groups go from the point where they say “I believe” and run their life exactly according to their proclaimed beliefs?

Perhaps a few do run their life exactly according to their beliefs, but I suspect that it is more likely most have a journey where you slowly reform both themselves and their beliefs.  Even with all the defenses around their beliefs, and all the denial for the facts contradicting, I think given time to consider, people can migrate beliefs.  Like the developer who claims the bug is not possible, they adjust their beliefs over time. So, either most of us are able to hold two opposing beliefs at the same time ("That isn't possible" and "That just happened") as we reform our beliefs, or are able to ignore those former beliefs somehow, thus truth in the mind and actions are not strongly related.  The latter option is sometimes referred to as rationalization.

For the sake of argument, I am going to assume that in fact people can hold two opposing beliefs at the same time. The reasoning I am assuming this is that if belief of a truth and how one acts have limited relations, then we are creatures whose entire rationale does not matter and thus the entire nature of belief doesn’t matter in this context. Another reason for my assumption is that in working with software testers, I have observed this ability to weight two opposing beliefs.  In my observations, it wasn't that they had ignored their belief and just done something else but rather taken context into consideration.

50% Chance of Opposite Day

If we can in fact hold two opposing “beliefs” then those are not beliefs in the traditional sense.  One is not in fact completely confident in their belief.  Instead, what they almost become is an internal struggle for which belief is more accurate in the modeling of the world.  Since different people model the world differently, a realization occurs that multiple models can both be correct.  In a real sense, the person with said beliefs is weighing non-mathematical probabilities.  Now, if that is what we are doing, trying to decide which version of belief is more likely, and we have the ability to replace one belief with another based upon this evaluation, beliefs are just things we attach a probability on.  Another way of saying this is that they are context driven.  The probability that a particular belief will satisfice is determined through life-experienced context and those probabilities are constantly being re-evaluated as more of life is experienced.

I try very hard to avoid politics in this blog, but I wanted to address a good example of differences in mental models where it is not clear what the meaning or intent is.  Recently, a woman claimed that she is black when her parents disagree with her and claim she is white.  The interesting question here is, what is it to be "black"?  Is it a life style?  Is it a social upbringing?  Is it a description of particular genes?  Is it a color?  At what time and under what conditions?  Is it an origin?  How many generations back?  Is it a description of being disadvantaged? Is it an artificial classification?  How many of these checkboxes do you have to have to be considered black and which oracle(s) do you listen to?  Is this another true Scotsman problem?

If beliefs are actually statements we find likely to be true, we are attaching what I will refer to as a probability. It may not be numerically calculated, but a consideration of one’s experiences, perceptions, internal mental structure, and numerous other factors. Ultimately we come to some sorts of conclusions. "I write great code", "I’m in love", "JCD writes good blog posts", ad nauseum. Can you in fact believe both “men are evil” and that “evil does not exist”? If those are just probabilities, then yes, those can in fact both be beliefs at the same time for one person. Keeping in mind that knowledge is a true justified belief; you can’t “know” both of these things at once, because only one can logically exist at once, but which one? Even with all the brains we have, this appears to be a Gordian knot of a problem. Cutting the knot using things like Occam’s razor only goes so far (It is only a razor!).  Worse yet, the question of context pops its head in here.  "In the past year JCD has written good blog posts" adds context that the first statement did not have.  A developer's defense of "No one would do that" is true in the context of "that I like and hasn't made a mistake and ...."  Perhaps with enough context one could claim knowledge, but you know the saying about building an idiot proof box... I suspect if you could build enough context, someone would just come up with new unconsidered situations.

Why not accept our nature and in fact embrace it? If someone says that “men are evil” and provides limited evidence, you can assign a probability to that (let us assign an arbitrary tag “somewhat likely” to this). Then someone else comes along with highly convincing evidence that in fact evil can’t exist. You weigh the factors you now have and change the scales, applying a “very likely” for "evil can’t exist" and downgrade the “men are evil” viewpoint to “fairly unlikely.” You need not deny either one of those items and yet you can still hold a legitimate opinion that "According to my present data, evil is unlikely to exist."  The tricky thing is, English does not make it easy to give these sorts of answers.

"Nonsense is so good only because common sense is so limited." - George Santayana

In a brief change of topic, I want to stop and address what some readers might be thinking at this point.  I am sure some people see this as non-sense.  So I want to take a brief aside to consider the possibility that this idea doesn't matter.
"In the West, we take the “law of the excluded middle” as self-evident  and  as fundamental  to  logic.  Under  this  rule,  a proposition can have two states: something “is X” or “is not X”. There is no middle ground. In contrast, several Indian logicians assumed four states, “is X”, “is not X”, “is both X and not X” and “is neither X nor not X”. I puzzled over this for many years. I am not confident that my understanding of how this could be meaningful is the same as their understanding. But in human affairs, in interpreting  people,  how  they  interact,  what  situations  they  are  in,  and  how  to negotiate  with  them,  I  came  to  view  the exclusion of the middle as a heuristic rather than a law or a rule. It is often useful to assume that “X or not X” are the only two possibilities, but when that is not productive, it is time to look for a third way." - Dr. Cem Kaner, Tea-time with Testers, June 2015, Pg 61
I could go on, as Dr. Kaner certainly has more around this.  The idea that perception is in fact reality is often skewed.  In the same magazine issue, Jerry Weinberg tells a story in which the three team members whom did all the talking were perceived as the leaders performing actions but the the one with an effective action was not the team member being defined as the leader.  The team member with the affective action was another employee whom only did one thing, silently solve the problem.  Perceiving motion for action is not an uncommon occurrence.

