It’s amazing to think that humans are the only species on Earth that will kill and die not just for territory, food, mates and offspring, but even for our beliefs. Indeed the greater proportion of damage and death caused by humans over our relatively short history has been for the sake and in the name of ideas – things that are not even real but only mental, imaginary, and conceptual “objects” of belief.
Now, I’m not suggesting that we need to purge our minds of mental, imaginary, and conceptual objects. That would amount to our intellectual and spiritual lobotomy. Because humans are a story-telling and meaning-making species, a steady production and trade in nonmaterial things is the life blood of our cultures and the soul of civilization.
Everything above the line of biology hangs in the air of our thoughts, just as every cultural artifact originated in and is a material expression of an idea, and of someone’s belief in that idea.
When Richard Dawkins proposed an evolutionary analog to our biological genes, in the cultural “memes” that seed our thoughts, engender belief, and drive human destiny along an ideological trajectory of progress or demise, he was criticized for attempting to reduce human freedom and creativity to “nothing but” a blind cultural selection of ideas.
Undoubtedly this line of thinking can be pushed in a reductionistic direction, but that’s not the value his theory has for me. It seems certain that we humans are manipulated by the beliefs (and memes) in our minds, even to the extent of being made willing to commit atrocities on their behalf. We happen to be standing now, and once again, on the brink of collective self-destruction, as opposing sides of belief muster our armies of ideological warriors and suicide terrorists.
Instead of sweeping belief aside as “nothing but” the metaphysical byproduct of errant or lazy thinking, or waiting until the war of ideologies is over and we can think rationally again, I propose that we dig into the processes behind its product and try to better understand what a belief essentially is.
Toward that end, I offer the above chart which distinguishes among different types of belief, where they sit relative to each other as well as on a spectrum of how conscious and cognitive they happen to be.
Let’s define our values. To identify a belief as “conscious” means that we are aware of holding it and can articulate it in a statement. At the opposite end of this continuum is an “unconscious” belief, one which we are not directly aware of and would have a difficult if not impossible time putting into words.
“Precognitive” beliefs come before and/or stand in front of the formal operations of thought and hold their position by deflecting or “throwing aside” criticism. Across this same spectrum are “postcognitive” beliefs, which as the term implies come at the conclusion of formal thought and make a claim to standing beyond question or doubt.
The center of my chart, then, is where cognition (or thinking) is busy in the work of constructing beliefs and weighing out their “truthiness.”
For reasons that will become clearer as we go, we will begin our exploration of belief in the lower-left quadrant of my chart, where we find our assumptions. By definition – from a root meaning “to pick up and carry along” – an assumption is both unconscious and precognitive, which means that we have little or no awareness of it as a belief, and that it enters our mind prior to the formal operations of thought.
Most of our assumptions were “picked up” on our path of development and absorbed from the social atmosphere of our family and tribe.
In its status as precognitive and unconscious, an assumption is analogous to a pair of spectacles perched on the bridge of our nose. If they are doing their job, we shouldn’t notice the lenses that are filtering and focusing our perception of reality. Our assumption is that reality is as we see it. An important difference between prescription lenses and our assumptions, however, is that our assumptions may be “out of focus” and even profoundly distorting in their effects, in ways we are completely unaware.
If a particular assumption was picked up when we were very young children, it can continue shaping our perceptions of reality and backgrounding all our other beliefs for the rest of our lives. How we presently see the world, others, and ourselves may not be true to the way they really are.
This is why the work of “surfacing” assumptions and bringing them under scrutiny to be verified or falsified is so central to the cognitive approaches of psychotherapy. The exercise forces an assumption out of the dark and into the light for examination, where its truth-value as an opinion can be decided.
Is the belief based on actual experience or objective evidence? Is it logical, rational, reasonable, and realistic (i.e., reality-oriented)? Is it useful to the task of living a more responsible life?
If not, then the client needs to choose between keeping their illusion and living in reality.
A second type of belief which is also precognitive but more consciously held than an assumption is a doctrine. We usually think of doctrines as belonging in religious institutions and their orthodox systems of belief, which are frequently pressed upon adherents as necessary to their membership, identity (as believers), and final salvation. Here I am not interested in what a particular doctrine may be about, but rather in its value as a marker of belonging. I’m of the opinion that most of the doctrinal content of orthodoxy is not really the main point.
Whether we grew up in such a tradition or consider joining it later in life, there are certain things that members of this kind believe (or at least profess to believe), doctrines that we will be expected to adopt (and recite) as well. We will not likely be invited, or even allowed, to interrogate a doctrine as if it were a “mere” opinion – even though orthodoxy literally means “correct opinion” (ortho+doxa).
Often some kind of protective aura is placed around a doctrine, whether it be sacred tradition, divine revelation, or metaphysical mystery, to keep us from looking too closely and asking questions.
Now that we’re in the sphere of religion and orthodoxy, we can swing over the vertical midline to a third type of belief, conviction. In this blog I don’t have many positive things to say about conviction, in the literal sense of the term (“to be held captive”), since its value is based on a rejection of our freedom to believe otherwise. (Our word heretic refers to one who “chooses otherwise.”)
We may have thought our way into it, or maybe we’ve been holding onto it for so long that our mind is now its prisoner and we are unable to think outside its box.
Convictions are in the “postcognitive” category of beliefs in acknowledgment of the explicit and final conclusion they declare on their topic. They are nevertheless “conscious,” which means that we can recite them with hand over heart – but without having to think. If someone should question a conviction of ours, we won’t in our defense call on logical reason, objective evidence, or even common sense. Rather our strategic apology will be to trace its lineage and associations to other convictions we hold – or I should say, that are holding our mind captive.
This is why it is useless to challenge a convicted true believer of any stripe. You soon get the sense that you’re being pulled along a recurrent cross-referencing loop of proof texts and “revealed” truths – without ever touching the ground of reality!
The power of convictions in cutting off questions, closing the mind, separating us from reality, and pushing us into conclaves of absolutism helps to throw some light on that concerning proclivity of our species mentioned at the start of this post: our readiness – even our eagerness – to destroy, kill, and die for our beliefs.
Is there a solution, or at least a path that could lead us away from our mutually assured destruction? Yes.
It requires using the full capacity of our conscious cognitive mind. The type of belief that represents our careful consideration, logical analysis, rational assessment, reasonable discretion, creative thinking, responsible discernment, and evidence-based observations is called a judgment. On my chart it is positioned directly above opinion, and can be defined as a well-deliberated opinion on whatever the subject, question, or problem happens to be.
Ideally all our other beliefs – assumptions, doctrines, convictions, and provisional opinions – can be brought to the table where we can interrogate them, test them, validate or refute them on a case by case basis. Granted this is an ideal, and probably hopeless in the larger scheme of things and given the eight or so billion minds we have running around the planet today.
So let’s begin where we can: with ourselves, and work our way outward from here.