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Belief and Doubt
We need to go beneath the surface and engage the whole mind -- think holistically --
to achieve the change we seek, says Eric Harrison.
m not a believer. I try not to believe
in anything. My world divides up
into what I know and what I don't
know. There is no need for me
to believe in what passes for factual, well-
supported truth, and as for the rest, I need
to have a good reason for any hypothesis.
If the grounds are too fragile for any
idea, I can't take it seriously at all. This is
not to say that I am immune from the
gravitational pull of simple answers and
consoling beliefs. Their Platonic purity
has enormous aesthetic appeal, similar to
the perfect cadence that ends a piece of
music. Even the full stop that ends the little
journey of a sentence feels satisfying and
authoritative. Keats said, "Truth is beauty
and beauty truth" but those were the
words of a very young man. Elegance looks
convincing but it is never proof. A well
shaped sentence or an inspirational idea
is no guarantee against nonsense.
Each day I learn more, but the ratio
between what I know and what I don't
know expands at an ever increasing rate.
This seems to be a law of knowledge, for
me at least. The more I know and the
wiser I become, the more I glimpse the
astronomical scale of my ignorance. I find
this prospect both delightful and alarming.
I don't think I will ever get bored by
reaching the end of the line. Indeed, an
alignment to uncertainty and an openness
to doubt seems to be a hallmark of any
truth worth considering.
Most of the world's common beliefs
have no relation to fact and don't seriously
pretend to. If God, or life after death, or
free market economics were facts, we
wouldn't need to believe in them. Religion,
politics, spirituality and any number of
hopefully held beliefs have the logical
sophistication of children's stories. They
appeal to the child in us. They exert their
control and enchant us precisely because
of their magical thinking and satisfying
gestalts. Lord Bertrand Russell was the
most famous atheist before Richard
Dawkins and he said, "Man is a credulous
animal and must believe something; in
the absence of good grounds for belief, he
will be satisfied with bad ones."
We can't help hoping and believing.
It is in our nature to strive for a better life
both personally and politically. It would
be wonderful to have a planet free from
injustice and poverty, with equality and
opportunity for all. We constantly hear
the call for political and spiritual leaders
with vision who can inspire us, so we
shouldn't be surprised that so many
imposters try to answer that call. We need
to believe that it is possible to improve
our world, if only to avoid getting bogged
down in the despair and confusion of
Yet there is no question that this kind
of optimistic belief has tremendous
capacity to do evil. The past century saw
some of the most visionary leaders of all
time, namely Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol
Pot. For them and their millions of
dedicated followers, the vision of what
they were trying to achieve was nothing
less than the new Jerusalem. It was the
direct descendent of the transcendental
religious fervour of the previous centuries.
The Nobel Prize winner Friedrich
Hayek was very conscious of the dangers
of too much vision and confidence. "To
act on the belief that we possess the
knowledge and power to enable us to
shape the processes of society entirely to
our liking, knowledge which in fact we do
not possess, is likely to make us do much
As an economist who had endured
two world wars, Hayek believed in positive
social change, but he had clear ideas
about how this should not be attempted.
He said we have to use our knowledge,
not as a craftsman who shapes a finished
product, but as a gardener whose skill is
limited to providing the best conditions
for his plants.
This metaphor makes sense to me.
When I was young, I became a good
gardener over a period of about five
years. I soon found I could count on
good crops overall, but I could never
guarantee good tomatoes or good
nectarines in any particular year.
This same logic applies at a psychic
level. The idea that we can have direct
control of our minds by manipulating our
beliefs is similar to the central command
fallacies of fascism, communism and
The brain is wired to operate like a
democracy, not a dictatorship. Democracies
are chaotic but they work because they
give considerable freedom to the
individuals and groups within them.
Democracies tend to have functional
rather than visionary goals. They give us
better roads and education even if they
neglect to rid the world of evil. Dictator-
ships, on the other hand, concentrate
god-like powers in the hands of a few and
eventually become rigid and collapse.
Trying to control our minds from the top
down has a similar effect.
Despite the evidence, we like to think
that we are in control of our minds, or
could be if we tried harder. This fallacy
is reinforced by the subject-verb-object
structure of the basic sentence. The "I"
stands, godlike and upright, at the head
of the sentence. This indivisible prime
mover then initiates an action towards a
planned outcome. It seems so obvious.
We've lived with this kind of logical, "I do"
progression ever since we learnt to talk.
So why is it that so many actions go
wildly wrong? Why do other forces so
often knock aside the "I" and take over?
And why does so much mental activity
seem to happen with no "I" in sight?
The psychologist Robert Hillman had
an insightful answer to this. He studied
with Carl Jung who argued that for psychic
health we needed to go beyond the
surface turbulence and contact what he
called the "Self " within us.
Hillman went a step further. He said
that it is better to think of one's psychic
integrity as being more like that of a family
than an individual. His example was the
12 Greek gods; Zeus was the pater
familias of this warring tribe of brothers,
sisters, wives and husbands and children.
'Some people dramatically
change their lives for the
better, and a key driver is that
they believed it was possible.'
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