In previous posts I have made the argument that the brain constructs a data organization framework which represents our worldview (or belief systems). It is against this structure that new information will be evaluated, accepted, or rejected. I also want to be clear that the idea of a worldview or belief system is not optional. All humans have one, since it is a requirement to provide a minimal framework against which data is acquired and classified. It should also be understood that the concept of a belief system carries no special connotation be it religious, superstitious, supernatural, or anything else. It is simply a term that refers to the data organization framework in the brain.
However, it is useful to ask how we differentiate what is acceptable information for inclusion in this belief system and what is rejected. Three basic belief data types are identified in the section which will give rise to two different forms of belief systems.
Belief Data Types
Informed/analytical belief represents a condition whereby we have evaluated a piece of information for inclusion into our worldview based on our best analytical assessment and determined it to be accurate. In this instance, new information will be used to strengthen this belief.
Misinformed/erroneous belief represents a condition identical to the previous case, except that an erroneous conclusion was reached based on some element of misinformation or distorted information. In this case, a belief may be modified as more information is obtained.
In both of these cases, there may be modifications to the belief system as new information comes to light. However, the primary point is that regardless of how the belief was acquired, it will be used to shape the nature and acceptability of information which is introduced.
A trusted belief is one in which the information is simply accepted or incorporated into the belief system because it originates from a trusted source. Such information will typically bypass rigorous questioning or analysis and may become a source of erroneous information.
Invariably each of these belief systems will be subject to actual experiences. In the case of informed belief, the presumption is that the world is behaving exactly as expected based on the information available. If a new phenomenon is discovered (as in science), then the worldview will be modified to retain its logical consistency by incorporating this new data according to the same logical rules. This is the type of event such as when it was determined that Newton’s laws were insufficient to explain relativistic events. In this case, the new information was integrated into the existing worldview and the continuum of logical assumptions was retained.
In the case of a misinformed/erroneous belief, experience will have demonstrated an error in the original assumptions, and the belief system may change accordingly. This is the type of event where it was said that the sun traveled around the earth. Once it was demonstrated that this was an error, then all manner of corrections could be established and the belief systems were modified accordingly. It is important to note that it is not the original phenomenon which has changed, but rather that it is the interpretation of that phenomenon that was changed resulting in a different worldview. This is very similar to what is commonly referred to as a paradigm shift.
In the trusted belief system, this is strongly reminiscent of the “appeal to authority” arguments in logic. The information provided is simply accepted because of its source rather than any particular scrutiny it has been subjected to. This is the basis for what we term “faith”, since it has never been part of the individual’s experience, nor examined as part of a logical argument. It should also be noted, that this does not denote any religious viewpoint, since it could occur as readily in non-religious contexts. The primary point is that it is information that has been integrated into a belief system without any scrutiny beyond the source. Once such a worldview model based on faith has been constructed,
it may be treated as a trusted source in its own right. In effect, we tend to trust, not just our own judgments, but our memories as if they were judgments
These three basic forms give rise to a logical belief system and/or an ideological belief system. Both systems can exist within a single individual, although one will invariably be granted more “weight” than the other in cases where conflict may arise. The first case is based on the idea that an individual’s worldview is built up from a set of logical principles with information being accepted or rejected based on these premises. An ideological system will focus on more abstract principles which will be accepted as evidentiary but most likely formed from a trusted belief system than an analytical one.
These two systems are subject to various reinforcement principles that will tend to strengthen each view from the perspective of the believer. In particular, how new information is interpreted will specifically affect how this is integrated and determine how the resulting worldview will be shaped.
In the logical belief system, the origin of the worldview is of overriding importance. Making as few assumptions as possible, it is fundamental to this worldview that each point in the data organization be logically connected to information obtained previously. In this way, the entire array of data is intended to be logically consistent.
In the ideological belief system, the results of the worldview are of overriding importance. In this case, many assumptions may be made without verification, but the conclusions are the most essential elements.
From these two points we have arrived at the potential for conflicts between these belief systems. It is not uncommon for an individual to have both of these perspectives for different parts of their life and actually maintain them as segregated elements in how they experience the world. The conflict arises when one belief system attempts to use the “rules” of the other to establish its validity.
As an obvious example, this is where the perceived conflict between science and religion comes into play. Science tends to view itself as a logical belief system, focusing on the logical origins of its ideas and the consistency with which they are applied. As a result, science uses each individual piece of information to build a worldview that can be used to predict future results based on past experiences.
Religion tends to view itself as an ideological belief system, where the point isn’t so much how things occur, but rather what the consequences of such actions are. As a result, its greatest strength comes from addressing more philosophical issues such as behaviors and interactions that aren’t specifically suitable for strictly logical analysis. Concepts such as “good” or “evil” are expressed without the need for detailed definition in the implicit assumption that such attributes are beyond analysis and understood by others that share such a belief. In addition, since ideology isn’t necessarily subject to detailed scrutiny, there may be considerable variation even between individuals that express identical beliefs. As a result, the ideological belief system is much more subjective and variable.
The only conclusion one can reach from this review is that any attempt to reconcile these two belief systems based on each other’s “rules” is doomed to fail. Ideological belief systems may be modeled using game theory or other psychological tools, but in the end, these systems are much too chaotic to be described in anything but the most general terms. In effect, these belief systems are literally an individual choice.
Similarly it is unreasonable for logical belief systems to be criticized for not possessing all the information that may be desired. The lack of complete explanations or information doesn’t negate the logical structures that are in place, nor does it automatically convey confirmation of alternative viewpoints.
This brings us to the point of this whole discussion, which is the purpose being served to the individual by any belief system. Regardless of the dominant belief system an individual embraces, the functionality of such a system will be determined by how well it serves them in their lives.
Increasingly the “belief system” of the prevailing social group will override individual preferences and raises competitiveness between differing viewpoints to unusually contentious levels. Regardless of individual beliefs, the social group will tend to dictate the acceptable behaviors of that group and thereby render many individual beliefs moot. In addition, such “shielding” by the social group will tend to allow more outrageous views to survive, since there can not be any allowable consequences for such divergent views. In other words, no individual will actually have to live with the results of their particular belief.
In truth, few people are willing to commit to the absolute interpretation of their beliefs and while they may argue quite strongly for many diverse views, in the end, they are also quite content to leave well enough alone and enjoy the “luxury of their own belief”.
Thanks to Patrick Lockerby for his assistance and suggestions.
The Luxury Of Belief