Belief in Belief

This blog post is included in:

No Time to Spare
Thinking About What Matters

by Ursula K. Le Guin
Introduction by Karen Joy Fowler

December 5, 2017
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ursula K. Le Guin, photo by Marian Wood KolischBelief in Belief
Ursula K. Le Guin

You can buy rocks in which are carved words intended to be inspiring — LOVE, HOPE, DREAM, etc. Some have the word BELIEVE. They puzzle me. Is belief a virtue? Is it desirable in itself? Does it not matter what you believe so long as you believe something? If I believed that horses turned into artichokes on Tuesdays, would that be better than doubting it?

Charles Blow had a fine editorial in the New York Times on January 3, 2014, “Indoctrinating Religious Warriors,” indicting the radical Republicans’ use of religion to confuse opinion on matters of fact, and their success in doing so. He used a Pew report, “Public’s Views on Human Evolution,” to provide this disheartening statistic:

Last year . . . the percentage of Democrats who believed in evolution inched up to 67 percent, the percentage of Republicans believing so plummeted to 43 percent. Now, more Republicans believe that “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time” than believe in evolution.

Now, greatly as I respect Charles Blow’s keen intelligence and reliable compassion, his choice of words here worries me. Four times in this paragraph he uses the verb “believe” in a way that implies that the credibility of a scientific theory and the credibility of a religious scripture are comparable.

I don’t think they are. And I want to write about it because I agree with him that issues of factual plausibility and spiritual belief or faith are being — cynically or innocently — confused, and need to be disentangled.

I wasn’t able to find the exact wording of the questions asked in the Pew survey. Their report uses the word “think” more often than “believe” — people “think” that human and other beings have evolved over time, or “reject the idea.”

This language reassures me somewhat. For if a poll-taker asked me, “Do you believe in evolution?” — my answer would have to be “No.”

I ought to refuse to answer at all, of course, because a meaningless question has only meaningless answers. Asking me if I believe in evolution, in change, makes about as much sense as asking if I believe in Tuesdays, or artichokes. The word evolution means change, something turning into something else. It happens all the time.

The problem here is our use of the word evolution to signify the theory of evolution. This shorthand causes a mental shortcircuit: it sets up a false parallel between a hypothesis (concerning observed fact) and a revelation (from God, as recorded in the Hebrew bible) — which is then reinforced by our loose use of the word “believe.”

I don’t believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution. I accept it. It isn’t a matter of faith, but of evidence.

The whole undertaking of science is to deal, as well as it can, with reality. The reality of actual things and events in time is subject to doubt, to hypothesis, to proof and disproof, to acceptance and rejection — not to belief or disbelief.

Belief has its proper and powerful existence in the domains of magic, religion, fear, and hope.

I see no opposition between accepting the theory of evolution and believing in God. The intellectual acceptance of a scientific theory and the belief in a transcendent deity have little or no overlap: neither can support or contradict the other. They rise from profoundly different ways of looking at the same world — different ways of coming at reality: the material and the spiritual. They can and often do co-exist in perfect harmony.

Extreme literalism in reading religious texts makes any kind of thinking hard. Still, even if one believes that God created the universe in six days a few thousand years ago, one can take that as a spiritual truth unaffected by the material evidence that the universe is billions of years old. And vice versa: as Galileo knew, though the Inquisitors didn’t, whether the earth goes round the sun or the sun goes round the earth doesn’t affect one way or the other the belief that God is the spiritual center of all.

The idea that only belief sees the world as wonderful, and the “cold hard facts” of science take all the color and wonder out of it, the idea that scientific understanding automatically threatens and weakens religious or spiritual insight, is just hokum.

Some of the hokum arises from professional jealousy, rivalry, and fear — priest and scientist competing for power and control of human minds. Atheist rant and fundamentalist rant ring alike: passionate, partial, false. My impression is that most working scientists, whether they practice a religion or not, accept the coexistence of religion, its primacy in its own sphere, and go on with what they’re doing. But some scientists hate religion, fear it, and rail against it. And some priests and preachers, wanting their sphere of influence to include everything and everyone, claim the absolute primacy of biblical revelation over material fact.

