Belief – A Constructive and Destructive Reasoning Instinct

Judging the import of environments is reasoning’s foremost concern, and this effort evinces constancies due to the rigidifying of cognitive approach despite transient and diversifying contexts of cultural development with their accumulating complexities.  We desire progress, an improved future, and occasionally attain some of our enlightened ideals, but also demand continuities in our ways of life, thinking and modes of believing, stimulated by childhood conditioning, ingrained as dispositions, and assumed as the basis for solidarities that cause our behavior to fall into patterns, many of which have remained in effect across millennia despite much evolutionary drift in meaning conjuncted to the changing features of economic and technological circumstance.  Belief deeply influences human action, an immitigable phenomenon yielding industriousness, inspiration, recklessness and disaster all at once in every society, one with the psyche but of sometimes ambivalent or even tragic consequence.  

The function of modern belief is to be a locus of justification, and a belief achieves this justifying role when we can regard it as true, implying enough ‘accuracy’ – an according to some criterion valid mapping of causality by associational structures cohering with perceptual content  – that it can be held as the basis for appropriate method, technique, action.  The substance of beliefs, our accepted truth, informs purpose in a given context, usually formulizable as a statement indicating what will work.  The psychical complexes of accepted truth that we call ‘beliefs’ generate experiences, behaviors, and are reciprocally molded by them.  Beliefs participate in the effort to organize our thinking about which actions should be repeated, which should be discarded, and to what degree for each action.  They are a summation of the contribution to and fro between that which is unknown and the perceiving and conceiving of both circumstance as well as the effectiveness of behaviors.  In technical contexts, beliefs are tied to procedural behavior, and when innovation based on empirical analysis is called for, as in engineering design and science, theoretical positings such as hypotheses are employed to modify beliefs alongside revisionary construction of both procedure and its observational milieus.  Empirical activity proves so effective that it has engendered a ubiquitous paradigm of functional behavior called ‘empiricism’ comprised of technical, mechanism-based concepts and methods that progress via the invention, modification and analysis of formal experimentation.  Empiricism produces some of our preeminent standards for true and false belief, generally seeking the maximal explicitness and universalizability we call ‘objectivity’.

Believing is a hub of our determinations regarding the importance of behaviors, how habitually they should be engaged in when assessed next to alternative commitments.  Beliefs hold a primary place in organizing our lives as principles of decision-making, often becoming tacitly assumed.  Belief systems, the interrelationships of so-considered true concepts, have a hierarchical structure rooted on a vast array of basic fact ascending through more inclusive beliefs to philosophies and values enmeshed with ritual and practice around which whole cultures are coordinated.  

There is no total disconnect between believing toast will taste good in the morning and that a deity should be worshiped (religious fasting and vigilance about gluttony are simple examples), or between our beloved toast and the view that atoms exist and determine the nature of macroscopic phenomena (the Maillard reaction gives toast its pleasing aroma).  The most particular to the most general beliefs are all grounded on supposed reality concomitant with our actions and consequent sensibleness of purpose, the value of behavior.  Our reasons for living, while raising a family or whatever it might be, are not unrelated to the act of putting on our shoes, in fact these everyday concerns are commonly motivated by profound beliefs, often unintentionally once habits have been inveterated, with simple fact colored by our heterogeneous web of truth-contingent valuations.

At this stage the issue of defining ‘causality’ arises.  All beliefs about causality derive from observations, which in turn are based on perceptions, but there are various methods for obtaining observations and different sorts of perceptions.  The empirically-minded student of science that higher education typically produces inclines to view the truth of cause and effect as platformed by empiricist objectivity, which seeks after what we can render as general knowledge via technical instruments in experiments that succeed in making subjectivity negligible.  Technical instruments augment perception in consort with procedural methods, enabling us to synthesize and model data.  Models are considered objectively verifiable when contexts they define can be controlled well enough to isolate and bring into sharp relief precise variables (e.g. gravity, heat, molecular motion or ‘temperature’, concentration, electromagnetic absorption) using procedures replicable by any adequately trained individual.  This controlling of the investigative environment such that precision repeatability is possible validates some beliefs in the strongest possible way, which we call scientific theories: anyone anywhere can corroborate or debunk them by carrying out the exact same processes.  Scientific ‘proof’ is relevant for everybody at all times and thus exceeds efficacy of individual experience and unscientific group assent.

