by Jim Walker
People have slaughtered each other in wars, pogroms, genocides, inquisitions, crusades, and political actions for centuries and still kill each other over beliefs in ideologies, politics, philosophies, and religion (and usually a combination of several reasons). These belief-systems, when stated as propositions, may appear mystical or genuine to the naive, but when confronted with a testable bases from reason and experiment, they fail miserably. I maintain that faiths (types of beliefs) create more social problems than they solve and the potential dangers from them could threaten the future of humankind.
Throughout history, humankind has paid reverence to beliefs and mystical thinking. Organized religion has played the most significant role in the support and propagation of beliefs and faith. This has resulted in an acceptance of beliefs in general. Regardless of how one may reject religion, religious support of supernatural events gives credence to other superstitions in general and the support of faith (belief without evidence), mysticism, and miracles. Most scientists, politicians, philosophers, and even atheists support the notion that some forms of belief provide a valuable means to establish "truth" as long as it contains the backing of data and facts. Belief has long become a socially acceptable form of thinking in science as well as religion. Indeed, once a proposition turns to belief, it automatically undermines opposition to itself. Dostoyevsky warned us that those who reject religion "will end by drenching the earth in blood." But this represents a belief in-itself. Our history has shown that the majority of mass killings (regardless of how they got started), get justified by the religious beliefs of the leaders who started them, not from the rejection of religion.
However, does rational thinking require the adherence to beliefs at all? Does productive science, ethics, or a satisfied life require any attachment to a belief of any kind? Can we predict future events, act on data, theories, and facts without resorting to the ownership of belief? This paper attempts to show that, indeed, one need not own beliefs of any kind to establish scientific facts, observe and enjoy nature, or live a productive, moral, and useful life.
Relative to the history of life, human languages have existed on the earth for only a few thousand years, a flash of an instant compared to the millions of years of evolution. (Estimates for the beginnings of language range from 40,000 to 200,000 years ago). It should come to no surprise that language takes time to develop into a useful means of communication. As in all information systems, errors can easily creep into the system, especially at the beginning of its development. It should not come to any surprise that our language and thought processes may contain errors, delusions and beliefs. It would behoove us to find and attempt to deal with these errors and become aware of their dangers.
The ability to predict the future successfully provides humans with the means to survive. No other animal species has a capacity to think, remember, imagine, and forecast to the degree of Homo sapiens. To replace our thoughts with intransigent beliefs belies the very nature of the very creative thinking process which keeps us alive.
Before I go on, I'd like to apologize for the sloppy writing style of this article. I intend this as a work in progress as this reflects my thoughts about the subject of belief along with what science has discovered about it. As new information arrives, I either make changes or add information on the fly, so some things may seem out of order, anachronistic or repeated.
I learned how to disown beliefs even before I had any scientific understanding on the subject. Many people do not understand how a person can do this so I hope to explain that one can indeed live without beliefs, or at least give them a better understanding about the subject. I also hope to explain what belief means and what it doesn't mean and the problems they can cause. If my experience only applies to me and no one else, then I probably have an abnormal brain. Fortunately the scientific information that has arrived has tended to support my case and diminished the argument against it. Nor do I intend to proselytize or try to convince you that you should abandon your beliefs. Many people, especially children, can't disown beliefs simply because they do not possess enough knowledge, curiosity, or skepticism to live without them.
Origins of belief
- "The closest relative of the chimp is the human. Not orangs, but people. Us. Chimps and humans are nearer kin than are chimps and gorillas or any other kinds of apes not of the same species."
- --Carl Sagan
Very little evidence has yet appeared about how belief arose in humans. As social animals, we probably have always held beliefs to some degree. Studies of our closest DNA relatives, the apes, have suggested that primate social animals require both followers and leaders. The followers must assume the codes of conduct of their leaders if they wish to live without social conflict. Since there always occurs more followers than leaders, the property of accepting the leaders without challenge and the introduction of language may have led human primates towards the expression of beliefs.
As one possibility, perhaps the human animal believes because of an inherent result from expressed genes (phenotypes). Interestingly, some animals have in their DNA a predisposition for imprinted programming.  One extreme example of maturation imprinting occurs with newborn greylag geese where they regard the first suitable animal that it sees as its parent and follows it around. In nature geese usually see their natural mother when born, but if humankind interrupts the natural process and a newborn goose first sees a human, then it comes to regard itself, in some sense, as a human, thus compromising its natural life as a goose. Some young animals have a kind of "eidetic" memory; they will believe whatever gets taught to them. Do humans exhibit a similar kind imprinting while young as do many other animals? Or do we learn how to believe from our parents, expressed from memetic inheritance? Most people accept, without question, the religion of their youth. The degree that humans have imprinted or learned belief memories, or the ability to control their beliefs, or reduce them remains open for further investigation. Learning about the mechanism of beliefs at this early stage may help us understand the consequences of impressionable teaching and may lead us to modify the strategy of early learning so as to avoid the debilitating effects of unexamined beliefs.
Some evolutionary biologists think that beliefs require an evolutionary explanation because every known culture through history has had beliefs. And if beliefs have an evolutionary survival advantage, how can they serve that advantage? Of course no one knows how for sure because beliefs do not leave behind fossil evidence. Nevertheless one can still propose a hypothesis and the best one I've heard comes from Richard Dawkins. In his book, "The God Delusion," he explains this on pages 172-179. I'll give you a brief section from this chapter. Although he writes about religion, it also applies to beliefs in general:
"My specific hypothesis is about children. More than any other species, we survive by the accumulated experience of previous generations, and that experience needs to be passed on to children for their protection and well-being. Theoretically, children might learn from personal experience not to go too near a cliff edge, not to eat untried red berries, not to swim in crocodile-infested waters. But, to say the least, there will be selective advantage to child brains that possess the rule of thumb: believe, without question, whatever your grown-ups tell you. Obey your parents; obey the tribal elders without question. This is a generally valuable rule of thumb to believe." [Dawkins] (also watch a video of his explanation)
[Humans also communicate these belief rules through spoken or symbolic language. Since other animals do not have the language ability to the degree of humans, that explains why animals do not have religions.]
However, as children grow up, they no longer need to listen to their parents because their brains have now fully developed and they can think for themselves. Unfortunately, evolution has no way to clean up these evolutionary belief traits while in adulthood so the beliefs they inherited from their parents remain.
The evolutionary advantage of utilizing beliefs while young, although they help the survival of our species, can also lead to bad consequences later in adult life but not so severe as to prevent the survival of our species. These bad consequences of beliefs may have led early humans toward violence against members of their own. As early Homo sapiens collected beliefs, some of them must surely have contained beliefs of violence, possibly to protect them from other tribes who might harm them or who they believed might harm them.
The earliest evidence of human culture from Paleolithic and Mesolithic societies show that humans practiced some form of violence against fellow humans. These violent actions appear similar to the brutality of other primate species (chimpanzees, our closest primate relative, for example, reveals they engage in chimpanzee warfare). Later, the skills of human weaponry increased during the Neolithic period, and archeologists have uncovered evidence for executions and sacrifices. Although no one has direct evidence for languages spoked in the Neolithic period, violence of this kind, no doubt requires commination so they probably had language along with beliefs to justify their executions and sacrifices.
Many early societies believed in spirits and animism, the belief that animals and inanimate objects possess a spirit. Indeed, the Latin word, anima, means soul. The word "spirit" also derives from the Latin word for breath. No doubt ignorance about the nature of wind, breath and movement of animals led them to construct an "explanation" about things in their world. How could they possibly know the difference between beliefs, facts, and evidence? These early societies hardly had anything that we would call multiculturalism, and this alone would isolate their belief systems from other belief systems. Imagine, for example, that you lived in a tribe that held strong beliefs and you came across another tribe that held an entirely different set of beliefs. Without an understanding of cultural diversity, or even the difference between beliefs and facts, how could they not feel threatened by another tribe that held beliefs that conflicted with their beliefs?
With language came the contemplation and study of thoughtful systems. Socrates and Plato introduced beliefs of "forms" of things existing independently of their physical examples. These philosophical beliefs represented superficial representations of an underlying and absolute "reality." Aristotle carried the concept further but placed these forms to physical objects as "essences." He posited the existence of a soul and introduced the concept of an immovable mover (God) to justify matter which moves through the "heavens." These ghostly concepts live today, not only in religion, but in our language. Many times we express essence ideas without thinking about them because they exist in the very structure of common communication derived from ancient philosophers. Since no one can see or measure these essences, the only way to comprehend them comes in the form of belief. Sadly, people still accept these essences as "real" based on nothing but faith without ever investigating whether they exist or not.
