Where we get our beliefs


As I pondered what I would say about the topic of mysticism, which I suggested in a comment I would be writing about, it occurred to me that mysticism is but one source of beliefs among many. So I started to try to catalog them. I even tried to come up with diagram to show how they might be related.

This is off the cuff, and I considered looking up a William James quote to kick things off, but I didn’t bother. My catalog will be ordered based on the pervasiveness of the source in descending order. The various sources start out as concentric circles. Once we get a little deeper though, the circles start to overlap and conflict. I’m not making any epistemic claims in this. None of the categories that I came up with have any intrinsic priority of validity.

Here goes:

  1. The Background. This is the most fundamental source of beliefs and is in many ways non-linguistic. It includes a large portion of the cultural beliefs that are part of the “water we swim in”. In Heidegger terms it is that which is closest to us, but also furthest away since it is virtually undetectable. It is the source of the vast majority of our useful practices, but also of prejudices, useless practices (“Bless You” after a sneeze) and many other non-rational or at least non-scientific beliefs. These beliefs are very difficult to identify since they do not submit easily to a propositional calculus. It could even be argued that the term “belief” in this context is inappropriate simply because of their non-linguistic, automatic features. But under certain conditions, these beliefs can be discovered and articulated. So in some sense they exist as beliefs.
  2. Authority. This category is represented mostly during pre-adolescent childhood. It is different from the background since it includes the transmission of beliefs from parents, teachers, relatives and other adults in positions of authority. This is how children come to believe in the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus. Basic moral beliefs are also molded and shaped by authority. Tribal customs are another important example of this source. These beliefs can be rendered into propositional statements with definite truth values such as “Santa Claus is a real man who lives at the North Pole” or “No one will like me if I don’t brush my teeth.” Simple intuitional statements of value that seem to be innate in young children are also shaped and modified by authority. For example, most children from a very early age have a sense of “fairness”. The egoistic version of this “value” is shaped by authority to gradually include a concept of fairness that typically includes the feelings of other people.
  3. Reason. Overlapping and sometimes conflicting with authority is reason. For most people this human faculty becomes the source of many of our strongest held beliefs and is the category least likely to be subject to reinterpretation over one’s lifetime. Most reasoned beliefs are not controversial and tend to be universal. They may be inferred independently or introduced in the course of general education, but require that the subject conclude that the belief is valid based on valid premises. Reasoned beliefs expand and grow outward over the course of ones life and can become very complicated. Human beings are capable of having reasoned beliefs that are contradictory. For example a person may hold a reasoned belief that evolution is probably true because the theory makes the most sense, but at the same time believe that a supernatural force guided the selection based on the observation that animals are well designed.
  4. Expert Authority. In the absence of first-hand knowledge of the evidence to support a particular proposition, individuals will defer to other experts who presumably have come to a reasonable conclusion based on evidence in their field. Claims made by science are the obvious example, but a wish-fulfilling bias can lead many to hold false beliefs based on expert authority as well. Belief in the efficacy of a particular diet pill is a good example. Many mistaken beliefs originate from this category. Conspiracy theories, political beliefs, and even some supernatural beliefs (for example belief in ghosts) arise from a misguided reliance on expert authority.
  5. Revelation. Western religions are based on the principle that there are revealed truths that have been recorded and witnessed by individuals in history. The strength of ones susceptibility to beliefs of this type is greatly influenced by the strength in combination of all the prior sources of belief. Eastern religions tend to be disseminated based on a combination of ritualized practices, myths (accepted metaphorically and historically in many cases) and cultural practices. Beliefs from revelation vary greatly in strength and influence depending on the contextual level of authority, cultural value to the believer and other variables. They can be easily stated as propositions: “Jesus Christ is the Son of God” or “The promised Messiah will come.”
  6. Mysticism. Beliefs based on mysticism may be similar to those that come from revelation, but they are different in one key respect. The transmission of such beliefs is distinctly individual. A belief based on mysticism is one that is unique to the individual and is based on an experience of some kind. They have been variously described as visions, messages and insights into “deeper” or less accessible forms of knowledge. The belief that it is possible for someone to access this type of “secret” knowledge is itself NOT a mystically based belief, but rather originates from either Expert Authority or Revelation.
  7. Non-Religious Metaphysics. Last but not least, we come to philosophy. Ontological claims based in philosophical reasoning are different than any other type of belief on this list. It may be objected that these beliefs ought to fall under Reason, particularly since that is the only tool the philosopher has at her disposal. Nevertheless, because the object of study itself is beyond the scope of ordinary scientific style investigation, I would argue that this is a special case and is distinct from the other categories. It is also true that much of the work of philosophers will not result in any beliefs at all, but only more questions and skepticism. Reasoned objections and disciplined arguments can be a pastime in and of themselves and not result in specific beliefs. And given the disposition of philosophers–at least run-of-the-mill ones–very few are willing to assert positive truth values to philosophical propositions, at least metaphysical ones.