Scientific methods of data collection and analysis have not been able to observe and theorize all causality as inanimate, deterministic mechanisms, which is particularly true for contents of introspection.  The individual psyche is difficult to model, and the interplay of many introspectors even moreso; to demonstrate, all we need to do is glance at disputations surrounding the voluminous DSM, an official manual for diagnosing psychiatric illnesses.  However, introspectiveness – complex intentionality and cognizance of it in ourselves – often seems to be transmuted by environments of large-scale sociality into more generalizable dynamics of mass behavior, analyzed as economics and politics, though not without methodological caveats, lurking uncertainties, extremely large data samples, difficult reasoning, and a constant lookout for systemic changes of highly unpredictable kind.  

The efficient-market hypothesis depicts behavior in economies under constant conditions, in which the coordination of individuals grows increasingly predictable as these actors learn about their financial environment, becoming more knowledgeable and discerning until near optimization is reached.  This notion led to assertions that no one can beat the market, even flying in the face of much contrary evidence.  Refutation derives from data of frequent transition periods, during which novel circumstances must be analyzed by economic decision makers.  There is more uncertainty, and a greater quantity of maladaptive strategies are attempted, trends often amplified by the overestimated models of prior efficient markets.  Similarly, political science has yet to explain reemergence of totalitarianism in populations that want to have influence on their social fate, which would seem to lend itself to a democratic culture if accurate reflection and well-adapted collaboration were at work.  Just when we begin to think theory is finally grasping the patterns of society and rendering human individuals conceivable deterministically, as  rationalizable units in a mechanistic system, anomalies produced by intention once again crop up and confuse science.

We not only arrive at beliefs predicated on our own thinking and education into scientific methods, but also form beliefs based on what others believe and represent as true.  We decide who’s beliefs to trust and sources we trust become authorities.  Acceptance or rejection of fact is more a function of what we have been told than what we have personally confirmed, and so it is opinions about facts more than facts themselves that determine beliefs, dependent on those we acclaim, with dichotomous backgrounds often resulting in incompatible beliefs.

Consider a perspective becoming rarer with the advancement of knowledge, but that is not exactly irrational.  An admired religious leader has claimed a creation story is literal history delivered by a deity to enlighten humanity about the truth of our origins, not at all impossible if you believe this deity communicates with humans and with you.  Therefore anything contradicting this narrative must be an error, provisional of alternate interpretation.  Let’s say the theory of evolution contradicts many literal implications, which means evolution is impossible and misguided.  Species are related because the deity is intelligent and systematic in its engineering, assertions about the fossil record and additional aspects of biology, geology and chemistry must be challenged because any cause at all is hypothetically possible, my social group is more ethical than evolution-based thinking has commonly suggested plausible, and the theory of evolution cannot explain how something exists at all any more than intentional design: the universe is supraconceptual by all past and present models and measurings.

The truth is anyone can believe anything at all provided they are insulated from negative social and material consequences of their choice.  Interpretation of fact is arbitrary when it does not have survival function for our ecology, a pressing traction upon causality that transcends intersubjectivity.  Humanity’s relationship to causal necessity began with solutions for hunting, gathering and spiritualizing, graduated to mineral extraction and the cultivation of plants and animals for purposes of nutrition, medicine, transportation, along with expressions of both the soul and passions for community.  Innumerable movements have come, gone and mutated into forms that would be incomprehensible to their founders, yet science and technology have expanded in application to levels that influence the whole biosphere.  It seems as though cutting edge objectivity is key to the species’ future.  

But to flip the script, a case can be made that even science-based paradigms of evolution should be acknowledged as no more than passing phases along the path of progressive objectivity.  We may actually be threatened by entanglement of promotional rhetoric with evolutionary concepts, especially misconstrual of unintuitive qualities that foment endless uncertainty about what should be straightforward science: e.g., opaque avowals that global warming occurs with regularity, or that altruism is in actuality selfish and was of limited scope during our ancient past.  Even though many of the mechanisms we classify as evolutionary are vital for understanding the world, ossification into doctrine is dangerous because it makes us less vigilant about spotting flaws in current theories and more sluggish in responding to the unexpected.  The rapidity of transition in contemporary knowledge means we can no longer organize culture around paradigms erected to demiurgic status, even those as modern as evolution, reified as formative forces which subordinate the imagination, no advance in relation to religiosity as such and, when granted this role, perhaps regressive.  Hopefully traditional ways of believing do not inhibit accustomization to a scientific and technological world, for the only choice is enlightened commitment to consciousness-raising, a continual reinvention by rational agents with intellectual integrity.  Stagnant orthodoxy is no longer a viable option.

A free download of the book Standards for Behavioral Commitments: Philosophy of Humanism, also available for preview below.  Topics covered include chemistry, biology, genetics, neuroscience, epistemology, the history of Western philosophy, cultural evolution, theory of cognition, ethics and much more.

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