Beliefs not required

by Marcus Loane

"Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies." - Nietzsche

The mind is a physical process

The mind is what the brain does. The brain is a physical organ. Nothing mental happens without something physical happening. This is strongly supported by evidence. Consciousness can be altered or switched off with something as simple as a chemical (drugs or anaesthetics). Brain damage to specific areas of the brain affect the brain in specific ways. A lot about how the brain works has been discovered by observing patients with a brain damaged by stroke, tumour or accident. New scanners can produce images of brain processes in real time. A study on taxi drivers showed that after they had committed to memory, 100's of city streets, there were detectable physical changes in part of their brains. All those city streets must have some physical representation in their brains. What was actually detected was an increase in neuronal connections in one area. This can be a disconcerting thought: every time you experience something that is committed to memory, there are rewirings going on in your brain. What you experience every day, is reprogramming you in a very literal sense. All your memories, all your learning and all your beliefs are physically encoded in matter, much the same as data is stored on a computer.

Beliefs set in stone (or neural tissue)

I speculate that some beliefs become so entrenched or are laid down so early in life that a person may be completely unable to unlearn them, the way it is impossible to unlearn the language you use to speak (barring brain damage). Religious beliefs are prime candidates. If religious beliefs are "wired in" early in life by constant repetition and reinforcement, and everything else that is learnt in life is constructed on top of them and integrated into them, it may render a person completely physically incapable of losing those beliefs. The neuronal wiring that represents their beliefs can no longer be undone - it would break the laws of physics. C.S. Lewis uses these words - "physically incapable of disbelieving...". These beliefs that get wired in early in life become almost like an instinct. The subject "just knows" that something is true even when there is evidence to the contrary. The older a person is, the longer they have held the beliefs and the more emotional investment they have in the beliefs the less likely they are to lose them. As well as religious beliefs, there are almost universal beliefs or intuitions such as the notion of free will, or the separate observer and controller which is the Self. These intuitions are so powerful that only those with ruthless intellectual honesty can start to chip away at them. The majority simply will not tolerate that the beliefs are probably illusions generated by neural processing.

Why certainty?

I notice a common mindset which over-emphasises the importance of certainty.

Take the mobile phone safety scares for example. There will be members of the public who will say mobile phones are definitely safe. There will be some who say they are definitely unsafe. Neither of these claims is reasonable. How can they possibly know, let alone be sure? Have they conducted tests? The reasonable conclusion is "it is currently unknown". There is nothing wrong with admitting that.

Another example is extra-terrestrial life. There are some who are adamant that it exists. Others say it is certainly nonsense. Again neither of these claims are reasonable. How could they possibly know? What is reasonable is to assign some probability one way or the other and to back it up with argument or evidence. For example "since life has evolved on one planet, and since we have found other planets, it could have evolved on another planet".

Someone insisting they are absolutely certain of something but who is unable to show why they are certain should be suspected of not using sound reasoning to reach their conclusion. If they can show you why they are certain then we are getting somewhere.

When confronted with an uncertain issue, you do not have to believe one way or the other, you can file it away as "currently unknown, awaiting further data". If you are more curious than that, you could actively investigate further by reading up on the topic. Some issues have not yet been resolved by anyone - the gaps in our knowledge. That does not mean they will always be unknown. Some people delight in ignorance and love to remark "You'll never explain THAT". If we kept that attitude we would never have learned anything. The gaps are there to be filled, not all at once with revelations of certainty, but little by little as more data becomes available.

Why belief?

"But you must believe in something!"

That is a common refrain from those brought up in a certain way when they converse with an atheist. I could reply with something cute like I believe in the search for truth or I believe in the value of knowledge. However an obsession with belief is what causes intolerance, oppression and wars. Belief is not required to have knowledge.

I can have hypotheses, theories, models of the world to which I assign probabilities depending on how well supported they are by the evidence. I don't need to believe in Cosmology Model 1 or Cosmology Model 2. I can just observe that Model 1 is better supported by the evidence at this time. There is nothing more to add. Attributing my belief or allegiance to a theory makes little sense and adds nothing to the facts.

Belief does not make something true. If millions believe something, it has no bearing on whether it is true.

Don't acquire beliefs. Acquire models of aspects of the world based on evidence.

Marcus Loane