Thus they both set a fatal trap for the believer: If you believe in God you can’t believe in Evolution, and vice versa.

But this is rather like saying if you believe in Tuesday you can’t believe in artichokes.

* * *

Maybe the problem is that believers can’t believe that science doesn’t involve belief. And so, confusing knowledge with hypothesis, they fatally misunderstand what scientific knowledge is and isn’t.

A scientific hypothesis is a tentative assertion of knowledge based on the observation of reality and the collection of factual evidence supporting it. Assertions without factual content (beliefs) are simply irrelevant to it. But it’s always subject to refutation. The only way to refute it is to come up with observed facts that disprove it.

So far, evidence fully supports the hypothesis that Creation has been changing since its origin, that on Earth living creatures, adapting to change, have evolved from single-cell organisms through a vast profusion of species, and that they’re still adapting and evolving right now (as can be seen in the evolution of finch species in the Galapagos, or moth coloration, or barred/spotted owl interbreeding, or a hundred other examples).

Yet, to the strict scientific mind, the theory of evolution is not absolute knowledge. Exhaustively tested and supported by evidence as it is, it’s a theory: further observation can always alter, improve, refine, or enlarge it. It’s not dogma, it’s not an article of faith, but a tool. Scientists use it, act on it, even defend it as if they believed in it, but they’re not doing so because they take it on faith. They accept it and use it and defend it against irrelevant attack because it has so far withstood massive attempts at disproof, and because it works. It does a necessary job. It explains things that needed explaining. It leads the mind on into new realms of factual discovery and theoretical imagination.

Darwin’s theory vastly enlarges our perception of reality — our always tentative knowledge. As far as we have tested it and can test it, and always subject to modification as we learn more, we can accept it as true knowledge — a great, rich, beautiful insight. Not a revealed truth, but an earned one.

In the realm of the spirit, it appears that we can’t earn knowledge. We can only accept it as a gift: the gift of belief. Belief is a great word, and a believed truth too can be great and beautiful. It matters very greatly what one believes in.

I wish we could stop using the word belief in matters of fact, leaving it where it belongs, in matters of religious faith and secular hope. I believe we’d avoid a lot of unnecessary pain if we did so.

–UKL

***

In Memoriam



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Belief in Belief — 26 Comments

  1. Recently a “poll” was faxed to my office intended for the “practicing physician” although we are not a medical office. It was a push poll – with questions intended to the steer the answerer into indicating they doubted the theory of evolution. I wrote “Facts are not subject to opinion polls” on it and faxed it back. I know that didn’t do any good but it made me feel better. I find that understanding what people mean by “believe”, “think” and “know” comes down to very unique and differing definitions held by each individual. The concepts of “belief” and “faith” seem like tricks of vague semantics to me.

  2. This is a wonderful essay. I agree very much with this statement:
    Some of the hokum arises from professional jealousy, rivalry, and fear — priest and scientist competing for power and control of human minds. Atheist rant and fundamentalist rant ring alike: passionate, partial, false.

    I really do think the intensity of the animosity we see comes from both sides seeking to extend their authority, and from perceiving the other side as aggressive and threatening.

    The whole undertaking of science is to deal, as well as it can, with reality. The reality of actual things and events in time is subject to doubt, to hypothesis, to proof and disproof, to acceptance and rejection — not to belief or disbelief.

    –One problem (issue?) here, though, is that how a person understand reality, and what one thinks of as real, varies dramatically depending on belief, which tangles up the discussion. Artichokes and Tuesday, but how about ghosts and spirits? For some people they’re as real as artichokes and Tuesday. And what about abstractions and metaphors–these things aren’t quite the same as artichokes, or ghosts (they’re maybe more like Tuesday, or maybe Tuesday is more like them)–but they figure largely in people’s lives.

    (Those observations aren’t offered in argument to your essay but only as musings on why the problem is, in fact, problematic.)

  3. I agree with every point made in this essay, but I think this bit here leaves out something important. While the priest/preacher angle is definitely about power, the reasons why some scientists, and their proxies, “hate” and “fear” religion should be explicated as well.

