Early in my musings on whether or not we choose belief, I happened to re-discover this picture of my son boulder-hopping. The rocks are in a creek behind
a rental cottage at “Hannah’s Close,” County Down, Northern Ireland. You don’t have to “believe” me… you can rent the same cottage and find these same rocks. But, if you do choose to believe me, notice it doesn’t really take any action on you part. “Yes, yes, for the time being I’ll accept your assertion about these rocks. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg for me to believe what you say,” to paraphrase Thomas Paine.
I know, I know… he looks like a child at play. I looked, did a double-take and said to myself, “There’s a belief!” At the shutter’s snap, his action became a captured belief.
Frederick von Schiller said, “Architecture is frozen music.” I realized looking at this picture that “Action is frozen belief.”
So let’s start here in the reformulation. Forget about the “standard” definitions of the word belief, or claiming to believe something.
A “belief” is an action taken in accepting a truth claim, proposition or observation, with the goal being to reach a desired state (or avoid a feared future state) as the result of choosing to act.
There’s a lot to unpack in that definition, and we will get to it all.
Belief is Action:
My son, hanging in midair, has clearly been caught in the act of believing he can make the jump from where he was to where he wants to be. Moments before the jump he may have entertained the possibility that a leap would end in injury or a good soaking, but that wasn’t a “belief.” Neither was the potentiality that “I can make the jump!” Without the action, the belief doesn’t exist as anything more than an option to be considered. So let’s call that an option.
Consider the easiest of entries from the list of beliefs on the previous page: “I believe I’ll order the chicken.” How would you know if I “truly” held that belief? You would only know that after I order the chicken. Until then, it’s just potential belief.
This is a premise Sam Harris started moving toward in his 2005 book, “The End of Faith.” Harris writes that beliefs are “action in potentia;” i.e. things one might do. That’s a start, but “in potentia?” Simply options. Surely there is a distinction between a potential “belief” and an actual belief?
Many aphorisms support the idea that “real” belief is found in action: from the religious…”You shall know them by their works” to the folksy “Actions speak louder than words,” or “Put your money where your mouth is.”
I stumbled across an excerpt of Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists… the critical document in which the term “separation of Church and State” is found.
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, …” (emphasis mine)
Government may respond to “action” only, because expressed beliefs are nothing but opinions. (This might bring up some gnarly issues about what government might do regarding the “act” of expressing those views so others are infected by the words… but let’s hold off on pursuing that digression for now.)
People know that beliefs are TRULY shown in actions, and that lip-service is judged less valuable than actions taken. We also recognize how the ephemeral nature of “potential” belief is revealed by inaction: “He’s all talk,” or as they say in Texas, “He’s all hat, no cattle.” When a person expresses a belief and then doesn’t act on it, we identify the failure as a lack of action in support of the avowed belief statement. The person didn’t DO what they said they believed – they didn’t REALLY believe it. We intuitively know the belief doesn’t really exist without action. It is not uncommon to hear the same person mouth two diametrically opposed propositions.
Doesn’t it seem like a problem to call both contradicting opinions “beliefs?”
“Talk is cheap.” Until a person acts, they may express or consider dozens of “potential beliefs” or belief propositions.
A person who, after assessing an array of possibilities, has chosen and acted upon the one, most efficacious act for achieving their goal is a “believer” in that action, toward that goal. Everything else in the array of options is not a belief, but simple possibility or (if expressed to others) a stated opinion, or a posturing sign of identity.
Harris’ position evolved in his next book, “The Moral Landscape.” In chapter 3, in a section interestingly called “What is Belief?” he says,
“’Belief,’ therefore, can be thought of as a process taking place in the present; it is the act of grasping, not the thing grasped.”
Yes. Belief is the ACT of grasping at what one “believes” is promised; taking action to reach a goal. Harris continues,
Consider the following claim: Starbucks does not sell plutonium. I suspect that most of us would be willing to wager a fair amount of money that this statement is generally true—which is to say that we believe it.
Let’s consider that sentence using my perspective on action: Sam sneaks in an action without mentioning it: the act of wagering. A “belief” means nothing unless one must act. The act of wagering IS the belief, not the truth of the proposition about plutonium. Neither is the belief about the outcome of the wager. The wager, the “belief,” is the willingness to act as if the proposition is true and will lead you to a better state that you desire for yourself. Presumably you wager in the hope for potential riches in this case. We choose which option to gamble on, and so we choose which option we “truly” believe, by acting.
So there you have it: People believe what they want to believe… because they want the results they desire, and hope they can achieve.
But Harris then rains on my parade, as mentioned earlier, he partially recants:
“Choosing beliefs freely is not what rational minds do.”
In spite of moving very close to my position that belief is action, Harris is clearly clinging to a different meaning of the word belief: Belief as “truth.” It’s the very notion I would like to convince you to discard, or at the very least be extraordinarily circumspect about adopting.
Again, let me exhort you to believe… I will get to a “So what?” moment. Believe me? Demonstrate it by acting and reading further.