The point I'm trying to make is those whom see belief as a solid, absolute thing probably have a more difficult time seeing that 'reality' is more difficult to pin down.  It seems likely to me, that for most people, as they gain more experience, they too will reform their view of belief into something more generalized, such as a probability.

"The unexamined life is not worth living." - Socrates

Briefly, I want to address another sticky subject, faith.  Faith is a belief with only external sources for justification. You might be able to cite examples where the external source was previously correct, but the external source is still your only justification. Faith is often replaceable with “trust” or “hope”. You can say I have faith that login is broken because my manager is telling me it is so. The justification is based upon hope or trust in some external or internal force that your belief is true. If instead we consider faith a probability based upon your level of trust in a given oracle, you can in fact see faith is just a specialized description of a belief.

One problem with this is our language does not naturally imply that our statements are guess work, nor easily allow one to explain what the most likely evaluation you have thus far computed. People say “I know ...”, or “It must be ...”. We assert our knowledge because people are not actually comfortable with “I don’t know, but I think ...” It is in our nature to say we are right. We even prefer people in which we perceive confidence, even though it maybe a lie.  It is also convenient:

"A little inaccuracy sometimes saves a ton of explanation." - Saki
Compare "According to my present data, evil is unlikely to exist." and the shorten "evil does not exist."  In my view, these absolutes often don't represent what people really think, but I admit it's only a probability.

Another problem is that people will claim this is a flip-flop philosophy that does not in fact hold a person’s “feet to the fire”. While this is true to a certain extent, it is designed to actually be more in line with how people and our estimation of reality actually work. People are rarely able to be self-consistent in what they say, much less what they do. How often do people say “Do as I say, not as I do.”?

In recent years, people have been able to pull out long and specific quotes from others because of how our technology records everything.  We are very much able to examine other people's lives.  Yet, in looking for this consistency, we fail to examine our own lives and the changes we make.  If other people are often unable to be consistent, it's likely you too will likely fail at consistency (Consider: did you know every time you recall something, the memory is re-written and thus modified?).  Yet we like consistency.  There are still two obvious options.  Either we are really failures in consistency but pretend we are not or we are constantly evolving our understanding and are designed to evolve our thinking.  I'd give it about a 20% / 80% probability for anyone individual in circumstances similar to mine when I consider....Oh you get the idea.

Ultimately this is a small chunk of analysis attempting to describe my view of how people work.  It is hard, if not impossible, to write out a full view due to the fact no one else has experienced my life and the context that brings.  I also recognize other views exist and I think they have some probability of them being correct and am open to replacing my own view with a more probable one.  So please feel free to share any insights you have, even if they contradict my own view.  I encourage you to sit down and attempt to write out your views on how people work.  It can be a useful exercise, as it will give your opinions a more solid foundation.  But if you have done all that hard work, why not post it as a comment?


  1. Here's a possibility: People hold all of their beliefs. They're laid down in their brain simultaneously, and fight it out at different levels. For example many people are not racists - in their concious action and speech. However, Implicit Association Tests (IAT) show us otherwise. People are both conditioned to be racists, and also not racists. Perhaps this isn't so much (in some cases?) of a concious application of probability but rationalisation between fast and slow thinking (of the Daniel Kahneman type). We have ingrained beliefs programmed into us through childhood and social conditioning, and logical, concious beliefs where we come to a conclusion (partly based on some beliefs, partly based on others). I have to pull myself out of the mire of bias and fallacy, with considerable effort, to establish truth when reactionary opinion can be a weak heuristic hot tub of relaxation. After all is John a Satanist, really? (

    Just a thought!

    PS. Do you Tweet?

    1. I don't disagree with the notion that multiple brain systems might hold competing views. James Bach wrote tangentially about that in his Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar book, I believe. This could then allow for the claim that a belief is held completely, but the beliefs battle it out. I won't disregard such an argument, it might be right. It is well known that "we" have subconscious reactions to various data. To your particular point, it was documented in 2010 by Italian researchers that skin color affects how much empathic tendencies:

      Even applying the ideas of fast and slow thinking could be added to the model. However, I think there is more to it. I intuit that there are cases where these do not fully model what I have observed. It's closer to the idea behind safety language. Many people I have observed in QA often use safety language. That last sentence was an intentional attempt to demonstrate safety language. When we use safety language, we are trying to demonstrate how we have a rough model, a 'belief', but that we do not hold the model to be a truth. We understand that the verbal map we give is not the same thing as the road that is reality. I use probability to attempt to describe this mental phenomenon. To roughly translate it to my probability verbiage:

      There is some probability that a particular individual in the group we call QA will in a given conversation use safety language.

      Even with my translation, safety language is an abstract concept. Something which different people will define differently. Even at our base, our 'shared' language, we hold probabilities (a 'belief') that our words will mean the same thing to one another.

      One issue I have is that my ideas almost need a book to explore them, yet, I'm choosing to confine myself in a single blog-length entry, at least for now. So yes, there are lots of areas I left unexplored. I have tried to scratch the surface and get people thinking about the topic. One of the things that troubles me about the state of the testing community is that we have only a few philosophers of our art, but many many practitioners who talk about the current state of the art. I don't think this is bad, but I think the mixture needs adjusting; Mixing in more scientists & philosophers looking to further the art to the well established set of engineers using the current state of the art.

      Thank you for your thoughts! They were very interesting.

      No, I'm afraid I have chosen not to use twitter for a few reasons, not least of which is I don't feel it is particularly constructive for the types of conversations I want to create. However, if you wish to have an in depth conversation, feel free to contact me via the 'contact us' widget to the right.

    2. I happened upon this link which I think is rather interesting. It suggests rather than describing it as a probability it should be described in quantum mechanics. I don't deny the possibility.