Yesterday I was asked by a dear friend why I can’t just believe in something. Anything. This was not the first time I’ve been asked that question. It surprises me, when I am asked this. I hope to, in this writing, bring to light some understanding as to why, perhaps as a self-indulgence, I might be asked this question, and to clarify the understandings or perceptions I hold that may lead many friends to ask it.
Exclusion and Power: Belief and Disbelief
Before I can consider “believing in something”, I have to define what belief is, not only to myself, but to others who would have an interest in understanding this belief.
The universe is composed of many objects, processes and forces. A Cartesian model, most certainly, i.e., measurable, rational, empirical. We can observe these Cartesian components of our existence and understand them over time, and with the development of new observational techniques, and by utilizing the diverse tools given to us by rational inquiry. We can embrace this understanding and, as the mechanics of rationality allow, predict events and circumstance, alter our universe, and further build upon and advance our own perceptions to new levels within the confines of these rational processes.
If I say that I believe in a demonstrateable, and always recreatable “thing”, is that really a belief, or simply a deference to actuality that has proven to be unassailable in its interpretation? Many would not call this a belief, but rather a fact – a Law – or a Truth. It transcends our subjective interpretations in most respects because it exists the same for all of us, independent of our individual, incidental beliefs.
For example, if I held the belief that the sun moved through the sky each day because it was being carried along the back of a giant turtle, I might be very comfortable waking each day, and going to sleep each night knowing the universe was safe and consistent in its workings. There is no need to think about the sun and its movements, because I know why it is there. I can be content in my daily routine. And all my friends share the sun turtle belief, so how could so many people be wrong? In fact, I never even consider the possibility of anything but the sun turtle – I am comfortable.
Yet we, all of us, know now that the sun is not, in fact, carried on the back of a turtle through the sky. Indeed, it’s not moving at all – we are the ones moving, and it just appears to move in relation to our movement. To those people who knew the turtle was carrying the sun through sky, this new universal understanding would literally have sent their world flying through the void of space. It is not likely this transition would be easy, nor occur without violent reactions.
But why is this? What has really changed, simply knowing the truth at last, that there is no turtle, and that we revolve around the sun instead? In fact, nothing has changed.
However, people were forced to accept a truth that was not consistent with their belief. And the problem is not really that simple. It is in the very hazy definition of belief. These people accepted a belief as truth, even though nothing existed to positively prove this truth to them. In fact, they were aware that some people had not even heard of the turtle, and that other people knew that a chariot driver was pulling the sun across the sky, or a giant beetle was pushing it. But these variances were not so significant. To their minds, the earth was stationary, and something was pushing or pulling the sun across the sky.
And we killed, tortured and censored people who attempted to prove that the sun was actually stationary, and that the earth revolved around it instead.
Sharing beliefs can be a very powerful force. Our collective acceptance of what is real or true shapes the fate of us all. People and nations will kill each other over beliefs. Is it not important to carefully distinguish between what is belief, and what is true?
If we can agree that distinguishing between belief and truth is important, can we also agree that choosing a truth over a belief might be the correct choice?
Pessimists might say that we should take the safe route and believe in nothing that is not verifiable. Optimists might say that we should believe in everything that has been said about something that is not yet verifiable. Both routes limit us. Thankfully, most of us meander between pessimism and optimism. As such, we can retain the skepticism of the pessimists, which can help protect us from leaping to convenient conclusions which are likely wrong, and the passion of the optimists, which will energize us to explore as many possibilities as we can imagine when seeking the truth about things.
In the terms of the empiricist, belief is as meaningless as disbelief. What matters is the actuality.
But do we find Truth in empiricism itself?
What Exactly Is Real?
One thing the empiricists don’t readily admit is their love of beliefs. Beliefs and assumptions are a vast and wonderful collection of source material from which they can begin their various empirical analysis. This is a very, very old process. We collectively hold a belief, the empiricists wield their razor sharp tools of reason and observation, and these beliefs become either shredded to pieces, or enshrined as Truth.
Painful to some of us, inspirational to others. Unfortunately, most of us just don’t care as long as food is on the table, and the TV is working.
An interesting bi-product of the empirical process is the debris it leaves behind. When a belief or assumption is enshrined as Truth, it more often than not reveals many, many other questions, which then require further assumptions that will later be subjected to the same scrutinizing processes. This is how science progresses. This is how we begin to understand many of the fundamental truths of our existence and the universe in which we manifest. It is laborious, and very grand in scope. It is enshrined within its own relevance. And we all benefit, and sometimes suffer as a result. People often speak of poetry or harmony when new truths are revealed – and at least poetry when beliefs are shattered.
What we do know is that most questions that get answered, lead to many more questions. What we also know is that beliefs not subjected to scrutiny leave no room for questions. The former, a joyful and oftentimes painful process of discovery and exploration. The latter, a safe, static, solidification of a collective Will – a tyranny of the spirit.
