Belief: An investigation of the human mind

· Personal Investigations

*originally written, Dec 2010

What does it truly mean to believe? Why do people aspire to believe? This is not a question of what is believed, that is, the thing for which belief is held, but a question of what is belief. The concept of belief carries an underlying requirement that can be deduced and that can offer a glimpse into the human mind. That requirement is that a person is not independent in himself but is dependent upon external entities, concepts, principles, etc. in order to function as a human. Upon closer inspection, this dependence reveals three variables of how the human mind interacts with these externals, specifically, whether or not the concept itself is fundamentally true or false, whether or not the person believes the concept, and lastly whether or not the person accepts the concept. The outcome of how the individual deals with these variables depends upon personal choice and preference, and it determines the person’s belief relation to the concept. After this relation has been applied to numerous externals, the final product is a system of beliefs that acts as a structural network for a person, reaching far beyond what he is capable of attaining in himself.

Part I: Two Points Make A Line

In human life, there are many things that cannot exist in and of themselves. These things must exist as an establishment between two separate things, originating from a somewhat predicate sense, and many of these things are defined simply by the state of relating these two separate things. Examples showing these patterns can be seen in natural sciences like mathematics, in peoples’ interactions with each other, and in peoples’ interactions with the non-human world around them.
As a fundamental and abstract basis for natural science (although a bit boring to most readers), mathematics can be used to show a self-evident necessity for endpoints, or boundary conditions, in order for a real existence to occur. Not to be confused with theoretical mathematics in which calculations are made using variables, real mathematics must have defined boundaries in order to produce a real result. For example, algebraic functions are only theoretically relational unless the function can be set to a real result (the first object), allowing the solution(s) for the remaining variable to be solved (the second object). In a similar manner, integration calculations give only theoretical results (results in terms of variables) unless real limits of integration are used, from one real result (or object) to another. Lastly, geometric courses must be plotted using two separate points, the point of origin and the point of destination. So fundamentally, this pattern is evidently seen to occur nature using mathematics, and all the remainder of nature follows this fundamental.
On a more interesting and applicable level to the average reader, this pattern exists within peoples’ interactions among themselves, too. How people interact with each other requires one(s) who enacts and one(s) who receives. One example of this can be seen in a musical performance. The art of music requires both a performer and an audience. It is true that music can be and often is played by a musician without the presence of an audience, but there is no element of artistry because it is not received or does not evoke a response. It is more likely seen as something like a practice session. But if the musician performs for an audience and the audience responds, there is a new creation of artistry, something that cannot exist without a separate giver and receiver. A similar example is a simple conversation. Is it possible to speak to no one? Or is it possible to listen to no one? It is not possible while retaining the characteristics of a conversation. A conversation must have a speaker and a listener in order to be a conversation. Finally, a friendship is another example. It is not possible to be friends with no one. Friendship requires two people to mutually give and receive from the other whatever characteristics of the relationship they both see as the requirements for friendship. Anything less is not a true friendship. Numerous other examples exist, but from these it can be seen that people interact with one another using a giver-receiver relationship. Anything less becomes “self-centered” and falls short of the defining properties of the finer elements of social life.
People even show a necessity for relation with non-human things in life. Fundamentally, the notions of motive and purpose rely upon this relation. Motive is nothing more than a source – a point of origin – from which a relation emanates. Purpose is the final result, or final cause, for which the relation is undertaken. A primal example is eating a meal. A person begins with a biological need for sustenance. From that need, she wills and acts toward the purpose of gaining that sustenance. Once that sustenance is gained, having a meal occurs in the predicate sense. Neither hunger without food nor food without hunger constitutes a meal. In fact, the act of eating when a person is not hungry is considered a morally abnormal occurrence. On a higher level, reading a book can be seen as a motive to learn or experience the contents of whatever the pages have to offer. But a person must have a book in order to read, and without a reader, a book is nothing more than paper stained with ink symbols. Again, numerous other examples can be seen, but these examples show that a person’s relation with her environment – both human and non-human – depends upon a source and destination, a motive and a final result. It is fundamental to human nature for people to relate to the externals around them.

Part II: Bridging the Gap of Our Limitations

Belief is one of those things that is an establishment between two separate things, the believing person and the thing for which belief is held. But what is belief? And why do people aspire to believe?
Belief is a person’s having faith in external things that are wholly or in part beyond his grasp or control. The word “Faith” usually carries connotative relations to religion, and many non-religious people refuse to admit that faith is a part of their everyday lives. Indeed, organized faith may in fact be absent from their lives. Yet faith, in its simplest terms, is integral to everyday human existence. People are able to function on a daily basis because they believe certain things to be true (or at least probably so). A person begins her day believing that her job awaits her, so she gets out of bed and prepares herself to be acceptably presentable to whatever circumstance she believes she may encounter on that day. She turns the key to her car believing that it will dependably start and take her to her duties. She drives onto the streets believing that other drivers will stay in their own lanes and obey traffic laws that will allow her to arrive safely to her destination. She arrives at her workplace and unreservedly plops her body into her desk chair because she believes it will support her weight. She may never have even thought about church or religion, yet her day has already begun in faith and belief in things beyond her control. Furthermore, she would not be able to function unless she takes these things on faith.
Faith is integral to her existence and functionality as a person. Why? Because people need things in their lives beyond what they are in themselves or are capable of attaining. That is the answer to the question of why people aspire to believe. Humans are rational beings, yet reason reveals that people are inadequate in many areas of life. Thus, people attempt to perfect themselves by extending relations to externals they see as superior in one way or another to themselves. They draw upon the strength of the externals with which they associate. In doing so, they create a support network that offers them a sense of nearer and nearer perfection. Yet many elements of support must be believed, or taken on faith – things that are needed but unable to be grasped, things that are not self-evident, etc. So belief fills a critical place in human life, allowing people to live and function in ways they would never be able to without it. Belief makes humans more than simple animalistic beings by giving them potential to be more.

