Forewarning: This article is heavy, both intellectually and emotionally (then again, aren’t most of the articles I write?). I hope you’re ready for it.
Note: This article is mostly made up of an inner dialogue (i.e. a monologue), beginning under the section, “Solid Reasoning Questions Itself.” There is only one hypothetical person “talking,” or thinking, in this article. I start and end each paragraph with quotation marks (“”) so you know that the monologue is continuing, and it is the character that is speaking, rather than me (and, yes, I know you know I made up the character and put words in his mouth, silly).
I want to expand on a concept I discussed in Part One
and Part Two of this series. It is how to make foundations stick. In
other words, it’s how to follow the rules or guidelines that you set for
At the root of all rule-following, there are beliefs. Specifically, there are beliefs about why those rules are valid, and thus why they should be followed.
How We Form Beliefs
In my book, What is a Real Life?, I wrote that the four ways to truth are Authority, Logic, Intuition, and Empiricism (Observation). We form all of our beliefs via one or more of these four means. These processes do not occur in a vacuum—we need to engage with more than one in order to change a belief. We believe what we do because someone told it to us, we came to the conclusion through logical reasoning, we feel it is true, and/or we observed something which confirms certain ideas and challenges others.
Logic and empiricism tend to go hand in hand: it is very difficult to imagine one without the other. To use reasoning, you need to have something to reason about. Likewise, observations on their own are not very telling—they are meaningful relative to the ideas that we already have. While we might like to think that observations are 100% objective, they simply can’t be. As observers we must be conscious beings, and as conscious beings we have ideas about how things work. While those ideas are not us (meaning we don’t have to identify with them), we cannot see the world through an idea-less lens.
In a Subjective Reality, consciousness and the physical world are intertwined. This means that beliefs (within consciousness) influence the way the physical world operates. Regardless of what you think about subjective reality, you cannot see a world apart from your beliefs. Your mind is always thinking. There is always something going on within consciousness—it doesn’t stop and wait to see what the physical world does.
Beliefs Justify Themselves
Having certain explanations of how the world works doesn’t mean they are accurate explanations. Of course, everyone’s model of reality works for them in some way—even if it is horribly twisted and dark. Worldviews tend to be self-perpetuating. They justify themselves. They influence your desires, and they justify the pursuit of those desires.
Certain religious beliefs, for example, assert that people who disagree with the supposed “word of God” on which the beliefs are based should be killed. This creates a desire in the believers for killing of non-believers. The belief comes full circle by justifying the desire for killing. Thus, for the ends of the believers, this belief “works.” It works to achieve what they want.
Solid Reasoning Questions Itself
There is a sort of circular reasoning at work here. However, it exemplifies a limited use of reason. Solid reasoning questions itself. It goes outside the circle it has created. It asks, “Can I be absolutely sure of this? Could the opposite of this belief be true?” For the example given, you could ask, “What if people who disagree with the supposed ‘word of God’ should not be killed?”
Then, you might go on to think, “Such an idea defies the holy book that I’ve been reading. The other people I know who have been reading this book wouldn’t like it, either. But maybe I should let go of authority for a minute and consider the other ways to truth. For one thing, there are people who other people consider to be authorities that do indeed say that we should not kill people who think differently than we do. Since I am disregarding authority for the moment here, I cannot use my book or my leaders to say that those other leaders are wrong. So I can’t invalidate their ideas—at least, not yet.”
“I’m not so sure what data I can trust at this point. I know if I look to my observations, I will simply “see” reasons for why the people who disagree with The Word of God, as I understand it, are wrong and evil. I have been trying to think of justifications for destroying those who don’t believe in The Word of God other than the Word of God itself. However, I can’t think of any. It seems the only valid justification for my beliefs is the very source of the beliefs itself.”
“That being said, I can’t place all the blame on the book. Beliefs, after all, are a property of conscious beings. Without consciousness, a book is just a collection of scribbles. So, as a conscious being, I have to take responsibility for what I believe. In other words, at the end of the day, I am the source of my beliefs. I didn’t realize it until now, but I’m the one who chose to have the beliefs that I do. I could have rejected them when they were introduced to me, but I didn’t. Instead, I took them in and made them my own.”