Let’s look at some variations on a theme:
If I say, I believe in God because he is the One True God and the lord of all heaven and earth for all eternity, I have committed myself to multitude of things. First, belief or disbelief is not relevant – just like the empiricists. God exists as the One True God regardless. Secondly, not only does he exist, but he exists for everyone, and, in fact, their entire universe – all species and forms of life in the entirety of the universe. There is no room for another belief related to spirituality, even though others exist. This is unlike the empiricists, who must begin wielding their rational tools once again, to enshrine as truth, or misconception. They might try having a go at this, but most would not, being fully aware that our capacity for absolutely measuring such things is currently limited. Most empiricists at this point would choose to disbelieve in such a God, as there is no rational basis. Some choose to believe, even though this is fundamentally at odds with their “higher” reasoning. The truly noble empiricist would choose to “suspend their belief or disbelief” until such time as something concrete could be measured. Thirdly, adopting this belief isolates and closes me away from any other belief, or even any other Truth that may infringe upon my incidental choice. Although we are perfectly free to do such things, I believe it is unwise, as the texts of history demonstrate, and even the current state of the world, that such unreasoning adoptions of belief subject us to the tyranny of the belief system, leaving us open to exploitation by others professing similar beliefs, but having motives beyond them, and even more vulnerable because we have adopted a system that no longer requires critical thinking, but will instead soften our resolve to achieve beyond our self-imposed limitations or even question the simplest of things. This model is a belief that is considered Truth.
However, if I say, I believe in God because there is no other good explanation for my existence, and it “feels right” to me, and my physical, mental or spiritual well-being is dependent upon having a good, solid reason for existing, I have, then, in many ways adopted a belief that fulfills a need, but which remains open to change and evolution as more Truths continue to be revealed through our varied and collective endeavors. The empiricists are not a threat to this model, nor am I a threat to Truth by adopting this model. This is a belief recognized as being a belief. In it, there is room for others – room for diversity.
But if I say that I disbelieve in God, is my disbelief a form of belief in and of itself? Can the empiricist prove that God does not exist? If I choose the belief that God is a collective fabrication and that anyone believing such nonsense are fools, am I not guilty of the same tyranny of thought, in at least some ways, for which I accuse the “believers”? Am I not falling prey to the same safe, thoughtless “easy road” mentality I know they have taken? Of course, I will be free of much of the baggage that the moralistic aspects of religious belief load upon us – and this weight will not be something I try to crush down upon the shoulders of others – but I speak here from the disciplined exclusion of these considerations when examining the possibility of God as a creator deity. We cannot yet, with any reasonable certainty, empirically exclude the potential Truth of such an assertion.
For our final variation, I choose to suspend both my belief and my disbelief in God. There is no valid reason to believe in God, nor is there any valid reason to disbelieve in God. I garner insights, understandings and ideas available to believers, while simultaneously retaining the objectivity required to pursue the relevance of all varied possibilities. This approach is irksome to both believers and non-believers. Believers have a saying that you must not be “luke warm” in your beliefs, that if you “straddle the fence” you will be “spit out like warm water that is neither hot nor cold”. Disbelievers contend that having any pre-existing beliefs will cloud your objectivity. However, these believers forget that many of their beliefs have proved very wrong over the centuries, but their religion has managed to stay in tact, and in many ways become strengthened by the challenges presented it when adapting to new Truths that we periodically uncover. That their beliefs offer a warmth and comfort that lives between the cold lines of pure, rational empiricism. And, most of all, that God created the universe, including the cold, empirical aspects, created myself and other believers as flawed creatures who discover things and learn to be with each other, and grow and care for one another. And that the spirit of the belief is the truly important thing – as the breath of God breathed out to embody all creation. And the disbelievers forget that our very modes of thought originated through these ancient belief systems, and that, in many ways, there is no escaping the bias that has been injected into our psyche over the millennia whilst evolving our thinking and understanding through the terms of One Truth, One Absolute Answer, One God. Awareness of this is critical to achieve objectivity.
Now, consider two people being unquestionably drawn to one another – in love. One chooses to act upon this love. The other chooses to not act upon this love. The active participant perceives the fundamental and natural course. The inactive participant perceives this same fundamental and natural course, but that doing nothing is the required course. The Truth of this matter is clear, however the beliefs involved present an issue.
The person holding beliefs beyond reason believes they are justified in requiring the person not sharing these beliefs to similarly disregard the Truths within the situation. That in doing so, the correct action is taken – i.e., beliefs supersede Truth.
This is not the advancement of spirituality, nor of Truth, nor any scientific or philosophical discipline. Beliefs must be subordinate to Truth. For God is Truth. And the Heart of Mind of God is All Things.
