This is a three part series that will explore the nature of belief systems, or worldviews and offer some perspectives on how they are formed and function.

Belief systems are fundamental to human existence and there are a few ideas worth exploring to see if anything can be determined about their origins. Without getting into brain physiology or psychology, there are a few conclusions we can draw from general observation.

The brain is our information processing center, so it is capable of accepting data input and analyzing it. However, let’s break the functions down a little more precisely. Data coming in is always examined, however most of it never reaches the conscious portion of our thought processes, so there is a background process which acts as a filter on the data being entered (although it is still basically analyzed for anomalies). Should something unusual occur, our conscious mind is alerted to the discrepancy and we can now consciously analyze what is taking place.

In addition, there is a hierarchy for storing data in the short-term as well as for much longer intervals.

There are also other processes which must occur for this to work properly, in that the brain must be capable of retrieving pertinent information when it is needed, so there is clearly an organizing capability in the brain that allows data relationships to be established.

While this may describe brain operation at a high level, there’s a basic problem that needs to be addressed; how do we know what information is relevant or useful? There is no doubt that much of the information processed is simply “background noise” in that it represents events that we have grown accustomed to since birth, so we don’t pay any particular attention to them. So when we encountered something new or different we need to have a quick mechanism to be able to classify the data without protracted analysis. After all, whatever we have encountered could threaten our survival, so while we could contemplate it during a more leisurely interval, we must be capable of immediately assessing where it fits among our existing pool of data.

Such a scenario requires that, in addition to basic organization, the brain utilizes some form of a “framework” or “worldview” against which data is evaluated and collected. This worldview or “belief system” would consist of data drawn from experience that represents our subjective sense of the world around us. It doesn’t necessarily have to be factually correct, but it does need to be operational.

As an example, if ghosts are not a part of the belief system, then unusual happenings or noises, don’t immediately elicit a response of supernatural origins. Instead, we would look for the cause of the event among our experiential knowledge. Similarly all the data we encounter must fit into our belief system, or it is discarded as being in error (i.e. compromised or incomplete data).

Our belief systems will grow or change as our experience does and, at times, we may gain experiences that cause us to change our belief system to accommodate the new information. This would not normally occur as a radical change, but perhaps an expansion as new knowledge is added.

This phenomenon can be readily observed by people’s opinions and how they change as more information is provided. Initially, most people don’t have a problem expressing opinions (based on their belief system) to virtually any event, even for which they may know almost nothing. As more information is provided, it may either fit differently into their belief system and their opinions change, or it may be rejected outright as a contrivance that is unacceptable to their belief system. Data which has been rejected is virtually impossible to introduce without significant manipulations of the belief system to accommodate this information against potentially contradictory elements of the framework.

Bear in mind that this has nothing to do with intelligence, but rather how we, individually, organize our data around our experiential framework. This is one reason why debates such as evolution and ID can continuously rage on. Each side thinks it can convince the other by data alone, rather than realizing that the two frameworks preclude acceptance of each other’s data and therefore no compromise (in the data) can ever be reached.

In addition, the rejection of another’s data is not simply stubbornness, since the resistance to change would be an important element of human survival. Such resistance would ensure that data had to be overwhelmingly convincing before we would risk our survival knowledge on a new piece of information.

As a result, this framework, or “belief system” is a natural consequence of data organization and cannot be directly manipulated by conscious effort. This should not be confused by a rationalized belief, where one simply expresses an opinion or viewpoint about a particular subject, but rather it operates at the most fundamental level of our existence. When our survival is at stake, we discover what we truly believe.

Belief Systems - Part 2
Belief Systems - Part 3