An Exploration of Belief
I read an article on Medium by David Gamble with the title, “Why do some hold Paranormal Beliefs while others don’t?” Mr. Gamble’s article reminded me of an article I wrote and published twelve years ago on Newsvine with the title “The Truth We Want”. I wasn’t sure whether I had already published my article on Medium, so I did a search. I discovered that I had not published my article on Medium, however Sarah Warden had published a poem with the same title. My article with a theme similar to Mr. Gambles article and the same title as Ms. Warden follows.
We all have beliefs, but we rarely stop to consider what a belief is, or how we establish our beliefs. So that is what I am attempting to do in this article. Of course, the result will only be my beliefs about belief. *sigh*
Some people believe in God, others assert there is no God. Some people believe our government has a nefarious plan to subjugate us, others believe the government may be inept or inefficient but nevertheless has good intentions. We believe anything and everything, and for every belief there is a counter-belief. The fact that beliefs are so thoroughly diverse and unvaryingly contradicted should tell us something about them. Perhaps it tells us beliefs usually come with a degree of uncertainty.
Most of us feel uncomfortable with uncertainty, so we look for ways to assuage that discomfort by bolstering our confidence. Some people do this simply with faith. I’ll offer my thoughts on the nature of faith shortly, but first I’d like to discuss the method preferred by the scientific community, the “Scientific Method.” Here’s how the Scientific Method works:
· “Hypotheses” (ideas or guesses) are proposed as explanations of phenomena (things we see).
· Experiments are designed to test these ideas.
· If the tests are reliably repeatable, they are said to be a “proof” of the hypothesis.
· Hypotheses gain credibility when the tests are carefully scrutinized and verified through peer review.
Peer skepticism and even self-skepticism help to “scrub out” any flaws our hypotheses may have. This scrubbing process will completely debunk seriously flawed hypotheses, and validate or refine hypotheses that stand up to rigorous “testing.” While disagreement amongst scientists is not uncommon, most scientific hypotheses subjected to this method of validation are eventually either debunked or receive a strong consensus of agreement.
There is no need to limit the use of the Scientific Method strictly to scientific issues. It can be applied just as well to any topic for which tests can be devised and carried out.
Some phenomena pose questions that are very difficult or even impossible to answer. An example well known to all of us, death, begs this question, “What will become of me when I die?” There is no way to “test” our hypotheses about that question. Even so, most of us adopt beliefs about the answer to that question and other difficult questions. If the Scientific Method cannot be used as the basis for establishing our beliefs about the “difficult questions”, then what method can we use? Some people use “faith” as a basis for adopting their beliefs about questions that are difficult to answer by any other means. What is faith?
Just as the Scientific Method is an effort to bolster confidence in an idea, faith is a similar effort, except people who have faith simply choose to be confident in the absence of “proof.” It is important to acknowledge that some people whose beliefs are “faith based” say they have proof, but their proof is personal and not usually repeatable by others. This should not discount the validity of those people’s beliefs… for them. The Scientific Method is not necessarily superior to faith as a basis for establishing beliefs, but it does provide a mechanism by which many people can test an idea in order to strengthen their confidence in that idea.
Because we have no way to test hypotheses for the “difficult questions” it is easy to understand why there is so much disagreement on those topics. But there are also topics which lend themselves to testing very well, which nonetheless inspire much disagreement. A wise man once said, “One man’s truth is another man’s lie.” But the truth does not belong to anyone. Our beliefs are only guesses about the truth, and there is no amount of certainty we can have that will change the truth. If the Scientific Method works well for establishing a consensus of belief for some “testable” topics, why does it fail with others?
I would like to propose an answer to that question, a hypothesis if you like. Even though we try to ease our discomfort with uncertainty by seeking the truth, the truths we discover may not feel comfortable to us either. So we avert our eyes from things that contradict our desired truth, giving our attention only to those things that support the truth we want.
You may wonder how one could characterize the belief that “our government has a nefarious plan to subjugate us” as a “comforting” belief. That idea alone certainly doesn’t have any comforting qualities, but it may support other beliefs that do. A flaw discovered in one belief may threaten the credibility of other beliefs. The notion that forsaking even one belief might jeopardize our entire belief system is likely to feel overwhelming uncomfortable, so each and every belief becomes inviolable for the sake of comfort and security.
Our desire for comfort is a corrupting factor in our quest to know the truth. If we really do want to know the truth, then shouldn’t we be skeptical of our beliefs, especially if they are “comforting”? Shouldn’t the fact that a belief is comforting be sort of a “red flag”? Even if we don’t think of our beliefs as comforting, shouldn’t we constantly try to shoot them down just to be sure we aren’t kidding ourselves???
What test can we devise that will tell us when we are avoiding the “real” truth in favor of the truth we want?