Beliefs: What are they?

From Whence Beliefs

This model captures these ideas:

  • Beliefs are tools to reinforce actions
  • Beliefs are often created by our actions
  • Beliefs are often determined by our dispositions
  • Actions are often belief-independent
  • Emotions inform all beliefs
  • It is usually our desires that form our beliefs and not our beliefs that form our desires.

Below are my other key ideas about beliefs which can’t be seen in this model, but which I illustrated in another model at my “Many-Selves, No-Self” post;

  • Inaccurate beliefs can be useful/good
  • Old beliefs do not disappear – they persist
  • We can hold multiple contradictory beliefs

Beliefs are central to all conversations about religion.  Heck, they are important to politics, science, family — everything.  So I imagine it may be useful to see if we agree on the nature of beliefs before we discuss them.

Here is my recent quick attempt to illustrate how I visualize beliefs.  Now I know that professional psychologists and philosophers have already created models but I am not going to let that stop me from embarrassingly illustrating my crude thoughts — for how else am I going to learn?  But if you do have links to the visual attempts of others, please let me know.
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Related Posts:

The trick in illustrative models is to keep them simple enough metaphors (as all models are metaphors) to capture your main thoughts and avoiding to much of a clutter, yet subtle enough to capture many of the obvious complexities of reality.

I will explain the details later, but was hoping I could get a few comments prior.  And meanwhile, I wanted to test how homemade .jpg shows up on the blog.  Smile !

19 Comments

Filed under Philosophy & Religion

19 responses to “Beliefs: What are they?

  1. While I do agree with some of the things that you post, I strenuously disagree that faulty beliefs are “good”. Certainly they can be useful for the individual who holds them, but as beliefs inform our actions, false beliefs, no matter how positively they may impact us as individuals, stand a good chance of harming others, or at the very least, making oneself irrational.

    Following WWI, the German people were very downtrodden, they felt like losers, they were defeated and left bankrupt, hated and irrelevant on the world stage. Hitler used a false belief, that of the Master Race and German superiority, to give the German people back their backbone and egos. Using the Jews, a traditionally hated group, as the target of German superior ire, he was able to rebuild Germany in just a few short years into an amazing technological, financial and military powerhouse. The belief was undeniably useful for the German people, but was it good?

    Ask 6 million dead Jews how good it was.

  2. @ Cephus
    Oh no, the Hitler card ! Everyone step back.
    You know, Cephus, we have disagreed on this point before, and I have little hope of convincing you in this short space. But I have a post brewing to address it, though I doubt it will convince you either. Certainly, false ideas can be used for terrible ends. But do ALL false ideas have to have terrible end — that is your claim, no?

    List of a few faulty beliefs:
    1) Newtonian Physics: velocities are not additive
    2) Santa Clause, the Tooth Fairy
    3) “Daddy is here, you are safe”
    4) My child is beautiful
    5) When I die I will see my daddy in heaven

    Some Christians have harsher theologies than others. Is it their harsh dispositions that make their theistic doctrine or did their doctrine make them harsh? How do you see your disposition feeding your ideas?

  3. Is there a reason your model does not include sensory input? And what about refinement of beliefs in an recursive fashion? For instance, one could start off either believing fire to be cold or have no belief at all relating to its temperature, but sensory input will either correct or generate the belief.

  4. Hitler wasn’t intended as a Godwin response, it’s something that’s commonly known so there’s no explanation necessary, that’s all.

    However, even if the faulty beliefs do not cause far-reaching harm, they can still be harmful to the health and mental well-being of the individual who holds them. At the lower limit, it can have people believing things that are simply not true, making them irrational and illogical. Moving up, you can pass these mental aberrations on to your children and harm the next generation. How many children have to die because their parents think God is going to cure their children of disease and thus withhold medical treatment? It’s not hard to see the progression of these false beliefs and assuming that no one is ever harmed by them is absurd.

    Your faulty beliefs:
    1) There are limitations to classical mechanics and it’s important to recognize them. Any scientist who ignored special relativity, for example, ought to be booted from the scientific establishment.
    2) Both are relatively harmless beliefs for children, but if you’re an adult and you still believe in those things, you’ve got issues.
    3) You probably are more safe in that situation than were Daddy not there, unless Daddy is an axe murderer, then all bets are off.
    4) No accounting for taste, I guess. Since beauty is an entirely subjective matter, that’s not a false belief, just one other people may not agree with. After all, some people think Cindy Crawford is beautiful.
    5) That’s a harmful belief IMO, it arrests the grieving process.

