How to decide what to believe

Posted on July 1, 2009. Filed under: HowTo, Philosophy |

Rather pretentious title, eh what?

I often refer in my writings to my “belief system” or “set of values” or some such thing. One might surmise by that, that I’ve spent much time contemplating different beliefs presented for my listening and reading pleasure; then sifting through them all logically for the best match(es). OR, perhaps I was taught my set of beliefs by an authority figure or figures, and because those figures were confident in the way life works, I was, too.

I have chosen lifeviews based on both the above assumptions at various times, and, at those times, they worked well for me. Now, though, I have a simpler rule…

One thing I DON’T do, is evaluate a belief based on the amount of “truth” it contains. There are two reasons for this. The first is obvious, in that in calling something a “belief” to start with, we are recognizing that the thought-content has not been “proven”. If it were, it would be something called a “fact”, not a belief. Beyond that, however, I also tend to believe that both “facts” and “truths” are subjective; attempts of our incarnate selves to “get a grip” on on perceived reality.

I use the oft-employed example of Newtonian Physics, which was “true” and consistent within its own limited paradigm, but not useful when studying very large or very small phenomena. Just because some scientists in the 16th century “believed” their physics applied to all, didn’t make it so. It seems to me this is more the rule than the exception. (Besides, Newton was one of the inventors of Calculus, which tormented me in high school, so I am less kindly disposed towards him.) 😉

Religion is taught and accepted much as science is. Science is more widely accepted by more people because most of its precepts are also endorsed by religious leaders. I’m aware of few teachers of religious beliefs (including our parents) who would say to a child:

“This is what I believe. I could be wrong, but it feels right, and resonant to me. You are invited to test your own theories. I’d advise you to look within, and adopt what beliefs seem to ring true to you, regardless of what I do religiously.”

That sort of teaching sounds like heaven to me—but we so often want to teach others “how life works”. A belief I tend to embrace states that there is no way, really, to know how life works. This is true for me whether regarding, let’s say, algebra (solve all the equations you want to; they still exist within a mental construct) or, for instance, a holy book giving advice (I don’t dispute one may find truth there, but it doesn’t confer authority upon those who believe differently).

So, how do I decide what to believe? Beliefs, for me (at least on the day I write this) need to have three qualities for me to embrace them; listed in order of importance:

  • The belief must be fun. (I’m serious about that!)
  • The belief must be useful (as defined by…guess who?) The belief must enhance my life, and, by extension, help my life be of benefit to others. It must be pragmatic; workable; affirming. If not, I do my best to chuck it out as soon as possible.
  • The belief must not cause me the slightest temptation to want to impose it upon another. This is crucial. I’d never want to impose…well, anything upon a person who hasn’t asked to share it.

Beliefs, for me, turn out to be very much like clubs to join. I entertain the belief that many scientific experiments are repeatable, and therefore give us knowledge about the workings of the Universe. (Ah, but what is knowledge? A topic for another day.) Therefore, I enjoy playing in the arena of science. I feel that music connects me with you and all beings; it allows me to feel emotionally in ways I don’t otherwise. So, I participate in music.

I “believe” in these things. That “belief” doesn’t make them real. All it does is give meaning to my human existence. How to decide what to believe? Any way you can. Om Peace, Blessings, Salaam, Shalom.

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11 Responses to “How to decide what to believe”

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Your posts always make me think, Muse — that’s a fact, not a belief. 🙂

I believe the world would be a better place if your third point about not imposing beliefs on others were univerally adopted.

But I’m curious — are there any beliefs you’ve rejected because they’re not fun?

One thing I DON’T do, is evaluate a belief based on the amount of “truth” it contains. There are two reasons for this. The first is obvious, in that in calling something a “belief” to start with, we are recognizing that the thought-content has not been “proven”. If it were, it would be something called a “fact”, not a belief. Beyond that, however, I also tend to believe that both “facts” and “truths” are subjective; attempts of our incarnate selves to “get a grip” on on perceived reality.

Interesting. I “choose” beliefs based on how accurately they describe what I perceive to be my objective reality – though, of course, it is never truly objective. If some theory is truthful (again, in my perceived reality, trying to avoid the filter of optimism or cynicism as much as possible) nearly every time it is applied, then I’d say that it’s worth adopting, as my reality supports that belief. Of course, the only way to get as close to objectivity as possible (avoiding the placebo effect) is to formulate your beliefs on your own.

Now, this never applies to things like mental states, and philosophies of cynicism or optimism. Why? Because they are self-fulfilling prophecies; as you think, you shall become.

Or, to use simile – you cannot use outlooks like optimism or cynicism or even nihilism to judge objective reality because they are like changing the lenses used to view your life: they change your perception of reality. Whereas other beliefs are merely tools to be used within your reality, and don’t color your lens at all.