Orthodox religionists hinged their "sacred" philosophies upon the shoulders of ancient philosophers. Plotinus reorganized Plato's work as the bases for Platonism which lasted for many centuries. Thomas Aquinas became the foremost disseminator of Aristotle's thought. Aristotelianism and its limited logic still holds the minds of many believers. Today people still believe in inanimate objects, spirits, gods, angels, ghosts, alien UFOs, without ever questioning the reliability of their sources. Belief and faith can overpower the mind of a person to such an extent that even in the teeth of contrary evidence, he will continue to believe in it for no other reason than others around him believe in it or that people have believed in it for centuries.
- "Religion. n. A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to ignorance the nature of the Unknowable."
- -A. Bierce
The meaning of belief
To establish a common ground for the general concept of belief, I hold to the common usage of the term from the American Heritage dictionary (1st edition 1969):
Belief: 1. The mental act, condition, or habit of placing trust or confidence in a person or thing; faith. 2. Mental acceptance or conviction in the truth or actuality of something. 3. Something believed or accepted as true; especially, a particular tenet, or a body of tenets, accepted by a group of persons.
Believe: 1. To accept as true or real. 2. To credit with veracity; have confidence in; trust. 3. To expect or suppose; think: I believe that he will come shortly. 1. To have faith, especially religious faith. 2. To have faith or confidence; to trust. Used with in: I believe in his ability. 3. To have confidence in the truth, value, or existence of something. Used with in: "Edison did not believe in the cinema" (Ivor Montagu). 4. To think or judge: How could you believe so badly of him?
In its simplest form, belief occurs as a mental act, a thinking process in the brain that requires two things: a feeling and a propositional statement. To "believe" requires a conscious feeling of truth. To communicate what this feeling refers to requires some form of logical structure such as spoken or written language. Thus a belief requires a thought and a conscious feeling of "truth" which, according to neurological brain research, stems from the limbic part of the brain (discussed in the mechanism of belief, below). Thus, belief occurs as a thought with a feeling or emotion "attached." In other words: Belief= emotion + logic. Because belief requires emotion, it also represents a psychological state, not simply a mechanical thinking state.
In all cases, I refer to beliefs as occurring in an aware state of consciousness. Beliefs here do not refer to subconscious thoughts, or any mental activity occurring below the threshold of consciousness. Nor do beliefs apply to sleeping and dream states, or to unconscious habits, or instincts. When a person owns a belief, s/he consciously accepts their own belief. The degree of feeling to which one accepts their own beliefs, as valid, can vary from mild acceptance to certain absoluteness. Thus it would prove meaningless to say that a person has beliefs without them knowing it or for them to deny their own beliefs. Obviously, a person who does not believe in something, does not believe in that something; a person who believes in something, does believe in that something. Belief requires conscious acceptance.
How belief confuses arguments
One of the problems of the word believe comes from the different meanings attached to it, sometimes meaning opposite of what the writer intends. From the dictionary meanings above, the word believe has three different meanings. 1. believe as in having faith (belief with little or no evidence): I believe in ghosts. 2. a supposition or guess (probability thinking): I believe that he will come shortly. 3. belief as meaning the same thing as knowledge (justified true belief).
To avoid the semantic problems of the words belief and believe, simply avoid its use in language altogether and replace them with more descriptive words (unless, of course you intend to express a religious or faithful meaning, or while discussing the subject of belief). This especially helps scientific writing to avoid confusion. As the physicist Lawrence Krauss said, "As a scientist, I don't believe anything. Science shouldn't use the word belief. There are things more likely and less likely. Science can say nothing with absolute certainty."
In the mildest form of belief, that of acceptance without absoluteness, a speaker or writer could simply replace belief words with more descriptive words to avoid confusion.
Note that in most instances, one can replace the word "believe" with the word "think" or "use". For example:
"I believe that he will come shortly."
can transpose into:
"I think that he will come shortly."
"We should believe a theory as long as the evidence supports a proposition."
can transpose into:
"We should use a theory as long as the evidence supports a proposition."
Most simple beliefs come from the expression of the experience of external events. From past experience, for example, people believe that dark clouds can produce rain, therefore, we attempt to predict the weather by forecasting from past events. However, to believe that an event will occur can produce disappointment if the prediction never happens. To make a prediction based on past events alone does not require believing in the future event, but rather, a good guess as to what may or may not happen. We can eliminate many of these simple beliefs by replacing the word "believe" with a word that directly addresses the object of our knowlege rather than the feelings or emotions of personal belief. The word "think" describes the mental process of predicting instead of relying on the abstraction of belief which reflects a hope which may not happen. And if we replaced Aristotelian either-or beliefs with statistical thinking we would reflect probable events instead of believed events.
Belief represents a type of conscious mental thought, a subclass of many kinds of mental activity. Thinking may or may not include beliefs or faiths. Therefore, when I use the word "think" I mean it to represent thought absent of emotional belief.
Belief comes only from the minds of brains and nowhere else. Knowlege, however, comes from outside of brains and can be accesssed by not only by biological brains but by intelligent computers as well (and note that computers do not have the ability to believe).
Because belief statements contain logical propositions, one should consider if emotions and feelings have anything to do at all with our logic. The anecdote about Archimedes running through the streets crying, "Eureka!" after discovering the relationship between mass and volume describe his emotion after making his discovery. This could have led him to believe that density equals mass divided by volume, but do feelings and emotions add anything at all useful to his logical statement? If feelings really do add to our logical structures then why not add them to our mathematical statements? One could, for example, make up a table of ordinal words to express the intensity of the feelings such as "eureka!" (for the highest emotion), "good!" (for a lesser emotion), "meh" (an ambivalent emotion), etc. We can then plug our emotions into our logical statement:
Now we have an attempt to use mathematical statements that describe beliefs. Belief = emotion + logic.
As you should see by this silly example, the variable of emotion, not only does nothing to help the equation, the belief could vary from person to person. And if the holder of that belief dies, so goes their belief. Archimedes died with his beliefs but mathematicians today might think of his equation as: D[meh] = M/V, yet the truth value still holds even if no one believes it.
The example above appears silly when you attach an emotion to a mathematical statement, but the very same thing happens when you use beliefs in your language. Once you take out the emotional aspect of your belief from your statement, it would not, by definition, equal a belief. You would simply have a propositional statement. "I believe that it will rain," would turn into, "It will rain." Now if that seems too certain an expression, simply describe your uncertainty such as: "It probably will rain tonight", or "It may rain tonight." In a mathematical statement you might include a probability number.
Belief words can have many meanings. They can range from a guess (I believe so) to absolute certainty (I BELIEVE in God). So when a person uses a belief word in a sentence, the reader might get an entirely different meaning than you intend. It could mean just opposite of what you mean to your audience. For example, If you say to religious people that "I believe in science," they might think you mean it as an absolute in the way they believe in god. It comes from this very kind of misinterpretation that can lead a religious person to think that science represents a religion. Realize that some religious people quote-mine popular scientific literature just to prove what some scientist believes or has faith in. Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Danniel Dennet, for example, have all used "belief " in their books and speeches but with the intention of justifying their belief with evidence and logic. The reader, however, might think of it as the strong version of the word. So why use belief at all? To avoid this problem, simply don't use belief and faith and substitute it with a more descriptive word. Of course if you do have beliefs stronger than mild forms of belief, for example, if you hold supernatural beliefs, then of course, you should use the word belief or faith.
Many kinds of concepts occur without the need for belief. People can invent rules, maps, games, social laws, and models without requiring a belief or absolute trust in them. For example, a map may prove useful to get from point A to point B, but to believe that the map equals the territory would produce a falsehood. Humans invented the game of baseball, but it requires no need to believe in the game, or to attach some kind of "truth" to it. People can enjoy baseball, simply for the game itself. Technological societies invent "rules of the road" and construct traffic lights, signs and warnings. We do not take these rules as absolute but realize that they form a system of conduct that allow mass transit to exist. If any confidence results from the use of models and rules, it should come from experience of past events predicted by the models rather than from the emotions connected to beliefs.
The problems of using beliefs in its negative form
Another problem with a non-believer using the word belief comes from its negative formations. For example, if I say to my friend that I do not believe that aliens have visited earth, my friend might interpret that to mean: I believe that no aliens have visited earth, when I actually intended to convey my ignorance. Instead I might say, I see no good evidence for alien visitations. I don't know.
Unfortunately, language contains so many words that convey beliefs (even in its negative forms) that non-believers gets left into an almost impossible position of trying to explain themselves accurately. Because the negative forms of belief can also represent an opposite form of belief, expressing non-beliefs when you intend ignorance presents a problem of communication.
