"And sometimes he's so nameless"

How do beliefs work? CJ gets interested

Posted in Paranormal, Religion, Science by Chris Jensen Romer on March 26, 2009

Back on January 2nd 2008, while the world was hung over still from New Years Eve, I was thinking about the way beliefs work, as I have been since the 80’s.  Since then I have found a lot of serious academic work, but this was what led me to it.  Thought might amuse some people, though if you did not find it hard going in places you are cleverer than me, and I may be talking tosh anyway.  I’d best explain the idea I make of mental shortcuts. A classic example; if you place your hand on a flame, and get burned, you create an instinctive belief that placing your hand in flames is bad. You may generalize from this a rule that putting any part of your body in a fire is bad. Or if you eat squid one night, and then are up all night will bellyache, you may make a mental shortcut that says “squid is poisonous or bad for me” – even if it was not, and something else caused the problem. So the “shortcuts” I refer to, beliefs, may be true or false – but they are programmes in my analogy that you run on. Anyway see if you can follow my argument!

OK,  I am getting interested in how beliefs work. Obviously, assuming we are not solipsists, we have two basic things – External Reality and the Person. The “compression” model suggests we create “mental shortcuts” or handy pieces of code based upon on our experience which allow us to deal efficiently with reality. So beliefs are in fact a sort of mental map imposed on the universe, a shorthand for understanding how things work.

That in itself is interesting – because obviously if you follow this model then the utility of a model is actually what matters, not its relationship to “external reality”.  So I suspect Dennett might argue about religion? It’s provides survival/pay offs as a model, while being inherently “untrue”? That however immediately runs in to problems. While we might like HP Lovecraft conclude that the Universe is utterly indifferent to us, and indeed almost hostile in that indifference, and hold a somewhat nihilistic worldview (which HPL did not, seeking solace in “human level” beliefs), and assume therefore that people construct religious beliefs as a utility, many religious beliefs strike me as quite dysfunctional/survival negating at individual level. In short, if “survival of the fittest” works, then ideas that cause one to risk ones life, like patriotism, serving in the army, dangerous sports or persecuted religious practices are rather odd to say the least. Why would they survive?

Therefore we have to shift up to kin selection (Hamilton’s Rule – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kin_selection ) but I fail to see why individual belief structures would arise at kin level. Yet we have much evidence of altruism and religious structures operating at a much higher level than kin (gene) grouping -indeed many make claims about the whole of humanity – so we now have group selection?

That belief structures can pass beyond ethnic and kin identity groups strikes me as quite obvious – we can have say “American Mythologies” which tie together many of the citizens of the USA, regardless of genetic diversity? Let’s take a classic British line “Dulce et Decorum est, pro patria mori” – loosely, “it is right and proper to die for your country”. That belief took hold in the form of jingoistic patriotism – yet wherein lies the survival value?

I suppose if beliefs are “short cuts”, or programs if you like, there is no need for them to be logically compatible with each other. That makes perfect sense – two radically opposed beliefs may both be useful in different contexts. I need to think more on this bit.

However, beliefs can and do change, as the fact we have so many converts from one belief system to another  shows.

So, just as I see that the evidence of our senses is not actually unconditioned, but that the data has a reflexive relationship with the model (belief system) held, and that theists interpret the data reflexively, so I guess atheists interpret likewise in line with their own existing personal models. I see no reason to exclude any belief system from this filtration/interpretation process. There is nothing new here at all – replace “sense data” with “thing in itself” or “noumena” and we are immediately in familiar territory, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Where I would differ from Kant is I do not think that means we have to stop and call limits to reason.

Our minds are capable of studying mind, including their own, so we begin by questioning every single assumption and dogma and belief we hold, and trying to understand if each is actually demonstrably true, and then by trying to falsify it and holding the conflicting position to see if that makes sense – decoding our own “mental shortcuts”.

This tends to render one severely uncompetitive i suspect, and quite possibly useless, but questioning every assumption has always seemed a good place to begin to me. So what I think occurs with beliefs is that they do represent a series of “shortcuts”, often expressed in language – and that those beliefs are based in evidence, but that the evidence is read through the filter of the belief system. If so, then when we “join” a recognizable belief system, we learn to interpret our experiences in the light of that system, creating a reflexive feedback loop. I think this applies to atheist members of the forum just as much as theists – the language and conceptual framework differs, but we all interpret our experience in line with beliefs, and those beliefs are then strengthened by the confirmation we are receiving.

Occasionally, the belief system breaks down through inherent contradiction, though probably not often – only when two radically opposed beliefs come to play on the same issue. Occasionally, we read or are exposed to ideas which allow us to look at the world through a different belief system, and then make a sudden shift in our viewpoint, and re-read the evidence creating new shortcuts. I have no idea if any of this makes any coherent sense, but I thought I’d post my vague thoughts and ask opinions! Anyone?

ADDENDUM: Writing this in 2009 I may as well add the philosophical problem that I know now Plantinga has been arguing for a good while, but which also occurred to me in my arguments. If our brains evolved through natural selection, for adaptive advantage, then we might not expect them to be designed to learn and comprehend objective truth – they are actually designed to allow us to survive and reproduce, not to understand things. So science, logic,  mathematics is a perversion of our natural instincts, and in fact runs counter to how are brains have evolved to work. This may well be the root of many cognitive biases – such as confirmation bias, a very well known example.

cj x

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