Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

The will not to believe

with 3 comments

William James observed that people tend to hold on to the beliefs they had while young and to make only minor repairs along the way, unless an experience comes along that just cannot be accommodated within the old framework. That seems about right; at least, it corresponds well to my own experiences. For as long as I can recall, I have had the belief that beliefs are best kept to a minimum. It is sufficient to have a few beliefs that get one successfully through the day, such as the belief that when an elevator stops and opens its doors at a floor well above the ground floor, it is most probably safe to step out onto what looks like a solid floor. Even if one keeps one’s beliefs down to those that are helpful to make it from the ringing of the alarm clock in the morning back to the safety of the bedroom at night, the portfolio is bulging. Loading it with more produces an unwieldy encumbrance.

Carrying around beliefs, and especially about things that cannot possibly be proven to be either true or false, is not only cumbersome. It can be dangerous to health—one’s own as well as others’. Beliefs tend to lead people into temptation to have a degree of contempt or suspicion for those who do not share them. Some of my earliest memories come from the time of the McCarthy era in American politics, a time when holding unapproved beliefs could lead to prison or at least to the end of a career. While still much too young to comprehend what the stories really meant, I heard stories of friends of the family whose careers had been undermined because they had dared to express beliefs that were labelled by some as seditious and anti-American. Where there is a clash of beliefs of that kind, it is difficult to determine what is more dangerous—is it the putatively un-American belief, or is it the belief that some beliefs are un-American that is more disruptive, or is it both taken together?

The world that has evolved during my lifetime seems to have become paralyzed by conflicts in belief. Unfortunately, the paralysis is only partial; it only prevents the human race from moving forward in constructive ways toward peace and harmony. What is not paralyzed is the musculature that enables people to carry out destructive actions such as wars, gueriilla actions such as bombings, assassinations and massacres.

When people have conflicting beliefs about things that are too complex to enable the gathering of evidence that decides the matter definitively, what tends to happen is that the strong and powerful succeed in putting their beliefs into practice. The nations with the most economic and military might, for example, determine the agenda at the United Nations. The irony is that the most war-making nation, the United States, dominates an organization that was created to ensure world peace. Within that most powerful of nations, the corporations with the most economic clout set the agenda for internal policies. The powerful have the ability to act on their beliefs, even when their beliefs are either highly questionable or, in extreme cases, even demonstrably false. They determine what it is possible to do, and what therefore is practically true. Those who do not share those beliefs face nothing but frustration and despair. One might well believe that there is an injustice in such an arrangement, but the belief will do little good, for it will turn out to be all but impossible to act on it.

William James, in his lectures on Pragmatism, explained that the pragmatic method of examining beliefs consists in asking oneself how one might act differently if one believed something to be true than if one believed it to be false or than if one believed something else to be true instead. If I believe there is a shop that sells peanuts one mile west of my house, and if I desire to buy some peanuts, I am very likely to set out in the westerly direction on foot. If I believe the nearest peanut vendor is five miles from my house, I am likely to decide to take a bicycle instead of walking, or I might very well conclude that my craving for peanuts can go unsatisfied. There is a practical difference in the belief that the store is one mile and the belief that it is five miles away. On the other hand, there is (for me at least) no practical difference between the belief that the peanut vendor was descended from Adam, who got thrown out of the Garden of Eden for eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the belief that the peanut vendor evolved from simpler life forms through random genetic mutations over the course of millions of years. That pair of beliefs does not make any difference whatsoever in anything I might do or decide not to do. Nothing turns on which of those beliefs is the right one. Following the Jamesian principle that there can be no difference that does not make a difference can be an effective method of eliminating a good many unnecessary beliefs from my kitbag and lightening my load. Why carry a trunk-load of beliefs when a briefcase-load will do?

Yesterday I heard someone speaking who was very much opposed to the government being involved in any way in health care. He said “I don’t want some bureaucrat in Washington deciding whether I em entitled to the cost of a life-saving medical intervention.” Stated in just that way, his concern seemed legitimate enough. But what is the practical alternative? Having a clerk in a for-profit insurance company decide that his policy does not cover the life-saving intervention? Between the two scenarios there is no practical difference, for in either case needed health care is inaccessible to someone who lacks the funding to pay for it. And yet to the person expressing that fear, the worry about government interference is legitimate. He believes it in part because so many people can be heard expressing the same fear. And so many people are expressing the same fear, because there are people who are very well paid to come up with ways of saying things that will persuade people to believe that some products are necessary to happiness, that some policies will lead to disaster while others will lead to success, that one political party is more inclined to listen to “the people” as opposed to billionaires (who are also people, but people who have far more votes than the rest of us, because they can buy them in various legal and illegal ways). There are, in other words, people whose livelihood depends on making other people believe things that are at best questionable and at worst downright false.

The best antidote against questionable beliefs is the habit of asking questions. And the habit of asking questions depends on cultivating the will to question. Being willing to question depends on being willing not to believe. I have found that being willing not to believe works well for me. Indeed, I have found it serves well as the cornerstone of a spiritual practice. Whether willing oneself not to believe will also work for others is something that only others can decide by trying it.

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Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010 at 20:05

3 Responses

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  1. As someone doing scientific research, I found the latter part of this sentence hard to swallow:

    “On the other hand, there is (for me at least) no practical difference between the belief that the peanut vendor was descended from Adam, who got thrown out of the Garden of Eden for eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the belief that the peanut vendor evolved from simpler life forms through random genetic mutations over the course of millions of years.”

    Do you mind commenting a bit more on that last part?

    Grad Student

    Wednesday, April 28, 2010 at 17:06

  2. When the practical task at hand is buying peanuts, that task is not influenced at all by any beliefs I might have about the question of how human beings came to be on the planet earth. And more broadly I would say that there is no action that I personally would do any differently if it turned out that some form of creationism were true rather than the belief in some version of Darwinian evolution that I have had since I was a child. This is purely autobiographical. I would never deny that the difference between the belief in creationism and the belief in evolution has no practical significance to anyone anywhere. I am simply saying it has no practical significance to me that I can think of.

    Richard Hayes

    Wednesday, April 28, 2010 at 22:35

  3. That makes sense as far as it goes. On the other hand, it’s sometimes hard to know which beliefs will make a practical difference and which beliefs won’t make a practical difference in our lives.

    Grad Student

    Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 05:26

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