“If I could choose to believe in the Word of God, that means I can choose to not believe in it, too. I said earlier that the Word of God is what justifies the Word of God. It is what makes the beliefs and ideas it professes functional. So, what if I chose to believe in the words of a different book? Wouldn’t the same thing happen—just with different beliefs? Say the book tells me I should drink coffee every morning. In accordance with the ideas of the book, I’ll start doing that. And the book will justify my continuing that behavior. Maybe it will tell me why coffee is healthy for my body, or how it will help me to be more productive. Whatever they are, I’ll go along with the ideas—just as long as they don’t outrageously defy what I already believe, because then it will be too hard for me to believe in them. It’ll instill in me a darned good reason to drink coffee, and that will lead me to desire coffee. And just like my current belief in the Word of God, this will continue on in a self-fulfilling circle. It’ll make sense to keep drinking coffee because I’ll believe it does.”
“So, if beliefs work like that, how can I be sure of what’s right and what’s wrong? Where is the truth? Is this reality just a free-for-all, in which you can believe nearly anything and it will be functional to do so, in your eyes, because the belief justifies itself? That sounds like a recipe for getting away with murder! Wait a second… The beliefs I have now let me get away with murder! I’ve already taken the free-for-all to the very edge! The thing is, in my eyes, the killing my fellow believers isn’t called murder, because murder, by definition, is unjustified killing. We believe that our killing is justified. However, the people who disagree with us—they that our killing isn’t justified. They say we are murderers. They and their leaders say one thing. My leaders say another. Who am I to believe?”
“I’m starting to wonder what role other people should have in this belief free-for-all. In my eyes, no matter what I believe, someone else will be wrong. They’ll be wrong in both senses of the word. They’ll be wrong in that their beliefs defy my beliefs (meaning we disagree with each other), and they’ll be wrong in that their ideas and consequent actions are disgusting and immoral. The only way around that would be to believe that no one can be wrong somehow… In a way, I guess that’s already true. In their own eyes, everyone is correct and justified, because all beliefs justify themselves. Morals are a kind of belief, so I guess that means that everyone is moral, too.”
“But how can we all be right at the same time? As long as everyone walks around thinking that they’re right, we’ll be in conflict with each other forever. People will continue to tell each other that they’re wrong. And as long as people believe like I have that they can kill each other for being wrong, we’ll be at war forever. This really is a free-for-all. As long as people refuse to give up being right based on what they already believe, I see no end to this conflict.”
“I don’t know what we can do. I’m not sure what to do. If everyone believe all the exact same things—that sounds dangerous, too. Not only that, but it sounds impossible. We’re all so different as it is, and there are so many of us—there’s no way we could all possible interpret the same ideas the exact same way. Even if we did, you can’t prevent people from modifying those ideas. You can’t get inside people’s minds and stop their thoughts—can you? Even if you could, that sounds like an awful lot of work to exact on 7 billion people—a lot of work that probably isn’t worth it.”
“So, it sounds like we’ll have to continue with people believing different things. How can we make that OK? What does OK even mean? Isn’t its meaning just based on a set of beliefs about what’s acceptable? How can we have a universal agreement about what’s OK when there are people who would justify killing, slavery, rape, torture, war, aggression, theft, and just about every form of human conflict you can imagine?”
“That’s a hard question. Maybe we’d need some type of belief that would enable us to agree somehow. The only belief I can think of that could do that is a belief that we can be wrong. We can be misguided. We can be mistaken. We can be erroneous. Not just the people around us, but we ourselves.”
“But what is the basis of right and wrong? Isn’t it beliefs once again? We’re living in the free-for-all—remember? How can we bring some order to this mess?”
“I basically said it already—we need to find some extent of consensus. We need to find a way to make it OK for other people to exist—even the ones who completely disagree with us. That’s a tough pill to swallow. I’ve believed my whole life that people who disbelieve in the Word of God should be dead. At the same time, there are people who say I should be dead because my ideas are so rigid and so violent that I will always be a threat to them—there is no way I could possibly change. Well, I think I can change. But I don’t just want to give in and bow down to the people who think I can’t change by simply agreeing with all of their beliefs. I want to change for a good reason, and a good reason only. I want to change in a way that would be right. But, again—how can I know what is right? Especially when the only “right” I’ve known comes from the Word of God?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know what to do. The only reasonable way out I can think of is to experiment. I think I just have to accept that, at this point, I don’t really know the answer. I don’t know what’s right and what’s wrong. I don’t know who to listen to. I don’t even know what’s up and what’s down. And I don’t know that anyone knows. In their minds, they think they do. But what if they asked themselves the questions that I have? What would they think then? Would they still be so sure of themselves?”
“So, I guess this is where I’m starting—that I don’t know the answer. Not only that, but I don’t think anyone knows the answer. Ooh, that sounds dirty. Maybe I could go a step further, and say that, Maybe there isn’t an answer. After all, if this is a free-for-all, can there really be such a thing as absolute truth? I have no idea.”