So there’s my list. Probably not exhaustive, but I think it covers a lot of the areas. I’m not sure what use it is, but it was enjoyable thinking about it.

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12 thoughts on “Where we get our beliefs

  1. I tried a DuckDuckGo search on the quoted phrase “non-religious metaphysics” and the top ranked result is about management. That somehow seems encouraging.

    For a William James quote, I got this one from RAW, so I’m not sure it’s genuine:
    “When one compares Stoic and Christian ejaculations, one learns much”

    Since you put down “authority” and “expert authority” as separate categories, I’ll throw in a Bakunin quote:
    “The bootmaker is the authority concerning boots”

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  2. For example, most children from a very early age have a sense of “fairness”. The egoistic version of this “value” is shaped by authority to gradually include a concept of fairness that typically includes the feelings of other people.

    Are you sure about that?

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  3. Well, yes, that is probably quite a generalization. The key word here is “people”. What people get to be included in that category, if any. I should have qualified as a possible example rather than a norm.

    Thanks for pointing that out.

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    • Generalizing is okay by me and should be okay by most. It would take forever to investigate every nuance and write about the findings. From generalizations, the audience can reason toward specifics.

      What I was more curious about was the idea that authority gradually shapes those under its charge, to value the feelings of people. I think such shaping might occur in those realms we consider religion, but my travels in the world of American business revealed a consistency of people after profit, not before, in the majority of cases. “Mission statements” and the like from a business entity may say otherwise, but the practice tends toward dehumanizing rather than empathy-encouraging — at least from my experiences.

      Some businesses value people only as the vectors of profit, others are more holistic and realize the human-feelings aspect of the vector’s role, and thus they treat their customers with more empathy. I worked for one human-valuing business as a young man, and another as a middle-aged man, but worked for and/or with many others who had the pure profit vector view.

      Elsewhere in American culture, it’s not uncommon at all to hear people say, “but this is business” while disregarding the human impact dimension of a business practice.

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      • So this brings up a separate topic.

        As to whether “authority” shapes moral beliefs, I think it has to, for good or ill. The only controversial thing I think I threw in there was the idea that children have some innate moral sense. I think it’s true, but isn’t necessary to my point. The shaping occurs because of the nature of the relations regardless of the religious/non-religious beliefs on the authority itself.

        OK to your other point, I agree with the observation, but not the implication. You seem to be implying that the sociopathic/amoral behavior of corporate executives is the result of the influence of authority in their lives. I wouldn’t discount the possibility that that occurs, but I don’t see a strong correlation. There are many moral people who work in business and would never think of doing the things they do if they were personally responsible for their actions. It is only because they are part of an institution that commoditizes human beings that they are able to take such actions. It is the structure of the corporate entity itself, as enabled by the state, to objectify the individual and cause immediate harm.

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  4. The Background. This is the most fundamental source of beliefs and is in many ways non-linguistic. It includes a large portion of the cultural beliefs that are part of the “water we swim in”.

    Earlier today I watched a lecture from the video course ” The Science of Mindfulness: A Research-Based Path to Well-Being – Professor Ronald D. Siegel” He described a cartoon – two fish are talking, one of them with a worried look on his face: “To tell you the truth, I’m not that comfortable IN the water.”

    n8chz’s William James quote is from chapter 2 of Varieties of Religious Experience. More fully:

    If we compare stoic with Christian ejaculations we see much more than a difference of doctrine; rather is it a difference of emotional mood that parts them. When Marcus Aurelius reflects on the eternal reason that has ordered things, there is a frosty chill about his words which you rarely find in a Jewish, and never in a Christian piece of religious writing. The universe is “accepted” by all these writers; but how devoid of passion or exultation the spirit of the Roman Emperor is! Compare his fine sentence: “If gods care not for me or my children, here is a reason for it,” with Job’s cry: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him!” and you immediately see the difference I mean. The anima mundi, to whose disposal of his own personal destiny the Stoic consents, is there to be respected and submitted to, but the Christian God is there to be loved; and the difference of emotional atmosphere is like that between an arctic climate and the tropics, though the outcome in the way of accepting actual conditions uncomplainingly may seem in abstract terms to be much the same.

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  5. You seem to be implying that the sociopathic/amoral behavior of corporate executives is the result of the influence of authority in their lives. I wouldn’t discount the possibility that that occurs, but I don’t see a strong correlation.

    What if you allow yourself the possibility that what you don’t see nonetheless is what’s happening?

    How do children become adults? The adults in their lives, and sometimes their peers, provide lived-in examples of what humans should be doing. They also provide verbal guidance. Bear in mind that generally, children are great emulators, and specifically, some humans tend toward learning by imitation rather than by following instruction.

