This post continues the progression of the last three, and derives from comments left by a fellow blogger, SaraJoyM. Relatively new to this game, she blogs about philosophy and ethics and touches on similar themes as those explored here in recent times. In her commentary, and in a nice piece on her own site, she explores the upside of belief. Her take on this subject awakens me to a wrinkle that I hadn’t considered: belief brings benefits.
That set me thinking. The recent series of essays isn’t the first time I’ve trashed belief as unreliable and hazardous for society and individuals. One of my posts earlier this year was even titled, “The Danger of Belief.” I stand by my position that fixed beliefs (especially those about metaphysical topics) get us in trouble. On the personal level they provide precarious support for happiness. On the cultural level they lead to warfare and persecution. Bad news, certainly, but as in all things there remain positive aspects, which I will now explore.
First of all, belief is unavoidable. Even the opinion that we should distrust belief is, naturally, a belief itself. We believe if we follow the markings on a map, we will reach our destination. We believe that if we work diligently and competently, we will be rewarded, either financially or at least through a sense of accomplishment. We believe that love is worth the effort, despite its final ending in grief.
These are not strictly fact-based beliefs, but rather the result of experience, desire, and cultural conditioning. We need such convictions to direct our energies and find our way through life. We may find ourselves defending these positions, or at least demonstrating our faith in them. So when does a belief cross the line between helpful organizing principle and damaging fixation?
Rather than stating my answer at the outset, let’s study the example of a common belief about which many feel strongly, but which has no basis in empirically provable evidence: the conviction that personal deity named ‘God’ directs the flow of events through space and time. That many people want to hold this concept in their minds as unarguable fact has been demonstrated time and again, often tragically. To point this out is not, however, the same as saying that such belief has no redeeming value. Millions of people worldwide structure their ethics and bolster their confidence in life on the basis of this powerful and enduring idea. The vast majority of these believers eschews violence and would be loathe to force the opinion on others.
So the mere holding of a metaphysical belief does not cause trouble. The difficulties arise when a person or group believes the God concept requires vigorous defense against alternate viewpoints. In passing, I might point out that if God is truly all-powerful, He probably requires no such protection. Be that as it may, many times throughout history this need to defend or promote belief has led to war, torture, and many other species of misery.
So at least at the social level, the problem isn’t with belief per se, but with the intense desire to defend or promote a metaphysical stance. But why should this compulsion arise? Why should people care so much about an idea as to want to kill for it?
This comes back to the point I started out making several essays ago: if a belief becomes the basis for one’s sense of security in life, any disruption of that convinced faith will be disorienting if not disintegrating to the psyche. Since the ego is banking its integrity on a certain worldview, it believes it must protect that opinion against all assault or risk dissolution. So we see the danger of belief arise when too much of a person’s inner security depends on a certain set of ideas.
But how could someone ever hold a belief in God (our current example) and not anchor a considerable amount of personal stability in it? I submit that this sort of conviction automatically becomes a kind of gravitational center for the psyche. Even less controversial beliefs, such as a belief that love is important, will become central to a person’s direction in life and will lead to a measure of emotional chaos if disrupted. So I don’t think the answer to the conundrum lies entirely in not using beliefs to ground contentment. Certainly, the less we attach to our concepts (to use Buddhist terminology) the less we will open ourselves to injury if our belief system crumbles. But there is an endless regress here, in that valuing non-attachment requires certain beliefs about the nature of our situation.
No, the problem isn’t entirely the result of our natural dependence on beliefs, but on our failure to understand the structure of truth. When we see logical contradiction between two concepts, we assume at least one of the positions must be wrong. But logic is an artifice of human thought, not a principle of nature. We can see this most clearly in the case of subatomic physics, where the base particles of matter look like waves and like particles. We are so accustomed to thinking of wave-particle duality as a fundamental natural principle, we forget that it destroys logic. A particle is a discrete entity with a particular location in space. A wave is a distributed phenomenon with no defined boundary. One is small, one is large. One is solid, one is amorphous. One is localized, one is diffuse. In logical terms, these wildly opposed qualities can’t both be ‘true’. Yet, the fact that subatomic entities display widely divergent natures depending on experimental design has been verified countless times.
So why couldn’t God both exist and not exist? This is a topic in its own right that I’ve touched on in the past, and that I’ll deal with more directly in a later essay. For now, let’s end by recognizing that metaphysical beliefs are unavoidable, and that it is likewise inevitable that a certain amount of our ego’s integrity ends up invested in them. The solution is partly to learn a bit of detachment, to not hold too tightly to beliefs. But the most important corrective would be to learn to tolerate contradiction. Imagine if people could comfortably make statements like this: “I believe in God. You don’t. Both views are valid and worthy. God exists for me and not for you. This is natural and good, and consistent with nature as we know it.” If we could hold our beliefs without worrying about contradictory opinions, we would be able to enjoy the benefits of such conviction while avoiding the downsides.
(Note: I recommend clicking on the photo that heads this post and reading the background on the image.)