Friday, October 4, 2013

This I Believe

For sometime now my local radio station running this series of essays sent in by listeners. The topic is, This I Believe. I have enjoyed several of them. Others, not so much. In short I have been rolling this topic around my brain for a while. I kept thinking that I would write something down- eventually. Then, out of nowhere, a friend asks me to comment on a quote by Robert Anton Wilson regarding belief. So, I figured I would just let it out.

I basically agree with R.A. Wilson when he says, "My own opinion is that belief is the death of intelligence". However, though he only died in 2007, Mr. Wilson was born in 1932 and though very knowledgeable and thoughtful, he belonged to another time. This doesn't make him wrong. I am just not certain that he was aware of the latest brain research, which turns out to be pertinent. This is my view and I will expand upon it momentarily.

One of the first problems we run into when discussing "Belief" is how many people, sophisticates and lay folks, conflate or overlap their usage of this concept. People regularly say things like, "I believe I will go to the gym", when they really mean, "I have decided to go to the gym". Here is another way we loosely use this idea. "I believe in love or family or values and so on)". They use this device when they really mean, "I like loving and being loved. It feels good". One infers the subcontext to be, "I observe loving behavior is also important to others". How about, "I believe in America". Or, "I believe in justice". I concede, these phrases have a nice ring to them. Sadly, they are often used in such a shallow manner that they have sunk to a level between insipid and meaningless. Many times such statements are made to glorify the person making the statement and/or laying blame/guilt upon those of a different opinion in a given matter. I refer to this as, 'The Belief as a Bludgeon' strategy. I suggest this is the last refuge for a mind that can not or will not engage in critical thought or rational discourse. Or, in the worst scenario, the first refuge.

Then further, we hear people essentially say, "I believe in an invisible, (often anthropomorphic, though sometimes disperse and all-pervading), being who is all-powerful, judgmental, and lives in the sky (or wherever) and who intervenes in human business through magic unseen channels". Now we are in different territory.

So, what is the problem with a person stating that they "believe in love"? If we cede the semantic ground and infer their real intent, nothing. Well, almost nothing. I suggest that one little problem does begin to rear it's ugly head in such discussions. Too often, those making such claims appear to have skipped right over the important bit. Huh, what important bit? In a word, Evidence. I purposefully capitalize the word. I suggest it should rightfully be captialized in keeping with its profound importance.

When a person says, she believes in love, a number of factors are at work in arriving at such a claim. I will not attempt to enumerate all of them but community norms might be one such factor. However, there is one thing we all can reasonably infer from such a statement, there was a groundwork of Evidence through experience that leads a person to this claim. Sure, we don't usually label things overtly in this manner as we go through our days. As in, "Wow, I had a loving interaction and this has provided me with further evidence for my claim".In fact, science now indicates that our emotions tend to mediate such experiences and inform our judgments. In other words, the whole system seems to be built-in to some degree and we are scarcely even aware of the process, at least consciously. *See suggested reading below.

I will make a brief aside regarding a complex topic to which I could not do justice in this small space. Recent brain research tends to show that we have a tendency to belief or, at minimum, imperative choice. An admittedly way-to-simplified expanation would be that our survival (early in our sentient development) necessitated making relatively quick potentially life or death judgments. This very roughly corresponds (though on another biological level) to belief. I know it's sketchy and others explain it rather better, though, I suspect, not in this little space.

Ok, now the tricky bit. What is the problem with believing in the Big Guy in the Sky? The short version is, there really isn't a short version that is easily stated, truly informative, and powerfully persuasive. With that said, what am I bound to do? Correct-a-mundo! Elucidate a short version. Disclaimer. For my believing friends and family and others, feel free to skip over this part or read it and dismiss it as you wish. And, now, (I hear a drum roll. Do you?) the short version of something for which I've already admitted there is not short version.

The believer perspective starts from the position, "I know how the world is (the BGS made the earth, and the flowers, and the mountains, and the stars and so on. Then, rather like a cherry on the top of an ice-cream sundae, he made humans. Now, it is incumbent upon me to go about and make the world fit into this model". The non-believer perspective is, "I don't know how the world is (except to the extent that, I stand on the shoulders of giants who came before and laid a road of discovery upon which I am priveleged to tread and marvel). And even then, I need to question, examine, and discover what is true, as best I am able, with the tools at hand. And, if I were to find a thing to be true, which ran counter to the claims of some previous giant, I sleep easy in the knowledge that this is nothing less than she would expect from her progeny of discoverers."

*Suggested reading: Why We Feel: The Science of Human Emotions, by Dr. Victor S. Johnston.
Yes, it is, like most everything else, available on Amazon.
Spoiler/Warning: If your personal operating system is not yet upgraded to include Evolution by Natural Selection, this book could cause a mind melting dissonance.