The inertia of belief   


I remember when I was about 12 years old riding my scooter along the garden path and trying to work out what to "believe in God" really meant. According to the books I had read, the words had connotations of "to trust in, cling to and rely on" God's Son. And, of course, if you did believe then eternal life would be yours. But for all these extra words, the basic point was that there had to be absolute acceptance. To doubt was the opposite of having faith. And it was that which I found difficult. How is belief in any sense possible unless there is some convincing evidence that it is true? And no proof is offered; merely assertion.

Now if I want to climb Everest, I know that my best bet is to find myself an experienced Sherpa, one who has done the climb many times before and so who can guide me in (relative) safety to the top. In that sense I shall believe in him, I shall rely upon him, although not absolutely - I know that we may still get into difficulty.

This illustrates the problem that the various religions have. They each profess, alone, to be able to guide us (by very different paths) safely to the top of their Everest - to eternal life. The difficulty is that none of these guides or their illustrious predecessors over the millennia have ever been there themselves and come back, or can produce any evidence that the people they have guided have actually found the safety of eternity.

Belief, however, is not confined to religion. We have political beliefs - I can for instance believe in peace. But in reality all that means is that I want peace - and if necessary I suppose that I have to be prepared to fight for it!  One may be motivated by a belief in Socialism. I, however, do not have to believe in Socialism in order to know that, like most people, I have a strong emotional reaction against unfairness (especially towards me) and feel empathy for those in a worse position than me. These are enough to motivate me to do something, without the need for any underlying system of beliefs as to how the world should work.

Communism, that extreme form of socialism, asserted that all would be well if we were all equal. Not that it ever lived up to its own agenda, but since the 80's it has suffered a rapid decline and is now unrecognizable as any form of Marxism even in China. Economic reality has ultimately defeated a long-held set of beliefs. Mind you, pure market-based capitalism as a belief system is hardly credible in the light of present circumstances either.

This is the main problem with beliefs: if I say that I believe something to be true, then I have an emotional need to try to justify it, whether I have doubts or not. That is a large part of the reason why communism lasted for so long even when it was quite obvious that it had failed. By having beliefs, I paint myself into a corner. Politics ought surely to be based on pragmatism - what works - rather than the rhetoric of belief.

And then we have quasi-religious beliefs such as astrology or those underlying 'complimentary medicine'. Now it has been shown by that cynical group of people we call scientists, that most types of complementary medicine are of no more use than flower power was in the 60's or girl power was in the hands of the Spice Girls. So we have a contradiction. We live in a time when there is a call for proper evidence-based medicine in the NHS, rather than relying without question on what doctors have always believed works. At the same time, however, many people choose to accept a rag-bag of mystical ideas which are by and large based on mutually contradictory versions of how the body functions, but all under the overall banner of complementary medicine. Of necessity this results in equally contradictory ideas as to how to cure the body's ills, although this contradiction is never pointed out by its practitioners.

Obviously complementary medicine does not extend to serious illness, because there is a tacit understanding that these things shouldn't be relied on for anything life-threatening - hence the substitution of the phrase 'Complementary Medicine' for the original description 'Alternative Medicine'. For minor or chronic ailments, however, people will spend money on them. They feel justified in doing so because it is their belief that 'it works for them', rather than accepting that people do sometimes just get better or feel better because the body has managed to repair itself or because their mood has changed. The placebo effect is a wonderful thing.

Maybe such beliefs remain popular despite contrary evidence because they are largely protected from argument. For many people there seems to be an unwritten rule that all beliefs are 'personal' and so not susceptible of debate, especially when they are based on wishful thinking regarding illness or death. To accept that they are wrong is not an option. For them, there is no requirement that a belief should have been arrived at rationally - and so, by the same token it cannot be challenged by reason. The consequence is to encourage lazy thinking.

For these reasons, therefore, I think that it would be useful to abolish the word belief altogether. I cannot see what the word adds to any debate, except for a false degree of certainty - after all, logic tells us that there is nothing that we can believe in, in the strong sense of being absolutely certain of it, unless we are insane or fools or have been convinced of it by a charismatic speaker.   I personally do not feel the need to believe, for instance, that the sun will rise tomorrow.   I simply live my life on the assumption that it will do so, based on the available evidence.   I shall continue to do so until I see a reason not to - albeit perhaps for only a brief period!   I don't even believe in logic.   I use it because it works where no other approach produces reliable results.  If one day I find that it produces results which make no sense, which do not accord with what I see is going on around me, then I shall have either to check out my perceptions or to try to find a modified form of reasoning which will work.

So then, I don't have the need for the certainty or the self-delusion of beliefs.  Instead, perhaps rather boringly, I have working assumptions based on the available evidence. And these days we should all surely be asking not just for evidence-based medicine, but for evidence-based living.   In doing so, we might at last rid ourselves of the cloying inertia of belief.

Paul Buckingham

27th December 2014

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