I’ve been thinking a lot today about what the hell a belief is. How can you tell what you believe? How do you make a belief? Why is it so painful for people to have their beliefs shattered? How do you tell what someone else believes? The answers to these questions are not self evident. It seems to me that the first thing that jumps to mind at the word belief is the belief in God. That the prime example of a belief is in maintaining an idea that there is a being greater than yourself which is responsible for the creation and fundamental workings of the universe.
It’s a question that we cannot know. We cannot really ever prove or disprove the idea of God, so it must be a belief. Something like an assumption that you make about the way things are. An idea that you use to interpret the world around you. A story that you act out in the world. That story isn’t quite a belief, but it seems to be created by one. And that last bit seems important, you act it out in the world.
What I want to consider is this: what if the question is not “Do you believe X?” but rather “Do you act as though X is the way things are?”
“Do you believe in God?” I behave as though God exists.
“Do you believe your life matters?” I act out the proposition that my life has meaning.
“Do you believe in free will?” I make decisions under the presumption that I decided to make them. Here’s an interesting one, no one seems to act like free will doesn’t exist. Maybe I’ll say more on that later.
So the first idea is this, perhaps the clearest way to determine your beliefs is to look at which ideas, stories, propositions you are acting out in your life.
There’s a framework which can be used to help with emotional trauma. I discovered it in Mastin Kipp’s book Claim Your Power. The method works something like this.
- There is a traumatic incident, this creates a belief (defined as the meanings created from past events).
- From a belief arises an emotion (a felt sensation in the body).
- An emotion produces a thought or a story about the world (how you describe your circumstances).
- The story produces a behavior (how you repeatedly react to your surroundings).
If you want to deal with the trauma, you have to start with your limiting behaviors and work your way back to the traumatic incident. You must identify the story you are telling yourself, then examine the emotions at the root of that story, then look at the belief at the root of the emotion, and then identify where the hell that belief came from. What your goal becomes is then to alter the belief. Try to find a new meaning to take from the traumatic incident and let its consequences ripple through the chain to give you new emotions, stories, and behaviors. You have to reinterpret the incident.
Look at your father who abandoned you at a young age. Perhaps this lead you to believe that people who you love will leave you. Maybe the meaning you find is that you are not worth loving enough to stay. This can lead to intense insecurity, trust issues, and God only knows what else. Changing that belief isn’t as simple as saying, “I am worth loving, look at all the people that love me!” You were abandoned by someone who was supposed to care for you, you can’t just brush that off. Neither can you trick yourself, “It’s good that my Dad left, I am better off without him”. The way to reinterpret this isn’t clear, and it’s different in every scenario. My best attempt has been something like, “If my father had been someone that could have stayed, then he would have. However, there was something in him which neither he nor I have control over that made it impossible for him to remain, and that is a tragedy which I must bear.” It’s a distinguishing between malevolence and tragedy. It’s a tragedy that I grew up without a father but not an evil deed committed against me. This is the belief which I act out.
The whole process of reinterpreting your experiences is excruciating. You have to dive into emotions, focus intently and analyze your stories, and then you have to be creative enough to make a new belief. It requires every faculty of your mind. It sucks to do, and no one wants to do it. In some cases, it may even be impossible or unjustifiable. However, if you can do it, that makes you powerful. If you can pinpoint where your beliefs came from and alter those beliefs, man, that’s an incredible gift. If you can help others do it, as far as I’m concerned you’re a saint.
So all this is to say that our actions are causally linked to our underlying beliefs. If you want to know what someone believes about the world, look at how they act, not at what they say.
There’s another idea that I’d like to sharpen before I move on. It’s the idea of truth. This is something that I heard Jordan Peterson talking about once, and I thought it was so fascinating! It’s something like this: you can have Newtonian Truth or you can have Darwinian Truth, but you can’t have both.
Under Newton, the idea of truth is an objective discrete description of the way things are that IS the way things are. It’s what our whole system of science is useful for. We think that there are underlying principles to the way our world works, and if we can describe them with an equation, then we’ve got it. Our task is to discover the rules that are generating our universe.