Because the majority of humans express themselves in terms of beliefs, they also automatically assume that everyone else believes. An interviewer once asked a question to Jill Tarter (an astronomer and head of SETI): "What makes you believe that there's life out there." Tarter answered, "Wrong, wrong verb. I don't know whether there's life out there, so I don't believe one way or another. We're actually just trying to ask a question of the universe and see if we can use our scientific tools to get an answer."
Examples of non-beliefs
Many people misunderstand what constitutes belief and what does not. For many, belief has so infiltrated their minds, that everything perceived or thought incorporates a belief for them, including all of their knowledge and experience. This hierarchical, top-down, approach, in effect, puts such a person entirely within a world of solipsistic reasoning. Why? Because all thoughts describe a belief for them and since beliefs only occur within the mind, every belief refers to the self.
However, beliefs have no bilateral symmetry requirements; although one can believe in knowledge, one can obtain knowledge without owning beliefs; although one certainly accepts their own beliefs, not all things accepted require beliefs.
Consider that if one defined belief to incorporate all forms of thought, then the word belief would become tautological and meaningless, not to mention that knowledge and experience would fall as a subset of belief. Need I remind the reader that words differ not only in their spelling, but in their meanings? The following gives examples of words that many people use to support their beliefs but can also support non-beliefs:
Acceptance: Although belief requires some form of acceptance, not all things accepted require belief (beliefs have no bilateral symmetry requirements). Examples: I can accept the premise of a fictional story, but I do not for one moment believe in it. I can accept a scientific hypothesis without believing in it. Computers accept data and produce solutions, but computers have no consciousness, let alone beliefs. Many arguments can take the form of Devil's Advocate to oppose an argument with which the arguer may not necessarily disagree.
Action: Although many people believe in the actions they perform, one can act without beliefs (beliefs have no bilateral symmetry requirements). Actions can occur out of a desire, a submission to an authority, or by unplanned events or even by mechanical means completely absent of humans. Examples: I can act a part without believing in it. I can act from a set of rules, but I do not need to believe the rules. I might act from an order of the police or government. I may act out of a desire to achieve something. There occurs no action which requires belief.
Agreement: Although belief requires some form of agreement (believers agree that their beliefs have validity), not all agreements represent beliefs (beliefs have no bilateral symmetry requirements). However, for some people (myself included), agreement requires no belief at all. Examples: I might agree that Captain Kirk served aboard the Starship Enterprise, but I hold no beliefs in Star-Trek fiction. I may agree with the rules of football, but I do not need to believe in football in order to understand the game; I may not even like the game! I may agree with any premise, without believing in it.
Information: Although many people believe the information they receive, information received does not require belief (again, beliefs have no bilateral symmetry requirements). Examples: the information from books, stories, science, theories, fiction, religion, etc., all represent communicated ideas, but one does not need to believe the information in order to utilize it. Examples of information without beliefs: computers that utilize and analyze information; Biological evolution through natural selection requires information stored in chemical structures (DNA) but it lacks not only beliefs, but consciousness, as well; scientists, mathematicians, and theorists who examine information for the sake of the theories themselves.
Knowledge: Knowledge comes from awareness of the world, or understanding gained through experience. Although people may believe in what they know, knowledge has no requirement for belief (beliefs have no bilateral symmetry requirements). Examples: I may have knowledge of a story, poem or song, but I have no need to believe it. I know the rules of many games, but I do not believe in games. I know the mathematics of calculus, but I do not believe in calculus. I have knowledge of information, but I do not believe in information. I have direct knowledge of my existence through sensations, thought, and awareness, but I do not believe I exist: I know I exist (even though I may not know how I exist).
Trust: Although some forms of trust requires belief (such as trusting words alone without evidence), trust without belief requires empirical evidence. For example, I trust that my friend will likely show up to an invitation, not because I believe him but because of the empirical evidence I have on his past behavior. This allows me to form a sort of Bayesian probability that says something like: my friend is more likely to show up than not because he has showed up to more invitations in the past than not.
Differences between thinking with beliefs and thinking without beliefs
The two charts above represent a visual abstract concept of the differences between the paths of belief and the path to knowledge. Both paths represent a form of thinking or mental activity. Note that the chart on the left shows a convergence point at the bottom where simple beliefs and thoughts without beliefs coexist. At this level, they appear virtually the same with the only difference amounting to its semantic designation ("believe" can substitute for "think" and vise versa). However as each path progresses, they diverge; the path of belief progresses towards intransigence and the path of knowledge leads to factual knowledge. Each progresses as a matter of degree and each forms an independent path. For example, beliefs requires no external evidence whatsoever (examples: belief in ghosts, gods, astrology, etc.) The path of knowledge requires no reliance on beliefs (examples: the observation that the earth orbits the sun and airplanes fly, etc. appears regardless of whether you believe in them or not.) However, the path towards knowledge requires external verification (observation and testing) whereas the path of belief does not. The path towards workable knowledge (facts) must agree with nature if we wish to utilize it. The path of belief requires no agreement with nature at all (although it might coincide with it).
Unfortunately, the usual practice of thinking involves the combination of beliefs with theory and factual knowledge (see the right chart). Most people tend to own beliefs of facts and knowledge, including perhaps the most rational people of all-- scientists and philosophers. A hypothesis or a theory may lead a scientist to strongly believe in his or her theories, the verification of test results may even lead them to have faith in the results, and an established fact may lead some scientists to dogmatically hold to its verification (even if later evidence contradicts it). Thus even a scientist can attach beliefs to theories, faith to verification, and dogma to facts. Although scientists rarely approach intransigence (although some do), they usually believe in their data and theories and most philosophers believe in their philosophies and most of them will die with their beliefs. As Maxwell Planck once said, "A scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it." Fortunately, scientific dogmatic beliefs do not appear as prevalent as it once did in the last two centuries. Scientists like Freud, Jung, Velikovsky, and even Einstein held stubborn beliefs bordering on inflexible religious-like thinking, even when presented with evidence that contradicted their beliefs. I suspect that much of the reduced degree of dogma in the scientific communitiy today results in better communication (especially through the internet), and a broader understanding of the sciences around them, and a humbling realization that some other scientist will call them out on their theories, but it still occurs to an unnecessary degree in my opinion.
If facts about nature come from nature itself, then every scientific fact can stand as the evidence alone and the theories that explain those facts. At no time do we need beliefs to understand facts and theories. Nature occurs without human beliefs and so does reliable evidence. And once we understand our facts and theories we call it knowlege. There simply exists no apparent necessity for attaching beliefs to knowledge.
Think about the following: Regardless of how strongly one has attached faith to scientific facts, no matter how religious the disposition of a scientist, there has never appeared a single workable theory or scientific fact that required the concept of a god or superstitious idea. Not a single workable mathematical equation contains a symbol for a "creator." There occurs not the slightest evidence for ghosts in our machines or in our bodies. Even the most ardent non-believers can live their lives in complete accord with nature and live as long as the most fanatical believer. The same holds true for non-religious beliefs and in spite of the temporary mental comfort that belief might bring, (as do drugs) then what purpose can belief serve in the establishment of useful knowledge about the world? Note that when a person dies, so goes his or her beliefs, but if that person lived as a scientist and provided a world with a workable piece of knowlege about nature, then only the knowlege remains useful. The beliefs during the person's lifetime have no bearing, whatsoever, on the usefulness of the knowlege that he or she brought into the world.
Now you might argue that the knowlege brought to us by persons no longer living still requires people to believe in the knowlege that they brought, but on what grounds and to what degree?
"Have you ever noticed.... Anybody going slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?" --George Carlin
I find it interesting to observe the state of belief in people. They most always see the problems of fanatical belief above them on the chart, but they never accept the disbelief of those below them. Believers always retain just the right amount of belief, it seems, and they unconsciously put themselves in a kind of self-centered, subjective dogma. I contend that most of us do not own beliefs of every kind and, indeed, we disbelieve more than we believe. Just as some believers have fewer beliefs than others, non-believers simply sit at the bottom of the scale. If you can, temporarily, put yourself outside of your own beliefs, you can question why you dismiss the beliefs of others, while perhaps understanding why non-believers dismiss yours.
The degree problem goes away once you understand that the amount of belief says nothing about the usefulness or factual nature of knowledge. If you squint your eyes, pray, or through sheer willpower force your belief to strengthen, will that improve your knowledge? (It can certainly produce falsehoods, but how can it improve on knowledge?) Conversely, if you act on your knowledge without belief, will that change the status of your knowledge? If you think knowledge requires belief between the extremes of strong belief and no belief, then just what degree of belief do you think it necessary for the proper understanding of knowledge?
