The Importance of Belief, and the Difference between Truths and Beliefs
More than anything this is just me doing a dissertation, but I think that it is extremely important what we believe, what the truth really is, and the difference between them. There is a LOT of importance in what we believe, especially when it doesn't align with the truth, or the truth can't be known.
There are a few main points which we need to look at, and consider.
These are the beliefs which we all hold on a personal level. It encompasses everything from the extremely mundane "That is a push door", all the way up to the extremely interesting "God exists, and has these exact properties". The category of personal beliefs includes everything that you have any opinion on what-so-ever!
So, what is the significance of that? Well, it turns out that this is terribly important! What you believe informs and practically decides what you think and do in this world.
The belief that a door is a push door prevents you from pulling on it. The belief that the cops will find and arrest you prevents you from committing a murder, or a robbery. The belief that you will fall and be crushed to death prevents you from jumping off of cliffs. The belief that a suicide bombing will send you to heaven removes the hesitation in killing yourself and everyone around you. The belief that your God requires faith in him/her leads you to not question their existence. The belief that homosexuality is immoral leads you to oppose their freedoms. The belief that the universe was put here for you to enjoy, leads you to take things for granted. The belief that there isn't an after life leads you to value this one much more highly. The belief that the universe is a beautiful place leads you to appreciate the colour purple.
One extremely valuable example of this is a case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder(OCD). In this particular case(linked below), a man was with a friend one day, and an El Camino drove past. His friend told him that he had to wipe of the El Camino, or "Something BAD will happen!" He now has the belief in his head that he has to wipe his hands off, or "Something BAD" will happen when an El Camino drives past. Because of that belief, he now watches every single car that goes past him when he is out walking, and when he does see an El Camino, he will start to compulsively wipe his hands for upwards of TEN hours at a time.
His OCD makes his case a very exaggerated one, though while it is certainly not that obvious in most people, we all have similar effects. His case is such a good one because the belief he holds seems so ridiculous to us. However, there are some things that you may believe, and not even realize that they aren't true. For example, black cats or walking under ladders bringing bad luck. Wearing a pair of underwear that makes you luckier. For the longest time people all believed that the earth was flat, that witches and wizards and dragons and trolls and unicorns all existed, and that if you turn off the lights and say "Bloody Mary" into a mirror three times, a severed head would appear in the glass. People believed that Freddy Mercury and Dumbledore were straight. People believed that a big muscle-bound guy named Zeus threw lighting down from mount Olympus every time there was a thunder storm.
When a sufficient number of people who share a similar belief come together some very interesting things can happen. Religion is probably the most obvious example of this, though certainly not the only one. I'll use Catholicism for an example. It is perfect possible for someone to be catholic by them self. It doesn't seem like there is anything which would stop that from happening. However, a single catholic person awash in a sea of non-catholic people is not likely to remain catholic for long. Humans are very social creatures, and we react to what we see around us. It is very hard to cling to Catholicism when everyone around you believes in Hinduism. Excluding extreme cases, we strive for the approval and even praise of our peers, and would not receive it in those conditions. If on the other hand, that same catholic person where in Vatican city, where most everyone is also catholic, it would be extremely easy for them to remain catholic. Their peers would easily accept their beliefs, and in effect, the group bolsters it's self. Even finding a single person that shares a belief has an impressive amount of power. When whole societies form that adopt and share a belief, it becomes extremely powerful. By them self a catholic person would constantly be forced to question their beliefs, and would have to enforce the idea that they are correct when everyone else disagrees. In a sea of catholic people nobody asks or disagrees with your catholic beliefs, and then you don't have to question them or worry about their correctness.
Other examples of this include governments, political parties, and fandoms. An example which probably isn't so obvious is the scientific community. Yes, that’s right, the scientific community works the same way as religious groups and fandoms! See, it is very difficult to believe that the earth is round when literally everyone around you is certain that it is flat. It is extremely difficult to claim that things gradually evolve to suit their environment when everyone around you says that God designed everything perfectly just a short while ago. It isn't easy to make the claim that the universe is BILLIONS of years old when all your friends think that it is closer to 4000 years old. In order to make things easier on themselves, scientist banded together to form the scientific community. They defined some beliefs on how we should study the universe. They all believe in the effectiveness of the scientific method. and that we should remark on, and try to understand reality. now, even though their personal areas of study may be different, scientists can bolster each other's confidence and belief in science through the shared belief in it.
A universal truth is something that is simply true, regardless of time, location, no matter who knows about it, what anyone thinks about it, or even if it was ever observed at all. Science and logic both focus heavily on remarking upon universal truths. Unfortunately sometimes science gets things a bit wrong and has to make adjustments over time, but with each revision, it moves closer and closer to absolute, universal truth.
Typically a universal truth applies to something like, "Gravity is the attraction of two masses towards each other over any range" or "The effects of gravity travel at the speed of light" or "Light has a maximum speed, which neither light it's self or any other particle can exceed". Now, granted, I am only reporting what science has got so far, and those statements may be found to not be universal truths in the future, but as far as any living human knows, they are all hinting at universal truths. Take for instance the universal gravitational constant. Nobody believed that number had a certain value which forced it to be that way. That number was discovered and has been repeatedly tested and observed. It has been that way since long before we even knew about it to have an opinion on what it could or should be. Our opinion of it has no bearing on it's existence or it's real value.
