A proposition is a bivalent statement (or claim) that expresses a judgement or opinion. It is truth-apt and, therefore, can be true or false.
A claim is an assertion something is true (or false). There’s is propositional content in a claim but they are not exactly the same thing, at least not always.
What’s the difference between a proposition and a claim?
A proposition can be presented without the assertion it is true or false. This would be for the purpose of discussing said proposition.
Whereas a claim is an assertion a proposition is true (or false). One way to consider this is, a proposition does not make a claim directly, a person makes a claim about a proposition. Therefore, we would say a claim contains propositional content.
For example, if we were to present the proposition “God exists” for discussion, our statement would essentially be asking the question, “Is it true that God exists?” – A question is not a proposition, but it can contain propositional content.
Whereas if we were to present the proposition “God Exists” as a claim we would be saying “It is true that God exists.”
This truth claim entails a positive attitude towards the proposition.
There are 3 types of attitude you can have as a direct response to a proposition, positive, neutral, and negative. (There are others that are indirect like apathy, absence, incongruous etc.)
By a direct attitude, I am speaking of an epistemic or cognitive attitude that provides a clear answer to the proposition.
Attitudes come in varying degrees of strength or confidence, also known as psychological certainty. Simply having a positive attitude is not always a claim that it is true.
We’ve already mentioned the first type of positive attitude. If you claim something is true, we would infer absolute psychological certainty. (You could intentionally be making a false claim, but that would not change the inference. For the ease of discussion, we shall assume all attitudes are given in good faith.)
If we consider the claim to entail absolute certainty, it could be said that something definitely is the case. Statements that might reflect this would be:
- It is true that God exists
- God definitely exists
- I am absolutely certain God exists
- I know God exists
If we were to put a value on the psychological certainty you have, it would be 100%*.
*Please note, the values provided here are arbitrary and are for demonstrative purposes only. Whole numbers will be used (no decimals).
High probability / high confidence
If you have considered the proposition and felt there isn’t enough to conclude it is definitely true, yet all the evidence seems to make it very likely to be true, you’d still have a positive attitude. You may still have 100% psychological certainty it is true, but are aware you lack any epistemic certainty, and therefore will not claim it is true.
Statements that might reflect this attitude could be:
- It is very likely God exists.
- The evidence points to God existing
- I am incredibly confident God exists
- I’m sure god exists
- It is highly probable God exists
- I think God exists
- Yes, God exists
If we were to put a value on the psychological certainty you have, it would be 70-100%
Most probable / medium confidence
If through examination, you conclude that it is more probable the proposition is true than false but have some doubts, you would have a positive attitude with less conviction.
Statements that might represent this position might be along the lines of:
- It seems likely God exists
- I am confident God exists
- I think God might exist
- It is probable God exists
- I’m mostly sure God exists
If we were to put a value on the psychological certainty you have, it would be 40-69%
Probable / low confidence
There will be times where you’re not very confident in your position at all but you still lean a certain way. It might be sensible to try and suspend judgement in these cases but that can be easier said than done. Sometimes we just feel a particular conclusion is true.
- It is kind of likely that God exists
- It’s quite probable God exists
- I’m quite sure God exists
If we were to put a value on the psychological certainty you have, it would be 1-39%
Summary of Positive Attitudes
At the end of the day, a positive attitude is a positive attitude. My examples above and arbitrary strength values were to try and give you an idea that whilst a truth claim entails a positive attitude, a positive attitude does not entail a truth claim, at least not in the same way. It contains a claim of your attitude towards the true value rather than a direct one about the truth value.
The strength values were just to highlight that not all attitudes are equal, and people are often unclear with their language too. They might make a statement that sounds like a truth claim or one of 100% psychological certainty, but in fact, they are not. In this instance, it is best to ask them how sure/certain they are.
A neutral attitude is one uncommitted to a truth value. I’m sure you’ve worked out that with a proposition only having 2 options, true and false, and the positive attitude relating to the proposition being true, the negative attitude must relate to it being false. What then of someone completely unconvinced either way?
A neutral attitude is one of suspending judgement on the proposition until such time they feel committed to a truth value.
Statements that could reflect a suspense a judgement could resemble something like this:
- I am unsure if God exists
- I don’t know if God exists
- I lack certainty on Gods existence
If we were to put a value on the psychological certainty you have, it would be 0%
One thing to note here though is, whilst you have a neutral attitude in regards to the proposition, you would have a positive attitude that you have this neutral attitude. It is a positive attitude of the second order.
