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. It is remarkable how easily belief (p.591) 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 on 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 can satiate us?
We are a social species with a strong need to belong. The question is, how social and how needy. Examples of our 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 (p.187), 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 briefly.
For life’s long haul, religious and political belief provides a solid lasting 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 (or political ideal) share the same belief. That is the tie that binds people! How well a belief satisfies our social hunger determines how faithful we hold to it and who else adopts 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 brainwashers — 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 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 multigenerational 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 only a figment of our imagination, no matter how true or real we feel it to be. That makes belief vulnerable to alternate stories. The desperate need to keep cultural beliefs immutable suggests why ardent believers burn heretics at the stake, both literally and now figuratively.
The proof lies in our belief pudding
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. Keeping this proof contained and irrefutable within the fortress of our mind is irresistible. On the other hand, empirical evidence is impartial and impersonal, and so lacks the sense of proof that belief conveys. Add to this, the social connection that a shared belief imparts, and it is rather surprising that any empirical outside-the-box thinking can survive in the face of such groupthink pressures.
In fact, mainstream culture has only recently become tolerant of empirical science, and even then, probably only superficially. It wasn’t long ago that the Inquisition (1633) 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, p.167.