Why Do We Believe Anything, Anyway?
Your Worldview is not the World
This essay riffs off lecture 16, The Believing Brain, in Neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Newberg’s Great Courses lecture series The Spiritual Brain: Science and Religious Experience.
WHAT DO WE MEAN BY THE WORD “BELIEF?”
Belief is the state of mind in which a person thinks something to be the case, with or without there being empirical evidence to prove that something is the case with factual certainty.
But even that broad definition takes for granted the “unproven belief” that empirical evidence is the only sure way to prove that something is “factually certain.” It also presumes that it is possible for something/anything to be “factually certain” in the first place, that reality is neatly divided between things that are true and real, whether we believe in them or not, and things that are false, even though we might believe in them.
Dr. Newberg’s neuroscientific understanding of belief is not so cut and dried.
“REALITY” VS “THE WORLD”
Everything we know about reality enters our brains via one or more of our five senses. Even the Believing Brain lecture I listened to during my commute to work this morning, though it was full of information and ideas, reached my brain solely through my ears. I heard it through my earbuds. Because I was listening while driving, my eyes were not engaged with the lecture. They were on the road, the moving traffic around me, watching for my exit. My hands felt the steering wheel, my foot the accelerator. I smelled my truck’s warm heater, blasting. I tasted the bitter coffee in my go-cup.
During an average 30 minute commute, everyone’s brain will take in millions of impressions. For a healthy human brain, working properly, job one will be to filter out almost all of those impressions, whittling the specific bits of data that reach consciousness down to just that tiny fraction needed to enable us to make it to work in one piece. If our brains did not filter out the vast majority of data collected by our senses, we would succumb to overwhelm, and likely die in the ditch.
Dr. Newberg says our entire experience of life works on this principle.
An individual person, living in a specific physical location on the earth, will never in the course of a lifetime encounter 99% or more of all the information and/or experience that is available on just this one tiny planet. We won’t read all the books. We won’t visit all the places. We won’t meet all the people. Most of the animal species on earth we won’t even see a picture of in our lifetimes, let alone witness in person (there are some 950,000 species of insects, alone). The “world” each of us labels “reality” is in fact a construct in our brain, built from the miniscule slivers of data we take in through our senses, living in at most a few places, attending a few, or even just one school system, knowing at most a handful of people, and having even that tiny stream of experience narrowed down to the few scraps our brains don’t withhold from consciousness for our own good.
That may sound bleak, but if it were otherwise, we would almost certainly succumb to overwhelm and be unable to function.
So, why then does the unique “world” in each of our brains feel like the “whole world” to us? We can accept rationally, based on what we know about brain function as described in the previous paragraph, that our understanding of reality can’t possibly be an accurate/complete representation of the world we live in.
Yet it feels completely real. Why?
THE NECESSITY OF BELIEF
Why do we believe anything beyond the concrete, present-moment data being continually gathered by our senses? And not just God or religious/spiritual type beliefs, but anything at all? Why do I believe my wife loves me? Why do I believe my children will succeed in life? Why do I believe that I am a good person, and so are my friends? Why do I believe there are even such categories as good or evil in the world?
Dr. Newberg’s explanation is that navigating the limited piece of physical reality we encounter in life, and remaining mentally and emotionally secure enough to survive, find mates, and propagate the species, requires an unquestioning, and when you think about it, strikingly unreasonable confidence in ourselves and in the world. Since full awareness of reality as-it-is was not an option for our ancient ancestors (as the overwhelm caused by so much data would have diminished, rather than enhanced, their chances of survival), evolution equipped them –and, as their descendants, us too — with brains capable of generating a convincing illusion of the reality of our own small words.
Think about an optical illusion. What we see in the picture is not simply what’s there. Our brains connect dots and fill in gaps until the bits and pieces in the image coalesce into something we recognize. We are seeing what’s there, but our brains are adding “unreal” elements that allow us to make sense of what we’re seeing, or that allow us to understand incoming data in relation to purely mental pieces of our experience, like memory.
Our brains are not malfunctioning when they do this. They are operating as designed. According to Dr. Newberg, beliefs are the projected “lines” (storylines might be an even better analogy) our brains have evolved to draw between “dots” of otherwise unrelated hard data, in order to tease out a solid and relatable, if to a disturbing degree illusory, world for us to succeed in.
He labels our brains Belief Generating Machines.
Without beliefs, we would have no context in which to understand ourselves and our lives. We would be lost and ineffective. Our brains generate beliefs because beliefs are necessary for biological survival.