Knowledge as "justified true belief"
Some people have argued that all knowledge represents forms of beliefs. Well it certainly can seem so if you believe that and, no doubt, most people do believe that knowledge describes beliefs, but that doesn't mean it has to. Unfortunately many philosophers today still use Plato and Socrates antiquated definition of knowledge as "justified true belief," (although some don't. See the Gettier problem), but this only describes what I already mentioned above (combining beliefs with knowledge), and again, this certainly serves far better than a belief without knowledge. But can knowledge exist without beliefs at all? Yes. And I'll give examples. Regardless of how many people believe in Plato's meaning of knowledge, Plato knew nothing about neuroscience, the unconscious mind, or computer science. We now know what parts of the brain produce the "feelings" of belief and through metacognition we can learn to examine our beliefs and disown them. We know that our unconscious mind controls most of our actions, all without conscious beliefs. We also know that computers can access and use knowledge without beliefs. We can now demonstrate that not only can knowledge exist without beliefs, it can occur without consciousness at all. Plato's definition of knowledge requires a revision.
Autonomous drones, for example can take-off, fly and land without a human pilot or even a remote pilot. These aircraft take in knowledge and information from the world around them through cameras and sensors, process that information, make algorithmic decisions and act on them by navigating, taking photos, or sending lethal bombs to kill enemy targets. To give another example, IBM's computer called Watson (also autonomous) defeated the best Jeopardy players in the world. Its designers made it capable of learning human language and knowledge by data mining documents, dictionaries, anthologies, and encyclopedias and deriving a correct answer. Even more impressive, the AlphaGo computer program designed to beat the best Go champion in the world utilizes a tree search algorithm to find its moves based on knowledge previously "learned" by machine learning, specifically by an artificial neural network. These computer systems, in fact, posses some knowledge about the world around them, otherwise they would not have the ability to carry out their tasks. These Autonomous computers have no consciousness or emotions, so they cannot possibly have beliefs. Knowledge can indeed exist without beliefs. Humans, too, can act on knowledge even without consciousness. Sleep walking, driving a car while having a conversation, for example, can result in actions from subconscious knowledge even without that person consciously knowing what has happened.
Of course humans do not live like computers and we grow up with beliefs, perhaps even ingrained into our genes, but I submit that to suggest that an intelligent conscious human cannot understand knowledge without beliefs has no bases. Humans have a unique ability to understand abstractions and even abstractions about abstractions (metacognition) At least some humans have that ability (more on this below). One can understand how a belief can adversely affect knowledge and thusly learn to act on knowledge without owning beliefs. Nor do I claim that all people have the ability to disown beliefs. Perhaps some people can't. It certainly seems that some people, especially highly religious people, do not have that ability. Perhaps their genetic and/or cultural upbringing forever prevents them from doing so, I don't know. However, to suggest that every human must have beliefs belies the very fact that some of us don't.
Beliefs reside only in living minds. Knowledge can reside outside minds. Regardless of how much you believe that knowledge represents a form of belief, that belief will die when you die. Knowledge, however, can live outside minds (as long as someone properly recorded the knowledge), and it can survive for thousands, if not millions of years.
Even though knowledge about the world gives humans a unique advantage over other animals, and allows us to survive and understand the world around us, knowledge does not represent absolutes, but rather limited abstractions that may prove incomplete or wrong in the future. Thus all knowledge represents provisional information and always subject to change or improvement. Believing, therefore, does nothing to improve knowledge, but it can block further improvement because belief puts up a mental barrier that says, "This is true" when it may not. Without belief, one can use knowledge not because someone tells you or believes it but because knowledge explains reality better than belief and it works.
I submit that some, if not most, conscious human beings can learn to gather, understand, and accumulate knowledge and act on it without owning a single belief and that this provides far more of an advantage than a disadvantage.
"The typical person has no trouble believing without knowing. What people need to realize is simply that you do not need to believe to know."
--Neil deGrasse Tyson
Problems that derive from belief
Beliefs do not require education, knowledge, or understanding. Even the most uneducated can believe in anything, without the need for skepticism, testability, or reason. For these reasons, beliefs, by themselves, cannot support knowledge and can lead to disastrous outcomes. Fortunately most people attach their beliefs to some form of knowledge (justified true beliefs), but even the belief in knowledge can lead to problems.
Beliefs produce feelings that certain propositions seem true, even if the propositions prove false. People who continue to believe in false propositions can result in behaviors that lead to tragedies. Science provides one way out of this by allowing us to improve our propositions so that when we believe in something, our feelings of truth follow the improved propositions, but this, by no means, eliminates beliefs; it simply reduces the dangers of beliefs. Many a scientist has believed in hypothetical propositions (hypotheses) which later proved untrue, yet the scientist continues to believe in them.
Although one can argue that beliefs supported by scientific evidence represent a benign form of beliefs, they also act as barriers towards further understanding. Even the most productive scientists and philosophers through the ages have held beliefs which prevented them from seeing beyond their discoveries and inventions. For example, Aristotle believed in a prime mover, a "god" that moves the sun and moon and objects through space. With a belief such as this, one cannot possibly understand the laws of gravitation or inertia. Issac Newton saw through that and established predictions of gravitational events and developed a workable gravitational theory. Amazingly, Newton began to think about relativity theory long before Albert Einstein. However, his belief in absolute time prevented him from formulating a workable theory. Einstein, however, saw through that and thought in terms of relative time and formulated his famous theory of General relativity. But even Einstein owned beliefs which barred him from understanding the consequences of quantum mechanics. He could not accept pure randomness in subatomic physics, thus he bore his famous belief: "God does not play dice." Regardless, physicists now realize that for quantum mechanics to work, nature not only plays with dice, but randomness serves as a requirement if one wishes to predict with any statistical accuracy. And on it goes.
Even though great scientists, like any human, can fall prey to beliefs, their discoveries live beyond the barriers of their naive beliefs. Not only did they establish new knowledge about the universe but they also established its limits and, with them, the elimination of absolutes (and if you think about it, only a believer could pretend to know about absolutes, something not even in principle testable for mortal humans). For example, Einstein found the limits to velocity and time (once believed as absolute), Heisenberg saw the limits to reality (uncertainty principle), and Kurt Gödel's incompleteness theorem set a limit on our knowledge of the basic truths of mathematics. A belief in absolutes that directly contradict these scientific discoveries can only bar one from further understanding.
Although thinking without owning beliefs does not, by any means, guarantee that people will make scientific breakthroughs, it can, at the very least, remove unnecessary mental obstructions. Belief, even at its most benign form can create problematic and unnecessary barriers.
As belief progresses towards faith and dogma, the problems escalate and become more obvious. We see this in religions and political ideologies, especially those that contain scripts (bibles, manifestos) which honor war, intolerance, slavery and superstitions. We see this in the religious inquisitions, "holy" wars, and slavery. During the period of the black plague, millions of humans died out of ignorance of the disease with beliefs that God or Satan caused it. Meanwhile their religious leaders did little or nothing to encourage experimental scientific investigation. In the 1930s and 40s the world saw the fanatical idealism of communists (which has far more in common with religion than it does with atheism) as they destroyed millions of lives. We saw how Christianized Germany produced Nazism and the holocaust in order to defend against the Jews in order to fight for the Lord (Hitler's belief). To this day, one can observe religious and ethnic beliefs creating war and intolerance in Bosnia, Sri Lanka, Israel, Africa, Russia and in Muslim countries. The tragedy of 9/11 could not have occurred without religious belief in an afterlife. Only religion produces the concept of moral war. Only a religious minded government would allow science to flounder while emphasizing faith-based programs.
Why does religious belief create such monstrous atrocities? Because religion expresses everything into terms of belief, faith, and absolutes, without need for reason or even understanding. Religion puts reality, morality, love, happiness and desire in a supernatural realm inaccessible to the mind of man. For some extreme examples: how can humans ever achieve peace if their religious scripts include their god condoning war and violence? How can one understand the physics of the universe if you believe an unfathomable supernatural agent created everything just a few thousand years ago? How can one understand biology if you don't understand natural evolution? How can you live a full happy life if your religion denies the nature of sex, desire, and a curious mind? How can you have workable government if you believe laws derive from an incomprehensible super-being? How can you have the future of the planet or your grand children if you believe that supernatural predestination will end the world?
Parents teach children at a very young age to believe in abstract concepts such as Santa Claus, the toothfairy, and supernatual gods. These parents have no understanding of the dangers that their beliefs might cause. Thus we prepare our society to not only accept beliefs, but to honor and fight for them. This commonly results in conflicts between free expression and censorship. For a believer, expression of ideas in-and-of-themselves represent beliefs. Thus violent television, movies and fictions present opportunities for the unaware to believe in them.
