Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
– T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton
The word “belief”, when spoken among the supposed intellectual elite of Western society, often carries with it either a tone of condescension–or worse, Fremdschämen. “Belief”: habitually accepting, trusting or having faith in something; not having proof, facts, data, or experimental verification. Poor country rubes. The savages in Brave New World, being ceremoniously beaten bloody. Tim Tebow. Rubbing beads and muttering words half-consciously. Old men in silly hats speaking to imaginary friends and waving around incense. Eating a cracker and thinking it will provide eternal life.
Ridicule for the ridiculous. Outdated rituals for superstitious, uneducated, scientifically-illiterate people.
The only reason to have faith–belief–is because you do not have a reasoned explanation. The business of scientific progress is explanation; so why trust in a faith, why have belief, when we can trust in science? Wait, “trust” is used in the definition of belief. Rely on science. *Looks up “rely”, sees “trust” in the definition.
The Meaning of Belief
The words used to signify some phenomenon often cloud our understanding with vague and misleading connotations. For instance, the word “discrimination” now commonly bears the implication of injustice–even though discrimination is simply the act of distinguishing one thing from another and setting out their proper order. Likewise, the word “belief” carries the connotations of naivety and superstition: children believe–in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, in magic, in monsters. Belief is for children and ignorant hicks.
But just as someone can discriminate without being unjust, so too someone can believe without being ignorant. “Belief” does not mean “blind faith”–it means accepting something as true for the sake of guiding our actions. Even someone with mounds of evidence holds his or her claim as a belief. That the earth revolves around the sun, that gravity is a force affecting massive bodies across distances according to an inverse square law, that water is wet, Jesus is God, outer space is cold, Miller Lite is less disgusting than Bud Light, and anything else which can be formed into a coherent propositional form is a possible belief. Some beliefs are better established and less-contingent upon subjective dispositions than others: for instance, the revolution of the earth relative to the sun in contrast to one’s preference when it comes to bad beer. But both fall under the category of belief.
“belief consists mainly in being deliberately prepared to adopt the formula believed in as the guide to action.” – C.S. Peirce, “The Maxim of Pragmatism”
For the opposite of belief is not knowledge, but doubt. Doubt is the dissatisfaction with our current understanding of something which drives us to seek the truth. Perpetually unresolved doubt, therefore, would not serve even its own purpose; indeed, doubt desires belief.
Consequently, when we have belief–true, earnest belief, conviction–this belief determines and guides our higher intentions: i.e., our reasoned goals. A man believes he loves a woman–that they, to one another, are complementary human beings who through their actions provide great benefit, that they make one another better, that they possess and can develop an intimacy which will aid one another in attaining a true and therefore lasting happiness–and so he intends to her a lifelong exclusive commitment. This commitment is his goal.
The process whereby an individual’s beliefs come to be determined in the first place is undoubtedly a complex one, from the psychological standpoint. Human lives are fraught with possible influences which could have helped to shape holding this rather than that. Historical analysis of one’s own formation may be of introspective, private, personal interest; in the rare case, it will be of interest to others, and we hope those people write autobiographies. What is universally interesting, however, is the question of why we hold to any given belief at any particular moment in time–especially beliefs which may be challenged.
The chief culprit in holding a belief, particularly a deeply unreasoned belief, is none other than comfort. When a belief is shaken, it incites doubt. Doubt causes mental agitation and therefore discomfort. If a doubt possesses us, we constantly dwell on it, think about it, pursue its resolution. The more important the subject of our doubt, the more intensely our duties, pleasures, and appetites are overshadowed. Every conversion story you might find–from, say Muslim to Atheist, Republican to Independent, Anglican to Catholic, Psychology major to Philosophy, Atheist to Christian–is a story of doubt seeking belief, and a story of discomfort.
Holding on to our beliefs is a way of holding on to our comfort. When a belief becomes societally unpopular, holding on to that belief is often less comfortable–hence the declining Christian population–than capitulating to something deemed more societally-acceptable–like declaring that you “Fucking love science” and retweeting memes with stick figures holding beakers. The tenets of the Russian Orthodox Church might be a comfortable fit for someone’s identity; as might orthodox Roman Catholicism; or sex-positive feminist atheism. We may find contentment not only in holding to certain ideas (dogmatically), but in identifying ourselves, at least in part, with those ideas.
But belief extends farther than self-identification and adherence to ideas; for by adhering to ideas, we determine the course of our actions.
Reasoned Belief and Irrational Desire
At times, our higher intentions come into conflict, either with one another, or with our lower. In the former case, doubt is occasioned, requiring further reasoned inquiry for resolution. In the latter case, a different kind of struggle arises, one for which the exercise of the will is necessary. Perhaps the man, despite loving his wife, finds himself compelled with sexual attraction towards another available woman. Insofar as his belief concerning love commits him towards sexual exclusivity, two different forces pull on him. One is the force of belief, a product of reason and mental conviction; the other is the force of unreasoned desire, conjured not by structured thought, but by chemical reaction.