Part III: The Fundamental Truth of How And Why We Believe

Now that the questions of what is belief and why do people aspire to believe have been answered, some attributes of that belief relation can be addressed. These attributes are determined by the nature of truth in the thing for which belief is held, the belief or unbelief a person has for the thing, and the acceptance the person has for his belief of the thing. This is a bit abstracted and confusing in these terms, so a list of possible examples should help the reader to understand.
The nature of truth in the thing for which belief is held is simply saying whether or not it really is true. “It” here can be a principle, a theory, a moral law, or anything that can be either true or false. A person could consider a traffic sign that states, “Speed Limit: 55 miles per hour.” That law could be true or it could be false, depending upon what authority posted it and upon whether or not that authority had jurisdiction to do so. Did the state post the sign? Did a citizen make it to resemble a state sign? That is the question of fundamental truth. It is the matter of whether or not something is true in and of itself, regardless of what is believed about it. The belief that the person has about it is determined by that person and defines his relation to it. Given that the sign is legitimately a state sign, the person has the “choice” to believe that it is legitimate or to believe it is counterfeit, a false concept. It is a matter of what facts he allows to convince him of its truth. This conviction is influenced by things like how the person perceives the sign – things such as whether it is in context with other known laws (context being anything from similarity to speed limits on nearby roads to the design and color of the sign), knowledge of possible authorities responsible for its display, or a number of other such things. It is his judgement on whether or not the law is true, and that judgement comes from his rational mind. It is simply his belief about it. Finally, the acceptance the person has about it finalizes his relation to it. Given that the sign is legitimate and that the person believes it is legitimate, he still has the choice to accept it and act in accordance with it or to reject it and act in rebellion against it. He can choose to obey the sign and thus avoid both the dangers and the penalties resulting from disobeying it, or he can choose to speed, accepting responsibility for these possible outcomes. It is his moral choice.
Now that these three aspects of relation to a thing have been described, eight theoretical scenarios can be considered in order to evaluate the attributes of a person’s belief relation using the example of the driver used earlier.
The sign is true, the driver believes it is true, and he is willing to accept it. This is the perfect scenario. The belief is founded upon a fundamental truth, and the will supports the belief. It is a state of acting in accordance with fundamental truth which leads to a secure and functional end. It is the state of excellence.
The sign is counterfeit, the driver believes it is legitimate, and he is willing to accept it. This is a scenario in which the driver himself is not at fault. The untruth is within the fundamental nature of the sign, independent of the driver’s interpretation of it. The driver believes he is doing the right thing, yet he is not. It is a state of ignorance or, by further implication, deception.
The sign is true, the driver believes it is counterfeit, but he is willing to accept it. At first, the rational behind this scenario seems odd, yet it is a common occurrence. It has the appearance of the perfect scenario, yet it is fundamentally flawed. The truth exists, and the driver acts in accordance with it, yet he does not believe in it. In this example of sign and driver, it may simply be a mindset of “better safe than sorry.” At best, the driver is considering the possibility of truth in the sign, but he has not been convinced yet. He is almost to excellence and is heading toward belief. It is a state of potential excellence, one that can lead to actual excellence or digress into close-mindedness, scenario 5.
The sign is true, the driver believes it is legitimate, yet he is unwilling to accept it. This is one of the scenarios touched on briefly at the introduction of this example. The truth exists, and the driver believes that it exists. Yet he chooses to act against it for whatever reason. This is not a case of exemption – one in which the conditions for the driver have changed his priorities, such as an emergency. It is a case of willingly going against what is known to be true. It is a state of rebellion.
The sign is true, the driver believes it is counterfeit, and he is unwilling to accept it. This is a state that is as difficult to address in correction as it is in terminology. The truth exists, yet the person does not believe it and is unwilling to accept it. He has actively closed his mind to the point where he will not even consider if the sign is true, despite whether or not it in fact is true. He is ignorant (or deceived), and he is close-minded against any attempt at correction.
The sign is counterfeit, the driver believes it is counterfeit, yet he is willing to accept it. Of all the scenarios, this is the one least likely to occur, and in fact may be non-existent. It is essentially saying that the driver knows the sign is a lie, yet he obeys it. If he truly believed that there was no truth in the sign, why would he obey it? He might act in accordance with it if it was similar to other known laws (such as if nearby roads had the 55 mph limit), but it would not be a direct response to the sign. Rather, it would be a response toward context. Thus, he would never truly act in accordance with it. It is a non-existent state, but one interesting to consider.
The sign is counterfeit, the driver believes it is true, yet he is unwilling to accept it. This is another unusual scenario. The sign does not have to be obeyed because it is false. But since the driver believes it is true, he (in his mind by his unwillingness to accept it) is committing active rebellion. In fact, however, he is unknowingly rebelling against falsehood. Again, the term for this scenario is difficult to define. From the aspect of the sign, the driver is deceived. Yet from the aspect of the driver, he is in rebellion. It is sort of a hybrid of deceived rebellion.
The sign is counterfeit, the driver believes it is counterfeit, and he is unwilling to accept it. As coming full circle, this scenario is the mirror of the first scenario, excellence. However, this scenario views excellence from the perspective of falsehood. It is the completion of excellence.
From these scenarios which cover all combinations of occurrence, the attributes of belief relation can be seen more clearly. Of these scenarios, excellence, deception, potential excellence, rebellion, and close-mindedness all occur in varying degrees of commonness.

