How can “they” believe: Multiverses? Virgin birth? Aliens crashed in Nevada? Men landed on the moon– or didn’t? The moon is hollow? QAnon conspiracy theories? That one nationality or race or gender or religion is superior to others, any is inferior? That there is a Creator of the universe? That there is not?
What is belief? I will say: belief is a conviction that some statement is true. Belief is based on what we know about ourselves and the world around us; what we test and prove to our own satisfaction.
How do we prove a statement (concept, fact) is or is not true?
How do we know anything in the first place? How do we learn?
Most basically we know by our personal experience: I encounter myself and the world (infants are so excited to discover their own toes, reminding me of kittens surprised about their tails). Our senses give us information about ourselves and our surroundings– rather, our command center employs specialized cells and organs for sampling and recording information about our surroundings. Information as electric impulses and chemicals makes its way to our brains to be registered and categorized– but there must be enough individual items of sense and experience to develop categories– which we can watch infants and toddlers develop.
Things happen directly to us, and we witness other things happening in the near world. We encounter, experience, and acquire knowledge of, arguably, the world.
The stimulus and information enter the brain where it is converted to idea, a concept. Enough information and idea formation, “gained experience”, becomes “acquired knowledge”.
C.G. Jung tells us that it’s a mistake to think that the basis of our knowledge is from outside us, from the world; rather, as the nerves and synapses take what is sensed (seen, heard, smelled, felt) along our circuits, we convert the information into ideas. Images. Electro-chemical and Psychic processes. Our own psyches color and affect our ideas of things that “are”. We experience emotions, we assign values, we give more attention to this than that, more weight and importance to what grasps and holds our attention.
We interpret and imagine. We cannot say things about the world with absolute certainty.
To learn more, we must move ourselves to observe more world, and we do learn from others. Others experience themselves and observe the world, and then we attempt to share our information to increase each others’ and everyone’s stores of knowledge. How do we communicate? This seems simpler without, or before words; we make sounds, we gesture. We wave, we blow kisses, we make and show fists: palm towards others means “for”, the back of the hand means, “against”. Watching toddlers again, we recognize the little boys’ universal need-to-pee signal.
“Common” experiences, collected experiences of ours and others’, become recognized ideas– representative sounds become words, become shared, communal names of things and categories of being.
How complicated is the process of considering the concepts we hold in our psyches, translating these into language, words which we can present to another, and, hearing words, re-translating them back into concepts and recognizing them, squaring them with our own filters of experience… When we understand well enough to add that information to our knowledge, we still may or may not believe it.
Who is it who is offering this information? Is it of their own personal experience or first-hand witness? Do we trust them to be telling the truth? Do we believe their “truth” to be “objective”, or colored, twisted, turned by faults, weaknesses, wants, of their own?
The process, when we get to written words and numbers is exponentially more complicated. The writer must deconstruct the experience or vision and translate it into nouns, verbs, prepositions of relationship– or numbers and functions; sentences and equations have socially agreed-upon alphabet systems and grammars. Then, the reader must decipher the signs– the eyes or ears must run things through the physical channels to the brain, the brain must interpret the marks or sounds, and then the mind must understand that arrangement of parts into an idea.
Number systems were used in northern Africa by approximately 35,000 B.C. Numbers count and record things, events, sizes, distances– on the whole, nouns. Written language developed by around 3500 B.C. in the Mesopotamian Basin.
The oldest known story, The Epic Of Gilgamesh, is from about 2100 B.C. Words illustrate things and their interactions, those that are and are not and might be, their adjectives and adverbs, their qualities and consequences (which the most advanced, higher, speculative equations of cosmology and physics are also doing)– philosophies and stories and supposed truths.
How do we know that we are thinking the same thing? Is my pictured tree the same as yours? Is soft as soft to you as to me? Is red, red? Is far, far? How big is your big, and how do you imagine a galaxy? An atom ( do you see it as the 21st century A.D. scientists or as the 5th century B.C. philosophers do?) ? How do humans ever communicate ideas?
According again to Jung, the human mind or being is structured to include Archetypes, the forms or constructs or templates by which we categorize and experience our experiences; collective unconscious is the species-common knowledge of archetypal functions, patterns, meanings. Archetypes in themselves have no shape or character, but appear in our minds, our imaginations, in characteristic figures and forms, and involve our emotions and intellects, dreams and decisions.
Archetypes are in a way Forms, I think: Platonic Forms are Ideals or ideas, in which particulars here in the physical universe participate, or are the qualities which earthly things share. The Beautiful, the True, the Good, are Forms. Equality, Justice, Mercy are Forms, and particulars can be to some degree beautiful or just, true or equal. (Man or Human might be a Form, and Horse and Lion, and a beautiful horse has horseness, but the categories of Forms blur when we ask if soil, if clay, if carbon has a Form, for if so, does not everything and, if not, where does one draw the line?)
Plato suggested that we do not actually learn new things, but remember them (Anamnesis). He held that the soul is immortal, and a separate thing from the body in which it incarnates; the soul has learned all truths, and in this and that life we remember: questions, events, experiences, sensations and investigations spark this memory, and we then “know” that which is known.
But if this was so, one would think we would believe the same things because we would remember participations in the same Forms.