Sex, the marketing departments tell us, sells. What the marketing departments do not tell us, because they either do not care or do not know, is that sex has the potential to sell, in every generation and to every demographic because that chemical reaction is a universal trait. Appealing to a person’s reason is difficult, but appealing to a person’s unreasoned desires is easy. We can see this in the way we speak: we “give in” to our desires, give way, surrender, indulge, and so on.
From time to time in human history, the capitulation to desire has found public endorsement, and not simply from ad agencies. A little healthy catharsis, a bit of release, letting yourself be carried away, swept along: relaxing and going along with the stream, or torrent, of desire. Images are conjured of women craning their necks back in ecstacy, men gripping buttocks tightly; passionate moans and gasps and oh my. Sometimes this endorsement remains rather hush-hush. Other times it earns a wink and grin. Others still it becomes almost tired and obligatory: yes, do what pleases you, but just… not so loudly.
Regardless, it becomes a belief that submission to irrational desire has a rightful place in our daily (or, perhaps weekly, monthly) lives. The idea is that it is reasonable to at times be unreasonable.
The paradoxical allure of the reasonable unreasoning crumbles once examined, however. It is, indeed, reasonable to satisfy the unreasoning parts of our human nature, but only, it turns out, if done in what is itself a reasoned manner. The man who gives in to his unreasoned, irrational desire and cheats on his wife, contrary to his beliefs concerning love, does so unreasonably. The woman who goes off her diet and eats a half-pound burger with bacon and an extra large order of fries, because the occasional pleasure of unhealthsome but tasty food helps her to continue eating healthy, does so reasonably.
In other words, we can have rational desires; while the desire itself does not have reason, it can be reasoned, controlled by reason. Contrariwise, we can have irrational beliefs: irrational either because they are held without reasoning, or because what is held is contrary to reason itself; or, worst of all, both.
Most beliefs are not subjugated to much reasoning, for the simple fact that we do not find occasion to doubt them. Many of us have become adept at actively avoiding any such occasion. Further, most of us are quite good at clinging tenaciously to our beliefs when we do stumble across such an occasion.
Suspicion of the irrationality of a belief, with which we identify ourselves and determine our course of actions, frightens us to the bone. Why is it so terrifying? Because we have been inculcated with a spirit of intellectual cowardice.
Correcting Flawed Belief
When sick with a vice, the cure is to overcorrect intentionally towards the opposite extreme. Our unconscious behavior will be to move towards the vice; intentional overcorrection will balance out this unthinking tendency. To attain intellectual courage, then, we need an almost reckless attitude of doubt. We need to discern and acknowledge the unchallenged and perhaps dubious authoritarian claims we have accepted, and question whether or not they are truly reasonable.
That might seem an overwhelming proposition. But examining our beliefs does not require a systematic inquiry into every last little issue, so much as the development of a critical disposition.
To take an example: the dogma that the global warming of the earth over the past 150 years has been primarily caused by human beings. There is undoubtedly scientific consensus concerning this claim. But two pertinent doubts can be raised. First, is the consensus itself a legitimate cause for belief–i.e., are the client scientists in agreement because the evidence demands it, or because it has become the dogmatic opinion? Having been on the unorthodox end of more than one opinion in academia–and knowing others who have been heterodox dissenters–it is not surprising any time a “conform or shut up” attitude is encountered. Should we believe climate science alone is immune to the problems of flawed peer review systems, of replication, and of sloppy design?
Second, does this increase in temperature, even if caused by human beings, necessitate a dramatic and immediate change in human behavior? In other words, the implication typically drawn from climate change is that we must cease use of fossil fuels posthaste, and live greener, and more ecologically-friendly.
Asking these two questions does not require that one systematically investigate the issue at hand. Most of us do not have the resources, including time, to investigate the 12,000 papers on climate change published between 1991-2011 that are typically referenced in the consensus reports. But, at the same time, we can reasonably reserve judgment about the veracity of their claims while acknowledging a fundamental truth behind them. Living in a way more harmonious with the ecological balance of the planet is a good, intelligent, responsible thing to do. Everyone ought to be conscientious about the use of resources, particularly non-sustainable ones. This belief should accordingly shape our actions while we wait for resolution on the theoretical, scientific inquiries.
Sixty years from now, everyone could be clamoring against the use of electric cars, when new research suggests that they cause cancer. The most important lesson to be learned from the science of global climate change is one of patience: let us not do things because we can, but because we should.
Moreover, and more importantly, doubting the dogmatic proclamations about how we ought to behave (which, notably, seldom come from climate scientists themselves but rather from politicians) is a reasonable posture to adopt–not as, say, part of the Trump-supporting cultural devolution that, in its rapid distrust of experts, distrusts any intellectual endeavor, but as part of a critical disposition. It is the posture of someone comfortable with doubt of a popular opinion.
We face greater difficulty in entertaining doubts about more intimate and personal beliefs. True passion about climate change is rare. Passionate concern for transgender acceptance, or gay marriage, or anti-abortion legislation, or Christian belief–these are more common. Violent repudiation likely meets the suggestion that such beliefs might be, to any degree, mistaken; or the words “agree to disagree” are proferred for the sake of avoidance. Something like one’s beliefs concerning climate change has relatively little impact on most of our lives: it might impact which car you buy, or what kind of lightbulb you use, but not too much else. Our political, moral, and theological beliefs, in contrast, determine the greater course of our actions. As our beliefs in these realms change, so too change the natures of our friendships and romantic relationships, oftentimes our careers and our education, our sense of purpose in the work that we pursue.