    That is to say that anti-religionism is often a figleaf for other prejudices. Islamophobia, as one example, is just as much about race as religion. The faces of the “dangerous Muslims” immigrating to European countries are mostly black and brown (and every color other than white).

    Just look at the changing demographics of places like the UK or Sweden, and see how they correspond to surges in Islamophobia. Look at the rush by white supremacists in the US to equate Obama’s blackness with “Islam”, which of course is to say, “enemy”. If the Muslims were white, the outcry would not be as fevered.

    This, too, is about power––that it remain consolidated amongst white people/Europeans. In other words, white supremacy. Perhaps this is all outside of the scope of your post, Ms. LeGuin, but…I think the deeper reasons for why science vs. religion is such a contentious conflict are important to discuss, especially given that, as you say, there really is no contradiction between the two.

  4. But some scientists hate religion, fear it, and rail against it. And some priests and preachers, wanting their sphere of influence to include everything and everyone, claim the absolute primacy of biblical revelation over material fact.”

    I agree with every point made in this essay, but I think this bit here leaves out something important. While the priest/preacher angle is definitely about power, the reasons why some scientists, and their proxies, “hate” and “fear” religion should be explicated as well.

    That is to say that anti-religionism is often a figleaf for other prejudices. Islamophobia, as one example, is just as much about race as religion. The faces of the “dangerous Muslims” immigrating to European countries are mostly black and brown (and every color other than white).

    Just look at the changing demographics of places like the UK or Sweden, and see how they correspond to surges in Islamophobia. Look at the rush by white supremacists in the US to equate Obama’s blackness with “Islam”, which of course is to say, “enemy”. If the Muslims were white, the outcry would not be as fevered.

    This, too, is about power––that it remain consolidated amongst white people/Europeans. In other words, white supremacy. Perhaps this is all outside of the scope of your post, Ms. LeGuin, but…I think the deeper reasons for why science vs. religion is such a contentious conflict are important to discuss, especially given that, as you say, there really is no contradiction between the two.

  5. Clearly stated and well said, Ms. LeGuin, thank you. Many, myself included, think this way, but are not as capable of expressing ourselves as well.

  6. Well stated, indeed. And it nicely echoes UKL’s beautiful https://bookviewcafe.com/blog/2011/01/26/the-horsies-upstairs/

    Adhering to almost everything that was stated in the “Belief in Belief” note, I kindly disagree about the wording issue. To me, belief in religious matters and acceptance (or whatever other word you find proper here) in scientific matters are two very different forms of belief, mostly because of their subjects being so different in nature. Yet my feeling is that both of them at their root invoke the same faculty of human mind and in that they are very similar to each other. Perhaps this wording disagreement on my part is due to my poor understanding of the English use of the word “believe” and translating it too naively to its Polish counterpart.

  7. Very well stated!

    As a lifelong fan, I’m always interested to listen to what you have to tell us. It’s one thing to read a book or short story and either really connect with it in joy or feel pain from it. I can’t imagine my life without your fiction, so many of your books are old friends I turn to time and again.

    The blog is a different wonderful. Your writing style is the same, but your concepts are directly from you – as you – and not conveyed via a character or plot. Thank you for choosing to post your insights for us. 🙂

  8. It’s true that belief originally referred to either religious faith or secular hope, but the sense of ‘a proposition held to be true’ goes back to Thomas Browne (1646) at least. Many beliefs are in fact scientific in nature. For example, I believe that my keys are in my pocket; I reach into my pocket (doing a scientific experiment) and find out that they are, so my belief is true. I think most of our beliefs are of this kind: true, scientific, and trivial.

    From there there is a gradient of different kinds of beliefs. Nobody believes in phlogiston any more. It is reasonable to believe that there is life on Jupiter, but it is also reasonable to believe that there isn’t: we don’t know in either case, and neither belief conflicts with the state of our knowledge. The theory of mantle plumes in geology is believed by many scientists for what it explains, but rejected by others because of what it fails to explain. It is unreasonable to reject the theory of evolution by natural selection at this point. The roundness of the earth is so uncontroversial most people don’t even call it a belief, but I think it is anyway: we do not observe it, but infer it from extremely compelling observations.

