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Icelanders and their Belief in Elves

Roughly half of Icelanders believe in the existence of elves. So strong is their belief, in fact, that it halts construction and road projects, among other things.

NPR covers the story here.

What perhaps heightens the shocking nature of their belief in elves is that Iceland is a very high-tech culture. By 1999, over 82% of the population had access to a computer, and had 1,007 mobile phones per 1,000 residents by 2006. Iceland also has a 100% literacy rate, and produces an enormous number of citizens with PhDs.

Fascinating. I could just imagine a famous Icelandic philosopher arguing that belief in elves is properly basic. Sort of puts the notorious Great Pumpkin Objection to Alvin Plantinga's Reformed Epistemology in a whole new light. According to Plantinga, properly basic belief in God is triggered in a motley variety of circumstances: looking at the starry heavens triggers the belief, "God made all this"; reading a Bible passage triggers the belief, "God disaproves of what I've done"; an eight-year-old's belief in God is triggered by living in a community of people who talk and act as though Christianity is true; etc.

Similarly, an Icelander's elf belief could be triggered in a variety of circumstances: e.g., while working on a road in a patch of countryside, your tractor breaks unexpectedly. It triggers the belief, "The elves disapprove of what I'm doing"; a young Icelander is raised in a community of people who talk and act as though elves exist, and this triggers their elf belief; walking through the foggy hillside, it triggers the belief, "I'm in elf territory"; an elf-medium (no, really, there are such things. Listen to the NPR link above.) comes over to inspect your backyard and make peace with the elves before you tear out a big rock and replace it with a jacuzzi. The experience triggers the belief, "The elves are now at peace with me", etc.

SECOND UPDATE: This just keeps getting more and more interesting. An Icelander named Sindri gives more details here. Sindri's anecdotes are fascinating, but perhaps the most eye-opening part is the bit about how there are sophisticated elf-believers who regularly debate atheists about it.

UPDATE: Here are the results of a recent poll on belief in elves among Icelanders:

13 percent of participants in the study said it is impossible that elves exist, 19 percent found it unlikely, 37 percent said elves possibly exist, 17 percent found their existence likely and eight percent definite. Five percent did not have an opinion on the existence of elves...About 1,000 people participated in the questionnaires.

So, to paraphrase a bit, the distribution of degrees of credence among Icelanders wrt elves looks like this:

"Yes, without a doubt, elves exist": 8%
"Yes, elves probably exist": 17%
"Well, I don't know, but their existence is a real possibility": 37%
"Elves? Nah, probably not": 19%
"Without at doubt, elves do not exist": 13%

This is an interesting distribution of credence wrt elves. But we can't settle how many Icelanders believe in elves unless we have a reasonable idea of what level of credence is required for belief.

'Belief' is a slippery term. Clearly certitude counts as belief, and so at least 8% of Icelanders believe in elves. But you can believe things without a feeling of certainty: I believe my cat will come home from his prowl and eat his dinner, but I don't have an unwavering certitude about it. So belief admits of degrees -- it's not all-or-nothing.

What about thinking that something's probable? Does that count as believing it? This seems to be what's going on in my belief about my cat coming home tonight: I think it's very probable that he'll come home, and this counts as believing he'll come home. On this construal, the 17% who think the existence of elves is probable count as believing in elves as well.

Often people speak as though they allow mere mental assent to count as belief. That seems too weak, as there seem to be clear cases where people mentally assent to things that don't affect their behavior at all. So perhaps belief requires the disposition to act in certain ways. This makes sense of ordinary usage of 'believe', as people often speak as though belief requires the disposition to act as though the proposition assented to is true.

But how strong must such dispositions be? If the standards are too high -- say, they require dispositions as strong as our disposition to act as though the ground beneath us is solid (we step on it without hesitation, utterly confident that it'll support our weight), then very few people -- much less than 8%, I imagine -- will count as having religious belief.

So perhaps some will say the "strong, deep dispositions" account of belief sets the bar too high. But then what strength of disposition is required to count as believing something? Affecting one's behavior just a little bit? Well, when you think that something is a live possibility, it can affect your dispositions to act significantly. If you think it a live possibility that a black widow is in the storage shed you're about to open -- or that a burglar is in your house -- that can: set off a chain of deliberation about what you'll do next, raise your anxiety significantly, affect your plans, etc. So it's tough to say where belief begins. It comes in degrees, and ranges from the very faint to the very firm. And degree of belief corresponds to strength of conviction and strength, scope, and depth of disposition to act as though the claim assented to is true.

On this account, then, thinking that something's a live possibility counts as believing it in at least some cases, if only to a minimal degree, depending on how "live" that possibility is to you. If so, then belief entails that a chunk of that 37% of Icelanders who think the existence of elves is a live possibility count as believing in elves. No doubt that belief is fairly weak in many cases. Still, that degree is sufficient to affect their thoughts, feelings, and behavior (e.g., it prevents many Icelanders from doing landscaping, construction, or road development projects, for fear of angering the elves, as reported in the NPR story).

So to return to the issue at hand, we can say that roughly half of Icelanders believe that elves exist, where some have a very low level of belief, some have a very high level of belief, and everyone else falls somewhere in between.