“The person who confesses that there is such a thing as truth, which is distinguished from falsehood simply by this, that if acted on it will carry us to the point we aim at and not astray, and then, though convinced of this, dares not know the truth and seeks to avoid it, is in a sorry state of mind indeed.” – C.S. Peirce, “The Fixation of Belief”
This is why the question of “God” matters. Nothing is more fundamental to the orientation of a human life. Pursue your questions about the meaning of life, its purpose, and how we ought to live, to their final end and always the result is one of two things. Either meaning depends entirely upon the will of human beings, purpose is constituted arbitrarily through our determination, and the only restraints on how we should live are the equally arbitrary decisions of other human beings, i.e., the restriction imposed through a social contract. Alternatively, the meaning of reality is at least partially, and in some sense fundamentally, independent of our wills, purpose exists in a metaphysically-constituted framework outside of our determination, and this framework provides for us the righteous direction of life. In the former case, we arrive at nihilism; in the latter, theism.
To say that nihilism is a belief in nothing, therefore, means that action has no purpose. This necessarily follows from the belief that meaning is entirely arbitrary or solely imposed from human volition; such an imposition is ex nihilo, from nothing. It has no basis. It has no foundation. Therefore, it has no orientation, no end. To claim that it makes oneself happy to do so is self-contradictory: for in that case, happiness is the basis of one’s action. The meaning of happiness cannot be self-generated, for then there is an infinite regress of its origination.
Thus, the nihilistic attitude, because it is an ultimate belief in nothing, provides no determination or guidance for our actions. Most professed nihilists do not truly live nihilistically: instead, they live semi-hedonistically or egotistically. Truly believing in nothing is an abyss into which few fall. It seems likely that most who do would become suicidal (I think, in this instance, of Jacques and Raissa Maritain). If there is no purpose to living, if all of life’s pleasures and actions ultimately amount to nothing of lasting significance, but everything passes away, so why not pass away sooner rather than later? Why allow it to happen in some uncontrolled, possibly painful way, when you can take it into your own hands?
Fortunately, nihilism is epistemically unsound. A cursory examination of our less-than-ultimate beliefs will show us that they typically strive for acting in accord with the way in which things are independently of ourselves. The meaning we attribute to these things is not something given wholesale from our volition, but contingent upon our understanding of those things. Believing that water will quench his thirst, a man drinks. Believing that reading will help her to understand, a woman picks up a book. Believing that the bluelight from lit screens interferes with the production of melatonin, someone turns off the TV two hours before bed.
Our sound beliefs derive from realities independent of our wills. What beliefs, then, do we hold about those independent realities themselves? Where do those realities come from? Why are they there; why are we here? Are there no realities other than those we can perceive? Or are those the only realities that we can know positively–in other words, can we positively exclude the possibility of imperceptible realities?
No one who has really pursued these questions, it seems, can reasonably be an atheist (without, at least, being a nihilist); whether God exists is a question that cannot be definitively answered in the negative. The atheist position (presuming it as materialist) contradicts itself, for it claims that we can assert as impossible something which we have no means to examine. It is egotistically anthropocentric in the extreme (or, perhaps, anthroponomic). Agnosticism is a more reasonable attitude, for it at least acknowledges and abides by the self-imposed limits of a materialistic perspective.
But again, the strict materialist perspective is epistemically unsound. Arguing for this in the simplest, most direct way: the universe is perfused with relations, relations of which we are aware, and these relations, though dependent upon material realities, are in themselves no way confined by time or space. Your father is your father no matter how far away he is or how long it has been since you have seen or spoken with him. He became your father the instant you were conceived. Despite their light just now reaching us, many of the stars we see at night no longer exist. That these statements are true–i.e., that the meaning they signify corresponds to reality–is a relation which cannot be discerned in any material reality.
In short, were we to sincerely confine our knowledge of reality to the materially perceptible, we would effectively eliminate all of our knowledge; for imperceptible relations are necessary constituents of every bit of knowledge we have, have ever had, or ever will have.
This alone does not prove that God exists; but it does seem to suggest, at the very least, that realities other than those we can perceive are possible–that we are even reliant on some such realities in our day-to-day living. Further argument can be given that we grasp imperceptible realities other than relations, as well; following from this, that we ourselves are in some way include an imperceptible aspect to our constitutions; and that all of this leads us towards a being which is not dependent, contingent, nor magical and ethereal. In other words, this track of thinking leads towards belief in God.
In the meantime, however, the point to be made is this: everyone has beliefs. Our beliefs determine the course of our actions, including our further beliefs. Doubt is the irritating gadfly of our minds, driving us to seek solid, reasoned belief. Without belief in some supreme principle–some ultimate cause which determines the meaning and purpose of reality–we will inevitably end in nihilism.
In other words… belief matters.