Part of a four-part series of essays on human nature:
Introduction: Fear, Need, and the ‘Meaning of Life’
Free Will: Fact or Wishful Thinking?
Belief: Are We Just Fooling Ourselves? (you are here)
Ethics: Do They Work Anymore?
Belief: Are We Just Fooling Ourselves?
(Click here for related posts on belief)
|Choose an example|
|It will help to have an example of belief as we consider the nature of belief. What better than a personal belief you hold to be true. Got one? Okay, now keep it in mind as we go along…|
Belief in free will raises questions about the overall nature of belief
We, like all sentient animals, observe continually throughout life. We notice the warmth of the Sun, thunder and lightning, sudden movement in tall grass, and the darkness of night… to name a few. How do such raw observations differ from belief? While a horse would notice most of the phenomenon just listed, it does not believe, for example, that the ‘Sun warms’. Only we do.
Language allows us to categorize what we observe, store it in memory, and recall it when needed. Need serves a pivotal role in belief. The process of belief begins with the acquisition of language. The social need to connect drives babies to learn language. Through language, a baby also fulfills various physical needs relating to food, fear, fun, and such. Thus, a baby acquires an emotional stake in the constancy of word meaning. Each word a baby learns becomes a ‘solid brick’ for building all its subsequent beliefs. To serve this purpose, word meaning must be rather immutable. For example, when we know “water” is that liquid thing we perceive, that word embeds itself in our sub-conscious experience. We believe “water” is water. However, is it really?
We gradually establish our own worldview during childhood. In those formative years, we adopt our culture’s paradigm using language as home base. The particulars of belief or perspective may change, e.g., we can hold liberal views in our youth and replace them with more conservative ones as we age. However, we always know and believe that “water” is water.
Let’s consider higher-level beliefs – those that time and change influence. We might believe in God as a child, but drop the belief as an adult, or vice versa. Either way, need and pleasure are the motivating forces. If believing in God makes you feel better, you will continue to believe in God. If a liberal point of view stops making you feel good, you will be open to other points of view, and will likely adopt one that makes you feel better. The need to feel good or better arises out of innate biology. It is what causes us, and horses, to seek shade when it is hot. For humans, need also determines how steadfast we hold a belief. Indeed, we will sacrifice life and limb in the cause of a belief; as we saw earlier, ‘I am’ and ‘belief’ are cognitively interdependent and impinge on our survival instincts.
Belief has nothing to do with whether it’s true or not. Indeed, what is truth? Do your beliefs not determine what you hold to be true? Belief equals truth. If you believe that ‘clear liquid’ is water, then it is true for you that ‘water’ is ‘water’. Similarly, if you believe the Earth is flat, then it is flat for you. Your belief in the truth of words forms the foundation for all subsequent higher-level belief systems. Not so for the horse – true and false mean nothing to him or to the rest of nature. There is no ‘water’. There is simply the sensory experience of what we name ‘water’… and so a Taoist says, The name possible to express runs counter to the constant name.
Why belief may become irresistible
All animals have an innate sense of cause and effect in that when they observe or experience pain, danger, or difficulty, they react by either eliminating the cause or fleeing. We react similarly to such stimuli. However, we part company with other animals vis-à-vis our belief in gods, spirits, and other ‘causative’ forces we imagine being ‘out there’. We live life acting and reacting to two realities, one real, and the other imagined.
Our large and somewhat hyperactive brain naturally elaborates on the innate sense of cause and effect that we share with other animals. Not only do we observe and react to stimuli, we think and dwell on it. When causes are not obvious, we conjure up a plausible scenario that settles out uncertainty. For example, we once knew that the god Apollo carted the Sun across the sky. Now we know that Earth actually rotates, which produces the illusion of the Sun ‘carted’ across the sky. The facts — Apollo or Earth’s rotation — are less significant than the secure sense of the knowing we experience when we think we have the answer… and so a Taoist says, Realizing I don’t’ know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease.
