Belief

23-20160312-Itapua-_DSC5835-PSBeliefs are the coin of the realm in human social interaction. Everything we talk about is in some way an expression of a belief.

Beliefs aren’t facts. That’s OK since humans don’t deal directly with facts. At best, we only infer facts. A good example involves looking at the sun (I don’t recommend actually doing this). If we look at the sun we might assume that we know something about the current state of the sun (a fact). Unfortunately, we don’t. We might assume that the sun is currently doing what it’s always done but keep in mind that it’s 93,000,000 miles away. Given the speed of light the best we can know is what the sun was doing around 8 minutes ago. Add to that, all we can see is a 2D projection of one side of the sun. We have no idea what’s happening on the other side. Add to that, most of the action with the sun happens deep within it and can take awhile before it reaches the surface. Add even further to that, a lot of the state of the sun is presented in parts of the electromagnetic spectrum that our eyes can’t even see. What do we include in our assessment of “current state”?

Our belief in the state of the sun is only an inference derived primarily from past experience and the impression it’s currently making on our eyes. If someone were to ask, “How’s the sun doing right now?” and we answered, “Pretty much the same as always.” Most of the time we’d be right but if we were to outlive the sun we wouldn’t be right all of the time because, for various reasons, we can’t know enough.

The same is true of any belief, idea, or assertion that we may come up with. They’re all expressions of our assessment of “the current state” modified by our experience and heavily filtered by our ignorance. Even a command such as, “Don’t touch that!” is an expression of belief that whoever you’re speaking to is actually planning on touching the hot pan and that they’ll actually respond to your command. You’re even assuming that the pan is too hot to touch. All human interaction involves expressing and sharing beliefs.

Many beliefs are derived from collections of other beliefs. These higher order beliefs are models that help us to understand how the universe works. Like our assessment of the current state of the sun, these models are generalizations that help us to function. Most of the time these are safe assumptions. All generalizations though are only useful until they’re not. They’re based on beliefs that are filtered by ignorance and anchored to some past state. They’re useful and vital to our survival, but reality always wins; not belief. Reality will throw you a curve every now and then.

Exploring other people’s systems of belief is one of the most enjoyable activities that I engage in. As with not knowing what’s happening on the other side of the sun, your experience is not my experience. You’re seeing things from a different perspective and I’ll know more, I’ll be more confident, if I consider your beliefs as I develop my system of beliefs. Note the key phrase “develop my system of beliefs”. I’m not likely to just blindly adopt your beliefs. I’m very aware of the limitations of belief in general. Except for extremely urgent circumstances blind adoption is foolish.

Systems of belief are stitched together with some form of logic. It’s essentially a kind of arithmetic. If I combine belief A with belief B and follow a particular rule then I can also have belief C. Systems of belief are derived from long complex chains of operations like these. Creating these systems isn’t quite to so linear though. Sometimes we’ll say, “I want to believe C and I already believe A therefore to fill in the gap I need to believe B.” These gap filling beliefs come under various names such as theory, spirituality, superstition, or nonsense depending on the opinions (beliefs) of the person doing the labeling.

Sharing these gap filling beliefs is essentially how we build a society. There are no particular observations about the universe that might guide us in selecting which side of the road we should drive on, but if we both agree to believe that we should drive on the right side of the road (at least in our part of the world) then it dramatically reduces the chances of a collision. These gap filling beliefs are what enables more than one human at a time to successfully exist in this universe. As a result we spend nearly our entire lives exchanging, evaluating, adopting or rejecting gap filling beliefs. I’m no exception and I enthusiastically explore these gap filling beliefs with others willing to explore them with me. This is collaboration.

Beliefs, be they experience based, derived, or gap filling, are still beliefs. They’re still filtered by ignorance, derived from a particular circumstance, and subject to how the rules were applied for combining other beliefs. If we learn more, our circumstances change, or we discover that we haven’t applied the rules correctly then we need to reexamine our beliefs and make sure that we still want to hold them. When we refuse to critically examine our beliefs we slip into dogma. I consider dogmatic behavior to be at best irritating since it interferes with my pursuit of a better belief system. At worst it’s dangerous since it requires actively ignoring beliefs that may be necessary for improved success or survival.