    • I love your second paragraph here, especially the part about beliefs that it is both reasonable and unreasonable to hold. Life is so marvelously contradictory–this matches it.

    • In one of his books (I forgot which one, so I quote approximately, from my memory), C. S. Lewis pointed out that the same word “my” may mean quite many things in phrases such as “my God”, “my country”, “my wife”, “my dog”, “my hand”, “my pen”, “my diabetes”.

      Also, the differences may go even further, like with the meaning of the word “right” in phrases such as “right lane”, “right choice” and “right to reamin silent”. Yet, even if the varied use of the word “right” began incidentally, its longevity and existence in many quite separate languages indicate – if you believe (!) in the natural evolution of languages – that there is something useful in preserving this strange connection between the relative direction in space and its more abstract homonyms. I guess that it may be a similar situation to the wide range of meanings covered by “to believe”. One does not build a separate word for every possible usage of “my” or “right”. Some problems may arise from an incompetent use of language, on both ends of communication channel, but modifying the wording does not seem a universal solution.

  9. http://educ.jmu.edu//~omearawm/ph101willtobelieve.html

    (The Will to Believe, by William James, worth a read)

    For pretty much every system of describing/understanding the universe, there must be some essential element of belief, because even the scientific method runs into the problem of induction: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/induction-problem/

    The reason people use the word belief in the context of things like evolution is because for them it is and must be an exercise of faith; beyond the fact that the system defines itself, the source of understanding and acceptance of evolution or other scientific theories stems (for most people) not from personal experience but from authority and careful explanation, which is the same source (for most people) of religious belief.

    Both systems, science and religion, are successful in appealing to people, in gaining their belief, because they satisfy something we already sense as true (for religion, I think it is generally the sense that there is something more to the world than can be seen/felt/heard, and that tradition has value – for science, it is perhaps the sense of power, not wholly unique to man but mostly so, in understanding and manipulating the universe according to physical laws).

    I do agree that in most cases science and religion (evolution and creation, to a large extent) are not mutually exclusive; after all, Newton was a religious scholar. I don’t think most people who believe that the bible is the literal word of god can or do believe that the earth is simultaneously 4 billion years old and 6,000 years old. The only people I knew who believed the latter thought dinosaur fossils, etc. were an invented history by God to demonstrate something, or test faith, I’m not sure (and neither were they).

    Of course you can believe in the mechanism of evolution without believing in the theory of life’s origin on Earth or even that man is descended from apes.

    • Sara, thank you for your reply. It is sensible and well written. It seems to me the differences (between religion and science)are mainly that of the chosen language. What one person calls “the source of all things,” another calls, “God.”

      I know that life exists, and I love and worship life. To me, evolution is truth, and a tool that Life/God uses to make changes. And, Change is the only real constant we have. Some of us feel better using the word God, when speaking of things of the Spirit. Some of us are offended by the same word.

      We all have a god of some sort in our midst. Be it sports; gambling; alcohol; science; religion. Call it what you will, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet…” Wm.Shakespear (i believe)

  10. I started out happy to read this post but ended saddened by the author’s seeming complacence with the notion of believing any outlandish thing, as long as we call it religion. Wouldn’t we better off if we didn’t believe things that weren’t true? I know that’s a lot to ask for, but it’s a future state I dream of.

    • And how do you know what is and what is not true? Who is to decide whose truth should be respected? In case you did not notice, most people believe in things which they consider to be true, not false.

  11. Thank you for this clarity. It has unravelled my muddled thinking on this.You have said what I think but couldn’t tease out.

  12. I’m sorry to say I find this post a complete muddle, and a further confusion of an already confused subject. Please forgive this rather rough and ready attempt to find a way through it.

    On the question of the development of life on earth, there are things we call ‘facts’ – observable or verifiable states of affairs about which there is little doubt or argument – such as that certain flowers produce nectar that is attractive to bees, and that in the course of gathering the nectar, bees unwittingly transport fertilising pollen from flower to flower; or that small birds navigate vast distances to return with pin-point accuracy to their breeding grounds.