So, in terms of what is Real, we see from these examples that even through radically different viewpoints we can sense a continuity, or a common thread, in some ways simply because we can each understand these different viewpoints. Something exists that unites these seemingly divergent courses. Could this be true for things other than simple beliefs?
You and I
Not so long ago we used to group together in packs, or tribes. We did a lot of grunting and communicating even then. But we didn’t write many things down, and weren’t very exacting in what we communicated. We hunted, we had sex, we had children, and we fought and killed each other for dominance. We grouped together for mutual protection.
Our brains are an interesting thing – particularly so because our brain can conceive of itself, as potentially interesting, if nothing else. Our brains have “mirror neurons” which help us to mimic, or mirror, the things we see. We have a lot of them. It is how we learn to speak, or use an ax to chop wood. It is how we have empathy with one another, seeing a person get kicked in the shin, and feeling it ourselves. Or feeling the sports game we’re watching on TV. These mirror neurons work when we mimic and learn, and even when we just see someone else going through something. Autistic people usually have problems associated with their mirror neurons – hence their isolation and withdrawal from the world.
One of the great benefits of having wonderfully developed mirror neurons is that we can take the speedway through the evolutionary process. Whereas it might take many generations of genetic selection to produce an animal that might do something new to help itself, we, on the other hand, can learn to cut wood from our father, or fight in 10 different forms from martial arts masters, or read and write to access the collective knowledge of humanity from the last several centuries and into the future.
Now, back in our tribes, some crazy people began drawing pictures on cave walls. They drew animals being hunted, mostly, which was a great thing to be doing, and accomplishing. When that first person took to drawing a picture on the wall, it was the first time that any being took what was inside of their mind and/or spirit, and placed it outside of themselves as a object – a universal object – that other humans could look at, understand, and feel.
One man shared something, and everyone else knew it to be “true”. This external object that was created formed a bridge between the inner worlds of each individual who looked at it. Though one observer might be the alpha male, and another just a young hunter, this object they had in common. It bound them. It bridged them. They knew it when they looked at one another.
It is suspected that the human species with the most highly developed mirror neurons was the human species to survive. Eventually we came to music and language. Our dominance of the natural world began. We achieved not just tribes, but civilizations that shared many external objects in common – such as law, religion, trades and a growing sense of order.
The number and complexity of all the external objects we created and shared amongst each other continued to grow – we knew them, brought them into ourselves, and back out again. They were the ladder which was the origin of all our collective endeavors.
The Object of Law or Rule maintained order. The Object of Religion or Spirituality maintained order. Although the Object of Law or Rule was mostly the dominant object, the Object of Religion often checked it, or at least influenced it. One external object was the object representing the Exterior world, the other external object was the object representing both the Interior and Exterior world.
Those people in positions of dominance have a strong influence over the appearance of each of these Objects to all other people. And these agreed-upon objects change over time, as we continue to evolve.
But why do we all share them? Why do we all believe in them?
Well, moving to the “Western World” now… nobody really cared much about that. They still don’t. It’s enough that we can just live and get by. Let’s not rock any boats. We’re comfortable. Content. Well, until something happens…
But some people did ask too many questions. Some people looked in too many places that they really shouldn’t have. Many were killed and imprisoned for such behavior, while some were celebrated. It all depended upon which shared external object was called into question, and who it was that had the most control over that external object.
Being completely ridiculous, and skipping along to the 1800’s, there was a crazy Scandinavian named Soren Kierkegaard. He thought that people should pay more attention to their inner world and give it a lot more validity than what they did. Most people consider him the beginning of the Existentialists, who took that idea to a bit of an extreme, but at the same time, transformed the way we perceive the world, making room for even the Hedonists, like Ayn Rand.
They didn’t like all these external objects that influenced us so strongly, even though Kierkegaard was a religious man. They wanted to find the individual again, even though we were so strongly indoctrinated into thinking in terms of the One Way Rulers that we all must collectively follow.
“To forget – this is the desire of all people, and when they encounter something unpleasant, they always say: If only I could forget! But to forget is an art that must be practiced in advance. To be able to forget always depends upon how one remembers, but how one remembers depends upon how one experiences actuality. The person who runs aground with the speed of hope will recollect in such a way that he will be unable to forget. Thus nil admirari [marvel at nothing] is the proper wisdom of life. No part of life ought to have so much meaning for a person that he cannot forget it at any moment he wants to; on the other hand, every single part of life ought to have so much meaning for a person that he can remember it at any moment. … There is no better way to give a distaste for going on too long. From the beginning, one curbs the enjoyment and does not hoist full sail for any decision; one indulges with a certain mistrust.
… When an individual has perfected himself in the art of forgetting and the art of recollecting in this way, he is then able to play shuttlecock with all existence.”
— Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or
Now, Soren was very tongue-in-cheek about Either/Or – describing it as such – really, neither here nor there. To him, it was more a talisman that might help to unravel many of the giant Objects that are given to us, and we are expected to believe, and follow.
Around the same time, Sigmund Freud was working out such innovative things as the very notion of the individual’s ego, superego, an id, which until his thinking, we had no conception. It was not even in our language.
We went through the Existentialists who were in many ways reactionaries to the strong societal rules and norms we lived by. They felt we, each as individuals, were isolated and separated from one other – absolutely so, and that we would never be able to bridge that isolation with the shared and agreed-upon terms of the objective universe. In fact, we lived in utter isolation in the midst of an indifferent world and the notions of Truth or objective reality, where one can know something that is true for everyone, is simply impossible. We are each subjective, and our own individual truths are what matter – and are, indeed, all we can really even talk about. This was very radical thinking, and effectively tore the world apart.
For example, if I believe something, that’s all well and good. I can talk about it at great length. But you, you may believe something completely different. Each of our viewpoints are equally valid. At first… We begin with the subjective. The Cartesian duality is rejected – we can’t do the subject/object thang… we can only talk about why this is right, or this is right, or wrong. And at the end of the day, we’re free to believe and do what we please. One of the few things you can do wrong is Existentialism is to “follow the herd” while sacrificing what you feel, or “know” to be true.
As Americans, we like this. Interestingly, so did the Nazis, and used much of Nietzsche’s work and words to bring people to their New World Order. Saying that each individual belief (and we are fairly well limited to beliefs only with Existentialism) is, for the most part, equally valid, we undo much of what traditionally bound us together – these External Objects we all agreed upon (or blindly just followed), opening the doors to radical viewpoints and systems of belief that were more often than not personality-based (ego) from a subjective belief that is consciously given credence by a large number of people. Ironically, the Existentialists created a new Objective-like world that was founded upon the power of a personality over the power of reason.
Arguably, this is still the dominant paradigm we live under today. Christianity is fragmented into various “cults” run by individual personalities who interpret scripture to their benefit, or will provide the largest “mass appeal”. We as individuals worship the achievements of other personalities rather than the collective works we have achieved. Our collective works even, more often than not, are meant to satisfy an ego rather than create a new and wonderful accomplishment – in and of itself.
But should we go back to the blind adherence to these giant Objective objects – as participants in the pre-defined symphony of our daily lives and progress? Thankfully, other things exist which are exhibiting a force upon our collective “souls” – in fact, that force is at work in much of what I’ve been writing, by using the words “collective” and “subjective” and “objective” so often. It is not simple to bring us back to the modes of thought as they were experienced by people at the times of their philosophical writings. So, this shorthand… 😉
Phenomenology pre-dates the Existentialists, and many consider Existentialism impossible without it. It is interesting that “Phenomenologists” don’t seem to like this. In many ways, Phenomenology is a technique rather than a philosophy. Like Existentialism, Phenomenology recognizes the problems inherent in describing the world in the terms of objectivity when we, each of us, originate in our own subjective worlds. But Phenomenology does not remain in bleak isolation, and potential irrationality.
Central to the ideas of Phenomenology is the concept of intentionality. In our most natural-feeling Cartesian model, we have me, the subject, talking about that thing, the object. In the Existential model, we start with the subject (me) talking about the object (maybe something, maybe not) but that object can never be known with any certainty. In Phenomenology, intentionality comes into play – both myself and the object have a mutuality – my seeing it implies there is something to be seen. My imagining something implies there is something to be imagined. My willing something implies there is something to be willed. I and my subject are linked.
An Existentialist has a hard time believing in God because God is the ultimate in universal objectivism. God leaves no room for subjectivity, other than some notion of free will to follow his will or not. Cartesians have no problem with God, as Objective stuff is just grand! Phenomenology would say, we can talk about God just fine, but we can’t look at the universal objectivity of God, we must look at the shared, or intersubjective thoughts on what God is, that we all share, to reach any conclusions.
So here we see that Phenomenology acknowledges the subjective nature of existence while still being able to work with the objective – as long as the objective is defined to be the agreed-upon preponderance of thought on the object within our intersubjective experience.
So, I think to answer the question, what do I believe in? I would have to ask the question, what do you believe in? And we can talk about it as long as you like. We might run into some things I believe in, and that might lead to some other place, etc., etc. Or maybe I might suggest, how about instead of asking me “what do you believe in?” – how about you ask me this question instead: “what is important to you?”.
It may be that simply sharing this with you is belief enough in something…
“Even merely private phenomena are facts which we have no business to ignore. A science which refuses to take account of them as such is guilty of suppressing evidence and will end with a truncated universe.”
— Herbert Spiegelberg