Negative attitudes are the inverse of positive attitudes. Instead of concluding something is true, in varying degrees of certainty, you are concluding something is false. This in turn can be read as a positive attitude to the inverse proposition.
For example, If “God exists” is false, that means “God does not exist” is true.
Therefore, to save repeating myself, you could read every one of the statements I made under positive attitudes and replace “God exists” with “God does not exist.
“What about claiming something isn’t true?”
If you are making a claim, you are speaking directly to the truth value. If the truth value is not true, that means it is false.
Summary of Netative Attiudes
A negative attitude towards a proposition is concluding it false, therefore it is a positive attitude to the opposite. If the proposition is “the light switch is on” the negative attitude would be a positive attitude toward “the light switch is off”.
I mentioned there were some other attitudes someone might have towards a proposition. They are regarded as indirect attitudes as they do not speak to the truth value of the proposition. Instead, they often tell us something about the person or their opinion of the proposition
You could be apathetic towards a proposition. Basically not caring if it is true or false. In some respects, this might feel like the neutral attitude I spoke about before, but the neutral attitude is one reached after deliberation. An apathetic attitude does not get that far.
You may, of course, become apathetic in your deliberations and no longer care to consider a proposition further, but again, this is not the same as being apathetic from the outset.
An apathetic statement would be like, “I don’t care if God exists or not.”
An incongruous attitude towards a proposition is where you find something about the proposition or even the entire proposition incoherent and/or ill-defined. Therefore considering the proposition would be meaningless. It would often go as far as to suggest the proposition isn’t even a proposition at all because it has no truth value.
If someone had an incongruous attitude towards the proposition “God exists” it would be because they found the character, God, to be an incoherent and ill-defined concept.
An innocent attitude is one of naivety. In this regard, one is innocent if they have either:
a) never heard the proposition “God exists” or
b) lack the cognitive abilities to consider the proposition and hold attitudes in relation to it
In reality, this is not an attitude at all but a total absence of one.
Summary of Indirect Attitudes
An indirect attitude may be related to the proposition, but does not necessarily speak to provide an answer of the truth value in so much as tell us about the person with the attitude.
Even still, we would have a positive attitude towards a different proposition, namely that we held one of these indirect attitudes.
Summary of Attitudes
There is always some form of attitude held by an agent, except for the instance of innocence. This attitude is often referred to as a propositional attitude.
What Is Another Term for a Propositional Attitude?
Most contemporary philosophers characterize belief as a “propositional attitude”. Propositions are generally taken to be whatever it is that sentences express (see the entry on propositions). For example, if two sentences mean the same thing (e.g., “snow is white” in English, “Schnee ist weiss” in German), they express the same proposition, and if two sentences differ in meaning, they express different propositions.Belief (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
Yup, a propositional attitude is a belief. I find the easiest way to consider the belief as being defined as either:
- A positive attitude towards a proposition (so in the case of the negative attitude, it is a positive of the inverse)
- Something we accept as true
- Something considered probable or likely
They all say essentially the same thing in different ways.
Contemporary Anglophone philosophers of mind generally use the term “belief” to refer to the attitude we have, roughly, whenever we take something to be the case or regard it as true.Belief (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
But, as you can see from above, the attitude, or belief, can differ in strength, or psychological certainty.
In fact, whilst that positive attitude towards a proposition is known as a belief, and the neutral attitude is the suspense of judgment, there is also a name for the negative attitude. Disbelief.
Disbelief is often colloquially used as simply not believing something, but that isn’t its normative use. Instead, it ought to be understood as this negative attitude, concluding the proposition is false.
Why Speak of Attitudes This Entire Time?
The important thing I was trying to get across is the idea. Many of my fellow atheists do not like the word belief. They have confused ideas about it, what it means, its relation to claims, and at times thinking a belief is always irrational or only something held by religious/theistic people.
As such, I felt it best to use a word that means the same thing, but would not turn them off instantly, and perhaps when I say “I believe gods do not exist” they will understand that I have a negative attitude towards the proposition “God exists” which means I have a positive attitude towards the proposition “God does not exist”.
