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Wanted: Believe!

October 9th, 2009 · Posted by Hugo · 1 Comment

I can’t remember when exactly I watched the movie Wanted, but I do remember the two blog posts it inspired me to write. So here’s the first…

Why is “you have to believe!” so pervasive in our culture? The “you have to believe!” meme appears to be hiding around every corner. Including Wanted, wherein the protagonist had to start believing in his calling.

What makes the act of believing something so important? Might there be some sort of survival benefit for a creature with a tendency to believe? Some argue it could just be a side-effect of having some other beneficial traits. I disagree with that. To get straight to my answer to the question: to me, belief seems an absolutely critical element in the sanity of a self-aware thinking creature. I don’t think such creatures could function without beliefs.

And here I don’t just mean “believe” in the sense that I “believe evolution is true”: since evolution is a scientific theory, my belief in its validity is based on what I know of the science involved. That belief is something that could be investigated empirically, and the belief then proven false. In this particular blog post, I’m talking specifically of beliefs that can not be empirically shown to be correct or incorrect. I’m talking about beliefs that will always remain, no matter how far you dig to try to deconstruct them to things that can be rationally proven or disproven.

I think that due to the nature of self-awareness, the requirements for sanity of a self-aware creature, to have a workable world-view you have to take some irrational (arational?) leaps of faith: belief is fundamental to the survival of a rational mind. Which is not to say there aren’t unwanted side-effects, there are: not believing incorrect things so much, but rather, believing harmful things. (Believing it worthwhile to go on a suicide-bombing mission is tautologically harmful to your survival.)

Law, Life, Morality, Economy

High time to anchor my assertions above with some examples.

Recently I heard the suggestion from someone studying law that for a legal system to be considered moral, ethical, just, requires a belief in free will, whether free will exists or not is a question that need not even be asked. Without axiomatically accepting, believing, in free will, a legal system could be considered immoral, and should be dismantled (assuming we’re trying to be moral/ethical creatures), leading to the collapse of society. 😉

In the case of law, an alternative view is possible though: in a mechanistic view of the universe, the legal system could serve as deterrent in the game wherein outcomes are determined by the balance of costs. So let’s move on:

  • The choice to live life, as opposed to simply giving up on it, requires a belief in the value of actually living. Having something to live for, something you believe to be worthwhile.
  • Secular enlightenment-style morality is built on beliefs in equality and the golden rule.
  • Our economic systems are built on beliefs too: the belief that the rest of humanity is trustworthy enough that these pieces of paper we call “money” will always be assigned some value for trading purposes.

The Gregarious Greater Good

For cooperative societies to function, for gregarious creatures to work together, there needs to be a belief in a cooperative “greater good”. A belief in there being a right and a wrong. There are always opportunities for an individual to commit wrongs where no other member of their group would ever find out. Doing so would benefit the individual, even if it isn’t beneficial to the group. We can talk about group selection and group dynamics ensuring that the number of such individuals acting in self-interest is kept in check, but that’s taking a step back. What about the views of each individual in the group? Those individuals that choose to not act in self-interest?

In animals without rational or self-aware thought, with no sense of individuals in the group, this “belief” could be just instinctual habits driven by genetic predispositions. Selection could ensure instinctive cooperative behaviour. Calling that a “belief” requires semantic flexibility. However, how do such cooperative creatures maintain cooperation once they develop rational self-awareness? If the cooperative culture is maintained, this habitual genetic-predisposition instinct becomes explicit belief in the context of having an active awareness of personal choices and consequences. The belief may also live in the culture’s subconscious, faithfully lived out, internalised by individuals since their toddler years.

The Golden Rule. Equality. Freedom. These are all things we believe in. These thoughts weren’t the first thoughts that came to me during the movie though.


The thought/reason the movie gave for the importance of belief was more about self-confidence: the protagonist had to believe in his own abilities. And in the group he joined, they had to believe they are working towards a worthwhile goal. It was about “believe in yourself”. I would like to go scour all the great and ancient mythologies for stories about protagonists started with initial doubts they had to overcome in order to reach their full potential.