  5. kat

    Hello Sabio
    I came for a visit. You have a very interesting site.

    Since early in our education system, we seem to think in terms of “right”/”wrong”–there is usually one “right” answer to a question–in a test if you answer “right”–you pass if you answer “wrong” you fail. Regardless of the fact that reality is seldom so black and white, we persist in this pradigm–there is only one(correct) truth, one “right” belief…etc In your opinion, is it because of environment, or our brains are simply predisposed to this pattern of thinking or both? Some educators have begun to think that this method of thinking –while useful–nevertheless uses our brains capacity/potential inefficiently.

  6. Indeed, kat, I feel people can have many different beliefs and those beliefs can serve themselves an others well. Likewise, a belief can hurt someone. In the end, it depends on the heart of the individual, it seems. Thank you for visiting.

  7. West Virginia Salvation

    Cephus,

    I have to say that your comparison to Hitler’s megalomaniacal genocide of alleged scapegoats of all that ailed post-Weimar Germany, to Sabio’s rickety 2 dimensional model of human beliefs is in very poor taste. You somehow have managed to trivialize the suffering and torture of millions and elevated our humble web-host to near demonic status all in the same paragraph. Really, quite genius of you.

    Sorry for the throat clearing. Cephus, what is a system that does not have some plastic nature? It is generally considered static. Humans are not static. Now, our fallacious beliefs may serve some cosmic ultimate evil, but more mundane they are useful as a tool of comparison and scientific testing. I understand that you are not arguing that humans are or should be born perfect, so why can’t you see that in the proper setting of cause/effect that an errant belief can be quite useful for future discovery and ultimately correction of said errant belief?
    I don’t think anyone is arguing that every inaccurate belief is ALWAYS beneficial to an individual or society. It is just that so much of what we humans hold dear to us is really just a function of our genes, environment, input and actions, etc,[ see above model (smiling)]and not a result of any real computational rigor or testing.
    As an aside, growing up my Father and I used to comment that people don’t always do what is best for them, but usually will do what is most comfortable or familiar. This observation sprang out of years of watching extended family members stay in abusive relationships and the seemingly endless social cycle of ‘like begets like.’
    Peace,
    Anoat

  8. At Shameless (btw, we are priviledged to have Shameless here, he is actually an active neuro scientist (physiology and cognitive science, I think).
    Anyway, Shameless, the Arrow from the Environment to the brain is sensory (of course). I guess little recursive arrows inside the belief circle would capture your other point, no?
    Thank you kindly for looking.

  9. @ Shameless, I updated the diagram — thanx. I also included lines to show how the brain often initiates activity FIRST, then afterwards sometimes triggers the emotion-belief cycle.

  10. @West: Just because you don’t like the example doesn’t make the example invalid. It shows that false beliefs have potential consequences, they are not harmless. There are parents who believe God will heal their sick kids and therefore eschew medical treatment and that just results in a lot of dead kids. There are people who think Allah will reward martyrs and strap on bombs. These people are harming not only themselves but others with their delusions. To say that false beliefs are a good thing because they make the individual happy misses the point. Being happy doesn’t necessarily mean one is healthy and because our beliefs inform our actions, those who are mentally unsettled are far more likely to perform harmful actions, perhaps without even realizing it, than those who are logically and rationally centered.

    You don’t have to like it, but reality doesn’t really care about your enjoyment, it just is.

  11. Yes, I think that is better. Your original diagram would apply to Plantinga’s model of belief as he descirbes it when discussing the EAAN, but beliefs aren’t in a vacuum (unless we really are brains in vats…). It’s one of the places he goes wrong, as I pointed out. We are all empiricists.

    I wouldn’t go putting me on a pedestal, lol! My area is really neurochemistry, or was. These days I’m doing more MRI work, so I get to keep up with fMRI and the cool cognitive stuff.

    I had one commenter on my dualism blog ask me that if there is no free will, then how does he raise his are? The problem is that this kind of action has experimentally been shown NOT to be initiated by the conscious mind, but we maintain the illusion of it. The fact that the brain initiates actions surprisingly long before conscious decision making (which the conscious brain can override – where true free will can be exercised) poses big problems for supporters of contra-causal free will that can only be explained using the computational theory of mind. It is for this reason that I am a compatibilist.

  12. @Cephus: There’s a George Bernard Shaw quote that fits perfectly with this….

    The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact than a drunken man is happier than a sober one.

  13. Earnest

    I enjoy my fixed false beliefs because they make me perform better and earn more money than other people.