How do we trust the sources of our shared information, conveyed ideas, and over against what do we test statements to determine their truth or falsehood ?Natural and physical laws are testable, to a point– which science has speculated beyond; everyday, common nature has proved pretty measurable and actions proved repeatable, so we can flick a switch and have electric light usually, can boot up a word processor, fly jets across continents and oceans and conduct experiments on an International Space Station; we can build enormous accelerators and smash atoms into each other like Hot Wheels. But statements of value (even that of exploring space, smashing atoms ,of building or tearing down walls) are of a different kind. More psychologically complex, dealing with thought and emotion and self-image, identity, our definitions of who and what and why we are.
We do not all value the same things to the same degrees, which is where the fact of psychic processes coloring and toning all the information we receive comes in, and leads to cooperation or conflict, compassion or aggression, fear and hatred or empathy and inclusion.
What does one test things against, to prove them true?
When I was thinking about this yesterday, my scripture reading– I have been reading the Book of Isaiah, a chapter or two most days– was this:
"Isaiah said, 'This shall be the sign to you from the LORD, that the LORD will do the thing that he has promised: shall the shadow go forward ten steps or go back ten steps?' And Hezekiah answered, 'It is an easy thing for the shadow to lengthen ten steps. Rather let the shadow go back ten steps.' And Isaiah the prophet called to the LORD, and he brought the shadow back ten steps, by which it had gone down on the steps of Ahaz." (Isaiah 38:8)
This story appears in three places: in addition to Isaiah 38, it is in 2 Kings 20: 9-11, and 2 Chronicles 32: 31. (Which, I realize, does not give it more importance if you don't give worth to Old Testamental writings, but even so, it's interesting.)
Now, one might believe that because the Lord God created the heavens and the earth and is outside of all nature and time, he can do with time and nature whatever he pleases, and reverse the flow of time or the rotation of the earth– except, wouldn’t this have destroyed life? Have been a cataclysm? Been recorded, like the Flood? The Flood or a Flood is recorded in the aforementioned Gilgamesh epic and other peoples’ stories, and the Romans mentioned the strange darkness that fell over the land the day Jesus was crucified. One might say it’s an allegory. After all, nowhere do the books say exactly where the staircase was, what the steps were to, or what was casting the shadow.
Truth and fact are not exactly the same. In any poem, drama, legend, scripture, tale, or text, the details mean something, are telling something, some symbolic or mythological or psychological truth using allegories, metaphors, imagery; I do not know what the story, the sign, means, but it might be showing that the Lord who is Lord of life and death is Lord of time as well. And time, as we now know, is not constant.
Subjective experience of time is inconstant. Time runs at different paces depending on velocity and gravitational pull. Time is not necessarily a thing– there is “really” only motion and change.
To my mind, inspiration for a play, poem, novel, drama, painting, symphony, song, statue, ballet, building, prophecy from God, comes all at once, a vision: there, at once, is a whole. Then one tries to describe or sketch or somehow catch it, bring this Ideal/Form/Vision down to be copied in letters, in notes, in clay or stone. The prophets and visionaries were “taken up”– to the Throne, to a Heaven, to Indra’s palace, and shown– the world. Not everything and all time because they were mortal , they could only comprehend so much, not yet infinity, but great swaths of past, present, future, and space, and then they tried to write about them, to describe them, in Isaiah, Revelation, the Bhagavad-Gita, in poems, epics, in geometries, calculus, string theory…
Today when I was letting paragraphs roll in my head, my phone’s Google “discover” page showed a PHYS.ORG headline from the Center for Computational Astrophysics : “Supercomputer Turns Back Cosmic Clock.”
Today is Ash Wednesday. For practicing Christians –and there are no other kind than still practicing– this marks the beginning of Lent. These are church traditions, established around the 4th century A.D. as a time of retreating for reflection, of giving up some worldly things to detox, fast and cleanse. Ashes remind us of our own, not conceptual, mortality (“ashes to ashes, dust to dust” which God in Genesis tells us we shall return to because we were made of these, long before science recognized us as carbon-based life forms). And ashes are for repentance. Repenting means turning, and we are intended to turn to God– “God”. The term, the name, the character or figure of “God”– “God Almighty,” “The LORD your God,” “God the Father,” and so on– is a symbol, and archetypal symbol of that which we mean when we refer to it in the shorthand label, “God;” “God” is an image of “God”. But– that which we mean is that which we are to turn to. One of the names or active functions of God The Creator Sustainer of All Nature and Natural Law, is called Holy Spirit. The Christian belief is that the Spirit convicts us– of Truth, of sin, of righteousness.
Jesus said, in John 15: 26, and 16: 8 and 13, “When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father…” “When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgement… when he, the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth…”
The Spirit, then, is what the practicing Christian, the believer, is to test statements against, to prove truth or falsehood– or, the Spirit will prove them. It does require a willed, decided leap of faith to believe that.
Paul Tillich explains that we humans must have faith in something, and what we put our faith in is our ‘Ultimate Concern”: what do we put before all else, what do we worship? God, Country, General Theory?
I believe that Jesus was a particular man who was also That Which We Mean By “God” .John 15: 26 :” When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me.”
I can’t prove the truth of this to you; you’d have to let the Spirit prove it in you yourself.