And I myself have had some trouble with evangelizing. I see people going toward misfortune, and I try to steer them in the right direction, but they never listened. I should only answer those who ask for help, I guess – and let people control their own lives. But it’s tough when they make so many of the mistakes that I’ve already made, and I can’t do a thing to stop them.

[…] How to decide what to believe (museditions.wordpress.com) […]

A very interesting approach you have here. I’m afraid I’m having trouble wrapping my head around it. I believe things that I think are true or right – for me, anyway – and I can’t imagine discarding a belief unless somebody persuaded me that it was wrong.

And now I am up to date with your blog! ^_^

I guess I should have read this earlier in the evening. It’s almost 2AM and I believe
my mind is too tired to understand it all. My belief is when you’re tired your mind can’t
believe anything you read. Now I believe I’m going to bed. 😉

Thank you, ella! I consider that a high compliment, indeed! “— that’s a fact, not a belief.” (This is one of many reasons you delight me!) And thanks, I wish people would refrain from “enthusiastic belief sharing” —but I’m finding it hard to believe that will happen. 😉 To answer your question, (thanks for asking!) yes, there have been some I’ve rejected for not being fun. Here’s one: “I have to go visit Aunt Florence, because even though I will dislike it, it will somehow make the world a better place.” Not fun. Drop-kicked outa here. Replaced with: “I can choose to visit Aunt Florence. Whether I do so or not has little to do with whether it’s nice for her or not, but if I do go, it will be in a spirit of love and joy. Otherwise I won’t.” —Subtle, perhaps, but makes a huge difference. 😀

Leap, thanks for your thoughtful analysis! Wow. Your paragraph about how you choose your beliefs sounds like a quite workable system. I like your changing lenses simile; very clear and helpful. I much appreciate your introspection about evangelizing. It’s of course, your choice, but the part of me that has a preference is glad that you recognize this as a tendency you don’t prefer. My only philosophical difference, perhaps, is that I don’t view others actions or choice as mistakes, as I really cannot know all the ramifications for them is spite of how things may look. Now, that’s my lofty, philosophical idealism speaking—in reality I’ll often think: “If only they would…or wouldn’t…their life would be so much easier! 😀

Hello, RadicalAtheist, thanks for linking.

CuriousC: 🙂

Hey, B0bby, thanks for taking a crack at it. Perhaps you might also change a belief upon contemplation, and coming to a new conclusion? Anyway, your choice of the words “true or right” for you seem somewhat akin to my “fun”, in a way, as both sets of criteria are affirming. 🙂 I’m glad you’re up to date. I’ve missed you!

joan, I believe you have caused me to laugh out loud! Not quite as late as 2am, but still! That app Google has for GMail, where you have to take a little test before you can send emails late at night might be just the thing for late-night posters. Although it’s intended for people who have been imbibing, so they don’t inadvertently embarrass themselves… 😉

I think your essay implies that we must avoid extremes in beliefs and dogmas- I hope I’m right because that is one rule I follow.
Sometimes I regret it from time to time whenever I see persons whom I blindly ‘proselyted’ into blindly following an extremist church even though most are happy.
And that painful experience just pushed me farther away from extremist dogmas. I’m not sure yet if this lesson or reward is just.

Ah, Muse, but your lofty, philosophical idealism is good. You reminded me of an old Taoist story, which goes something like this (from memory):

A farmer (in some instances a Zen Master) has but one horse, and one day it ran away. Everyone in the village says, “Oh, how awful!” The farmer just smiles slightly and says, “We’ll see.”

One day, the horse returns, bringing two other beautiful horses with it. The villagers say, “How wonderful!” The farmer just smiles slightly and says, “We’ll see.”

A week later, the farmer’s son was thrown off of one of the new horses and ended up breaking his leg. The villagers say, “How dreadful!” And the farmer smiles slightly and says, “We’ll see.”

The next week, a war broke out, and every man of ability was drafted into the army. But, due to his broken leg, the farmer’s son wasn’t able to go. The villagers say, “How wonderful!” But the farmer still smiles and says, “We’ll see.”

Regardless of the farmer/zen master’s wisdom, I still try to prevent people from making mistakes. But, then again, personal experience happens to be the best guide, and only after they make the mistake will people learn the lesson the best, I suppose.

Hi, poch, your comments are poignant. Well, I, at least, prefer to avoid extremes in…anything, really. I cannot choose another’s path for them, though, or know if it’s “right”. I think what you did, at the time you did it, must have felt right and worthy to you. From what I know of evangelicals, it is a tenet of their faith that they must bring the “word” to others, so if they are believers, that’s what they must do. You say that most are happy—if that’s so, than who are we to question? If not, perhaps you might share your perspective now. I would hope you would be kind to yourself in any event. 🙂

Oh, leap, that is just my favorite Taoist story; I know it well! Thanks for the reminder here. (I’ll tell you my second favorite sometime!) Well, perhaps we can agree that those things known as “mistakes” could be defined as “learning experiences” if one wants? 😉


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