“This sounds similar to what we said earlier—that maybe we should make room for the idea that we can be wrong. Or, stated another way, we need to consider that there’s always room for change. Now, I’ve basically just professed that I don’t know anything. I’ve gone from one extreme to the other—from absolute certainty in my beliefs to absolute uncertainty. I don’t know that I can trust anything I think, say, do, or feel—including even all the things that I have just said. Maybe I’m doomed to be wrong forever.”
“Then again, what if that in itself is a belief? If I’m adamant about the so-called “fact” that I am always wrong, am I not being extremely confident in my ideas once again? But if all beliefs are self-justifying, aren’t I doomed to always be extreme?”
“Hm… I wonder if there is a way out of this. Or maybe there isn’t. Maybe I should just embrace the fact that I live in a reality that is made up of self-perpetuating beliefs. Let us say that is the case. How can I make the best of that? If my beliefs are all there is, and thus they are all I can know, then that’s up to me to decide—right? So, how do I decide what’s best? What good starting point to this reality can I establish?”
“Maybe I don’t have to decide yet. Maybe I can just experiment for a while and then come up with a conclusion. But if this reality is made up of beliefs, then I must already have beliefs that I can’t do much to escape. There are things happening around me at this very instant. If this reality is made up of beliefs, then I must have beliefs that are making those things happen. At the very least, I have beliefs which explain the things that are happening.
“Let’s see. I have beliefs which explain the light and warmth that is shining on me right now. I believe that light and warmth come from the sun, which I see in the sky as a circle. It hurts my eyes if I look at it too long! Okay, so I have a start. I have something. Maybe there is only so much about the sun that I can say for certain, but I can look at it and see that it is there. I can profess that and not have to worry about sounding crazy—yes?”
“Let’s see what else. There is a surface below my feet which I call “the ground.” If I don’t move, my feet stay there. If I start walking or running, my feet leave the ground for a second or two, but they always go back. I can even jump and have both feet leave the ground at the same time, but it still doesn’t last very long. The only time my feet don’t return to the ground is if I sit or lay down on an object—an object which, ultimately, rests on the ground. So, there is another thing I know—I can only leave the ground for a few seconds at a time. My body always rests on something—it never just remains suspended in the air. Even if I’m in an airplane, my feet remain on the floor of the airplane. And if I jump out of the airplane, well, then it will take a few minutes before I come in contact with the ground or an object on the ground, but that’s about the only exception I can think of. When I’m in the air, I’m still falling toward the ground. So, this ground is inescapable.”
“Okay. It seems that I have derived those ideas from observations I have made about the world around me. However, if this reality is made up of beliefs, the ideas must have come first somehow. I guess you could say that I wasn’t really making pure observations just now—I was just explaining what I already believe. That being said, the things I just said about the sun and being stuck on the ground—I don’t see any way to not believe those things. When I look at the dark sky at night and see no sun, it’s hard for me to believe that the sun doesn’t provide the Earth with light. At the very least, it appears that the sun and the light tend to be present at the same time—even if one doesn’t come from the other. And when I watch birds fly from one tree to another, there’s no way I can believe that it’s physically possible for me to do that. I have never done that, and I would probably get hurt or killed if I tried it, so I am not going to try.”
“Once again, it appears that I have certainty in my beliefs. It’s really hard for me to imagine them being defied. If someone told me they weren’t true, I’d have a hard time buying their argument for why they believe that. That being said, I don’t feel an intense emotional attachment to these beliefs. I would rather not let go of them or replace them at this point. If I said that I could fly across the country without the use of technology, I would have an awfully hard time explaining myself. Such a statement would defy my beliefs about being tied to the ground. Who knows—in a reality created by beliefs, if I could get myself to really and truly believe that statement, it would become true. Maybe I really would be able to fly. Hm. Let’s see what happens when I just suspend my disbelief and entertain the idea. I’ll just put all my attention on the thought—I can fly.”
“Well, that was funny. I smiled and laughed at myself. But I certainly didn’t fly. There was a fight within myself. I felt an insurmountable block inside me—I couldn’t get around the absolute certainty that it would not work, that I cannot fly. Maybe I can keep trying every day, but at this point my honest prediction is that it will never work. That certainty that I can’t fly is absolutely insurmountable. It’s in my bones. Unless something comes along to convince me that maybe I can fly, I don’t know if I can ever get rid of it. And I can basically accept that. I can accept a life where I can’t fly, and where I continue to believe that I can’t fly.
