Two people feel the exact same sensation in their heads. One of them had just been eating ice cream really quickly, the other has just been diagnosed with a tumour. One of them registers the sensation as a mild brain-freeze and the other experiences incredible anguish. There is a lot more to how we feel than merely our physical sensations. It is the stories we tell ourselves about them that dictate the quality of our moment to moment experience. This is the power of belief.

“A belief is not merely an idea that the mind possesses. It is an idea that possesses the mind.”

Robert Oxton Bolton

Beliefs matter. What we believe at any moment in time determines to a great extent how we are feeling and what we will do next. To illustrate this, imagine you receive a phone call right now and you find out that someone close to you was in grave danger, and only you could ensure their safety. Should you give this call credence, the quality of your life for the next twenty four hours, the decisions you make and the actions you take will be radically different. People tend to imagine that happiness is sensory, that it’s about witnessing beautiful sights, listening to great music or eating delicious food. The truth is, however, the difference between a paradise and a living nightmare can be as simple as a single thought.

Despite playing such an important role in our experience of the world, most of us walk around living our lives failing to understand how beliefs work. The word belief doesn’t mean just anything, it refers to a specific kind of thought that forms in our minds. They don’t arise spontaneously as if out of thin air, but in response to what we are experiencing. We don’t walk around randomly forming different beliefs left and right, there is a rhythm and a rhyme to the apparent madness. Furthermore, there are good reasons why there are some beliefs that we all seem to find consensus on, such as the sky being blue, the earth being round, or that killing people is a bad thing to do. Beliefs, like most everything else in nature, seem to follow patterns and rules, and it is in the interests of everyone to try and understand them.

This piece aims to explore how beliefs operate and in particular demonstrate the following:

  1. Our beliefs necessarily prevent or enable us to get what we value out of life
  2. We do not in fact choose our beliefs
  3. Beliefs are unworthy of respect

Before delving into the nature of beliefs, it is important to look at its definition:

An acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof.

A belief is a proposition held to be true. A perceived truth about the world around us. A statement which is thought to accurately describe our actual state of affairs. If these sentences don’t resonate with you, or if you operate with a radically different definition of the word belief, then I don’t know what you are talking about (and the rest of this piece is not for you).

Our beliefs prevent or enable us to get what we value out of life

Just like gears and cogs drive the actions of a machine, beliefs drive the engine of thoughts, emotions and behaviour in individuals. We are helpless but to act in accordance with what we believe is true in the world. Our beliefs that do in fact align with reality help us achieve what we want, while our false beliefs prevent us from doing so.

  • If you want good grades, but believe not taking your exam is the best way to go about this, you will be helpless but to ensure that you fail.

  • If you value your health but happen to believe that cigarettes are really good for you (as was once believed), you will be doomed to fuel the destruction of your lungs despite all of your intentions to do otherwise.

  • If you want to be rich, but happened to believe the most efficient way to get there was to spend all your money on lottery tickets, you are virtually guaranteed to end up poorer.

We have no choice but to act according to how we believe the world operates, what else could we possibly do? They necessarily prevent or enable us to achieve what we want in life. If they are true, they help us and if they are false they hinder us. There are two apparent exceptions to this rule:

1. Beliefs that don’t impact our behaviour at all.

What if a person believed that a playstation 2 controller was in orbit around Neptune?

What behaviour would this drive? What consequences could this bring forth? Seemingly none. Whatever is going on around Neptune, simple does not alter the course of our day to day lives. A doctor, lawyer, engineer, farmer or sales person would be totally capable of performing their day to day activities despite holding this belief.

Despite this, merely being able to hold such a belief does have detriments. If a person is able to really believe that the moon is made from cheese, they are much more likely to also able to believe other absurdities that do have tangible consequences. How we form our beliefs, really does matter.

2. False beliefs that seem to have benefits

What if a person thought that not doing their homework would lead to an eternity of suffering after death?

Beliefs have multiple consequences. What is the chance that a false belief has positive and only positive effects? Not one worth taking. Sure, it would be easy to think that a person adopting such a belief would be more likely to do their homework but, at what cost? You know those times when you’ve left an assignment until the last minute and you are forced to deal with a night of intense stress and procrastination? Imagine feeling something like that, but with a thousand times the pressure.

Is it really worth it for a person to go through such anguish, when a belief like “if you don’t do your homework, you’ll be less likely to learn the content” would have sufficed?[1].

If a belief is true, then believing it results in being as best informed as possible in how to navigate life. A false belief results in a myriad of consequences, which can be difficult to predict and range from relatively benign to really serious. What is the chance that any given false belief will result solely positive effects? Not one worth taking. Especially considering that if there really are benefits, they could also be attained with beliefs that are true. After all, that performing an action will produce a positive effect is a belief all on its own.

We do not choose our beliefs

A belief is a proposition about something, held to be true. You don’t choose what happens to be true or false in the world, no more do you choose your beliefs. It is not possible, to witness something, to be right there when it happens and not believe it. If it starts raining, any remotely sane person walking outside is rendered incapable of believing otherwise.

Similarly, simply being exposed to good reasons and argument should render any individual being helpless but to alter their views. If a person boils water in front of you and demonstrates that it becomes steam at 100oC, “I don’t choose to view evaporation in that way” is not a valid response. Beliefs represent reality. We don’t control reality. Therefore we don’t really choose our beliefs. We can’t.

Beliefs are unworthy of respect

Beliefs flow into us from the world around us and shape our actions and moment to moment experience. They are like a map of the world we draw with our minds and later rely upon when navigating our lives. Without an accurate map, a person is more or less bound to get lost.

That being said, it is in all of our interests to believe in what is actually true and it is in our collective interests that as many people as possible do so. No one wants to believe in something that is untrue, or at least no one should want to. A belief is a what a person thinks is true, therefore it is impossible to knowingly believe in things that are untrue. It is, however, possible to knowingly profess a belief in the false (or in other words, lie).

One of the greatest barriers to people understanding and acting upon the truth, is the idea that beliefs should be respected. That is, if an individual believes or claims to believe a proposition that is untrue, the right response is to not question or criticise them and allow them to continue to believe it. If two people disagree with each other, an opportunity arises. Either one is wrong and the other is right, or they are both wrong and at least the opportunity to realise something and even improve their lives or the lives of the people around them in doing so. We would be living in a much better world if we only ceased to respect beliefs as beliefs and cared more deeply about whether what ourselves and the people around believed was true.

Instead, we have a world in which this has happened to our conversations:

“You’re wrong, because of x.” “No, I’m not, because of y” “Respect my beliefs!”

Maybe the first person was right, maybe the second person was, but now both of them will leave none the wiser, without learning a thing. There is no value in respecting each other’s beliefs, rather we should evaluate their reasons and freely criticise and question them. Society appears to hold sacred the unquestionable right to be wrong, and is suffering immensely for it.

Beliefs matter a great deal, they determine how people feel, how they behave and what they are able to accomplish. They should be choiceless observations drilled into us by what we witness in the world around us and should not be influenced by what we think should be true. As it is in each of our interests to have our beliefs align with reality, we should freely question the beliefs of others as well as be okay with having our own beliefs questioned. Beliefs are not worthy of respect.

  1. Although, please note that, if not doing your homework really did have such dire consequences it would be in your interest to know. Then you would be able to address them. ↩︎