I am writing this paragraph, but I do not believe that I am writing it. Believing would get in the way of writing. Thus, I’m writing, and not believing. I try to do one thing a time.
I also try to minimize the time and energy I spend doing various things – like browsing the internet, frowning, and believing. The time I spend browsing the internet could be better spent doing housework. The energy I spend frowning could be better spent on taking deep breaths. Likewise, the time and energy I spend believing generally gets me a low return, which is why I try to do that as rarely as possible.
I think of belief as an action, and this way of thinking has been helpful to me. Most people don’t seem to think of belief as an action, which is why I’m writing this essay.
An analogy will be helpful here, as always. What is the difference between having and holding?
When you have something, you own it. It’s your possession, even if you aren’t holding it. For example, I have a car, but I’m not holding it with my hands right now. People sometimes use the word “hold” to talk about stocks or financial instruments – as in, “I am holding 50 shares of ACME Corporation.” Using the word this way, they are still referring to the legal concept of “ownership.” This legal concept of “ownership” is different from, but related to, the physical concept of “holding.”
I have a wallet. It’s currently in my pocket. Only when I reach for it with my hands will I be holding it. We all understand this difference, but rarely think about it.
Having is to Holding as Knowing is to Believing
You can have many things which are you are not currently holding. You can also know many things which you are not currently believing.
For example, you’re reading this sentence right now. Did you believe you were reading before I asked? Unless you were actively considering the question, no, I’m guessing you weren’t believing it. You knew you were reading it, but you weren’t actively holding that thought in your mind. That fact was just true, and so obviously true that you didn’t need your mind to grab tightly to your thought of it, and defend it from other thoughts – any more than you need to constantly hold your dollars and make sure nobody else comes to grab them.
I know many things, but I can only believe a few at a time. When I believe something, I hold it with my mind’s hand. I have about three hands in my mind, which can grasp or pick up concepts. These hands pick up ideas and concepts, and hold them closer to each other, for inspection by my mind’s eye.
“Believing”, is a special form of using my mind’s hand, where I grasp something rigidly, tightly, and hold it as close as I can to another hand holding the concept of “truth.”
If the other hand comes along and holds a concept or fact which contradicts with the thing I’m believing, my mind starts to hurt. It’s as if my mental hands were crushing each other, squeezing each other’s’ fingers and conflicting. It can be painful and unpleasant. People call this cognitive dissonance. I picture two mental hands crushing each other.
This process of believing can also mess up my internal concept of truth. If I hold too tightly to some belief, it becomes easier for me to move the my concept of “truth” than it is to move – even slightly – the concept I’m believing in.
Believing Something You Know is False
I made a mess of my life after a few years of actively disbelieving in free will. I tried holding the concept of “I am making choices” and seeing how I could get it to line up with my concept of “truth”, but I just couldn’t’ make the two fit together. I would hold these concepts with my mind’s hands, and my stomach would shout, intuitively, “YES! YOU ARE MAKING CHOICES! THEY MATTER!”
But my stomach doesn’t have a loud voice in my head. The hands have learned that the stomach was often wrong, which got all of us hurt. The hands do most of the talking there, and they said “Look, how does this even happen? Who is there to make the choices? You don’t really exist; there’s just us, a bunch of disparate systems cobbled together by evolution trying to make this corporation last long enough to perpetuate itself. We know this whole game is made of atoms, and we know the atoms follow rules. You can’t be making choices because you don’t really exist; it’s just a bunch of atoms following mathematical rules.”
“I know it feels good,” my hands said. “Lots of things aren’t true, but feel good to believe.”
I believed my concept of the truth then was identical to THE TRUTH. That incorrect belief helped me make a mess of life. I grew more and more miserable over my inability to understand and make sense of the world around me.
I got out of that mess by deliberately believing something false: I believed I was responsible for every bad thing that had ever happened.
Belief is an Action; Actions Have Consequences.
I knew my problems were caused largely by me not taking responsibility for my life. And yet I knew that lots of the things I suffered from weren’t my fault.
I didn’t choose to be incorrectly diagnosed and put on tons of medicine with tons of side effects. I didn’t choose to be different from everyone else in a way that made it harder for me to understand them. I didn’t choose to be trusting and kind, leading myself to get hurt. I didn’t choose for the world to operate in the cruel manner it does, and I didn’t choose to enter the world. It wasn’t all my fault. The world was a mess, and life my was a mess largely because the world was a mess.
All of those things were true, and yet believing them didn’t help me. I only have about three hands in my mind, and if two of them are holding “it’s not my fault”, there isn’t much left to hold onto facts like “If I make better choices today, life will improve slightly, tomorrow.”
And so I grasped, tightly, to the most painful nonsense I could imagine – that I had been Hitler in a past life, and here I was to atone for my sins. I had traveled this causal domain over and over and over, to experience each life ruined by my past choices, and now I had to make things right again.
This was, of course, absurd. I knew it wasn’t true. But I believed it because I could see that holding this belief helped me by making it impossible to pick up things like “this isn’t my fault” or “the world is broken, not me.” Even though those other facts were true, they weren’t helpful.
Eventually I learned a technique of focusing on the future instead of the past, which means keeping my mind’s eye focused on concepts that represent possible futures, rather than explanations for how I got here. As I got better at that perspective, the utility of holding onto this crazy belief dropped, and I stopped doing it.
Believing: Not that Necessary
Now I try to believe as rarely as possible. When would I need to do that?
The wonderful thing about the truth is that it remains true even if you don’t believe it. I don’t have to doubt things, simply because I don’t believe them. I don’t have to believe the opposite of a concept, simply because I don’t believe the concept itself.
I can not believe the ball is rad, without believing the ball isn’t red. I can simply remain agnostic towards the ball’s color. If the ball’s color becomes relevant, I can learn it then.
The fact that I’m not grabbing tightly to an object doesn’t mean i have to kick it away. I can just let things be where they are, and only grab onto things – with an appropriate grip – if I plan to use or manipulate them in some way.
One thing I still believe, often, is that there is a truth, and that my choices do matter. These beliefs kick in automatically – think “mental muscle memory” – when I find myself doubting them. I don’t use these beliefs as a basis for induction or as inputs to mental computation, because I don’t think that’s what belief is for. I prefer to do mental computation on things which are assumed (as inputs to the computation) or known. I know the world around me is made of atoms; I don’t have to believe that.
By considering belief as an action, I started to choose judiciously what I believed – often choosing not to believe true things which were irrelevant at the time. I only have so many mental hands. I started accepting that I didn’t need to believe all true things, at all times. It was much better to simply avoid believing false things, lightly grasp whatever concepts I need to work with, and let the truth unfold itself as it will.
Writing became much easier once I realized I was grasping the pen way too tight. Thinking is much easier and less pleasant when I grasp my concepts lightly and lovingly, rather than with the iron grip of conviction. My mental hands are less tired, too.
I hope this essay has been helpful for you, and welcome your questions and comments.