Our visceral feelings, especially fears and needs, stir up thoughts that give these feelings intellectual forms. These thoughts are the corollary – the reflection – of those feelings. From this, a feedback process begins, shuttling back and forth between thought and emotion. The ensuing package, beliefs about what is and is not, paints us into a perceptual corner. The more narrow our focus, the less perceptual room we have to maneuver.
The good news is that this provides us a sense of emotional and mental stability and security. Deeply held belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, so to speak. Such belief proves itself true — belief and truth become subjectively synonymous. The bad news is that this becomes a vicious circle preventing us from considering another way out of any predicament, whatever it might be at the time. We can’t see outside belief’s box.
Examining deep belief
- We need a perfect example to examine deep belief. What could be more perfect than a deep personal belief you hold to be true. Got one? Okay, now keep it in mind as we proceed…
First, try to consider the personal belief you’ve selected vis-a-vis the need it satisfies within you. How would you feel if you found it to be utterly false? Would you feel some sense of loss — even a loss of life meaning perhaps? Try to entertain a point of view that contradicts your belief. It can be nearly impossible to do because belief, especially when deeply held, satisfies deeply felt needs. If nothing else, belief brings closure to the timeless void, the unknown and unknowable, that haunts the human subconscious. Belief is the final resting place for thought. It is both a personal castle to ward off the unknown and a personal prison that prevents venturing out into the yet to be known unknown.
The psychological and emotional dependence you have on your belief makes questioning it without bias nearly impossible. The greater the dependence, the less you will be able to conceive of alternate models. Indeed, your mind tends to filter out what goes against your bias and only lets through what supports it. Belief conveys a strong sense of emotional security by giving you a stable worldview. Belief and the visceral need for emotional security form a closed loop, each supporting the other.
The unintended consequences of belief
As I pointed out at the beginning, the first step in the belief process is the categorizing of experiences. Words are the foundation of this categorizing process. Affixing names and words to the phenomena we experience makes language possible, and language allows us to mull experience over…and over and over. By pigeon holing experiences, language permits us to manage them. This is a definite survival advantage we have over non-language using species. However, this comes at a price.
Belief works similar to the blinders they put on a horse to prevent it from being spooked. Belief makes reality less spooky for us, which affords us a degree of emotional and psychological comfort and security. However, believing that things are a certain way has the unintended consequence of preventing us from seeing them as they might truly be. Also absent is the adventure of experiencing the open-ended mystery of reality, or as the Tao Te Ching puts it, This is called profound sameness.
Our brain’s unique functionality of ‘high level’ cognition is what makes us human. While not a problem, per se, too much of a good thing often becomes problematic. In particular, beliefs hamper us from seeing any more of the whole that lies outside our particular set of beliefs. For example, either believing that God exists, or does not exist, will hinder impartial consideration of alternative possibilities. For example, “Why do people believe in God in the first place?” Impartiality is crucial, as chapter 16 points out,
If this seems plausible, we might wonder how to liberate ourselves from some of the shackles of thought and belief, and in the process, rise beyond oneself — ego.
Freedom from our addiction to intelligence
The more emotionally addicted we are to a particular belief, the less able we are to consider anything else. Of course, we easily recognize such obsessive blind spots in those whose beliefs we see as false. Yet, we are unable to see how such blindness also applies to the beliefs we hold and see as true. Why? Emotional dependence is profoundly blind. Dependence has this same effect, whether it is an addiction to alcohol, love, food, drugs, or beliefs. Indeed, beliefs may be the strongest of all addictions.
How can we liberate ourselves from the shackles of belief addiction? How can we disconnect from the emotional dependence that underpins our thoughts and judgments? If we had ‘free will’, I suppose we could wave our wand of ‘free choice’ and make it so. Without ‘free will’ though, we are pretty much stuck where we are. We can only live out our lives, hitting bottom repeatedly until we realize we are addicts and feel the need to take it one day at a time, one thought and belief at a time and let go as much as we are able. If you would like to chip away at belief at its root check out the Tools of Taoist Thought: Correlations and Couplets, covered previously at the beginning of the Appendix.