If, instead, we taught our children about beliefs and how they infect the mind and the dangers they can produce, society would have little need for censoring ideas. For without believers, there would live no one to believe them and the violence and fantasy portrayed by their fictions could only represent just that-- fictions.
- "Don't believe anything. Regard things on a scale of probabilities.
The things that seem most absurd, put under 'Low Probability', and
the things that seem most plausible, you put under 'High
Probability'. Never believe anything. Once you believe anything, you
stop thinking about it."
- --Robert A. Wilson
The mechanism of belief
Because belief requires a mental process involving neural activity, this allows scientific investigation into its mechanism. Although the abstractions of belief sit at a hierarchical level above the neuron level, there obviously occurs a connection between neuron activity to mental thought and vise versa. Unfortunately we still have only minute knowledge about the working of the brain, let alone the complex process that produces thought. However, studies have shown that some forms of delusional thought involve problems with the neocortex. Indeed, one of the characteristics of schizophrenic delusion involves grandiose and religious thinking  Some have even suggested that schizophrenia involves beliefs and attitudes taught to them while young 
Also, in epilepsy, neurological storms can trigger feelings and thoughts divorced from external events. Although the neocortex and its sensory equipment gets its information from the external world, the limbic system takes its cues from within. The neuroscientist, Paul MacLean became fascinated with the "limbic storms" suffered by patients with temporal-lobe epilepsy.  MacLean reported:
"During seizures, they'd have this Eureka feeling all out of context-- feelings of revelation, that this is the truth, the absolute truth, and nothing but the truth."
"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."
This provides an important clue as to the mechanism of belief because it suggests that what we think of as true or real, actually produces or triggers a feeling. Belief in this sense then means a thought with a feeling "attached" where the feeling gives us a sense of conviction or truth. In normal people, a well reasoned thought can trigger a eureka-like feeling, thus the generation of a belief. This emotional tag attached to a thought may very well have served an important evolutionary role because it would allow Homo sapiens a way to prioritize thoughts that give a survival advantage. These eureka-like emotions also feel good and might very well enhance the memory of survival thoughts.
In abnormal thinking, even an irrational thought can trigger the same eureka-like feeling. In other words, regardless of a reasoned thought or an irrational thought, both can trigger a feeling of "truth"; or in other words, a belief. In its most extreme form, epiphany-like beliefs can result from the ingestion of hallucinogenic chemicals, fanatical religious rituals, extreme fasting, or chemical imbalances in the brain (i.e., manic-depressive, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, etc.) All of these mental disorders can lead to excessive beliefs and intense feeling, yet with only irrational thoughts attached to them.
The worst forms of schizophrenia almost always involve extreme forms of delusional beliefs. Schizophrenics hear voices, act on impulse, think they hear the voice of God, Satan, or act out whatever belief-myth they grew up with. Interestingly, it appears that only thinking animals develop schizophrenia. We have no other animal model for this disease for holding false beliefs and the perception of unreal things.  Schizophrenia appears to exist only in humans.
According to V.S. Ramachandran, patients with temporal lobe epilepsy may experience a variety of symptoms that include an obsessive preoccupation with religion and the intensified and narrowed emotional responses that appear characteristic of mystical experience.
I present epileptic storms and schizophrenia here because they represent examples of mental disorder that can result in beliefs pegged to their extreme limit. I trust that most people will recognize that these mental diseases can result in dangerous forms of thinking. If the extreme beliefs held by schizophrenics represents a danger and an undesirable trait, then at what point below this do we consider beliefs desirable?
Since I first posted this article, further research has arrived on the subject that supports the connection of emotions to belief. In 2007, Sam Harris, et all, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study brains of 14 adults while they judged written "truth," "false" or "undecidable" statements. They found "strong reciprocal connections from the limbic system, the basal ganglia, and the association cortex of the parietal lobe. This region of the frontal lobes appears to be instrumental in linking factual knowledge with relevant emotional associations." The study suggests an anatomic link between purely cognitive aspects of belief and emotional reward. It also suggests that "the physiological difference between belief and disbelief can be independent of a proposition's content and affective associations." (italics, mine) [Harris] This suggested independence means that a proposition, or knowledge itself, does not require any emotion at all. In disbelief (a form of negative belief, and not the same as no-belief), the researchers also found a similar pattern of activation as that of belief.
Many believers seem to think that all humans believe and that belief represents a requirement for human life. We can show the falsity of this assumption by simply eliminating thought entirely. Not everyone can do this, especially schizophrenics, but for those that wish to, there exists methods for doing so.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, some people can completely stop their thoughts. And when someone can stop their thought process, beliefs cease to exist, at least temporarily. Ancient meditation or modern biofeedback practices show how to reduce or stop the semantic noise within our heads. During this practice, concentrating on a single idea or word (mantra) can reduce the thought level to a minimum (ekaggata). The final aim at eliminating this single thought results in a state of no-thought ("higher" levels of jhanic samadhi). While in such a state, all thoughts, ideas, and beliefs cease. Indeed EEG (electroencephalography) scans reveal that during meditative states, theta and alpha brain waves (brain waves associated with relaxed attention) dominate whereas beta and gamma waves (associated with mental thoughts) are eliminated.
I bring up meditation and delusion to show that there occurs some range of degree of intensity of belief between the two extremes.
The curve above represents a population of beliefs from 0 (no beliefs, no thinking) to 1 (extreme beliefs, irrational thinking), charted with only two data points (x). The dotted line represents a guess since I have no data to plot actual probabilities (future investigators will have to gather this information). The degree of belief determines dispositions to hold an idea as absolute or true. Thus, insane forms of thinking (delusional, schizophrenia, etc.) would appear on the far right end of the graph. The extremists (far-right-political and religious-right, for example) might appear at around .8-.9. The opposite of extremism would fall toward the left end of the chart (meditators, day dreaming, etc.). From my personal observation, most people do not fall at either end of the spectrum; most fall somewhere well between the two limits. For the general population, I suspect the graph would appear as a Bell curve as shown above.
Although schizophrenia describes an obvious dysfunctional disease that causes harm to themselves and possibly to others, many schizophrenic properties can coexist in the "normal" human thinking process without causing notice to people observing them. Delusional thinking usually accompanies schizophrenia. But note that delusions represent false beliefs, virtually the same as the conditions for faith. Faith has become acceptable mainly because powerful social institutions support it.
Symptoms of mental disease, of course, do not appear identical for everyone. Some people may have only one episode of schizophrenia in their lifetime. Others may have recurring episodes but lead relatively normal lives in between. Others may have severe symptoms for a lifetime. Indeed, many who we consider sane commit the most atrocious criminal acts without a diagnosis of insanity. Even legal acts such as war, inquisitions, and pogroms can cause harm to its believers as well as to others. Yet we do not diagnose these acts of belief as a mental disease because the very engine of belief puts them in the context of acceptability. Most societies do not abhor war; instead, they honor it because their belief-systems support the notion of solving problems through mass killing called war. If, instead, we approached belief supported violence the way we attempt to solve mental diseases, perhaps we might produce solutions to some of our cultural problems.
A question arises out of these low-to-extreme forms of beliefs: If extreme beliefs represent a symptom or cause of mental disorder, then can a lack of belief produce a better, healthier, [or whatever desirable characteristic word you may want to use] way of socially interacting with people? At the low limit, that of meditation, one not only stops belief, but all forms of thought. This of course would result in a dangerous living condition if continued indefinitely, but only at the expense of the meditator. At worst the meditator might die for lack of food, but he or she could hardly harm anyone else. But what if one could learn how to think without beliefs? Might it not serve and advantage to make our thoughts more efficient?
Of course accidents will happen and tragedies will occur. Errors in our models of perception will no doubt always happen. But if we can reduce or eliminate beliefs, wouldn't we have fewer reasons to harm others through prejudice or violence? Without beliefs, our thoughts would follow the prevailing evidence instead of blocking them with unnecessary convictions.
Even if we cannot solve all mental diseases or prevent dangerous beliefs from forming, we might at least become aware of the mental processes that create beliefs and why they sometimes lead to intransigence. Although no one yet has a clear understanding of how schizophrenia originates, it appears that it may have some connection with genetics, brain damage, chemical imbalances or social upbringing. Fortunately treatments have become available for many mental diseases. For those who have mild cases of mental problems, education alone may redirect the neural path towards productive thinking. For others, drugs and therapy can help alleviate mental problems. Likewise, early education in critical thinking, identification of logical fallacies, and the mechanism of belief may alleviate many of our dangerous beliefs.
