Belief Systems

Convictions are more dangerous to truth than lies.  ----Frederick Nietsche

John F. Kennedy said, “The great enemy of truth is often not the lie—deliberate, contrived, and dishonest—but the myth—persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.” 

These convictions come from belief systems; something we all have in one form or another. A belief system can be thought of as the mental acceptance of a proposition, statement, or concept as true on the grounds of apparent authority, which does not have to be based on actual fact. Many of these beliefs, ideas, or convictions have been programmed into us since childhood, many of them without any basis of reason, where hope and wishful thinking are mistaken for knowledge; and become powerful because they are a large part of our identity, and thus have great influence over our lives.

cartoon: Conflict between Truth and Comfort represented by man & wife.Belief systems are usually rigid rather than flexible, narrow rather than broad, closed rather than open, and immobilizing rather than liberating. It is our belief systems that we use to make judgments about the world and about any given situation as being true, good, bad, happy; where we become so emotionally invested in protecting them, facts to the contrary are rendered invisible; seeing only what aligns with and supports our beliefs. They tend to make us think in binary terms, either right or wrong, good or bad, moral or immoral, whereby knee-jerk conclusions are drawn; painting things with a broad brush into gross generalizations in a frail and lazy misguided attempt to simplify the complexities and nuances of life.

The conscious mind may want to make logically precise decisions, yet the unconscious mind wants to feel good. There are times when we know down deep that we are in conflict with our own intellect and common sense when defending our beloved belief system. We turn our back on, and abandon our intellect in order to cling to, and protect, our precious ideological comfort zone, disallowing ourselves to know what we know. If we resist and dismiss that “annoying” nudge, and doggedly continue along the same path of thought out of sheer pride and allegiance, we dishonor and deny our intellect, our inner voice, and the integrity of our true and better selves. Neuroscientist and brain researcher from Yale, Paul MacLean laments,

You know what bugs me most about the brain? It’s that the limbic system, this primitive brain that can neither read nor write, provides us with the feeling of what is real, true, and important.

The operative word in Dr. MacLean’s quote is feeling, infused with certainty based on our belief, then becoming our option to either engage our intellect as to the veracity of that feeling, or just blindly and passively ride with it. Intransigent belief constructs a mental  barrier to further knowledge and understanding; where nothing, not even irrefutable evidence, will cause it to consider or yield to that information. A great example of this in action happened when I was watching the Rachel Maddow Show airing from Alaska in 2010 when Joe Miller was running for Senator. She interviewed some of his supporters on the street protesting against Eric Holder the Attorney General, regarding and opposing his position on gun Rachel Maddow interviewing protestor.control, as they perceived it. She asked one woman holding up a Joe Miller campaign sign,
“Can I just ask, why are you upset about Eric Holder.”
She replies, “I know that he is anti-gun.”
Rachel, “What has he done that’s anti-gun?”
The woman then utters these vacuous words, “I don’t have all the facts but I know that he is anti-gun.”
Then Rachel asked a man participating in the rally the same question; and his reply?,
“I don’t know enough about that to answer that truthfully, Rachel.”

These people who behave solely from the feeling they receive from their limbic system that Paul MacLean depicts in the above quote, do so without the slightest inclination of pausing or questioning it with their intellect, and gather information. This immediate functionality of the limbic system served our primitive ancestors well ensuring their survival by allowing them to react swiftly in the face of imminent death, bypassing the slower conscious assessment of a perilous situation, providing an instantaneous interpretation to environmental stimuli—no conscious thought necessary. This primitive responsiveness lives within us still, and doesn’t serve us well interpreting modern world problems unless we make the effort to consciously assess those feelings bubbling-up from our primitive brain.

As enlightening as Dr. MacLean’s insight is on the insidiousness of the primitive brain, we nevertheless have the ability to identify our own illogical fallacies, and can therefore, if we choose, manage them with deliberation—we can disown flawed beliefs and replace them. And yes, it requires considerable fortitude to challenge long held beliefs; they are comfortable, perhaps loyal to a particular group, familiar, and cherished, and can even conjure up warm memories of the way it was, carrying the baton for the people we love or loved. Beliefs can also come from self-serving bias, self-deception, and early institutional programming; in short, an integral part of the culture in which we were raised and conditioned. When we dare to challenge them we feel the fear of the unknown as we venture beyond what we previously established as our safe boundaries. We must take heart however, and remember that the realm of the unknown is precisely the place where solutions to unsolved problems are found.

As Ayn Rand points out in her book, Philosophy: Who Needs It, we all need a philosophy, “Your choice is whether you define your philosophy by a conscious, rational, disciplined process of thought—or let your subconscious accumulate a junk heap of unwarranted conclusions [and] false generalizations…”

This does not mean we abandon our intuition…our inner voice; it does mean we use it along with good information, and in doing so; we open up the potential to become both more competent and more liberated. Acting on knowledge works far better than acting on belief. Alexander Green writes, “Genuine faith is belief in the absence of evidence, not belief in spite of the evidence.”

Cross section of brain showing limbic systemHard and fast belief systems tend to make us react automatically to certain new information…sort of a robotic reflex-action, similar to the fight-or-flight syndrome, circumventing our invaluable intellect to analyze objectively; where new information bypasses the intellect, surrendering it over to the primitive brain that is the limbic system, similar to a short circuit in an electrical system which bypasses the functional circuitry. That mechanism, left unchecked, locks us into a mental state, surreptitiously slipping by our awareness that we do have a choice. And choice is our greatest power. Developing the fortitude to hold those beliefs up to scrutiny removes the sentry at the gate of our minds whose role it is to filter out all information that doesn’t align with, protect, and caress our old beliefs.

We’re all aware that most of the directives in our life emanate from our subconscious—without our awareness—and therefore, if we don’t make a concerted effort to engage our conscious intellect of those things we are aware of whenever we can, we willingly forfeit all control over how we think and our lives. We wholly empower ourselves by becoming free thinkers. It’s of paramount importance that we are prepared to detach from our belief systems when we recognize good information screams foul, because they govern our behavior and determine our decisions through life; being on constant vigil for what we want to believe is true, isn’t the driving force for what we believe is true; and entails pausing, and consulting our intellect, always. The bottom line is developing the courage to be intellectually honest with ourselves.

Book Cover: Fostering Cooperation