EQUIVALENT BELIEF SYSTEMS — RELIGION, PHILOSOPHY, SCIENCE
From this perspective, the brains of not only Christians, Muslims and Hindus, but also Stoics, Existentialists, Transcendentalists (all philosophies), and even atheists who accept the reality-explaining power of science, are doing exactly the same thing. They are connecting the scant number of “dots” in their individual sensory experience with projected “belief lines” to create a picture of the world they can move about in confidently.
It’s important to stress here that the fact that our brains generate new, or accept established, beliefs to make sense of reality does not automatically mean that the content of those beliefs is false. I think that’s an easy conclusion to jump to, and I want to avoid easy conclusions.
Here’s an example of what I mean:
Jane reads books, views documentaries, and even listens to Great Courses lectures about physics, astronomy, biology, and anthropology. The information she takes in from these sources makes sense to her, and she feels confident that she understands the world and her own place in it. If I asked Jane if light really travels at 186,000 miles per second, she would say yes. She has not measured light personally, but she’s confident she‘d get the same result if she did, because she knows other people have taken light’s measure, and she trusts their observations.
Bob reads books, views documentaries, and even listens to Great Courses lectures about Theology, Christian apologetics, the History of Religion, and Eschatology. The information he takes in from these sources makes sense to him, and he feels confident that he understands the world and his own place in it. If I asked Bob if God is real, he would say yes. He may not have fully experienced the presence of God himself, but he knows Moses, Elijah, and the apostles gathered in the upper room at Pentecost have, and he trusts their testimony.
Meg teaches Philosophy at a major university. Helping open young minds to thoughts of Aristotle, Plato, Descartes, Kierkegaard, Kant, etc. infuses her life with meaning. The information she takes in from these sources makes sense to her, and she feels confident that she understands the world and her own place in it. The information her students take in from her classes impact them the same way. If I asked Meg if Plato’s analogy of the cave is true, she might ask me to define what I mean by “truth”… But she would certainly feel confident that our discussion concerned something of critical concern regarding the relationship of human beings to reality.
All of these people are doing exactly the same thing. They are actively pursuing, finding, and trusting as true, information they have not personally verified in order to be able to experience their lives in a context they feel good about.
They are cultivating beliefs.
But I want to stress again that the fact that our brains generate new, or accept established, beliefs to fill in the gaps in our experience of reality does not automatically mean that the content of those beliefs is false.
Nor does it mean they are true.
Most likely, at least some of the beliefs held by everyone in the three scenarios above (and by extension, all of us) are right. And just as many are most likely wrong.
In his lecture The Believing Brain, Dr. Newberg puts it this way:
One of the things that, to me, is the most amusing, but also the most problematic, is that the brain never bothers to tell us when it’s actually made a mistake. So we all go through our lives believing the things that we do, thinking that we believe them, and thinking we understand them, even though our brain may be fooling us all the time.
The point I want to make with this essay is that, because of how our brains take in and interpret reality, filtering out most sensory data, while projecting lines of meaning to make sense of the rest,
it’s pretty much impossible for us to know with any certainty which of our beliefs are right, and which are wrong, which are based on stuff our brains actually perceive in the world outside our heads, and which they are merely fooling us about.
Not religious beliefs, not philosophical beliefs, not scientific beliefs.
That’s kind of a scary thought. But it doesn’t have to be.
TOWARD A THEOLOGY/PHILOSOPHY/SCIENCE OF WONDER
I recently read a fascinating article exploring the ways in which the development of science since Einstein, while granting us unprecedented powers to predict and even control Nature, has also made it increasingly difficult to understand Nature.
As the author, Steve Hays, phrased it:
It’s no longer the case that the more we know, the less mysterious it all is; knowledge now intensifies the sense of mystery. The more we understand nature, the less understandable it is. We discover that nature is inherently baffling.
In response to which, Daniel Forrest left this insightful comment:
The poet John Keats wrote about what he called “negative capability”, or the capacity to pursue visionary possibilities even when they lead into intellectual confusion and uncertainty.
That is, to keep moving forward in spite of inescapable mystification.
“Nature is inherently baffling” only to the rationalist, who is inherently baffled by cosmic mysteries. An equally valid reaction to deep mysteries is wonder.
Maybe the problem isn’t our beliefs, per se. Maybe the problem is making such a big deal out of certainty to begin with.
It seems to me that if, in our time, we find that science is making the world less comprehensible, philosophy is largely comatose, if not dead, and religion leads all too often to fanaticism, genocide and war, maybe it’s a sign that we’re finally up against the evolutionary wall concerning this belief stuff.
Maybe like a chick that’s gotten too big to stay in the egg, it’s time to start pecking our way past our need for belief in all of these fields — religion, philosophy, AND science — and evolve a new way of connecting the dots and making sense of reality.
Maybe its time to evolve brains powered by wonder.
Thanks for reading!
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