First, please YouTube CBS The Truth about Lies. In two short minutes it delightfully demonstrates how many things most people believe turn out not to be true. It is sobering and humbling to see how blind and deaf we can be. Oh how the power of belief walks all over clear and irrefutable evidence. What accounts for belief’s power (1)?
From a symptoms point of view, it is clear that we hold so tightly to belief because we need to. That is probably obvious, but drilling down into what appears obvious can be enlightening. What hunger do we experience so deeply that belief in something satiates us?
We are a social species with a strong need to belong. The question: How social and how needy? Examples of our deep social need are so pervasive that I failed to appreciate how all encompassing this was most of my life. It is like sand on the beach, the grains easily go unnoticed. I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. My last post, It’s Time We Changed Our Name, covers recent research that looks into our social needs, this under-appreciated side of human nature. I suspect that our social hunger surpasses all others, including food and sex. Of course, food and sex also feed our social hunger, but only temporarily.
For life’s long haul, religious and political belief endows a solid sense of social belonging and security — for true believers anyway. From this point of view, religion’s broad and lasting appeal makes complete sense. It is not actually the content of the belief itself, but the fact that all the followers of a religion share the same belief. That is the tie that binds people! How well a belief satisfies our social hunger determines how faithful we hold it, and how many others adopt it.
The process of believing comes about through daily experiencing our native culture from infancy onward. It really amounts to cultural brainwashing when you think about it. Here, however, the brain washers — our parents, teachers, and cultural leaders — are themselves brainwashed.
As our cultural story becomes a deeply held belief, it delivers us a deepening sense of emotional connection that feeds our social need to belong. In infancy, our parents or caregivers satiate our needs for a secure emotional connection. As we mature, our beliefs embed themselves deeply enough to become our pseudo parents, as it were. In adulthood, we belong to our tribe’s belief, our tribe’s belief belongs to us, and the tribal story becomes a multi-generational self-perpetuating cycle.
It is a wonder anyone can ever truly think for themselves! I imagine one reason we can is that belief is actually a mere figment of our imagination, no matter how true or real we feel it to be. That makes belief actually vulnerable to alternate stories. The desperate need to keep cultural beliefs immutable suggests why authorities burn heretics at the stake, both literally and now figuratively.
The proof lies in the pudding belief
Merely expressing a belief we hold faithfully becomes its own ‘proof’ in the eyes of the believer. The more passionately we hold a belief, the more ‘solid and true’ that proof feels. To have this ‘irrefutable evidence’ contained and protected within the fortress of our mind is irresistible. Empirical evidence is impartial and impersonal, and so lacks the sense of true proof that belief conveys. Add to this the social connection shared belief imparts, and it is somewhat surprising that empirical science or any ‘thinking outside the box’ can survive in the face of such ‘group think’ pressures.
In fact, mainstream culture has only recently become tolerant of empirical science, and even then, only superficially I expect. It wasn’t too long ago that true believers of the Inquisition found Galileo “vehemently suspect of heresy”, forced to recant, and kept him under house arrest for the rest of his life. Most people find the uncertainty of not knowing too unnerving, the cognitive discipline of ‘science’ (from Latin: scientia meaning “knowledge”) too unrewarding, and so faithfully rely upon belief to know the ‘truth’. This worked well enough up until recent centuries. Now, with technology and science serving as the backbone of modern civilization it is much more problematic, even dangerous. Yet, I suspect our fondness for trusting belief will prevail; after all, neurobiology is pulling our cognitive strings.
(1) As it happens, a recent post addressed this issue from a somewhat different angle. If you’re still curious about “Truth”, see The Story Trumps Truth.