    And there are also ‘hypotheses’ – to ‘explain’ the facts. These are suggestions about how facts may be related to one another into coherent systems – such as that all the attributes and behaviours of different species were brought into existence by a supernatural force akin to ‘intelligence’; or that such attributes and behaviours have come into being by a random, non-purposive process that we call ‘evolution by natural selection’ (please note, not mere ‘evolution’).

    Neither of these hypotheses is proven. And neither is actually provable. To put it crudely, no religious person has ever seen God creating a species, and none ever will. And no materialist has ever observed an organism spontaneously and successfully mutating from one species into another, and none ever will. The partisans of these two hypotheses try to make the facts fit – but in vain.

    On the question of how the natural world came to be as it is, we simply don’t know, and will probably never know.

    Why is it so hard to pause at that point, and proceed without the illusion of certainty?

    Presented with an unproven hypothesis that we are unable to verify, we can believe it or we can doubt it. However, ‘belief’ itself always implies some element of doubt. ‘I believe that Michael is hiding in the kitchen’, implies that I don’t know for sure. We can, if we want, go a step further and just ‘accept’ an unproven hypothesis. ‘I’m simply going to proceed on the basis that Michael is hiding in the kitchen.’ This is called ‘faith’. It doesn’t matter if the subject of the hypothesis is ‘spiritual’ or ‘material’, the decision to suspend doubt and stop asking questions is identical.

    What is the difference between saying, ‘I don’t believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution. I accept it’ and Carl Gustav Jung saying, when he was asked if he believed in God: ‘I don’t believe. I know’ ?

    There is no reason why the credibility of a scientific theory should be given a special immunity from doubt which is not given to a religious doctrine – on the contrary: science demands unceasing scepticism. To try to give a scientific theory such an elevated status would be to try to turn science into a religion.

    On the big questions, you can tell when people have made the choice for faith: they start using words like ‘great’, ‘rich’, ‘beautiful’, ‘glorious’, ‘splendid’ etc., to describe the hypothesis they have chosen to accept. No one-uses words like that when they are in the state of doubt.

    But why should we have to choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, if we don’t really agree with either? And isn’t it a cop-out to say, ‘Well, you two can still be friends’, just so that we can stop asking both of them awkward questions.

    When we take the step away from reason towards faith we should know what we are doing; but we should also continue call things by their proper names – fact, hypothesis, doubt, belief, faith – just so that we know where we are.

  13. I really wish we distinguished between atheists and anti-theists. I’m an atheist; I am a-theos, without a god, but I’m not against other people believing in god(s), and I can’t imagine spending my life trying to make them stop.

    As for some scientists “hating and fearing” religion, that sounds like a slanted description of several understandable truths:

    Anyone who supports evidence-based medicine is horrified by people who not only risk their own and their children’s lives but are willing to spread infection to their neighbors due to a belief that prayer should replace antibiotics and basic sanitation, rather than being combined with them.

    Anyone who supports evidence-based ecological responsibility is horrified by people who believe that the earth and all its creatures are here only for human use, and that their god plans to dispose of it any day now in any case.

    Anyone who supports intellectual responsibility is horrified by people who insist we lie to children about how the world and the universe work, as best we currently understand them.

    And anyone who believes in rational action and reasonable freedom can well be horrified by people who–from faith or greed or sadism or a love of power–use their followers’ beliefs to drive them into violence and cruelty.

    Me, I’m no scientist, but those uses of faith certainly horrify ME. But do I hate and fear faith itself? No.

    Two people I care about have had moments of divine revelation–not visions but a sudden awareness of the absolute existence of the Sacred. I don’t doubt either of them. They’re sane, rational people, and I believe utterly and completely in the experiences that made one of them a Quaker and the other one a Wiccan.

    Myself, I think those experiences come from our brain chemistry and neurons firing, but that doesn’t make them less real (of their kind), and I certainly don’t hate or fear either of the people who felt them, or most of the other believers I know.

    We’re all human. Faith is neither good nor evil in itself; it’s a human trait, subject to human flaws and human glories. Science–well, the laws of the universe are absolutes, but the ways we learn to understand them, and how we use or abuse them (eugenics, anyone?) are human as well. So it’s understandable that some people want to think of faith and science as direct competitors on the same field, whether it’s our souls or our minds.

