The Myth of Belief

Here's an awkward way of putting it (we'll fix it later) - a kind of story, or folktale (folk-science):

First, people ascribed beliefs to each other. At that time, if I ascribed a belief to you, that meant that I was modeling you as acting as if x is true.  That is to say, person A would act in a manner consistent with a model of [a world that includes] person B acting in a manner consistent with a model of [the world in which] x.  We can call this "The Golden Age." 

[See also: my essay, "A Defense of the Ego," in which I briefly discuss the problem of other minds and Frans de Waal and Josep Call's experiments involving chimps that seem to demonstrate an awareness of each others' perceptions and mental models of their environments.]

Then people started to ascribe beliefs to themselves.  At that point, if I believed something, that meant I was modeling myself as acting the way I would act if x were true.  Just as you might notice someone else acting as if x, you could notice yourself acting as if x: "Hm! I seem to believe that [x]!"

But then, gradually, things became more complicated.  Beliefs gradually grew to have an autonomous existence, separate from action.  We can see a couple of pathways this could have taken.  Perhaps at one point, if I believed something, that meant that I modeled myself as something to which other people (real or imagined) would ascribe this belief.  Or that I acted as if I were the type of person that believed that x is true, or that I acted as if I were the type of person that other people would model as believing that x is true.  (I imagine this as "wrinkles," so to speak, in the "social fabric".)

You can see where this is going - this brings up the possibility of deceit: the possibility that I would act like I believe one thing, when I "really" believe something else.  Now this would cause people to carry around more complex models of each other - ones that include something like an "internal mental state" which may or may not be consistent with their outward actions.

At first, the issue may simply have been one of error: I thought you were acting like x is true, but I misinterpreted your actions - you were actually acting as if y were true (assuming y is something fairly similar to x).

But inevitably this opened up a possibility to which opportunistic organisms would adapt themselves: the capability of deliberately misrepresenting one's model of the situation.

Quickly, this, too became inverted: you became capable of deceiving yourself as to what you believe - deliberately, or by accident, as the case may be.  If I say I believe x, but act as if I believe y, which one do I actually believe?  I might say I believe x.  I might even believe that I believe x.  But the word "believe" has by now become ambiguous.  By now there have become a set of things I carry around with me, perhaps memorized by rote, these strange discrete propositions called "beliefs" that may or may not have anything to do with my actions.  

If someone else models me as a person whose actions do not match their beliefs, they may call me a "hypocrite".  And there's a moral condemnation usually inherent in that label.  But it's not clear what this means.  Do they mean that I should bring my actions in line with my beliefs (whatever that means)?  Or do they mean that I should update my beliefs to match my actions?  Either way it seems to me that there's a kind of confusion going on here.  If I misread the output of a sonar device so that what I think is an enemy submarine is really only a whale, I don't morally condemn the whale for not being a submarine or morally condemn the imaginary submarine for actually being a whale.  I don't even morally condemn my own sonar for causing confusion.  I simply note the error, update my model of the situation, and move on.  

Nonetheless, however confused it may be, this charge of hypocrisy has continued to exist, and has shaped the way that we understand the concept of belief.  Indeed, the charge of hypocrisy is often leveled with great emotional fervor.  This is, I think, for several reasons.  First, when a person shouts "Woe unto ye hypocrites," they may not actually be accusing the suspected hypocrites of a mismatch between the hypocrite's actions and beliefs - though that is what the accuser thinks they are doing.  (In other words, the accuser is deceiving themselves about their own beliefs!)  They may actually feel the agenbite of the discrepancy between the supposed hypocrite's actions and what the accusers wish those actions were.  In other words, the real conflict is not between the hypocrite's actions and the hypocrite's beliefs, but rather between the (supposed) hypocrite's actions and the accuser's beliefs.  If so, then we are dealing not merely with misperception but with disappointment.  Not just "you are wrong!" but "I was wrong" - which hurts one's pride (one's own self-modeling of one's own model).  Second, these emotions seem to be especially strong when the accuser models himself as being lower in some kind of hierarchy than the person they're accusing.  That is, when someone presents themselves as an expert, or authority, or most of all, a judge - then we are most ready to attack them for their hypocrisy - and indeed we will delight in doing so.  You're judging me?  No, I'm judging you!  You're a moralist?  I will moralize against your moralizing!  Thus there is often an element of ressentiment at work in the charge of hypocrisy.  Much of the history of the development of western civilization can be seen as the working out, in detail, of this complex interaction as the charge of hypocrisy continues to shape our concept of belief.

Arising from this charge of hypocrisy - and, more to the point, the defense against the charge of hypocrisy - is a reconception of belief as something that is not merely qualitative but also quantitative.  In other words, people are now not only seen as either believing something or not believing it - the question becomes how much do they believe it?   Thus we develop the notion of believing something harder.  Belief becomes a kind of exertion.  Instead of there being 2 possibilities: "I believe that Montpelier is the capital of Vermont," or "I believe that Montpelier is not the capital of Vermont," we now open the option to say, "Not only do I believe that Montpelier is the capital of Vermont, I really, really, really believe that Montpelier is the capital of Vermont!  I believe it with all my heart!"

