I Believe

by Joe Sinclair

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What are beliefs?

"Belief is a wise wager" - Blaise Pascal

There was a man who believed he was a corpse.  He wouldn't eat, wouldn't work.  He just sat around  claiming he was a corpse.  He was sent for psychiatric assessment.

The psychiatrist argued with the man at considerable length, but was unable to convince him that he was not really dead.  Finally the psychiatrist asked: "Do corpses bleed?"

The man considered the question and then replied: "No.  Once the bodily functions have ceased, there can be no bleeding."

The psychiatrist produced a needle and jabbed it into the man's thumb, and the man looked at the blood in total amazement.

Finally the man said: "My word!  Corpses do bleed!"

Beliefs are assumptions that we adopt to help us make sense out of experience.  Over a period of time, during which they are apparently validated, they may become confused with facts.   If I believe I am a corpse I will fit all evidence to the contrary into the frame of reference that validates the belief and denies contradictory evidence. 

Frequently beliefs are based on childhood experiences and develop into a state of mind that legitimises them.  Certainly if we are brought up in a warm caring home that nurtures us, protects us and encourages love and respect, we will develop a completely different belief system from one based on an upbringing in an abusive environment without a constructive set of values.

One definition of a belief system is "a patterning of the mind relating to cause, meaning and boundaries in our environment, our behaviour, our capabilities or our identities. If we receive the message that we are unlikely or unable to do something, the chances are that our mind will reinforce such a belief and we will not be able to do it.  On the other hand, if our nervous system feeds our brains with congruent  messages that something is within our power to achieve, then we will almost certainly achieve it." [1]    

The messages our brains receive that limit belief in our ability to do something fall into one or more of three categories: Hopelessness (i.e. it cannot be done); Helplessness (i.e. I am prohibited from doing it); Worthlessness (I am incapable of doing it).  Recognition of these limitations is helpful to parents and teachers in fostering positive beliefs.  It is important also to realise that simply denying the validity of a negative belief is not sufficient to change it; it is essential to replace it with a positive belief.  

A doctor is asked: "How do I give up smoking?"  He replies: "Have a heart attack!"   The knowledge that smoking is harmful is not, of itself, sufficient normally to effect a change.  The demonstration that death is a real possibility may provide the emotionally positive stimulus that is needed.

Some time ago I noted three other belief-system categories (but, alas, no longer recall their derivation): Uncritical, Uncaring, Unprepared.  I'm not sure what definitions they were given in their original source, but they strike me as being very appropriate to this article, and lend themselves readily to definitions of my own.

For me Uncritical would be a passive, almost fatalistic, acceptance of what is or whatever may befall.   It doesn't matter what I believe, or what I do, I will never succeed in changing things, so why waste my energy on trying?  Believe what you will, I might say, but don't expect me to offer any contrary views.  I am content to simply flow with the tide.

The Uncaring category would acknowledge that an individual, or a group, may be able to effect change, but still asks: why bother?  I may have other views than you, and so be it.  I shall go my way and if you want to go to hell in a bucket, who am I to disabuse you?  

And the Unprepared is the person who "has the answers" but is unwilling to share them.  I'm not good enough (intelligent enough, developed enough, educated enough) to argue my case with you.  I'm simply not willing to put myself in the front line.


Belief and Faith

"... Now I'll give you something to believe. I'm just one hundred and one, five months and a day."

"I can't believe that!" said Alice.

"Can't you?" the Queen said in a pitying tone. "Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes."

Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said "one can't believe impossible things."

"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast..."

- Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Faith is belief in something that may defy logic, or lack evidence, or even in spite of evidence to the contrary.  It is a non-rational belief.  "Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence." [2]  Belief was what what drove Galileo Galilei to maintain that the earth moves round the sun despite being condemned to die for heresy by people of "faith".   Not against Galileo could the charges of Uncritical, Uncaring or Unprepared be levied.  ("Epur si muove - and yet it does move!" was his response).  Faith would have me maintain that the earth is flat despite the evidence of space travel. It is not, however, a belief I would be prepared to die for.

Sri Chinmoy has said [3] "Belief is usually in the mind, whereas faith is in the heart,"   thereby providing substantial validation to Richard Dawkins' great cop-out comment.  I could, nevertheless, accept Sri Chinmoy's statement with "a grain of salt", did he not continue . . . "Belief, unfortunately, has doubt as its immediate neighbour . . . Doubt is nothing short of poison . . .  when doubt enters into our mind we can make no progress . . .  Doubt is a dangerous road that leads to destruction.

"Faith has conviction as its immediate neighbour.  We can be very happy and very cheerful when faith abides in our heart . . .  Belief has, faith is . . ."

Tell it to the birds, say I.  Better still, dig him up and tell it to Galileo.

Lacking doubt we would have made little scientific or sociological progress.  I admit there may be some who will hold that that might not have been a bad thing.  But Darwin rules, okay.  Was it Rousseau or Voltaire who said "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him."?  Personally I prefer the quotation: "I don't believe in God because I don't believe in Mother Goose." [4]

When anyone claims that faith is the reason that they believe in something, what they are really saying is that they have no valid reason whatsoever for holding their belief, but they believe anyway because they feel like it. Faith is nothing more than wishful thinking.  Indeed, confronted by one whose faith tells them that god created the universe, I might equally claim that the universe was created by Mother Goose.  One statement is as impossible of proof as is the other.

