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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, March 30, 2007

searching for beliefs

I'm searching for my beliefs.

It has been a lifelong search, and it's not over. In fact, at this stage, it seems quite possible, even likely, that it will never be over. The awareness that my beliefs are provisional and lack a solid foundation has held me back, I think, in my worldly life, my career.

To my great satisfaction and delight, William James tackles the question of belief head-on (the way he tackles everything) in a chapter of its own in volume 2 of his Principles of Psychology, chapter 21, "The Perception of Reality". He opens the chapter thus:

Everyone knows the difference between imagining a thing and believing in its existence, between supposing a proposition and acquiescing in its truth. In the case of acquiescence or belief, the object is not only apprehended by the mind, but is held to have reality. Belief is thus the mental state or function of cognizing reality.

He goes on to say:

In its inner nature, belief, or the sense of reality, is a sort of feeling more allied to the emotions than to anything else.

He says that belief resembles consent or willingness. Then:

What characterizes both consent and belief is the cessation of theoretic agitation, through the advent of an idea which is inwardly stable, and fills the mind solidly to the exclusion of contradictory ideas. When this is the case, motor effects are apt to follow. Hence the states of consent and belief, characterized by repose on the purely intellectual side, are both intimately connected with subsequent practical activity.

There it is, something that I have long maintained myself: beliefs are the mental states that specifically guide our actions. Once again I find in William James support for my own thoughts, arrived at via different means in a different world.

It follows that having strong, stable, and harmonious beliefs will make one vigorous and consistent in one's actions, which clearly will lead on to success in one's aims, all other things being equal.

James would go on to develop this idea further into the philosophy of pragmatism, which holds that truth itself has no meaning apart from its practical consequences--a view that I myself have pretty much come to hold, again via an independent route.

Beliefs have different intensities, or levels of conviction. James puts it thus:

The quality of arousing emotion, of moving us or inciting us to action, has as much to do with our belief in an object's reality as the quality of giving pleasure or pain. Generally, the more a conceived object excites us, the more reality it has. The same object excites us differently at different times.

At the high end of the scale is the feeling of certainty--true conviction. On this James quotes Emerson:

Our faith comes in moments,...yet there is a depth in those brief moments which constrains us to ascribe more reality to them than to all other experiences.

And this, to me, fascinating observation by Bagehot, the 19th-century British journalist and founding brain of The Economist newspaper:

Probably conviction will be found to be one of the intensest of human emotions, and one most closely connected with the bodily state,...accompanied or preceded by the sensation that Scott makes his seer describe as the prelude of a prophecy:

At length the fatal answer came,
In characters of living flame--
Not spoke in words, nor blazed in scroll,
But borne and branded on my soul.

A hot flash seems to burn across the brain. Men in these intense states of mind have altered all history, changed for better or worse the creed of myriads, and desolated or redeemed provinces or ages. Nor is this intensity a sign of truth, for it is precisely strongest in those points in which men differ most from each other.

The intensity of conviction is not a sign of truth. But it will get us deliberately flying aircraft into high-rises and invading Middle Eastern countries.

What is this thing?

Like everyone else, I take actions through the day. Right now I'm writing this blog-post. That means I have certain specific beliefs, in James's view, that are propelling me to this action. I believe that writing this post is furthering my interests or aims somehow. His point would be that those beliefs, whatever they are, are already there; they already exist and are active, whether I'm aware of them or not.

But I would like to be aware of them. I would like to bring my beliefs into the realm of my conscious understanding--to consent to them consciously and willingly, rather than unconsciously. I don't want to be the passive victim of a useless, destructive certainty. I don't want to hijack airplanes or invade countries.

I'd just like to know what the hell I'm doing, and why.


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