Monday, February 12, 2007

Do we choose to believe?

What is belief? There are many definitions, but the one that covers more uses of the word than any other I am aware of is the mental acceptance of the truth or factuality of a claim. The “claim” can be of any nature- a statement, an assumption, even the evidence of your senses- “I can’t believe my eyes.” Many attempt to make a distinction between what we know and what we believe, but this is a false distinction; as individuals, we have no source of information that can be trusted as absolute objective fact, not even our senses. As individuals, we live in a subjective world, a mental model that we hope is a close match to the objective world.

Belief is how we construct that mental model, and it is arrived at in many ways. We can largely trust our senses, but not completely; as Scrooge said to Marley, “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats.” Even when operating in perfect order, our sense are still not adequate to determine fact, as they are subject to our perception- was that two faces, or a vase? Was that a bird or a bat- or a meaningless ink blot? Authority is another way we construct the model- but of course we must realize that those authorities are also fallible. Logic is another method, but logic has its limitations as well, and we cannot predict when a new discovery will upset the old rules. Belief is the weighing of all these factors- largely unconsciously- and assigning a level of trust to each claim.

What sorts of proofs and evidence we trust most is a function of our personality types. Some trust authority to a much higher degree than others- when faced with that old question, “Who you gonna believe- me, or your lying eyes?”, the answer would be, “You.” Some trust past experiences highly- how highly can be demonstrated by an anecdote I heard at a seminar. The speaker was an author, a blond Caucasian woman, who had been partly raised in China and so spoke several dialects like a native. She said that quite often she would ask a local something, and be told “I don’t speak English”- the local having been so accustomed to the “fact” that Westerners don’t/can’t learn Chinese that it didn’t sink in that she had addressed them in Chinese!
Some trust logic so highly that they feel no need to test a conclusion logically arrived at. This is why for centuries tomatoes were believed poisonous in Western Europe; the plant is a close relative of the Deadly Nightshade, and tasting your fingertips after handling the leaves and stems will tell you they contain some of the same toxins. Q.E.D.! When two or mores types of evidence agree, belief in the conclusion is strong indeed. It only makes sense that heavy objects fall faster than light objects; look, a rock falls faster than a feather! This was so convincing that it was believed for thousands of years.

What controls how our minds balance the different types of evidence? What makes a person prize logic so highly that he writes off his own powerful emotional experiences, as Scrooge did, as, “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato.” What makes another trust authority so highly that if his reading of the Bible led him to believe there was an invisible bridge across the Grand Canyon, he would take the leap of faith and step out upon that bridge? What part does education play in assigning values to evidence, what part experience- and what part genetics?
I look at my own experience. Though raised in a devout atmosphere, at no time did the Bible stories seem any more real to me than Greek myths. I remember quite clearly, my age in single digits, lying awake at night wondering what was wrong with me that I couldn’t believe. Surely, at that age, that came from within- believe me when I say that fifty years ago in Indiana grade school children were NOT taught to question God or Christianity! On the other hand, despite years of trying on atheism- back when I bought into the false choice of either Jehovah or nothing- I could never accept that, either. Even though I share with Richard Dawkins a high I.Q., a technical education, and a tendency toward linear thinking, I cannot deny the Divinity my heart knows exists.

Is it possible that we can no more choose how we believe than we choose our sexuality?

1 comment:

ms. kitty said...

Joel, this is so well put. Thanks for a provocative post.