Crossroads – You Are What You Believe

Before it was challenged by Copernicus and Galileo nearly 400 years ago, Aristotle’s Geocentric notion that the sun revolved around the earth was the accepted truth of the Catholic Church. The Church’s understanding of the solar system was not Heliocentric, but rather “religio-centric”; it was a belief-dependent reality. Galileo was subsequently tried by the Inquisition and found to be “vehemently suspect of heresy”, and sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life. It should be noted that Galileo’s 1633 conviction for his crime against church doctrine was eventually reversed in 1992, he was forgiven. Such is the power of belief systems.

Beliefs need to be seen as much for what they are as what they are not. They are not “truths” except as they are provable in which instance they become facts. Beliefs do not rise to the level of truth, believing something does not make it true. As beliefs are not demonstrable and they are not provable they remain beliefs. A Belief System is a set of mutually supportive beliefs. Truth need not apply and “truth” itself is altogether another bucket of worms. Also, as philosopher Jonathan Glover points out, belief systems are difficult to completely revise, he argues that beliefs have to be considered holistically, and that no belief exists in isolation in the mind of the believer. We are a collection of our beliefs independent of facts and experience and most importantly, in the absence of knowledge.  We are walking-talking belief systems. Michael Schermer’s observation is that, “… the principle of belief-dependent realism dictates, once the belief is formed, reasons can be manufactured to support it.” Actually, they must and will be either found or created.

People believe because they need to believe and they need to believe because they cannot grasp the complexity of things that go on around them. The world as experienced is far too complex and random to be taken in and completely understood. The persecution of the “witches” of Salem in colonial times is a good example of a belief system built on fear and superstition in which many women and men were put to death over a period of years without factual basis. It was believed by the church-going residents of Salem that Satan was present on the earth along with demons and all misfortune was the work of the devil acting through witches.

The Calvinists of Salem lived in a religio-centric-belief-dependent reality which created a belief system that allowed them to rationalize hanging their fellow citizens. The Inquisition of the 12th through 15th centuries, which burned people alive, is another example of a religio-centric-belief-dependent system that cost many innocent lives. Beliefs feed on themselves in self-referential loops continually building on other beliefs and in this way creating systems of related beliefs and recreating them according to need and experience. Paradoxically, the deepest motive for belief is the need for certainty and as John Dewey pointed out, “.. the quest for certainty has always been an effort to transcend belief.”

Here follows a mundane example of the ubiquity and banality of belief in everyday life: Needing something or other someone believes a neighborhood store will have what he wants. On his way to the store this person will cross streets and do so believing drivers will obey traffic laws regarding cross-walks and traffic lights and will not run him down. Our shopper who lives in a “good” neighborhood also believes he will not be accosted or robbed enroute, he believes he is safe. At the store he finds what he wants and pays with a piece of paper that both he and the clerk believe has value equal to the purchase. It is one belief after another. Belief is necessary, it does not require knowing, it does not count as knowing but it is essential to living, it is an essential component of daily life and the social contract.

“The human brain is really a believing machine,” according to Neurologist Andrew Newberg, “and every experience we have affects the depth and quality of those beliefs. The beliefs may hold only a glimmer of truth, but they always guide us toward our ideals. Without them we cannot live, let alone change the world. They are our creed, they give us faith, and they make us who we are. Descartes said, Cogito ergo sum, “I think therefore I am.” But viewed through the lens of neuroscience, it might be better stated as Credo ergo sum, “I believe, therefore I am.” Our beliefs lead us into the future, in fact, they make the future possible, they make life possible. Belief enables all endeavors as simple as getting out of bed in the morning or a willingness to vote or participate in communal life. It must also be noted that trust and mistrust are functions of belief and both are dependent on experience.

In spite of such horrible events as the shooting of children in Connecticut or the recent Boston Marathon bombing we have no choice but to proceed as believers. Certainty is not to be had. Our calculations of the future are underlain with beliefs and made stronger by an acknowledgement of uncertainty. We have fire extinguishers not because we believe there will be a fire but because there is no certainty there will be none; this is not neurosis but common sense. Tim Flannery said it well: “We have trod the face of the moon, touched the nether most pit of the sea, and can link minds instantaneously across vast distance …. But for all that, it’s not so much our technology but what we believe that will determine our fate.”

Aside from written laws, the social contract is tenuous, it is an illusion at best yet we must believe in it, we must protect and defend the most generous and humane definition of it if only to protect our conception of ourselves as civilized people. Beware the purveyors of certainty, beware of liars – it’s beliefs all the way down, folks – this I believe.

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