As I get older, I am starting to realize more and more the importance of belief. I’ve found this word means different things to different people. To some, it means a belief in God or Gods. To others, it means a belief in humanity, and the goodness of others. Some people think belief is a bug rather than a feature, something that clouds judgment and prevents one from using pure logic to reason about the world around them.
I’ve never taken psychedelic drugs before, but I have heard a lot about how they can really alter your perspective on the world. It turns out, much of our perceived reality is entirely subjective anyway. Have you ever had a deep conversation with someone who is very different from you? It almost seems like they’re operating on an entirely different plane of existence. I get this feeling sometimes when talking to people from cultures, or even economic backgrounds, that are very different from my own. As someone who tries to be open-minded, I enjoy this challenge immensely. It helps me see how much of my world is colored by my own beliefs, and how much of my perceived reality is actually subjective.
Where exactly is that line between subjective reality and objective reality? Does that line even exist? Some philosophers say that truth and reality are entirely separate things. Maybe what we define as “truth” is really just a stable, consensus reality between several observers. If this is how the world really works, what is the value of belief compared to logic and reason?
If you had asked me that question when I was a teenager, I might’ve said the value of belief is exactly zero. We can measure reality using scientific instruments. We can conduct experiments to prove hypotheses, and gather evidence and perform induction. We learn how to do this in school.
But quite a lot of the world already runs on belief. The bank notes that we trade for food have no intrinsic value on their own. We trust money to be some sort of accurate record of value. Trust is a form of belief. I recently discovered that one of the causes of inflation is belief. If people think that their currency is losing value, then it will1.
We also believe in things that we can’t really prove are correct, but can’t prove that they are incorrect either. Data encryption, for example, relies on the belief that it’s extremely hard to factor really large numbers. We don’t have any proof that it’s impossible to do so, but we don’t have any proof of the contrary either. I guess you could call that a form of agnosticism. Why then, do we trust this method of encryption with our most valuable secrets? It’s because we believe it is safe.
Before the discovery of microbial life, even the practice of washing one’s hands before surgery was a manifestation of belief.
Even more infamous is the tragic account of Ignaz Semmelweis, who, backed by a preponderance of clinical data, recommended the practice of hand washing to medical professionals as a way of improving outcomes on the obstetrics wards in 1847 . Despite empirical evidence that washing one’s hands between deliveries reduced mortality to below 1%, Semmelweis could produce no theoretical explanation or hypothetical mechanism with which to explain his findings. Being in conflict with the scientific opinion of the day, those findings were largely rejected by the medical community, and Semmelweis would only be vindicated posthumously with the emergence of germ theory—a theoretical model that placed the clinical data regarding hand washing and disease into an intelligible context. 2
Many people (including myself) believe that humans are generally good, despite a cornucopia of evidence for the contrary. Without such a belief, living in a community of other people would be nearly impossible. How can you trust strangers, when you don’t know what their motivations are? Logically, everyone will act in their own self-interest, and often the interests of others do not align with one’s own. By taking that leap of faith that other people are generally good, it can completely change your perception of reality and put the mind at ease.
However, belief obviously isn’t enough on its own. If I chose to believe that people were generally good, but people weren’t actually good, then I would be constantly taken advantage of, and wouldn’t survive in a community of other people. As it turns out, the really beautiful thing about belief is that it often leads to self-fulfilling prophecies. Believing that people are generally good means believing that I am an intrinsically good person as well, and this influences how I act in a community of others. Thus, a cycle of equilibrium is maintained: people are good because they believe they are good.
I think the reason why the idea of “God” is often the common denominator for all religions is because it is an abstraction for a “leap of faith”. If I attempt to define this abstraction literally, using logic and reason, it diminishes its power over the human mind. Much like telling a patient that the medication they were just administered was actually just a sugar pill, and has no provable effect on their ailment. The placebo effect, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, really works, but one must believe it in order for it to work.
As an example, take this excellent passage from Commander Data, an android from Star Trek:
Data I understand your dilemma. I once had what could be considered a crisis of the spirit.
Data Yes. The Starfleet officers who first activated me on Omicron Theta told me I was an android, nothing more than a sophisticated machine with human form. However I realized that if I were simply a machine, I could never be anything else. I could never grow beyond my programming. I found that difficult to accept, so I chose to believe that I was a person, that I had the potential to be more than a collection of circuits and sub-processors. It is a belief which I still hold.
Worf How did you come to your decision?
Data shrugs slightly
Data I made a leap of faith.
A remarkably profound dialogue from a syndicated television show, this scene (among many others) really changed my line of thinking. Even Data, an android who thinks very logically and without emotion, is capable of making such a leap of faith, all the while showing the utility of doing so.
Humans, however, are cursed with real emotions like self-doubt and have a much more difficult time making this leap of faith. God is a pretext for believing in other things that have utility in understanding subjective reality, just like “The Spirit of Man”. There are a lot of verses from the Bible that are really similar to the words of Data above.
Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. — Genesis 2:7
In other words, humans are more than the sum of their parts. A living creature has a higher purpose than just converting oxygen into carbon dioxide. That living creatures are “divine”, an immutable status that cannot be granted or revoked by humans. This is a line that is metaphorically drawn that’s really important (more on that later).
But it is the spirit in man, the breath of the Almighty, that makes him understand. — Job 32:8
Belief in “God” (or maybe in other words, believing in belief), is a platform for building a subjective reality that has utility beyond armchair philosophy. A moral framework can be built on this platform, as many obviously have been. The pacifist concept of nonresistance is an example of a practice that requires a tremendous amount of self-discipline, without which a society of people would descend into ever escalating conflict (“an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”). Believing in the afterlife makes this practice significantly easier, and gives logical approbations that satisfy a restless mind (i.e., justice is served in the afterlife, and “love thy enemy”).
The Declaration of Independence is a really interesting and unique founding document that presupposes several beliefs. Written by scholars who escaped tyrannical regimes, they sought to build a government structure that would be free of interference from other people’s subjective ideas of utopia.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…
Here, the supernatural is invoked to draw a special metaphorical line around a protected class of ideas. That “all men are created equal”, and that civil rights are “unalienable” as they are “endowed by their creator”. All of this is prefixed with “we hold these truths to be self-evident”, meaning these ideas are immutable and not up for debate. It turns out, the United States is relatively unique even among western democracies in that the founding document explicitly states that individual rights preexist government and even all of mankind. This is in contrast with other western democracies where individual rights are granted to the people by the government.
How is it possible to convince people that these ideas are immutable? A leap of faith is required, and “The Creator” is used as a platform for such beliefs that follow. This isn’t even a secret, as John Adams said, “our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” So the catch is, you need to believe it in order for it to work.
To religious people, everything I wrote here is probably really obvious. However, as someone who has been non-religious for most of his life, I am starting to realize the utility of belief. I think the world would be a lot better off if people took more leaps of faith. Mental health issues like depression and anxiety, for instance, can and have been alleviated with a healthy dose of belief. Plus, as Pascal put it so eloquently, it certainly wouldn’t hurt.