31 May 2011

Beyond Belief

Well, we all certainly had tons of self-righteous fun making sport of the self-righteous end-of-time true-believers who predicted the Rapture of the Elect would occur recently, specifically May 21, 2011, heralding a five-month period of Tribulations for the Remainder which would end with the end of the world on October 21, 2011. By all accounts, however, there was no Rapture. No reports of mysteriously missing people or tombs being opened and the dead in Christ ascending bodily to Heaven. And now the good folks who brought you this latest scare are re-jiggering their Biblical accounts in the hopes of coming up with a new last date.

I am not so much interested in the whole timing issue here as in the notion of the belief system that leads these and suchlike people to assert, in the face of so much countervailing physical evidence, such certainties.

Belief is a very powerful notion. For plenty of Christians, belief is transformative (-ational): if the Individual believes in Jesus Christ as his/her personal savior, s/he will transcend the physical certainty of death by being resurrected intact bodily from the dead, ascend to Heaven, and live eternally in the presence of God. All it takes is belief. The sole difference between an eternity of Paradise (existence with God) and an eternity of Torment (either non-existence, existence without God, or existence with Satan—depending on your flavor of belief) is whether you hold this belief at some point during the few short years of your existence here on Planet Eartsnop. That's a lot of stress on that one notion.

The belief that the Individual's sense of identity perdures even after the atomization of its physical embodiment is foundational to Western religions. The belief that holding a certain belief in this temporal lifetime is determinative of one's eternal fate is structural. The belief as to what the substance of this certain belief must be (i.e., that Jesus Christ died to absolve one of one's condition of original guilt) is superstructural.

What does this adamance about belief tell us about ourselves?

Believing is a subjective mental act. When I believe something, I insist that it is true—regardless of proof. Any notion I hold which has not been proven is properly said to be a belief of mine. Though philosophers are more or less parsimonious about the thresholds of admissible proof, beliefs are said to be true or false depending on how they can be shown to correlate with facts or proofs. I can have a true belief even if it has not yet been proven true—so long as it has not been falsified, I merely await its verification (of course, I may never find out that it is true—that's a matter of luck). Once a belief has been confirmed it can be called knowledge, and a belief to the contrary is a false belief.

For some beliefs we can imagine what a proof of their truth might look like, or what it might take to falsify them. Other beliefs, however, allow of no proofs. They can never be falsified. Such are the beliefs of our end-timers. There is no evidence that could prove or disprove their belief that Jesus's self-sacrifice saves us from our condition of Original Sin (itself an unfalsifiable belief); there is no evidence that the subjective mental act of believing can make a difference in our eternal salvation; there is no evidence that our individual identities outlast our physical extinguishment. And there can be none. In fact, all evidence points to the contrary: our identities die with our bodies. We have no privileged vantage point either into or from eternity and its eternal verities to judge otherwise. The only confirmation these folks can have will come long after we're all dead and in a realm to which we have no present access.

Yet they persist in their beliefs. In fact, they are defined by them. And here's where we learn something about ourselves from these end-timers and their adherence to these absurd-on-their-face claims: what we believe is determinative of who we are, not what we know. This may be the central notion of identity in Western culture, over and above social, ethnic, racial, gender, communal, political, or even religious issues. The things I believe that have not been confirmed (or even that have been falsified) are the things that define who I am.

This notion of a personal identity that survives the certainty of death goes back at least as far as the great Pharoahs of ancient Egypt. It is the subject matter of the oldest extant story: the motivation of Gilgamesh's epic quest for immortality in his unquenchable grief for Enkidu, his dead friend, which I've discussed as part of my Ur-story series on literature.

The post-Enlightenment West is nothing if not a scientific, knowledge-based society. The rise of knowledge has crowded out many false beliefs. And with this change the very notion of personal identity has come under attack. For example, it's difficult to reconcile the bodily ascension to Heaven of either Jesus or Mary when we know that physical bodies are subject to a cosmic speed limit; that is to say, neither Jesus's nor Mary's body can be more than 2,000 light years from here, and, by all indications, Heaven is somewhere beyond this physical plane.

But I digress. Those who cling to beliefs that have either been proven false or are not subject to confirmation experience a very real sense of uncertainty, a lack of self-assurance, a weak sense of self and self-esteem. Knowledge is a direct challenge to their identity. They reassert their beliefs as a way of shoring up their loss of identity. They become more adamant in their beliefs in order to assert an identity against the prevailing societal norms.

Indeed, our very identities are tied into our beliefs at a very profound level. Knowledge, because it is verifiable, is social and objective by definition. No community, however, is required to obtain it, merely education. Beliefs, on the other hand, are personal and subjective. Sharing beliefs is a profoundly social affair and is a way of creating community, but they are not publicly provable.

If we have no beliefs, if we accept only what we know to be true (or at least probable, given the scandal of inductive reasoning and empirical proof) do we have any identity as individuals? Maybe not in the ancient sense, or the eternal sense. But this is what makes us modern.

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