Do you believe all the arguments presented in this article, at least with respect to your own beliefs?
Your personal guidebook to reality
Belief and Reality is central to science as well as religion – but we rarely stop to think how bizarre it is. Find out what your core values are really built on
THE day I sat down to write this article the news was rather like any other day. A teenager had been found guilty of plotting to behead a British soldier. Fighting had broken out again in Ukraine. Greece was accusing its creditors of being motivated by ideology rather than economic reality. Some English football fans were filmed racially abusing a man on the Paris subway. Admittedly, all of that day’s stories were unique in themselves. But at the root, they were all about the same thing: the powerful and very human attribute we call belief.
Beliefs define how we see the world and act within it; without them, there would be no plots to behead soldiers, no war, no economic crises and no racism. There would also be no cathedrals, no nature reserves, no science and no art. Whatever beliefs you hold, it’s hard to imagine life without them. Beliefs, more than anything else, are what make us human. They also come so naturally that we rarely stop to think how bizarre belief is.
In 1921, philosopher #Bertrand Russell put it succinctly when he described belief as “the central problem in the analysis of mind”. Believing, he said, is “the most ‘mental’ thing we do” – by which he meant the most removed from the “mere matter” that our brains are made of. How can a physical object like a human brain believe things? Philosophy has made little progress on Russell’s central problem. But increasingly, scientists are stepping in.
“We once thought that human beliefs were too complex to be amenable to science,” says Frank Krueger, a neuroscientist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. “But that era has passed.” What is emerging is a picture of a belief that is quite different from common-sense assumptions of it – one that has the potential to change some widely held beliefs about ourselves. Beliefs are fundamental to our lives, but when it comes to what we believe and why it turns out we have a lot less control than you might think.
Our beliefs come in many shapes and sizes, from the trivial and the easily verified – I believe it will rain today – to profound leaps of faith – I believe in #God. Taken together they form a personal guidebook to reality, telling us not just what is factually correct but also what is right and good, and hence how to behave towards one another and the natural world. This makes them arguably not just the most mental thing our brains do but also the most important. “The prime directive of the brain is to extract meaning. Everything else is a slave system,” says psychologist Peter Halligan at Cardiff University, UK.