Now to some extent, this makes sense.  In the face of uncertainty (and there is always uncertainty in life), we can think of quantitative belief as analogous in some way to probability - which opens its own can of conceptual worms.  For instance, it seems reasonable in some sense to say something like "I'm pretty sure that the capital of Vermont is Montpelier, but it might be Burlington - I'm not 100% certain." So to some degree the passage of belief from a quality to a quantity can be seen as progress of a sort.

But finally, there is another dimension to this development: from the beginning, we have modeled each other as believing things - that is, we have modeled each other as modeling the world.  Anyone who pays attention will notice that people have what we now call confirmation bias - the tendency to focus on the evidence that confirms our model, and to ignore the evidence that contradicts it.  "A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest."  The flip side of that is that, from a person's point of view, reality is almost always confirming my preconceptions.  Moreover, some may notice what scientists call the placebo effect - for instance, that a person who believes they will recover from an illness will be more likely to recover from the illness.  Combining these observations with the concept of quantitative belief, it's not hard to fall into the pattern of believing that whatever you believe will come true - and that, if it doesn't come true, that only goes to show that you didn't believe in it hard enough.  Following this thought out to its extremes, one might begin to believe that faith can move mountains.

So though belief began as something inherently social (it was originally something that one inferred about other people, before it became reflexive) and something profoundly rooted in, and indeed completely immersed in action (we inferred people's beliefs by way of their actions), it gradually grew to become something autonomous, something personal and interior, an entire separate world, perhaps capable of having an effect on the outside world, not through our actions but through what might be called magic.

How did this come to be?  How did we gain these linguistic skills (or whatever they are) - I mean the ability, as Fitzgerald put it, "to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function"?

Does the above mean that we could say that the very concept of belief is essentially modern, and perhaps also western?  I'm tempted to go so far as to say that it is largely a product of Christianity's insistence on a group of memorized "creeds" such as the Nicene Creed, the Chalcedonian Creed, and so on.  Anthropologists have a notoriously difficult time asking people in non-literate hunter-gatherer societies what their cultures' beliefs are, because that's just not how they typically think about things.  They don't say, "I believe that a monstrous, man-eating horse lives in that swamp," or "my tribe believes that a monstrous, man-eating horse lives in that swamp" - they simply say, "a monstrous, man-eating horse lives in that swamp," - and that's how they think of it, too.  And it's hard to think of a question that will elicit that answer unless you already know something about how they see the world (and even if you do, there may be taboos against talking about it).  In fact, when you consider the difference in meaning between "a monstrous, man-eating horse lives in that swamp" and "I believe that a monstrous, man-eating horse lives in that swamp," the more you think about it, the more confused you may become.  (I would wager that, for even a solid portion of the history in which the Tanakh was composed, even Hebrew people did not have the modern concept of "beliefs" - though some of the later texts and redactions seem to show some evidence of at least a proto-concept of belief.)  For a person living in the Amazon, it's not that they believe that there's a monstrous horse, it's that there really is a monstrous horse.  Does putting "in my religion, we believe..." before a statement introduce a kind of distance - an artificial distance - between a person and their own model of the world?  Perhaps this distance is only introduced when a group encounters another group with a different model of the world - and even then, they may merely ignore or laugh at others' perceived misperceptions.  Perhaps it is only when multiple clans and tribes must come together to form a larger, more diverse civilization that the concept of "belief" is tacked on to humanity.  Maybe I was wrong to attribute the concept of belief to the rise of the institutional Christian church - maybe it has more to do with imperialism - the rise of empires, such as the Roman, or perhaps something earlier, like the Persian or Sumerian empires.  The ability to think "those people believe x," (and especially "those people believe x whereas we believe y") - an interest in other models of the world, without utter dismissal or total confusion - may be an artifact of the attempt to manage large numbers of people in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society.  Then again, perhaps the concept of "belief" is much older than that - as is, for instance, the concept of "magic," which is one of the oldest concepts in the human arsenal.  Was the idea that faith can move mountains a holdover or a revival of an earlier belief in magic?  Was magic in pre-literate, pre-imperial societies conceived in a profoundly different way?

I began this by saying that this was a folk-tale, or folk-science, that this was awkwardly put, and that I would fix it later.  Well, now it's time to fix this.  The entire above story has been a myth.  There never was a "golden age" when beliefs could be inferred cleanly and clearly from actions.  Belief has been a murky and complex thing, right from the beginning.  Perhaps it gradually became more what it is, but if anything this should not be understood as a simple thing becoming complex but just the opposite - an inscrutably complex phenomenon becoming simpler, through abstraction.


Popular posts from this blog

Why Capitalism is Ending


The Ego Is Not Selfish Enough