  14. Ah, there is a fine measure of a man — how much money he makes !

  15. Sure, believe all the complete and utter nonsense you can, it makes you more successful! Heck, look what it did for Bill Gates! Oh wait a minute, he’s an atheist. What about Warren Buffett? He’s an atheist too! Gee, not sure what to say, the concept doesn’t seem to be holding water. And these two men, the first and second richest men on the planet are also two of the most philanthropic men too.

    Go figure.

  16. Earnest

    Let’s recap what we are actually talking about. This page is about beliefs and their intrinsic reliability or unreliability. Just to be clear.

    Now then, let’s posit that the way to be successful is to be maximally distrustful of any possibility of error in perception of reality. One then becomes paralyzed by checking and rechecking the house to make sure it’s locked. Now I have heard that Warren Buffett does not invest money into a company until he knows it inside and out, but I am fairly certain that there are some things he does not know. He probably does not know the exact tally of toilet paper rolls the corporate headquarters building. He may not even know how many employees the company has. He may have analysed the financials of the corporation yet he only knows the data he is given. He may not know anything about the actual quality of that data. What of his purchase of Conoco Phillips? “I had no idea that oil at $150 a barrel had any chance of falling in value like a normal commodity!” I think Buffett realizes that this was a mistake and there really isn’t any other spin to make on that one. I certainly wasn’t buying petroleum companies when he was.

    So it appears that even athiests can make mistakes and lose tons of money.

    How then do I assert that my false beliefs make me wealthier?

    Because they allow me to gloss over detail that does not matter. I process fragmentary data and make assumptions based on those fragments which has such a limited grip on truth by that point it is basically a construct of my own brain. Yet I act, and amazingly enough transactions occur that put me ahead. I am untrapped by any demand that I know things in and of themselves like Berkeley was. I drift off in a daze and absorb the data of the cosmos in a quasi-delusional manner and for some reason end up with winning stock transactions. Have I lost money? Certainly. But my winners trump my losers by a significant margin.

    Let’s go more extreme. Let’s make me a televangelist (which I am actually not). I am preaching the gospel and fervently begging people to sacrifice their belongings to the Faith (myself and my bank account). Now, if I don’t really believe what I am saying, my body language will probably tell the viewing audience that I’m not really with them on this path. To be a truly inspiring preacher you have to believe in the gospel! And those are the ones who really bring the money into the church coffers.

    The best liars believe their own lies. Sad but true.

    Now Cephus you have said that lies can harm those around us. Fair enough, and a commonly held assumption. However, I think that you will have a hard time convincing me that this televangelist is actually harming the people he is taking money from. But wait Earnest you pathetic goon! All he is giving in return to these generous idiots is an empty promise of redemption, a comfortable afterlife, an impossible cure, just a bunch of bunk!

    Yes but for some reason these people feel better having given their goods over to this evangelist. What is happening in their minds? The televangelist is producing a mass hysterical reaction within his audience to transport them from their mundane reality to a glorious realm of beauty and righteousness. Of course when the hysteria wears off they will return right back where they were, but that’s not the point.

    The point is there was a real transaction for a real feeling of comfort and happiness and belonging. It is a transaction that has value for both the giver and the receiver. Both benefit in tangible ways.

    So we have established that a lie has value in those that are lied to and money paid for that lie is given over with the thought that this was a fair transaction. Since there is a tangible benefit provided by the liar, there is a valid transaction which bidirectionally consensual between adults. What could be more legitimate and/or fair?

    Sorry, for me empiricism trumps everything else any day of the week. And I have the goods to prove it works.

  17. JStnton

    Hi Sabio,

    I’ve been reading your blog for a good couple of months now, and I have to say your ideas really resonate with me (especially the ones on “cognitive narrative” and other nuanced concepts) I wanted to post something in this section (couldn’t find an email) because I find this particular post (and those similar) illuminate certain parts of my self (selves) that are constantly influx carrying painful cognitive dissonance. I am twenty years old and I spend most of my time reading books on mind-body philosophy, some meta-fiction and zen. Believe me…I am great at parties. Anyways thanks for the charts and interesting dialogues – email me anytime if you have the time.

    -Jake (armchair philosopher by day – drunken romantic by night..)

  18. @ Jake
    Fantastic to have you visit. Glad you enjoy the reading. I am most pleased that the cognitive notions resonate with you — they are the most central to this blog. It seems that you get it!
    Do comment more!

    — Sabio
    PS- I will put my e-mail more clearly on the side bar now. Thanks for pointing that out.

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