Religious institutions are the most obvious examples of dogma. More often than not, they represent systems of gap filling beliefs that were very helpful when they were created. The march of time though is relentless. New information, changes in circumstance, and revealed flaws in reasoning render those systems obsolete, or at least less helpful, over time. This is counter to the notion of “truth”. Truth is a belief about a belief. That it’s invulnerable to change or enhanced interpretation. There is no truth in reality. There’s only the best that we have today and with luck and attention what we have tomorrow will be better.
Religions don’t hold a monopoly on dogmatic behavior by any stretch. We see it political parties, gun control, and marital conventions, just to name some of the current topics. I see it in business and technical decision making almost daily.

Dogmatic behavior shouldn’t be surprising. It’s derived from the generalizations that help us survive, but letting go of incorrect or insufficient generalizations feels counter to survival even though some of the time the opposite is true. Most people don’t like to let go because, as we know from Daniel Kahneman’s work, it takes more energy to reason than it does to react. Evolutionarily we’re all about conserving energy and keeping beliefs up to date takes a lot of work.

Dogma backed by force takes on two forms. When there’s broad acceptance in a community that a belief has practical value it becomes a law. Conformance to that belief is enforced by members of the community that you are a part of. The flip side of law is tyranny. Conformance to a tyrannical belief is enforced by a community that you are not a part of.

A community takes a lot of different forms in human society. An extremely common form is shared geography. This is the root of economics; the art and science of efficiently allocating a finite set of resources. Of course, the art and science of war is how to efficiently defend or expand that pool of resources. The art and science of politics and government is how to efficiently manage economics and war.

The most common form of community is a shared system of gap filling beliefs. The most common expressions of this form are religions, but if you pay attention they’re everywhere and may be as formal or much less formal than religions. Political parties, treaties, industry associations, and companies are examples on the more formal side. Conservatism, liberalism, socialism, etc. are examples of less formal communities though these tend to subdivide and overlap based on specific beliefs or sets of beliefs.

A third form of community is family. This stretches back to nomadic times when economic issues weren’t strictly bounded by geography. The more abstract gap filling systems of beliefs came about to knit together groups larger than families. Family communities are a deep part of the human experience though and continue to play a very significant role in human society.

It’s likely safe to say that communities exist to enforce conformance to a pattern of beliefs. This isn’t to say that those patterns of belief are necessarily static. They frequently evolve in tandem by applying “meta-beliefs” or beliefs about systems of beliefs. The meta-beliefs that underlie the scientific community provide a framework for a highly collaborative evolution of a system of beliefs about how our universe works. Make no mistake though. Science is a community. Deviating from these meta-beliefs will get you labeled a crackpot and your sub-community a pseudoscience.

I prefer to hold on to my systems of beliefs lightly. They’re useful until they’re not. I’m happy that the meta-beliefs that structure the society that I live in enables a certain fluidity with respect to which community I choose to be a part of. I’ll always be pursuing a better system. It doesn’t mean that I’ll take anything that comes along but it does mean that I’ll evaluate the strengths and weaknesses in the beliefs I learn from others. For me this is a good meta-belief but your mileage may vary.

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One Reply to “Belief”

  1. Interesting thoughts, but keeping the idea of "belief" so general may limit its usefulness. It's true that we really don't know facts directly, but taking these too far results in the "brain in a vat" scenario that philosophers discuss. Interesting, but not as useful as it could be.

    For example, one's belief that releasing an object on the earth's surface will result in it dropping (ie, a belief in gravity) is based on more than experience -- it also matches extensive models (meta-belefs) built up and tested against reality. For myself, if I ran into significant deviations from the expected behavior, I would suspect either trickery or my own sanity, before the possibility that my previous lifetime of experience and science understanding was all mistaken.

    i suppose that's dogma, but seems considerably different than religious dogman.

    Perhaps one difference here is the extent to which a belief has been tested. Testing includes checking the belief against reality (to the extent possible), but also things like comparing to other well-accepted beliefs, checks for internal consistency, etc. I think there's a big difference between strongly-held beliefs that are well-tested, and those that are not.

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