From the meaning of beliefs as described above, a person who owns a belief must possess two things: a thought and the feeling of that thought as 'true." The first requires a functioning neocortex and the second requires a functioning limbic system (note, by functioning, this also includes abnormal as well as normal functioning). This evolutionary and biologically inherited function brings up a valid question:
If a functioning human brain produces thought along with a feeling of 'truth,' then all humans who have functioning brains must experience beliefs, no?
Yes! And although this seems to contradict the very concept of no-beliefs, we humans have something that other animals don't have (except for, perhaps, some other primates): the power of retrospection and the ability to see our own abstractions (at least some humans have this ability). Psychologists call this ability, metacognition (coined by John Flavell). Metacognition simply means "cognition about cognition." Indeed, I have the experience of belief as when reading a convincing novel or watching a movie or a play, but I know that novels and movies represent fictions because I have the ability to think about my feelings and thoughts. Although I buy, temporarily, the belief for the entertainment value, I do not own the belief. It would prove not only silly but dangerous to walk out of a theater (say The Exorcist) and still believe the story. The same goes with any belief experience whether it comes from rational scientific reasoning or to fictions or myths. I may feel (believe) that I have discovered a scientific truth, but I know that my belief comes as a property of brain function and I have the ability to disown the belief. I can say that it feels right, but I also know that feelings don't represent facts or knowledge any more than color exists as a property in matter. I also know that feelings-of-truth can mislead, especially when future evidence contradicts the truth-valve of the belief and can lead to intransigence. I can acknowledge the feeling but I don't have to acknowledge the belief.
By putting yourself in a higher abstraction, you can 'see' the abstractions below you. In this sense you act at the arbitrator of your thoughts, picking out which produces the best results and dismissing those which don't work, all without owning any belief. Owning beliefs means that you blind yourself to seeing them as what they really represent: abstractions. You must also defend the beliefs you own or else feel oppressed when someone attacks them, and this can lead to depression, argument, violence, or to any ultimate tragic end. By disowning beliefs, you not only don't have to defend them through emotion, but you avoid the problems associated with them.
If you still don't understand how you can disown an inherited biological function, let me give you an analogue using an even older biological function: the sense of balance.
Every normal human has it, those little grains of calcium carbonate, the otoconia, in the inner ear that tickle the hairs of the maculae, that detect gravity and acceleration. Pilots of early aviation used to rely on this sense in what they called, "flying by the seat of the pants." But during stormy weather or night flying, pilots became disoriented and began to lose their lives. At first the survivors chalked it up to high winds (how dare they accuse these brave pilots of becoming disoriented). But the aviation scientists knew better. When they invented instrument flying, the old timers balked, but pilots grudgingly learned to rely on the instruments. They learned to distrust their own senses and replaced it with more reliable instruments. One might even ask the heretical question: Do humans really need a sense of balance to fly at all? Note that nowhere in that statement does it say that one should eliminate the sense of balance.
I simply ask a similar question about belief. Do humans need beliefs to survive? Nowhere in that statement do I claim that one should eliminate the feeling of beliefs, only that one can eliminate the ownership of them. We humans have an evolved brain that can contemplate our own abstractions and beliefs. We can disown beliefs and replace them. So in the analogy of the sense of balance, what mechanism serves as the flying instrument that replaces belief? Critical thinking coupled with empirical testing (science).
You can feel that something seems true, even if false, while at the same time you do not have to think of it as true.
Disowning beliefs, however, comes at a cost. It requires some education, the ability to gather knowledge along with the curiosity to do so, and a few skeptical thinking tools that allows one to recognize knowledge from false knowledge. Young children, for example, do not have the capability to do this and this gives reason why children need beliefs in order to begin to understand the world around them. However, once a person has learned enough knowledge though beliefs, he or she can then replace beliefs with a better system. Once you have enough knowledge, curiosity, and skepticism, you no longer need beliefs. Knowledge trumps belief every time.
Inside our head vs Outside our head
Many people have a difficult time telling the difference between what happens inside their heads as opposed to what happens outside their heads. And I don't mean just schizophrenics or psychopaths, but also sane people. Most of us have had confusions about "reality" at some times in our lives. Since all sensations and information comes to the brain filtered, we experience all our perceptions in our head. To establish the difference between outside verses inside events, we usually derive, through intuition, some sort of comparative test. Most of our sensations instinctively tell us what occurs outside. As infants, we quickly learn that the sounds we hear in our heads actually emanate from the outside. We learn to manipulate objects through touch, observe movement through sight, etc. As we grow, we begin to form abstract thought and we attach these abstractions to our perceptions. Observation, reasoning, and experimentation gives us the means to determine the difference between outside our heads and inside our heads.
Errors can creep into our thinking process. And from there it can invade our language system. This happens, virtually in any information system. If we do not correct these linguistic and logic errors, we may go for years propagating ancient errors without thinking about them. It seems obvious that this has already occurred to many cultures that have promoted dangerous belief sets. Although most will agree that dangerous beliefs present a threat and that we should do something about them, many beliefs that seem inconsequential receive no concern at all. These seemingly innocent beliefs act through our language system and can give us a false sense of "knowing."
To give an example, we usually think of color as "out there." We observe green foliage, blue skies, red apples, etc. Yet color, demonstrably, does not occur "out there," but rather, exclusively inside our heads. Matter contains no color. Color has no bases from the physics of light. Color, rather, describes a sensation.  However, matter does "reflect" or produce light. Our eyes absorb this energy and our brains interpret this information by "tagging" a sensation of color to it. Many times we express this perception through an error of language that projects color as "out there." We use ancient "essence" words like "is" and "be" that put mystical properties to events which occur only in our heads. For example, "the grass IS green" seems to project the property of "greenness" to an external plant form. Regardless of how much chlorophyll a plant may contain, it contains no "green." The color green occurs in our brains as a "tag" to an indirect reflective property of light. Yet our "essence" words and ideas continually fool us into thinking that things exist outside our heads, without the slightest evidence to support it. To help eliminate these "essence" verbs, we can simply replace them with descriptive verbs. Instead of saying "The grass is green," I might say, "The grass appears green (to me)." The descriptive verb "appears" connects perception to the observer instead of placing it outside the body. Many sentences which use "to be" verbs produce false or misleading statements. 
From belief to faith
Many rational people, including most scientists, still insist on utilizing beliefs with the rationale that beliefs must accompany evidence to support them. Of course it proves more prudent to attach evidence to one's beliefs than to own beliefs without evidence, but why should anyone feel compelled to attach beliefs to evidence at all? Why not stand on the evidence without beliefs? Consider a measurement, for example the velocity of light. I can simply state the calculated or measured velocity as a numerical figure or I can say "I believe that the speed of light equals 299,790 KPS. But the velocity represents a measurement of an external event, not a belief. The belief of the velocity of light adds nothing to the information about the velocity of light. The belief only reflects an intransigent property of the believer and nothing at all about the measured property. Regardless of how mild the intransigence, the belief itself provides no scientific value at all. On the contrary, the belief within that individual may grow to such extent that it overshadows the evidential data and may cause the believer to hold on to his theory even if future evidence contradicts it. As a theory only, without belief, the possibility of future evidence may reveal new data that would modify and improve the theory.
I have met such believers before and when shown evidence of the differing velocity of light in crystals, their belief of an absolute value of light rose to the occasion to combat this new (to them) information. Note that when I say that belief appears unnecessary to evidence, I do not mean that ideas and thoughts should not accompany them. On the contrary, instead of beliefs, we can establish theories and models about the evidence, a predictive and productive way of understanding the consequences of the evidence. (I'll add more about this later.)
Although the reasons why people tend towards certain belief-systems remains unclear, Frank Sulloway, a research scholar, has proposed that family dynamics and birth order influences social survival strategies . In general terms, firstborns tend to think conservatively and laterborns tend to think as liberals. In the extremes of both liberals and conservatives, the beliefs can take on a fantastical form of thinking. In its most dangerous form, belief can take its most intransigent property as faith, the reliance on hope and ignorance. Indeed, many psychopaths and schizophrenics provide extreme examples of faith as the beliefs inside their heads take over the evidence from outside their heads. Some researchers have noted the higher prevalence of schizophrenia in certain religions .
Hypotheses, theories and models
Many religious people who challenge scientists, attempt to make their scientific theories equivalent to faith. I suspect this gives the faithful comfort, as reducing theory to the level of faith puts both on an equal plane. However, useful theories do not rely on faith and do not even require belief. Scientific theories must agree with nature to some degree, faith does not. If a theory's prediction fails to produce results, then the theory itself cannot provide usefulness and the scientists must throw it out. A hypothesis represents nothing more than a good guess subject to further verification and usually precedes a theory. A workable theory, however, represents a good guess based on evidence and makes useful predictions.