Under Darwin, true is only ever “true enough”. If you know something about the world, and it’s true enough to keep you alive, then it’s true. In the spirit of natural selection, creatures that make false presumptions about the world die. The monkey that believed that snakes are friends was devoured. In the same way, if a truth is true enough to work under the given circumstances, then its true! Not only that, but you can’t ever get real truth. The best you can do is “true enough”. In this model, you look at patterns in the universe and guess at rules that can describe them. Anomalies happen, and you redefine your rules. However, you can’t ever get to the root of the pattern.
To summarize, Newtonian says that fundamental are rules which generate the patterns of the universe. Darwinian says that fundamental are patterns and rules can be laid over the top of them.
I’ve had the conversation about Determinism vs Free Will more times than I care to admit. Ultimately, whichever you choose is an assumption, because we can’t know for certain which is the case. The determinist view I would say is a Newtonian one. That there is an underlying chemistry to every interaction which, set back to their initial conditions, would play itself out the same every time. We are the products of a chain reaction 14 billion years old and have no choice but to behave in the manner that we do. In a way, we are exempt from blame, pawns of the forces of nature, playing out the drama of the world. Only, no one acts like this is true.
The case for free will, in my estimation, seems more darwinian. If you act like you have agency over your life, if you voluntarily bargain with the future by sacrificing the present, then you survive! Everybody acts as though they can decide how to be in the world. In my view, it seems absurd to claim that you believe in determinism. What kind of action would you take to play out that idea? It seems to me like its more of an interesting thought experiment than a belief.
I want to tackle next why it’s often so difficult for people to change their beliefs. There’s a few things that spring to mind. First I picture someone who has dedicated their whole life to a cause. Perhaps its a scientific theory. Perhaps it is a marriage. Perhaps it is the church. Perhaps it is an ideal for a utopian government.
When your life’s work is disproved by a new finding. When your marriage falls apart. When it comes to light that your church has been changing it’s interpretations of the Bible on a whim. When you realize that your utopian government is responsible for the murder of 60 million people in the gulag archipelago.
Well, that hurts.
In fact, that’s shattering. You’re completely tossed into chaos; the world is not what it was. Perhaps you can get by by tweaking your belief. It’s not the utopian ideal which is wrong, its the way it was incarnated by the people in power. Maybe your spouse just made a mistake and they can be forgiven and we can forget about the whole thing.
Under Newton, you’ve got the correct idea, maybe you just need to add a constant or multiply by the right coefficient. And if you truly are wrong, that is a painful admission of falsity.
Sometimes your belief must die so that a new one can take its place. Your spouse is not who you thought they were. Your church is not the authority of truth you believed in. Under Darwin, if you find a truer belief than your old one, that gives you an advantage. Beliefs are constantly pitted against each other, and nothing is ever believed to be actually correct because remember that the best we can do is “true enough”. When a belief dies that you already knew was not necessarily the best possible description, you welcome the new superior idea, and even that idea is treated only as good enough for now. It’s true that both Newtonian and Darwinian thought allow for the replacement and removal of ideas. The difference is that Darwin accepts that no idea you maintain can be absolutely true.
At this point in my life, I’ve not had to deal with true iconoclasm. (Well maybe except for the belief that people my age don’t die.) I’ve not held any beliefs as the bedrock to my being. I think I tend to be more on the antifragile side of things. That’s more or less what has led to my intense openness and vulnerability. I act out the proposition that whoever I’m speaking with knows something I don’t, and that they might have the secret to my redemption. If they can provide me with a new insight, then bless their soul and thank you kindly. This isn’t to say that I won’t come across something that will shake me to the core, in fact it’s a certainty that I will. When that happens, perhaps I can be quicker in my adaption during the restructuring aftermath.
Ultimately, beliefs are difficult to penetrate. We treat them as though they are silly, unscientific assumptions about reality. In the world of objects, they have no place. However, in our world of patterns, they are paramount. They are the hand that guides the weaving together of threads into the fabric of our lives. To understand the intention of the hand, you have to look into the organization of the threads and the quality of the fabric. To understand a belief, you have to look at how it is acted out.