Monday, January 12, 2015

The role of beliefs in the human psyche

Most of us are aware that beliefs (or values, principles, attitudes etc if you please) influence much of our thinking and behaviour.
Beliefs can offer some meaning to actions/events where none may exist. For a meaning making machine/animal like the human being, beliefs therefore end up becoming crucial. Depending on how mature or open one is at the moment, a belief could be extremely narrow or reasonably broad.

A few years ago, I arrived upon the belief that beliefs stem from two opposite emotions: fear and love. For instance, the belief that human life is precious stems from the fear of chaos as well as the compassion one feels for fellow human beings. The proportion of fear and love in such a belief will, of course, be determined by the individual.
And from this small example, we could surmise the obvious: not all beliefs are detrimental. In fact, many of them are essential for a functional society. Seen in that light, the Constitution of a nation is merely a bundle of beliefs put together to reflect the cultural, social and economic state of that nation.

For the rest of this piece, I'm going to focus on the role of beliefs in the development of the individual.
In psychotherapy, the therapist often works with the client to help him redraft beliefs that no longer serve him. For instance, if a client believes that no relationship is sustainable, the therapist - through a series of steps - can help the client arrive at the belief that relationships can be durable and fulfilling. In the new belief, the client acknowledges that some relationships don't last, that relationships require effort and that relationships have the potential to offer meaning and joy. Broadening the belief, thus, offers him hope and solace.

As time ticks along, a regressive person seems to embrace narrower beliefs while a progressive person seems to broaden his. Which led me to a question: do beliefs only get broader for a progressive person? Is it always a question of replacing the narrow with the broad? Or is it possible for the belief be dropped altogether?
Take religion for instance. Let's say a person initially believes that "my religion is the only one worth embracing and every other religion is fake." But then, the person has a series of positive experiences that makes them alter their belief in the hypothetical sequence below:
Phase I: My religion is the best, but a few other religions have a few good people as well.
Phase II: While my religion remains the best, there is good in many religions.
Phase III: Many religions aspire to be as good as mine, which explains the positive energy in the world.
Phase IV: Religions like mine can be powerful catalysts for desirable human behaviour.
Phase V: The positive behaviour of human beings can stem from religious wisdom, although positive behaviour can exist independent of religion.
Phase VI: I choose to evaluate human beings - me included - by their nature instead of their religion.

Assuming that the person continues down the same path, they might become less interested in religion and more interested in goodness. And while I'm not sure that atheism or agnosticism is a broader idea, this hypothetical person might consider those options. Alas, even if the person becomes neutral about religion, the belief becomes "I am neutral about religion."
But can this belief evaporate, leaving nothing behind, not even the necessity to express what one feels about religion?
Is this what happens to those who apparently attained the highest levels of consciousness? Say, the Buddha? If one theoretically attains a state of mind wherein only the Here and Now matter, and every spoken thought is but a weak representation of a lesser idea... if that happens, has the belief evaporated? And is it possible for humanity to attain this state in droves? And if it does, how would that society be? Will it be sustainable or even desirable?

And then a thought occurred to me which made the idea go topsy-turvy.
Consider an infant - not having been fed even a dose of religion, the infant has truly no beliefs in this regard (just like our theoretical being who has the highest level of consciousness). This infant is truly free from a belief in this area.
Extrapolating, the same applies to an abuser of powerful psychotropic substances. A cocaine addict, for instance, has only one overarching belief: "I must have cocaine at all costs." Every other belief pales into insignificance.
Consider, too, a patient in an advanced stage of dementia. She has misplaced the notion of religion in the annals of her mind and is now free from whatever belief she carried in this realm.
And, finally, consider other animals who prescribe to but a few beliefs that help them to stay alive.

So what am I saying? Perhaps this: what seems to be theoretically possible in the highest realms of consciousness is empirically evident in the lowest realms of consciousness. Does this mean that lightening the load of beliefs is undesirable or counterproductive? Don't know about that.
But it seems that conditioning, along with a desire to distil wisdom out of knowledge seems to give birth to beliefs. In the absence of either conditioning or this desire, the belief cannot exist. This will be true for children raised in a "bubble" where the notion of religion does not exist. The children within this "bubble" will form beliefs only around those ideas that actually exist in their world.

I'm sure psychologists will explain this phenomenon by describing the "Stages of Ego Development". Which will only bring us back to the starting point - wanting to make everything mean something.

Perhaps one day I'd like to explore a theme related to the idea mentioned above - the role of randomness in life.

I, for one, would love to discover the answer to one question for myself: can a belief be vaporized instead of replaced?
What about you?