- "It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is. It does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is-- if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. That is all there is to it."
- -Richard Feynman
Newton's theory of gravity, for example, represents a useful set of guesses that make predictions about matter traveling through space. Newton's mechanics, however, does not give us absolute or exact predictions. It only allows predictions about matter within acceptable tolerances. Einstein's theory of gravity carries Newton's theories to ever more exact figures and we can make even better guesses. But note that the theories of gravity must rely on outside evidence, and the guess must agree with experiment. A theory, therefore, without supporting evidence has no meaning. The following provides some examples of theories:
The kinetic theory of matter depends on the measurable properties between the forces between particles of matter.
The theories of gravitation depend on the facts of the measurable results of matter in the field of gravity.
The theory of natural selection depends on the facts of evolution as confirmed by observation, evidence and experiment.
Note that understanding any scientific aspect about the physical world requires some form of theoretical thought.
Models differ from theories, in that they usually represent an abstract copy of the event or thing that we wish to understand. They may provide us with predictions, but they can never fully represent the subject in all its nature. A model represents an incomplete abstraction of a thing outside our heads. Maps, scale models, computer simulations, etc. all provide us with methods to predict the future of an event or thing. For an example of scientific modeling, look at the history of the investigation of atoms. As the evidence accumulated, the physicists made better and more accurate (although incomplete) models of the structure of matter.
A hypothesis may lead to experiment and both may lead to a theory. If the theory of the evidence provides accurate predictions every time, sometimes we call these "laws" or "knowledge." Note, however, that "knowledge" does not mean that it comes absolute. A fact or theory may change in the future and we may have to modify our knowledge to accommodate the changing evidence.
By utilizing hypotheses, theories and models, we can express thoughts about the world without resorting to beliefs and faith.
Logic, mathematics, and reason
Unfortunately, many people misuse the concept of logic and believe that it provides a method of arriving at "truth" about the world; that if they propose a logical argument it, somehow, has validity to external events. However, logic, by itself, says little about the world and does not guarantee "truth." Logic provides a language of self-consistent reasoning that pertains only to the construction of itself. A logical conclusion based on sound reasoning, in fact, might disagree with the external event we wish to understand. For example, in the following logical construction:
All judges are lawyers
No bishops are lawyers
Therefore: No bishops are judges
The above syllogism consists of valid logic. However, each of its propositions must agree with observation before its conclusion can provide any usefulness. Does every judge actually serve as a lawyer? Have no bishops ever served as lawyers? Reason and logic without evidential support cannot determine much about the world until the evidence supports the propositions.
All ghosts are spirits
No cartoons are spirits
Therefore: No cartoons are ghosts
The logic above appears sound, but what in the world does it mean and how does it relate to the world? In what context does it refer? What about Casper the ghost?
Interestingly, one of the signs of mental illness, especially schizophrenia, involves their irrational thinking and the errors they make in syllogistic reasoning .
Note also that many different "Logics" occur for many different fields. Traditional logic, for example, simply does not work in the world of quantum physics. The math, the reasoning, and the logic of the quantum world differs widely from the macro-world. Unfortunately, today most people rely on only one kind of logic, usually some from of aristotelian logic. We tend to think in terms of black/white, true/false, good/evil, guilty/not-guilty, up/down, inside/outside, etc. Although many things, indeed, follow this simple kind of logic, a plethora of things operate through a continuum. Although aristotelian logic may work great for digital circuits, or simple syllogisms, it fails miserably when trying to understand the human condition or things that work through calculus.
Mathematics represents a symbolic language of logic and provides us with a tool for reasoning. But mathematics and logic must accommodate the external events if it wishes to explain them. Of course people may have beliefs about one mathematical system over another, but any philosophical belief always fails in light of nature. Only the results of the accuracy of the predictions matter in the mathematical world; beliefs have no requirement in the outcome, regardless of how good it may make its believers feel. In fact, it has appeared commonplace in physics, especially quantum mechanics, where two entirely different mathematical approaches derived from different starting points turn out to give identical quantitative answers .
Although logic and mathematics may provide a useful tool for reason, scientists may encounter information about the world that matches no logic whatsoever. Unknowns and incomplete information occurs many times, but that does not necessarily prevent establishing useful results. Doctors knew that aspirin, for example, worked as a pain blocker, but for many years they had no workable explanation of how it worked. Even gravity, to this day, with all the mathematics predicting its effect on matter, has stumped physicists as to the nature of its mechanism. Many times the physicists do not even understand why their system works. They only know that it works. The prime requirement of making useful predictions must come from nature herself, from things outside our heads. All the beliefs, theories, logics and models, regardless of how well they got constructed, cannot do us any good unless they have some support from evidence. Many times events outside our heads provide us with life sustaining support without our thinking about them at all (such as breathing air)!
Instead of relying on one logical system, as most people do, we might instead incorporate a language that incorporates a system of logics and we might choose the system that best fits the object of investigation. Sadly our English language contains severe limitations and cannot possibly express many of the extraordinary discoveries of the new physics. Mathematics allows a language of continuum, multiple dimensions, and infinities and all without the need for introducing ghostly beliefs.
I once heard an amusing story about the artist, Picasso. I don't know if this actually happened but it makes a point about how people construct beliefs of reality from abstractions:
A stranger recognizing Picasso asked him why he didn't paint pictures of people "the way they really are." Picasso asked the man what he meant by "the way they really are," and the man pulled out of his wallet a snapshot of his wife as an example. Picasso responded: "Isn't she rather small and flat?
To believe that an abstract representation shows the actual thing leads to an unnecessary biased form of perception. Belief of any kind puts a kind of shield on the thinker and puts in its place a form of thought which in effect says: "This is real." Preconceived beliefs coupled with the lack of information can lead to false conclusions.
To take another example, I might say to a group of people, "I love fish." Everyone may hear me correctly, but because of their preconceived beliefs and a lack of context, some may interpret my meaning as a statement about dining and others may believe I have a love for aquarium fish. Virtually all expressions of thought contain some limitations and to add preconceived ideas without evidentiary support can produce false statements and beliefs.
Without resorting to belief, I can look at a photograph and see that it only resembles some aspect of a particular thing or person, and that it represents an indirect abstraction. Without belief, I can question a proposition before arriving at a conclusion.
Limitations of knowledge
- "It used to be thought that physics describes the universe. Now we know that physics only describes what we can say about the universe."
- -Niels Bohr
- "It is always better to have no ideas than false ones; to believe nothing, than to believe what is wrong."
- -Thomas Jefferson
Our thoughts and expressions through language represent abstractions about the world, metaphors and models about things and not the things themselves. Language and thought cannot describe the totality of a thing anymore than a painting or picture can. A picture does not equal its subject, and a map does not equal its territory. But our myths, maps, models, and abstract thoughts do provide a limited means to understand the world and to make predictions about external events. They provide a way to quantify and simplify our communication systems so that we can perform desirable and useful actions in the world. But if we allow unnecessary thoughts and beliefs to reside with our abstractions, we develop semantic noise which can lead to incorrect information.
As limited humans, we do not possess absolute knowledge. Our perceptions and information comes to us incomplete. When we look, touch and measure an object, for example, we only observe part of its totality. Belief, on the other hand, can produce the illusion that we understand without limitations. Eliminating concepts of beliefs, at least puts us closer to the range of our perceptions. We inherit mortal limitations, we cannot know with absolute certainly about the external world; we cannot completely remove doubt about our conclusions. Many philosophers and scientists have come to this same observation . Doubt leaves the door open for further investigation. Intransigent belief puts a mental barrier to further knowledge.
Bias (point of view)
Because our models and theories represent limited knowledge about the world, this forces us to examine the universe within boundaries. This produces a point of view. Bias represents a focus, direction, or preference towards a point of view without examining or ignoring existing evidence. One cannot avoid a point of view. Regardless of how one might try to prevent bias, there will most always occur something left out of the description. Similar to Heisenburg' Uncertainty Principle, as a focus becomes narrow, the more outside its focus gets left out. And vice versa, the more general a view becomes, the more the details get left out. If one tries to include the details with the general, a view can bog down with an overblown aggregation of information, turning a direction of thought into a cloud of complexity; and even still, the entire system would reside within a framework of limitations. Regardless of how one may reject beliefs, a point of view occurs if only because we represent a unique and limited spatial entity within the universe.
The negative aspect we usually associate with bias does not come from bias itself but rather the belief that comes with it. Belief produces a set of brackets around a point of view that says in effect "The answer lies here." Once you believe you have found the answer, your point of view becomes biased, (intransigent and prejudiced) and prevents you from looking at other possible alternatives. Again, beliefs act as a barrier to further understanding. If a person develops a faith in a point of view, then it becomes overwhelming to the point that nothing, even in the light of convincing evidence, will the faithful yield to better information. A biased belief can convince its believers that they hold the key to all understanding and "truth" without providing any evidence to support it.
