Belief

That we do not know everything is fantastic! The quest for knowledge is a defining feature of humankind and curiosity is the greatest gift we have received. Trying for ‘The Theory of Everything’, as the film about Stephen Hawking will have it, is a noble endeavour, but not one that we should hope will succeed. With nothing left to explore one of the premises of human existence would be removed.

The hubris involved in a title like ‘The Theory of Everything’ reflects not only the great strides we have made in knowledge and understanding, but also an implicit belief that we are far progressed in our quest – that we are almost there. I venture that this is a terrible mistake. The recent proof of gravitational waves is a wonderful breakthrough that opens the door to other breakthroughs, but the fact that the proof comes a hundred years after Einstein’s prediction should instill humility, as should the fact that even with this proof we are only a step closer to understanding gravity. Gravity is still a riddle, probably still wrapped in an enigma.

Surveying the landscape of ‘the known unknowns’ we find also dark energy and dark matter, the latter probably constituting the largest part of our Universe if conjecture is to be believed – and we find the possibility of the multiverse, with math being our main clue currently. It is salutary to remember that we are in the prison of our senses and our logic (and there may be other logics) in our search for reality, and that there may be a lot more reality that escapes our grasp, perhaps forever, because of our limitations and evolutionary conditioning.

The reality of causation, of cause and effect, has been a favourite topic of many a philosopher, prominently among them David Hume. But there is an element of this that has not been addressed in a thorough manner, and that is the relationship between belief, as an expression also of desire, and effect. In other words, to which extent can belief be a cause giving birth to effects?

In much Christian theology the basic tenet is that belief is what brings eternal life after death. Belief is the cause bringing immortality effect. Yet, is belief as an autarkic cause only relevant for Christian and Abrahamic religions?

We know that self-belief attracts consequence. The blind faith of Donald Trump in himself astonishingly brings others to have an equally blind faith in him. Trump’s self-belief conditions his actions and manner and in return the reactions of his followers (and detractors) are conditioned. However, such reaction patterns do not establish belief as a quality that in its own right leads to effects, does not make belief akin to dark energy, does not make belief a truly immaterial force. The manifestations of belief are what conditions us, not belief itself. In the final analysis the same can be said of Abrahamic belief. Our belief motivates God to give us immortality. Yet the Gospel According to Matthew can be understood to refer to faith also as a self-standing force: ‘’Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

Belief as an autarkic force would presuppose that effects could be achieved without direct stimulation of the classical five senses – that belief could bring about a desired result merely qua belief. So, can your belief in world peace assist in ushering in an era of world peace even if the only outward manifestation is your deep prayer for it in a Himalayan monastery? Can a deep belief in your own immortality bring immortality, not because your belief will condition God, but because belief is an autarkic quality that can cause its own desired result (meaning, conversely, that atheism’s finality is a self-fulling prophecy)? Is belief thus a quality like dark energy and dark matter, but even less understood?

A consideration of belief as an autarkic force is not romanticism or obscurantism, but a recognition that we understand so little of our Universe and our lives. We will probably never understand all of reality, but it is worthwhile reflecting more on the forces that shape it. We now know that hygiene brings healthier results. Before this realization we died more. Is it not tragic if belief is conditioning result – and we do not know?

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