Is Belief Itself Believable?

Scott Walker, presidential candidate and erstwhile governor of Wisconsin, has been a whirling dervish of activity lately, having gone from saying that a right to work law here would be a distraction to claiming it was his idea all along as it moves to passage.  Even before that could be passed he is now calling for a law restricting abortions in Wisconsin.  “Could this have anything to do with his presidential pretensions?” the cynic asks.

Of course, the actions and the timing of those actions do, there is no doubt about that.  But the larger question is: “Does Scooter really believe in this stuff, or is he a hypocrite?”   And the answer to that is, based on modern cognitive science, unknown, maybe even to Walker himself!

Free will is an idea that has come out of religion and philosophy and it turns out to be a very problematic idea.  In Catholic theology we are “injected” with a soul, and with this soul we become more than the meat robots that animals are and are able to truly make our own decisions without influence from things like instinct.  The world is full of choices and we freely make those choices, we are truly captains of our own ship, writers of our own play.  Walker believes what he believes because he freely chose too and so does everyone else.

And this certainly is the way our consciousness feels most of the time.  I tell my brain what to think, it doesn’t go off on its own and think for me.  Unfortunately there are more than a few chinks in this point of view.

Somewhere from my distance past the phrase “only god can create a random event,” bubbles up again and again.  When I google it, nothing comes up.  But I know exactly what it means.  In the pre-quantum world, everything had causes (even if we could not explicate all of them) and therefore the most seemingly “random” events were determined.  If we could somehow know all the forces acting on a roulette wheel and calculate them quickly enough, we could predict the outcome every time.  What looks random is actually determined.  In an odd way, cognitive science is moving in this direction for consciousness.

Let’s start at a pretty basic level.  Sometimes we distinguish what we “believe” from what we “know.”  I believe in leprechauns but I know about dogs.  And how do we know stuff?  Well, of course the best way is through personal experience.  Or is it?

Elizabeth Loftus (and now many others) have done a fascinating series of experiments where they induce false memories in people, for example that the subject took a hot air balloon ride or was lost at the mall as a child.   Many subjects of these studies are absolutely convinced their “memory” is a true one, but it is clearly not.  Many people have a spontaneous experience like this: retelling  a childhood memory, perhaps in front of parents, only to find out the event actually happened to a sibling, not you,  or was from a book or a movie.  How do we know what we know if even our basic memories might be false?

Moving “up” a level, Freud introduced the idea of the unconscious mind.  Although his idea of what goes in there is no longer used, the idea has certainly remained.  We know that the brain has many functions that operate below the level of consciousness, for example regulating heart rate and breathing.  We have also found many processes in the brain which are “unconscious” in the sense that the connection of many parts of the brain to the language centers are tortuous and tenuous at best.   For example the emotional circuits.  It has also been shown in split brain studies that stimuli are perceived by the nonverbal hemisphere and the awareness of that can be expressed nonverbally (for example by pointing) but the subject has no conscious awareness of why they are pointing at that object.   This unconscious processing is a huge unknown area so far.

Moving up yet another level, we finally get to our “conscious” mind but even there, things are not very clear.  The Buddha said 2500 years ago that the “job” of the brain is to think in the same sense that it is the “job” of the heart to pump blood.  It pumps out thoughts.  Most people have had the experience that we don’t actually seem to “control” those thoughts.  By definition “stream of consciousness” is a seemingly  random string of associations, which bizarrely enough don’t seem to be under conscious control!

Well, surely there are times we do control our thoughts.  Maybe.  However, even when we are more focussed on our thoughts, they don’t seem to be under our full conscious control.  For example, people’s opinions are pretty prone to being resistant to argument.  We all know that.  But they seem to be more pliable when thought is combined with action.

William James put it more elegantly, but the phrase, “fake until you make it,” could have come from his pen.  He theorized that if you act a certain way, that your thoughts and opinions will come around to match your actions.  Put a song in your heart and smile on your face and soon enough you’ll be happy.  Modern research has borne this out, having people commit to a small action greatly increases their strength of conviction.  Somewhat the reverse of this, but somehow similar, is the placebo effect where your expectation of getting well in fact seems to make you well.  But ironically, the placebo effect only works if it is unconscious.  You can’t hand someone a sugar pill and tell them, “It’s a placebo, cures everything, you’ll be fine.”  You need more of a song and dance than that!  Oddly enough, at some level, they have to “believe.”  But that “belief” is by no means conscious or rational.

So, what does this have to do with Scott Walker?  Everything and nothing, of course.

He could be throwing down anti-union and anti-abortion actions in a cold calculated effort to curry political favor.  Further, he could be a total hypocrite who doesn’t believe or care about either of those things, as long as he gets elected.

It could be that he leaned to the right a bit as a young man and over the years he has done the “Republican” thing and over time, unconsciously, his beliefs have come into line with his actions.  Could be he internalized those beliefs from his parents in the distant past, again with no real rational consideration.  Either way he would say he truly does “believe.”  Either way, it could be argued that it is not a “rational” belief.  Cognitive science would say that he “feels like he believes” and then his brain pumps out the thoughts he needs to rationalize those beliefs.  Or maybe those “rationalizations” are in fact a carefully constructed philosophical position.  Sorry, I got carried away, we are talking about a politician after all.

And ultimately, we have no way of determining what Walker really believes, even if we catch him in a contradiction.  He could tell a economic conservative that he doesn’t really care about abortion, but he could be lying for political advantage, it is almost impossible to know for sure.

When a husband comes home with flowers and tickets for a romantic cruise for him and his wife, many possibilities present themselves.  Maybe he is trying to convince her that he loves her (perhaps after a serious faux pas).  Maybe he is trying to convince himself he still loves her.  Maybe he feels the need to have actions express how he feels rather than just words.  And so on.

In the same way,  it could be that the most ardent believer is in fact trying desperately trying to convince themselves of what they are “supposed” to believe.  The same could certainly be said of me, if my reasoning is enough to convince you, then it is OK for me to believe my own reasoning.  It has often struck me that as such a dominant cultural force, Christianity doesn’t really need apologists any more.  And yet there seems to be more apologists than ever.  Who are they trying to convince, me or themselves?

Dan Dennett quotes Lee Siegel, who wrote a book about magic like this:

“‘I’m writing a book on magic,’ I explain, and I’m asked, ‘Real magic?’ By ‘real magic,’ people mean miracles, thaumaturgical acts, and supernatural powers. ‘No,’ I answer. ‘Conjuring tricks, not real magic.’ ‘Real magic,’ in other words, refers to the magic that is not real; while the magic that is real, that can actually be done, is not real magic.”

Which he uses to make a point about consciousness, but could apply as well to “belief.”  To me, making “faith” or “belief” a criteria, or especially THE criteria for membership or excellence in a group seems both odd and counterproductive.   I find myself, ironically, not only not believing, but not even knowing what it means to “believe.”


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