"I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours." [0]


Belief, Reality and Reason

A lie can travel halfway around the world, said Mark Twain, while the truth is getting its clothes on

I believe in miracles.

I believe the world is full of miracles; and that we fail to recognise them.

It may seem absurd to make such a statement in a section devoted to reality and reason, but it simply depends upon how a miracle is defined.  My belief is not concerned with supernatural stories of water turning into wine, or the biblical feeding of 5000, or the virgin birth, or the resurrection of Jesus, or Mohamed flying to the moon on his horse.  These events hold no overwhelming interest for me and, if I were to consider them at all, it would be with a totally sceptical gaze.

For me a miracle is a much simpler event and one which occurs and recurs frequently, and is taken so much for granted that its miraculousness is habitually ignored.  It is anything that fills me with wonderment, or joy, or love.  It is a perfectly formed teardrop; the gold of a leaf in autumn; the first apple and peach blossoms in spring; the sight of a loved one in bed beside me when I awake.  It is the recognition that I have forgiven the past and let it go; that I have not merely forgiven others, but also forgiven myself.  It is the recognition that what I thought had been done to me had not really occurred outside my own mind.

A child will look upon a natural event with an air of wonderment.  To the adult who has seen hundreds of rainbows, the sight of yet one more is merely the evidence of a known and natural event: the dispersion of the sun's rays through water.  To the child who sees a rainbow for the first time, it is a miracle.  And yet how many adults, faced with the recurring sight of a rainbow, does not share Wordsworth's "heart leap".  Sad it would be, a loss it is, to cease to exult in the wonder, the miracle, of natural events.

Much as I admire the incisive mind and logic of the eighteenth century philosopher David Hume, had I not already stated that it all depends upon one's definition, I would certainly take issue with his statement that "a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature" [5]  For me, the laws of nature are the miracle.  I still recall (albeit perhaps imperfectly) the discussion in a train, in G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, between a scientist and a poet; the one extolling and the other deploring the marvel of knowing that the next station would be the one shown on the map overhead;  the reassurance of knowing that the next station could be anticipated with one hundred per cent certainty versus the poetry of believing that it just might prove to be a new station.  God's in his heaven; all's right with the world, versus Mother Goose is up there somewhere, just waiting to produce a fairytale ending.  And it doesn't matter whether the ending confirms or contradicts one's belief [6], it may still be defined as a miracle.

To revert to Hume.  He continues . . . "Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happen in the common course of nature. . . " and "no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish . . . "  [7]  He then, in the exercise of the incisive and objective intellect he always displays, states "I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion."  But he cannot then resist:  "But it is easy to shew, that we have been a great deal too liberal in our concession, and that there never was a miraculous event established on so full an evidence." [8]

Hume contends that it is not unreasonable to believe only that which we can prove.  In other words, it requires faith to believe in miracles, and those that embrace faith are embracing only illusion.  He says, "our most holy religion is founded on faith, not on reason." [9] And in this context he means what he calls "blind faith".  Only through proof can the truth be sought; proof is the tool of reason and the opposite of miracle.  On the other hand, those that embrace faith are embracing only illusion.  To  believe in something that cannot be proven can only lead to a falsehood that cannot  prevail.  This is why reason is superior to faith - it never fails you.  Reason is the way of using the intellect, the brain, to verify beliefs.

I believe this.  I believe this with all my mind and (dare I say?) heart.  But I also deplore it.  I want to believe in miracles.  So my solution has been to redefine the word miracle to fit in with my personal philosophy, my own belief system.  Anything can be a miracle . . . even when it is not!

I feel very comfortable with this thought.  And very comforted by it.

And I am also comforted by some final words of David Hume: "The belief in a miraculous event tends to have no real evidence through mans hope . . .  There is no right or wrong belief.  It is viewed through our own individual perception and faith, our existence and sense of reality. "

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Footnotes and references

[1] An ABC of NLP by Joseph Sinclair, ASPEN 1992.

[2] Richard Dawkins

[3] http://www.illuminingtalks.org (belief and faith)

[4] Clarence Darrow.

[0] Stephen Roberts - http://www.wildlink.com/freelink/quote_history.htm 

[5]  David Hume: On Miracles, one of the essays in his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.

[6] "Belief" in this case equating to "expectation", i.e. whether one expects a natural sequence of events to recur or hopes that - just this once! - it might not.

[7] Op cit

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

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Managing Editor Joe Sinclair  is a published author (9 books; 7 titles); a publisher (6 books); a journalist and an editor (in addition to Nurturing Potential, he has edited Group Relations Bulletin, Groupvine, New Learning, the IPN and DACP newsletters, and SeaCo Confidential.  In a past life he has been a company director of several shipping companies both in the UK and overseas, and is still a non-executive director of the Finnish-owned Containerships Ltd.  He regularly thinks about retirement - and then gets out of bed. Email: joe@conts.com   Website: www.conts.com