There are also, of course, axiomatic truths. These are almost entirely based in concept, but we can create things with a concise, objectively measurable definition, and then they become a universal truth. For example, 1 + 1 = 2. No matter where you are in the universe or what your personal beliefs are, numbers are defined in such a way that 1+1=2. The symbols themselves may change, but the concept is absolute. There are a number of axioms which we have made, and which are very useful, especially in the field of applied logic or formal mathematics.
The difference between a truth and a belief, is that truth is based on reality, and belief is based on perception of it. Truths reflect the way that things -really- are, and it doesn't matter what anyone sees or thinks about them. Say I build a big door that says "PUSH" on the handle, but it is -actually- a pull door. Now, a random person walks up, reads the sign that says "PUSH" and they push on the door. The TRUTH of the matter is that the door is a pull door. However, the person using it BELIEVES that it is a push door. As I said above, our beliefs inform and decide upon our actions. That person believes it is a push door, so they will try to push on it. What is important to notice though is that the persons belief simply cannot change the truth. They can push and push all they want, but it remains a pull door.
Informing Our Beliefs
Given the example of the mislabelled door, it becomes obvious that we must have some mechanism to change our beliefs. Otherwise we would just stand there all day and push against the unmoving door. That mechanism is called experience. Experience is all the data which we gather from being exposed to something. The first bit of experience we get from the door we were exposed to is the label, which says "PUSH". The evidence informs our beliefs about this door, and leads us to believe it not only is a door, but that it is a push door. Feeling that you have enough evidence to proceed, you push firmly against the door. At this point, the door doesn't move, and with any luck, you have avoided smashing your face against it. New evidence has been added which tells you that this is NOT a push door. You now have a problem! You have evidence that says that this both is and isn't a push door. At this point things break down into what evidence is most valuable to you.
Having only just read the sign and pushed against the door, you probably have about a tie in your head, which leads to confusion. It is highly likely you will push on the door once or twice more to enforce the new evidence, until it's importance/credibility eclipses that of the label. It follows that soon after you would start to pull on the door, since you have decided that it isn't a push door after all. The door opens when you pull, and you come to the conclusion that the door is actually a mislabelled pull door. Through experience/evidence and some trial/error, you arrive at an appropriate perception of the truth.
What the door example fails to account for though is the situation in which you have a large amount of faith in the sign. Enough that you can't eclipse it with a few or even a few dozen attempts to push on the door. Rather than discredit the sign, you instead simply conclude that it must be locked, or you aren't pushing hard enough. Perhaps you just aren't worthy. There may be some other trick, and you just know it involves pushing. Perhaps you are pushing in the wrong place?
What kind of crazy person would believe so strongly in a sign? Once they did just a little pushing, they should be able to discover the incredulity of the sign. Unfortunately this is the effect of a reinforced belief which is disjoint from reality. Lets take little Sally Lou, who has just been born. Every single day, since before she could even understand, her parents tell her that the door is a push door. They relate their experiences pushing the door, and how it opened for them. They describe the door in some detail, and sometimes they even put their hands together like a closed doorway and talk to the door to thank it for being in their lives.
Sally Lou has just turned 16, and after 16 years of waiting and being told over and over about the door, she runs out and finds it to push on it. Now, with such a strongly instilled and reinforced belief, she is more likely to conclude she is a failure, or that she is at the wrong door, etc... rather than simply testing it out and discovering it was in fact a pull door.
If 16 years of preaching can convince young Sally Lou not to try seeking the truth on a mislabelled door, imagine the kind of damage that it could do with something even harder to test or examine. Religion, racism, slavery, political parties, morals, scientific facts, hygiene, and much, much more. A constant persuasion from others can form beliefs which are totally unseated from reality. Beliefs which aren't supported by first hand evidence, but rather second hand evidence that was passed down form people we trust.
Too many times I have heard an Atheist/Antipestivist call out to the religious, "Hey dummies, your beliefs aren't founded in evidence!", only to have the religious person reply that they have Faith. What they -actually- have is a belief that is supported by the second and third hand experiences of others, passed on to them through their religious community and doctrine, repeatedly reinforced to the point that they feel they have all the evidence in the world even though they have no first hand evidence of any of it. They don't feel any lack of confidence in their beliefs because everyone in their religious community shares those beliefs, and bolsters them, and they all read from their doctrine together. There is enough off-hand evidence that there feels to be no need to seek more. And then, when their beliefs fail them, or what they expect to happen doesn't, they will rationalize it away, often in insanely crazy ways, all to hold onto the idea that the door is in fact a push door, and their beliefs are in fact correct as well.
No matter how many times their prayers go unanswered, their enemies walk away untouched, their church burns or collapses from natural disasters, their members die at a young age or in a brutal way, they get stuck in a bloody war... They have the strength to bolster beliefs well above a healthy level, and lead people to think and act based on beliefs that are completely disjoint from reality.
I'm trying to point out that belief without evidence, and in particular FIRST-HAND evidence, is a dangerous and disingenuous thing. Even if you do happen to be a deeply religious person, what I ask is that you be aware of the reality or the world you live in, and if you have kids, please give them the chance to form their own beliefs about the world. Don't lecture your child about the teaching of your holy books. Sit them down and let them read for them self, then decide what they think of it. You may not like the outcome, but at least you will know that they made the decision them self.
The same goes for atheists and apestivists as well. Regardless of what you believe, question your beliefs, gather evidence, and allow others to inform their own actions.