Part IV: Closing Thoughts

So why does all this matter? After reading all of this, what can the reader take home? The simple answer is self-evaluation. In the course of this essay, I have attempted to dissect the concept of belief – what it is, why people do it, and how it relates to the fundamental truth of what is believed. Of course, excellence is the goal. No one willingly wants to be deceived, and natural order shows that even if rebellion against truth is desired, it is detrimental. Yet true excellence seems to be relatively uncommon. Large factions of people hold beliefs that are fundamentally contradictory to one another, so this leads to one inescapable conclusion: a lot of someones is just plain wrong, either in what they believe or in how they believe. My attempt here is to give the reader some things to think about from an analytical viewpoint concerning belief. Just because people believe something doesn’t mean it’s true. Neither is something untrue just because no one believes in it. Belief is a human attribute that has no existence in itself until it is applied to something. And like all attributes of human nature, belief can be flawed. Yet as powerful as belief can seem to us, it has no influence whatsoever on the fundamental truth of whatever we apply our belief to. We seek excellence. Let us not be destroyed by having a false sense of security in our ability to believe. Let our security reside in the fundamental truth – the Truth that does not waver when we, as humans, fail.


Comments RSS
  1. Brain Burst Writing

    Really good post. Kudos for stripping the concept of belief right down to its epistemological skivvies so we can look at it in its pure form apart from, as you said, the usually religious context most people usually associate it with.

    However, some thoughts came to mind. First, is it really true no one wants to be deceived? There are plenty of examples and instances when it might not be just easier but less painful to see the sign is counterfeit, know the sign is counterfeit, then believe in it anyways. Especially if believing the untruth makes acting easier, especially if it is accordance with one’s own desire though the desire is, socially or ethically, unsound, I think what I’m getting at is acknowledging that something is not true but accepting and acting as if it were leads to justification and possibly, as Sartre would call it, bad faith. What do you think of this?

    Also, what do you think of skepticism in the context of belief? The skeptic, in the classical sense, seems to strive to hold antithetical views together so as to develop a suspension of belief (epoche). According to the skeptic, we can never know if the sign is real or not.

    Great post.

    • Jabin Miller

      Thanks for commenting!

      Well this paper is investigating a concept of the human mind from a self-knowledge perspective. Concerning your question about no one wanting to be deceived, that is a good point. I’m not a big fan of Plato, but in his theories I do agree with, he states that a person is incapable of desiring something that he sees as ‘bad.’ An act may be seen socially as ‘bad,’ but to the individual, deep down (perhaps even subconsciously) he sees it as ‘good’ for himself. Examples of this may be a masochist or cutter who does things considered ‘bad’ or at least alternative from a social standpoint. And he may even say that it is bad. But if he didn’t believe that there was something more to gain from it than to lose from it, he wouldn’t do it. Applied to this sign scenario, the driver who believes the sign because of ease must believe that the ‘easy way’ is the best (or truthful) way, and from a self-perspective, it doesn’t matter whether the sign is true or false. He still believes what he sees as best. It’s then a matter of the truth of the sign itself as to whether or not ‘bad faith’ is an issue.

      Concerning your question on Skepticism, the Skeptic’s hole is a difficult one to climb out of, so to speak. And I must say that I’ve tended toward Skepticism myself because reason will ultimately lead to the conclusion that reason itself is circular at a self-awareness level. However, my answer to the Skeptic is the same answer De Carte gave – cogito, ergo sum. Reason itself cannot justify reason. However, experiential justification can. Of course, that can go into ‘brain in a vat’ scenarios and such, but ultimately, I personally believe that experience is a reliable form of justification. To reason about the relations of different experiences can easily lead to flawed judgements, but to know a single experience is trustworthy, knowable, and believable.

      Great questions!

  2. jaredpatanderson

    I’m finally “officially” following your blog! Keep writing and I’ll keep reading!

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