One of my favourite songs is “I don’t believe in the sun” by the Magnetic Fields, in which the protagonist declares that there can’t be a sun because it would shine on other guys, not me, when his
woman love has left him. Imagine if there were people who thought belief was what made the sun real or not, literally…
A bellwether question asked of political candidates in the US is whether they believe in evolution. Evolution is a shibboleth (for those who didn’t get taught the Old Testament/Tanakh, in the book of Judges, 12:5-6, the men of Gilead use the pronunciation of “shibboleth” as a test of whether or not refugees are from the enemy city of Ephraim, and kill those who mispronounce it). It marks you as either in one sociopolitical camp or another.
So whether or not you “believe” in evolution tests your loyalties and views. But that poor English word “believe” has some heavy baggage to carry here. It means many things, and if you say you “believe” in evolution, one rhetorical trick is to then treat evolution as if it were a dogma or quasireligious sort of belief, which one is free to accept or reject based upon one’s choice of faith.
A common reply is “I don’t ‘believe’ in evolution, I accept it as true [or correct]”, which avoids that trick, but only verbally. One could say “I believe in evolution like I believe in the Sun, or electricity, or infectious disease”, but that only works on those who are charitable enough to listen carefully, which is, I guess, true of all discourse.
In philosophy, “believe” has a number of meanings too. It can mean to take a leap of faith (a phrase that I think originated with the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard). It can mean to have one of the prior conditions for knowledge (which is, whatever else it may be, to have a belief that is likely or certainly true). Or it can mean to take what we call a doxastic attitude or stance, from the Greek word “doxa”, expectation.
Then there is the subject of one’s attitude. It can be the observations of evolution, the factual nature of evolution (that evolution has occurred), or the theoretical explanations of evolution (the “theory”, another word that has all kinds of false and misleading popular implications).
When you ask a philosopher do they believe in evolution, be prepared for a short discussion of the sense in which you mean that, or ask them exactly the question; e.g., “What is your doxastic stance towards the factuality of evolution?”
Why does this matter? Well it matters for the same reason it matters to philosophers, to avoid ambiguity and rhetorical tricks, and by so doing, to get the questioner to think about what they mean with the question. If it’s just a shibboleth, then the question matters no more than asking if you think there should be a gold standard for the dollar – it has no intellectual content beyond marking you out as a member or not of the in-group.
So I can’t give you an easy answer how to deal with this problem; choose what works with your interrogator. Me, I have a doxastic stance of acceptance towards the observations, the factuality and most modern theories, I believe. Make of that what you were already going to…
To finish, I give you Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields:
Late note: Language Log also discusses this, philologically…