Wes said…
That is great stuff! Non-theists are always chided for their analogies with other beliefs thought to be ridiculous (e.g. Superman, Santa Claus, etc.), but here is a more credible example (i.e. of a belief that is clearly ridiculous but widely held).
tina FCD said…
Ok, that's weird. :O
Victor Reppert said…
But do you get rid of the belief by tightening up the proper basicality criteria, or do you get rid of it by showing counter-evidence? It seems to me that we can just grab this reductio with both hands.
exapologist said…
Hi Victor,

Assuming one is a foundationalist, and one of the sort to which this question applies, you tighten up the criteria of proper basicality. In any case, I have no problem if theists want to say their belief is rational in virtue of having the proper basicality that elf belief enjoys. ;-)

I suspect it's much harder to root out the belief than you think. Many of them have had elf experiences, and their belief is triggered in "widely-realized" circumstances. Elf mediums "talk" to the elves, and they argue that when they negotiate with the elves in this way -- say, to get them to move temporarily while a road project is underway -- less bad things happen (broken tractors, on-the-job injuries, etc.); when they don't, improbable problems arise (injuries, broken equipment, etc.). What if the statistical corrolation between elf-negotiation via mediums and problems isn't very tight on closer inspection? Well, they can say that we're not talking about impersonal, mechanical forces of nature, but rather personal beings, and so you can't predict what they'll do with any precision. Their belief is also backed by centuries of folklore and tradition handed down from generation to generation. In fact, I have it on the word of an Icelander that there are actually sophisticated elf-apologists there (no really) who debate atheists about it. This isn't a case like the flying spaghetti monster.

In any case, I think Plantinga swung the pendulum too far in his reaction to the "not enough is properly basic" problem for classical foundationalism. In response, he widened the scope of proper basicality so that too many beliefs count as properly basic. Even if we follow Plantinga in adopting Chisholmian particularism with respect to generating criteria of proper basicality (i.e., inductively, starting with a list of particular beliefs one's community finds to be rational without argument, and then selecting the commonalities of these beliefs to formulate criteria of proper basicality), the problem arises as to how we decide who counts as part of one's community: Whose judgements do we include with respect to this process of determining which beliefs are properly basic? This worry gives rise to the following dilemma: Either the Christian (or elf-believing) community limits its group of judgers to, well, the Christian (or elf-believing) community, or they allow others to judge. If they choose the former, then the worry is that this is arbitrary: there seems to be no principled way to say that other communities can't play the same game. So, for example, suppose atheists choose to limit their judgers to those within the atheist community. Suppose further that, when they go through this process of judging which beliefs are properly basic, they come to judge theistic belief to be something other than properly basic. Then by parity of reasoning, we should say that the atheists are just as much in their epistemic rights in saying that belief in God is not properly basic for them as Christians are in saying that it is properly basic for them. The same goes for every other community -- Muslims, Mormons, primitive island tribes, etc. This entails a radical form of relativism about rationality -- one which many Christians and non-christians will see as unpalatable and implausible (e.g., do Christians really want to say that atheists are reasonable and blameless in their denial of God's existence? Do people, whether Christian or not, want to say that what counts as rational is relative from community to community?).

On the other hand, if Christians (or elf-believers) allow other judgers to judge which beliefs are properly basic, then the worry is that belief in God (or elves) probably won't be judged to be properly basic. For many people don't find such beliefs to be rational without argument.

Many (e.g., Christian philosopher James Sennett in Modality, Probabilty, and Rationality, atheist Keith Parsons in his piece in the God Matters anthology, etc., etc.) have raised the "who counts as part of the epistemic community?" probem here. I find it persuasive.

So classical foundationalism falls prey to the Scylla of making the circle of properly basic beliefs too narrow, and Plantinga falls prey to the Charybdis of making the circle too wide. Is there a way between these two epistemic monsters? Yes, and even if we stick with a fairly traditional form of foundationalism. Sennett and Parsons (in the same works just mentioned) argue for a principled way to widen the circle of properly basic beliefs. They argue for widening the circle so as to count beliefs as properly basic iff (i) the belief is universally held, and (ii) the belief is such that a recognizable human life is impossible without it. On this account, then belief that there are material objects, that there are other minds besides our own, that there is a past, that memory is reliable, etc., meet these criteria; they are therefore plausibly construed as properly basic beliefs. But on this account, belief in God (or elves) is not properly basic, since they're neither universally held nor necessary for a recognizable human life.

One might worry that the criteria are arbitrary, but the foundationalist of this sort can avoid this charge if they generate the criteria in the same Chisholmian particularist way that Plantinga generates his criteria.

Beyond all this, though, there are certainly many plausible epistemological theories besides classical foundationalism and Plantingian foundationalism. Off the top of my head: Timothy Williamson's account, Connee/Feldman-style evidentialism, contextualist accounts, IBE-style coherentist theories, truth-tracking theories, etc., etc. So one is not forced to choose between classical foundationalism and Plantinga's account.
mathyoo said…
Another example of how education doesn't necessarily impart critical thinking skills, and how powerful confirmation bias can be.
the chaplain said…
Awesome stuff.

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