“But this worries me: how many other beliefs do I have where certainty is insurmountable? My beliefs about the sun seem to be one example. In fact, a lot of my beliefs about physical reality seem to be like that. The sky, the grass, the trees, the animals—all of these things are here, as I see them and feel them, and they aren’t just going to disappear before my very eyes. If someone comes along and burns down the tree, then, yes, it will disappear. But it won’t disappear without a solid cause, such as being burned down. Even then, it won’t just vanish. The tree will turn into ashes. Likewise, if you kill an animal and eat it, the stuff that makes up the animal doesn’t disappear. It’ll come out the other side of you. So, it seems that nothing physical- this stuff we call matter- can be completely vaporized. Even boiling water turns into just that—vapor.”
“Overall, my beliefs about physical reality seem to be pretty solid. And, once again, I’m OK with that. I can accept a life where the physical world continues on basically as I have known it up to this point. If birds keep chirping, water keeps flowing, and trees continue standing, that’s fine. In fact, I think I would actually prefer that. Nature seems to function OK, and if it basically continues on as it is, I think that would provide a sense of stability for me. I could walk through this world knowing that the sky won’t suddenly begin to fall, and the walls won’t close in, and the floor won’t eat me alive (unless it’s built on a sinkhole! Sorry Florida!).”
“I guess this goes way back to where I started, when I was talking about coffee. Beliefs seem to perpetuate a desire for the things the belief supports to continue. In other words, believing something makes you want that something to continue on. Beliefs have an undeniable role in desire. So, that means we choose our desires, then… Right? It doesn’t feel that way, but I can see how that would be right. If we choose our beliefs, and beliefs make up reality, and desire is a part of reality, how can we not choose our desires—even if some of the beliefs it is based on are very hard to change? The only reason they’re very hard to change is because, deep down, I have made a firm decision to not change them. That, in turn, means that I don’t want to change them. I have made a decision so solid that even I myself cannot override it. I have used choice to create conviction, which has created desire, which reinforces my conviction. Wow. It sounds like I’m pretty powerful.”
“Having said all of this, if I were to observe some exception to my current explanations about physical reality, I wouldn’t dismiss it. I’ll do my best to remember that I can be wrong. Maybe a better statement would be, things can work differently than this. That sounds nicer. Besides—if reality is made up of beliefs, I can’t really be wrong. I can just make things work differently by changing my beliefs. That’s all.”
“It might be hard to think outside of the beliefs I have held for so long, but it could be fun and exciting, too. Most importantly, I might come up with new explanations and new beliefs that make this reality even more enjoyable to exist in somehow. If reality actually isn’t made up of beliefs, it’ll be more enjoyable because I’ll have more accurate ideas about how reality works. Accuracy allows for functionality and a healthy sense of realism. And, if reality is made up of beliefs- which is the idea I’ve been playing with- a new explanation will lead the reality to change. So the thing I would observe that would made my explanations change—well, there wouldn’t be such a thing. Instead, the explanations and beliefs would come first.
“How does that work? Well, if I believe either that I can’t and/or don’t know everything, or that things I haven’t seen before will eventually appear, then such things will indeed appear. I think it would be foolish for me to believe that I have witnessed everything possible, so I don’t believe that. Consequently, things that I have never seen before will and do happen. This means that I never witness anything that defies my beliefs. Everything I see happens in accordance with my beliefs. Beliefs justify themselves—remember? It’s very hard to make them wrong.
“So, if I’m firm in the beliefs I already have about physical reality, and I’m OK with them, yet I’m open to modifying them if I see a reason to, then the next thing for me to tackle would be the rest of my beliefs. Those are my beliefs about other people, society, God, life, my mind, and myself. The question to ask here is, How might I have been wrong about these things in the past? Or, the “better” question, How can I form beliefs about these things that would work better than the beliefs I have now?”
“Well, maybe I can follow the example of my beliefs about the physical world. I noticed that I have room for modifying those beliefs, should I observe something that contradicts them. And should something contradict them, it would ultimately be my own doing, based on my own beliefs. So, for starters, I should be open about modifying my beliefs about people and about life. I think the act of going through this thinking process has shown to me that I am open to observing exceptions to the beliefs I have had. I consider that as a sign of progress. Progress toward what exactly, I don’t know yet. But it’s a sign of change. So I’ve got something going here.”
“What next? Well, I decided I’m fine with observing the physical world to continue as it has. I didn’t say that anything should change. I didn’t say that the trees should go away or the squirrels should be eliminated or anything like that. Not only did that make things easy—I think that has made the physical world more enjoyable to me, because now I know that I have accepted it as it is. Sure, maybe I can change the physical world by changing my beliefs, if this reality really is made up of beliefs. But changing those beliefs is hard, and I don’t see why I should change my belief that squirrels exist. Again, I think it would be a waste of time.”