I do apologise if you felt this was in any way underhanded or deceitful, it was not my intention to come across this way. I just wanted to explain things in a way that would not raise any heckles and hopefully be received with greater understanding.
Perhaps, if that message has been received, you might now be interested in how logic and rationality tie into propositions. If that is the case, please read: You won’t believe this… (Logic and Belief) or if you would rather have it read to you, then click the following link as we did a live article reading: You Won’t Believe This! (Article Reading)
I mentioned a few times that a claim has propositional content, and a question can have propositional content too. A belief also contains propositional content in this regard. If I believe it is raining outside, that is a positive attitude towards the proposition “It is raining outside”.
The same can be said about Theism and Theist. Theism is commonly described as “The belief God exists” or more broadly “The belief a least one thing like a god exists”. What we should note here is the fact that we are speaking of an -ISM. The suffix “-ism” is used to indicate that the word represents a specific practice, concept, system, or philosophy. Therefore the belief in the -ism is talking about something believed rather than an active belief. It stands to reason that this talking about the propositional content of the belief rather than the belief itself. In other words, theism is the proposition “God exists” or more broadly, the proposition that “at least one thing like a God exists”.
The -IST in theist is used to indicate a person that ascribes to a particular -ISM, e.g. a communist ascribes to communism, or in this case, a theist ascribes to theism. The ascribing to theism is speaking of the theist’s positive attitude towards the proposition of theism. In other words, the theist believes at least one thing like a god exists.
We spoke about how a proposition (or p) is bivalent. It is truth-apt. It can be true or false. Another way to right this is p or not p. Not p can also be written as ¬p or ~p. Not is used as negation. The negation of a proposition being true, is a proposition being false.
If p = God Exists, then ¬p = God does not exist.
The a- prefix is polysemous and can mean either without or not. However, as we are discussing a proposition we ought to understand the a- as not, as in the negation. Therefore, atheism ought to be understood at the negation of the proposition of theism.
p = theism
¬p = atheism
If p = theism = God Exists
then ¬p = atheism = God does not exist.
As an atheist, I have a positive attitude towards the proposition of atheism.
This is what I think is the more rational definition of atheism than simple “lacking belief” or someone who describes themselves as an atheist simply because they “don’t believe in gods”.
What’s Rationality got to do with it?
Rationality is, at least in part, reasoning using the rules of logic and probability theory and holding consistent and coherent beliefs. This means that if we want to be rational, where applicable, we should reason using the rules of logic.
There is a type of logic known as propositional logic, therefore, when considering propositions it would be rational to use propositional logic to consider the proposition.
As we have discussed so far, a belief is a positive attitude towards a proposition or something accepted as true. A proposition is a bivalent truth-apt statement. It can be true or false. p or not p (¬p)
When considering a proposition we ought to consider our attitude to both parts e.g.
Do we think p is true?
Do we think ¬p is true?
In the image above there is a binary representation of the proposition or p being true (1) or false (0) and our attitudes a-d (1 = believed, 0 = not believed) in regards to each part of the proposition. (Speaking purely of the direct attitudes mentioned earlier in the article).
a-c are rational answers, but d is not because something cannot be true and false in a given moment, therefore believing something is true and false is by default irrational.
Whilst c is suspending judgement, they are not irrational as they feel they do not lean one way or another.
To lean one way or another you do not have to be absolutely certain, it’s just what you think.
I can say, “I have just had lunch” (let’s assume it is 2 pm for me when we are having this conversation.)
you could think, “yes he has”, “no he hasn’t”, or “I’m not sure if he has”.
The next part of rationality comes from your justifications of why you think the way you do.
For example, if you think I have just had lunch then you could reason:
1. He lives in the UK, and it’s just gone lunchtime there.
2. He likes his food and keeps annoying us with pictures of food.
3. He has no reason to lie about having just had lunch.
And you could equally show reasons for the other positions too should they be the ones you hold.
In fact, if you can weigh up reasons for all the positions and consider which you find most likely then chances are you will have a more well-rounded position.
This is why simply “not believing” a proposition doesn’t really answer the proposition, it just gives a read of a psychological state you hold that is somewhat related to it, rather than a specific attitude which can allow us to accurately infer what you do and don’t believe about the proposition.
Communication is about the exchange of ideas and information. If you are engaging in communication, one would assume you are doing this to participate in the exchange of ideas and information. Therefore clear and concise communication would allow us to do this more effectively than vague and ambiguous communication.
