Thursday, 2 March 2017

Belief and Certainty

“Belief is the state of mind in which a person thinks something to be the case, with or without there being empirical evidence to prove that something is the case with factual certainty.”

Or so says Wikipedia.org.

As definitions go, it is a deft one. If a belief is a state of mind, it is therefore entirely subjective, and any consideration of objective reality or absolute truth are coolly avoided. Truth and Reality are replaced with the oblique “factual certainty”.

Deft it may be, but it gives no sense of how and why humans have evolved to create such a “state of mind”. Nor does it even hint at why, in some cases and circumstances, people will lay down their lives for a belief. Or why they get so emotional when their beliefs are challenged.

Worse still, however, is that Wikipedia.org’s definition gives no sense that beliefs cannot exist in isolation, in the mind of an individual. To have any meaning, a belief must be contained within a system of beliefs as part of a culture (otherwise it is called delusion by everyone else). Just as no culture exists without a community that lives by its rules.

Belief is therefore a social construct. What validates your beliefs is that other people believe them too. Belief is, in other words, more a state of belonging than a state of mind. Believing makes you part of a community of believers, whilst disbelieving will identify you in the community’s eyes as the mad and bad ‘other’, a valid target to be overwhelmed, repressed or even destroyed.

What is common to most definitions of belief, including Wikipedia.org’s, is that empirical evidence is surplus to requirement. Beliefs are just stories that we tell ourselves, myths and narratives that become the building blocks, the basic assumptions of our thoughts and identity. Taken literally, this means that if you change your beliefs, you would not survive the experience: you would become a different person. This explains, to some degree, why literal people get so aggressive when their beliefs are challenged. It might also explain the death of saints, as well as some aspects of their lives.

Of course, the validity of such definitions depends on people being willing to see their beliefs as a psychological device, a mere function, be that a state of mind or a state of loyalty and belonging to a community. Which is precisely the opposite to how most people view their beliefs. Instead, they “believe” their beliefs to be incontestable, absolute Truths.

Put another way, “true” believers believe they are Right. This contains the rather unliberal implication that unbelievers must therefore be Wrong. In the absence of arbitration by empirical evidence, this definition of the believer is the same as the definition of a bigot. What is more, the “true” believer believes in a stunted, excluding reality, one in which there is only one possible Truth, instead of a richer version where truth is not so much absolute as dependent on the believer and the available evidence that each one chooses to ignore.

So, by scratching a bit deeper than Wikipedia.org’s disappointing definition of belief, we find that the concepts of Truth and Reality goose-step back into the discussion. It also reveals that beliefs are social constructs, enforced by the community via bonds of loyalty and belonging that accredit the believer with a membership card that be verified or rejected, based on an individual’s overt behaviour.

Beliefs, from this viewpoint, are therefore the social glue, pointless in isolation, that bind people into communities.

The benefit this provides is simple: trust. Shared beliefs create in humans a state of social trust (ask any conman), and mutual aspirations, that are highly valuable for the overall community’s survival in the face of a harsh, uncompromising and unpredictable Reality. In turn, belief gives an emotional, if false, substance to safety in numbers. Ask any economist and they will say that a lack of trust in a society is expensive and inefficient. This explains why treason is such a heinous crime: it violates trust and reduces the chance of success of the community. So, more than just a binding agent, this sharing of beliefs is nothing short of the foundation stone of society.

What can be learnt from taboos, that sort of institutionalized belief, such as incest or eating rats.

Taboos encapsulate tried and tested wisdom that is hard to dispute: they spare a community the Russian Roulette of trial and error.

What taboos do is “compile” acquired knowledge into the socially enforced ban of a certain practice. In other words, they conveniently reduce the amount of thinking that an individual must perform to survive. Apply the taboo, and you can delegate the act of thinking onto the community, the only cost to the individual being to help enforce the taboo. The downside to taboos is that they cannot be questioned and so, if circumstances change, they can prove to be an inflexible burden. I’m not advocating that brothers should marry their sisters – the realities of genetics are unbending - but if properly cooked, there is nothing wrong with eating rats and it may well become one way of feeding a growing population, as rats breed and grow faster than rabbits. Indeed, it is alleged that a lot of Chinese restaurants in Buenos Aires fed rats instead of chicken to their unsuspecting patrons. They gobbled them down with no discernible ill effect.

The taboo is ultimately a blunt instrument of social organization, that doubles as a primitive form of health care. By violating a taboo, you cease to belong to your group. You are a disgusting person who eats rats, for example. By breaking the ban, you become an “other”, just as if you did not share the beliefs of your community. In that role, at least, taboos are indistinguishable from beliefs.

It would be nice if we could generalize what we have learnt about taboos to other categories of belief. Specifically, that they contain compiled wisdom, involve a delegation of the act of thinking, and are social norms that accredit your belonging in the social life of the group. 

It is easy to discard the first, i.e., that all beliefs contain compiled wisdom: clearly, not every belief is wise. For example, God does not always provide so get off your arse and get going. However, the other two notions, that beliefs allow individuals to delegate the act of thinking onto the institutions of the community and that they provide a form of accreditation do seem, to me at least, reasonable propositions.

A belief in climate change, for example, delegates thinking on scientists and experts, and results in useful social behaviour such as recycling your rubbish and trying to produce less pollution in your daily life. A disbelief in climate change, on the other hand, delegates thought on the likes of Donald Trump, encourages people to thunder around town in a gas guzzling Humvee, and ends up as a vote for changing the rules of social organization, such as liberal values or all the “Mad Nanny” impositions of political correctness.

So much for all that. But what is behind beliefs, what gives them their potency, their energy, their relevance in our mental life.

To a believer, a truth that is not absolute cannot be a truth at all, which is what makes them bigots. However, if you are an even minded sort of person and accept that there are no absolute Truths, then our world becomes tainted with uncertainty. This is quite terrifying to most people, so what to do?

We all crave Certainty. We want to be told that we are loved, we want to be told that we are right. We don’t need these things validated by facts, we just want them validated by fellow believers. Why? Because we want to be part of the herd, the pack.

But above all else, we want to be Certain.

President Donald understands this well: what, if not Certainty, does the snake oil salesman supreme offer to his believers?

Sadly for us all, Certainty is precisely what NO ONE can deliver because, like True Happiness and Enduring Love, there exists no such objective state of grace (other than as a highly subjective state of mind, the very definition of belief that is so disappointing).

What exists, at best, is a fragile form of Stability. Belief systems only survive if they provide some Stability to the believers. Safety in numbers, for example. Only when there is Stability can you safely delegate thought on someone else. In other words, society will only function properly when there is Stability. When that happens, we get Nirvana on Earth, allowing everyone to get on with procreation, attending truck rallies, paying the mortgage and all the other things that give meaning to life.

And now, at long last, we come to the punchline. If there is any substance to this discussion, then beliefs, other than taboos are, more often than not just a means of denying the fact that we live in an uncertain world. A world that one day will roll on without us, quite unperturbed by our discontinued existence.

The awful, unspeakable truth is that we are just an insignificant part of Reality. Add us all up, add all the groups that subscribe to all systems of belief and we are still insignificant.

And so, this way of looking at belief yields a final, speculative, insight:

Most beliefs have at their core a denial of our Insignificance. The Certainty that our Egos crave is the certainty of our Significance.

So, my best guess is that this intense horror of Insignificance, the primary emotional energy behind our beliefs, is none other than our instinct of self-preservation.

Put another way, if we are insignificant, then what is the bloody point?

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