    But a dream is not incompatible with salt; the concept of a comma is not the enemy of oxygen; and belief in the existence of souls neither requires nor justifies your letting your own child die slowly and horribly from a condition that medicine can easily cure.

    Do you believe God made the world? Then it’s God who created the laws of physics, chemistry, gravity, and all the rest. How can it possibly be ungodly to study his works and use them in the service of life?

    –Nonie the Long-Winded

    • Nonie… I thank God for your “long-windedness!” What a non-judge mental piece you have written here. I found myself nodding in agreement, every few seconds as I read it. Thanks for expressing what so many feel… so eloquently.

      • Thanks, Nancy! I’m afraid I was too tired *not* to sound arrogantly dogmatic (in a secular way) there. One thing I’m sure of: I really DON’T know everything. About anything. But we’ve got to do the best we can.

        –Nonie

  14. Ms. Le Guin (Ursula? What *do* you want us to call you here?)–

    I’ve been mulling over the word “belief” since reading your post above, but I hesistantly disagree that it has only a religious meaning; I normally say I “believe” in evolution not because I consider it no more valid than a religious faith but because, by definition, a theory can’t in an *absolute* sense be proven.

    All the evidence supports the theory of evolution; apparent exceptions just lead to further clarity, just as the sideslips of falling leaves and feathers didn’t DISprove gravity; they just led to the additional theory of aerodynamics.

    But then there’s what Terry Pratchett calls “bloody Quantum.” I’ve never had much patience with the people (usually smug young men) who take Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment seriously, because it’s clear to me that the CAT would know if it were currently alive, whether or not an outside observer did. Similarly, trees falling in the forest create the same pressure waves whether or not there’s a human ear present. And anyone who thinks otherwise is pert’ full of themselves.

    Or, I’m now told, on the cutting edge of science. Harrumph! I hae me doots, and refuse to believe that my observing such a cat would be more determinant to reality than its observing me, but whadda I know?

    So, while I agree it would be ridiculous to say I have *faith* in evolution or gravity, I find it easier to say I *believe* in those theories than to say I know them to be facts.

    –Nonie

  15. Thank you so much for your writing and for this piece.

    You perfectly encapsulate why we should not be comparing scientific and religious frameworks in such negative criticism as the language and perspectives are not wholly interchangeable.

    As I proceeded along my Anatomy and Developmental Biology degree I gained a deeper understanding, awe and wonder at evolutionary processes that if anything, reinforced my religious beliefs. I have never found my acceptance of the scientific process and explanations into our world and how things work to be contradictory to Islam. I wonder why we cannot happily progress as human beings in all spheres with the acceptence of our differences…. as a species, just imagine what we could achieve in all dimensions of existence!

    On another note at the age of 38 I’ve just finished (hence the inspired move to seek you on-line!) reading the Earthsea books that I started at 13 or so. After re-reading the original trilogy multiple times I was overjoyed to read Tehanu and only recently did I come across the latest books. Over the years I have found new meanings and new insights and new answers in Earthsea….. to stop myself rambling, in short I will end by simpy stating that I LOVE them. Thank you so much for enriching my world.

  16. I effectively removed the term “I believe” from my vocabulary and replaced it with “I think” about 4 years ago. I think the term “I believe” is a weak statement and “I think” is a strong one that implies more active thought and reason.

    Rather than add to the Christian vs. Atheist noise level I choose to address religion vs. reason. I am not a Deist, Theist or Atheist. If an argument cannot be proven it requires faith to believe it. All revealed religions demand faith in the revealed word. Blind faith is irrational and should be replaced with seeking truth and understanding. Faith implies a foregone conclusion while understanding continues developing toward truth.

    More useful than Faith and hope are knowledge and understanding. If we seek truth we are open to learning; knowledge and understanding advance. If we rely on faith and hope we learn nothing; our knowledge and understanding stagnate. I rely on reason to refine my knowledge and understanding of the universe, its origin and governing laws.

    We should be interested in learning truth that can be proven. My purpose for joining in the discussion on this subject is to learn why some people choose to believe concepts without reasonable cause.

    I understand and can explain why I conclude that god is not a being but a concept of prime causality.

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