The Nature of Belief

For most of my life I was quite certain as to what constituted Truth, with a capital T.  My religious upbringing had instilled in me not only a set of values and views on ethics, but also with certain metaphysical beliefs, ideas about God, and similar matters.  At the point I decided to explore my beliefs critically, I was hesitant.  Calling into questions such core ideas that *defined* me had the intimidating possibility of throwing some of my most certain beliefs into disarray.  And, it is true that such critical examination did indeed cause me to doubt and question notions which I had thought to be essential to *defining* me.  Once a former notion was discarded or significantly altered I felt a bit uneasy because I didn’t readily have something to replace it.

Over time I came to be certain about much less but inquisitive about much more.  The modification of certain beliefs did not leave me directionless but rather, made me question the point of going in *any* direction at all.  Just as I used to revel in the idea that I had a clear conception of “how the world works”, I have now come to celebrate the mystery inherent in simply being human.  One of those wonders is how and why each of us comes to any given conclusion or how we, collectively, establish matters of fact.  This post is an extremely cursory look at this question.

I think there are, essentially, two types of belief.  First are beliefs that arise out of direct experience and second, beliefs that are held by faith of one sort or another.  It is tempting to think of these belief types in terms of empiricism.  That is, in its most extreme form, the proposition that knowledge is obtained only through demonstrable evidence.  For example, one may believe that water is indeed made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen.  Relatively speaking, very few human beings have directly experienced this particular nature of water.  By this I mean that very few have performed the necessary experiments with the proper scientific methods and technology to have direct knowledge, consumed through the eyes observing water’s nature or reading and analyzing the proper data which demonstrates the composition of a water molecule.  Thus, in an important sense, the majority of us have faith in the reported direct experience of others who tell of water’s composition.  Our confidence in this belief is bolstered, of course, by the facts that 1) this direct experience is repeatable  2) multiple people report this direct experience and 3) it is possible to reasonably describe how this direct experience may be had so that all can see and offer critique of the methodology.  So if belief that water is in fact two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom derived from faith, what is it, exactly, we are placing our faith in?

First, we have faith (or trust) in the methodology used to provide direct experience; in this case, the scientific method.  Second, we have faith (or trust) in those who report their direct experience.  What’s more, by understanding the methodology employed by others to have this direct experience, as well as understanding the expression of that direct experience itself, we can conceive what it would be like to have this direct experience ourselves.  Therefore, a methodology we understand (even at a very basic level) along with the recitation of the direct experience this method makes possible, creates within us a conception which, based on our level of trust, eventually becomes a belief.   Our belief may be “strong” or “weak” but it nonetheless persists.

Belief arising from direct experience may likewise be strong or weak.  At first glance it would seem that direct experience does not require faith or confidence.  Such belief, after all, results from something we have unquestionably experienced.  Yet even our direct experience must be interpreted via our, for lack of a better term, consciousness.  The interpretation of direct experience is influenced by a wide range of factors including genetics and culture.  As a result, and especially in the post-modern era, we rightly question our interpretations by examining the necessary assumptions upon which they rely.  The more confident we are in our assumptions, the more likely we are to be certain about any interpretations that support a coherent belief.  Similarly, we may hold certain views while at the same time recognizing that they are socially or otherwise constructed.  It may be tempting to label these views as “artificially” constructed but to do so is to imply an objective measure for those conceptions we consider “real.”

In truth, all beliefs and conceptions, be they derived from direct experience or the experience of others, are dependent on an assumed context.  We must always give due consideration to the assumed context of any expressed belief; not to become caught in a mire of contextual analysis ever-afraid to draw strong conclusions or express certainty but rather, to help us maintain humility even in regard to those views we hold most certain and absolute.