    What of a child reared in a household where parents say “cheating others is wrong” (for example) yet the child learns that the parent has cheated on income taxes, or in business deals? Which example will the child take to heart and embody later in life? The spoken guidance advising against cheating, or the living example that despite what adults say, they do differently?

    There are many moral people who work in business and would never think of doing the things they do if they were personally responsible for their actions.

    Academically/theoretically, this may be true — but my experience is that people don’t have stringent moral codes yet set them aside because corporate or other structural machinations allow them more leeway. Corporate immunity doesn’t explain tax cheating, relationship cheating, driving recklessly on a crowded road, beating a child, etc.

    It is only because they are part of an institution that commoditizes human beings that they are able to take such actions. It is the structure of the corporate entity itself, as enabled by the state, to objectify the individual and cause immediate harm.

    I’m not so sure this is true, see my statement directly above. I’ve never seen a parent allow their child to treat others inhumanely, and suggest that corporate business practices excuse the child’s treatment of others. I’ve never seen a child told to be ruthless because as a businessman, that’s what’s rewarded. Obviously I don’t see all child-rearing scenarios, but I think scapegoating a system when a child’s outlook isn’t shaped by that system, it’s a bit odd. It’s consistent with certain sociopolitical theories, but those theories are no more than theories, regardless of the number of adherents who treat the theories as if some sort of supreme law.

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  6. I don’t think we actually disagree. Your observations are all accurate. Immoral people often raise immoral children. I don’t think that’s controversial at all. It makes sense. But certainly morality is not limited to the religious, although I would concede that religion is conducive to moral upbringing, particularly when authorities (parents & so forth) are faithful to that moral code. Hypocrisy, however, can be very toxic.

    As to your assertion that I am touting a socio-political theory, yes perhaps I am. But it is based on observation. Let’s put it this way: a truly moral individual with a strong conviction about certain modes of behavior is probably not going to be successful in many corporate environments. On the other hand, most of us are fairly malleable in our moral behavior. We succumb to “situational ethics” rather easily. I confess that this was true in my own case. It doesn’t mean that I completely lack moral conviction or that I was predisposed to treat people like objects, but in the context of a corporate hierarchy it was what was expected of me. Fortunately for me, I eventually failed in that environment and came to my senses.

    So let’s compromise. It’s not either/or but both/and. The effect of authority on ones moral disposition is paramount. But moral weakness can and is exploited by our society, particularly the capitalist individualist system that we have.

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    • I don’t think we actually disagree.

      I don’t think of it as disagreement, I think of it as different perspectives. It’s along the lines of what I said above about generalizing being okay, and reasoning the specifics from the general.

      The problem with system-blaming is that systems do not raise juvenile humans. Humans raise juvenile humans. The formation of the “sociopath” (a word I don’t like, too sweeping and too vague) is not the system’s fault. It’s a result of the child reared without sufficient nurturing of empathy or whatever otherwise we’d call respect for other humans.

      Idealizing is what theories do, and nearly all theories fall down when their ideals are tested against reality. Theories then are shaped by the actual happenings, and if the theorist(s) is(are) objective enough, the theories are modified according to the actual happenings. When the theory (or -ist) refuses to see reality being non-conforming (as regards the theory) and holds firm and insists on primacy of the theory and suggests an observational error concerning reality, it’s time to doubt the theory and its proponents/adherents.

      A theory which blames a system created by humans is falling short. It needs to go one step further and examine the human component. The system doesn’t exist without the humans operating within it. So the fault is on the humans, not on the system. And thus, circle back to how children learn to be human adults.

      This is why I doubted, way up above, your statement about authority teaching the value of human feelings. It seems that in practice, whatever makes one an authority over learning, developing humans needs to account for that authority saying one thing while doing another and thereby offering a conflicted model for the developing human to follow. If a parent sees corporate chicanery and decides that cheating is survival embodied, and nudges her child toward rule-flexing to personal advantage, no system made the parent choose that nudge over a different nudge. The parent chose which nudge to give. Not the system.

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      • Sorry, I meant to also include this in the above.

        But moral weakness can and is exploited by our society, particularly the capitalist individualist system that we have.

        “Society” doesn’t exploit those weaknesses. Individual human interactions/transactions are the building blocks of the society.

        Individualism isn’t wrong. Think of a relationship with a loved one who is troubled and in a self-defeating mode. Imagine you’d like to help that loved one get out of the mode, but you’re troubled by your own tendencies, in whatever aspects of your life, toward self-defeat. You can’t help the loved one until you help yourself first. That sort of individualism isn’t negative. Humans are not a hive-mind even though we can thinly examine things and observe tribal behavior suggesting hive-mindedness. Each person chooses what/how to be in every interpersonal exchange. It is no excuse to say “others are doing it” if the “it” is socially destructive.

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