“So, on a similar note, it would be futile to believe that people don’t believe in the Word of God don’t exist. Obviously they do. I have observed their existence for as long as I can remember. So, would it make sense to accept their existence? What my fellow believers have done is recognize they exist without accepting that they exist. Because they do not accept the existence of non-believers, they have killed them. They have tried to end their existence.”
“Maybe I’m not ready to tackle that one just yet. I’ve had another thought. If this reality is made up of my beliefs, then the only beliefs that exist are mine. When I call someone a believer or a non-believer in the Word of God, I’m expressing my belief that they believe certain things. But can I really be sure what they believe? Didn’t I say that you can’t go inside people’s minds? What if they don’t even have minds? How can I be sure they do? I don’t think I can be. If people don’t have minds, that means their actions are based on how I believe they will act. Oh my goodness. This whole thing is a contraption of my beliefs!”
“I believe certain people exist who profess certain ideas. Those people then take certain actions as a consequence of those ideas. But if those people don’t have minds, where do those ideas come from? If I’m the only one with a mind, that means I’m the only one who can have the ideas. That means that all the non-believers I have fought for so long… their ideas are really mine. I have disagreed with their ideas, yet this whole time I been the source of them regardless. If this reality is made up of my beliefs, and I have been fighting with people because of certain beliefs they appear to have, that means that I have been fighting with my own beliefs. At bottom, I brought certain people into existence, and then I attempted to end their existence. I’ve been trying to destroy the very reality that I have created. As long as I hold certain ideas in mind, and as long as I believe people with those ideas will exist, they will continue to exist. How foolish it is, then, to try and destroy them! What a waste of time!”
“If ideas exist in my mind, and those ideas result in certain things existing in the physical world, that means that fighting with the physical world is the same thing as fighting with my own mind. It’s just hard to remember that when I’m caught up in conflict. So whenever I resist something I see in the physical world, I am resisting a part of my own mind. Does this mean that when I kill another person, I kill a part of my own mind? When I kill a part of my own mind, does it mean that I kill myself? I don’t know. I’m having a hard time with that one. But it makes sense that fighting with the physical world is futile, because as long as my mind stays the same then the physical world will, too. The ideas and the things I don’t want to exist will keep existing. So, I either need to change my mind or accept that the things that currently exist in the physical world are here, and it is futile to fight them. And if I believe that non-believers and people who disagree with me are always going to exist, as I said, then I might as well accept their existence. I might as well accept, then, that it’s not worth fighting with them anymore. They’re going to be here, and that’s that.”
“It seems what I am coming to is a belief system which allows all things that I believe will and do exist to exist. That sounds dirt simple- laughably obvious- but I can’t say I’ve done things that way before. No, I never could have imagined that it would be OK for non-believers in the Word of God to exist. But now it seems I have no choice but to indeed accept their existence. It’s a waste of time not to do so. I have returned to where I started. People who disagree with the supposed ‘Word of God,’ indeed, should not be killed.”
“Where does this leave me now? My previous understanding of how the world works has been overthrown. I have found something which maybe will work better. It is a belief system that allows for all people to exist, precisely because I believe they will exist. Does that make sense? Am I jumping to conclusions too soon? Can I be sure there aren’t people who we shouldn’t exterminate? But, again, physically exterminating them will only do so much… Because the beliefs they held and which led them to act in certain ways will still exist. They will still exist within me. And as long as those beliefs exist within me, they will take form in the physical world somehow. So, the old saying seems to be true: if I am to change the world, I must change my own mind and my own beliefs. I must change myself.”
“The task sounds overwhelming. But I’ve never thought about it in this way before. This is so different from fighting with people and events “out there,” in the physical world. Now all the change has to happen from within. I’m not sure that I even know how to do this. But maybe I’ve been doing it already, by asking myself these questions.”
“Yes—I think I have. Something in me has changed. I see things differently now. It will take some time for me to really live in accordance with this new understanding, but I don’t think I can go back to the old way now. I know it is dangerous for me, because I believe that my former fellow believers will want to harm me for leaving them. But I guess this situation is ultimately my own choice. It is a choice I want to damn myself for making, but damning myself would be futile. I must accept the consequences of my beliefs. I may be killed. But death might be preferable to living as a non-thinking savage—truthfully, a murderer.”
(I’ll elaborate on this in Part Four. To be continued!)