A point of view, however, does not demand a predisposition to belief; it can simply represent a direction of thought. Ideas, by their very nature, represent limitations of thought. As long as a point of view produces a reasonable explanation, uses only pertinent information necessary to make predictions and leaves open the possibility of change in favor of better evidence, then it serves as a useful and productive tool. As we learn and understand our limitations, that a point of view represents an understood direction, we have the possibility to transcend it into an even more productive point of view.
Imagination, fantasy and wonder
- "Imagination is more important than knowledge."
- -Albert Einstein
As humans, we have the remarkable ability to make things up and to pretend. Imagination and fantasy provides us with one of the most pleasurable ways to experience thoughts and gives us one of the fundamental requirements for the ability to create. Our imagination provides us with the mental capacity to express models in our heads and to act out scenarios of love, conquest, gamesmanship and adventure. I can't imagine any new invention, art, or literature deriving without its author engaging in the pleasure of a fantasy. The feeling of wonder about things in the world and the mysteries of the universe fills us with imagination and speculation.
Fantasies and imaginations, of course require no belief in them. They provide us a way to model and hypothesize non-actual events that may eventually lead to knowledge of actual things or perhaps even a novel invention. Fantasy coupled with ideas about actual events can lead to great insights about future events. Many a science fiction story, for example, has inspired scientists to construct hypotheses that lead to verifiable experiment and the invention of useful machines. Even fantasy by itself provides an enjoyable way of expressing thoughts. But if an individual begins to believe in his own fantasy, or worse, has faith in it, then usually only disappointment or tragedies result.
- "We always move on two feet-- the two poles of knowledge and desire."
- -Elie Faure
Desire comes to us as a natural feeling. As biological animals, we cannot avoid desires. We desire food, shelter, freedom of expression, etc. As exploratory animals, we humans use our minds as a tool to help satisfy the desires within us. With reflection and thought, we learn the limits to our desires. Eating too much, for example, can lead to limited heath and the prevention of satisfying other desires. By understanding the consequences of desire, we can avoid the excesses and blockages of desire. To express and satisfy our desires (sex, feelings, hunger, etc.) provides a human need. And if we do not satisfy our natural needs, then severe consequences can result.
Sadly, many of our belief-systems put a stranglehold on our natural instinctive desires. If a belief-system teaches that "sex is evil," "only godly belief will help you," or suppresses expression and communication, we may turn depraved, depressed, or violent.
Believers many times express desire indirectly in terms of hope, a form of wishful thinking. Indeed faith hinges on the requirement of hope and ignorance. Hope without an adequate method of achieving our desires can lead to debilitating disappointment and sorrow. I can only imagine the number of tragedies that have occurred from failures due to excessive wishful thinking. Instead of relying on faith and hope, we might analyze our desires and use our knowledge and creative minds to find a way of satisfying them.
Many people think that morality stems from religion, usually from some form of 'divine' instruction in the form of scripture, holy writ or from the teachings of shamans or priests. However, research from evolutionary biologists and sociobiologists have shown that the precursors of human morality occur in many other social animals, especially primates such as chimpanzees and bonobos (our closest animal relatives). Religion emerged after morality and, thus, human morality cannot have come originally from religion. As an example from personal experience, I remember as a child that I learned about golden rule behavior by interacting with my fellow school mates in the sandlot before anyone taught me about religion, nor did I even know about what the golden rule or morality meant! I simply behaved in a manner that felt right to me at the time. (A few other children acted through Iron rule behavior, the "bullies").
Morality ultimately stems from the brain and it requires emotions and consciousness. The science of human behavior suggests that innate morality comes to us from birth, perhaps similar to the language instinct where humans have an innate capacity for language even though any particular language comes from cultural development (see Steven Pinker and Noam Chomsky). Religion may have served as the first system to control morality through religious belief instruction (and force) but that says nothing about the workability of a moral system. In fact, one can argue that religious morality creates more moral problems because it does not conform to reality (because it relies on supernatural beliefs, not on nature) and it produces dogma which can prevent one from establishing workable morality in light of new evidence. After all, the three most influential religions in the world (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) stem from books written during the Bronze and Iron ages long before people understood the science of biology and human behavior. Clearly thousands of years of moral instruction from these religions have never produced a workable moral system (do I really need to go into wars, slavery, pogroms, witch hunts, intolerance's, etc. to explain this?)
Since humans live in the natural world and science provides the only tools to understand the natural world, it follows that science might provide us with the best way to establish workable moral systems. Unfortunately, much of human nature remains unknown to us and scientists have barely begun to study moral systems. Moreover, the dogmatic belief that morality can only come from religion further bars people from thinking about it, even from many scientists. Nevertheless, the science of morality started with the philosophical ideas from Jeremy Bentham, the philosophy of consequentialism, the research on human cooperation from Robert Axelrod, and many scientists now studying how the brain creates moral judgments.
Innate morality does not require ownership of beliefs because it acts through our biological system in response to stimulus and our environment (although many people do attach beliefs to them). I do not have to believe in order to act. However religious morality almost always requires belief because it involves religious instruction which one must believe in order to accept the dogma. In both cases, innate morality or religious morality might prove tragically wrong because of particular circumstances (for example, I might treat someone altruistically not knowing that that person relies on deception and trickery to get what he wants, or I might turn the other cheek to an enemy which could result in the death of myself and others).
Instead of relying on innate feelings or belief, I can spend more time thinking and evaluating my feelings and the feelings of others around me and to try to establish the consequences of my actions (ethics).
Morality requires feelings and emotions because our subjective values stem from emotions, and we need values to establish morality. Here we have emotions that trump logical reasoning (just opposite of beliefs). For morality, we want to use emotions with logical structures but not as beliefs but as a way to achieve desires and wants. Beliefs involve statements about external truths which do not require the feelings but in morality we must use our feelings to direct us toward a workable moral system. But one does not need to use belief statements to do this. Instead one need only use desire statements. For example, I want people to live together peacefully because everyone will feel better as a result. And then I might describe a way to achieve this want by using a theory to establish it. At no time do I require beliefs to establish statements about morality.
Much of our innate feelings already drives us in this direction but only a full study of the behavior and feelings of humans can result in any kind of consensus on the right action to take. And this requires science. In any case, one could construct an ethical system that remains flexible, based on human nature and science, all without owning a single moral belief. Of course disowning beliefs does not guarantee a workable moral system but it does get rid of all the belief based systems that have no connection at all with human nature. At the very least, this opens up opportunities to create a moral system that works for both the individual as well as others.
Everyone believes in something?
Many a believer, religious and atheist alike, will become astonished at any statement against belief, if for no other reason because they believe and the people around them have beliefs. They tend to form a belief-of-its-own that projects beliefs onto others. However, simply because most people own beliefs does not necessarily follow that all
Essay on My Religious Belief System
1363 WordsNov 24th, 20086 Pages
My Religious Belief System
My religious belief system is embedded in Christianity. I was born into a family who worshiped as Methodist and I am still Methodist. Growing up my mother not only sent us to church, she went with us along with my grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins. Even though my father did not attend church often, he believed in God and supported my mother’s desire to have her children in church. The neighborhood I grew up in consisted of a great deal of my mother’s family and everyone served at the same church, right there in the community. My religious beliefs, directed my life in the sense of keeping my family close, taking my children to church, and teaching them the right way. I remember before my baptism, my pastor…show more content…
From what I read and from what I am constantly learning from the Bible, I grasp what is required of me as an individual and as a Christian in association with my conduct, meaning the way I behave toward others, and so forth. The Bible is an excellent guideline of what God expects us to do. By now, it seems obvious what I believe and it appears to be apparent that my belief system is absolutely a religious belief system. I pray constantly without ceasing for my children, my entire family and everyone I consider crucial to me. After analyzing my belief system, I grew into different facets of my religious belief system through phases of my life. For example, I knew several prayers at a young age but I did not understand how crucial prayer was concerning my religious beliefs. I recall as a young girl being on my knees along beside my grandmother saying my prayers. I remember her teaching one prayer for night and one for the mornings. Even as a teenager, I realized some of the proper characteristics of my belief system but being young in mind I did not always adhere to that belief. I always knew deep inside because of what my belief is that some things I will not do. I do not consider myself a saint and I have made some terrible decisions but not to the point where I ignored my conscious which convicts us. Now that I have reached adulthood and I have experienced other things like marriage, having children, and coping with