We like to consider ourselves as a thinking species. That not only were we endowed with consciousness, but that we also got to use our brain to work things out in a way that other animals didn’t. We sometimes refer to ourselves as the rational or logical species. That we can think through a problem and work out that A plus B inevitably leads to C. We even got to the point, of realising that we can also think about our own thinking. Or even think about thinking while we’re thinking. Although I might have to think about that one.
Anyway, where is all this going, you might well ask? Well, we are also endowed with another ability that, it seems to me, also marks us out as a distinct species. We have the ability to believe. Now this is a function or concept that I have some difficulty getting my own mind around. I can’t quite figure out why we as a species are blessed, some would say, cursed with it.
A few years ago, I was a participant in a discussion group. Just an informal thing for mainly older people who wanted to keep their grey matter ticking over. It was customary, at the end of each meeting, that the choice of the next discussion was suggested by a member of the group. On this particular occasion it seemed to be my turn; so I suggested the topic might be, “What is Belief?” There seemed to be general agreement that this was a good suggestion and it might be quite a challenging subject for discussion. I had no idea just how challenging it was going to be.
The following week there was quite a reasonable sized group around our table, and I thought that this bode well for an interesting debate. However, right from the start it became clear that this wasn’t going to be straightforward. As each person picked up the topic they began to talk about their own particular belief, usually their religious belief. Even the chair of the meeting held forth for about 5 minutes about his own particular belief. Nobody seemed to -get- the question. I didn’t want to know what their belief was; I wanted them to examine the whole concept of belief as a human trait. So I ended up leaving the meeting feeling quite frustrated.
In retrospect I realised that it simply wasn’t going to work anyway. For the simple reason that in order to examine the question “What is belief?” one might have to question one’s own beliefs, and the one thing that a deeply held belief will not tolerate is being questioned. Because it runs the risk of being exposed as fraudulent and thus ceasing to exist.
So opening up a deeply held belief seems to be fraught with danger for us. But why, I ask myself; when using our rational mind so successfully seems to solve so many puzzles for us. Why this division in our thought processes. Well my own thinking about this, I’ve discovered just recently, seems to be backed up by some science. Or at least some theoretical models done by psychologists. Belief is considered to be the simplest form of mental representation. A core building block of consciousness. So I’m guessing it goes back a very long way in our evolution.
I’m thinking that very early on, before we developed the ability to reason, we functioned mainly instinctively. We just needed to know if whatever we were confronted with was something to eat or something that was likely to eat us. Not being too analytical at that time, we probably decided that if something looked like it could eat us, we didn’t stick around in order to find out. Even if the creature was benign, if it looked like a predator it probably was one. So maybe belief was early hypothesising, driven by our instinct to survive.
I’ve long felt that belief is closely related to fearfulness. Ask someone to consider abandoning a deeply held belief they might have and there is usually a look of apprehension or even horror; as if they couldn’t countenance such a thing. It simply doesn’t compute.
One of the hardest things, I find, is convincing someone with low self esteem just how good they are as a person. They’ve spent their entire life telling themselves that they are somehow a lesser person than anyone else. Dig deep enough and one may find the roots of this belief about themselves is in early childhood. A simple message from outside of themselves, continually delivered by adults and peers, that simply got stuck in a mental loop and became a core belief. Followed by a lifetime of repeating that message to themselves over and over again. Until they end up believing all that negativity to be based in fact; when in reality it’s a million miles from the truth about who they are.
I’m wondering if as a species, we will outgrow belief and move beyond it to being completely rational. Or perhaps find that the only reason we are human at all is precisely because of belief. That it is something necessary to our humanity. I like to think that it will always be part of us, but we will grow to accept that it is not an absolute. That we will ultimately allow reason to be the final arbiter.
Anyway, after much thought about the subject, I arrived at my own definition of what belief might be. I offer it for consideration by anyone that might be interested. I’d love to hear your own thinking.
Belief: The aware or unaware choice of an individual to accept a position as fact. Without any evidence that proves that position, or in the face of any evidence that disproves that position.