Therefore, it would be rational to use clear and concise terms and fully answer propositions when engaging in some form of dialogue, to communicate effectively.
A proposition is a truth-apt statement. or claim, that expresses a judgement or opinion. A claim, like a belief, contains propositional content and an attitude toward a proposition. A claim would be an assertion that a proposition is definitely one way, whereas a belief is a less definitive attitude towards a proposition. A proposition can be presented both as a question e.g. is this proposition true? Or as a claim e.g. this proposition is true!
The below might be an oversimplification but I think this helps give a general idea:
Proposition: God Exists
Positive Claim: Yes, God Definitely Exists
Positive attitude: Yes, I think God Exists
Neutral attitude: I am unsure if God Exists
Negative attitude: No, I think God does not Exist
Negative Claim: No, God Definitely does not Exist
Hopefully, this has explained the difference between propositions, claims, and attitudes towards said propositions. I also hope the term belief is now seen as a less scary thing, and have explained adequately why I prefer the more concise definition of atheism.
If you’re interested in the various labels and how they are described, or some of the other issues with the lack of belief definition of atheism, I cover them in this post:
Equally, if you’re interested in the way atheism has been defined and use throughout the years, then there is a pretty exhaustive list of definitions in:
And there are a few other Articles on this site that relate to atheism and logic should you be interested:
Posts About Atheism
- Rockin’ Atheism Part 3: Atheism in Greek Antiquity
- Rockin’ Atheism Pt 2: Defining Atheism
- Etymology vs Use/Definition: Atheism
- New Atheism and New Atheists w/ Ozymandias Ramses II [Video]
- New Atheism and New Atheists w/ Ozymandias Ramses II [Podcast]
- “If atheism is true…”
- Atheists, Atheism, and Ambiguity
- In response to Ra’s ‘What is Atheism?’
- Pitfalls of ‘New Atheism’
- Has Atheism Become an Ideology?
- Theism, Atheism, Agnosticism
- Do we Atheists have a Burden of Proof?
- Are we Born Atheist?
- Ontology and the things we lack… (lacktheism or rocktheism?)
- Philosophy in The Atheist Community – SciPhi
- Do Non-Theists Live as Atheists?
- Atheism | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Atheism and Agnosticism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
- Defining Atheism and the Burden of Proof (Acedemia.edu)
- Normatively Atheist
- On the definition of atheism (By Philip Müller)
- Rockin’ Atheism Pt. 1: The Wrongness of Aron Ra
More on Justification and The Burden of Proof
- More on Beliefs and Justifications
- The Burden of Proof – Belief vs Claim – Court Room Analogy
- Epistemic Responsibility – SciPhi: 013 [Video]
- Do we Atheists have a Burden of Proof? – Conflated and Misunderstood Terms: Vol 7
- Beliefs and Rationality – CMT Vol: 10
- Is it rational to form beliefs based on testimony?
- What’s in the Box?: A Three-Pound Rabbit
Posts in Regards to Attitudes (Beliefs)
- Belief: Don’t Believe, Lack of Belief, Absent of Belief – CMT Vol: 11
- Propositional Logic and Beliefs – Fresh AiR – S03:E02:C01 (VIDEO)
- Propositional Logic and Beliefs – Fresh AiR – S03:E02:C01 (AUDIO)
- Beliefs and Rationality – CMT Vol: 10
- Beliefs, Language, and Logic
- More on Beliefs and Justifications
- Definitional Problems with Lacking Belief
- Bad Atheist Arguments – Vol: 02 – Beliefs and Logic
- What is Agnosticism? How does it relate to knowledge and beliefs?
- The Burden of Proof – Belief vs Claim – Court Room Analogy
- Coherent and Consistent Beliefs
- Unbelief and Disbelief – Conflated and Misunderstood Terms – Volume 6
- Is nonbelief a belief? (hint: you might be surprised) – Conflated and Misunderstood Terms: Vol 8
- Fresh AiR – S01:E05 – Belief, Truth, and Knowledge
- Dirty Words – Conflated and Misunderstood Terms Volume 4: Belief, Faith and Evidence
- SEP: Belief
- You won’t believe this… CMT – Vol: 12
- Is it rational to form beliefs based on testimony?