Much of our contemporary psycho-bla-bla, talk-show-bla-bla or “newage guru”-bla-bla is focused on “believing in your potential”, often expressed in ways that make it sound like icky woo. However, that doesn’t reduce the importance of the basic need — the need I believe lies at the core of our “you must believe!” cultural undertones.

Contrarian Christians might choose to feel uncomfortable with the suggestion “believe in yourself!” — let me illustrate neutrally: if you believe you can’t do maths, you’ll suck at it. If you have no confidence in a race, you won’t be a good athlete. If you have a complete lack of self-esteem, you will typically perform in a way that reflects that: badly. If you believe God hates your guts and wishes you never existed, same thing. If you rather come to the belief that God granted you skill at maths (thus framed in terms of a gift accepted and not in terms of “belief in yourself”), that’s still precisely what I’m talking about in this post, please bear with me and look at the concepts.

There is a flip-side: someone that is too “full of themselves”, arrogant. It depends on what they do in life, arrogance can prove to be an asset in getting certain kinds of jobs done, but can at the same time be damaging to teamwork, relationships, interactions with others… (What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?) And in the middle lies balance.

Take the very same person that’s struggling in a corner somewhere, with self-esteem and the work they’re doing, get them into a place where they believe in their own capabilities, armed with the necessary ambition, and watch them grow and exceed what previously seemed to be their limits. Not so? A positive feedback cycle.

It is of great importance for people to believe that what they do matters.

(with the right understanding of what is considered entirely rational)

Feelings of self-worth are really not rational facts found by a process of scientific inquiry, they are much rather a kind of faith. Such feelings can certainly be empirically reinforced: precisely by starting with an assumption and then seeking evidence to support your presupposition, thus, not science!

I wager such assumptions cannot withstand scientifically rigorous open-minded attempts at falsifying them. Here’s how that would go: “OK, so I have the theory that I’m worth something. To scientifically prove this, I must remain skeptical of that assertion, and try my best to disprove it.” Setting out to prove yourself worthless? Tell me, where does that end?

Note that I am not saying one shouldn’t be inquisitively investigating these things, carefully: it can be a worthwhile search! The results of that journey rather leads to discovery and greater awareness of the axioms on which you build your faith with regards to your place in life and way of life.

Words are defined by the way they are used. Deduce the definitions I’m running with in that way, by looking at the context. Between appreciation of your definitions, my definitions, and the concepts we’re trying to refer to, we can still have some good concept-driven conversations.

I am interested in what you do believe, not in what you do not believe.
I am not interested in which beliefs of others you consider silly, but I am interested in what you believe instead.

And I commit to use my comments below to try to steer discussion in that direction.

Categories: Religion and Science
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1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Hugo // Oct 9, 2009 at 1:49 am

    And I hope we can mostly explore some of the obscure things we choose to believe. I don’t know if others also have a bunch of obscure things?

    Like my choice to believe this blog is worthwhile. 😉 Some days belief that it makes some positive difference for others carries it. Other days I instead believe it plays a positive role in anchoring me. In some obscure fashion.

    I suppose these beliefs could be investigated and given more empirical substance, but I’m not sure. Positive feedback from readers can reinforce my belief that some find it worthwhile, but would not convince me if I already believed the opposite.

    With regards to blog posts: I’m often unsatisfied with how a post turned out. “This post doesn’t quite feel the way I had hoped it would feel when I set out to write it. Dumb post?” Then I choose to believe “naah, it’s fine”. As an anti-dote to prior beliefs that everything needs to be perfect, maybe.

    Other discussion I’m interested in: other good examples of the pervasiveness of “you must believe!” in our culture, and other suggestions around why it is so common?

    All in all? It won’t be at the top too long, I’ll write another post tomorrow (10 October), and then hopefully keep up some decent posting rate again. Despite going on holiday.

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